Global heating, the existential ecological crisis, the crossing of tipping points as well as abrupt changes in the Earth system mean we are now entering a phase full of twists, turns and ruptures. At the same time, global cascades of exploitation and geopolitical tensions intensify. Time is condensing. The conditions of everyday life for billions of people are rapidly changing. The foundations of socio-political concepts and economic policy prescriptions are collapsing.
In this paper, I argue that the consequences of the ruptures in the Earth system, the most urgent manifestation of which is global heating, can now only be mitigated in a society of solidarity. For this, it is necessary that wage-dependents constitute themselves as subjects of emancipation and enforce a social break with the capitalist mode of production. But this process requires strategies and strategically acting organisations.
With this contribution, I intervene in a debate that is tentatively beginning about strategies for the climate movement, an orientation towards the Green New Deal as a social-ecological reform strategy and viable revolutionary ecosocialist strategies. I argue that revolutionary strategies of rupture correspond most closely to Anthropocene capitalism with its tipping points in the Earth system and its associated abrupt ruptures and turns. In doing so, I put forward the thesis that there is an urgent need to redevelop an understanding of possibilities for a comprehensive social revolution.
I take up ideas from Daniel Bensaïd and at the same time link to David McNally’s[i] remarks on the contemporary significance of revolutionary strategies as well as the roundtable discussion with Gareth Dale, Amanda Armstrong Price, Lucí Caballero and Adam Hanieh[ii] recently published in the journal Spectre. Ecological constraints make these reflections even more explosive.
Strategic hypotheses in condensed time of abrupt turns and tipping points
With Anthropocene capitalism, we are entering a phase full of uncertainties. These encompass both the physical foundations of social life, economic instability and social conflicts, as well as the sharpened imperialist rivalry and accompanying geopolitical shifts in hegemony.
The dynamics of the Earth system with its tipping points will force abrupt changes on societies. Pandemics, as well as social catastrophes through droughts, floods and heatwaves, are the new normal. They will shape class struggles. The heated planet is causing many long-established and familiar living conditions to come to an abrupt end. This is experienced by people whose houses have been washed away or burnt. Soon, millions more will have to leave their cities because of unbearable heat or a permanent danger of flooding.[iii] The ongoing pandemic offers us a bitter but comparatively small foretaste of such changes.
The rulers in imperialist countries have dealt with the repeated crises of the past decades in such a way that resistance did not become generalised. They fenced it in socially and spatially, as for example in Greece in 2015. For most workers in the imperialist countries, living conditions changed gradually. But capital and their governments in many countries are responding to the crisis and the pandemic by intensifying the class struggle from above. There is not the slightest sign that the dominant fractions of capital are ready to engage in a comprehensive social-ecological compromise. Social contradictions and insecurities are intensifying.
The USA can no longer assert its imperialist hegemony without restrictions. Rivalry with the rising Chinese and Russian imperialism is intensifying. The EU is still unable to elaborate and realise a consistent development model. The project for the European Green Deal aims at a green capitalism breakthrough to give the most important capital factions in Europe a world-leading position in environmental technologies and to some extent moderate social contradictions. [iv] But this project collides with the internal contradictions of the EU, a deep economic crisis and the comprehensive ecological rift.
These changes force all movements working to overcome the capitalist mode of production to reflect on an appropriate strategy. Reform-oriented strategies have already been on feet of clay for a long time, as advances in productivity since the 1970s have not been so great that they would allow both a high-profit rate and real wages to be substantially raised, accompanied by a well-developed and maintained social infrastructure.[v] Moreover, the planetary boundaries of the Earth system[vi] pose substantial obstacles to the accumulation process.
But the intensified global ecological crisis makes a socio-ecological reform of capitalism impossible, especially in the time that is absolutely necessary. It is becoming clearer than ever that ideas of gradual progress, as well as a continuous strengthening of socialist forces through participation in bourgeois governments or taking charge of government responsibility, are built on sand. Not only the political but foremost the economic and ecological material foundations are lacking for such a strategy.[vii]
Unfortunately, the more radical forces of socialist movements have been content with a poverty of strategic debates and a strange self-restriction for decades. There are hardly any ideas on how to change the social balance of power to such an extent that the build-up of counter-power results in dual power, which could lead to a decisive struggle against the old order and a victory for revolutionary forces. If ecosocialists want to change the balance of power, they are challenged to formulate strategic hypotheses.
Revolutionary ecosocialists face a challenge that is historically new. The ruptures in the Earth system and the consequences of global heating are so far-reaching that within decades they force us to question human society as we know it. The capitalist mode of production can only continue to exist in conjunction with a general social regression and ecological destruction. The social catastrophes triggered by global heating will make the physical reproduction of a considerable part of humanity impossible. Only by rapidly imposing an anti-capitalist rupture can global heating be slowed to such an extent that prevents it from taking on a disastrous momentum of its own, seriously jeopardizing the survival and life of our societies. Capitalist accumulation, it should be acknowledged, has produced immeasurable wealth as well as hunger and misery since its beginnings.
Perhaps only the eve and the beginning of the two world wars are comparable with this current crisis, a period when time similarly condensed on a world scale. But the historical scope and geographical reach of the present challenges are broader. Nevertheless, historical experiences do offer clues for the development of a revolutionary ecosocialist strategy. In an inspiring article, Daniel Bensaïd argued that the idea of mechanical progress without crises or ruptures corresponds to an understanding of homogeneous and empty time.[viii] This is ultimately a non-political time. He recalled the debates in social democracy on the eve of World War I and Karl Kautsky’s reformist idea of a “passive accumulation” of forces, which corresponds to such an understanding of time.
In contrast, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin developed an understanding of politics as a strategy for direct intervention, breaking up the state and economic structures. Russian revolutionary thought conceived politics in terms of a strategy with favourable moments and weak points. In contrast to classical social democracy, Lenin understood politics as occurring in a time of struggles, a period of crises and collapses. Drafting his conception of revolutionary crisis, he captured situations that did not correspond to the continuous strengthening of a social movement but expressed a general crisis of the relations between all the classes of a society. [ix]
In revolutionary crises, relations of domination are torn apart. The time of strategy does not pass like the time of the needle on the clock-face; rather, it corresponds to a rhythm of sudden accelerations and decelerations. Revolutions take on their own speeds, political struggles accelerate and decelerate abruptly.[x]
Daniel Bensaïd takes up Walter Benjamin’s understanding of history. Benjamin argued that the strategic time of politics is neither linear nor empty in the sense of a mechanical process. Rather, he argued it is discontinuous, a disjointed and fractured time, full of knots and events pregnant with meaning. Benjamin criticized social democracy’s linear understanding of progress, a criticism that also applies to the degenerated communist movement. For progress does not advance inexorably. The idea of linear development in a homogeneous and empty time is therefore inappropriate.[xi]
Walter Benjamin helps us to see the sharpness of the present challenge. Under the impression of fascism, the Hitler-Stalin pact, the beginning of World War II and the failure of the workers’ movement to stop fascism and the bureaucratic degeneration of the USSR, he wrote:
“Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But perhaps [. . .] revolutions are the grasp of the human race for the emergency brake travelling in this train.” [xii]
Benjamin does not necessarily place himself in opposition to, though he is at a critical distance from, Karl Marx, who in writing The Class Struggles in France 1848-1850 analyzed social renewal through the conscious intervention of the peasantry alongside the proletariat. [xiii] Making this point, Benjamin clearly expressed his understanding of societal development. There is no linear progress, development is characterized by leaps, condensations, stagnation and regression. What is important is subjective action. Because the emergency brake does not pull itself. “The only hope lies in real social movements”, concludes Michael Löwy, who points out that indigenous communities have a central role in the fight against global warming.[xiv]
Today, grabbing the emergency brake is the only way to prevent productive forces from fully unfolding into destructive forces and dragging humanity into the abyss. Revolution is no guarantee of an emancipatory perspective, but it is a prerequisite for preventing the locomotive derailing. However, the time in which we can pull the emergency brake is short and getting shorter. So the strategic question is: how can we pull this emergency brake?
Broken and condensed time in Anthropocene capitalism
Bensaïd’s and Benjamin’s understanding of broken time, in which abrupt changes occur, societies change in leaps and bounds, history jumps, quantity turns into quality, helps in understanding the current challenges in the face of the breaks and leaps of the Earth system and jerky social processes. But time not only breaks, it first condenses.
Condensed time is the result of interlinked and partly interdependent historical processes. The sudden changes in the earth system and ecosystems caused by a predatory and destructive social metabolism with nature, the economic and social crisis, the impoverishment, precarisation and fragmentation, geopolitical rivalry, the political orientation crisis of the ruling capital factions and an existential crisis of the classical workers’ movement coalesce. Different processes are interlinked, form an inextricable conglomeration and have immense social effects. These happen spatially if unevenly, both concentrated and selectively dispersed over a large area. But they are mostly interdependent.
A current example of comparatively minor significance serves to explain such concatenation of circumstances. SARS-CoV2 contagions spread rapidly during the fourth pandemic wave in some southern U.S. states in late August 2021. Hospitals were overcrowded. A hurricane passed over the affected region. Hospitals could not be evacuated. Governments had not made preparations. The material and social infrastructure in the affected region was inadequate, a result of general profit orientation, austerity policies in recent decades and uneven capitalist development in the USA. Large segments of the population are impoverished. The federal government, state and city governments have other priorities.
Caught in their logic of competition and comprehension of the state as the guarantor of the conditions of accumulation for capital, they were not acting adequately to the situations and exacerbated these disasters. The pandemic met with unprepared governments and state bureaucracies. They procrastinated and prolonged the pandemic when it could have been managed with decisive action. The worsening hurricanes likewise encountered unprepared authorities and populations.
Such processes collide, chain and condense in a short time. They not only have an enormous impact on a large number of people but can reinforce one another and trigger chain reactions. Dense and broken time are mutually dependent. Whether this compression results in a leap, thus a qualitative change in society, depends on the subjective actions of the people affected and their organizational power.
Such ecologically-economically-socially-politically interlinked events will increase. In a broken and condensed time full of abrupt turns, new hypotheses for appropriate revolutionary strategies are needed. The problems and challenges will become more and more concentrated in a short period and cause ruptures. That is why the traditional understanding of gradual reforms are no longer suitable. They have literally lost their material basis. But even the reference to the Russian revolution is of little or no help. Due to the historically specific conditions in Russia, this revolution found no social basis from the beginning in the rich imperialist countries with their differentiated and heterogeneous class of workers and the stronger integrative power of bourgeois society.
Neoliberalism has lost its appeal. The ruling capital fractions in Europe and North America are unable to present an attractive and credible project for the coming social development. They are in a crisis of orientation. The technology-based “green economy” is too contradictory to achieve a hegemonic position in the short term. It cannot heal the cracks in society’s metabolism with nature. On the contrary, it will create new cracks, especially by plundering the raw materials that are so urgently needed for the energy transition.
The project of socio-ecological reform promises little more than a gradual improvement towards “more social justice” and “action against climate change”. Neither the one nor the other is realistic under capitalist conditions. This orientation is reduced to the hope for a continuously growing social anchoring and participation in bourgeois governments. As long as capitalist conditions exist, companies must strive to “do business” with above-average profitability. This means that they must exploit workers, make reproductive workers work unpaid and plunder nature.
A crucial question is whether these interlinking social processes and events, which result both from substantial changes in the Earth system or even from the transgressions of tipping points of the Earth system and the crisis-ridden economic dynamics, also lead to social tipping points. That is, to moments in which a changeover to a qualitatively new situation takes place.
The coincidence of different crisis processes has led to revolutionary crises in various places in recent decades. Examples include the revolutionary uprisings in the Arab world in 2011 and the revolts in Ecuador, Chile, Lebanon and Iraq in 2019 and 2020. But socialist forces were nowhere able to win a substantial influence. Anti-capitalist structural reforms have not been implemented anywhere, not even in Venezuela. Everywhere, one or another form of counterrevolution prevailed. Moreover, these uprisings lacked socially anchored revolutionary organizations that would have been able to process previous experiences and bundle different concerns in these movements into an anti-capitalist transitional program.[xv] In no country do revolutionary or even ecosocialist organizations have a social basis that would allow them to take political initiatives. The destruction of the ecological and economic livelihoods of millions or even billions of people will provoke new revolts in very different places in the world in the near future. These social uprisings can happen surprisingly and in different manifestations. Will emancipatory and ecosocialist forces then be able to support and politically shape these movements?
A revolutionary crisis arises when those at the top can no longer rule as before, when those at the bottom no longer accept being oppressed, and when this double impossibility is expressed by a sudden uproar of the masses. Trotsky adopts these criteria in his History of the Russian Revolution. [xvi]
The crisis alone does not guarantee the conditions of its solution. That is why, for Lenin, the intervention of a revolutionary party is the decisive factor in a critical situation. Not every revolutionary situation leads to a revolution. A revolution arises only from a situation in which the above changes are supplemented by a subjective change, namely the ability of a revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass actions strong enough to break the power of the old government.[xvii] This brings us to the problem of dual power, which I will return to in the next article, the fifth in this series.
Condensed time of abrupt breaks
After a long empty period of gradual change, we have entered a phase of condensed time of abrupt ruptures. The ruptures in the Earth system will abruptly change the living conditions of millions or billions of people. That is why the familiar political projects of social democratic, green and left-wing parties are ineffective in these condensed times; they still assume stable conditions. They really yearn for stability and security, but only in the imperialist centres of the world economy. These strategies contribute to the fact that the social and ecological problems become even bigger, and burdens are shifted on the people in post-colonial countries.
- The time for gradual and small-scale socio-ecological transformation debates has passed. There is no longer any room for this. Social-ecological reform alliances and projects for a “left Green New Deal” are ecologically insufficient and economically inconsistent.[xviii] In the imperialist countries, they lack any material, economic and political basis. Orientations that rely on a socio-ecological transformation of capitalism are built on sand in Anthropocene capitalism and will lead to horrific defeats. The capitalist mode of production cannot be organised in an ecologically compatible way.
- It’s about the whole thing: In order to limit global warming to 1.5° C compared to pre-industrial times, the entire production apparatuses, transportation and logistics systems, as well as social reproduction in the imperialist countries, including China, must be completely transformed. The fossil sector is to be shut down in a democratically planned and controlled way, starting with the armaments industry and large parts of the automotive industry. Those small parts of the automobile industry that are still useful, such as bus production and the manufacture of commercial and community cars, must be merged under democratic control with the rail sector to form a sustainable integrated mobility industry. The financial sector must be reduced to what is necessary to finance the transformation and an adequate social and industrial infrastructure.
- The financial-fossil-state complex must be broken up. Many fossil corporations are (partially) state-owned, which shows that state ownership alone is not the solution. We need to build a movement capable of socially, democratically appropriating the financial and the entire energy sector as well as the key industries. This is a prerequisite for industrial transformation.
In these abruptly turning and condensed times, we need social and political strategies that correspond to the abrupt turns and ruptures. That is why it is necessary to bring the revolutionary perspective from the historical debates into the current conflicts and reinvent it. The following fifth article in this series presents concrete proposals for a strategic orientation towards social appropriation and the building of counter-power.
[ii] Dale, Armstrong Price, et al. 2021
[iv] EU 2020
[vi] Steffen, et al. 2018; Steffen, et al. 2015
[vii] In another article, I explain in detail why ideas for a social-ecological reform of capitalism and the proposals for a Green New Deal are ecologically insufficient and economically inconsistent. (Zeller 2021a).
[viii] Bensaïd 2002
[ix] Lenin 1916
[x] Bensaïd 2003: 141, 154
[xi] Benjamin 1940; Bensaïd 2002: 3; 2003: 154
[xii] Benjamin 1940: 153
[xiii] Marx 1850: 85
[xv] Dale, Barker, et al. 2021
[xvi] Trotzki 1931/1973
[xvii] Bensaïd 2002
[xviii] See my two articles on left-wing Green New Deal projects. (Zeller 2021a, 2021b)
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