Is Greta Thunberg a sock puppet for green capitalism?
Extinction Rebellion (XR) represents a new movement against climate change that promises to become a revolutionary force for change. Why is the most inspiring leader of XR, Greta Thunberg, now subject to intensive criticism which claims she is a mere trophy for green capitalists who will exploit her power to rally the masses as consumers for not-for-profit capitalism. Cory Morningstar in “Wrong Kind of Green” argues that Greta is the creation of NGO’s and not-for-profit capitalism and is being used to sell sustainable capitalism. Is there any truth in this claim, or is it a conspiracy theory, the symptom of a bankrupt Left failure to credit how social movements can erupt without being ‘manufactured’ by elites? Is Greta a tool of reaction or a key to survival and liberation?
Morningstar’s take on Greta is part of a wider world view shared by Morningstar and others who reduce global events to the actions of the big powers over pipelines, and treat the masses as dupes and pawns without agency. This a fake left conspiracy theory that lumps XR and Greta together with other ‘actors’ who are supposedly manipulated and duped by powerful elites into defending capitalism. Or worse, that XR is a front for green capitalism and paid to colonise the minds of radicalising youth. The main argument is the NGOs have teamed up with the Rockefellers, Soros and Gates to sell greenwashed capitalism, ‘humanitarian wars’ and 21st century colonialism.
In a podcast with Vanessa Beesley and Forest Palmer, Morningstar reveals a full-blown conspiracy theory that neutralises the masses as objects rather than the subjects of history. They do not make history, elites make history. Significantly, they discuss the Syrian civil war. The war is all about the US and Russian blocs fighting over pipelines. As if the majority of Syrians see pipelines as the answer to their daily struggle for existence! What is on their agenda, is fighting a fascist dictator backed by imperialist Russia and its client states, Turkey and Iran, who will kill the last Syrian child to grab the oil.
So, in this conspiracy theory, Hamza al Khateeb a 13yr old boy who wrote a slogan against Assad on a wall in March 2011 was kidnapped, tortured, castrated and killed, is no different from Greta Thunberg, a 15yr old girl who wrote a slogan on a placard to launch a campaign criticising capitalism’s failure to stop climate change. Both are the portrayed as dupes of ‘elites’ rather than as individuals with their own capacity (interests, morality, intelligence) to question, oppose and challenge ‘elites’. The only difference is that Hamza died as collateral damage to Assad’s defence of Syrian democracy from the CIA or Islamic fascists, while Greta won’t run the same risk unless she rejects green capitalism and 21st century colonialism. She has been warned.
Deconstructing a Conspiracy Theory
Let’s deconstruct Morningstar’s argument. Since when can capitalism be not-for-profit? By definition capitalists expropriate surplus value for profit. NGOs serve capitalism by defending its basic interests, growth of profits. But while they are parasitic on capitalism, they cannot hide from the fact that their host is dying and destroying everything that served humanity in the past including the material culture of the workers who produce the wealth. It’s one thing to argue with Morningstar that capitalism will stop at nothing to block the solutions we need, many of us agree on that. But it’s another thing to condemn XR as a capitalist front because it is backed by non-profit NGOs like AVAAZ or Greenpeace. It doesn’t follow that NGOs interests in selling green capitalism will succeed in winning XR acceptance of capitalist rule.
Do you think for one minute that Greta is “going to let them [i.e. NGOs] get away with it”? If she can get support from NGOs to promote her message of ‘system change’, why not? Here is her message:
“If there really was a crisis this big, then we would rarely talk about anything else. As soon as you turned on the TV, almost everything would be about that: headlines, radio, newspaper. You would almost never hear about anything else. And the politicians would surely have done what was needed by now, wouldn’t they? They would hold crisis meetings all the time, declare climate emergencies everywhere, and spend all their waking hours handling the situation and informing the people what was going on. But it never was like that. The climate crisis was just treated like any other issue or even less than that… And we must admit that we are losing this battle… Most of us don’t know almost any of the basic facts because, how could we? We have not been told. Or more importantly, we have never been told by the right people. You cannot rely on people… to read through the latest IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report, track the Keeling Curve, or keep tabs on the world’s rapidly disappearing carbon budget. You have to explain that to us repeatedly, no matter how uncomfortable or unprofitable that may be… This is the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced… For too long, the people in power have gotten away with basically not doing anything to stop the climate and ecological breakdown. They have gotten away with stealing our future and selling it for profit. But we young people are waking up. And we promise, we will not let you get away with it anymore.”
Young people ‘waking up’ are not the unconscious tools of capital. Imagine when facing mass sackings, we are inspired by one teenage worker who refuses to be sacked. She appeals to labour law (i.e. law which reproduces the exploitative social relations of capitalism) but quickly realises that labour law blocks workers from fights and winning their jobs. Instead of accepting her fate dictated by the law, and neutralised by politicians and bureaucrats, she argues for all workers to unite, strike, occupy the work place, and fight for workers’ control. It’s called class struggle, where isolated workers express their energy and agency in workers’ solidarity and workers’ power. Let’s credit the XR youth with the same agency as workers who are can learn from their experience and choose to act against extinction all the way to the overthrow of capitalism.
Why does the left resort to conspiracy theories and not join youth in a united front against extinction?
The answer is that the liberal Left is bankrupt. One characteristic of the moribund, defunct left that never recovered from the end of the Soviet Union, is that it is extreme in its dogmatism. One part of this doctrine is that the failures of socialism are not due to the failure of leadership already sold out to capitalism, but the ideological ‘backwardness’ of workers. So, let’s blame the workers. The ‘XR-as-dupes-of-green-capitalism’ conspiracy is an attack on the radical agency of XR incapable of learning from its experience that capitalism has to go. Instead they should to listen to those who “know better” (given their sorry history of abject failures and retreats from the class struggle – some record) that for now, the “truth”, the “reality is”, that we are being “progressive” in tinkering with “business as usual”.
In other words, ‘middle class’ kids cannot be revolutionaries unless they follow the doctrine of the bankrupt Left. Otherwise they are doomed to be the dupes of this or that new reformist movement which sucks out all their youthful energy.
OK, XR members may still be novices testing out radical means of pressuring capitalist governments to respond to their demands. We don’t expect them to hit the streets as born-again revolutionaries. And for that we have blame the bankrupt Left for failing to build a viable socialist movement. They abandon class analysis for careerist postmodern fantasies that replace class struggle with personal consumer preferences. This softens up working people for the right’s attacks on science and rationality and the siren songs of fake populist, nationalist, racist, sexist movements.
Thus, the conspiracy theory of the Left ‘manufactures’ workers as fodder for the reactionary appeals of populism and fascism. Far right movements are now going ‘environmental’ because there is no denying the weather bombs that hit them and the need to compete with the cosmopolitan, globalising, liberal, centre-left and left for recruits to boost white ‘ethno’ nationalism. France’s Rally National (RN) under Marine Le Pen now has a climate program. Of course, it is reactionary nationalism.
‘“Borders are the environment’s greatest ally,” twenty-three-year-old National Rally (RN) spokesperson Jordan Bardella told a right-wing paper in April. “[I]t is through them that we will save the planet.” Le Pen herself has argued that concern for the climate is inherently nationalist. Those who are “nomadic,” she said, “do not care about the environment; they have no homeland.”’
Why capitalism left, right, or centre cannot save us from extinction
Here is what we think can happen. XR will go through climate emergencies and climate general strikes to then discover they must lead to social revolution. Most already know that despite the hype greening capitalism won’t work. A recent study of the potential of Green Capitalism rejects it as a contradiction in terms. Capitalist ‘growth’ is the problem. It is necessary to substitute socialist planning of ‘growth’ that stops the exploitation and destruction of nature.
Hence the XR demand: “Change the System, not the Climate”. Enlightened capitalists can shift their shares into renewable energy, but they can’t shut down big oil and gas and keep the carbon in the ground. The market is part of the problem because the solution has to be profitable. NGOs green-washing, alt right ‘climate nationalism’, and tons of other hot air, becomes exposed by the deepening climate crisis as a diversion from climate revolution.
The next target for XR is the big polluters themselves who also happen to be those with the power to directly control and use the states to serve their interests. So how to shut down the polluters? Here we arrive at the critical point where climate justice demands a socialist revolution. But what is a socialist revolution? Will it not end up just like capitalism, with an autocratic elite in charge and carbon emissions just as great or greater? What about a revolution from within to reclaim the ‘commons’ – building a cooperative alternative society within capitalism? Here we need to learn the historic lessons of earlier attempts at building socialism to evaluate which system will work best.
At this point we have return to Marxism as the scientific basis for understanding capitalism as the Capitalocene. We get rid of Anthropocene which holds humanity responsible for destroying nature rather than the capitalist ruling class. A Marxist workers’ party and program is needed to bring to life the lessons of the Capitalocene in destroying nature, and how to make a revolution to build socialism. We should remember the existential question posed by Rosa Luxemburg – Reform or Revolution? and the slogan of Vladimir Lenin – “All power to the Soviets”. In a sentence – to take the power from the polluters we need to smash the capitalist state and plan for a workers’ state.
Yet before people are ready to accept that reforms won’t work and that we need socialist revolution to survive, they need to be convinced of the bankruptcy of capitalism in every sense. And that something called ‘socialism’ is the answer. We have to be sure that no reforms driven by green capitalism such as the Green New Deal will work. On the contrary, delusions of this kind only delay and weaken the ability of the movement to break from bourgeois ‘growth’ ideology that only capitalism (and its market) can find the solutions to the threat of extinction.
Let’s deal with the most delusionary. These are those who claim to be socialists or anti-capitalists who clearly think that capitalism can be taken over from within, modifying existing institutions with minimum disruption by simply acting to defend and extend bourgeois democracy. As if a democratic state can somehow override the laws of motion of the dying capitalist economy. Let’s start with the current Green New Deal.
- The Green New Dealers
The Green New Deal (GND) proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) is a left social democratic document that proposes to clean up 100% of energy by 2030; a 50% cut in the military budget, full employment and comprehensive public health, and the end to war. It proposes to do this by redirecting state subsidies from carbon to a ‘green’ economy.
The Green New Deal is supported by left liberals and social democrats. Of course, Sanders has signed up to the GND (see below). What does it offer that is different from new deal liberalism (Sanders) or even left Labourism (Corbynism)? New Zealand’s recent “wellbeing budget” comes nowhere near to the GND as ‘wellbeing’ under capitalism means coping with alienation, wage labour and a neo-colonial state. What it offers is the ‘hope’ that capitalism is not doomed as long as there is the potential for citizens to mobilise to throw out the elites and introduced sustainable growth without eliminating capitalism. This is exactly the ‘hopium’ that Morningstar accuses Greta of pushing. So, it is important to compare the GND to XR.
This is not a new kind of green. As well as referencing the original New Deal of the 1930’s all these various shades of green ‘solutions’ are basically Keynesian. They rely on state spending on social investment in jobs, infrastructure etc to incentivise capitalist investment. One fashionable current version is MMT (Modern Monetary Theory) which supports the state printing money to see the investment-growth cycle going. But MMT cannot escape the dilemma of Keynesianism. Under capitalism state spending to stimulate capitalist growth fails unless capitalists are assured of a sufficient profit. Basically, the Marxist critique of MMT is that underconsumption is not the problem. The crisis is caused by falling profits. So, what pretends to be a left social democratic solution (‘socialist’ even) actually requires austerity attacks on workers to drive down the costs of labour to make it work. This is called ‘socialist pragmatism’ (see below).
Related to the GND and MMT is the movement to ‘reclaim the ‘commons’. It is dependent on a social democratic government to enable it to legally create ‘commons’ and collectively owned property, and Keynesian policies to implement it.
“My argument boils down to this: In order to save and preserve what we have in common, the earth, we must transition to a form of society that respects the commons. It is not about passively waiting for such a society to miraculously arise: the commons is already here, although hidden from view by the ideologies and structures of existing society. By fighting to reclaim the commons—which includes not only the land but also the social powers at our disposal to collectively organize our lives without recourse to hierarchical forms of domination—we can transition to a new society, at the same as saving the earth itself. It seems to me that working for this would be worth the effort.”
What is the Marxist critique of socialism in one commune? First it is not anti-hierarchical because it assumes the existence of the capitalist nation state which defends private property. It faces the same problem of previous revolutions which proved incapable of ‘changing the system’ without overthrowing the state. Second, in a globalised capitalist world, any isolated socialist revolution would not be able to enter into an international division of labour and economic plan that harnesses sustainable energy as a global project to restore nature. By adapting to global capitalism, any new system to stop climate change would be aborted.
If the Green New Deal and its variants cannot work because it remains dependent on capitalism’s survival, is there another solution to the crisis of the capitalocene that does not require the urgent transition to socialism?
- Sanders, & ‘socialist’ pragmatism
Long-time ‘democratic socialism’ Bernie Sanders wants a new, New Deal and has signed up to the GND. But that is no advance on the ‘hopium’ offered by AOC as it fails to get to the root of the problem – ‘progressive’ capitalism. But ‘progressive’ for which class? Trotsky critiqued the ‘progressive’ tradition in the US as a left form of ‘pragmatism’, the popular philosophy which holds that what ‘works’ for capital is good for all. Remember what is good for General Motors!
Then, after decades of trying to redistribute wealth Sanders recognised that new taxes to pay for it were universally unpopular. Acting on advice from others he now wants to shift the focus from distribution to workers ownership of production. He wants to build on earlier attempts to legislate capitalists giving shares to workers in a wealth fund managed by the unions. Workers will also participate on the boards of companies to share in co-management.
Note that this is a pragmatic proposal because it may work and it may derail XR into another ‘wrong kind of green’. It is popular with workers and some employers. But it would take the passing of the Green New Deal in Congress to implement it. It is not a proposal based on principled socialism, that workers who produce the wealth should independently determine what their share is, not Congress doing pragmatic deals with bosses! Can Sanders’ reforms be turned into a real socialism within 12 years to rescue humanity from extinction?
Peter Gowan has suggested a Sanders Plan that includes workers ownership, and moves to nationalise the banks, finance and fossil fuel industries. However, there is nothing new in the means for achieving this. Sanders as President could do a ‘socialist Trump’ and use his executive power to sideline a hostile Congress and Courts to legislate these reforms. Ironically, Gowan calls this the ‘Salvador Allende’ strategy. This may be a pragmatic ‘socialism’ that could work for capital, though it hasn’t elsewhere, notably in Allende’s Chile! But what about the principle of class struggle. The ‘system change’ we and XR needs right now is not creeping state socialism along the historic lines argued by Mensheviks, but an international socialist party leading XR that has world socialist revolution at the top of its agenda.
Marx on Socialism and Ecology
While many people are convinced that capitalism is doomed, they are so hostile to socialism they continue to look for a mythical ‘third way’ – neither capitalist nor socialist. The main objection is that ‘socialism’ – the ‘actually existing’ socialism of the USSR. China or Cuba – are as much responsible for climate change as the capitalist world.
Here we are talking about Socialism as conceived by Marx as a stage between capitalism and communism where workers’ revolution creates a workers’ state based on workers councils and plans production and distribution of goods for need not profit. We reject the bogus ‘socialisms’ attached by various bourgeois and petty bourgeois currents to parliamentary socialism. We reject the use of the term to describe the degenerated ‘socialist’ states that failed to build real socialism because they were surrounded or invaded by global capitalist powers.
For Marx, socialism already exists in embryo trapped inside capitalism (workers produce the wealth as a force of nature and struggle to control or plan production) so that logically to return to nature it is necessary to remove capitalism and allow the socialist embryo to develop. The only way to reverse climate change and at the same time plan for society to return to nature is real socialism based on democratic workers councils backed by workers militias on a global scale.
The modern concept of Ecology didn’t exist in Marx’s time because for him nature and society were symbiotic as a contradictory historical mode of production in which the forces of production (nature) and the relations of production (society) were locked into a fight to the death. Humans were on both sides of this contradiction, as members of antagonistic classes – as capitalists vs workers. Workers sold the use of their physical energy to work for a wage as the commodity ‘labour power’. Labour power had the special property of producing more value than its own value when the employer owns and controls the means of production. Workers did necessary labour to create enough value to exchange for the means of subsistence (food, energy, transport etc) but also worked additional hours of surplus labour to create surplus value as the basis of profits.
Therefore, Ecology as a concept explains nothing unless integrated inside the general theory of capitalism and its logical successor, socialism. Ecology is already subsumed in the contradictory unity of nature and society. Ecology, as a practical problem, always existed in people’s heads to ‘explain’ the daily struggle of humans as part of nature. But this ecology is not a ‘given’, or universal constant. It is a ‘taken’. It changes with every new mode of production from slave society to capitalist society that ‘takes’ from nature by exhausting its bounty. Marx’s analysis of capitalism explained this fact.
Nature is continuously changing as a result of class struggle between workers and capitalists. Nature-as-labour struggles against society-as-capital constantly, as workers contest capital over the share of value they create. Why? Because for labour, its share, in the form of the wage, is materially necessary to reproduce labour power. This natural process becomes hijacked by capital when it exploits labour to produce more value beyond that of the wage. Therefore, the reproduction of ‘nature’ specific to the production of profit is determined by the ‘use-value’ of labour power to the capitalists – i.e. producing more value than its own value. Workers are reproduced only as wage labourers, not as humans.
The dynamics of ecology today are defined by nature and capitalist society that leads inevitably to the destruction of nature (including human nature) with the extreme consequences of the threat of extinction of most species on the planet. Thus, Marx’s theory predicted the inevitable destruction by capitalism of the forces of production (including labour-power) as the pre-condition for the socialist revolution.
Alienation from Self, Society and Nature
In developing a theory of the Capitalocene, some Marxists revise Marx in the name of nature. Jason Moore is one. He is among those who claim to be Marxists but who play around with Marx’s basic concepts, even dropping the labour theory of value. Ecology as the nexus between nature and society must be based on the labour theory of value. It is that which predicts capitalism’s finite existence, necessary decline, and massive destruction of nature. And that which predicts why it is the working class, that produces value, acts for nature when it revolts against capitalism to bury it and build socialism.
Take John Bellamy Foster, a well-known Marxist writing about ecology. He argues Marx accounted for the damage capitalism does to nature and predicted increasing environmental destruction. This is clear in the concept of ‘Metabolic Rift’. One can go too far and reduce the social relations of capitalism to an objective metabolic/physical process. The whole point of Marx’s work was to show how capitalism alienates workers from nature and yet nature fights back as class war to redeem itself. Only by ending capitalism and building socialism will alienation be overcome.
The concept of alienation is central to any Marxist analysis of climate collapse. First, workers’ control over their labour-power (nature) is alienated by the owners of the means of production who dispossess peasants of their means of subsistence. Workers figure as no more than statistics in the capitalist books as part of the Price of Production. Second, capitalists, by depriving workers of their means of subsistence (nature), can make them work for longer than is necessary to earn a wage (necessary labour) to buy their means of subsistence (nature).
All exploitation of nature requires the active agent of labour-power. Thus, big oil and gas exploit nature by employing workers to extract and burn carbon. This alienation of the value they create separates workers from the product of their labour and makes them appear as the equals of capitalists as buyers and sellers of commodities. The exploitation and alienation of labour during the production process now appears as an equal exchange relationship in the market.
The end of alienation therefore means the end of class society, specifically capitalist society. The capitalists insert themselves into a natural non-exploitative process to exploit nature for profit and create the Capitalocene. That is why Marx viewed capitalism as a historically limited form of exploitative society. The contradiction between nature and society would force workers, as part of nature, to revolt against its destruction and unite to overthrow capitalism. To end alienation workers must break with this exploitative social relation and restore the harmonious unity of nature and society!
What must be Done!
The trick today is to reject lip-service to greening capitalism from the right, left and centre. They are equally suicidal. Within the new social movements that profess to fight climate change, Marxists need to be part of the mobilisations with a program that warns of the duplicity of capitalism in all its forms, and explicitly states and wins the argument for survival socialism.
Instead of writing off the masses who are mobilising against climate collapse as dupes, we have to warn them of the many various attempts to neutralise class struggle. There are many would-be leaders of XR on both Right and Left who preach capitalist reform rather than socialist revolution.
As we wrote in “Are YV and XR the new Reds?” these movements are reacting to an unprecedented world-historic existential crisis. For the first time humanity faces a terminal crisis of capitalism which cannot survive without the genocide of working people and the ecocide of most life forms. This poses the question point blank as human extinction or socialist revolution. That is the objective reality. XR is learning the lessons of climate science and rising spontaneously against their fate as slaves or corpses in the future horror story of capitalism. Will the bankrupt Left rise to this challenge? No.
What is missing from the Morningstar critique of Greta and XR is the Marxist science of society about which most people remain ignorant. Not because they are ‘backward’, but because of the bankrupt Left failed to make Marxism the science of workers’ life and culture. Marx called this science ‘dialectics’ as it explains that nature and society are a contradictory unity in motion, motivated by the class struggle to resolve that contradiction, revolutionising society in the process to restore a harmony with nature.
The bankrupt Left has no understanding that the same forces that are causing the terminal crisis of capitalism today are those that incubate the embryonic socialist society emerging within capitalism to replace it. The old world is dying, but the new world has yet to be born. It will not emerge miraculously as the result of some external agency. Only conscious class struggle can resolve the contradiction between embattled nature and dying capitalism in a new socialist world.
It is class struggle that will prove that capitalism has to be overthrown by its alienated subjects waking up and organising mass movements. And as their demands are heavily repressed by the state, fascism, and paramilitary gangs, these social movements will transform themselves into revolutionary councils and militias capable of overthrowing capitalism and creating a socialist society where the contradiction between society and nature is replaced with harmonious unity.