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10 November 2021

Is a “green state” the answer to the climate crisis?

Why a Good State is not enough to compensate for Bad Capitalists: a response to Adam Tooze and Andreas Malm.

By James Meadway

A debate has opened up in the New Statesman between Adam Tooze and Richard Seymour that crystallises some of the strategic dilemmas the ecological movement now faces. Tooze argues that we are living through the first “climate Kalecki” moment – a reference to the 20th-century Polish economist, Michał Kalecki, who in the 1940s argued that government efforts to produce full employment would inevitably be met with political pushback from the business lobby, leading to crisis. Tooze draws a parallel between this backlash against full employment and the way recent talk of an “energy crisis” has been used by fossil fuel interests to slow or derail the transition to net zero – to argue for increased investment in high-carbon generation by blaming spiking energy prices on a premature or excessively rapid shift to low-carbon production.

Kalecki was a brilliant Polish economist who foreshadowed John Maynard Keynes’s most important work, but who never received full credit for his contribution from the economics establishment for the cardinal sins of, one, writing in Polish, and, two, drawing (correct) radical conclusions from his analysis. Much of what Kalecki wrote about can be thought of as a direct development of volume two of Marx’s Capital, and Kalecki was unabashed in his foregrounding of the conflict between workers and capitalists.

What his work demonstrates is that this labour-capital antagonism could be reconciled at the level of the whole economy (the “macroeconomy”), and indeed must be if capitalism is to continue functioning at all. The conditions for the endurance of capitalism – its successful “reproduction”, in Marx’s terminology – are that the different sets of monetary payments made by different actors in the economy balance out. I am paid; I spend the wages I receive; some capitalist receives this money, and uses some of it to pay workers and buy machinery; thus the cycle continues.

If workers spend all their earnings, and capitalists invest the earnings they receive from workers’ spending, this movement of money forms a complete circuit of monetary flows. Kalecki shows that, at the level of the whole economy, this means that capitalist profits will be equal to capitalists’ investment spending (plus their own consumption expenditure). Or, as Kalecki puts it (he had a way with aphorisms): “workers spend what they earn, and capitalists earn what they spend”.

Having set up a model of an economy that functions like an endless circular flow of income, existing in a pure steady state with zero growth (what Marx called “simple reproduction”), Kalecki creates the possibility of growth by introducing leaks and breaks from that circuit. When workers save, or capitalists spend, they create a pool of funds for investment, out of which profits can be drawn. Since Kalecki (for the sake of simplicity, but also of realism) assumes workers’ savings are basically zero, the primary determinant of profits becomes decisions made by capitalists. It is investment by capitalists that drives profits – not, as in the classical Marxist system, profits that drive investment. Capitalists are not, as in the Marxist conception, mere “functionaries of capital” – slaves to profit; instead they have an uncanny agency. What Kalecki’s model of capitalism alerts us to is a species of voluntarism: capitalists’ decisions over investment – their intentions or “animal spirits”, in Keynes’s phrase – become the driver of progress.

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This has political implications, which Kalecki elaborated in the remarkable, prescient 1943 essay to which Tooze alludes, “Political Aspects of Full Employment”. It is probably Kalecki’s most-cited work, cropping up especially frequently since the 2008 financial crash. It argues that full employment under capitalism is unsustainable in the long term and will end in political crisis since it hands too much power to workers, threatening the ability of capitalists to control production, who will thus eventually seek to undermine it.

In the case of Tooze’s application of Kalecki’s arguments to today’s so-called energy crisis, there are two weaknesses with the emphasis it implies on the decision-making of capitalists. First, it sponsors a faintly conspiratorial view of society in which cunning elites “never let a serious crisis go to waste”, exploiting the opportunities opened by systemic failures to push for their own interests. It goes without saying that elites, and fractions of elites, do indeed pursue what they think are their own interests, as Seymour, in his reply to Tooze, points out; it is less clear that their attempts to do so succeed, or that these attempts should be read as the most important feature of the current conjuncture.

The second, more fundamental problem is the way Tooze’s reading of Kalecki implicitly raises, by way of contrast with the bad elites who exploit crises for their own ends, the prospect of a good elite, who will carry out the necessary adjustments to capitalism ahead of some final disaster. This is, I suspect, where Tooze the “self-confessed liberal Keynesian” would-be reformist has a surprising affinity with the would-be revolutionary, Andreas Malm, whose prodigious recent writings on the climate Tooze reviewed in broadly sympathetic terms. Both focus on the necessity of a sovereign actor addressing the climate crisis to the benefit of wider humanity: in Tooze’s case, the existing state; in Malm’s case, some new, future state. In both cases, it is some form of sovereign power acting as a sovereign power – that is, not merely providing the framework of laws or regulations by which others can act, but actively attempting to reshape society – that can impose an alternative path for humanity, either through Tooze’s “liberal Keynesianism” or Malm’s “war communism”. Politics, in other words – good politics – will save us from bad economics.

By contrast, I want to suggest that the crucial problem may well be not an absence of sovereignty – an incompetent, unconcerned or passive state – but its presence, and increasingly its presence in the form of a relationship to capital (on one side) and to nature (on the other). One of the reasons we should be thinking about the end of neoliberalism is the reappearance of sovereignty – not only in the form of the re-emergence of the state as an autonomous actor, but also the appearance of forms of business organisation with quasi-sovereign capacities, such as Big Tech. When, for example, Facebook sets up a self-described “supreme court” to oversee its policy decisions, it is starting to take on functions we more usually associate with states. But the decisive point here is that neither form of sovereignty exists in a vacuum. States and major companies work with and against each other: major corporations try to win the support of their local states – as when the US government lobbies enthusiastically for US tech interests – while both corporations and states are locked in competitive relationships with others, as negotiations over post-Brexit trade deals have driven home for a British audience.

The central problem, however, is not simply that the state sovereigns we have are too clearly attached to national interests, including the interests of their national corporations – the standard criticism of “corporate capture”. The difficulty is that the increasing instability of the natural world presents a challenge to any version of sovereignty, at least in the sense of some agent with the capacity to act autonomously on the basis of its knowledge about that world. And not only is this instability a challenge for capital – directly imposing costs and risks on the process of production – it is a challenge for the presence of sovereign power tout court.

To put it differently: under conditions where capitalist relationships of production still prevail – as they do and will do globally, even if some state wants to decree them ended within its own territory, “war communism” style – it is because capitalists and states do not have total autonomy that economics still matters. Moreover, the actions of any supremely powerful agent – a well-behaved capital, or a Good Sovereign – can’t necessarily do much to curb ecological decay. It is the nature of climate change that actions taken now will scarcely have an impact relative to the accumulated damage over the past two centuries or so. More than this: rising environmental instability means that any actions taken now will become increasingly likely to develop blowback in the future decades. Far from being “overdetermined”, in the metaphor Seymour employs, the situation is underdetermined: we have too little evidence to be able to draw reliable conclusions and, as instability worsens, this underdetermination will worsen too.

This uncertainty is a primary reason why the talk of “crisis” is unhelpful, since it denotes a deviation from a norm, and one that has a definite beginning, middle and end. The climate movement’s frequent recourse to deadlines and attachment to the notion of some finite duration in which action must be taken are not only as likely to be demobilising as mobilising, but also likely to be just plain wrong. There is not a time-delimited crisis, which a concerted set of actions, taken by some concerned sovereign, will be able to ward off. There is simply our existence as it now is, probably getting worse and more unpleasant, and the question of what we do about it. Of course, it is certainly plausible that one of the many ecological tipping points is actually reached some time soon, plunging us into a radically catastrophic new situation. But it is more likely, on the central forecasts that we have, that things will get worse in a less-than-cataclysmic fashion, from now until forever.

This isn’t a counsel of despair: even smaller actions today have long-term consequences. But it does mean wartime metaphors, such as those of Malm, or demands for a “big green state” to intervene, as Tooze’s arguments imply, are liable to fall short. Constrained rather than inflated versions of sovereignty might be the most useful to us. We need some large-scale investments: the conversion of energy systems to a low-carbon setting will require investment on a grand scale. But in conditions of increasing uncertainty, the “real challenge, the truly political question” is not only, as Tooze has written elsewhere, “to agree what we wanted to do and to figure out how to do it”. It is also, necessarily, to agree on what we do not want, and the decisions we will not be seeking to impose: to minimise, in conditions of increasing uncertainty, the impacts of our collective decisions today on the future, instead of entrusting them to a kindly “big green state”, or Malm’s “ecological vanguard”.

This is not an argument for inaction, but for further-reaching action in terms of our social relationships – a shorter working week, for example – while, as far as possible, minimising the further disruptions in our collective relationship to nature – for example, by prioritising low-impact care work over carbon-intensive technological investments. It would mean, for instance, developing the circular economy – encouraging and supporting the reuse, recycling and reprogramming of our existing material output. Or it would mean devoting our research efforts not only to (relatively long-shot) breakthrough technologies like fusion, but to the immediate, practical changes that can be made to existing technologies to minimise resource use.

To return to Kalecki: if our view of capitalism is that it is capitalists’ decisions about investment that drive growth, then we can frame the current “crisis” as being primarily one of the “energy transition” – that is, a problem of delivering investment of the right kind at the right scale. If in the place of capitalist “animal spirits”, we can substitute the Good State, capitalism can continue. But if we recognise that the ecological moment today is far bigger than the question of energy, and that the continuing presence of capitalist relations of production and exchange are themselves a source of further ecological damage, we cannot only substitute a Good State for the Bad Capitalists. We need a more fundamental transformation of the relationship of people to each other, and to the natural world we inhabit.

[See also: Is the energy crisis a bigger opportunity for the left or the right?]

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