Climate Crisis: From Capital to Commune
While most capitalists still deny that climate change is anything to do with them, increasingly the world is now facing up to the truth of climate change. Yet most don’t understand the cause and therefore cannot grasp the solution. The default position of Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and climate science in general is that the problem is Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW). And the solution is to make that abstract ‘man’ human again. We argue that ‘man’ is not to blame; it is capitalism. So we should at least be talking of the Capitalocene. Yet what is understood by capitalism today makes all the difference as to what we do about it. We argue that capitalism cannot be reformed. It has to be overthrown and replaced with the Commune.
What is Capitalism?
If capitalism is mentioned as the cause of climate change, it is as an aberration on the part of elites, or capitalists, who are out of step with nature. Capitalism can be corrected if it is rescued from deniers like Trump. One can vote for a government that will act on climate change. So, the typical ‘anti-capitalist’ corrective is to focus on the elites and advocate ‘democratic’ and ‘non-violent’ means of providing a new leadership that can apply the technical fixes to solve the problem. Or abandon technology as if that, rather than the capitalist who owns and uses it as a means of production, is the problem.
But that ignores that capitalism is more than market and exchange relations. Capitalism presents itself as a system of market exchange which invert and obscure production relations. Workers do not see that their labor power produces value when capitalist ideology preaches that value is determined by market supply and demand. The extraction of surplus value from workers at the point of production is trivialised as workers and bosses fighting over a ‘fair share’ in the distribution of incomes.
This fetishism is the basis of bourgeois ideology which ignores class exploitation during production and mythologises ‘capitalist man’ as the free individual who buys and sells on the market. Marx’s critique of bourgeois political economy proved that value is created during the production of commodities which is then realised by their sale in the market. Value is not created by supply and demand driven prices of commodities, say oil, that can be regulated by the state.
For example, the fossil fuel industry produces value by using human labour to extract fuels. Therefore, regulating the market to shut down the fossil fuel industry cannot work because it retains ownership of its capital assets including labour, and has the power to manipulate political policy in its defence. Revolution is necessary to expropriate capitalist assets and redirect them into sustainable production. But to understand this, we need a social science that “tells the truth” about capitalism and its “war on nature” and what we need to do to overthrow capitalism.
It is not good enough to extrapolate from climate science to the bourgeois ideology of fetishized capitalism. Climate science has recognised the bio-physical problem of what happens when the atmosphere heats up rapidly with terrible consequences for life on the planet. But bourgeois ideology makes the cause of AGW abstract ‘man’. This assumes there is ahistorical, universal man, rather historical man shaped by the socio/economic relations, or production relations, that characterise specific historical societies, or modes of production, that determine how ‘man’ relates to nature.
Let’s get rid of ‘Man’ and replace him with Human. Human’s relation to nature changes because humans are part of nature, capable of acting with nature or against it, i.e. their own ‘human-ness’. Therefore, human’s changing ‘nature’ is the result of historical change from non-class society when both Humanity and Nature are in union, to class societies where contradiction destroys that unity.
It follows that if ‘human nature’ is ahistorical, static, and unchanging, and is responsible for AGW, how can it change enough to reverse AGW and avoid human extinction? The impasse is broken once we understand how ‘human nature’ changes throughout history, shaped by the production relations that define what Marx calls historical ‘modes of production’[MOPs]. If Humans change historically, under different production relations, they can under some conditions cause AGW, yet under other conditions change to avoid its consequences.
These production relations embody the contradiction between humans and nature, and vary from complete unity in non-class society to rising contradiction in class societies to an existential contradiction in capitalist society. But before taking that discussion further we need to get rid of the flawed concepts of AGW and the Anthropocene.
From Anthropocene to Capitalocene
So, we have a climate science that has named the period in which ‘man’ causes AGW, but in the absence of a developed social science of climate change we are stuck with the unscientific abstraction of the Anthropocene. This concept may have shifted the blame from nature to ‘man-made’ climate change, but at the cost of failing to point us in the right direction for solutions. First it is not abstract ‘man’ (human) that created climate change, it is capitalist human. Let’s replace the wrong ‘man’ with the right ‘human’ to signify the universal qualities of humanity that are potential in the union of humans and nature. But where the contradiction between human and nature exists, this potential unity is yet to be realised. Let’s look at the history of this potential unity.
Pre-capitalist modes of production [MOPs] had historically specific ‘human natures’ corresponding to the Kinship, Domestic, Slave and Tributory MOP and their corresponding production relations. Kinship relations were the basis of cooperative production and the sharing of products among kin as equals. Domestic relations describe the unpaid domestic labour of women for the benefit of men (i.e. the Patriarchy). Slave relations drove the slave production and the extraction of the product by slaveowners. Tributory (including feudal) relations comprised peasant production and extraction of rent by landowners.
Where these modes have survived in the margins of capitalism, subordinated to capitalist production relations as ‘indigenous’ peoples, unpaid domestic labour, slaves, low paid or unpaid agricultural workers, and so on, they remain trapped in uneven and combined development where all these forms of labour are subsumed to, and extracted by Capital. Capital controls and exploits pre-capitalist labour forms as a subsidy to the costs of wage labour, thereby ‘combining’ and ‘underdeveloping’ these forms free from exploitation.
All of these specific historical ‘human natures’, Kinship, Domestic, Slave, or Tributory, and their subordination to Capital exhibit a fundamental unity, in relative harmony with nature. They vary in their degree of unity with nature, from relative unity in class-less societies, while the growing separation of humans and nature intensifies as we go from the exploitation of women, slaves, peasant production, to the advent of capitalism. Before capitalism, none of these MOPs threaten to disrupt the union of humanity with nature, there is no extreme contradiction between humans and nature, despite some extinctions and local climate changes, in their respective production relations with nature.
If Anthropocene means ‘man-made’ climate change, then these pre-capitalist producers share none of the blame! But equally while pre-capitalist unity with nature inspires a vision of a non-capitalist human future, any return to pre-capitalist production relations is not part of the solution to climate change. The unity between humans and nature of pre-capitalist production relations cannot meet the needs of 8 billion humans today who are already enmeshed in the global capitalist system. The reason that such modes survive today is because they serve a purpose in providing cheap labor and raw materials to counter the LTRPF in the ‘developed’ countries.
Marx in his analysis of capitalism, fully realised how pre-capitalist modes survived in the service of capital, and toward the end of his life considered the possibility of the Russian peasant commune ‘leaping’ from a kinship mode into socialism with its ‘commune-ism’ intact and avoiding the transition to capitalism. More than twenty years later, the young Lenin tested this proposition in his book on the Development of Capitalism in Russia. Lenin found that by the 20th century the commune was subordinated to feudalism and its growing incorporation into global capitalism. The commune could not hold out to more ‘advanced’ modes that penetrated its economic relations and diverted its labor to the feudal lords and capitalist bankers and industrialists.
Capitalism, for the first time in history, created the potential for the unity of humans and nature within the contradiction of its production relation. While Capital dominates nature to the point of destruction, at the same it time creates the embryo of socialism within it, in the form of human Labor, that can resolve this contradiction in the future Commune.
Our present predicament is one of extreme contradiction between humans and nature in which the unrealised potential of unity of the Commune is the key to post-capitalist production relations. While pre-capitalist production relations were adapted to relative ‘scarcity’, post-capitalist production relations must restore the unity of humans and nature by overcoming the ‘scarcity’ imposed by capitalism and creating ‘plenty’ as the pre-condition of the future Commune.
So, how do we develop a social science of climate change? How can humans stop climate change in time, or failing that, mitigate its destruction of the biosphere? First, we get rid of the ahistorical and dead-end concept of the Anthropocene. It fails to explain why ‘industrial’ (another abstract concept) society created by the anonymous ‘man’ took off and developed at the expense of nature. Bourgeois ideology has its Robinson Crusoe myth of the birth of capitalism, that stranded white man who enslaved his black man Friday, a tragi-comedy which glorifies the separation of humanity from nature.
It ignores the real culprit, the capitalist production relations that created the conditions for ‘industrialisation’. To the extent that it acknowledges capitalism as an historical society, it explains its development not as a specific mode of production, but rather the myth of ‘economic man’ driving the evolution of the market, as both ‘natural’ and ‘just’.
It follows that this mythology is a road block to ending capitalism. If ‘economic man’ can perform such wonders then surely Anthropogenesis can find new socio/technical fixes that make capitalist production lean, clean and green. Capitalism would be a good idea, says Chomsky et.al., so let’s make it better and survive. This is the ideology that permeates the bourgeois social ‘science’ that traps the leaderships of social movements such as Extinction Rebellion within bourgeois history, law and politics.
This ‘science’ is antagonistic to the revolutionary social science we need to guide us towards a post-capitalist future. Because the Anthropocene has become an ideological alibi to free capitalism from the blame for climate change, our first step is to replace it with the Capitalocene. When that too, proves a barrier to revolution, we can open our eyes to new possibilities.
Capitalocene means ‘capitalist-made’
While capitalism made climate change it had to make the ‘capitalist human’ to make it happen. But what makes a capitalist human, and the ‘human nature’ specific to capitalism? The production relations between capital and labour. Like previous class societies, capitalism arose when an emerging class, the bourgeoisie, challenged the artificial scarcity of the old feudal production relations. The bourgeoisie were not concerned to solve the problem of scarcity for humans as such, but to accumulated the surplus labour of wage workers as their own private property.
Far from realising the potential of the unity of humanity and nature, the new production relations separated the producers from nature to an unprecedented degree, alienating workers from nature – that is their labor and means of production – exploiting nature to exhaustion. Capitalist development became possible only by exhausting nature so that the contradiction between humans and society grew to the point of destroying the very conditions for capitalist growth.
Unlike the Anthropocene which can be reformed by capitalism as solutions to AGW, the Capitalocene is defined by the antagonism between humans as nature, and capital as destroyer of nature. Marx understood that underlying the class struggle in the market between workers and capitalists there was a deeper contradiction between nature/labor and capital/society. He wrote about this contradiction as a metabolic rift to mean that the essential interdependence of nature and society was doomed to rupture when capital exhausted nature.
Its existence became the driving force of the fundamental laws of motion of capitalism. The separation of humans from nature under capitalism followed from the metabolic rift between labor as nature, and capital as destruction of nature. The resolution of this contradiction would be socialist revolution for nature against capital and new production relations in harmony with nature, realised in full under Commune(ism).
Kohei Saito, in his book Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, shows that Marx from early in his study of Capital understood the metabolic rift as both the secret of capitalist development as well as the ultimate cause of its decline in the necessary destruction of the conditions for its existence. The Young Marx recognised this as a contradictory process as capitalist production for profit led to the inevitable exhaustion of nature as wage labor, land and other means of production [MP]. Workers sold their Labour Power [LP] as a natural productive force to Capital. Part of it, necessary labour [NL], was advanced to them as wages to pay for the reproduction of LP. The surplus-labour [SL] was expropriated by Capital as the basis of profits.
In consuming their own NL and forfeiting their SL, this production relation alienates workers from control of their own labour (nature). Workers’ alienation from nature includes alienation from the human self, from solidarity with other humans, and from capitalist society. As a result, the fundamental contradiction between nature and humanity sets up an historical class struggle between labour and capital to defend nature or destroy it. We can see already that the concept of the Capitalocene that does not entail this contradiction is as apologetic for Capital as the Anthropocene. Capital is an historically specific mode that created at its heart the working class as a productive force of nature, which far from carrying any blame for climate crisis, would become its ‘gravedigger’ and finally explode the contradiction in the socialist revolution.
Marx critiqued the political economists who failed to see that the Capitalist [MOP] was historically specific. They had an evolutionary theory of capitalism in which the market and the individual bourgeois entrepreneur freed Capital from ancient and feudal scarcity and could overcome any natural limits with technology, giving it everlasting life – an early expression of a utopian Capitalist scenario!
In rejecting this evolutionary myth, Marx first had to debunk bad theories of the natural limits to Capital. Malthus claimed that population limits were set by loss of soil fertility. Marx buried himself in the debates over Agricultural chemistry and physics to show that capitalist agriculture could overcome soil exhaustion and overpopulation in the short term, but only by plundering and exhausting nature in the long term.
Between the short-sighted Malthus and Ricardo, and the bourgeois utopians without limits, Marx credited the class struggle as setting the limits to capitalist production. Capital would plunder nature to raise profits until such time as the class-conscious proletariat would overthrow it. Marx’s Ecosocialism can be summed up thus: the contradiction between Nature and Capital sets the absolute limit which capitalism today has now reached posing two roads forward. Nature will destroy capitalism and with it, humanity, unless humanity, in the form of socialism embryonic within capitalism, is born and destroys the Capitalocene replacing it with the Commune.
From Capital to Commune
To overthrow the Capitalocene as the concrete embodiment of the destructive relation between nature and capital we have to get rid of the concept of Capitalocene imprinted with bourgeois ideology. It is not capitalism in general, vaguely defined, subject to abuses and aberrations, and open to state reforms, that causes CGW. It is Capital destroying Nature. Therefore, capitalist relations of exchange and distribution cannot be reformed as they are embedded in the underling production relations. And these production relations presuppose private property and the dispossession of the producers of their own means of subsistence which is enforced by the capitalist state apparatuses.
The state is not a class-neutral institution that can limit the political power of elite, with occasional, liberal or labour-type governments. Its citizens are fetishized bourgeois individuals who must obey the state as the ‘organizing committee’ of the ruling class. The state enforces bourgeois law which defends private property and ensures that political representation does not challenge capitalist rule, using its armed forces, its spies and its controls over the media to enforce that rule. There is no room for reforms in any of these institutions devoted to Capital. If the specific production relations of capital and all of its supporting institutions are committed to destroying nature, cannot be reformed, then they must be overthrown. But how?
This fundamental contradiction between nature and capital is not a timeless abstract force, but the historical flesh and blood class struggle. It is the contradictory unity of nature and capital that is the force for change. Under the specific economic relations of capital, humanity, as part of nature, is turned into its opposite, inhumanity, antagonistic to nature. The ‘young’ Marx may have generalised about humans alienated from nature, self, others, society.
But he doesn’t leave it there by just talking about or ‘interpreting’ capitalist society. In his Capital, he shows how the alienated producers become conscious of their ‘humanity’ and fight back against capital becoming the embryonic material force necessary to liberate nature. Let’s look at the transition whereby the class struggle of those who produce labour-value creates the embryo of socialism within capitalism itself.
As we saw, the origin of capitalism was made possible only by the plunder of pre-capitalist society. That disrupted the metabolic balance within these societies destroying their capacity to reproduce themselves. This plunder was continued by the colonial dependence of capitalism on their stolen land, labour and natural resources to further capital accumulation in the ‘homelands’. Capitalism harnessed these natural forces of production for private profit. And as competition to cut prices led to the never-ending search for cheaper inputs to maintain profits, capital became a global force exploiting and alienating nature to survive and grow. Not according to the evolutionary story of the ‘progress’ of European ‘civilisation’. But rather, the capital relation that separates producers from their means of subsistence, so that what they produce with their labour-power, value, becomes the private property of capital.
Marxist writers follow Marx in calling this destruction of nature the ‘metabolic’ or ‘ecological’ rift. But nature fights back in the form of the producers of value. Capital accumulation globalises the formation of a powerful force where labour harnessed to capital, as slave or wage-labour, is forced to resist capital, to avert its destruction and reclaim its essential ‘human nature’.
Here, then is the inescapable law-like emergence of the global social force of nature that must challenge the rule of capital to create the conditions for the Commune. Marx gave us many examples of the existence and development of the first stage of this embryo as ‘socialism’. From the resistance of indigenous society to conquest; the slave revolts, organised wage-labour and de-colonisation.
Today, Marx would recognise the continuity of all these struggles fusing with the contemporary uprisings of workers and the poor (the global producers) against austerity and the rise of fascism. And to clinch his argument, all these struggles are essentially united in the fight to defeat capital and restore the unity of society with nature, now becoming manifest in the growth of the global movements against climate catastrophe.
Of course, this force for change does not automatically end the historic rule of Capital. It has to overcome the limits of bourgeois ideology that resists Marx’s Ecosocialism and defends capital as a progressive force compared with socialism or communism. Various spurious ‘left’ voices combine to abort the embryo of socialism as incompatible with ‘democracy’. Yet it is the underlying contradiction now peaking historically as the threat of human extinction which teaches us that the dialectic ‘knows’ reality and dissolves the apologetics of capital.
Even so, this objective process is not capable of ending Capital without the subjective consciousness and actions of nature, class struggle, driving socialist revolution. The forces “not of our own choosing” that operate “behind our backs” now come out to the front and are recognised and understood. That knowledge becomes the program of the revolutionary party. Namely, the Marxist party that tests the program in action to resolve the contradiction between nature and capital as socialist revolution.
That revolution begins the transition to socialism but is only the first stage of Communism. The producers’ rule with their own class state to suppress counter-revolution. It lays the groundwork of workers’ democracy and a planned economy preparatory to the return to nature. But it falls short of ‘freedom’ from necessary labour and the conception of a classless and stateless Commune. Let’s look at the revolutionary transition that takes place when the socialist embryo becomes the newly born infant and develops within the post-capitalist conditions from scarcity to plenty as the precondition for communism and the Commune itself.
Commune: Union of Nature and Humanity
Marx never attempted to put forward a blueprint for communist society of the future beyond a few necessary conditions. He assumed that the socialist transition would create the conditions for communism. When workers “win the battle for democracy” and take state power, they become the ruling class to suppress reactionary classes. The transition to communism creates social ownership and planned production. Bourgeois norms remain until scarcity is overcome. For example, workers receive back the equivalent of their work. When the Commune is fully developed the norm becomes “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”.
In the Communist Manifesto of 1848 Marx caustically compares bourgeois society with communist society. The Communist Mode of Production (Commune) abolishes private property for property in common. Classes are abolished and with them the class state. Likewise, all the political and cultural apparatuses of capitalism. For example, women are liberated from domestic slavery and prostitution. Nation states are abolished for the voluntary associations of peoples. “In the place of bourgeois society, with its classes, and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”
The Commune remained an untested theory/program until 1871 and the Paris Commune. The working people of Paris rose up against the Government and created an embryonic workers state which lasted for two months before its military suppression. In the Civil War in France, Marx saw it as the first attempt to bring this theory to life through the practice of proletarian revolution. First the workers created a democratic administration – the Commune – and a militia to defend it. All public offices were filled by elected and recallable delegates, and paid no more than the average worker’s wage. All governmental functions were centralised in the Commune and backed by the armed people.
The failure to build on these foundations was explained by the isolation of the Commune within France and internationally, and the lack of a Marxist leadership. Yet the lessons learned reinforced the 1848 prescription for socialist revolution to be internationalist, to lead all other oppressed classes including the peasantry, and as a result of the lessons of the Commune, the necessity to smash the capitalist state (rather than take it over) in order to create the ‘proletarian dictatorship’.
Four years later in his Critique of the Gotha Program Marx had to defend the program from retreating under attack from bourgeois and petty bourgeois forces. For the ruling class, the legacy of the Commune, the organised and armed proletariat opening the road to socialist revolution, had to be suppressed. Notably, Bukharin rejected the Paris Commune as an attempt to form a new oppressive class state thus depriving the revolution of the military means of success. And Lassalle spoke Marxist phrases but in practice reduced the program to begging Bismarck for state aid – an early welfare state. In reply to both, Engels argued that the Commune was the embryo of the “community” or “commune” that prefigured the abolition of classes and the state under communism. Engels to August Bebel, March 18-28, 1875
Communism therefore is the theory/practice of realising the Commune, restoring the unity of humanity and nature. After the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution was its only serious test. The Bolsheviks saw themselves in continuity with the Jacobins and the Paris Commune.
The Russian revolution went much further. It had the revolutionary leadership but succumbed to international isolation as the revolutions in Europe, which lacked that leadership, were defeated, allowing fascism to flourish and to seal this defeat in blood. While the revolution brought a workers’ dictatorship to power, defeating the imperialist invasion and Civil War, it was at the cost of major economic setbacks. Hopes that the Soviet Union would benefit from revolution in Europe, failed as the damage caused by war, and an economy producing less than pre-war levels of ‘scarcity’ weakened the revolution.
Isolated, and surrounded by world capitalism, the economically backward state was unable to catch up with advanced capitalism and overcome ‘scarcity’ before being dragged back by the counter-revolution. This broke the pact with the peasantry who turned against the revolution. In the absence of ‘plenty’ the Bolsheviks had to rely on capitalist production and bourgeois rights to manage the economy. The embattled and weakened proletariat was exhausted and within the party Stalin formed an alliance between the peasantry and the rising bureaucracy. What began as a workers’ dictatorship against capitalism ended by the 1930s in a bureaucratic dictatorship of the party in alliance with the petty bourgeoisie making ‘peace’ pacts with imperialism.
But like ‘Paris’ 1871, ‘October’ 1917 vindicates the Bolshevik’s theory/program of the socialist transition to the Commune. Writing in 1924 as a direct attack on Stalin’s hijacking of the revolution after the death of Lenin, Trotsky spelled out the Lessons of October. In the epoch of imperialism capitalism had exhausted its historical mission. International socialist revolution was now top of the agenda. And no revolution could succeed if not international.
For that to succeed there must be an international communist party. Russia opened the road but succumbed to counter-revolution externally and internally. Yet the lessons of October remain as the guide to world revolution, then, and now.
Marxism as scientific socialism has taught us that the contradiction between nature and capitalist society must be resolved by the producers if it is to be overcome and the re-union with nature restored. No bourgeois theory of social change no matter how radical can achieve that because they fear the Commune. The proletariat is the only class with the interest in resolving that contradiction on behalf of all oppressed classes and peoples, humans and non-human species.
It must do this by becoming class conscious, building democratic soviets or councils and implementing the socialist program of smashing the bourgeois state, expropriating capitalist property, and beginning the transition to the Commune. Short of the Commune, there is no version of capitalism reinvented that can possibly mobilise the world’s producers to organise, act, and rescue nature from the capitalist system that must destroy the planet. Unless capitalism’s gravediggers rise-up we will all end up digging our own graves.
Kohei Saito, Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy Monthly Review, 2017