COP26 will not deliver. This is a certainty. To think otherwise is to allow hope to triumph over both experience and intellect. Experience because COP has failed to stop global warming for 25 years, with the result that the climate crisis is now at breakpoint. Intellect because any remotely honest analysis has to conclude that capitalism is the problem; more specifically, the process of unplanned, unregulated, uncontrolled capital accumulation.
The ecological crisis is a direct consequence of M – C – M+, where M is the money invested, C is the means of production (energy, raw materials, machines, buildings), and M+ is the money originally invested plus the profit gained in a circuit of capital. This is the nuclear core of the system: the drive for profit, for the self-expansion of value, for exponential growth forever and ever.
This formula – central to Marx’s Capital – is now encompassed within another: (M – C – M+)∞ = X, where capital accumulation multiplied by infinity means extinction.
That millions of good people have nonetheless invested their hopes in COP reflects their inability to face the alternative with all its manifold implications: that our only salvation lies in an international red-green revolution of the overwhelming majority of humankind – the working class, the oppressed, and the poor, the 90% who belong neither to the super-rich ruling class nor the privileged middle class.
It was always thus. Throughout history, before taking matters into their own hands and embarking on the long road of mass struggle from below, ordinary people have appealed to their rulers for redress. They appealed to feudal lords for reduction in rent, to royal autocrats for less oppressive laws, and to factory bosses for better pay and reduced hours. So now, the international political elite, the assembled representatives of neoliberal corporate capitalism, are called upon to stop global warming and save the planet.
It is not that they do nothing. Feudal lords, royal autocrats, and factory bosses did sometimes ease the burden – for fear of revolt from below, and in order to preserve feudalism, absolutism, and capitalism. So it is now. Biden is spending $555 billion on climate action. But all the planned punitive measures against corporate oil, gas, and coal have been stripped out. Beijing has announced that it is surging ahead with fossil-fuel expansion. Moscow, also sitting on vast reserves of oil, gas, and coal, has made it clear it is business as usual. Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, and a host of other countries with big fossil-fuel industries and/or heavy fossil-fuel dependence are no better.
This year’s COP, incidentally, is worse than ever. It has Tory handprints all over it, with wall-to-wall corporate sponsorship, excessive charges for space at the conference venue, lack of affordable accommodation in Glasgow, and the refusal of visas and misuse of Covid restrictions to exclude frontline communities from the Global South. Asad Rehman of the COP26 Coalition said: ‘COP26 is going to be overwhelmingly white and rich this year. The UN climate talks are always exclusionary, but this year the logistics of this summit have been extraordinarily badly managed. On every level, those most affected by this crisis have been systematically silenced and excluded.’
COP26 is symbolic of a world dominated by corporate capital. It also reflects an utterly dysfunctional geopolitical system, a world divided into 200 separate states, a planet riven by great-power rivalries. As international tensions ratchet upwards and arms stockpiles rise higher, the imperial superpowers prioritise existing dirty energy over future green alternatives. In this eco-vandalism they are sustained by a global wave of creeping fascism – a toxic cocktail of nationalism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, authoritarianism, militarism, and narcissistic individualism. This shift to the right on the right – from traditional forms of conservatism to more irrational, visceral, psychotic forms of reaction – is draining mainstream politics of all commonsense. A pandemic of electronic fake news and conspiracy theory has created a mass false consciousness receptive, amongst so much else, to climate-change denial and climate-crisis nihilism.
COP26 will fail because the rich, the corporations, the imperial war-machines, and the international political class will not dismantle the system on which their wealth and power depends.
Marx argued that revolutions occur when the contradiction between developing productive forces and existing social relations become insoluble within the framework of a political system. This is rather abstract and oversimplified, and it is based mainly on the experience of the great bourgeois revolutions of the 16th to 19th centuries, but it is substantially true. The Dutch, British, American, and French Revolutions were collisions between semi-feudal, absolutist, and/or colonial regimes and an emerging bourgeoisie of commercially-minded farmers, merchants, bankers, entrepreneurs, adventurers, and chancers who were indeed creating a new economy.
When working-class or socialist revolution first became a real historical possibility – perhaps in the 1860s – the same broad generalisation applied. The capitalist system collapsed into its first great depression in the 1870s and it has been increasingly pathological ever since, its history over the last 150 years dominated by slump, stagnation, arms races, and imperialist wars. This crisis of the productive forces has been met by a succession of massive working-class revolts – Paris 1871, Russia 1905 and 1917, much of Europe 1918-23, China 1926-27, Spain 1936-37, Hungary 1956, and so many more since. But each wave of struggle has either subsided before it has broken through or has, sooner or later, been smashed by counter-revolution – including the greatest of them all, the Bolshevik Revolution, which was destroyed by civil war, economic collapse, social breakdown, and Stalinist dictatorship.
So the system has endured far beyond its historical sell-by date, to the point where it has arrived at what is, unquestionably, a terminal crisis – terminal for the system, but, unfortunately, potentially terminal for the rest of us. For the crisis we now face threatens the eco-systems on which human civilisation depends. More than that: it is a compound crisis, with ecological, military, social, and political dimensions. In addition to global warming, there are half a dozen other ecological crises consequent upon continuing capital accumulation. There is the creation of new diseases on the frontiers of corporate agribusiness and their spread through global supply-chains. There is stockpiling of armaments capable of killing us all a hundred times over. There is unprecedented, ever-growing, and increasingly explosive social misery at the base of the system. And there is an accelerating breakdown of democracy as creeping fascism and the global police state – joint guardians of a crisis-racked and decaying capitalism – conspire to silence dissent and smash resistance.
I am using the term ‘red-green revolution’ deliberately. I need to explain what I mean.
The revolution which might save us is still a working-class or socialist revolution. The working class is now the overwhelming majority of humanity. The independent peasantry is disappearing. Most rural workers are in fact wage-labourers. Most people in any case now live in cities and towns, a massive and growing proportion of them in the slums of the Global South, where the majority are either precarious or surplus, that is, either in insecure, low-paid, sweatshop employment, or subsisting somehow on the margins of the system.
This is the modern working class. It encompasses the oppressed and the poor. Across the world, Global North and Global South, it constitutes 90% of humanity – the victims of the system, the wretched of the earth, the class with nothing to lose but its chains. The only beneficiaries of the system are the super-rich, the 1%, and a middle-class layer of administrators, executives, and professionals who serve them and are rewarded with security, high incomes, and a privileged lifestyle.
The international working class is a sleeping giant. Only two other social forces have comparable power – corporate capital and the global police state. The international working class is the only social force with the capacity to smash them both. It cannot be done by campaign groups, by lobbying, by stunts, by protests restricted to an activist minority. Only by mobilising the power of the working class as a whole – by waging all-out class struggle from below – can we raise the forces we need to take on capital and the state with a chance of winning.
The interests of the working class are inseparable from the crisis of the system in all its aspects. But two particular points must be made. The ecological crisis means that we must move as quickly as possible to a zero-growth, steady-state, low-carbon economy. To win a majority to that perspective, we must also address the social crisis. We cannot stop the eternal growth machine if the implication is that the majority of humanity will be left mired in poverty. To stop the carbon economy will involve the mobilisation of the working class on a global scale, and that cannot be done unless our programme is both green and red – a radical transformation of the world economy into one that is sustainable and renewable combined with a massive redistribution of wealth from the rich, the corporations, and the war machines so as to end world poverty. The only ecological struggle that makes sense is also a social struggle. Ecosocialism – or red-green revolution – is the only way out.
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