Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Capitalism and Climate Change

On Sunday I entered Beit Zatoun community centre on Markham Street in Toronto to sit in on a discussion of Naomi Klein’s new book:  This Changes Everything; Capitalism vs. the Climate. Around 300 people were stuffed into this nice older building, mostly long time left wing political activists.

A three-person panel kicked off the meeting. Umair Muhnammad argued that this was an important book, for Naomi Klein, now an internationally known journalist, had legitimized the role of socialists in this debate on the disaster of global warming and climate change. Klein had made it clear to a wider audience that capitalism must have constant growth and the production of profit to survive. At present, those dominating the system were deeply committed to the continuation of the fossil fuel economy. Climate change could not be brought under control without confronting capitalism.
Beit Zatoun Toronto

Building alliances for change
Ellie Perkins stressed that a popular movement for serious change had to be tied to all the broad issues concerning social justice. She pointed to the leadership provided by the Aboriginal and women’s movements. There had to be a clear link with the anti-war movement. Broad based alliances were necessary.

Many of the criticisms I had when reading Klein’s book were emphasized by Sam Gindin. Klein’s book had left out the reality of the enormous power of the political state, which was closely aligned to the capitalist class. There was no discussion of the modern version of capitalist imperialism, the U.S. government leading NATO’s world wide crusade in opposition to all popular efforts for change.

Gindin stressed that Klein’s book had opened the door for us. It was time to boldly put forth the egalitarian and democratic alternative to capitalism in all our discussions. Capitalism has not served the interests of the people we represent. He noted, as one example, that under the free trade agreements the number of employees at General Motors had declined from 800,000 to 100,000.

Much of the discussion from the audience focused on how to try to build coalitions. I recognized a number of people in the crowd from the days of the Coalitions for Social Justice and the national coalition formed to oppose the free trade agreements. We had some successes back then. Central to that effort was the trade union movement, which had the resources, the organizations and the base to give the coalitions. Could this be revived?

Gindin was refreshingly frank on the issue of organizing for change. We have to recognize that since the onslaught of neoliberalism beginning around 1980 we have faced a long period of steady defeats. At the federal and provincial level the welfare state is being whittled away. The free trade agenda had resulted in the loss of a great many manufacturing jobs. Real incomes have declined for most workers. Income and wealth inequality was steadily rising.  People were discouraged, with a growing percentage not even wanting to vote. As Gindin argued, “it is as if we are having to start all over from the beginning.”

No one mentioned the fact that the political parties that we used to support, and who brought us the welfare state after World War II, now fully embraced the broad neoliberal agenda and U.S - led imperialism.

Can capitalism save the planet?
One member of the audience rose to put forth an alternative view. He declared that the science is clear on global warming, and there are many studies showing what has to be done and how to do it. We do not have to have a socialist alternative: the capitalists can make the changes. After all, we all know that capitalists can make major adjustments, as they did to deal with the Great Depression. Leo Panitch agreed that it was possible for capital to make the necessary changes, but it would just lead to other contradictions. He cited one example: Germany is praised for bringing in a green program for producing electricity, but no one mentions that they have expanded their export of coal.

I didn't agree. It might be possible for the capitalists in the G-7 countries to accept a plan to shift to Green Capitalism. But would it be possible to get the rest of the world’s capitalists to take a similar stance? Gindin asked: "What would happen if the North agreed to shift wealth to the South? The mass of people in the South want the consumer lifestyle that they see in the North. In addition, most of the governments of the states in the South seem to be worse than ours. Would they agree?"

One problem I had with Klein’s book is that the alternative strategy she promotes is the model we associate with the Occupy movement. But these spontaneous actions all seem to fade away rather quickly as they have no structure. Capital yielded on trade unionism and the Keynesian welfare state after World War II because they were confronted with the mobilized power of the popular classes through their organizations and political parties

Will Greece show us the way?
Naomi Klein wrote this book over the past five years during which a mass struggle was going on in Greece. Yet there is no mention of this in her book. But that is exactly where we need to look to see what strategies work. The mass struggle in Greece, characterized by a great many general strikes, served to educate and politicize the general population. It has resulted in the rapid rise in support for Syriza, the Left Green opposition party, which now has a chance of winning the general election on January 25.

On the bus trip down to Toronto, my colleague, Susan Ferren, who went with me to the meeting, remarked at the major change that had occurred in the Greater Toronto Area since she had lived here in her youth. From Oshawa through to Toronto there is now one great alienating example of market-designed suburban sprawl, the home to six million people, many forced to live in sky high condos. The 401 highway is twelve lanes wide with seemingly millions of vehicles going back and forth, 24 hours a day. She asked: “How could this be sustainable?”

As we walked down Bloor St. West to go to the meeting, we saw where the capitalist class does its shopping. She reminded me that “consumerism is the ideological essence of personal capitalism, and it is deeply entrenched in our culture.”

Before we headed back to Peterborough we went to the cinema to see Selma. Don’t miss it. I remember this struggle well. We have won battles in the past. It is possible to mobilize people. Organization is essential. Martin Luther King knew how to do this.  As Sam Gindin pointed out at the meeting, it is through local struggles on important issues that people come to understand how the system works. Not through reading books.

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