Leftist critics of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything need to answer a question she posed: ‘History is knocking at your door: will you answer?’
by Louis Proyect
Despite its obvious intention to challenge the corporate-dominated status quo, some Marxists fault Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything for supposedly straddling two opposing and mutually exclusive systems: capitalism and socialism. For every criticism, there has been a defense of This Changes Everything from other Marxists, including those who have had long-standing affinities with the critics – thus demonstrating that deep divisions do not have to stand in the way of a unified movement. As such, the debate is a reminder that as long as our primary focus is on challenging capitalist rule, there is no reason why we cannot air out our differences in the public arena without the schisms that have harmed out movement in the past.
In a December 30, 2014 Jacobin article, Sam Gindin praises Klein for attacking capitalism as the source of climate change but faults her for leaving too much “wriggle room” for capitalist reform. By hammering away at “villains” such as the Koch brothers et al, the left can effectively let the system off the hook. While Gindin does not identify her as a Keynesian — the term that is widely identified with the leftwing policy studies base of the Democratic Party — he leaves the impression that she is not much different than Bill McKibben. When he writes that “It is one thing to ask how we can organize ourselves better to register our dissatisfaction and to pressure or lobby corporations and states to modify some of their ways within capitalism,” it is clearly a warning that Klein’s agenda is one of capitalist reform.
The final paragraph of Gindin’s article is particularly intriguing:
“At the end of her book, Klein is about to interview the youthful head of Syriza, the radical Greek party now on the brink of taking power. She asks a Greek comrade what she should ask him, and the person answers: ‘Ask him: When history knocked on your door, did you answer?’ As Klein concludes, ‘That’s a good question for all of us.'”
As you might know, Sam Gindin’s writing partner is Leo Panitch who has become one of Syriza’s most prominent defenders just as Jacobin has tended to stake out a position as a left critic of its supposed Keynesian weaknesses. Although Gindin has never written about Syriza, one might reasonably conclude that the critique he has mounted against Naomi Klein would apply equally to the Syriza leadership, especially the finance minister who has generated controversy on the left for stating that “saving capitalism from itself” is the number one task of Marxism.
In a defense of This Changes Everything, Canadian ecosocialist Brad Hornick takes up the question of “wriggle room,” a term for evading the need for socialism. Hornick points out that there is a certain necessity imposed on Klein as the head of a mass movement who has to adopt a somewhat ambivalent stance in order to engage people who have not made up their mind about socialism, even if this populist writing style is guilty of “conceptual slippage or ideological ‘wiggle room,’” as Sam Gindin puts it. That just might be the price that must be paid for avoiding the “ideological closure that more rigorous and precise Marxist or eco-socialist categories may engender for ‘untrained audiences’,” something that is more geared to Historical Materialism conferences than the mass movement.
Richard Smith, an environmentalist and Marxist scholar, has faulted Naomi Klein along the same lines in a Truthout article dated November 12, 2014. He claims that in her vision of the future, “corporations will still run the world’s economies and capitalist governments will still run politics” and adds that by failing to articulate a clear-cut socialist vision she runs the risk of failing in the same way that the Occupy movement failed:
“When New York bankers replied to the Occupy movement in 2011, ‘Don’t like capitalism? What’s your alternative?’ for all its audacity and militancy, Occupy had no alternative to offer. We can’t build much of a movement without something to fight for, not just against.”
There is, of course, an opposite interpretation of Occupy’s legacy, namely that its power derived partially from its refusal to elaborate a socialist program—something that might have undermined it more than any billy club.
While acknowledging that This Changes Everything is by no means perfect, Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster defends her against the “wiggle room” criticisms and particularly against Richard Smith. For Foster, her failure to call for socialism is a pardonable offense since her real mission is to make the case for System Change Not Climate Change, even if all the i’s are not dotted and the t’s uncrossed.
It might be apparent at this point that the comradely debate around This Changes Everything goes to the heart of questions of reform versus revolution that have dogged the left since the days of Karl Marx. Since Green politics globally has been susceptible — at least in the eyes of some Marxists — to cooptation of the sort that worries Sam Gindin, Richard Smith and by extension those keeping a watchful eye on Syriza, it would be useful to turn to Jodi Dean’s article that was crossposted to North Star on March 27th, which has the merit of drawing sharp distinctions between her own perspective on divergent roads we face today on Green politics and social change as a whole. Her sharp elbows have a way of crystallizing the differences.
Dean characterizes Klein’s program as one that advocates “dispersed activities combined within a diffuse policy framework oriented toward long-term planning and inspired by an essentialist, overly romantic vision of locality, indigeneity, and democracy (that is to say, populism) … She invokes radical politics, but ultimately pulls back into the formula of the alter-globalization movement: in a movement of movements, multiple communities can solve their problems democratically.”
If you wonder why Dean recoils from “democracy”, admittedly a word that has lost its original meaning (rule of the people) in a world where an Orwellian abuse of language is universal, the answer is that it falls short of drawing sharp class lines. In an excerpt from her book Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics that appears on E-Flux, she wonders why the left continues to appeal to democracy. “Calling for democracy, leftists fail to emphasize the divisions necessary for politics, divisions that should lead us to organize against the interests of corporations and their stockholders, against the values of fundamentalists and individualists, and on behalf of collectivist arrangements designed to redistribute benefits and opportunities more equitably.”
It may be the case that many activists fail to understand the inherently undemocratic nature of capitalist “democracy” but it does not help us get a broader hearing by turning the word into a kind of curse word. As more and more people take part in social struggles, they will learn from experience that the cops and the army attack democratic rights in order to protect corporate power. A movement is necessary that educates people around the idea that genuine democracy requires a defense of civil liberties, the voting rights of African-Americans now under siege, rescinding the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Citizens United, equal time for third parties such as the Greens and many other demands that will resonate with the average American. When this is combined with a patient explanation of the need for economic democracy, for which socialism will be the culmination, our cause will be strengthened.
Turning now to Dean’s critique of Klein’s economic policies, it can be described as a defense of “communism” against Green Keynesianism.
“Some of the components of Klein’s new Green Keynesianism would likely include: a carefully planned economy; basic annual income; big public sector expenditures; higher taxes on the rich; and tougher business regulations. The Green justification for the higher taxes on the rich is that they are the ones who need to curb their consumption. The big expenditures would include better public transit, energy efficient housing, and changes in land use to encourage local agriculture.”
If such a program is so limited, you might conclude that the Green Party would not pass muster with Dean, especially since there is not a whisper of “communism” in its policy statements. Since Dean is critical of Klein for opposing the nationalization of energy and advocating instead “the model of democratically run, community-based utilities,” you can imagine her disappointment in the Green Party’s call for “Decentralized, Bio-Regional Electricity Generation and Distribution.”
It must be said that for people beginning to question capitalist rule, the call for “nationalization” might not be very inspiring on its own terms. Since this only means state ownership, and was par for the course in many oppressive capitalist societies such as Pakistan and Turkey in the past, it might make more sense to call for “democratically run, community-based utilities” that would probably be more inimical to the interests of the billionaires than nationalization.
If you have been paying close attention to Green politics over the years, you will probably be aware that there is an affinity between environmentalism and indigenous peoples’ struggles so much so that Winona LaDuke, an Ojibwa Indian activist, was Ralph Nader vice-presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000. LaDuke was a logical choice since as Executive Director of Honor the Earth, since the group defined its mission as creating “awareness and support for Native environmental issues and to develop needed financial and political resources for the survival of sustainable Native communities.”
But Jodi Dean is just as wary of “indigeneity” as she is of localism in general even when local ties are based on tribal bonds where the connection to the land goes back thousands of years. The notion of being tied to a particular place is troubling to her at best and in the eyes of her students who looked at these issues in a seminar possibly “racist” and even “fascist.” Indeed, the lack of roots of the sort that a family farmer or an Ojibwa Indian has to his or her land ”echoes with descriptions of cosmopolitan Jews, intellectuals, and communists. Some are always foreign elements threatening our way of life.”
This seems distinctly at odds with the living struggles taking place now against fracking in which native peoples and farmers have joined together to protect the natural habitat. It would appear unlikely that such people have any incentive to conduct pogroms against “rootless cosmopolitans” or undocumented workers working in slaughterhouses in the Midwest. If anything, they would be natural allies.
Close to the end of her article, Dean quotes Klein on a matter very close to the mission of North Star:
“And let’s take it for granted that we want to do these radical things democratically and without a bloodbath, so violent, vanguardist revolutions don’t have much to offer in the way of roadmaps.”
While Dean does not quite come out and say that she is for “violent, vanguardist revolutions,” it does make one wonder why she is so insistent on using the term “communism,” that for most people summons up images of North Korea rather than what Karl Marx had in mind, who it should be emphasized used the words “communism” and “socialism” interchangeably.
Fortunately, you can read an excerpt from This Changes Everything at the Nation Magazine where the words were can be found as part of a discussion of the overarching need to oppose climate change that threatens life on earth.
It begins with the passage alluded to above by Sam Gindin where Klein posed the question to Alexis Tsipras: “Someone suggested: ‘History knocked on your door—did you answer?’” Klein, who was troubled by Syriza’s support for expanded oil and gas exploration even if the proceeds would pay for pensions, subsumes everything under the struggle to preserve the planet and everything living on it.
It is not really the purpose of this article to render a decision on the “extractivism” question, except to say that it is worth mentioning that socialists have made convincing cases for backing oil and energy exploration in places like Bolivia where it is the only means to improve the living conditions of those most in need.
However, there are reasons to believe that Syriza will make a decision differently than politicians in Louisiana who were in BP’s back pocket. Within Syriza, the decision on gas and oil exploration is likely to be made on the same basis as other decisions that the party has made, namely with respect for the democratic rights of the party members. If there has been any lesson to be taken away from the first couple of months it has been in power, it is that this is a party where open and heated debate can take place without fear of expulsion or ostracism. The Greeks who have forged ahead with this new party against practically insurmountable odds are reminding us of the original meaning of democracy in the Greek language: rule of the people.