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22 November 2021

Was Donald Trump’s ‘war on coal’ real, or just the market at work?

To make sense of a destabilising planet we must look to the ideas of Antonio Gramsci.

By Alyssa Battistoni and Geoff Mann

As part of a debate unfolding in the New Statesman, Adam Tooze challenges the spectre of an “energy crisis” – the recent rise in energy costs that the fossil fuel industry and its allies say is driven by a green “energy transition” for which we are unprepared. Tooze argues that this constitutes the first “climate Kalecki moment”, a reference to economist Michał Kalecki’s argument that with the prospect of significant political change, business will threaten to refrain from investment. Tooze argues that by blaming rising energy prices on a crisis of confidence in the future of fossil fuels, business interests are following this “Kalecki playbook”.

But it is unclear if this is a “Kalecki moment”. Writing in 1943, Kalecki thought that even though a full employment policy would create more profitable conditions than laissez-faire, business would oppose it anyway because it would create an emboldened working class, who would then threaten “political stability”. “Under a regime of permanent full employment,” he argued, “‘the sack’ would cease to play its role as a disciplinary measure. The social position of the boss would be undermined.”

But the redistribution of political and economic power that Kalecki believed would ensure business opposition is less evident in the case of the energy transition. Are consumers here analogous to the working class? Is continued fossil fuel dependence equivalent to the “discipline in the factories” that Kalecki said business preferred to increased profits? If this analogy holds, then presumably the real indicator of a Kalecki moment wouldn’t be oil companies’ scaremongering, which is only what we would expect from a powerful industry under siege, but the refusal to invest in high-return renewable energy in the interests of a lower return carbon-intensive status quo. (This is not yet the situation we face: fossil fuels are still the most profitable form of energy.)

Whether we can ultimately connect the “climate Kalecki” dots or not, Tooze is right to highlight the political stakes in “crisis” talk, which, he says, is “never innocent”. Indeed, it is the question of how to interpret both crisis and its political stakes that animates the debate between Tooze, Richard Seymour and James Meadway, as well as French economist Cédric Durand’s recent argument in the New Left Review.

Crisis has long preoccupied the left. Seymour and Durand draw on the Marxist tradition of thought about capitalism’s crisis tendencies, emphasising the system’s economic and financial contradictions. But there is also a history of thinking more politically about crisis and what happens when we name it. When Antonio Gramsci analysed the economic collapse that followed the 1929 Wall Street crash – relying on what information he could gather in his jail cell – he tended to put the term “crisis” in scare quotes. When the early 20th-century Marxist Rosa Luxemburg analysed the possibilities of revolutionary politics, she insisted on constant critique of those who assumed the power to define the revolution. Both Gramsci and Luxemburg were wary of the power to name the crisis, as well as those individuals who empowered themselves to do something about it.

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So where Gramsci might be of more use than Kalecki is in analysing the hard work of producing common sense. We read the hullabaloo about an “energy crisis” as one in a series of ongoing struggles to define the political and intellectual terrain on which we make sense of climate change and our unrelenting march into a future defined by it.

From this perspective, the “energy crisis” is hardly the first such moment of common sense-making. Take, for example, the decline of coal in the United States, the interpretation of which is implicit in both Tooze and Durand’s views of the so-called energy crisis. Was the sharp drop in coal consumption in America in the 2010s due to political campaigns against coal, or simply because natural gas outcompeted it on price? Was there really a war on coal, as Donald Trump claimed, or just the market at work?

Trump, we have to imagine, did not care what had really caused the demise of coal. But he succeeded – aided by decades of deindustrialisation – in defining the consequences of “climate activism”. Progressives, meanwhile, often countered Trump’s assertions by attributing the death of coal to market forces alone – allocating climate activism no blame, but also no credit, while offering little in the way of recourse. We appreciate Tooze’s efforts to expose the self-serving claims of the fossil fuel industry. But he similarly suggests that political efforts have no impact on investment decisions. If this is true, we should simply accept that this leaves us with little to do but hope that capital has both an interest in decarbonising and an ability to do so. What seems more plausible, however, is that these moments are, as Seymour suggests, “overdetermined”: there are too many simultaneous causes to know what exactly is driving what. What openings such moments make possible, or the limits they impose on us, are rarely easy to identify.

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But moments of acute conflict or turmoil are not the only way to think about “climate crisis”. Meadway is right to question the continued utility of “crisis” as a framework for understanding climate change, in so far as it indicates “a deviation from a norm, and one that has a definite beginning, middle and end”. Unlike the Second World War – to which it is often compared – or even the fight against fascism, there is no promise of relief in a “victory” over climate change. The truth is, as Meadway puts it, that this “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.”

The challenge, then, is not only about how to “mitigate” further calamity or “prevent” crisis. It is about figuring out how to act in a world that is substantially, and potentially disastrously, climate-changed. The problem lies not only in the framing of the “transition” to a somewhat redeemed “greener” future, but in the navigation of a whole array of infinitely complicated, and in some sense permanent, “transitions” that touch upon people’s lives in powerful, sometimes devastating ways. In this project, we require a capacious, even generous way of thinking about struggles over change, and over how we collectively make sense of them.

Paradoxically, it is because climate change is a permanent state of affairs that the politics of it have tended to focus outsized attention on events, whether climate disasters or Cop summits, which offer discrete moments of action and attention in the face of an otherwise amorphous problem. We are sympathetic to the need to use these moments to illuminate the challenges before us and press forward where we can, as both Seymour and Durand suggest we must. But as Gramsci knew well, it is the interim stretches that are crucial in determining how moments of acute struggle shake out.

[See also: Why a commitment to justice is not an optional extra in tackling the climate crisis]

Perhaps the toughest questions of all, then, concern the implications of recognising climate change as a permanent feature of our politics. What institutions and organisational forms might help us navigate it? Who will produce the new “common sense”, and the political and material infrastructures required to maintain it?

Among the first, but hardest, of such tasks will be a struggle to revise our expectations of our extraordinarily precarious presents and futures. Meadway is critical of the activist language of “deadlines”, which he argues are “just plain wrong”. But the fact that deadlines are always somewhat artificial does not make them any less important as political tools. What is more challenging is emphasising the urgency of decarbonisation while also recognising the extended nature of the climate emergency. Activism informed by the “secular eschatology” Seymour identifies, and which we see in Andreas Malm’s vanguard, tends to stress the urgency of the present by obliterating all but the grimmest views of the future. A declaration of do-or-die to avoid a descent into hell is likely to be far more demobilising than activists’ emission-reduction deadlines. Efforts to motivate the public with appeals to the dystopian future may spur action that will ward off the worst-case scenario, but may also, paradoxically, lead many to resign themselves to its inevitability.

The point isn’t just that those who are not (yet) ready to blow up a pipeline may be dissuaded from doing anything at all. Rather, it is that the eschatology also helps produce a common sense about how the social effects of the material process of warming are likely to play out. Large-scale disruptions are already certain, 1.5ºC or not: just look at British Columbia – a part of the world many probably assumed is better equipped than most to weather climate change – where 24 hours of rain last week washed away a huge portion of the provincial transportation network. This, as we know, is only one of many “disasters” currently under way, and many more are to come.

If everyone expects that this “climate chaos” will lead us to turn on each other – every person or nation or “race” for itself – then that is what we will get. But what if we expected something better? To use the language of the labour activist Jane McAlevey, we need to raise expectations about how we will respond to climate change. Both the discrete project of energy transition and the ongoing challenge of living in a climate-changed world will require a mass commitment to collective welfare, an expectation of solidarity in the face of disruption.

Tooze gestures in this direction, arguing that energy prices must be understood in relation to broader socioeconomic conditions, and rising food prices as the result not of absolute scarcity but of political choices about distribution. Yet in both his liberal Keynesian vision and Malm’s insurrectionary one, we are struck by the relative absence of social forces and political struggles beyond a visionary few. We cannot expect Cop summits, climate guerrillas or even democratic leaders to do the political work of forging relationships, envisioning robust, caring futures or building the solidarity necessary to bring them into being – to do, in other words, the kinds of social institution- and infrastructure-building that peoples will need to make their lives on an ecologically destabilised planet.

If each of us has in the past made what might superficially seem to be incommensurable arguments for a “reformist” state-coordinated Green New Deal on the one hand, and a “revolutionary” anti-state insurgency on the other, the truth is that neither of these proposals negate the obligation to work on all fronts. At this conjuncture we need all hands on deck, everywhere. Benjamin Kunkel rightly describes the need for “an ecosystem of tactics – electoral campaigns, community and union organizing, public demonstrations, and, yes, property destruction”. The object of our political efforts must be similarly multifaceted and multi-scalar. It is not simply a question of the state or not, revolution or reform. The failure, thus far, of almost any substantive policy-driven change demands an interrogation of tactics, as Malm argues. It demands efforts to build effective coalitions across places and communities, as James Butler proposes, and state support for those thrown out of work as Tooze calls for, but also a turn towards the possibilities opened up by other forms of social organisation, as Meadway suggests. In Gramsci’s terms, the moment requires both wars of manoeuvre and wars of position: we need to dig in on some fronts, and disrupt and destabilise on some others.

Ultimately, the situation necessitates a combination of tactics, both “radical” and what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “non-reformist reforms”: “the difference between reformist reform – tweak Armageddon – and non-reformist reform – deliberate change that does not create more obstacles in the larger struggle”. Our efforts must help manage not only the “energy transition” but a fundamental reconstruction of productive and reproductive systems (at least those upon which the wealthiest parts of the world rely), and of the collective commitment to global wellbeing. It is impossible to imagine that there is only one answer to these challenges.

[See also: After Cop26, the time for law-abiding demonstrations is over]