The capitalist social order both causes and exacerbates climate breakdown by misdirecting technological development and fragmenting what I call ‘the social political economy’. As a social—not merely economic—order, capitalism restricts our ability to take the foot off the accelerator—let alone to slam on the brake. I advocate transitioning from capitalism’s disunified social political economy to socialism’s unified social political economy in order to combat climate change while maintaining social order. Socialist structures may better correspond to developing forces or technologies needed to address climate change than capitalist structures would, while also cohering more harmoniously with one another than existing structures do. In order to fight climate change, the social political economy must be unified—a task to which a global socialist order seems better suited than global capitalism.
By ‘social order’, I mean the whole ‘social political economy’, or the totality of ecological, economic, political, and social structures undergirding social life. Each structure comprises both coercion (‘material power’) and legitimation (‘ideational power’). Each structure also comprises both underlying technologies or capacities which need sustaining (‘forces of power’) and social/ecological structures that sustain these forces (‘relations of power’). These structures make up what political scientists Barry Buzan and George Lawson call a ‘mode of power’, which I argue has four forms:
- NATURE, or ‘the mode of ecological nature‘, which includes raw ecological materials and capacities (the ‘forces of nature’) and overarching structures of socio-ecological accumulation (the ‘relations of nature’);
- ECONOMY, or ‘the mode of economic production‘, which includes industry and automation (the ‘forces of production’) and class inequality and market competition (the ‘relations of production’);
- POLITY, or ‘the mode of political representation‘, which includes both military and communication technologies (the ‘forces of representation’) and states themselves (the ‘relations of representation’); and
- SOCIETY, or ‘the mode of social reproduction‘, which includes fundamental social practices like food-sharing and care-giving (the ‘forces of reproduction’) and the community/family/state/market structures which allow these practices to occur (the ‘relations of reproduction’).
In coming to my possibly radical conclusions, I ask three questions: first, about why relations of power need to ‘correspond’ to forces of power and ‘cohere’ with one another in order to preserve social order and fight climate breakdown; second, about why socialism ticks the boxes; and third, about how the transition from capitalism to socialism might happen. Before considering these three questions in turn, I’d like to take a brief mode-by-mode look on what capitalism looks like in practice:
- Extraction of ‘raw materials’ in service of economic, political, and social goals;
- Exploitation of labourers in the interests of those who own labour—capitalists;
- Exclusion of people outside of powerful democratic states from politics; and
- Expropriation of poor non-white/cis/hetero/male people in order to give production ‘free gifts’, and exclusion of these people from equal social standing.
Firstly, why do relations of power need to ‘correspond’ to forces of power and ‘cohere’ harmoniously with one another in order to combat climate change while maintaining social order? For any given mode of power, ‘relations’ (structures) ‘correspond’ to ‘forces’ (technologies or capacities) when these relations provide enough space for forces’ full appropriate development. Otherwise, as Marx contended, relations need replacing as they ‘fetter’ their forces’ development. The relations of nature, production, representation, and reproduction must therefore correspond to their forces in order to:
- Replenish nature with adequate air, trees, and water to restore climatic equilibrium (the ecological revolution);
- Redistribute wealth and power through a renewable-energy revolution that takes on vested fossil-fuel interests (the economic revolution);
- Represent people, not profits, in political decision-making at the nation-state level and beyond (the political revolution); and
- Recognise people’s equal status in social interaction, and replenish community and care-giving arrangements (the social revolution).
When relations of power do not ‘cohere’ with one another, as critical theorist Nancy Fraser argues, the economy may ‘cannibalise’ nature and society. In this case, the pursuit of infinite accumulation and profits eats into the capacities of nature and society to replenish themselves. Both correspondence and coherence are needed to fight climate change.
Secondly, why might a socialist order combat climate change through correspondence and coherence better than the capitalist social order currently does? The division of the capitalist social order into a class-divided economy and state-divided politics incentivises ruling classes and independent states to free-ride on emissions-reduction initiatives. This is why China and India may continue increasing emissions without a global sanctions or redistribution regime—whose administration may need some form of global government. Meanwhile, billionaires successfully oppose policies for decarbonisation (as Jeffrey Winters, Benjamin Page and colleagues have shown). Before capitalism globalised in the 1800s, the mode of power was unified because the economy was ‘embedded’ in society through either familial or political control (as Karl Polanyi noted). Under ‘disembedded’ capitalism, ‘boundary struggles’ (another term Fraser coined) occur between ecology, economics, politics, and society. For instance, capitalist ideology frames human society as apart from nature—rather than a part of it—while capitalist economics treats social reproduction in the family as disposable.
A socialist mode of power, however, could re-embed the economy in one democratic order. By nationalising utilities (as John McDonnell advocates), democratising industry, and socialising the stock market through a ‘coupon economy’ (policies supported by market socialists like John Roemer), investments could be freed up for automation. As the economy grows, citizens could be given a high ‘universal basic income’ to free them from wage labour—or, as philosophers Aristotle and Marx might say, wage slavery. While capitalist subjects pursue individual fortune, socialist citizens may freely engage in collective democratic activity. Democracy could then be globalised to the level of a world state, which could properly enforce our socio-ecological contracts to one another, and to the Earth.
But even without a democratic-socialist world state, democratic-socialist nation-states could replenish nature through massive ‘re-wilding’, raise investments in green energy to the necessary 2%+ of GDP (a figure economist Robert Pollin emphasises), consolidate democracy and reduce conflict, and recognise all people as equal in social status, while also replenishing capacities for social reproduction. The forces of power would fully develop towards appropriate levels, and the relations of power would cohere harmoniously as politics, economics, ecology, and society are unified in the democratic polity.
Thirdly, how might eco-socialism emerge from capitalism’s climate crisis? Though left-wing social movements like Extinction Rebellion address this crisis, they frequently lack a political arm through which to channel their grassroots energy. Ecological, economic, political, and social struggles should therefore join together in a popular front against capitalist separation, in pursuit of socialist solidarity. By winning elections across the advanced capitalist states such as France or Germany, the UK, and—especially—the US, democratic-socialist parties can turn the tide from climate crisis towards eco-socialism. Then, we can not only unify the revolution, but also unify and heal the planet.
References (if you’re interested)
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Fraser, N. (2017). Crisis of care? On the social-reproductive contradictions of contemporary capitalism. In T. Battacharya, Social reproduction theory (pp. 21-36). London: Pluto Press.
Fraser, N., & Jaeggi, R. (2018). Capitalism: A conversation in critical theory. Cambridge: Polity Press.
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Polanyi, K. (2001 ). The great transformation. Boston: Beacon Press.
Pollin, R. (2018). De-growth vs. a Green New Deal. New Left Review, 112, 5-25.
Roemer, J. (1993). Can there be socialism after communism? In P. Bardhan, & J. Roemer, Market socialism: The current debate (pp. 89-107). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Runciman, D. (2018). How democracy ends. London: Profile Books.
Winters, J. (2011). Oligarchy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.