Destroying what is destroying the planet?
Time is running out, now the climate movement is debating more radical forms of action – but other questions should be the focus right now.
By Jan Ole Arps and Guido Speckmann
[This article published on Dec 14, 2021 is translated from the German on the Internet, Destroying what is destroying the planet? – ak analysis & criticism (akweb.de)]
Some billionaires are already planning for the time after the destruction of the earth. Launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy transport rocket 2018; a Tesla flew along in the rocket head (no joke). Photo: Official SpaceX Photos/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
The decisions of the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow are a disaster. They seal the course for a drastic and irreversible heating of the earth, which threatens the survival of hundreds of millions of people and countless animal and plant species. Regardless of whether tipping points in the climate system will be reached in ten, 20 or only in 50 years, we are heading for a situation that will fundamentally change life and the conditions for communist utopias.
In view of the gloomy situation, a debate has begun in the local climate movement about the political orientation. On the one hand, the tactical question of forms of action is disputed, summarized: Does the climate movement have to resort to more radical means to increase the pressure? On the other hand, it is about strategic orientation: Who is the movement aimed at, how does it believe it can limit global warming?
The demand for militant forms of action is currently being raised primarily with the intention of pushing the state towards more effective climate policy measures. Its best-known advocate is the Swedish human biologist Andreas Malm. His calls for sabotage and destruction of the fossil fuel infrastructure appear in major media, the reasoning: If someone places a time bomb in your house, you have the right to defuse it. So when an industry destroys our livelihoods, we have the moral right to paralyze it.
In Germany, an interview by Der Spiegel with long-time climate activist Tadzio Müller caused a sensation at the end of November. In it, Müller warns that parts of the climate movement will become radicalized in the face of political inaction, predicts "smashed car showrooms, destroyed cars, sabotage in gas-fired power plants or pipelines" for next summer and even predicts the emergence of a "green RAF". Other forms of protest would not have been enough, now time is running out.
There is certainly much to suggest that the climate movement is expanding its protest repertoire, and yes: time is running out. Nevertheless, it is striking that the demand for militant actions is primarily aimed at persuading the state or even the energy companies themselves to act. Andreas Malm explicitly states that if the state does not intervene, others must do so – "not because activists can achieve the abolition of fossil fuels – only states have the power to do so – but because their role is to increase the pressure to do so."
The call for more militant action remains an act of self-reassurance through radicalization of form.
These calls for, let's call it, militant reformism recognize that the state gives priority to the interests of companies and must first be forced to change course. However, they ignore the fact that the state cannot help but create the idealest possible conditions for the exploitation of capital. Under capitalism, therefore, no policy is conceivable that prevents economic growth and increasing resource consumption – and that would be necessary to at least keep the emission of climate-damaging greenhouse gases stable.
The appeals for more radical actions thus avoid important fundamental questions: To what extent can the climate movement hope for the state in climate protection, can it at all? What pressure would be needed to enforce effective climate protection – and how should it be mobilized? And if that's not a promising strategy, what are the alternatives? In the following, we will try to outline some of the answers that are discussed in the anti-capitalist parts of the climate movement and to work out which political questions arise from them. We will not go into Green New Deal concepts at this point, because they are based on the illusion of ecological restructuring with simultaneous economic growth and ultimately amount to a kind of green colonialism with their need for resources. (See ak 657 and 658)
The currently most prominent representative of the ecosocialist direction in the climate strategy debate in the German-speaking world is the economic geographer Christian Zeller. He wrote his thoughts in the book »Revolution for the Climate. Why we need an eco-socialist alternative« (2020), but also presented in numerous articles. His main thesis is that the climate justice movement urgently needs to develop a strategy "that encourages the self-activity and self-empowerment of working people." Only the wage earners in the companies are potentially in a position to place the decisive questions of what, how, where, for whom and in what way production is carried out at the center of social debate.
Zeller's definition of ecosocialism is summed up in a nutshell: a "society that decides together, divides more and produces less". In order to produce less, a historically unprecedented conversion and dismantling of the industrial apparatus is necessary, because fossil fuels can by no means be replaced by renewable ones and consequently much less energy must be used globally. From socialism, Zeller adopts the focus on the working class, the question of property and the revolutionary break with capitalism as a prerequisite for a society that can mitigate global warming.
Zeller distinguishes himself from traditional socialism or the trade union movement because they are stuck in productivist ideas of growth and rely on the development of the productive forces. Today, however, reaching for the emergency brake is the only way to prevent productive forces from fully developing into destructive forces. Thus, in contrast to the previous revolutionary attempts, not only the political, social and economic reorganization, but the transformation of the entire productive apparatus of society, including reproduction, is on his agenda. Which is why Zeller also pleads for a strategic alliance of feminist movement, climate justice and workers' movement.
The demand for the conversion and dismantling of industry means that large parts of the workers would have to strike to make their own jobs superfluous.
Zeller is aware that there is a gigantic gap between the measures that need to be taken and the awareness of the need for these measures – especially among wage earners. The demand for the conversion and dismantling of the industrial apparatus boils down to the fact that large parts of the workers would have to strike pointedly for the superfluous of their own workplace. Conversion alone is far from enough, entire sectors (armaments, cars) would have to shrink radically.
Zeller replies that there is no linear progress, and that historical development also knows leaps, ruptures and densifications. The left must prepare for such abrupt developments in view of the impending climate catastrophe. "The Earth system is currently making leaps, and societies are doing the same," Zeller writes. "In a few decades, we will live in a physically different world. (...) That's why we need organizations that are also able to jump. Organizations that adapt to seemingly realistic concepts will be swept away by the course of events and will no longer have the potential to propose alternative perspectives."
The idea of leaps may be dismissed as historical-philosophical speculation. But in mid-2018, no one could have imagined the global strike days of Fridays for Future, in mid-2019 no one could have imagined a global pandemic. Zeller himself names concrete tender plants from which a plural ecological mass movement of wage earners could develop: the joint collective bargaining campaign of the trade union ver.di and Fridays for Future in autumn 2020, the strike of the workers of the Total refinery in Grandpuits, France, supported by the CGT trade union and supported by environmental organizations, at the beginning of the year aimed at the conversion of the oil industry, or the Bosch strike in Munich. "I advocate starting a debate on strategic options for building social counter-power beyond the assumption of government responsibility in bourgeois governments," said Zeller.
2. Alliance between climate and class struggles
The struggle at the Bosch plant in Munich is currently one of the few examples of cooperation between the climate movement and workers in the automotive industry in Germany. The Bosch plant in Munich is to be closed under the pretext of climate protection. On the other hand, climate activists and workers have joined forces. They call for the conversion of production to climate-friendly and socially necessary products. Laura Meschede of the group Climate Protection and Class Struggle criticized in ak 674that sharing the climate movement lacks a connection to class struggles because it overemphasizes the importance of consumption, where in reality it is about the question of production and thus the question of property: "The class is important not only for moral reasons, but above all for strategic reasons: The fight against climate change is inextricably linked to the question of what we produce – and how. And demonstrations alone cannot create pressure on this issue. (...) It's different with strikes." In addition, climate change affects wage earners the most. That is why it is a "genuine class interest" to take action against climate change – and it must be a special interest of the climate movement to forge an alliance with wage earners.
Similarly, the London-based group Angry Workers recently argued in a series of articles. The Angry Workers emphasize that only self-organized workers can develop the power to impose measures to end the climate crisis – not by putting more pressure on the state, but by fighting to abolish capitalist exploitation.
In contrast to the Initiative Climate Protection and Class Struggle at Bosch, which relies on cooperation with IG Metall, the Angry Workers do not see the unions as suitable allies: "The existence of the unions depends on the continued existence of the capitalist system. It depends on its task of 'protecting the jobs and interests of its members.'" The Angry Workers see their own role, in addition to analysis and the establishment of contacts between labor struggles and the climate movement, in strengthening workers' self-organization and bringing climate demands into workplace struggles, for example with heat strikes against rising temperatures.
What neither the Angry Workers nor the Munich Group have an answer to so far is how the appropriation of the means of production by the workers should succeed in the short time or how the need for the dismantling of many industries can be addressed. The dilemma that not only the trade unions, but also workers are dependent on the successful valorisation of capital, has so far only been partially reflected.
VW worker Lars Hirsekorn hinted at a way out in an ak interview last year. He emphasized the quality of life gain, which means more free time, and referred to the need for new mobility concepts, for example through a massive expansion of public transport. Only then would restrictions on private transport be possible at all. This example already shows how important it is in the discussion about class and climate struggles to avoid from the outset that the perspective remains limited to the individual operation.
3. Alliance with the movements of the Global South
In their article "Why the climate movement must decolonize" in ak 673, Esteban Servat and Nico Graak emphasize the danger of NGOization or parliamentarization of the climate movement. On the other hand, they demand their decolonization. You write: "The fronts are mostly in the Global South, where people suffer from the destruction of their country and colonial exploitation by mostly multinational corporations from the Global North, which present themselves as green in their home countries. Developing a strategy can only mean listening to the people on these fronts and letting them show them the goals and weaknesses of industry and multinational climate criminals."
This figure of thought repeats some problems that also characterized anti-imperialist concepts of the 1970s and 1980s. Thus, not only is there no reference to the exploited in the Global North, who will also increasingly suffer from climate change, but also to the possibility of struggles in the capitalist centers – which also makes an answer to the question of how the corporations can actually be countered into the distance.
How can a global movement deal politically with the power relations that exist between the exploited classes in the North and South?
Despite these weaknesses, the Appeal for Decolonization identifies key problems of the climate justice movement: That the producers of the climate crisis are the companies in the Global North, but that the main sufferers live in postcolonial societies, especially in the Global South, is a fact that any climate policy strategy must take into account. And anyone who takes on global industries and value chains can only do so by organizing globally. The fact that the protests against the fracking gas terminal in Brunsbüttel near Hamburg this summer attempted to focus on global interdependencies and neocolonial relations is a good step. However, the same is true for global companies: The greatest power to put them under pressure is held by their workers*. The question remains: How does a movement that needs to be global deal politically with the power relations that also exist between the exploited classes in the North and South, without marginalizing them or negotiating them as moral appeals?
4. impulses from the degrowth movement
The core thesis of the degrowth-critical movement is: It is impossible to decouple economic growth from material throughput - i.e. the consumption of raw materials and energy - to such an extent that global warming could be limited to a tolerable level. Or to put it more succinctly: There is no such thing as endless growth on a finite planet. The consequence of this is that production and consumption must be drastically reduced. The necessary radical reduction in the throughput of matter, energy and emissions is only possible in societies of the global North by reducing economic output and radically restructuring production and consumption. This amounts to deprivileging the Global North and especially its elites.
Thus, in contrast to traditional leftist currents, the critique of growth takes seriously the biophysical foundations of the economy and thus the ecological question. Its proposals for reducing energy and material throughput are much more sophisticated than, for example, in ecosocialist or, even more so, in the farm-centered concepts described above. Related to this, degrowth also finds a more thoroughgoing critique of technology, specifically the hope that technologies can be a means of operating more efficiently and thus reducing emissions. Issues that are rarely discussed in most leftist movements.
The degrowth movement, however, does not limit itself to criticism, but tries to show a utopian dimension. Less production and consumption does not necessarily mean less satisfaction and happiness, but more. Time prosperity, deceleration, purification, abolition of status consumption and alienation are just a few keywords. However, in their disgust with industrialism, many critics of growth also reject the working class as the subject of transformation. A critique of the compulsion to accumulate capital as a driver of economic growth and thus of increased resource consumption and emissions is hardly practiced.
Where can we go from here?
Of the approaches presented, the ecosocialist proposal comes closest to providing the basis for a plausible strategic orientation. However, it needs to be supplemented by questions that some of the other proposals focus on.
A change of course that could still slow down global warming is simply not compatible with the capitalist growth imperative. The climate movement must come to this realization if it does not want to base its actions on illusions that are bound to be shattered by the circumstances and end in disappointment.
For the future of the climate movement, it is central to venture into the factories and gain political experience there.
The described gap between ecological necessity and political reality invites falling into apocalypticism and hopelessness. The call for more militant action is understandable against this background, but it too remains an act of self-soothing through radicalization of form. A militancy debate can be meaningfully conducted when there is clarity about the political strategy in which it would be embedded.
Whether the leaps in social consciousness and action to which Christian Zeller refers are possible can only be shown in a practical attempt. For such an attempt, it is central that the anti-capitalist parts of the climate movement dare to build capacity for action in industries that drive global warming and gain political experience there. The example of Bosch in Munich can offer important initial lessons against which the possibilities and difficulties of a workplace climate struggle can be evaluated. Similar attempts can be made in other places. There are enough starting points: in the German automotive industry alone, more than a hundred thousand jobs are to be cut and numerous plants closed in the next few years; in many companies, trade unionists and shop stewards are aware of the ecological problems.
Even if it might be closer in the action repertoire of the left parts of the climate movement to blockade car fairs, it would be of great strategic importance that it visits the production sites of the climate-damaging industries and looks there for approaches for a common struggle with those who work there.
At the same time, the insights of the degrowth movement must be incorporated into these struggles, which means that the climate movement must use the example of individual branches of production to address the material sides of production and their conversion or deconstruction. In general, suggestions would have to be discussed as to how the utopia of a different society or collective ideas of a good life under conditions of a changed metabolism with nature, specifically the drastically reduced use of energy and resources, are conceivable. Under what conditions can reduction succeed in such a way that social and cultural rights are preserved or expanded? The most likely starting point seems to be a gain in control over one's own lifetime, as also mentioned by VW worker Lars Hirsekorn or as expressed in the IG Metall working time survey of 2017: more time for friendships, family, pleasant and meaningful activity, less time devoured by externally determined work for the profit of bosses and shareholders.
Also in the next few years, more and more extreme weather events will cause devastation and much suffering. The Glasgow decisions have dashed any hope of avoiding the tipping points in the climate system, and the Greens have just overwhelmingly approved a coalition agreement with no chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. Large parts of the climate movement will have to reorient themselves. Maybe the chances for an eco-socialist turn of the movement, for experiments in industrial policy and a discussion about expropriation, restructuring or dismantling of German industry under workers' control are not so bad.
Jan Ole Arps
is an editor at ak.
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is an editor at ak.