What Comes After Capitalism?

Naomi Klein's incisive critique of capitalism is blunted by her unwillingness to point to its replacement.

An oil well fire in 1991. Kuwait Oil Company

Naomi Klein released her latest book, This Changes Everything, as more than four hundred thousand people joined the People’s Climate March in New York City and environmental activists around the world organized 2,646 solidarity protests in 162 countries, making it by far the largest climate justice march in history.

Growing mobilizations, particularly among indigenous and rural communities, against fossil-fuel extraction — fracking, tar sands, offshore oil, coal — and resistance to pipelines from Michigan to Texas have resulted in escalating state repression and propaganda campaigns from energy companies. Two people were killed worldwide every week in 2014 because of their environmental activism — more than double the rate of similar killings earlier in the decade.

These mobilizations, and the people’s willingness to risk their lives for environmental justice, are rooted in a broader consensus — excepting Republican presidential hopefuls — on the scale and immediacy of the climate crisis. The Global Humanitarian Forum estimates that climate change is already responsible for more than three hundred thousand global deaths annually, affects a wider 300 million people, and is a major driver of humanitarian crises.

Entire nations — like Bangladesh — are facing displacement and hundreds of thousands of people have already been driven from their homes. Closer to home, evidence of our changing climate abounds — sometimes, dramatically — as when Superstorm Sandy slammed into the densely populated eastern seaboard, or when floods raged across Texas, or in the ongoing drought devastating California.

Other effects of climate change don’t make national news. In research interviews with farmers in the North Carolina piedmont, one farmer described to me how the spring and summer rains have become more erratic and reduced the number of hay cuttings they can make each year. Another pointed to a dirt paddock: “That should all be mud,” she explained. “It should be deep mud for a least a few more weeks, but it’s dry already. Dry as a bone.”

What’s more, the experience of climate change maps onto existing inequalities: Copenhagen builds levees while the Maldives flood. The rich adapt as the poor face displacement. As Christian Parenti noted in his latest book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, “Climate change arrives in a world primed for crisis.” The intersection of a changing climate with a world of unbelievable inequalities is indeed, as he describes, a catastrophic convergence.

Growth and Globalization

Klein’s book focuses on this catastrophic convergence, setting up the environmental challenge as a global one, and points to global “deregulated” capitalism — deeply polarized, unequal, consumptive, destructive, and, most importantly, demanding infinite growth — as the culprit.

In this high-stakes political moment, when Green, Inc. too often shies away from political-economic critiques, Klein’s intervention is important. From Dhaka to Vancouver, we are bound together by jet streams and lean production, fiber optic cables and trade agreements, hip-hop and river deltas. Our connections are never merely social, economic, political, or ecological, but rather everything all at once.

These connections are often used to obscure the inequalities that accompany them and the deep social divisions that persist. The Internet and the technologies that accompany it make it possible to connect the world at a speed and level of intimacy that was once only imagined, but they have also exacerbated the inequalities of industrial technology production and hastened the export of ecological destruction to “sacrifice zones” — places which supply the world with the raw materials and energy resources needed to produce immense wealth and modern comforts and yet which disproportionately bear the social and ecological devastation wrought by such extraction.

With the ease of flipping on a light switch, we are blinded to the global poverty and pollution that can be traced back along power lines and trade routes to the scarred mountains of Appalachia or the burning palm oil plantations of Indonesia.

The economic growth fueling this highly contradictory global age is a specifically capitalist growth: a world where capital “flows” but workers and their families are trapped on opposite sides of borders, where food is produced in excess while tens of thousands die from hunger every day. The contradictory nature of capitalist growth is the central material reality that separated Marx from earlier communist theorists: capitalism created for the first time in history regular abundance and surplus — the precondition for a world without it.

For more than two centuries of industrial capitalism, the exploitation of fossil fuels has — simultaneously — raised the living standards of people, including working people, worldwide overall but has also concentrated the social ills and ecological degradation of production and the ever-deepening inequalities which result.

Klein recognizes these processes and cogently describes the relationship between environmental destruction and capitalism. But her solutions fall into an all-too-common dual strategy of building alternatives and resistance. Klein correctly insists that “dropping out and planting vegetables is not an option for this generation,” and instead demands that we simultaneously “build and support inspiring alternatives . . . and make sure they have a fighting chance of thriving by trying to change an economic model so treacherous that nowhere is safe.”

This solution is a good one in the sense that struggle is dialectical: as Nancy Cott says, the world we live in — which includes “alternatives” to economic-growth-centered production — “frames what people can envision for themselves and can conceivably demand.” Meanwhile people’s demands, and the struggle to implement them, transforms the world, expanding the vision of the possible.

In arguing that we can’t simply drop out from capitalism, Klein not only recognizes that we can’t ignore the global structures that shape our lives, but also that in any real battle for power (or for our future) capitalism forces us to fight it on its own terms. Alternatives we build in the present exist under the same pressures as the capitalist forces which created them.

Yet this strategy does nothing to lessen the central contradiction of capitalist economic growth: decreased consumption and selective de-growth are the antithesis of a world where economic growth is treated as the driving force of history, and where it consumes all in its path.

Even a small decrease in the rate of growth (let alone negative economic growth) has the capacity to throw the whole system into crisis. And this isn’t just because capitalists want growth at all costs or only because they are exceptionally greedy, but because the system demands it. Even at best, alternatives in our neoliberal world are always on the defensive.

We thus find ourselves embedded in one of capitalism’s enduring contradictions — that it is essential to struggle against its structures, logics, and centers of power in order to expand our own thinking about the possible future and about a new society, but that simultaneously, resisting the drives of capitalism is not enough: capitalism must be replaced.

But Klein, now the author of three books that have fueled anticapitalist organizing, remains unwilling to come out and frame the challenge in this way. In This Changes Everything, the tension between her often incisive critique of capitalism and her unwillingness to point to its replacement except in exceedingly vague gestures is a source of constant frustration.

Why does someone with such a keen sense of power and what is at stake in this fight evade the central question her book raises? Certainly, if capitalism is the problem, the solution must mirror it in scale and imagination, but Klein’s response falls far short of the rigor of the rest of the book. She responds simply and frankly, “Well, we do what we can.”

What Can We Do?

The evasiveness of this response in the context of the book’s searing indictment reflects longstanding trends in environmentalist politics and among some sections of the Left more generally: to counterpose broad political strategy, including the building of large political organizations, with small campaigns rooted around local issues. The organizing principle at work is that of the bumper sticker slogan, “Think globally, act locally.”

Even activists with a clear sense of the systemic, global problems we face too often turn to local, prefigurative solutions. This isn’t to say that local action isn’t important — the solidarity committees feeding people in the ravaged neighborhoods of Greece, or the Black Panther Party’s breakfast programs clearly show they are — but these programs were also tied to political organization.

In other words, even as organizations like the Black Panthers and, today, networks like Solidarity for All work to feed people, stock clinics with medicine, and more, they are (and were) conceptualized not as the sole site of political transformation, but rather as part of larger political projects which saw “building power” and “taking power” as two aspects of the same dialectical process.

Localist politics divorced from larger political organization is a product of the deep fragmentation and isolation of the Left since 1970, of the sense that we don’t have the capacity to build mass parties, or wage nationally and internationally coordinated struggles that are more than loose coalitions united around “days of action.” Born of a sense of Left impotence stemming from the retreat of movements, localism took on a life of its own.

Today, localism is pervasive in much of the environmental movement in particular: it calls for local food, local production, local economies. At worst, it’s a concept marshaled by Whole Foods–style corporations to salve liberal guilt about the inequalities of life under capitalism. But even at its best, localism is a poor unifying concept for politics, one which ignores the ways in which we are products of our own history.

The level of global economic interdependency we experience now may not have been inevitable, equitable, or just, but it is a historical reality which has not only shaped our understanding of climate science but also the bounds of possibility for action.

At its heart, even anticapitalist localism relies on a single basic assumption: we can create spaces outside of capitalism, and from these spaces, either build a separate society or use these spaces to struggle against capitalism.

The former approach is rejected by Klein: “giving up on real solutions,” she writes, “is not an option.” But what about the second option? Such an approach is commonplace, and is actually emblematic of the Left’s weakness following decades of neoliberal onslaught and the struggle to build a non-Stalinist socialist current after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We need spaces of our own to recoup and reorganize, the argument goes. Klein asks: “what if we stay quiet [about climate change] not out of acquiescence but in part because we lack the collective spaces in which to confront the raw terror of ecocide?”

Unfortunately, full disengagement from capitalism, even for the purpose of turning to fight it, is impossible. Marx wrote of a revolution from within for this very reason: capitalism is an expansive logic and must be fought from within. The working class has social power precisely because it operates the machine from within the machine, and not outside of it.

It’s true that building for small, local victories is more conceivable for most people than more widespread victories which might occur on a nationwide, regional, or even global scale, and it is also true that such victories are important — not because they arrest climate change, but because they shift the ground on which we struggle and expand mass conceptions of what is possible.

As Klein notes, “for most of us living in post-industrial societies, when we see the crackling black-and-white footage of general strikes in the 1930s, victory gardens in the 1940s, and Freedom Rides in the 1960s, we simply cannot imagine being part of any mobilization of that depth and scale.” True enough, though this state of affairs appears to be changing if the last four years are any indication.

The key, then, is not to eschew local projects but to be clear about their potential: they will not generate additive change which at some point will outweigh capitalism, leaving us with an alternative social system, which is how Klein conceptualizes the struggle against climate change.

Instead, local projects must be viewed as part of a dynamic struggle — turning one gear may turn many more gears unexpectedly, but if we are ultimately to change its function, the machine must be taken apart, redesigned, and rebuilt.

The distinction may seem small, but its importance becomes clear when Klein tries to link up local and regional resistance movements which she highlights at length across the second half of the book to the concept of a global struggle toward the abolition of fossil fuels, a change which Klein believes can be brought about through a combination of New Deal–style policy changes and a cultural delegitimization of growth in favor of a feverish moral outcry like that which accompanied the growing international movement for the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century.

Abolition and Revolution

Klein’s decision in her last pages to turn to the abolition of slavery, an argumentative strategy also deployed by others like Chris Hayes and Matt Karp, is as perplexing as it is obvious. Obvious, because chattel slavery underwrote massive capital accumulation as the new system of capitalism stumbled toward and then hurtled into the industrial age. The fight to abolish slavery was global in scale, and confronted a worldwide system of exploitation, oppression, and human misery upon which much of modernity was built.

Klein rightly notes that “burning fossil fuels is of course not the moral equivalent of owning slaves or occupying countries.” It was an economic struggle that was about so much more: the emancipation of enslaved people, who in the Atlantic world were almost entirely black Africans.

Comparison to such a revolutionary moment in world history tantalizes activists and commentators grappling with the political economy that underlies the climate crisis. Driven by a need to contend with structures of power and production, the climate justice movement has moved beyond simple comparison with other social movements and sought to moor itself amid deeper currents of capital and empire.

Yet her choice is perplexing, because in recalling abolition as a revolution of a global scale, she paints a picture of a moral battle waged in debate rooms, a vision which ignores the real driving forces of abolition: the refusal of slaves to accept subjugation, the moral outrage and material support provided by white abolitionists, and a bloody war that dispossessed the American planter class of their wealth and power.

In other words, slavery became a moral problem as a part of a historical process that drove the world to abolition. That historical process, while still fiercely debated by historians, appears to be a different process than the one at play in the struggle to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Looked at from the perspective of energy, the abolition of plantation slavery instigated a process that soon led to fossil-fuel-driven mechanized agriculture. This transformation sent production skyrocketing at a rate that would have been almost impossible in a slave-based agricultural system. The shift from fossil fuels thus presents a long-term challenge to growth and accumulation that the abolition of slavery did not.

To point out the disparities in the energetics between abolition and the fight against fossil fuels shouldn’t suggest we can reduce these questions to “energy.” In referencing abolition, Klein invokes the question of political power, and in particular, of democratic power. She seeks to draw a clear line between radical visions of democracy and violent revolution: “we want to do these radical things democratically and without a bloodbath, so violent, vanguardist revolutions don’t have much to offer in the way of roadmaps.”

Yet the analogue of chattel slavery invokes both of these things; the slaves of the American South could never have won their emancipation by establishing Occupy-style general assemblies on their plantations. As C. L. R. James showed in his masterful account of the Haitian revolution, emancipation required the forceful wresting of power from plantation owners and colonial governors.

The point is not to make a simplistic correction — to say that violence was central to abolition and so must be central to the climate justice movement. It is simply to recognize that violence was inseparable from both slavery and the battle to abolish it. The violence of abolition wasn’t in opposition to its democratic aims.

Still, if we read Klein generously, we can understand why Klein chose the analogy with abolition: she knows the movement against climate destruction must be massive, and that it must contend with the underlying structure of society — capitalism. We must build coalitions across society in ways that capitalism discourages and link struggles that might at first appear disparate.

The challenge, however, is to do so while retaining a sense of the class character of the battle: the “us versus them” narrative of This Changes Everything clarifies in that it orients us away from the ever more marginal narrative of climate change that views humankind as a homogenous group of ecocidal maniacs.

Less clear is the point of reorientation. Steeped in the language of Occupy, Idle No More, and the other social movements that have exploded since 2011, Klein’s argument gestures to class consciousness in a way that will be helpful for readers who have never been involved in political activity before.

For readers seeking answers to questions raised by the failure of social explosions of the last five years to successfully implement a reversal of austerity policies or turn the tide of worldwide social and ecological destruction on a broad scale, the book may disappoint. This Changes Everything was written for newcomers to the climate justice movement, not its seasoned veterans.

Thus, while the book has many limitations, it remains an important contribution to a world in crisis. Klein recognizes that the “what do we do next?” question can only be answered meaningfully if we take up the necessary preceding question: “what are we trying to do?”

Klein isn’t clear about the answer to that question, but we should be, and not equivocate: we are not trying to restrict the power of the fossil companies, or the ruling class. We are trying to wrest that power away completely.