Biosphere on the Precipice, Part 2
More on the Impending Catastrophe and How to Fight It
In the early months of 2009, the world faces twin crises of immense proportions. As the so-called economic “meltdown”—a depression whose magnitude could well exceed the Great Depression of the 1930s—begins to clench its gnarly fist around the neck of working people, an even worse “melting”—indeed a monster—waits just off stage to threaten humanity with a catastrophe never before imagined. Much more than even the current massive downturn of capitalist economies worldwide, global warming is the crisis to end all crises—a possible termination point for civilization, as we know it. Only a revolutionary transformation of the world economy and society, in which the working people and oppressed everywhere take command of their own destiny, can turn this twin calamity into a new beginning for the world. Possible extinction awaits humanity if it does nothing. The time is now.
There are many for whom these words will ring true. You can almost hear the Greenland ice sheet slipping into the ocean; and almost see how the coming environmental devastation could combine with the inability of severely weakened societies to handle major social crises to bring a collapse much more extensive than anything in memory. But for the vast majority, the blinders are still on. The politicians are still the biggest pied pipers out there, leading us to disaster with a song of redemption. One in particular stands out right now: Obama.
The new war president
It was with hopes for relief from the abomination of the twin horsemen of the apocalypse—Bush and Cheney—that many around the world greeted the inauguration of the first black president. But despite all the hope and promises, Obama and Biden are already revealing themselves to be the other two horsemen. Despite the election-campaign pledges to end the war in Iraq, Obama has already become the next war president. He has signed off on the status of forces agreement (SOFA), negotiated under Bush, which would keep U.S. troops and bases in Iraq until 2011 and beyond. He has also begun to fulfill a campaign promise to start sending more troops to Afghanistan, and with his three (so far) drone-missile bombings, which killed 60 in Pakistan’s North West province, including civilians, he’s already become a war criminal. Afghanistan is, for U.S. imperialism, a bottomless pit of hopeless quagmire; it’s Obama’s Vietnam.
The Obama administration has shown where its loyalties lie by maintaining the Bush position on state secrecy, and indefinite detention of so-called enemy combatants. The same lawyers pursued the same arguments in the Jeppesen case, against victims of rendition and torture who are petitioning for recognition and relief. “National security” was invoked to prevent them from getting their day in court. And Obama’s Justice Department ruled that some 600 so-called enemy combatants being held at Bagram Air Base detention center in Afghanistan have no constitutional rights.
But even worse than that for the world’s people, is the World-War-III prospects being cooked up by the military that Obama heads. The U.S. missiles going into Eastern Europe, the contention over the oil and gas rich Caspian Sea area, and even Obama’s proposed negotiations with Iran, are all part of a building confrontation with Russia, over the dwindling resources so necessary to carbon-fuel addicts. Bush’s bloody war for oil was just the beginning.
“By Monday, there won’t be an economy.”
That future, however, waits offstage, along with the global warming nightmare. Right now, all eyes are on the economy, and what is being done about it. At first the surprise, confusion and floundering among politicians in Washington was jaw-dropping. This was shown in a key incident in early October, captured in a PBS documentary, when then Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson assembled a Congressional delegation in his office to present the now infamous $700 billion bailout proposal. Paulson said, “We need this by Monday.” One of the representatives said (paraphrasing), “You don’t understand. This is Congress; we don’t work that fast,” to which Paulson replied, “If we don’t get this by Monday, there won’t be an economy.” The narrator’s comment: “All the oxygen went out of the room.”1
Meanwhile, layoffs in 2008-09 have been mounting at rates not seen since 1931, and incomes are dropping precipitously. In a recent Labor Department estimate, underemployment—which combines unemployment with those who can only find part time jobs when they need full time, and the “discouraged” workers who have given up looking for work, was at 13.9 percent in January. 3.6 million jobs have been lost since the so-called “recession” began in December of 2007.2 If this trend continues through 2009, it could mean a total of eight to 12 million jobs lost during 2008-09, with some estimates as high as 20 million by 2010.
Junk food outlets, Walmart and repo-men
In the housing crisis that sparked the conflagration, 2.3 million foreclosures were reported in 2008, an increase of 81 percent over 2007, and up 225 percent from 2006. As the collapse of the speculative real-estate “bubble” is driving home prices down, and deceptive financing scheme continue to wreak havoc, perhaps five to seven million more are at risk. At fault are financing practices such as sub-prime and variable rate mortgages, which were packaged into securities and sold, along with derivatives based on those securities, to investors on Wall St. While outstanding mortgage balances remain unchanged, many now find themselves stuck in debt that is much higher than the current value of their houses.
Real wages have declined for 30 or so years, and the ratio of executive pay to workers’ pay has skyrocketed. Now, with the crisis, the hard-earned savings of working people have evaporated in a cloud of crashed-out speculation. As the stock market dropped 2400 points in eight straight days in October, by late November, the value of retirement accounts had been cut in half.3 Social services are also being massively cut, as states and local governments face huge budget shortfalls. The recent budget agreement in California includes billions of cuts; as well as regressive tax increases. The last-second deal in Sacramento barely managed to head-off cancellation of over 200 public works projects. Meanwhile, some counties were preparing to sue, while others were threatening to withhold tax revenues due to the state, if a budget wasn’t passed!
Besides Wall St. bankers, who are the “winners” in the current crisis? Junk food outlets, Wal-Mart and repo-men, i.e., McDonald’s and Wal-Mart’s profits are up, and the auto repossession “industry” is “booming”.
“Yes We Can”—but saving capitalism is so-o hard!
Bush’s $700 billion bailout of the very same Wall Street tycoons who were responsible for the mess, fully endorsed by Obama and the Congressional Democrats, was instantly and widely unpopular, so much so that it failed to pass the House on the first try. Now, though this initial bailout is widely seen to have been a misdirected drop in the bucket, it’s full steam ahead with more corporate and bank bailouts under Obama. In early February, a $789 billion “stimulus package” was crammed through Congress over Republican objection, despite Obama’s paeans to “bipartisanship.” Called “the most expansive unleashing of the government’s fiscal firepower in the face of recession since World War II,” by the New York Times, it included a scaled-down version Obama’s “middle class” tax cuts, and spending on education, health care, temporary increases in unemployment benefits, and support for various public works programs to create jobs, etc. But it paled in comparison to the $2.5 trillion “Financial Stabilization Plan” for bank rescue announced by Treasury Secretary (and former New York Federal Reserve chairman) Timothy Geithner. Through this, the Obama administration hopes to encourage a revival of credit to business and consumers, by “subsidizing the profits of hedge funds and private equity firms that serve as bankers to the banks.”4
This extension of the Bush-Paulson giveaway makes the banks the big winners, without doing a thing to turn around the corrupt system of financial speculation and “free market” greed that led up to this crisis in the first place—in fact it tries to recreate the bubble economy.5 Despite the fig leaf of a $500,000 non-retroactive cap on executive compensation for bankers and CEOs aided by the government (at that rate they might have to choose between a million dollar office makeover and that second yacht!), the Obama administration’s game plan has been shown to be the same as G.W. Bush, and the same as Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the Great Depression of the 1930s before him: to save the capitalist system from itself—and from the threat of revolution from below. Yet the still-tumbling stock market, and mounting layoffs and foreclosures demonstrate that he hasn’t won any victories yet. Yes, yes, we haven’t given him enough time. But FDR had almost ten years of thrashing around with one pragmatic “stimulus” after another before finding the only one that really worked—World War II.
From “American Century,” to boom-and-bust, to financial meltdown
The global economic meltdown is not just a collapse of the economy, but of the whole capitalist house-of-cards financial system through which the economy is owned and controlled. To understand the inadequacy of Obama’s stimulus package and bank bailouts, a little history is in order.
The immediate post-World War II period, through the 1960s, was a boom for U.S. capitalism. As a victor, and the only major power to emerge physically unscathed by the monumental destruction of the war, the U.S. entered the self-proclaimed “American Century” of imperialist dominance, experiencing a burst of new production, and a positive trade balance with the rest of the world. The U.S. was the world’s biggest creditor nation, and the dollar, backed by gold, was the dominant currency. But then a declining trade balance with reemerging European and Japanese economies, and increased dollar holdings abroad, forced Nixon to dump the gold standard and let currencies “float” relative to each other. This encouraged speculation in currencies, and allowed the foreign debt of the U.S. to rise, both of which have now become huge factors in the current crisis.
The 1970s introduced a long period of cyclical ups and downs, marked by periodic crises (1970s “stagflation,” the stock market crash of 1987, the dot com boom-bust of the 1990s). Through these decades, two issues are most telling: the deindustrialization of America, and the attacks on, and decline of, union labor. Both of these phenomena are signs that the “law of the diminishing rate of profit,” discussed by Marx, has come into play.6 Simply put, profits are generated by the labor of workers ( variable capital), not by machines or technology ( constant capital). When the technological advances (robots on assembly lines, the use of transistors and miniaturization in electronics, computerization, etc.) increase the productivity of the workers, the capitalist needs fewer workers to produce the same amount of product. Thus, even if the overall amount of production increases (as it often does with major innovations) the ratio of variable capital to constant capital decreases, and the rate of profit goes down.7
Runaway plants, the rustbelt, and fictitious capital
The movement of production to lower wage areas, such as to southern states in the U.S., or to Mexico, South America, and Asia, and then into “free trade zones” or maquiladoras —as well as attacks on union labor conditions designed to drive up the rate of exploitation—are key ways in which capitalists contend with a falling rate of profit. Accompanying this developing pattern of de-industrialization of the American “heartland” has been the increasing use of what Marx called “fictitious” capital—that is, capital held in financial instruments which have a steadily increasing rate of return for investors, but a steadily decreasing connection to anything real (such as shares in a company, or property such as houses). Though handily facilitated by a steady pattern of deregulation of financial markets under both political parties (especially Clinton), this drift towards the more “profitable” financial capital is inherent in the system. “Greed” is an unscientific (though usually true) way of looking at it. But the real point is: if the capitalists don’t struggle to constantly accumulate more capital and achieve greater profits, then their competitors will, and they will be eliminated. Capitalism is a Hobbesian war of each against all.
This pattern of increasing domination of finance capital infects all sectors. As one commentator put it recently, when the financial operations of a company like, say, General Motors, become more profitable than the production of real goods such as cars and trucks, you know that there is too much finance capital in the mix. By the time in late 2007 that the current “downturn” (that’s what they called it at first—it sounds quaint now) began, the layers of fictitious capital had reached mind-boggling proportions.
Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism
This can be seen if we describe the economy as a series of layers. At the bottom is the gross domestic product, or GDP. Already there is a certain fictional, speculative component, since with deindustrialization; the U.S. is now an import economy. If a capitalist imports a product for one dollar, and sells it for $10, the GDP chalks up $9. On top of this layer are stocks and bonds, which are financial instruments that are actually based on something real, namely companies that produce something. Aside from the fact that many companies are themselves engaged in fictitious financial “products,” you also must consider that the total face value of stocks, bonds and mortgages exceeds the real value of the companies/properties they represent—again through speculation. And on top of that, you have layers of “derivatives” which again magnify the apparent value, as well as “credit default swaps” (a form of “insurance” against the failure of a financial instrument). Adding up all the derivatives gives a value many multiples greater than the real companies/properties that they’re supposed to be based on.8
The domination by finance capital is an essential hallmark of imperialism; this financial core of imperialist domination is easily seen today through such instruments as the IMF and the World Bank. Although physical occupation of target countries is still a big part of the imperialist arsenal (Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine), such colonization can often be replaced by exploitation of Third World countries through debt. And when they can’t pay, simply pile on new loans to “help” them pay off the old. Add conditions to the loans such as privatization of key public industries; then combine that with financial manipulation of extractive industries markets, “free trade” pacts, land acquisitions, etc., and you have a perfect recipe for global domination.9
A massive upward transfer of wealth
The high degree of worldwide penetration of finance capital was shown by the instantaneous spread of the crisis as soon as the collapse of major Wall St. banks became apparent in late 2008. In the blink of an eye, the world stagnated. But the key aspect of this crisis for working people is that both the crisis itself, and decades of deindustrialization, attacks on labor and growth of fictitious capital that preceded it, represent a massive transfer of wealth from the oppressed and exploited to the ruling class.
Nothing shows this upward transfer of wealth more clearly than the housing crisis, which was the local storm that blew into a global financial hurricane. What can we learn from this that will shed some serious light on not just this crisis, but capitalism itself? To begin with, little is mentioned in the prattle of our daily news about one of the key starting points: the federal government, in its rush to support financiers with ever increasing opportunities to jack up their profits, stimulated the development of easy credit schemes for home ownership. Can it be that Uncle Sam actually wanted to support the American dream of (in one interpretation), “a house, a gun and a Cadillac” for every worker? In a sense, yes, although of course the immediate motivations were much more mundane. But for the ruling class, maintaining the myth of prosperity in America for the workers, a myth that dates back to the early days of the frontier and continues on through the waves of officially-encouraged immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is important for social stability (less important than the immediate pursuit of imperial goals or profits, but important nonetheless).
A house built on sand
While the freeing up of credit through various mechanisms did in fact seem to encourage home ownership, financially this was a house built on sand. Gone were the days of the local banker who knew your name, assessed your risk as a borrower, and kept a paper record of your mortgage at the teller window. Now, the risk of lending to a home buyer was virtually eliminated, through the process of underwriting and selling mortgages to institutions, which in turn submerged their risk by bundling the loans into securities and reselling them: it was anything goes, let’s make a buck! Meanwhile, the apparent benefit for the homebuyer was a loan that was easier to get (no money, no credit, no problem): whoopee, independence at last!
Of course it’s obvious now that what was wrong with that picture was that the home owner, far from being “independent” or free from the usual constraints of an exploitative system, was actually buried under a mountain of usurious paper, and destined to be the last one out, in charge only of turning out the lights on his/her former domicile. Sad to say however, there was absolutely nothing new about this picture. Marx’s close comrade, Frederick Engels, had it all figured out 150 years ago. In three newspaper articles written in 1872, and later published as The Housing Question, Engels rails against schemes promoted by various utopian societies and anarchists like Proudhon, which were designed to help the worker escape exploitation by getting him into “his own little house.” “Their houses,” says Engels, “...are loaded down with mortgages, ...and it is not they who rule with sovereign power on their ‘territory’ but the usurer, the lawyer and the bailiff.” He then concludes that, “Only by the solution of the social question, that is, by the abolition of the capitalist mode of production, is the solution of the housing question made possible.”
Saying “Hell No” to foreclosures
And so it is today that we seek an anti-capitalist solution to the housing crisis. The rapidly escalating resistance to the foreclosure pestilence is at least beginning to anticipate that same militancy, if not yet outright rejection of the capitalist system. For the most part, you won’t be hearing about this growing rebellion in the mainstream media, but Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now!” ( WBAI in New York, and Pacifica Radio and 700 other radio and TV outlets nationally) managed to break in with some of this news on op-ed pages recently. She reports that homeowners facing eviction are being urged to “squat” in their properties, taking advantage of the fact that due to rampant “securitization” of mortgages on Wall St., local banks doing the foreclosing often can’t find the original note that binds the homeowner to the bad note. Goodman reports that Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, “the longest serving Democratic Congresswoman in U.S. history,” is saying to the American people, “you be squatters in your own homes. Don’t you leave.” ( San Francisco Chronicle, February 4, 2009)
But local activists aren’t waiting for Congressional Democrats to issue instructions: they are already in the field on this issue. Boston-based Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America is organizing a nationwide, three-day “Predators Tour,” in which participants attempt to visit the homes of relevant CEOs. And Take Back the Land, a group in Miami Florida, is organizing the homeless to occupy and live in vacant, foreclosed-upon housing in the area. If asked to by original owners of the property, the squatters move out.10 And Craig Robbins, who directs ACORN’s (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) foreclosure campaign, says, “We’re looking to throw a wrench in the foreclosure machinery, adding that ACORN is planning to organize “rapid defense teams,” reminiscent of the defense squads led by communists in the 1930s—ready to turn out crowds on short notice to prevent evictions.11
So far we’ve just been talking about the economic crisis, and while there’s certainly much more to say on that, it needs to be set in context, and treated as part of a worldview for revolutionary change. As I discussed in the first article in this series, extremely dangerous consequences of the warming (read over-heating) of the planet are coming at a much faster rate than originally thought.12 This already occurring climate change is unequivocally caused by the greedy and irrational ravages of industrial capitalism and imperialism—the same cause as the economic crisis. Just as the grotesque pollution and waste of unplanned capitalist exploitation and expansion has ensnared working people for centuries—19th Century London clogged in coal smoke, children in the Third World picking over garbage dumps for food or dismantling dangerous electronic parts that could be safely recycled, toxic waste sites piling up everywhere and destroying rivers and streams—so now we have the toxic emissions of thousands of industries still running full steam on carbon fuels long after their link to climate destruction is well known. In the process, capitalism is not just pulling the economic rug out from under working people’s feet, it’s literally destroying the planet we all live on, thus creating a new material situation that we now have to deal with.
“Hope is what you have when you have no purchase”
Many people see the tinkering with the system represented by the Kyoto Protocols, or local recycling programs, or the green-industry incentives in Obama’s stimulus package, as representing signs of hope. But as radical philosopher Derrick Jensen, author of Endgame said recently, “hope is what you have if you have no purchase,” i.e., if you’re dangling over a cliff, “hope” for rescue is not enough: you need a grip. Incidentally, Jensen also thinks that, “Civilization is not and can never be sustainable.”13 If we “hope” he’s wrong without doing anything about it, he’ll be proven right. The point is, we need to get a grip—a very big and secure grip—on the edge of the cliff that we’re presently dangling over. Starting with the most conscious, and moving out from there, we need to develop a sound, comprehensive, and global program to attack all the problems, economic and environmental, at their common root, which is capitalism. We need to convince workers, the unemployed, and socialists to seriously address the threat posed by global warming, and we need to convince environmentalists, scientists, and activists already in the struggle to unite around a revolutionary, working-class program to overthrow capitalism and transform the world.
But how do we do that? And what about fighting for reforms that are achievable now? A good friend of mine, responding to my first article in this series, said that I hadn’t proven that capitalism couldn’t solve the problems posed by global warming. The point for him was: “What do we want government to do, corporations to do, people to do. Whether capitalism will or can actually do that or not remains to be seen.”14 OK, let’s explore that. But first we need to say a few words about how to go about this. The first thing for me, is to state clearly exactly what we really want, i.e., what needs to be done to actually solve the problem, rather than just stick a band aid on it. This should form into a set of transitional demands —demands which address immediate needs in the struggle against capitalist exploitation, but which also form a bridge to a society that’s free of exploitation, war and the other evils of capitalism.
The idea of transitional demands is not new. In fact “transitional demands” are mentioned quite a bit in Eco Socialist manifestos, and conferences (such as one I attended in Oakland in January), but often without fully grasping the concept. Leon Trotsky, co-leader with Lenin of the Russian Revolution, formulated The Transitional Program in 1938 to guide the parties of the Fourth International, based on many antecedents in communist history, including Lenin’s, The Impending Catastrophe, and How To Fight It, written in 1917. The unifying idea was to supplant the inadequate, minimum/maximum programs of reformist parties, and put capitalism directly in the cross hairs of the workers’ struggle. When asked, “Can we actually realize this slogan,” Trotsky said, “It is easier to overthrow capitalism than to realize this demand under capitalism.”15
Transitional demands to address the economic crisis, and global warming
I imagine that my good friend mentioned above is still squirming in his seat and he’s probably saying, “But you still haven’t addressed my objections.” True enough. My proposed transitional demands need to be compared to what is being done, or what is proposed by reformers and critics, and both must be assessed in context. Let’s start with the economic crisis, housing and layoffs first.
1. Housing, banks and layoffs
Just as it did in the Great Depression and numerous smaller crises and downturns, imperialist finance capital is robbing us blind and ruining our lives once again. What to do? Starting with layoffs, a classic example from the Transitional Program presents itself: the sliding scale of wages and hours! Shorthand in the U.S. for this has been “30 for 40,” where workers combat unemployment by reducing the workweek at no loss in pay, so as to give everyone employment. But the “reserve army of labor”—i.e., a permanent pool of unemployed workers—is central to the capitalist mode of production, in order to keep wages constantly depressed, and the threat of strikebreakers ever present. A sliding scale of wages and hours is designed to express a socialist solution: constantly adjust the amount of work required by every worker against both the need for work and the available pool of workers. Since the need for work should be reduced by eliminating the waste and useless production of capitalism (war goods being the prime example), the amount of work required of each worker might theoretically be reduced to as little as two hours a week.
While still valid, this concept needs to be updated to reflect the massive need today to transform the economy into a sustainable one that can serve human needs and reverse global warming. But capitalist or reformist solutions, such as Obama’s stimulus plan, are limited to extending unemployment benefits and similar palliatives. We need a broad, integrated plan to reform the world, and a sliding scale of wages and hours should be a part of our strategy.
Since the massive rip-off of homeowners through both fraudulent mortgage schemes and falling housing prices has kicked off the crisis, I’ll start there. In all the discussions I’ve read or heard, no one else is hinting at this: Abolish the mortgage debt! We don’t even have to get to bank nationalization (although we will) in order to solve the problem for foreclosure victims. Restore former homeowners to their homes! Since homeowners are a relatively more privileged set, and we want to say that everyone has a right to adequate shelter, what we’re really talking about here is: Nationalize the housing stock! Guarantee the right of all homeowners and tenants to remain in their homes, in exchange for a fair payment—pegged to ability to pay—to cover maintenance and improvements. As part of this plan, the homeless should be put into decent homes, and the mansions of the very rich, or the multiple homes of the just plain rich (John McCain!), should be confiscated in whole or in part, and used as upgrades for workers and the poor (the really big mansions could become resorts for workers on vacation). There should also be a national plan to fix up tenements and dilapidated housing and transform them into comfortable, sustainable, green buildings.
Unlike this proposed plan, Obama’s recently announced housing initiative is clearly achievable under capitalism; and it’s raised hope among homeowners. But is it really what we need and want? Obama’s plan, first of all, doesn’t cover everyone. Many working people in areas like the Bay Area for instance, where the housing prices were the highest, won’t meet Obama’s $417,000 cut off for refinancing of “conforming loans.” More importantly, Obama’s plan is based on giving incentives to lenders to cut rates—once again, rewarding the criminals. What if they say no?
Even if they say yes, the real problem now is that people are losing jobs hand-over-fist, and incomes are crashing. A few points off the loan isn’t going to help that. A recently disabled postal worker in East Oakland owes $535,000 on a house that is now worth only $180,000, with payments more than $4,000/mo. This means that her only hope is Obama’s “cram down” provision, in which bankruptcy judges may be allowed to reduce what you owe in court—but only if this provision passes Congress. Bankers are opposed to the required change to the bankruptcy law, because it would turn mortgages into “unsecured debt” and “drive up rates for everybody.”16 Translation: they will find another way to make money, another way to screw us.
No more bailouts’ secret deals!
But then, Obama’s plans for financial “stabilization” (mentioned above) as well as housing are like that: they are designed to reset the game, to revive the banks and save the system. Socialists say: To hell with the bankers! No bailouts! Nationalize the banks, without compensation! Along with this we should say: Open the books, not just of the banks, but of all corporations and government! No more secret bailout deals, no more boardroom conspiracies! And, since what we’re really talking about here is replacing the capitalist system, we are for a workers government, to institute a rationally planned economy, extended globally, and based on democratically run workers institutions at all levels.
For capitalism, these ideas are off the table permanently, and will be resisted at all costs. The working class will have to organize its own parties to fight for and win the power to implement this program. But the system is capable of granting demands for nationalization that mainstream Obama advisors can’t stand. In the 1990s, both Scandinavian countries and Japan did partial nationalization of banks, and in the U.S., something similar was done in the savings and loan scandal. In this sort of nationalization, advocated by many reformers and pundits for the present crisis, the bankrupt institution is taken over temporarily, and its accounts are cleaned up, whereupon it is sold to new private investors. Original shareholders may lose out (stock prices are already down anyway), but the system is saved for a whole new round of mucking things up. “Call it ‘supervised workouts’ if ‘nationalization’ sounds too scary,” says the always helpful Nation magazine (Editorial, March 2, 2009).
So, how are we doing on whether or not capitalism can solve the crisis? There are those who think the Obama administration may eventually be forced to do something like temporary nationalization of the Wall St. banks. But will it really solve anything? I don’t think so.
2. Coal, renewable energy and emissions
Moving on: other points may show more clearly the interconnections between the economic crisis and global warming, and they should broaden our understanding of what really needs to be done across the whole spectrum of the economy.
Coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, is at the heart of this discussion. Coal-fired power plants supply about half the electricity of the U.S., all using old, dirty technology; and both China and India are using the same (or older) technology to ramp up their rapidly expanding economies (“market socialist” and capitalist, respectively). On balance, a new coal-fired plant comes on line about once every week, worldwide. Meanwhile, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has reached 388.57 parts per million (ppm) in May of 2008. This is another record high. The average concentration in pre-industrial times—and for roughly the preceding 10,000 years or so, was a mere 260 to 280 ppm (and that’s with all those campfires and hearths for cooking and heating).17 The graphical “hockey stick” of dramatically increased emissions since about 1760 is so serious that some scientists believe that the age of the earth in which human civilization has developed and flourished—called the Holocene—has now ended. Call it the “anthropocene,” but whatever you call it, know that capitalism has ushered in a new material condition on the planet.
So, what to do? Recall that Obama defended “clean coal” in his election campaign, in order not to alienate coal state supporters. “Clean coal” is an oxymoron, based chiefly on the idea that new plants can be built which will “sequester” the carbon emissions underground. But this is an unproven, dubious technology which will take years to develop and implement on a scale sufficient to make a difference. Meanwhile dirty coal will continue and increase its massive pollution of the atmosphere.
But forget that, just for the moment. What about those coal state voters? According to Michael Roselle (his background is in Rainforest Action, Ruckus Society and Earth First), coal state residents in West Virginia are fed up with mountaintop removal; and they are increasingly aware of the big picture of danger to both their homes and their planet. “Every day at 4:20 P.M. comes the blast, and people say ‘Damn Massey!’” (Referring to Massey Energy Company, the largest producer of Central Appalachian coal), says Roselle.18 Mountain top removal, the latest coal extraction methodology, uses huge machines and massive blasting to literally remove mountaintops—hundreds of them—to get at coal the easy way. Waste is dumped into streambeds, which kills everything in its path.
Save the mountaintops, save the air, save working people: dump coal!
Then there’s coal ash. The recent disaster in Tennessee, was “not like what you read in the papers,” said Roselle, reporting from Appalachia. The “spill” of a “pond” was actually a collapse of a pile 50 feet high, in which more than a billion gallons covered 400 acres up to nine feet deep. This “spill” emits heavy metals, which are feeding into rivers and making their way down the Mississippi, killing every single form of riparian life along the way. Roselle was a leader of the activists who put a “gas mask” on Mt. Rushmore to protest sulfur dioxide emissions from coal; now 90 percent of sulfur dioxide is removed, and coal ash is the result. This coal ash is stored near at least 156 plants in unregulated dumps similar to the one in Tennessee. They will all go at some point, and some of them will be much worse than the recent disaster in Tennessee. (Roselle, note 18)
Can capitalism dump coal and switch to renewables? Roselle thinks Obama will come around, and drop “clean coal.” Maybe, maybe not; but we need to move regardless. While capitalist politicians try to appease voters, socialists should put forward what is really needed: Abolish the coal industry! Give every miner and associated coal worker work at full union wages either cleaning up the coal industry mess and restoring Appalachian mountain eco systems, or re-training to help build renewable power industries, or for other socially useful jobs at no loss in pay.
Also: redirect social surplus (whether retained by expropriated banks or retained by government) into a nationwide/worldwide campaign to build and establish renewable energy facilities in wind, solar and geothermal. For wind, convert auto plants and other obsolete industrial facilities to manufacture windmills. Use socialist “eminent domain” (we have to be tough here) to expropriate available land in the Midwest and other appropriate areas for windmill locations (less beef cattle range, or monocrops).
Build geothermal plants in the U.S. Southwest and other appropriate areas where earth’s natural heat bubbles up from below. For a national/international campaign to get photo-voltaics onto at least one half of the roof space in the U.S. and other urbanized areas. And, for a concerted effort to rebuild the electrical grid into a “smart grid” (one that can store as well as transport energy) and a more extensive grid (to transport energy from geothermal or wind-rich areas to the rest of the grid). Are we talking jobs yet? Let’s rebuild!
Obama has put loans to green industries, and “smart grid” provisions into his stimulus bill, but remember, these are partial measures at best, and the planet won’t wait. Global warming is happening now. We need to get serious, we need to mobilize the world, and we need to do it now. If capitalism could mobilize industry in World War II to completely remake itself, under national planning, to build tanks and Liberty ships where before we had cars and unused harbor space, then the working class can mobilize now to transform the economy. Consider: to make imperialist war, strong social taboos were cast to the wind as women were brought into the work force en masse for war production (Rosie the Riveter!).
Can capitalism do the same kind of transformation now to save the planet from economic collapse and global warming? Maybe they could do it if conditions made it impossible to continue on as they have, but we certainly can’t wait until the coal is gone, or CO2 finishes its deadly choking of the planet! We need to put forward the slogans and demands that we really need, and prepare to do it ourselves, through workers’ power.
3. Transform transportation NOW!
As CO2 skyrockets, fossil fuel vehicle production is still happening—it’s not just an item in the history books, as it should be. As the planet warms, auto industry executives flock to Washington in their corporate jets to beg for taxpayer handouts in order to stay in production, even after squeezing worker compensation to the bone, and long after moving most of their plants to low wage areas in Mexico and elsewhere (OK, they dropped the corporate jet bit. Wow, they learned something!). Meanwhile, obnoxious commercials are still appearing on TV for gas-cars, and fancy ones at that. What is wrong with this picture? (I don’t think it’s the delayed switch from analog to digital TV!)
As I write this, an interesting item appeared in the paper. It seems Obama’s auto industry task force wants to overhaul the auto industry, complete with “fundamental restructuring”! Panel members Geithner and Summers “emphasized the urgency of the issues” and the panel “discussed...improving competitiveness of wage and benefit structures, and progress toward creating clean, competitive cars of the future.” Wait, we need clean transportation yesterday! And what is “wage and benefit competitiveness” if not more screwing of the workers? The real punch line came at the end of the story: Auto industry consultant M. Robinet said that the real task is to eliminate production: “They really have to find the best way to take capacity out of the system. End of story.”19 Eliminate production, in the midst of a depression? That sounds like the old myth of a “crisis of overproduction.” Actually, there is not enough production of what people really need! Production for exchange, i.e., sales, may have peaked for now, but people still need production for use value: clean, effective transportation. And no we can’t do it Obama’s way, based on conditional loans to raise the “competitiveness” of capitalist industry!
What people need is a transformation of transportation. Fossil fuel vehicle production must stop, NOW! Make it a crime to produce a fossil fuel vehicle. Nationalization without compensation of the auto and related industries in the U.S. and the world! Re-direct production capacity of these and other plants (which may also need to be nationalized or expropriated), on an emergency basis, to produce windmills for electric power, electric (battery powered) buses, and other electric vehicles as needed. Save the jobs of all auto and related industry workers, at full union wages with full benefits, including right through the retraining and re-tooling process needed for this transformation.
What happened to those trams of old?
In the early decades of the Twentieth Century, there were electrified trams in many cities, which working people used before cars. Along came the car companies, and bought them up, only to dismantle them to sell cars, gasoline, and the car culture, which then led to millions of polluting vehicles driving between urban centers and ever expanding suburban sprawl zones. We may not be able to reverse this sprawl immediately, but note that the financial crisis is doing this already, in capitalism’s usual non-planned and destructive manner: the worst “sprawl” areas, such as around Las Vegas, Nevada, for instance, are the areas with the highest foreclosure rates.
If the capitalists can achieve this sort of transformation (to a car culture) in a few decades, then maybe they can reverse it in another few decades, when the mood/profit strikes them. But we don’t have that kind of time. We need: Free public transportation, especially in urban areas already possessing electrified subways and light rail! Ramp up availability of trains and buses, hiring workers as needed! Ban cars in inner cities, and electrify non-electric public trains and buses as quickly as possible. Fully electric buses that can travel 30-40 miles between charges, and which take 10 minutes or so to recharge, already exist. Production must be ramped up, to put as many into service as quickly as possible.
“Yes we can” submit these ideas to Obama’s auto industry task force, but will they listen? Give them (and their successors) a couple decades. Meanwhile, let’s move on...
4. Land, water and agriculture
Nowhere is the rape of the planet more pronounced than in the issues of land, water and agriculture. With so-called “globalization,” imperialist finance capitalism has been privatizing everything, from state-owned industries, to water resources, and even to ownership of seeds, which have been public property of farmers for centuries. In Bolivia in the last century, a popular mobilization knocked back one of the more egregious attempts to privatize the water resources of a nation, and Bechtel Corporation was forced to back down. But now, eager investors are gobbling up lands in places like India and Haiti—lands that are declared to be fallow or useless—for the production of biofuels. And “free trade” agreements, and now genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture, combine to take over and destroy local food markets, and drive farmers off the land in Third World countries. Primitive accumulation, in which capitalists accumulate capital by robbing land-based resources and driving peasants and farmers off the land, continues now internationally just as it did in England with the Enclosure Acts of the 18th century.
Furthermore, mass industrial mono-cropping, using fertilizers and pesticides, is destroying agriculture and the planet. Soil nutrients are being depleted, and pesticide and fertilizer runoffs infest rivers, deltas and oceans. In California, despite periodic droughts, agribusiness routinely sucks up millions of gallons of water to grow rice and cotton in mono-cultures not suited to the semi-arid climate. This year, a restriction on water to agribusiness has just been announced, but this was accompanied by a warning that food prices might go up for consumers. Wrong response! Relocate cotton and rice production to more suitable areas, and reorganize agriculture on a sustainable model. And, organize an emergency program to clean up all rivers and streams!
Of all this, perhaps the worst offenders are bottled water companies. These outfits are literally expropriating aquifers needed for agriculture and drinking water the world over, and then selling the water back to us in petroleum-based plastic bottles which leech poisons! Meanwhile, global warming is melting the glaciers that provide water for many of the world’s people, and threatens drought to many more through desertification and other effects of climate change. We need to ban bottled water companies, take over their facilities, expropriate their owners, and divert their capital (and that of first-world governments and other resources as necessary) into providing clean, safe drinking water for everyone worldwide, free of charge! If bottled water has to be used in some areas to achieve this, so be it, but we will use vegetable-based plastic bottles in those cases until piped water is available.
Rapid turnaround: Cuban workers show it can be done
As for industrial agriculture, it needs to be radically transformed, with international planning as a main component. Mono-cultures have to be replaced with mixed crop systems, using no fertilizers or pesticides. Think this can’t or shouldn’t be done? Look at Cuba, in the “special period” in the 1990s, after the demise of the Soviet Union cut off supplies of oil abruptly. Already studying organic agriculture in institutes at the state level, Cuban working people implemented it nationally as a matter of necessity. Urban agriculture began to flourish in a few years, as did localized foodstuffs production (eliminating the need for excessive transportation). Use of fertilizers and pesticides has been virtually eliminated, because soils can be restored and pests eliminated with a more natural, multi-crop system. Perma-culture experts came from Australia to help, but cooperation among farmers, workers, academics and state officials was the key to this remarkably rapid turnaround.20
And I would add, the fact that capitalism had been overthrown in Cuba, which allowed working people to develop solutions without interference from privatization, and with state aid and support, despite the undemocratic and bureaucratic deformities thereof. Where else, I ask, would government vehicles, the few that exist, be required to stop and pick up anyone who needed a ride (and could cram in)?
If they can do it, anyone else can do it. No excuses, there’s no time to lose! Nationalize the land under workers control, and ban all privatization or purchases for private purposes such as biofuels, and encourage the development of local organic farming! Nationalize large corporate owned agribusiness, and responsibly convert them from mono-crops for export to worker-controlled, sustainable multi-crop agriculture. Use long-range transport only where necessary, and terminate fertilizer, pesticide, and fossil fuel use. Recruit farmers and hire agricultural labor to achieve this transformation. Make sure all workers are paid union wages with full benefits, and with full rights for all workers regardless of citizenship status or country of origin.
5. Forests forever
By now it’s become axiomatic that we need to save forests as a centrally important carbon “sink”—a natural process of sequestration. (Oceans are the other big sink, but increased acidification is slowing the sequestration, and could turn oceans into emitters of carbon.) Many people worldwide have become determined to stop the rampant destruction of forests. In Brazil, environmental activists are brutally murdered for their efforts to save the rain forest (Chico Mendez was one of many), while the government makes pious declarations, and land grabbers (big and small—some are farmers desperate to make a living), continue the inexorable burnings, causing the loss of hundreds of acres each day. In the U.S., activists like Judi Barri, who infused her environmental activism with a working class perspective, have also laid their lives on the line to save the last of our old growth redwoods.
As in every other sector, the ravaging of the forests is directly due to capitalism. In California, Pacific lumber was taken over by financial speculators who, in order to repay their loans, ramped up their “harvesting” to astonishing levels. But those are just words. What is it these companies actually do? A little graphic detail should sharpen our idea of what we really need to demand. Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) is the largest landowner in California, following massive land purchases that drove up prices in the 1990s. Their 1.7 million acres will all be logged eventually, according to Joshua Budwell of ForestEthics. The process used by Sierra Pacific to convert natural forest to tree plantations, as reported by Budwell is—at the risk of turning your stomach—instructive.21
Don’t read this right after eating
First, herbicides are sprayed on a selected area to kill underbrush, including chemicals such as atrazine, which damages frogs at very low exposure levels, and lots of others, including even more dangerous chemicals that are banned in Europe. They’ve used 770,000 pounds of these chemicals since 1976, according to Budwell. Next, with that pesky underbrush dead and out of the way, they clear-cut everything (except for oak, which they either leave or burn, since they can’t mill it). We’ve all seen what that looks like. Then they plant tree plantations, usually pine saplings. OK, they’re planting trees; that’s good, right? Wrong. In order to protect their investment in the saplings, they spray herbicides again, perhaps annually, to destroy any natural competition the saplings might face. Natural young forests, as after a forest fire for instance, are very productive for life—a natural carbon sequestration process.
But Sierra Pacific doesn’t allow that. Instead, they create a “forest desert,” which leads to topsoil being washed away; causing sediments in rivers, and turning the forest into an emitter of carbon. Then they harvest the trees they’ve planted in 40 to 60 years, before the old growth stage (which would be more like 150 years). This again prevents carbon sequestration, since the best carbon sinks are young forests and old growth forests, in both cases largely due to the undergrowth and “duff.” (It’s the forest floor material that soaks up rain, holds the topsoil in place, and holds in the carbon from the decaying plant matter.)
For the largest landowner in the state, it’s all about enhancing profit through laborsaving practices, and nothing about the forests or the planet. Well, except for the green washing part. Sierra Pacific is “certified” (!) by the Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI)! How progressive-sounding is that? To make sure everybody knew how great they were, SFI ran a full-page ad in the New York Times in 2005. SFI also “certifies” illegally logged lumber in Indonesia. Not surprisingly, SFI is just another industry-created propaganda machine designed to fool and mislead the public.
Forest killers: please commit mass suicide
I doubt if I can come up with anything that we should “ask” corporations like SPI to do, even if I do stop gagging. If we could somehow require these capitalists to use only sustainable forestry practices, which would mean only highly selective logging, and absolutely no use of herbicides or any other toxic “shortcuts,” the poor dears will lose all their profit and go belly-up. That would be great of course, but there’s no way to get corporations like SPI, or mountaintop killers like Massey, or any of the other thousands of capitalist planet-murderers to commit mass suicide. It’s not just pursuit of profit that creates these corporate criminals; it’s a system, which is in constant struggle both against the falling rate of profit, and between cutthroat competitors, nationally and internationally. Think of a mob hit man, standing over a dead body, with a smoking gun in his hand. “I had no choice,” he exclaims, “the boss made me do it!” Now substitute “forest-killing corporations” for “hit-man,” and “the rate of profit” for “boss.”
The Canadian-based ForestEthics people, and many other environmentalists like them, are engaged in a valiant struggle to stop this worldwide rape of the forests. For one, they call for a boycott of SPI products. But boycotts aren’t that powerful—especially with other corporate buyers looking for good deals—nor are they fast. Of course now that I’ve researched this article, I’ll know not to buy SFI-certified lumber the next time I’m in that market. But this is atomized struggle, and the enemy has a much bigger propaganda budget. We need mass action, and we need it now.
Still, it’s not as though absolutely no capitalists are listening. The ForestEthics web site says, “Once companies have made environmental commitments that meet ForestEthics’ standards, ECAP [Environmental Corporate Action Program] assists them in leveraging their new policies to accomplish business goals and to protect Endangered Forests across the globe.” ForestEthics also has its own certification, called the Forest Stewardship Council. Some capitalists can change apparently, but not the biggest (most heavily capitalized and leveraged, no doubt) landowner in the state.
It’s a very big rock to push up a very big hill to get what we need through boycotts and lobbying within the capitalist market place. Here’s what I think we need: International planning, featuring land nationalization without compensation to corporate owners, aimed first of all against the biggest planet-criminals; land-use planning, including sustainable forestry, saving old growths and rain forests, and planting new real forests (not tree farms). Make clear cutting or burning of forests a crime, while making provisions (maybe even exceptions in the neediest cases) for small farmers and native peoples who might otherwise have to destroy forests to live. And implement/enforce all this through national/international workers control. Is that easier? Maybe not. But it’s easier to get what we really need by overthrowing capitalism than by working within it.
A sick planet, a sick economy, a planned cure
This has been an attempt to formulate a transitional program for both the economy and global warming. It is not complete; I know many things are left out, or only touched on. And, it’s certainly intended as an opening for discussion; no one person, no one group of people, no one tendency can do this alone. We need to build a movement, and a mass revolutionary party, based on bringing the working class to power around a program of global transformation of the economy and society. The world needs to be rebuilt by replacing irrational capitalism with a planned, sustainable and just future. Let’s get started.—Chris Kinder is a socialist and activist in Oakland California, and coordinator of the Labor Action Committee To Free Mumia Abu-Jamal.
1 Frontline, February 17, 2009
2 San Francisco Chronicle, February 7, 2009
3 Associated Press report, “Banks on the Brink,” Oakland Tribune, February 15, 2009.
4 “Economic Stimulus,” New York Times, February 20, 2009
5 For a scathing critique of the Financial Stabilization Plan, see Michael Hudson, “Trying to Revive the Bubble Economy: Obama’s Awful Financial Recovery Plan,” Counterpunch, February 12, 2009, http://www.counterpunch.org/hudson02122009.html
6 Theories of Surplus Value, volume 4 of Capital. See also Robert Freedman, ed, Marx On Economics, New York 1961.
7 For a proof, using modern economic statistics that the declining rate of profit does operate in the Twentieth Century see the doctoral thesis by Shane Mage, “The Law of the Falling Tendency of the Rate of Profit,” Columbia University, 1963.
8 For a more detailed examination of the post-war historic background to the current crisis from a Marxist perspective, see Joseph Seymour, “Capitalist Economic Crisis: Bosses Make Workers Pay,” Workers Vanguard No 927, 2 January 2009
9 VI Lenin, who was soon to lead the Russian Revolution of 1917, described imperialism as rooted in a system of monopoly capitalism and control by financial capital in a 1916 pamphlet, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.
10 National Radio Project report, “Making Contact,” KPFA, February 20, 2009.
11 Ben Ehrenreich, “Hell No, We Won’t Be Foreclosed,” The Nation, February 9, 2009
12 Socialist Viewpoint, v.9, no.1, January/February 2009
14 Mitchel Cohen, in response to my article posted on the EcoRev listserve.
15 The Transitional Program, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, Bolshevik Publications, 1998. This pamphlet contains a detailed and informative introduction.
16 San Francisco Chronicle, February 19, 2009
17 Global Warming By the Numbers, at:
18 Michael Roselle was interviewed on “Flashpoints,” KPFA Radio, February 17, 2009
19 All quotes in this paragraph from, Associated Press, “Obama Task Force Says Auto Industry Needs Overhaul,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 21, 2009
20 “The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil” a documentary film quoted and explored by Kris Welch, KPFA radio, February 6, 2009