Against the cannibalism of capital
How does the left win the future?
Conversation with Nancy Fraser
[This interview posted in October 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, Gegen den Kannibalismus des Kapitals.]
How would you describe the times we live in? Are we in a crisis, multiple crises, or even a catastrophe?
I would say we are in an epochal crisis for two reasons. First, the crisis is not limited to individual sectors, but affects the entire social order. It is not 'only' an economic or ecological crisis, not 'only' a crisis of politics or of the care sector, but all these phenomena converge and exacerbate each other. Comprehensive crises like this are historically a rarity. In the last 500 years of capitalism, there have been perhaps four such crises, in which more and more people have found the social form as a whole unsurvivable. The second reason is the systemic nature of this crisis. All the irrational and dysfunctional things we are currently experiencing do not arise by chance, but are deeply rooted in the structures of our capitalist form of society - even if we are dealing with a historically specific form of it.
You describe contemporary capitalism as "cannibalistic." What do you mean by that?
The capitalist economic form is constantly gnawing away at its own conditions; it devours everything that makes its existence possible in the first place. That is, capitalist crises are not only economic crises, but also social, political, and ecological crises. Moreover, they do not only occur within a certain sphere, as Marx, for example, described it with the tendential fall of the rate of profit for the sphere of economics. Crises also arise from contradictions between different social spheres, as Karl Polanyi already described in the middle of the 20th century. For him, crisis tendencies arise from the ongoing conflict between the economic logic of exploitation of this system and the logic of natural and social reproduction. These contradictions go beyond the economic and thus drive crisis phenomena beyond the economic. So we need to enrich Marx and Polanyi with and against each other in this respect. Only then can we understand that capitalism not only exploits free wage workers, but also drains all the "non-economic" resources that make this exploitation possible in the first place: the families in which labor power is (re)produced; the state that secures property rights and provides public goods; and, of course, the ecosystems that make life possible in the first place.
"Neoliberal capitalism frees the cannibalistic tendencies of the system from all limitations."
This dynamic is found in every form of capitalism and does not stop at nature or care work, nor does it stop at the wealth or health of workers* - this is especially true, though not exclusively, for racialized populations. And it also undermines the political sphere, the very public power potentials that we desperately need to solve our problems. So it is the cannibalistic nature of capitalism that produces the multiple crises and injustices, along gender, race, and imperialism as well as in terms of class antagonism in the classical sense.
Why has capitalism not yet fallen victim to its own self-destructive dynamics?
In the history of capitalism, we repeatedly see a succession of profound phases of crisis in which the system falters, as well as phases of reform designed to cushion these internal contradictions. One example is so-called social democratic or New Deal capitalism. It was a direct response to the crisis of liberal or colonial industrial capitalism that resulted in the economic crises and world wars of the first half of the 20th century. This crisis was rooted in the insatiability of capital, which once again threatened to devour the capacities of social reproduction. The social democratic 'solution' was to contain capital in its own interest - through regulations, social protection, demand-led economic policy. This balance worked for a while, but was neither really fair nor sustainable. Consequently, it is no surprise that it began to unravel in the 1970s and 1980s. At that time, the way was cleared for yet another new form of capitalism: the neoliberal or globalized capitalism of the 1990s, in which we still live today.
What are the special characteristics of this current capitalism?
This latest form is particularly brutal and exploitative. Neoliberal capitalism frees the cannibalistic tendencies of the system from all limitations and regulations. And so it relentlessly devours what it actually bases its existence on. The Corona pandemic acted like an X-ray of this social system. It revealed how irrational our system is and how all crisis tendencies are driven to the absolute boiling point. There is no other way to put it: we are in one sheer inextricable chaos.
How does this extreme situation affect the people who live through it?
Under the terrible pressure of these crises, many people are becoming renegades to the common sense that still held everything together to some extent. They no longer believe in the narrative that cutting red tape and free markets will lead to a happy ending. This is also evident in the growing disaffection with elites and established parties, reflecting what Antonio Gramsci called the "crisis of hegemony." People are looking for new solutions. This can offer an opportunity for emancipatory, left-wing projects. But there is also a dark side: many are attracted to authoritarian leaders, to strongmen who engage in vicious exclusion of minorities. We can see this in different variations around the world, from the alt-right supremacy movement in the U.S. to the AfD in Germany.
And to what extent is this opportunity you're talking about being used to find progressive responses?
I definitely see an upswing in protest movements and party formations, an enormous emancipatory potential. Nevertheless, there is still an unresolved problem. So far, activism has remained mostly isolated and fragmented; it has not been possible to build a counter-hegemony or even to create joint projects. This is due to the fact that the conditions of life in capitalism, especially in its current form, are extremely complex. Crises are experienced very differently in it. When there is so much to protest against, political movements tend to focus on one aspect that they feel is particularly urgent. For some that is extreme police violence, for others precarious work and poverty, and for still others the escalating climate crisis. All of these problems are real. Wanting to solve them together, through collective democratic action, can lead to broader solidarity and more inclusive, radical projects. For that to happen, however, people need to make the connections and understand that their respective suffering is caused by one and the same social system - this particularly cannibalistic manifestation of capitalism.
How can the unifying nature of the struggles be made visible? Through which demands, which narratives could people come together?
The first thing is to show how the phenomena are intertwined - and here I'm speaking now as a critical theorist and as an activist. This gives movements a kind of map that makes the interconnections visible and on which they can locate themselves and find potential allies. I don't mean this in the Leninist sense that concerns must be subordinated to a supposedly more important demand. But on the contrary, to (re)formulate demands in such a way that cooperation becomes possible and broader projects can emerge. If that happens, we could attract some, perhaps even many, people to our side who are currently leaning toward right-wing populism. Of course, not those who are deeply racist and authoritarian, who are not worth fighting for. But the populists rely on many people who simply have no contact with adequate alternatives from the left and who vote right because no one with a clear class perspective appeals to them. We could offer them something better.
So is it our task as socialists to show this bigger picture that makes alliances possible?
Exactly! Whether we're talking about Trump supporters in the U.S. or the AfD in Germany, these people have a narrative. And this narrative does not claim to include everyone, but is, on the contrary, decidedly exclusive. Unfortunately, that's exactly what many people find compelling. We need a strong counter-narrative to this that can convince people. Progressive neoliberalism with its offers is not the answer - we see its failure every day. This is exactly what opens up the chance to develop new forms of feminism, anti-racism, environmental and labor politics. Forms that aim for profound, structural change.
What would it look like, this alternative from the left?
It would be an alliance of feminist, anti-racist, pro-democracy, environmental and labor movements. Such a coalition is effective if the participants agree on two things: that their different problems stem from the same perverse social system. And that they all share the goal of trying to address these problems. So they do not have to subordinate their differences to an abstract universalism. On the contrary, they can each retain their own political identity while sharing the diagnosis of the status quo. The concept of intersectionality attempts to capture this practice analytically by tracing different, intersecting problems back to a common cause. But when it comes to change and emancipation, intersectionality may not be enough. Instead, we need a stronger sense of solidarity - a sense of what we can share.
Does this also require a new understanding of the revolutionary subject today - the working* class?
Yes, we urgently need to move away from this traditional understanding that refers solely to the industrialized labor of free proletarians. This dimension of the working class is important, no doubt, but it is only one aspect of many. Capitalism also relies on unfree or dependent workers, whom it racializes and constructs as vulnerable. Their labor is not simply exploited, but expropriated. Thus, they too are part of the working class, as are the underpaid or even unpaid workers of gendered care work. These two dimensions of labor are absolutely essential for the accumulation of capital. Without them there could be no exploited labor, nor raw materials, commodity production, surplus value, capital.
"When it comes to change and emancipation, intersectionality may not be enough."
Capitalism, then, is based on not just one, but three dimensions of labor that are functionally interconnected in a social order. And these same dimensions are in flux today. Most traditional manufacturing work has now been outsourced to semi-peripheral countries where labor law is weak and unions do not exist. Much of the work of social reproduction takes place in low-paid service jobs, mostly for the benefit of profit-making companies, but performed in public institutions and by migrants who can be deported at any time. In both cases, then, labor is 'semi-free' because workers lack empowering rights and political protection. Our conception of the working class must include all these dimensions of labor under capitalism and their intersections. On this basis, we can build alliances that have the necessary weight and visionary breadth for an emancipatory, anti-hegemonic bloc.
How exactly can movements use this concept to their advantage? And why is it crucial to their success today?
Every movement, no matter what its concern, should be more sensitive to such an expanded understanding of class. We need a "feminism of the 99 percent" rather than a neoliberal feminism that merely aims to break "glass ceilings" for individual women's careers. Environmental politics should also be linked to other emancipatory struggles, because those who think of the eco-question in monothematic terms are under the misapprehension that it is primarily a concern of the wealthy. Anti-racist movements should also go beyond the mantra of black faces in high places and take a class-political approach. Workplace labor struggles must also act on the basis of this expanded understanding of class and include demands of the #MeToo movement, for example. If we manage to link labor struggles with issues of social reproduction, ecology and democracy, we can appeal to large sections of the population. A left based on such a strong and differentiated concept of class is a real challenge to its political opponents - both right-wing populists and market-oriented liberals.
"Another world is possible" - this slogan has mobilized movements for decades. What remains of it, in a time of looming climate apocalypse?
Of course, the ecological crisis demands big changes in a very short time. Some are discouraged by that or become passive. But at the same time, I see a real sense of urgency and tremendous energy to meet this challenge. Seeing the commitment and awakening of a new generation of activists encourages me immensely. In some ways, it reminds me of the late sixties, when I became a radical left activist myself. And today, as a professor, I'm encountering tremendous student interest in ecomarxism and socialism - topics that have not been popular in recent decades.
So do you see cause for optimism?
I definitely see that there is a huge desire to network with others. We're past the point when young left-wingers wanted to develop primarily their own separate voices. People feel an urgency to connect rather than disconnect. The fact that concepts of intersectionality, ecosocialism, and a feminism of social reproduction are experiencing such resurgence is a testament to this yearning for connection. I see an incredible amount of creativity among those who are trying to develop new theories and models that make these connections. It's really a good time to be an intellectual.
The interview was conducted by Nathalie Steinert.
Nancy Fraser is a political scientist and one of the best-known US feminists. She is currently a professor of political and social science at the New School for Social Research in New York. Together with Andrew Arato, she is the editor of Constellations, an international journal of critical theory and democratic theory. From the perspective of Polanyi's historical analysis of the "Great Transformation," she looks at the current crisis and how to overcome it.
The signs are pointing to a storm
Dealing with the climate crisis brings social conflicts to a head. What might an ecosocialist intervention look like?
By Hans Rackwitz
[This article posted in October 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, Die Zeichen stehen auf Sturm.]
Die Zeichen stehen auf Sturm
Die Bearbeitung der Klimakrise spitzt soziale Konflikte zu. Wie kann eine ökosozialistische Intervention aussehen?
The world continues to race at high speed toward a wall. For three decades now, attempts have been made to decouple capitalism and growth from environmental degradation. Successes, if any, remain sectoral and relative, while the ecological crisis accelerates. This uncomfortable truth also imposes itself on the Fridays for Future movement, which made "System change not climate change!" its core slogan. However, this often remains diffuse in terms of content and above all a verbal radicalism. The worldwide mass demonstrations have put the issue in the news, but have not substantially advanced climate protection. What is missing are strategies that specifically build up those power resources and connect actors that are essential for system change. To do this, it is necessary to open up the social dislocations and everyday conflicts that accompany the prevailing attempts to deal with the climate crisis as fields of practical political intervention. For with the climate crisis, social conflicts also threaten to escalate. How they will end and whether the social question will continue to be played off against the ecological question depends largely on whether an ecosocialist pole can be established.
Social-ecological transformation conflicts
Even though capitalism, ecology and class conflict have been factually interwoven from the beginning of capitalism, this interwovenness is increasingly articulated today. In sociology, one speaks of "socio-ecological transformation conflicts" (Dörre et al. 2020). This is meant to characterize the following: While the contradiction of capital and labor in Fordism could be contained in terms of domination precisely at the price of intensified environmental destruction (Röttger/Wissen 2017, among others), this constellation seems to be reversed today. The ecological crisis is now being dealt with in a domineering way at the price of exacerbating class contradictions. At the same time, these attempts are mostly ecologically completely inadequate. However, not only are the ecological consequences of class contradiction not being remedied, but even more so: since they are less and less externalizable, they are increasingly making themselves felt in our wallets and in the world of work and enterprise, and are themselves increasingly becoming economic and potential political crisis drivers. When the CO2 tax in France ignites one of the most militant social protests of recent decades, or when thousands of employees are threatened with dismissal because of the switch to e-mobility, we are witnessing the transformation of the structurally defining industrial class conflict into a social-ecological transformation conflict (Dörre et al. 2020, 24f). The worsening environmental crisis leads to an ecological pressure for reform and transformation, which translates into social conflict raw materials in its domineering treatment.
Social-ecological transformation conflicts thus ignite in the political and corporate responses to an ecological transformation pressure. They are not identical with class conflicts, but they permeate all levels of class relations. The ecological question is increasingly coming to the fore in the conflicts between capital, labor and the state, without, however, simply displacing them. Rather, the term refers to the respective context-specific entanglements of social and ecological factors in contemporary conflicts, which can be interpreted neither as pure class conflicts nor as pure environmental conflicts. In addition to the political-economic causes in the production of ecological hazards, further class-specific entanglements of social and ecological issues can be captured. For example, there are conflicts in the world of work and business, around distributional effects of environmental, tax and social policy measures or macroeconomic ecological-economic crisis shocks. All these dimensions are interwoven with ideological strategies of legitimation and domination and thus also with cultural lines of conflict of distinction as well as valorization and devaluation. I would like to use the example of the mobility issue to illustrate these dimensions.
In the ruling system, the satisfaction of social needs must be compatible with capital valorization - and thus remain ecologically ignorant. The development of a mass market for cars was accompanied by a systematic displacement of the rail mobility infrastructure, which the car companies were able to enforce against competing companies and mobility concepts (Wolf 1992). Today, it is clear that emissions in the transport sector must fall drastically. Today, however, the mobility turnaround must also be compatible with capital valorization and is intended to generate profits and new market shares for the car corporations. Instead of an expansion of public transport, we are primarily talking about battery-electric drives, which do not solve the environmental problem but merely shift it to the raw materials side. E-mobility, in turn, goes hand in hand with a lower (and different) labor requirement and a lower vertical range of manufacture. The question is who bears the costs and burdens of capital devaluation and green investment and modernization pushes. Companies are trying to pass the pressure on to workers and taxpayers. Employees are threatened with layoffs and devaluation of their qualifications. At the same time, work intensification and relocation of traditional fossil fuel production lines are now being sold as climate protection measures. This is what happened at Bosch in Munich, for example. Here, the plant closure was justified by the conversion to e-mobility, even though only the combustion engine business was to be relocated to less expensive foreign countries (Heinisch 2021).
1 For an overview of the interactions of class and nature relations on the levels of political economy, socio-ecological inequalities, socio-ecological transformation conflicts, and an ecosocialist class politics, see Rackwitz 2022.
2 On the ecological contradictions of capitalism and the connection between labor and metabolism, see Mahnkopf in this issue.
"The question is who bears the costs and burdens of capital devaluations and green investment and modernization pushes."
Today's socio-ecological upheaval processes are closely linked in the public debate with questions of an ecological morality. Aren't German consumers and (industrial) employees globally privileged anyway and should accept higher prices and new uncertainties for climate protection? If automotive workers want to defend their jobs, they are quickly accused of being reform blockers. At the same time, policymakers are discussing CO2 consumption taxes that would place a financial burden on non-sustainable lifestyles - in other words, on pretty much everyone at the moment. While more climate-friendly consumption decisions are no problem for high-income groups, many wonder how they are supposed to turn over the last euro twice. Comparatively little is said about industrial waste, absurdly structured transport routes and value chains, company car privileges and private jets, diesel and kerosene subsidies, luxury villas, the military and armaments. Another example is the nine-euro ticket for local public transport, which demonstrates the great need for affordable mobility and could mark an entry into the transport turnaround. But under the conditions of an infrastructure that had been cut back for decades, the high demand resulted in delayed and overcrowded trains, overworked staff and frustrated travelers. Thus, in places, the ticket worked as a good advertisement for individual automobility.
But socio-ecological transformation conflicts can also induce larger crisis processes. If entire industries come under pressure, entire national development models can get into trouble. Imagine if, for ecologically sound climate protection reasons, not only fossil but also battery-electric car production and, beyond that, the oversized global transport of goods and the export-driven growth model were to come under criticism. Such problems of ecological-economic crisis dangers are potentiated by the still massively inflated yield claims in the financial sector, which should actually be devalued in the case of substantial environmental policy.
What applies to the transport sector can also be observed in other areas. Wherever we look, under the social and ecological constraints of capitalist conditions, ecological transformation pressures seem to exacerbate class conflicts everywhere. The climate crisis therefore holds enormous social explosives and poses daunting tasks for the social left.
An ecosocialist pole and class politics
Currently, the crisis is being dealt with primarily through ecological modernization projects. Precisely because these are neither socially acceptable nor ecologically adequate to begin with, this is where fields of intervention for an ecosocialist left lie. For how the transformation conflicts will end-whether the antagonisms between social and ecological questions will solidify or whether approaches to an ecosocialist class politics will emerge-is open and depends on the concrete constellations of actors and conflicts. However, the political framing is also decisive for their course. This offers an interpretation of what is actually being argued about. Are the "eco-spinners" destroying industry and jobs? Or can profit-oriented companies organize neither sustainability nor job security in the long term?
The current political discourse tends to map the split among the ruling elites themselves: On the one hand, there is liberal ecomodernism, which tries to organize socially dubious and ecologically inadequate growth compromises. In doing so, it not infrequently takes on forms of ecological class warfare from above with austerity, wage suppression and layoffs in the name of climate protection. On the other hand, there is a conservative to right-wing authoritarian spectrum that tends to be anti-ecological, recognizing class interests in a social-demagogical way and combining them with anti-ecological agitation and programming. An ecosocialist left must position itself in sharp demarcation from both positions. Its centerpiece and strategic vanishing point must be the fastest possible socially acceptable and ecologically viable restructuring and dismantling of the industrial apparatus and the expansion of social infrastructures. In order for the left not to be ground down in these conflicts between the green-liberal and the right-wing-authoritarian, anti-ecological bloc, it needs an independent ecosocialist pole. This pole must (1) be conceived and built from the standpoint of social labor; (2) be conceived holistically and refer sociopolitically to an ecosocialist transformation perspective; and (3) serve an ecosocialist populist framing that, in sharp distinction from the two false alternatives, can turn the social-ecological polarization into an ecosocialist polarization.
The position of labor
The position of people in their social role as workers* has a key role in the construction of an ecosocialist pole. For the position in the hierarchy of the capital valorization process and the overall social and company division of labor is at the same time a position in the regulation of the labor-mediated metabolism. With each position come different resources of power to intervene in capitalist production and thus in the capitalist overformed metabolism. From this perspective, employees of those particularly climate-damaging industries also come into view, which are often not ascribed a progressive role in climate policy strategies. But instead of denouncing the purchase of SUVs, it would be better if they were not produced in the first place (Dörre et al. 2020, 55). And it is precisely in the questions of what, how and for what is actually produced (ibid., 45) that (car) workers hold the strategically central power resources for a sustainable economic transformation. They can intervene directly and in an organized way in the process of work, production, and thus metabolism, and have, at least potentially, the power to shape production differently, i.e., more democratically and ecologically. The aforementioned dispute about the Bosch plant in Munich is not only paradigmatic for the crisis of the car industry and the coming socio-ecological transformation conflicts, but also for a progressive class struggle alliance between workforces and climate activists (Heinisch 2021). Confronted with the plant closure, the workers, with the support of the climate activists, demanded a conversion to ecological production and developed concrete alternative proposals for this.
From such an ecosocialist perspective, workers in such sectors are transformed from culprits who produce environmentally harmful things to transformational actors who not only have the know-how but potentially also the economic (strike) power to implement an ecological economic transformation on the level of the concrete labor process against the interests of capital.
A holistic strategy
The struggles against layoffs in the auto industry or for better working conditions in local and long-distance transportation today quickly point beyond the plant level and can only be successful at all through their social politicization. This offers enormous opportunities for new, powerful social-ecological alliances to push through more far-reaching (social-)ecological demands. If struggles in the structurally crisis-ridden car industry, for example, do not succeed in leading them as struggles for a fundamental sustainable industrial restructuring, otherwise there is a threat of death in installments, because job cuts can only be postponed but not prevented (Röttger/Wissen 2017). Struggles for better local and long-distance public transport, on the other hand, quickly hit the wall of politically scarce public finances unless the austerity dogma is broken. There is enough money, but the financing of public tasks and a truly sustainable mobility revolution is a question of political priorities and the balance of power.
Ecosocialist progress can only be achieved with a holistic, unifying approach, because the factual links between company and social policy, between struggles in the car industry and those in bus and train companies, and between these issues and the climate crisis and the need for a genuine sustainability turnaround do not arise on their own. Connecting struggles, however, does not mean to simply add them up somehow, but to work on a problem field (here mobility transition) holistically from its different sides along a strategic horizon. Left parties and climate activists would have to support the organization of employees in the automotive industry, the expansion of public mobility and climate protection in a unifying way and initiate corresponding alliances between trade unions, consumer organizations and climate activists. For the auto industry, this means working towards conversion rather than e-mobility and cushioning the conversion in sociopolitical terms, for example in the form of a right to socially and thus also ecologically meaningful work. Company and collective bargaining disputes in transport companies, on the other hand, should be supported from a climate and user perspective. Better working conditions result in more attractive services and ecologically desirable higher utilization. And only a joint alliance of employees and climate activists can fight for the necessary infrastructure expansion and its financing. It is important to bring into the struggles the supra-company/socio-political questions, such as the connections to the car industry (and vice versa), to demands for an expansion of infrastructure and personnel in local and long-distance transport, to the overall economic ecological restructuring (and the overall huge demand for labor and know-how) and to the capitalistically set limits of these aspects on the support of job preservation and better working conditions. The struggles for industrial restructuring, for a right to work and for its socially acceptable intersectoral redistribution and the democratization of work and production that is necessary for this, set limits to profit pressure and market logic in perspective and make ecosocialist transformative politics possible. Recognizing and supporting legitimate employment, company and wage interests in solidarity is a prerequisite for being able to seriously raise questions about the necessity of ecological restructuring, global climate justice or system change.
An ecosocialist populism
An ecosocialist populist framing that relates the systemic causes of the crises and conflicts to the everyday distortions must draw the lines of connection to these supra-company and socio-political questions as well as the references of the various conflicts to one another. What is meant is an activist socialist populism instead of a social democratic proxy populism or even a right-wing populism. A left populism (Goes/Bock 2017) combines a popular social-ecological programmatic approach with a populist condensed political address. It is about tapping into the social-populist interpretations in mass consciousness, which also exist in relation to the climate crisis, and pushing them forward in a progressive way. An inkling of the systemic nature of the climate crisis, a critique of the ecologically contradictory and socially unjust bogus solutions of ecomodernism, and the exclusion of the biggest climate sinners from the environmental debate are views that are widespread in mass consciousness today. All too often, however, these views do not find any political consolidation and representation that could offer a progressive programmatic alternative to this unease. An anti-ecological and reactionary critique of the elite then quickly pushes into this gap. In this context, an ecosocialist populism should also point to the class-specific inequalities of environmental consumption and vulnerability to environmental risks and press for a more equitable distribution of the burdens. This is also the starting point for a critique of lifestyles that takes up the widespread unease about the unsustainability of one's own lifestyle. However, an individual critique of consumption must become a collective critique of consumption, which thus inevitably includes a critique of production and the system. The fact that we are forced to secure our everyday social reproduction at the expense of the environment due to a lack of alternatives must be politicized. For a broader acceptance of the necessary changes in living and consumption habits, not only the question of supply and social supply infrastructures must be put on the political agenda, the enormously environmentally damaging excessive luxury consumption of the super-rich should also be problematized. If ecological renunciation is propagated to normal and low-income earners, while the lifestyles of the richest are not worth debating, recognition deficits are pre-programmed and the rejection of environmental policy is not far away.
Despite the diversity of the concrete conflicts to be linked, it is essential to point to the common core of the problems and thus to counter the isolation with a coordinated socio-ecological awakening. The demands for conversion and the expansion of public utility infrastructures as well as the defense against CO2 consumption taxes must point to common ground: Namely, the social and ecological impasse of liberal and right-wing proposals and the perspective of a democratization and ecologization of the economy that can break through it. Only then can the struggles cross-fertilize each other and practical, solidarity-based connections emerge across sectors, employee groups and cultural milieus. The socio-ecological problematic in the current transformation conflicts ultimately points to the core of the socialist idea: to the democratization and socialization of production and labor, which can only be enforced in conflict against capital interests. Such a framing must thus distinguish itself from both the eco-modernist-liberal and fossil-right authoritarian concepts and brand both as ecologically inadequate and socially unjust projects of capitalist elites. These poles fuel each other and draw their strength from the deficits of the other. The left must not get involved in this fatal polarization, but must develop an independent ecosocialist pole that can combine social justice and ecological sustainability in a socialist transformative way.
Hans Rackwitz is a sociologist working on a doctorate in the sociology of labor, industry and economics at Friedrich Schiller University in Jena, Germany, on a sociology of class and natural relations. He is also ecosocialist active in the climate movement.
Multiple crisis and catastrophe
One crisis follows the next. This is the normal state of affairs in capitalism. But the climate crisis has a new quality: Is disaster capitalism coming now?
By Alex Demirović
[This article posted in October 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, https://zeitschrift-luxemburg.de/artikel/vielfachkrise-und-katastrophe/.]
Vielfachkrise und Katastrophe
Eine Krise jagt die nächste. Im Kapitalismus ist das der Normalzustand.
The capitalist mode of production does not produce a well-functioning market economy, but is a crisis context. It reproduces itself through exploitation, through the destruction of wealth, through crises, social contradictions and struggles. This sounds drastic, but it is implied when talking about market, because market means competition, destruction of consumer goods, bankruptcy of companies, loss of jobs and housing, destruction of nature and ruination of health. It is part of the ideology of bourgeois society to claim that still every disadvantage, every damage, every step backwards serves the progress of the whole. In the end, people should be better off. But along the way, many fall by the wayside. The relationship between the general and the individual is not reconciled. This is accepted, downplayed and glossed over. If possible, despite all the rhetoric that no one should be left behind, conditions are organized in such a way that the damage hits those who are weaker, exploited and oppressed anyway. The official self-image of bourgeois society remains peculiarly untouched by crises. They are understood as improbable and short-lived interruptions of actually successful processes. Despite reality, steady growth, continuous profit increases and the "black zero" are conjured up - even if only through "green" investments. Disruptions and crises are denied, are seen as technical and, through a multitude of individual measures, if not solvable, then at least postponable into the future.
Bourgeois society as a structured whole
The left is accused by the bourgeoisie of stirring up discontent in such crisis situations, dividing society or endangering its cohesion. But the capitalistically determined society itself generates multiple divisions, because it is based on the pursuit of particular, self-interested interests. Obviously, these can only be enforced by means of robust organization. Liberals and conservatives, who organize powerfully but want to fight unions and contain antagonisms as plural diversity within the framework of limited political institutions, also know this. This is blind to reality, because capitalist processes are constantly in crisis. For the most part, the economic, political or cultural disturbances - i.e., bankruptcies, job losses, divorces, craft shortages, racist events - remain small, insignificant in the face of the average volume of events. But such moments of crisis build up into larger crises (wars, murders, genocides) according to their own temporal rhythm. This is the case because in the crises the inner connection of the many individual actions of the social actors comes to the fore, which they themselves do not understand in their actions. The moments of crisis could only be overcome if the causes of their emergence were eliminated. But the rulers try to postpone them in time and to break down interrelationships into autonomous processes. In the crises, the inner tensions of bourgeois society openly emerge and become recognizable as regularities.
The capitalist mode of production represents a circuit of cycles of nature, economy, politics and culture; it is a whole divided into many autonomous areas, each with its own social contradictions, its own social rhythms and struggles. Specific crises can arise at each of these points, as we have seen recently. Insecticides contribute to the death of bees, which fail to pollinate, causing agricultural yields to fail. Due to drought, rivers are not navigable and food or raw materials cannot be transported in sufficient quantities. Suitable workers may be lacking because they fall ill or die due to disease and sloppy protective measures, because they are in poor physical condition due to inadequate nutrition, because they are denied adequate wages, employment or suitable skills, or because they migrate in the face of government repression. The supply of primary products may falter and slow down the production process. Solvent demand may prove too low; business loans may be too high. Profits may be too low, so that entrepreneurs or investors do not invest in a product in the long term (e.g. vaccines, protective clothing).
Depending on the cause, we can speak of an underconsumption crisis, an underproduction or overproduction crisis, or an overaccumulation crisis. These are only the economic crises. But they also exist in many other autonomous fields of politics, law, gender relations or education.
Crises are never only economic
Economic crises follow from the movement of capital. The efforts of individual capitals to achieve higher productivity and larger shares of the surplus value produced in competition against each other necessarily give rise to imbalances and misallocations of capital. The state intervenes in these under the leadership of individual fractions of capital and by means of compromises, but for its part it can generate or exacerbate new contradictions. The way in which capital can be accumulated by the owners of capital is always the result of concrete developments in the apparatus of production (i.e. the structure of enterprises, such as products, technology, size, labor force, organization of labor, and the division of labor, which extends far beyond the nation-state), state policies (legal security, taxes, infrastructures, labor market, and qualifications), and concrete class struggles and compromises reached. Crises are therefore never just economic crises. They take different historical forms and can shift from one area to another (the financial market crisis becomes a sovereign debt crisis, the climate crisis becomes an economic and energy supply crisis).
Political-economic lessons were drawn from the great economic crisis of the late 1920s that became determinative for the postwar period until the late 1970s. That crisis resulted from overproduction: the productivity of enterprises was increasing, but there was no solvent demand for the products. This led to a deep slump in economic processes, mass unemployment, a crisis of the state, and a widespread mobilization of the subaltern population by anti-democratic forces. Part of the solution was demand created by the state: arms spending, expansion of public services and infrastructure, rising wages, and state-sponsored household demand. As a result, the state was transformed from a liberal constitutional state into an interventionist and planned state. This policy was relatively successful after World War II.
Against all reason
The capitalist centers that had colonially plundered the global South for centuries had to reorganize these relations of domination because of the anti-colonial movements. Early on, it was perceived that this kind of capitalist reproduction was consequential (also for the countries of the global South): a consumerist way of life in the capitalist centers required enormous amounts of cheap raw materials and energy and generated a great deal of waste. Prominent theorists such as Herbert Marcuse or Ivan Illich found it absurd that people in capitalist centers only work for consumption, which they hardly need and which harms them physically and intellectually. The consequences for the climate were also clear early on: as early as the mid-1960s, a report to Lyndon B. Johnson warned of a heating up of the earth, and in 1972 the Club of Rome pointed out the limits to growth. In the 1970s, protest movements in many countries drew attention to the dangers of coal, oil and nuclear power as the energetic basis of the compulsive capitalist growth model and the internal combustion engine as the basis of mass mobility. In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was founded in view of the threat to the earth's climate. In the scientific discussion of the Anthropocene, this period of the Fordist accumulation regime is considered the time of the "great acceleration." From 1950 onward, exponential growth can be observed in population, gross national product, water use, fertilizer consumption, and the number of motor vehicles. Correspondingly, the amount of carbon and nitrogen oxides, methane, the number of floods, surface temperature, forest loss and biodiversity increased.
So the knowledge that the livelihood of humans and many other species on the planet is threatened has existed for a long time. Although it has been repeatedly sabotaged or denigrated as ideological, it has persisted and evolved over the decades. The scientists have been proven right, and the processes continue at an accelerated pace. But as bourgeois society is like that, in neoliberally formed capitalism it could be enforced with political power to further surrender to the blind laws of the market. The insights gained into the ecological, economic, political and cultural crisis contexts do not lead to an upgrading of reason and knowledge. The effort not to exceed a temperature of 1.5 degrees in global warming has already failed. In Switzerland, the temperature has long since reached 2 degrees, while Germany is at 1.6 degrees. Glacier melt in the Alps has progressed so far that ice layers hundreds of thousands of years old are disappearing. This also threatens the major rivers in Central Europe (Danube, Rhine, Po, Rhône), the water supply for people and agriculture, hydroelectric power generation, and river navigation. The news in the summer of 2022 was once again disturbing. According to the U.S. National Climatic and Oceanographic Administration, atmospheric CO2 concentrations have reached their highest levels in a million years and now average about 420 ppm annually. The consequences are ocean acidification, species decline, lower oxygen production due to plankton die-off, loss of biodiversity and colonization areas, salinization of groundwater, heavy rain, flooding and drought. Tipping points have long been reached or already passed.
The climate crisis deepens previous dynamics
However, the accelerated processes of wealth generation not only lead to crises in ecological cycles, they also have a negative impact on individuals. They are placed under greater pressure to work and consume, and everyday working life has become more boundless and permeates private life as well. Performance optimization, exhaustion, burnout and depression are the consequences. Democracy, law and science are also coming under pressure and are threatened by deep crises. Powerful politically effective forces are trying to fight the knowledge of the crisis dynamics and to prevent corresponding practices. They deny and clearly develop the tendency to authoritarian-populist solutions. We are not experiencing just two, three or four crises. We are in a multiple crisis. The number of these crises and their respective dynamics are increasing even further, causing crises in other areas, linking and reinforcing each other, and blocking solutions. By combining with crises in the long rhythms of ecological cycles, they take on a new depth dimension that humanity has not yet had to deal with in world history. The crises reach tipping points from which a return to the previous stage is no longer possible: the glaciers are gone, oceans over-acidified for millennia, agricultural land eroded, virgin forests cut down and groundwater depleted. The multiple crisis is accelerating, it is chaoticizing social conditions. Until now, the many crises seemed to stand additively side by side, because political crisis management was always able to prevent their consolidation and the open outbreak of their interrelation. In the current conjuncture, they are merging into the new unity of a catastrophic crisis.
Historically, people often thought in terms of chaos, catastrophe or apocalypse. At the same time, such threatening and pressing scenarios do not necessarily lead people to take action and take their fate into their own hands. Many want to hold on to the habits of their everyday lives. It seems as if we are prisoners of conditions into which the prevailing capitalist mode of production and life has dragged us in the long term. A quick liberation is not possible, because adaptations to the climate consequences and radical solutions have to reckon with time horizons of decades and centuries. Soberness and long-term perspectives are therefore in order, because even if apocalyptic dynamics are involved, many people must act together. Knowledge, education, insights, convictions are necessary. In the face of concrete disaster situations, far-reaching cooperative relationships must emerge. Ecosocial reforms, infrastructures and solidarity services are urgently needed to fight elementary poverty and to enable individuals or families to act. But this will not be enough. Everything points to a new understanding of socialist, commonist practices, because people must take charge of organizing a resilient way of life. The capitalist economy and the state are not getting it done. The failure of state crisis management after the local flood disaster in the Ahr valley, for example, shows that the state governments of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia were overwhelmed by the situation (cf. Imsande in LuXemburg 2/2022). The handling of the crisis of social natural relations reveals that the capitalist economy, which is oriented toward value production and monetary wealth of a small part of the population, is not only incapable of reacting to the concrete needs of all and of making long-term provisions, but that it also organizes and promotes wrong development processes. A reconstruction of the production apparatus, of the energetic bases, of consumption patterns, and of settlement and mobility practices is required, that is, a new understanding of wealth and productive forces - namely, as productivity that people release from their self-determined cooperation, their acting together, their shared knowledge. New political institutions are also needed. The current ones have time horizons of only a few years and decades. Politicians must necessarily represent particular interests, they compete against each other and have to make their mark in the media, which limits the democratic formation of will and contributes to their own and our stultification. They are disconnected from people and social processes, they cannot take scientific knowledge seriously, the means of control they have at their disposal, i.e. money, law, coercion, consumerism, manipulation, are unsuitable for organizing coexistence democratically. It is therefore obvious that the institutions we have at our disposal today are hardly suitable to cope with the consequences of the multiple crisis and its catastrophic dynamics. What is needed instead are institutions that allow the formation of common noncompetitive forms of life and a long-term orientation of decision-making. They would have to operate on the basis of natural cycles in planetary time measures and structurally enable peaceful coexistence, the free, democratic, reasonable organization of social work and production by the people, with the people and for the people. In this I see one of the central tasks of the left as a conscious and rational force today: to initiate, support and promote such a future process against the authoritarian regression that destroys people and nature.
Alex Demirović is a philosopher and social scientist and one of the most interventionist left intellectuals in this country. He has taught at universities in Frankfurt am Main and Berlin, among others, is a member of the board of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, a fellow at the Foundation's Institute for Social Analysis, and a founding member of this journal.
One million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction - the largest species extinction in 66 million years.