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Multiple crisis and catastrophe

by Alex Demirovic Wednesday, Jun. 12, 2024 at 7:52 PM

The official self-image of bourgeois society remains strangely untouched by crises. They are understood as improbable and short-lived interruptions of what are actually successful processes. Disruptions and crises are denied, are considered technical and, through a variety of individual measures, if not solvable, then at least postponable into the future.

Multiple crisis and catastrophe

One crisis follows another. In capitalism, that is the normal state of affairs. However, the climate crisis has a new quality: is catastrophe capitalism now on the horizon?

By Alex Demirović

[This article posted in October 2022 is translated from the German on the Internet,]



The capitalist mode of production does not produce a well-functioning market economy, but is a context of crisis. It reproduces itself through exploitation, the destruction of wealth, crises, social contradictions and struggles. This sounds drastic, but it is implied when we talk about the market, because the market means competition, the destruction of consumer goods, bankruptcies, the loss of jobs and housing, the destruction of nature and the ruination of health. It is part of the ideology of bourgeois society to claim that every disadvantage, every damage, every setback serves the progress of the whole. In the end, people should be better off. But on the way there, many fall by the wayside. The relationship between the general and the individual is irreconcilable. This is accepted, trivialized 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 affects those who are already weaker, exploited and oppressed. The official self-image of bourgeois society remains strangely untouched by crises. They are understood as improbable and short-lived interruptions of what are actually successful processes. Despite the reality, constant growth, continuous increases in profits and the “black zero” are conjured up – even if it is through “green” investments. Disruptions and crises are denied, are considered technical and, through a variety of individual measures, if not solvable, then at least postponeable into the future.

Bourgeois society as a structured whole

The left is accused by the right of stirring up discontent in such crisis situations, of dividing society or of endangering cohesion. But capitalist society itself generates a wide range of divisions, because it is based on the pursuit of particular, self-serving interests. These can obviously only be enforced by means of robust organization. The liberals and conservatives, who organize themselves powerfully but fight the unions and want to contain differences 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. Most of the time, economic, political or cultural disturbances – such as bankruptcies, job losses, divorces, a lack of skilled workers, racist incidents – remain small, insignificant in the face of the average number of events. However, such moments of crisis build up into larger crises (wars, murders, genocides) according to their own temporal rhythm. This is because the crises reveal the inner connection between the many individual actions of the social actors, which they themselves do not understand in their actions. The crisis moments could only be overcome if the causes of their emergence were eliminated. However, the rulers try to postpone them and to break down the connections into autonomous processes. In the crises, the inner tensions of bourgeois society come to light and become recognizable as laws.

The capitalist mode of production represents a cycle of cycles of nature, economy, politics and culture; it is a whole that is divided into many autonomous areas, each with its own social contradictions, its own social rhythms and struggles. Specific crises can arise in all of these areas, as we have seen recently. Insecticides contribute to the death of bees, which are essential for pollination, so that agricultural yields are lost. Droughts make rivers unnavigable, so that food or raw materials cannot be transported in sufficient quantities. Adequate labor may be unavailable because workers fall ill or die due to disease and poor protection, or because they are in poor physical condition due to poor nutrition, or because they are denied adequate wages, working conditions, or skills, or because they migrate in the face of state repression. The supply of inputs may be disrupted, slowing the production process. The demand that can be paid for may prove to be too low, and corporate loans may be too high. Profits are too low for entrepreneurs or investors to invest in a product over the long term (such as vaccines or protective clothing).

Depending on the cause, we can speak of a crisis of underconsumption, under- or overproduction, or over-accumulation. These are only the economic crises. But they also exist in many other autonomous areas of politics, law, gender relations or education.

Crises are never just economic

Economic crises are the result of the movement of capital. The efforts of individual capitals to achieve higher productivity and larger shares of the added value generated in competition with each other necessarily lead to imbalances and misallocations of capital. The state intervenes in these under the leadership of individual capital factions and by means of compromises, but it can in turn create or exacerbate new contradictions. The way in which capital can be accumulated by capital owners is always the result of concrete developments in the production apparatus (i.e. the structure of companies, such as products, technology, size, labor force, work organization and the division of labor, which extends far beyond the nation state), state policies (legal security, taxes, infrastructure, labor market and qualifications) and concrete class conflicts and compromises. Crises are therefore never just economic crises. They take on different historical forms and can shift from one area to another (from a financial market crisis to a sovereign debt crisis, from a climate crisis to an economic and energy supply crisis).

The great economic crisis of the late 1920s led to the drawing of political and economic lessons that were to determine the post-war period until the end of the 1970s. That crisis was the result of overproduction: the productivity of companies was constantly 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 widespread mobilization of the subaltern population by anti-democratic forces. Part of the solution was the demand created by the state: military spending, expansion of public services and infrastructure, rising wages and state-subsidized demand from private households. As a result, the state was transformed from a liberal constitutional state into an interventionist and planned state. This policy was relatively successful after the Second World War.

Against all reason

The capitalist centers, which had plundered the global south for centuries, had to reorganize these power relations due to the anti-colonial movements. It was recognized early on that this type of capitalist reproduction (also for the countries of the global south) has serious consequences: a consumerist lifestyle 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 and Ivan Illich found it absurd that people in the capitalist centers only worked for consumption, which they hardly needed and which harmed them physically and intellectually. The consequences for the climate were also clear from an early stage: as early as the mid-1960s, a report to Lyndon B. Johnson warned of global warming, 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 energy basis of the compulsive capitalist growth model and of the combustion engine as the basis of mass mobility. In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in response to the threat to the Earth's climate. In the scientific discussion about the Anthropocene, this period of the Fordist accumulation regime is considered the time of the “great acceleration”. From 1950 onwards, exponential growth can be observed in population, gross national product, water use, fertilizer consumption and the number of motor vehicles. The amount of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and methane, the number of floods, the surface temperature and the loss of forest and biodiversity have increased accordingly.

The knowledge that the livelihoods of humans and many other species on the planet are under threat has existed for a long time. Although it has been repeatedly sabotaged or denigrated as ideological, it has been able to assert itself and develop over the decades. The scientists were right, the processes are continuing at an accelerated pace. But as is the case with bourgeois society, it was possible to use political power to further expose ourselves to the blind laws of the market in the neo-liberal capitalist system. The insights gained into the ecological, economic, political and cultural contexts of the crisis have not led to an appreciation of reason and knowledge. The effort to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius has already failed. In Switzerland, it has long been 2 degrees, and in Germany it is 1.6 degrees. The melting of glaciers in the Alps has progressed so far that ice layers that are 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, energy generation from hydropower and river navigation. The news in summer 2022 was once again disturbing. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has reached its highest level in a million years, now standing at around 420 ppm on an annual average. The consequences are ocean acidification, species extinction, lower oxygen production due to the death of plankton, loss of biodiversity and settlement areas, salinization of groundwater, heavy rainfall, flooding and drought. Tipping points have long been reached or already exceeded.

The climate crisis is deepening previous dynamics

The accelerated processes of wealth creation not only lead to crises in ecological cycles, they also have a negative impact on individuals. They are under greater pressure to work and consume, their professional lives are no longer delimited and permeate their private lives. The consequences are performance optimization, exhaustion, burnout and depression. Democracy, law and science are also under pressure and threatened by deep crises. Powerful political forces are trying to combat knowledge of the dynamics of the crisis and prevent corresponding practices. They deny and clearly develop the tendency towards authoritarian-populist solutions. We are not just experiencing two, three or four crises. We are in a multiple crisis. The number of these crises and their respective dynamics are still increasing, causing crises in other areas, linking and mutually 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 are acidified for thousands of years, agricultural land is eroded, primeval forests are cut down and groundwater is depleted. The multiple crisis is accelerating, it is chaoticizing social conditions. So far, the many crises seemed to be additive, because political crisis management was able to prevent their consolidation and the open outbreak of their connection. In the current economic situation, they are merging into a new unity of a catastrophic crisis.

No shortcuts

Historically, thinking has often been in terms of chaos, catastrophe or apocalypse. At the same time, such threatening and urgent scenarios do not necessarily lead people to become active and take their fate into their own hands. Many want to hold on to their everyday habits. It seems as if we are prisoners of circumstances into which the prevailing capitalist way of production and life has drawn us in the long term. A quick escape is not possible, because adaptations to the consequences of climate change and radical solutions must be expected to take decades or even centuries. A sober and long-term perspective is therefore appropriate, because even if we are dealing with apocalyptic dynamics, many people must act together. Knowledge, education, insights and convictions are necessary. In the face of concrete catastrophic situations, far-reaching cooperative relationships must be created. Ecosocial reforms, infrastructures and solidarity services are urgently needed to combat elementary poverty and enable individuals or families to take action. But that will not be enough. Everything points to a new understanding of socialist, commonist practices, because people have to take the organization of a resilient way of life into their own hands. The capitalist economy and the state are not up to it. 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 (see Imsande in LuXemburg 2/2022). The way in which the crisis of social relations with nature is being dealt with shows that the capitalist economy, which is geared towards the production of value and the monetary wealth of a small section of the population, is not only incapable of responding to the concrete needs of everyone and making long-term provisions, but also organizes and promotes false development processes. A reorganization of the production apparatus, the energy base, consumption patterns, and settlement and mobility practices is necessary, as is a new understanding of wealth and productive forces – namely as productivity that frees people from their self-determined cooperation, their joint action, and their shared knowledge. New political institutions are also needed. Today's institutions have time horizons of only a few years or decades. Politicians are forced to represent particular interests, they compete against each other and have to distinguish themselves in the media, which limits democratic decision-making and contributes to their own and our own dumbing down. They are cut off from the people and social processes, they cannot take scientific knowledge seriously, and the means of control at their disposal – money, law, coercion, consumerism, manipulation – are unsuitable for organizing democratic coexistence. It is therefore obvious that the institutions we have today are hardly suitable for dealing with the consequences of the multiple crisis and its catastrophic dynamics. What is needed are institutions that allow the formation of common, non-competitive ways of life and a long-term orientation of decision-making. They would have to operate on the basis of natural cycles in planetary time frames and structurally enable peaceful coexistence, the free, democratic, rational organization of social work and production by the people, with the people and for the people. I see this as 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

Alex Demirović is a philosopher and social scientist. He has taught at the universities of Frankfurt am Main and Berlin, among others, and is a member of the board of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and a founding member of this journal.

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