28 february 2021

Climates of Capital
For a Trans-Environmental Eco-Socialism

Nancy Fraser, New Left Review, 127

Climate politics has moved to centre stage.footnote1 Even as pockets of denialism persist, political actors of multiple hues are turning green. A new generation of activist youth is insisting that we cease to evade the mortal threat posed by global warming. Chastising elders for stealing their future, these militants claim the right and responsibility to take all necessary steps to save the planet. At the same time, movements for degrowth are gaining strength. Convinced that consumerist lifestyles are driving us into the abyss, they seek a transformation of ways of living. Likewise, indigenous communities, North and South, have been winning wider support for struggles only lately recognized as ecological. Long engaged in defending their habitats and livelihoods from colonial invasion and corporate extractivism, they find new allies today among those seeking non-instrumental ways of relating to nature. Feminists, too, are infusing new urgency into long held ecological concerns. Positing psycho-historical links between gynophobia and contempt for the Earth, they mobilize for forms of life that sustain reproduction—both social and natural. Meanwhile, a new wave of anti-racist activism includes environmental injustice among its targets. Adopting an expansive view of what it means to ‘defund the police’, the Movement for Black Lives demands a massive redirection of resources to communities of colour, in part to clean up toxic deposits that ravage health.

Even social democrats, lately complicit with or demoralized by neoliberalism, are finding new life in climate politics. Reinventing themselves as proponents of a Green New Deal, they aim to recoup lost working-class support by linking the shift to renewable energy with high-paying union jobs. Not to be left out, strands of rightwing populism are also greening. Embracing eco-national-chauvinism, they propose to preserve ‘their own’ green spaces and natural resources by excluding (racialized) ‘others’. Forces in the Global South are also engaged on several fronts. While some claim a ‘right to development’, insisting that the burden of mitigation should fall on northern powers that have been spewing greenhouse gases for two hundred years, others advocate ‘commoning’ or a ‘solidary and social economy’; while still others, donning the environmentalist mantle, utilize neoliberal carbon-offset schemes to enclose lands, dispossess those who live from them and capture new forms of monopoly rent. Finally, corporate and financial interests have skin in the game. Profiting handsomely from booming speculation in eco-commodities, they are invested not just economically but also politically in ensuring the global climate regime remains market-centred and capital-friendly.

Eco-politics, in a word, has become ubiquitous. No longer the exclusive property of stand-alone environmental movements, climate change now appears as a pressing matter on which every political actor must take a stand. Incorporated into a slew of competing agendas, the issue is variously inflected according to the differing commitments with which it keeps company. The result, beneath a superficial consensus, is a roiling dissensus. On the one hand, growing numbers of people now view global warming as a threat to life as we know it on Planet Earth. On the other hand, they do not share a common view of the societal forces that drive that process—nor of the societal changes required to stop it. They agree (more or less) on the science but disagree (more than less) on the politics.footnote2

Yet the terms ‘agree’ and ‘disagree’ are too pallid to capture the situation. Present-day eco-politics unfolds within, and is marked by, an epochal crisis. A crisis of ecology, to be sure, but also one of economy, society, politics and public health—that is, a general crisis whose effects metastasize everywhere, shaking confidence in established worldviews and ruling elites. The result is a crisis of hegemony—and a ‘wilding’ of public space. No longer tamed by a ruling commonsense that forecloses out-of-the-box options, the political sphere is now the site of a frantic search not just for better policies, but for new political projects and ways of living. Gathering well before the Covid outbreak, but greatly intensified by it, this ‘unsettled atmosphere’ permeates eco-politics, which perforce unfolds within it. Climate dissensus is fraught, accordingly, not ‘only’ because the fate of the Earth hangs in the balance, nor ‘only’ because time is short, but also because the political climate, too, is wracked by turbulence.
In this situation, safeguarding the planet requires building a counter-hegemony.

What is needed is to resolve the present cacophony of opinion into an eco-political commonsense that can orient a broadly shared project of transformation. Certainly, such a commonsense must cut through the mass of conflicting views and identify exactly what in society must be changed to stop global warming—effectively linking the authoritative findings of climate science to an equally authoritative account of the socio-historical drivers of climate change. To become counter-hegemonic, however, a new commonsense must transcend the ‘merely environmental’. Addressing the full extent of our general crisis, it must connect its ecological diagnosis to other vital concerns—including livelihood insecurity and denial of labour rights; public disinvestment from social reproduction and chronic undervaluation of carework; ethno-racial-imperial oppression and gender and sex domination; dispossession, expulsion and exclusion of migrants; militarization, political authoritarianism and police brutality. These concerns are intertwined with and exacerbated by climate change, to be sure. But the new commonsense must avoid reductive ‘ecologism’. Far from treating global warming as a trump card that overrides everything else, it must trace that threat to underlying societal dynamics that also drive other strands of the present crisis. Only by addressing all major facets of this crisis, ‘environmental’ and ‘non-environmental’, and by disclosing the connections among them, can we begin to build a counter-hegemonic bloc that backs a common project and possesses the political heft to pursue it effectively.

This is a tall order. But what brings it within the realm of the possible is a ‘happy coincidence’: all roads lead to one idea—namely, capitalism. Capitalism, in the sense I shall define below, represents the socio-historical driver of climate change, and the core institutionalized dynamic that must be dismantled in order to stop it. But capitalism, so defined, is also deeply implicated in seemingly non-ecological forms of social injustice—from class exploitation to racial-imperial oppression and gender and sexual domination. And capitalism figures centrally, too, in seemingly non-ecological societal impasses—in crises of care and social reproduction; of finance, supply chains, wages and work; of governance and de-democratization. Anti-capitalism, therefore, could—indeed, should—become the central organizing motif of a new commonsense. Disclosing the links among multiple strands of injustice and irrationality, it represents the key to developing a powerful counter-hegemonic project of eco-societal transformation.

That, at any rate, is the thesis I shall argue here. In what follows, I unfold it on three different levels, which complement and reinforce one another. Making the case, first, on the structural level, I contend that capitalism, rightly understood, harbours a deep-seated ecological contradiction, which inclines it non-accidentally to environmental crisis. But far from standing alone, I claim, this contradiction is entwined with several others, equally endemic to capitalism, and cannot be adequately addressed in abstraction from them. Shifting, next, to the historical register, I chart the specific forms that capitalism’s ecological contradiction has assumed in the various phases of the system’s development, up to and including the present. Contra single-issue ecologism, this history discloses the pervasive entanglement of eco-crisis and eco-struggle with other strands of crisis and struggle, from which they have never been fully separable in capitalist societies. Turning, finally, to the political level, I contend that eco-politics today must transcend the ‘merely environmental’ by becoming anti-systemic across the board. Foregrounding global warming’s entwinement with other pressing facets of our general crisis, I claim that green movements should turn trans-environmental, positioning themselves as participants in an emerging counter-hegemonic bloc, centred on anti-capitalism, which could, at least in principle, save the planet.

1. capitalism’s ecological contradiction

What does it mean to say that capitalism is the principal socio-historical driver of global warming? At one level, this claim is empirical, a statement of cause and effect. Against the usual vague references to ‘anthropogenic climate change’, it pins the rap not on ‘humanity’ in general, but on the class of profit-driven entrepreneurs who engineered the fossil-fuelled system of production and transportation that released a flood of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. That’s a claim I shall defend empirically later on, in the historical portion of my argument. But there is more at work here than historical causality. Capitalism, as I understand it, drives global warming non-accidentally, by virtue of its very structure. It is this strong, systematic claim, and not its weaker empirical cousin, that I unpack now.

I begin by preempting a possible misunderstanding. To say that capitalism drives climate change non-accidentally is not to say that ecological crises occur only in capitalist societies. On the contrary, many precapitalist societies have perished as a result of environmental impasses, including some of their own making—as when ancient empires ruined the farmlands on which they depended through deforestation or failure to rotate crops. Likewise, some self-proclaimed postcapitalist societies generated severe environmental damage, through relentless quotidian coal-burning and spectacular one-off disasters such as Chernobyl. Such cases show that ecological devastation is not unique to capitalism.

What is unique, however, is the structural character of the link between ecological crisis and capitalist society. Precapitalist eco-crises occurred in spite of ‘nature-friendly’ worldviews and largely thanks to ignorance—for example, through failure to anticipate the consequences of deforestation or overplanting. They could have been prevented—and sometimes were—by social learning that prompted shifts in social practice. Nothing in the inherent dynamics of these societies required the practices that spawned the damages. The same is true for self-proclaimed postcapitalist societies. ‘Really existing socialisms’ practiced unsustainable agricultural and industrial regimens, poisoning the land with chemical fertilizers and fouling the air with CO2. Unlike their precapitalist predecessors, of course, their practices aligned with worldviews that were not at all ‘nature-friendly’, and their actions were shaped by ideological pressures enjoining ‘the development of the productive forces’.

What is crucial, however, is that neither the worldviews nor the pressures arose from dynamics internal to socialism. Their roots lay, rather, in the geopolitical soil in which these socialisms germinated—in a world-system structured by competition with capitalist societies, by the ‘catch-up’ extractivist mindset which that environment fostered, and by the fossil-fuelled models of mega-industrialization favoured by it. To say this is not to let the rulers of these societies off the hook; they will remain forever culpable for disastrous decisions made in bureaucratic–authoritarian milieus saturated with fear and obsessed with secrecy, qualities they deliberately cultivated. The point is rather that nothing in the nature of socialist society requires such milieus or such decisions. Absent the prevailing external constraints and internal deformations, such societies could in principle develop sustainable patterns of interaction with nonhuman nature.
The same cannot be said for capitalist societies. They are unique among known social systems in entrenching a deep-seated tendency to ecological crisis at their very core. As I shall explain, a systemic ‘ecological contradiction’ is inscribed in the dna of capitalist society, anchored in its signature institutional structure and developmental dynamics. As a result, capitalist societies are primed to generate recurrent environmental crises throughout their history. Unlike those of other societies, their ecological impasses cannot be resolved by increased knowledge or green bona fides. What is required, in addition, is deep-structural transformation.

Economic and non-economic

To see why, we must revisit the concept of capitalism. Contrary to the usual view, capitalism is not an economic system but something bigger. More than a way of organizing economic production and exchange, it is also a way of organizing the relation of production and exchange to their non-economic conditions of possibility. It is well understood in many quarters that capitalist societies institutionalize a dedicated ‘economic’ realm—the realm of a peculiar abstraction known as ‘value’—where commodities are produced through privately owned means of production by exploited wage labourers and sold on price-setting markets by private firms, all with the aim of generating profits and accumulating capital. What is often overlooked, however, is that this realm is constitutively dependent—one could say, parasitic—on a host of social activities, political capacities, and natural processes that are defined in capitalist societies as non-economic. Accorded no ‘value’ and positioned outside it, these constitute the economy’s indispensable presuppositions. Certainly, commodity production is inconceivable without the unwaged activities of social reproduction that form and sustain the human beings who perform wage labour. Nor could such production exist apart from the natural processes that assure availability of vital inputs, including raw materials and sources of energy. Neither, finally, would profit or capital be possible without the legal orders, repressive forces and public goods that underpin private property and contractual exchange. Essential conditions for a capitalist economy, these non-economic instances are not external to capitalism, but integral elements of it. Conceptions of capitalism that omit them are ideological. To equate capitalism with its economy is to parrot the system’s own economistic self-understanding—and thus to miss the chance to interrogate it critically. To gain a critical perspective, we must understand capitalism broadly—as an institutionalized social order that encompasses not only the economy but also those activities, relations and processes, defined as ‘non-economic’, that make ‘the economy’ possible.footnote3
What is gained from this revision is the ability to examine something crucial: the relation established in capitalist societies between the economy and its ‘others’—including that vital other known as nature. At its core, this relation is contradictory and crisis-prone. On the one hand, the system’s economy is constitutively dependent on nature, both as a tap for production’s inputs and as a sink for disposing its waste. At the same time, capitalist society institutes a stark division between the two ‘realms’—constructing the economy as a field of creative human action that generates value while positioning ‘nature’ as a realm of stuff, devoid of value, but infinitely self-replenishing and generally available to be processed in commodity production.

This ontological gulf becomes a raging inferno when capital enters the mix. A monetized abstraction engineered to self-expand, capital commands accumulation without end. The effect is to incentivize owners bent on maximizing profits to commandeer nature’s gifts as cheaply as possible, while also absolving them of any obligation to replenish what they take and repair what they damage. The damages are the flip-side of the profits. With their ecological-reproduction costs discounted, all the major inputs to capitalist production and circulation are vastly cheapened—not ‘just’ raw materials, energy and transport, but also labour, as wages fall with the cost of living when capital wrests food from nature on the cheap. In every case, capitalists appropriate the savings from cheap inputs in the form of profit, while passing the environmental costs to those who must live with—and die from—the fallout, including future generations.

More than a relation to labour, then, capital is also a relation to nature—a predatory, extractive relation, which consumes ever more biophysical wealth in order to pile up ever more ‘value’, while disavowing ecological ‘externalities’. What also piles up, not accidentally, is an ever-growing mountain of eco-wreckage: an atmosphere flooded by carbon emissions; climbing temperatures, crumbling polar ice shelves, rising seas clogged with islands of plastic; mass extinctions, declining biodiversity, climate-driven migration of organisms and pathogens, increased zoonotic spillovers of deadly viruses; superstorms, megadroughts, giant locust swarms, jumbo wildfires, titanic flooding; dead zones, poisoned lands, unbreathable air. Systemically primed to free-ride on a nature that cannot really self-replenish without limit, capitalism’s economy is always on the verge of destabilizing its own ecological conditions of possibility.

The D-words

Here, in effect, is an ecological contradiction lodged at the heart of capitalist society–—the relation this society establishes between economy and nature. Grounded deep in the system’s structure, this contradiction is encapsulated in four D-words: dependence, division, disavowal and destabilization. In a nutshell: capitalist society makes ‘economy’ depend on ‘nature’, while dividing them ontologically. Enjoining endless accumulation of value, while defining nature as not partaking of it, this arrangement programmes economy to disavow the ecological reproduction costs it generates. The effect, as those costs mount exponentially, is to destabilize ecosystems—and, periodically, to disrupt the entire jerry-rigged edifice of capitalist society. Simultaneously needing and rubbishing nature, capitalism is a cannibal that devours its own vital organs, like a serpent that eats its own tail.footnote4

The contradiction can also be formulated in terms of class power. By definition, capitalist societies devolve the task of organizing production to capital, or rather, to those dedicated to its accumulation. It is the class of capitalists whom this system licenses to extract raw materials, generate energy, determine land use, engineer food systems, bio-prospect medicinals and dispose of waste—effectively ceding to them the lion’s share of control over air and water, soil and minerals, flora and fauna, forests and oceans, atmosphere and climate, which is to say, over all the basic conditions that sustain life on Earth. Capitalist society thus vests a class that is strongly motivated to trash nature with the power to manage our relations with it.

Granted, governments sometimes intervene post hoc to mitigate the damages—but always reactively, in the mode of catch-up, and without disturbing the owners’ prerogatives. Because they are always a step behind the emitters of greenhouse gases, environmental regulations are easily subverted by corporate workarounds. And because they leave intact the structural divisions that license private firms to organize production, they do not alter the fundamental fact: the system gives capitalists motive, means and opportunity to savage the planet. It is they, and not humans in general, who have brought us global warming—but not by chance or simple greed. Rather, the dynamic that has governed their actions and led to that outcome is baked into the very structure of capitalist society.

Whichever formulation we start with, the conclusion we reach is the same: capitalistically organized societies carry an ecological contradiction in their dna. They are primed to precipitate ‘natural catastrophes’, which occur periodically but not accidentally throughout their history. Thus, these societies harbour a built-in tendency to ecological crisis. They generate ecosystemic vulnerabilities on an ongoing basis, as part and parcel of their modus operandi. Although not always acute or even apparent, the vulnerabilities pile up over time, until a tipping point is reached and the damage bursts forth into view. I shall consider some historical examples in the following section.

Here, however, I have been stressing the structural character of this tendency. The point is all-important, not least for its practical entailments. To say that capitalism’s ecological problem is structural is to say that we cannot save the planet without disabling some core, defining features of our social order. What is needed, first and foremost, is to wrest the power to dictate our relation to nature away from the class that currently monopolizes it, so that we can begin to reinvent that relation from the ground up. But that requires dismantling the system that underpins their power: the military forces and property forms, the pernicious ontology of ‘value’ and the relentless dynamic of accumulation, all of which work together to drive global warming. Eco-politics must, in sum, be anti-capitalist.

Mutually constitutive domains

That conclusion is conceptually powerful as it stands. But it doesn’t yet tell the whole story. To complete the picture, we need to consider some additional structural features of capitalist society that also impact nature and the struggles surrounding it. What is crucial here is a point I alluded to earlier: nature is neither the only non-economic background condition for a capitalist economy nor the only site of crisis in capitalist society. Rather, as already noted, capitalist production also relies on social-reproductive and political prerequisites. And these arrangements, too, are contradictory—no less than the arrangements surrounding nature, with which they interact in ways that we ignore at our peril. These relations, too, must be included in an eco-critical theory of capitalist society.

Consider the social-reproductive conditions for a capitalist society. Here, too, capitalism organizes more than just production. It also structures the relations between production and the multiple forms of carework performed by communities and families—chiefly, but not only, by women. Sustaining the human beings who constitute ‘labour’ and forging the social bonds that enable cooperation, carework is indispensable to any system of social provisioning. But capitalism’s distinctive way of organizing care is as contradictory as its way of organizing nature. Here, too, the system works through splitting—in this case, splitting production off from reproduction and treating the first alone as a locus of value. The effect is to license the economy to free-ride on society, to appropriate carework without replenishment, to deplete the energies needed to provide it—and thus to jeopardize an essential condition of its own possibility. A tendency to social-reproductive crisis is lodged at the core of capitalist society.footnote5

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