For two centuries the left was understandably relaxed about time. The arrow of time, which in nature produces complex systems out of simple ones, had replaced feudalism with capitalism, the proletariat and technological progress. In the process it produced Marxism, a secular philosophy that claimed the ultimate outcome might be communism. Revolutionaries wanted the process to be faster, even at the cost of forcing the pace of history; reformists were content with a more natural timetable; revisionists such as Eduard Bernstein were happier simply being en route than achieving the goal itself. Each faction shared the assumption that time is on the side of progress.
Now, unfortunately, it is clear that time is something we do not have.
For 200 years, the left’s assumptions about capitalism were made without full knowledge of the human contribution to global warming, or its potentially catastrophic effects. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Special Report, issued in October 2018, warns that unless we halve net carbon emissions by 2030, and end them by 2050, we face a global catastrophe.
Yet even now the left, along with most parts of civil society, seems barely to have understood the implications for its previous assumptions. Like the New Yorkers observed by WH Auden in 1939, on the day the Second World War broke out, we “cling to our average day”.
The Keynesians who were trying to promote state intervention as the cure for the 2008 financial crisis now advocate it as a cure for the climate crisis. In the US, a left that has always despaired at its failure to achieve a universal health-care system, now aspires to deliver that ambition as part of a wider Green New Deal.
Few people are yet prepared to accept that, to save the planet, we have to end capitalism – and on a timescale that even an ardent Leninist might find optimistic. One reason is that the world of climate science does not possess anything resembling a theory of capitalism. It has a theory of sustainable development – which allows it to design theoretical “pathways” towards a zero-carbon economy involving different speeds of social change. But the possibility that we live in an economic system with a beginning, a middle and an end, and with internal dynamics just as measurable as the climate, is a thought too far.
Before we ask what the left should do, it is worth considering at the most abstract level how the new conclusions of climate science should change our view of capitalism as an economic system.
The left always understood that rampant commercialism destroyed the natural environment and depleted its productivity. But from Marx onwards, we assumed that problem could be overcome through technological change. The contradiction that would kill capitalism was between a system of private property and essentially social technologies, from the 19th-century factory to Wikipedia and Linux (the open source computer operating system) today.
Based on any scientific reading, we are obliged to bracket that proposition within a deeper contradiction: capitalism has run out of time. It took off by using the planet as a source of free, carbon-based energy and as a wastepipe for gases that warm the atmosphere. But that process has now reached its limits. It is, of course, easy to imagine a non-carbon form of capitalism – as long as you admit that it’s like imagining a non-racist form of Nazism: theoretically possible but unlikely, given the historic patterns already set.
The most radical scenarios of the IPCC would entail net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 through “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems”. These changes will have to be “unprecedented in terms of scale… and imply deep emissions reductions in all sectors”.
The problem is, we are not dealing with a theoretical capitalist system but one that’s been in crisis since 2008 and in which inequalities of wealth and power are growing. In the real capitalism of now, elites are detaching themselves from democracy, the rule of law and from multilateral obligations and treaties, switching instead to a form of “Thatcherism in one country”, combined with Great Power diplomacy.
America under Donald Trump, Brazil under Jair Bolsonaro and Australia under Scott Morrison are harbingers of what’s to come. Where they accept the science, the most likely response of real-world elites will be, at first, to restrict decarbonisation to what the interests of corporations and the limits of orthodox fiscal and monetary policy will allow.
But as climate effects intensify, and social struggles erupt, elites are likely to switch to an overt strategy of “adapting” to climate change, rather than halting it, and they will do so on a nation-centric basis. The enlightened rich will create zoos and data banks to preserve otherwise dying species; the unenlightened will go on building pipelines across tundra, flying in executive jets and shooting elephants for sport.
Though central banks and treasuries now recognise the danger, we should not assume that will spur them into decisive action. Having saved the banks from the subprime crash in 2008 using state insurance and money printing, they will deploy the same tools to save Gazprom, Petrobras, ExxonMobil and Total. This assumption is what underpinned Chancellor Philip Hammond’s call for a “review” of the UK government’s commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050: the subtext is that we should only abide by it if others do.
Andreas Malm, a left-wing Swedish climate writer, argues that, at a minimum, we should: stop building carbon-burning power plants; shut the existing ones down; end the expansion of air, sea and road travel and introduce a rationing system for transport; expand mass transit systems; switch urgently to locally grown food; dismantle the meat industry and switch to plant-based proteins; and pour money into carbon removal technologies.
That would, says Malm, amount to the equivalent of Marx’s ten-point reform programme in The Communist Manifesto. But each measure raises a question: who will pay, whose interests will suffer, who will mandate the change, and are the ambitions consistent with democracy? These are dilemmas that, despite the flurry of rhetoric around a “Green New Deal”, the left keeps trying to avoid.
In the face of opposition from the GMB trade union, Labour committed to a ban on fracking in 2016. But at a local level, the party’s councillors in Cumbria have just led the approval of the first new coal mine in Britain for decades. The party’s strategy includes plans to boost renewable energy production – but there is no urgent commitment to close the gas-fired power stations that form the core of UK energy. The dilemma is even greater for left parties in Germany and Canada, where coal is still a major industry.
The answer to “who will pay” cannot be simply “the rich”. Labour pushed redistributive tax policy to its limits during the 2017 general election, when it pledged to raise £50bn a year to fund free university tuition and to reverse spending cuts to policing, health care and schools. To fund infrastructure spending, the party pledged to borrow an extra £250bn over the next ten years. Hammond estimates that the UK government would need to spend a trillion pounds to meet the net-zero target – around £30bn-£50bn of extra public spending over a period of 30 years.
The left’s answer must be that if the rich can’t pay, the future must. The state has to borrow money now, and on a vast scale, if necessary through central bank money creation programmes. But unlike in every previous Keynesian episode, we must borrow in the full knowledge that “growth”, as measured by GDP, will never be strong enough to erode the debt.
This is because the inner dynamics of capitalism do not change. In its classic form, capitalism created a surplus out of free carbon-based energy, plus human labour. Capitalism’s tragedy is that, just as it discovered the need to stop burning carbon, it also discovered the means to dispense with work. As I argued in my 2015 book PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, information technology has already begun to short-circuit the adaptation mechanisms of the market economy – creating the possibility of a low-work future, in which useful goods and services are increasingly provided outside the market and GDP ceases to be a measure of societal well-being.
We are faced with the prospect of two transitions – beyond work and beyond carbon. That the climate crisis must take precedence is unarguable: the task is to formulate a new left politics in which the post-work and post-carbon projects are fused.
Let’s be honest: centralised government action will be required to forcibly alter or shut down some key business models in the private sector and to enforce behavioural change. Energy-intensive industries such as steel will either have to be shut down or receive large state subsidies. Meat farming will end. Major airports such as Heathrow will probably end up being rewilded.
It is obvious that the market system cannot deliver these outcomes on the required scale or timetable. Global capital is geared to financial speculation, cheap money and deregulated economic space. For a form of capitalism to emerge that enables centralised state ownership of energy, transport and housing – and that is committed to extensive borrowing – there would need to be some capitalists in favour of it: I can’t find any.
The left should turn a crisis into an opportunity by reframing its programme and methodologies around defeating climate change through huge modal changes and automation. But it’s here that we hit an existential problem.
The left that’s emerged since 2008 is, in reality, an alliance of two projects: a rearguard action by the old working class of the carbon era, against austerity, atomisation and a falling wage share; and an offensive by the diverse, educated workforce of the information era to advance individual rights and social liberalisation. One project is about setting right the injustices of the carbon era; the other is about moving beyond both work and carbon.
That is why all current Green New Deal proposals contain a promise to the existing industrial workforce that, whatever the scale of change, there will be enough decent high-paid jobs created. The same assurance underpins the US Democrat proposal to replace diesel and petrol cars with electric vehicles.
Yet the future-oriented left knows, both theoretically and in its heart, that the recreation of the Keynesian-era workforce is impossible, and that perpetuating a system based on family-owned automobiles by adopting electric vehicles is pointless. From the energy grid to the factory to the road network, capitalism looks like it does because, for 250 years, burning carbon and exploiting human labour were its twin sources of dynamism. An honest left would have to tell people that neither of these things can continue.
But the left, globally, is avoiding such brutal honesty for an understandable reason. In every country parts of its electoral base among older, former industrial workers are falling prey to past-oriented ideologies. The central plank of all reactionary plebeian politics is that climate change does not matter. Either the science is deemed suspect or, if accepted, used by the new right to argue that rising oceans and burning prairies are grounds for ending immigration and raising military spending.
Though I want Cumbria – which is Labour-run, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats – to cancel its absurd coal mine, it may be that, if it did, the council would simply lose power to the Tory party or the populist right. This fear of “abandoning” traditional communities to right-wing politics has underpinned the response to Brexit in parts of the Labour and trade union movement. The same fear haunts the climate discussion.
The “just transition” concept, originally pioneered by the International Trade Union Confederation, has crept into the left’s vocabulary largely unexamined. It calls for the involvement of working-class communities in the rapid shutdown of coal and always promises “decent jobs”. But it avoids the question: what if the transition has to be unjust? And who defines justice? What if it has to feel less like Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal and more like the compulsory relocation of Soviet industry to the Urals?
From the Green New Deal to the just transition, my fear is that the left has armed itself with platitudinous phrases to avoid hard choices. It is likely that, given the scale of the endeavour, we will need decisive, centralised state action and ownership. The place for creativity, localism, entrepreneurship and consultation will be in the implementation, not the decision.
It has taken immense energy over the past four years to transform Labour from a party of austerity and privatisation into a party of state ownership and public investment. But the bigger transformation lies ahead. The eradication of carbon emissions needs to become the lode star and the animating spirit of the left. The alliances we need to achieve this are not those of classic socialism.
If we get it right, with a transition programme that is both technologically and economically sophisticated, the anti-capitalist left can become hegemonic. Get it wrong and we will become a re-enactment society for the class struggle in a carbon-centric world.