Capitalism's Organic Crisis
Ashley Dawson is the author of Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change, which is 50% off until January 1 as part of our End of Year sale.
Vast swaths of our planet are becoming literally too hot and dry to survive in. This past spring, the city of Nawabshah in southern Pakistan, recorded a high of 122.4° Fahrenheit, the highest temperature ever registered anywhere on Earth for the month of April. The contiguous United States had its hottest month of May, and the third-hottest month of June. Wildfires raged in the Arctic as northern Europe grappled with near-record heat, and at least 86 people died in Japan as triple-digit temperatures baked the country. A recent analysis of climate trends in some of South Asia's biggest cities found that temperatures will be so high by the end of the century that people directly exposed to such heat will not be able to survive. Already, daytime heat is extreme enough to kill people who are forced to work outdoors in many parts of the world, and wreaks havoc on the health and livelihoods of tens of millions each year.
There are multiple strands to the environmental crisis of our time. Climate change-related elements of the crisis were much evident in 2018. Indeed, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this year brought the fourth highest number of weather and climate disaster events on record, behind only the catastrophic records set in 2017, 2011, and 2016. In the U.S., Hurricane Florence inflicted more than $10 billion in losses as it rampaged through the Southeast, dumping massive quantities of rain that caused lagoons of pig shit in the Carolinas to overflow and contaminate local waterways. Hurricane Michael "surprised" forecasters by ramping up ferociously as it bore down on the Florida panhandle and went on to devastate coastal communities and lay bare the unsustainable cycle of destruction and repair in which FEMA is trapped. In Asia, Typhoon Mangkhut flattened regions of the Philippines, Hong Kong, and China, while Typhoon Jebi inflicted billions of dollars of damage in Japan. Europe struggled with a prolonged drought that crippled waterborne commerce on one of the continent's main rivers, the Rhine. The United Nations issued a dire alert in October saying that many of the world's coral reefs are likely to be dead by 2040 as a result of warming ocean waters. And wildfires in an increasingly arid California set records as the deadliest in state history.
But the environmental crisis has other strands that overlap with but are not always directly related to climate change. New data gathered from satellites in 2018 revealed that the world's tropical forests lost roughly 39 million acres in 2017, a level of deforestation second only to the amount that took place in 2016. In just those two years the tropics lost an area of forest the size of Vietnam. 2018 looks set to continue this baleful trend. Much of this deforestation is the result of the clearing of vast areas of land for soy, beef, palm oil, and other commodities. In a major new report issued in 2018, researchers revealed that humanity has obliterated 60 percent of the world's mammals, fish, birds, and reptiles since 1970. This massacre of wildlife, the report stressed, is shredding the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which humanity depends. As climate change intensifies, it begins to affect these other ecosystem crises, so that the environmental crisis is compounded. Forest fires resulting from aridity are increasingly burning up forest cover, for example, contributing to carbon emissions and devastating biodiversity. Climate change, deforestation and the biodiversity crisis are just three of the nine planetary ecological boundaries that our global system of hyper-capitalism is transgressing.
One of the most momentous environmental events of 2018 was not a "natural disaster" but rather the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Global Warming of 1.5° C report in October. In addition to providing detailed information about the current dangerous trajectory of carbon emissions, the report issued a clarion call for rapid transition: "Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems." The IPCC report made it clear that contemporary capitalism will experience an intensifying breakdown of the environmental systems upon which it depends unless dramatic political action of the kind that elites have refused to engage in is taken very soon. We face, in sum, an organic crisis. When Italian Marxist leader Antonio Gramsci wrote about an "organic crisis" early in the twentieth century, he intended to anatomize a comprehensive breakdown, one that encompassed all elements of society – economic, social, political, and ideological. During an organic crisis, Gramsci argued, the various parts of the social order refuse to cohere into a whole, producing a rupture in societal consensus. Since the ruling classes are unable to resolve the underlying contradictions that provoke such climactic moments, an organic crisis is also a crisis of hegemony, and tends to provoke a sweeping transformation in the values that cement an existing social order. While the capitalist system no doubt proved more durable than Gramsci imagined it would, his term for the crises that periodically wrack the global capitalist order seems increasingly prescient. Contemporary capitalism is faced with an organic crisis in the fullest possible sense of the term, one that encompasses not just the political and economic contradictions Gramsci described but also the biological terrain upon which social life ultimately depends.
The organic crisis of capital generates social unrest that can lead to revolutionary movements for social and environmental justice: when people cannot find water to drink, they tend to rise up. Environmental crisis can bring the existing social order into question, and sometimes bring it down in flames. This last summer, for example, protesters in Abadan, a city in southwest Iran, set fire to garbage bins and cars to register their discontent with water shortages and pollution. Last spring, as the city of Cape Town in South Africa approached "Day Zero," the moment when widespread water rationing in response to the city's severe drought was set to take effect, the mayor warned that troops might have to be deployed to prevent anarchy from breaking out. While major unrest did not erupt in Cape Town and the water shortage receded, at least temporarily, water crises linked to global warming have triggered civil unrest, mass migration, insurgency, and even full-scale war in recent years in countries such as Syria, Somalia, and Nigeria. Things are going to get much worse, and in fairly short order: this summer, for example, an Indian think tank warned that twenty-one of the country's major cities are going to run out of groundwater by 2020.
But organic crises can also lead in reactionary directions. When environmental conditions deteriorate and social and economic contradictions pile up, societies can turn to puffed-up strongmen and religious zealots, who find convenient scapegoats to blame for social breakdown. The world is in fact experiencing a surge of Right-wing extremism, from the increasingly draconian behavior of dictators in China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, to the relapse of young democracies into authoritarianism, including the ascent of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt. The most recent and appalling instance of this fascist creep came in October of this year, when Brazil elected an explicit racist, sexist, homophobic advocate of torture who has promised to strip the Amazon of environmental protection and end the demarcation of indigenous land.
Bolsonaro's election in Brazil may quite literally have sounded a death-knell for the planet – if he succeeds in his plans to obliterate vast swaths of the Amazon, there will be absolutely no stopping catastrophic climate chaos. But the mold Bolsonaro is following has been set by Donald Trump, who has dramatically intensified authoritarian populist strategies of whipping up a moral panic around immigrants, Muslims, Trans people, and a long catalogue of other social scapegoats. The aim of all of this is to divert attention away from the declining wages and deteriorating living conditions of the vast majority of people in the country, not to mention the obscene accumulation of the 1 percent and the flagrant debasement of democracy that they have perpetuated.
The use of moral panic to anchor popular authoritarianism, and thereby to win swaths of the public over to the state's increasingly coercive measures, has been a tried-and-true Right-wing strategy ever since the beginning of the conservative Counterrevolution in the 1970s. What makes Trump and imitators of his like Bolsonaro so dangerous is that they add a populist extractivism to these pernicious scapegoating tactics. Thus, although they are quite patently scripted by the fossil fuel industry, Trump's promises to "bring back coal" and to promote American energy dominance have resonated with sectors of U.S. labor, leading organizations like the AFL-CIO to support planet-destroying initiatives like Trump's greenlighting of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Along with figures like Bolsonaro and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who came to power in a U.S.-backed military coup and who is implicated in the murder of environmental leaders such as Berta Cáceres, Trump has combined extractivism populism with efforts to criminalize environmental protest, deter political participation, and curtail freedom of association. While Trump's decision to back out of the Paris Accords in 2017 may have caused the greatest controversy, extractivist policies adopted during the second year of his reign of environmental terror included rolling back vehicle fuel economy standards, dismantling rules limiting methane pollution, and jettisoning safety rules governing offshore drilling operations. Trump also zealously supported the opening of millions of acres of public lands to fracking. The stated aim of all this is the promotion of U.S. national power through energy dominance. But Trump's Saudi America policy dooms the planet.
As noxious as this popular authoritarian extractivism is, the ideological opening for figures like Trump and Bolsonaro was provided by centrist and even Leftist governments in the U.S. and abroad that remained wedded to fossil capitalism over the last couple of decades. For example, by doing little more than rubber stamping the existing rate of retirement of coal-fired power plants, the much-ballyhooed "Climate Power Plan" of the Obama administration essentially locked in a commitment to fracked natural gas for decades to come, when what was clearly necessary was an immediate dismantling of all fossil fuel infrastructure. The refusal of Democratic Party elites to confront the fossil fuel industry continues today: while people in her own state were being incinerated alive by climate change-intensified wildfires this autumn, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi – confronting a sit-in by climate justice activists – refused to do anything more ambitious with her new majority in the House than reviving a moribund congressional committee to study the issue. This follows the party's recent decision to rescind its policy of rejecting fossil fuel campaign cash.
While it would be hard to match the level of craven capitulation of the Democratic party, leaders of Pink Tide countries of Latin America over the last decade made similar unholy alliances with fossil capitalism. In countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador, and Brazil, leftist movements that arose in the last two decades in response to neoliberal austerity adopted policies of aggressive extractivism, arguing that oil and mining revenues would trigger national economic development. Anti-extraction activists – many based in frontline indigenous communities – fought back, arguing that the "extractive model" pollutes the environment, reinforces dependency on foreign capital, and undermines democracy. The embrace of extractivism by Leftist leaders such as Evo Morales and Rafael Correa effectively split progressive forces in Pink Tide countries and opened the way for the extreme Right surge. After all, if Leftists embraced fossil capitalism, popular authoritarian figures could easily argue that their repression of opponents would allow far more terrain to be opened to extraction.
Against this bleak global terrain of surging authoritarian populist extractivism and growing climate chaos, there have been a few important victories in 2018. In January, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced a plan to divest $189bn worth of city pension funds from fossil fuel companies within five years. NYC is also suing the world's most powerful oil companies for their contributions to global warming. Then, in July, Ireland declared that it would sell off all its investments in fossil fuels. These moves are part of the broader success of the fossil fuel divestment movement, which has grown rapidly over the last year. Beyond these rejections of ecocidal petroculture, one of the main sources of hope for the future is the recent advocacy of a Green New Deal by a fresh wave of socialists in the U.S. like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. As Matt Huber has argued, such a program must cleave to some of the main radical components of the original New Deal: these include deep mass mobilization; an overtly antagonistic politics of wealth redistribution from the rich to the poor; a call for "Green Jobs for All" capable of healing the labor-environmentalist breach; and, that most radical of goals, genuine decommodification of energy. Huber is right that such a radical program constitutes the best chance the climate Left has to thwart fossil capitalism in one of its principal homelands. But, while throwing its weight behind the Green New Deal, the movement for climate justice must continue to think critically, not for the sake of being ultra-Left but in order to challenge some of the pitfalls of existing proposals for a Green New Deal.
One of the principal aims of the original New Deal – at least as far as elites were concerned - was to save capitalism from itself by jumpstarting a fresh cycle of accumulation. We can certainly look to a Green New Deal to fight the glaring economic inequalities of contemporary capitalism, not to mention rebuilding our failing infrastructure, but such a program cannot afford to indulge in illusions of green growth. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal plan, while calling for economy-wide decarbonization, largely skirts the thorny issue of economic growth. But her plan does explicitly call for "making 'green' technology, industry, expertise, products and services a major export of the United States." This suggests current plans for a Green New Deal will arise on a competitive international economic playing field founded on growth. Yet recent studies have shown that notions of decoupling economic growth from exploitation of natural resources do not hold water. Growth – even if it is green – inevitably means heightened despoliation of the planet.
Contrary to the views of orthodox economics (and most political elites), there are inescapable material limits to the economy. We just cannot produce masses more iPhones, flat-screen TVs, highways, cars (even electric ones), and skyscrapers and without overshooting the planet's natural limits, and even sectors of the caring economy like hospitals and universities require substantial physical inputs. Any viable Green New Deal must therefore include hard caps on resource use if it is not to repeat the mistakes of the original, growth-oriented New Deal. We need to get off the treadmill of ever-increasing production and consumption if we are to avoid burning through what's left of our carbon budget and consigning the planet to fiery ecocide. This means we should all work less, freeing up time from the myriad bullshit jobs that contemporary capitalism generates in order to lock in compound growth rates. This could and should be a good thing: the possibilities for redefining the good life by filling our free time with convivial, healing, and pleasurable activities are endless.
Ashley Dawson is a professor of English at the City University of New York, and the author of Extreme Cities and Extinction: A Radical History.