This is the text of the talk I gave at the Left Forum last weekend in NYC:
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Environmental destruction is the most urgent and immediate problem we face. If we don’t solve it, nothing else will matter. I would argue that it’s the principle contradiction of the current period. Through it, the common ruin of contending classes is becoming increasingly likely, but as the economic and ecological crises converge, the possibility of liberation and social transformation also opens up. But only if we organize to make that happen.
The problem is accelerating because of capital’s constant need to expand into new areas. They have entered a period of extreme extraction, on a scale never before seen: fracking, oil from tar sands and deep sea drilling, mountaintop removal. Because of the falling rate of profit, capitalism can never economically catch up with itself and must constantly break through its limits in a vain attempt to resolve its own inherent internal contradiction.
Feudalism and all forms of class society have had internal contradictions that drove them to expand. But capitalism has taken this to a new level, because instead of just requiring more resources to continue existing (to feed an expanding agrarian population, for example), it requires constant growth of production to expand for its own sake. The needs of the population aren’t the point, and commodities aren’t even the point — accumulating surplus-value to expand capital itself is the entire point. This is what pushes it to exceed limits on a scale previously unimaginable.
But we live on a finite planet with physical limits, that are being reached. This is a difference from earlier economic crises. Capitalism is driven to consume everything external to itself, converting it to commodities, and it won’t stop doing so on its own until it kills all life on the planet. Capitalism is fundamentally in contradiction with life itself.
As this problem becomes more acute, and affects people more immediately, more people will come into motion to oppose it. We need to find ways of uniting those who can fight capitalism from both the standpoint of class liberation, and from an environmentalist perspective, or more precisely, biocentrism. Alone, neither can achieve a sustainable and classless future society. These movements are allied and complementary. Each will have different strategies and approaches, but both will have better chances for success the more they cooperate in the immediate period.
Each movement currently has gaps, which are filled in by the other. The major flaw in movements for class liberation has been anthropocentrism, a total focus on human needs and a utilitarian view of nature.
The major flaw of environmentalism (and the contemporary labor movement in the US as well, which has been destroyed or co-opted by sold-out unions) has been a lack of class analysis and a lack of understanding of capitalism as a system that needs to be dismantled, an economic system characterized by class domination and protected by a state that needs to be defeated. Because of this incomplete picture, many fall victim to illusions of reformism, bourgeois democracy, technotopianism, lifestylism, green capitalism, and other dead end schemes.
Many radical or deep green environmentalists get closer to the heart of the problem and fight to defend land and decrease production. These are both necessary, but not alone sufficient. We can not win — we can neither liberate ourselves nor save the planet — without defeating and dismantling the entire system of capitalism and fundamentally transforming the structure of society on a classless basis.
We can attack capitalism on many fronts, but at the center of it is the conversion of raw materials (life) into commodities through the capitalist exploitation of labor. The point is the extraction of surplus value from the worker. There is no other reason for commodities to be produced. So we must break the social relation of class domination that makes exploitation possible, and which characterizes a mode of production that requires the extraction of resources and results in the destruction of the environment.
On the left, the theory of productive forces has led to a widespread productivist/mechanical view of reaching socialism: by developing and fully mechanizing production, we will reach reach abundance and the end of labor itself. It is increasingly obvious that this scenario at odds with the reality around us, yet there is a general reluctance to tell the truth: that a lot of production, everything not necessary for survival, simply has to end. No one likes being the person who brings the bad news that we have to make do with less. It’s harder to organize around.
And so the idea of socialism, the common ownership of the means of production and equitable distribution of goods, also doesn’t go far enough. We need to change our relationship with the natural world. It is not there for us to use, but instead we are part of it and depend on its overall health. We need to define a different relationship with it than as a set of resources. A sustainable economy can only involve production that is subordinate to nature and that fits within its physical limits to reproduce itself — that is determined not by human desires and whims, but by our actual needs, which are dependent on a healthy planet above all.
The system fosters the illusion of a contradiction between the interests of the dominated classes (the working class in particular) — and the ecosystem that we all depend upon for life. Through the dispossession of land-based peoples at its stage of primary accumulation, capitalism creates a situation of dependency for workers, who no longer have access to their own traditional means of subsistence.
This is how they’ve set us up to demand that our needs be satisfied in ways that actually help the enemy and harm ourselves. For example, the demand for jobs is almost unquestioned in the labor movement, but this demand only helps the capitalist to further exploit us at cheaper rates. What we should be demanding is a universal income, which would hinder exploitation, hurt capital, and would be compatible with the ecological necessity of reducing production.
Instead of demanding a temporary job building a pipeline, for example, we need to be insisting on the right to a livable income whether we have a job or not. And if we’re unemployed, we should be spending our time joining those who are putting themselves on the line to stand in the way of oil pipelines, mountaintop removal, and nuclear power plants – such as the five Lakotas who were arrested a couple of weeks ago for participating in a successful community blockade of trucks that were coming onto Pine Ridge Indian land in South Dakota with materials for building the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline.
We must build organizations that bring to bear the energy and interests of all the popular classes and social groupings against capitalism. For reds, a major task is to build autonomous organizations of the working class to break capitalists’ ability to accumulate surplus value. In addition, capital should be blocked at the various points in its flow, and alliances are needed to build mass movements that can attack capitalism at each of these points — including and especially (as the ecological crisis becomes increasingly acute), defending the land by preventing extraction.
Indigenous struggles, in particular, need to be supported and allied with as part of any anti-capitalist initiative. For one thing, it must be acknowledged and addressed that the land that provides all our sustenance has been stolen and colonized. Furthermore, indigenous peoples and subsistence farmers are the only groups who have practice with living sustainably, who can offer alternatives to this way of life that have been proven successful.
The extraction of resources and the exploitation of labor could not even occur without dispossessing people of the land that previously sustained them, a dispossession that continues and a subsequent degradation that has accelerated to an apocalyptic rate. These economic processes are intertwined, mutually compulsory, defining elements of capitalist production, and a combined effort to stop both have a much better chance of defeating our common enemy.