Klein vs capitalism

Naomi Klein

In Climate clippings 106, item 6 I linked to Joe Romm’s part review of Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs The Climate. Romm promised to look at Klein’s program for action in a second post. I’m still waiting. I’ll recap here Romm’s exposition of Klein.

Romm on Klein

Klein, he says, makes three essential points:

1. Because we have ignored the increasingly urgent warnings and pleas for action from climate scientists for a quarter century (!) now, the incremental or evolutionary paths to avert catastrophic global warming that we might have been able to take in the past are closed to us.

2. Humanity faces a stark choice as a result: The end of civilization as we know it or the end of capitalism as we know it.

3. Choosing “unregulated capitalism” over human civilization would be a “morally monstrous” choice — and so the winning message for the climate movement is a moral one.

The time for ‘evolutionary’ strategies is long past. Now only ‘revolutionary’ strategies will get us there. Unregulated capitalism is a Ponzi scheme, which must collapse. The real choice facing us is a moral one.

Unchecked capitalism is immoral and will destroy civilisation as we know it.

Gareth at Hot Topic

Across the ditch Gareth at Hot topic has reviewed Klein’s book. Ultimately, he says, Klein’s vision is a moral one. She seeks

“an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis— embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.”

In summary:

We need this not only to create a political context to drastically lower emissions but also to help us through the disasters now unavoidable, where respect for human rights and deep compassion will be all that stands between civilisation and barbarism.

Klein seems to be saying that with a mass movement, as with the abolition of slavery, we can prevail.

She’s really saying, however, that to change capitalism we need to change ourselves. But capitalism has shaped us powerfully to suit it’s needs. Weber’s iron cage comes to mind.

I think the problem is a step up from that faced by the slavery abolitionists. Slavery was only about how the new world acquired labour for farming. When slavery was abolished the price of food may have gone up a bit, but I suspect not much. It has been pointed out that with slavery the landowner kept the whole family. Now farm workers in the New World and elsewhere often work for less than a living wage. Farming in Africa is often practiced by women, whereas the men go off to work in the mines and elsewhere.

Yuval Harari in his book Sapiens: a brief history of humankind reckons that the core concept of modern capitalism is growth. Prior to capitalism, in the first millennium for example, economics was a zero sum game. It was assumed that if you wanted to increase your wealth you would do it by diminishing someone else’s, through plunder, or a landowner screwing more out of the peasants. One’s assumption was generally speaking that the future would be worse than the past.

To skip a bit, by the 19th century we had the industrial revolution and a belief in science and progress. The belief that the future would be better than the past was pervasive. At the same time there were also worlds to being conquered through colonialism and imperialism.

Harari says that obviously exponential growth using more energy and materials must stop somewhere. But, he says, capitalists will tell you that only capitalists can run the world they have created and no-one has much stomach for new versions of communism. Just wait a bit, they say, and goodies will flow to all.

I’ve said elsewhere that our future will not be constrained by a limit on energy. Ultimately we will have access to as much as we need or want. With nanotechnology the same may be true of materials. There is a limit, however, on the goods and services provided by nature.

To cut a long story short, capitalism will I think stay. Our only option is to civilise it. Two of the elements will have to be greater democracy and an expansion of the public sector, the things we do collectively for the good of all. And there will need to be limits to wealth.

We must re-imagine the future. Meanwhile the Scandinavians could be nearer the mark than we are.

Meanwhile also, there is this fascinating interview with Klein.

She’s not a raving revolutionary. She wants to keep markets with greater government intervention and regulation. We are in an existential crisis; she doesn’t know what the next step is, just that we should all take it very seriously and engage. She intends to spend the rest of her life on the problem.

3 thoughts on “Klein vs capitalism”

  1. There’s an extensive article on Klein and other writers by Matthew Nisbet at The Converstion, reproduced at RenewEconomy:

    An abolitionist-style climate movement would allow a global alliance of left-wing activists to achieve a diverse range of social justice goals, argues Klein. These include repealing free trade agreements, easing immigration rules, establishing indigenous rights, and guaranteeing a minimum income level.

    Ultimately, for Klein, climate change is our best chance to right the “festering wrongs” of colonialism and slavery, “the unfinished business of liberation.”

    As a public intellectual and aspiring movement leader, Klein sees her mission as winning a “battle of cultural worldviews,” opening up the space for a “full throated debate about values,” telling new stories to “replace the ones that have failed us.”

    In these new stories, Klein and her intellectual confederates value solutions that they see as coming from the natural world. They eschew technologies such as nuclear power or genetic engineering, arguing on behalf of a transition to smaller scale, locally controlled solar, wind, and geothermal energy technologies and organic farming.

    In this egalitarian future where people grow their own food, produce their own energy, share jobs working 3-4 days/week, and deliberate in small groups, traditional definitions of economic growth would cease, with progress defined instead in terms of health, happiness, and community.

    Ultimately, the hoped-for grand bargain on climate change will be that as rich nations “de-grow” their economies, they will share their surplus wealth and renewable technologies with China, India and other developing countries. In return these countries will choose a different, less consumer-driven path.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful piece Brian.

    The need to move swiftly so as to avoid utter disaster is a given.

    However, the need to think hard about what we are doing and going to do is equally important. That must include robust planning to avoid the sorts of traps that came with the Abolition of Slavery and with the 19th Century Industrial Revolution and also with the end of Communism..

    Slavery was soon replaced by no less demeaning and depriving systems of indentured labour, debt bondage, labour trafficking and racketeering as well as all sorts of other oppressive systems. Each one of those systems made many former slave owners and slave merchants even richer than before. We certainly do not want to replace destructive Capitalism with something even worse.

    The 19th Century Industrial Revolution did bring light and hope and prosperity to many – but at what cost? Chronic disease and poor nutrition among working families in the slums with disgraceful squandering on useless luxury by the owners the dark satanic mills – much worse than in previous centuries with their caste-like divisions in society. The plunder of the entire non-Western world was another monsterous cost . Replacing wasteful, dangerous Capitalism is necessary for our survival – but replacing it with an equally wasteful, dangerous system is not.

    Then there is the stark warning of what happened when the USSR collapsed. An inefficient, environmentally-destructive, oppressive system was replaced by an inefficient, environmentally-destructive, oppressive system with, in many cases, the same scoundrels in charge but with their greed and vanity now unrestricted.

    Capitalism will never vote itself out of existence – nor will revolution do anything but enrich some of its practitioners at the expense of other practitioners.

    Education for change might seem the most likely way to go but that would take two generations or more – and by that time there could well be conflict over living space in what parts of Antarctica are above the new sea level. Besides, both formal education and the entertainment media are firmly in the hands of those who want dumb consumers, not thinking citizens.

    Sorry, I don’t have any practical solutions. If I do come up with any I’ll let you know so you can nominate me for a Nobel Prize. 🙂

    The situation is grim but not completely hopeless.

  3. What capitalism is good at is making things happen and finding innovative ways to make things happen. It is a bit hard to imagine moving to 100% renewables within the time needed to avoid a climate crisis without the heavy involvement of capitalist companies.
    On the other hand capitalism is driven by the need to “add shareholder value.” Experience say that what capitalist companies do to add value for their shareholders may not be in the interest the country/world/environment etc. For example: this article talks about how power comapnies are using unecessary rule to block the growth of rooftop solar.
    I would agree that our capitalist system depends on growth to survive and that we can imagine futures that are fairer and better places to live than a world dominated by capitalism combined with fee trade globalization. However, if we are serious about moving away from this capitalist model we need to think through what is needed to make it work.
    Changing our cultural and economic system is not going to happen fast enough to avoid a climate disaster.

Comments are closed.