|Naomi Klein’s book “This Changes Everything” (Simon & Schuster, 2014) on the link between the climate crisis and capitalism has outraged critics raging from Big Green to some socialists.
Naomi Klein is right on just about everything critics are calling her out about. When, to the horror of Big Greens, she names capitalism as the villain, she is right. Given that NO capitalist nation has come close to making the changes solving the climate crisis will require, why the hell shouldn’t she point out that something drastic is wrong with capitalism?
Nor, contrary to milquetoast “progressive” prudishness, is her straightforwardness alienating to popular majorities. Conservative tactician Frank Luntz warns conservatives not use the terms “capitalism” or “market”, because both are unpopular. Calling out capitalism is a good way to reach ordinary people, as well as being intellectually rigorous.
She is also sensible in paying little attention to the horror of some left critics that she fails to turn to socialism. Nations that were considered socialist, both by themselves and by most of the world, had truly horrible records on environmental issues which matched their records on human rights. Cuba, the one partial exception, was more or less forced into partial sustainability by having to manage an island economy under a set of sanctions that could more accurately be described as a state of siege.
Nobody can be right about everything. I am not going to spend much time on what Klein does right, because she has ably (and my opinion devastatingly) repeatedly answered her critics. Instead I’m going to focus on one area of disagreement. I hope this won’t discourage anyone from reading her book. This disagreement is not over something critical to her case. And who knows? Maybe I’m the one that is wrong.
One wrong turn Klein takes, in my opinion, is the emphasis on what she calls “extractionism” – non-reciprocal dominance relations with the earth and natural resources. In simpler terms it means taking from the earth without returning anything to it. It makes sense to look for a common factor between the competing camps that managed to converge in shortsightedness, and triumphalist disregard of continued human dependence on natural systems. Naomi Klein traces “extractionism” back to Francis Bacon and the dawn of the enlightenment, and sees it as a commonality between capitalism or socialism – a deep flaw at the root of both.
Focusing on this particular form of shortsightedness treats it as both more recent and more fundamental than it really is. For example, the destruction of the Cedars of Lebanon was a long slow process that began with Gilgamesh’s Babylon, was continued by other ancient empires, including Egypt, the Phoenicians, and the Romans (interrupted by a brief attempt at conservation under Hadrian). The destruction of what little remains of those once great forests continues to this day.
Silphium, a plant widely considered by the ancient world (not necessarily correctly) to be effective as both a contraceptive and an aphrodisiac, was wiped out under Roman rule. This was due to overfarming, which eroded the soil within the small microclimate band in which it grew, and to grazing animals upon
silphium to impart a special flavor to their meat.
The commonality between the nations once widely considered socialist, the capitalist nations of today, and the great empires of the ancient world is far more fundamental than disrespect for the natural world. That commonality is severe inequality. I won’t cite well known statistics about inequality in the capitalist world. But it should be understood that the nations once widely considered socialist, even in their prime, also were severely unequal societies. That inequality was partially a matter of effectively unequal incomes, due to unfair rationing systems and unequal access to special stores and facilities. But that economic inequality, though real, was nowhere as great as that of conventional capitalist nations.
A much stronger source of inequality in those nations was a lack of democracy and unequal access to political power, including a monopoly on most investment and management decisions by a tiny elite. The ancient empires were also strong top-down hierarchies, mostly slave societies, and ruled by kings, emperors, priesthoods, nobles or some combination.
Severe inequality leads to social self-destructiveness and shortsightedness in a number of ways. The most obvious is that severe inequality means that elites can reap the benefits of socially destructive behavior while ensuring the costs are borne by others. But that does not explain extreme shortsightedness; for example, continued climate disruption which will ultimately harm the children even of the rich and powerful.
Part of the explanation is that severe inequality generates hubris. An elite that is routinely shielded from the negative effects of the decisions its class makes has trouble grasping the very idea of unavoidable consequences. It explains a great deal about climate denial. Denying the climate crisis is not just a matter of propaganda. As Klein’s book points out, because any meaningful solution to the climate crisis threatens at least some of the power currently held by elites, there is a real tendency among some portions of that elite to believe that the crisis is not real.
Another tendency of powerful elites is to identify their own interests with those of society as whole, to see themselves as “the society” or “the people” or “given the right to rule by the gods” or whatever. To weigh the interests of others against their unimpeded power is absurd and shortsighted. What on earth does everybody think would happen if their supremacy were not properly respected?
That explains something of the disrespect for nature. It is not that elites don’t enjoy nature. Capitalists today, party bosses in once-considered-socialist nations in the past, and God-Kings in the more distant past have or had villas, lodges, and sometimes palaces in breathtakingly beautiful places. But nature is and was something that they encountered in well-controlled fragments. They may or may not have heard about, but seldom directly experienced their environment as a great web in which they are embedded and upon which they depended.
The great royal and aristocratic hunting parties of pre-capitalist societies reinforced this. They set out in great gilded crowds accompanied by servants or slaves carrying portable luxuries. Beaters would drive game towards them. Slaves or servants would handle any part of the work of hunting that elite found unpleasant, and gave assistance to ensure the success of the hunt. Expensive animals, horses, dogs, hawks or falcons (depending upon the culture) also helped ensure success – usually bred and trained in very different manners than the work animals used by commoners who hunted as a way to make their living. Great royal or aristocratic hunts helped weaken elite emotional comprehension of dependence on the natural world.
Only in comparatively egalitarian cultures is the experience of vulnerability to nature universal. In truth we ARE all vulnerable to nature; but it is in those cultures where wealth and power are roughly equal that it can become part of the culture to think of the effect of actions on “the seventh generation”. It is not that egalitarian cultures cannot be shortsighted – merely that they don’t have to be.
Similarly, a real appreciation of how small we are compared to the environment in which we live is much harder to achieve for elites. When everything belongs to an elite, that includes the natural world. It is not the awe of the mystic that elites lack, but the awe of the scientist. That awe comes from two pieces of knowledge: the web of life upon which we depend is fragile; although we know many ways we can disrupt the ability of that web to sustain us, we are deeply ignorant of other devastating consequences of disruption that almost certainly exist.
People who are not elite in unequal societies can make the opposite mistake. Given how uncertain life is for the vast majority, it can seem as though their means of livelihood are deeply fragile compared to the strength and robustness of the natural world. To loggers and fishers embedded within a deeply unequal society, who have absorbed its values, it can seem as though the forest will never run short of trees and oceans never cease to team with fish. Worrying about such things can appear to be a silly elite pretence, not a real consequence in the real world.
I think that downplaying the importance of inequality has a long history among leftists, at the very least, dating back to Marx. Marxism is often thought of as an egalitarian ideology in aspiration, regardless of its results in practice. But Marx was often scathing in his critiques of equality as left aspirations. Marx argued that since people are not identical in either ability, need or desires that equality was neither possible nor desirable among people. This was in part word play against opponents he had little respect for. There was, however, a serious purpose behind it.
While Marx saw popular demands for equality as positive when part of popular struggle, he also thought it had little place in serious analysis. He saw equality as a remnant of capitalism, like formal rights – something to move beyond. At best equality in a certain sense was instrumental, necessary for people to become freer in a certain stage of development. But he saw a focus on equality, even viewed as an instrument of freedom, as a stage that could be moved beyond in a truly advanced society. The arrangements that were a better way of living than capitalism happened to be more egalitarian than capitalism in practice. But they were better because they were more suited to human beings, not because they conformed to some idea of equality. In modern terms we might say that Marx thought equality a spandrel, like the white color of bones.
But just as contempt for formal rights has produced nightmarish results, so has insufficient respect for equality. I won’t argue whether equality is directly needed or is entirely instrumental. Either way equality is absolutely necessary; if it is merely an instrument, it is an instrument we cannot discard. Not seeing this is part of the reason why so many Marxists have been willing to tolerate states where one-party rule ensures dominance – even if by a different 1% than under conventional capitalism.
Contempt for equality is by no means universal among Marxists. Interpretations of Marx vary widely. But contempt for equality is part of many important strains in Marxist thought.
And it is not only Marxists who downplay the need for equality. A great many flavors of leftist, including non-Marxist socialists and modern social democrats, see inequality as something that can be compensated for without needing to radically undermine it
The approach of many modern social democratic and labor parties is to support extensive social services – education, health care, old age pensions, paid for almost entirely by taxes on the working and middle classes, while leaving the rich nearly untouched. They seek to compensate for the effects of inequality without threatening or even mildly weakening the capitalist class. Again, it is not universal but widespread.
Note, by the way, that Naomi Klein does not make this mistake. Whatever her views on the ultimate direction struggle should aim at (I suspect agnostic) she realizes that struggle against climate change cannot be non-threatening to the rich and powerful. Any solution involves confrontation between the capitalist class and the rest of us – between the 1% and the 99%. She truly does appreciate the importance of the struggle for equality to the struggle for a solution to the climate crisis. What I hope she will come to appreciate: inequality is also at the root of the shortsightedness and emotional disconnectedness from the natural world that she calls “extractionism”.