Ecology and Climate Change: Neo-Liberal Strategies and Socialist Responses

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by Andy Kilmister
from Socialist Outlook, Spring 2007


Anybody politically active in the area of ecological struggles, particularly climate change, will have noticed a striking paradox. [1] On the one hand we have exceptionally radical and inspiring ideas, arising from both green and socialist quarters, about the need for a total transformation of society that arises from the current ecological crisis. On the other we have a policy debate in parliament and the media which focuses on very limited, technocratic and often regressive policy measures – tax hikes and rebalancing here, extra charges there, and so on. This article is a tentative attempt to look at how Marxist ideas can bridge this gap and develop concrete and radical approaches to tackling climate change. Given the nature of current discussions it inevitably raises more questions than it answers; the intention is to contribute to starting a debate.

The Fundamental Problem

The root of the problem discussed above in my view is the way in that debates around climate change represent a specific example of what Marx describes as ‘the fetishism of commodities’. By this he means the tendency under capitalism for social relationships between people to be seen as material relationships between things. [2] Ecological developments such as climate change are fundamentally transformations of social relations but have come to be discussed purely in terms of scientific measurements such as greenhouse gas emissions, temperature rises and the like.

The reason why Marx attached such importance to commodity fetishism was the key role it played, and continues to play, in making capitalist social relations appear ‘natural’ and unchangeable. Relationships between people that can potentially be changed through political struggle come to be seen as immutable since they arise from a permanent natural order. Exactly the same is now happening with climate change. Rather than being seen as something resulting from the particular pattern of human relationships which capitalist development presupposes, it is analyzed as a technical problem that needs to be solved within the framework of the existing social order.

This is largely a response to the ideological pressures of contemporary society. However, it also arises in part from the legacy of Stalinism and of some parts of the Marxist tradition, which adopted a productivist approach in which the importance of the natural world was neglected. This approach, however, does not reflect the writings of Marx and Engels themselves. [3] Throughout his work Marx stressed the way in which production has simultaneously a natural and a social aspect; for example through his distinction between the labour process which results in use values and the valorization process which creates exchange values. [4] To analyse ecological crises we need to continue in this direction and to extend Marx’s analysis to encompass consumption, distribution and exchange.

Climate Change and Capitalist Crisis

The immediate impact of climate change on capitalism will be a massive devaluation of existing capital, unprecedented in peacetime conditions. This will arise for two main reasons. Firstly, large amounts of existing productive capacity will become unusable because it produces too many greenhouse gas emissions or is otherwise ecologically unviable. Secondly, to the extent that the ecological damage caused by climate change cannot be prevented, many previous investments are likely simply be destroyed, through flooding, extreme weather conditions or similar developments.

On its own, a devaluation of capital of this kind would not necessarily be fatal for capitalism. A central economic constraint on capital is the tendency for the profit rate to decline as a result of the substituting of ‘dead’ labour (plant and machinery) for the living labour that alone can create value. One of the key functions of crises for capitalism is the wiping out of the least productive portions of this accumulated investment in order to allow for the resumption of production on a more profitable basis. However, the wiping out of inherited capacity is not enough in itself to ensure an upturn in the profit rate. In line with the analysis above, Marx sees crises also as involving convulsive social struggles the outcomes of which are not determined in advance. Crises can be resolved either on the terms of capital or on the terms of labour and for profitability to be assured the former has to be the case. An example here is the way in which capitalist production was successfully safeguarded in Western Europe, the USA and Japan after World War 2, following a series of defeats for the labour movement, laying the basis for the long boom of the 1950s and 1960s.

It is clear from the documents that have already emerged from government and intelligence sources that the ruling classes of the West already envisage, and are laying plans for, similar struggles as a result of climate change. There is one important difference though, between crises occurring as a result of ecological upheaval and those that have arisen through war. Ecological imperatives such as climate change not only devalue existing capital; they also place very significant constraints on the capital that can replace it. This marks a fundamental change from the ways in which capital has been able to emerge, often temporarily strengthened, from previous crises. In the past, a central characteristic of capitalist production has been its unconstrained and invasive nature, noticed by Marx and Engels as far back as the Communist Manifesto. The recognition of ecological limits, of which climate change is currently the most important, may ultimately be incompatible with capitalist accumulation of any kind. In the intervening period it will greatly sharpen and intensify the struggle between labour and capital over the resolution of the crisis.

With this framework in mind it is now possible to begin to analyse the solutions being proposed for climate change.

Strategies for Climate Change

In the light of the analysis above, we need to assess any proposals put forward for resolving the ecological crisis from two perspectives. The first of these is an ‘objective’ one; do they move us further towards a society based on need rather than profit, or do they strengthen existing relations of inequality? The second is a ‘subjective’ one; will they contribute towards developing further mobilization which can extend and deepen them, or will they discourage or alienate people in a way which blocks further developments?

These two perspectives may not always coincide. A particular policy might have some justification in terms of an abstract concept of ‘fairness’ but it might still be one which should be opposed because its political outcome is likely to be one which weakens popular support for later ecological or socialist measures. More controversially, while it is difficult to envisage socialists ever supporting measures which increase inequality, we might want to accept the ‘second best’ of two competing progressive approaches if it also happened to be the one with most potential for encouraging further mobilizations. A historical example here is the debate over extending suffrage in the early 20th century in Britain. In formal terms the demand for universal adult suffrage was the most generally progressive one, but in terms of mobilizing potential the demand for female suffrage was clearly superior.

There are three main policy approaches currently being proposed to tackle climate change: redirection of government expenditure, taxation and quotas. In many ways the first of these appears least controversial. Socialists would clearly support redirection of spending away from the war in Iraq towards prevention of ecological damage. However, it is important to realize that struggles over social relations are present in all debates over the direction of state spending. Redirection of expenditure away from roads or airports, for example, while it might be something we might generally approve, will inevitably have implications for either taxation or quotas further down the line. More generally, as the economic crisis generated by climate change intensifies, with consequent potential burdens for capital, government expenditure is likely to become an important arena of political conflict. We should resist any attempts to argue for financing programmes for dealing with climate change out of money currently used for social benefits or public service provision.

Taxation is currently the favoured neo-liberal response to climate change. Here, it is important to distinguish between three kinds of tax: flat-rate taxes (such as the London congestion charge), indirect taxes (such as a higher rate of duty on airline fuel) and income-related taxes. In general socialists have always opposed flat-rate and indirect taxes because they effectively increase inequality – the poor pay the same rate of tax as the rich. It is possible, however, that in certain limited circumstances such taxes might be supported for one of two reasons. They might provide the basis for further mobilization and extension in a more progressive direction. Some have argued that this is the case for the congestion charge. Alternatively, if consumption of a particular resource is very harmful to the environment and there is no other immediately feasible way of limiting its use, this might provide a justification for an indirect tax, such as that proposed for airline fuel. Both of these justifications, however, are explicitly temporary in nature.

Income-related taxes have been looked on more favourably by socialists. In some cases, such as higher road tax for larger cars, they appear attractive. But in general taxes cannot solve the crisis in the interests of labour for three reasons. Firstly, it is very hard to find ecological measures that correlate with income (and, as the debate over council tax and local income tax has shown, income does not always correlate with wealth). Secondly, so-called ‘green taxes’ can only perform the negative task of discouraging ecologically damaging consumption. They do not transform society in a way that makes such consumption unnecessary (in the way that, for example, cheap or free public transport reduces car travel) and so do not address the issue of social need. Thirdly, tax-based measures do not deal with ecological damage arising from corporate activities, since companies will simply pass on any taxes levied on them to consumers in the form of higher prices.

For these reasons quotas have been seen as the answer by many on the left including some social democrats such as Polly Toynbee. [5] They do have a more egalitarian dynamic than taxes. However, there are important qualifications that need to be taken into account in any attempt to solve climate change by imposing quotas. Consumption limits can easily become very individualistic and linked to top-down authoritarian measures, so the scale of popular involvement in setting and implementing such limits is crucial. Quotas will often necessitate other changes in social relationships; for example, limits on air travel require reductions in working time and longer holidays to allow workers to travel in less ecologically damaging ways.

Quotas can be allocated in three main ways: to countries, to individuals and to companies. In each of these cases a key question is whether the quotas can be traded or not. Some social democrats have argued that tradable quotas allocated to poorer countries or individuals are a potentially redistributive measure. This is not convincing; while a certain amount of extra income might be generated by selling quotas this would leave untouched, or even reinforce, existing relations of inequality and would also lessen the ecological impact of the quota. Tradable quotas for companies are even less desirable since these would simply direct the ability to use scarce ecological resources towards those who are profitable rather than those who satisfy real needs.

Even for non-tradable quotas there are real problems in allocating them on a country- by-country basis. Such a measure makes it perfectly possible for the ruling class within a particular country to respond to the new ecological limits in an authoritarian way or to squeeze the consumption of the poor while leaving the lifestyles of the rich untouched. It also ignores the economic structure of imperialism, which has bound the countries of the south into ecologically destructive trading relationships that are, however, necessary for their survival in the current system.

Despite all these problems there does seem to be a potential role for quotas on individuals and companies in the industrialised world as part of a strategy for tackling climate change and some very radical proposals involving such limits have been put forward. [6] This raises the question of the general link between such measures and the visions of new social relationships discussed at the outset of this article.


One key issue raised by proposals for quotas of this kind is that of the extent to which they are compatible with satisfying human needs. Two opposing positions have developed, neither of which offers a desirable way forward for socialists. On the one hand, some green critics of industrialised society argue that all the needs which modern production purports to fulfil are artificial and can be discounted. On the other, productivist writers, including some on the left, claim that any limitation on consumption possibilities is moralistic and unacceptable. Any attempt to link ecological quotas to a more general transformation of society in an eco-socialist direction has to steer a way between these two positions.

One possible set of resources for doing this are the analyses that arose from the ecological writings of the 1960s and 1970s. These are in many ways politically sharper than much of what is current today. An example here is the concept of a ‘positional good’ – a good whose value to those consuming it inherently depends on the exclusion of others from that consumption. The analysis of this concept was developed most fully by a Keynesian writer, Fred Hirsch. While Hirsch was not a Marxist his work contains many ideas that can be critically appropriated by socialists. [7] In addition, much of Hirsch’s approach was anticipated in a brilliant set of articles in Le Nouvel Observateur by the Swiss/French Marxist, André Gorz, writing under the pseudonym Michel Bosquet. [8]

The classic example of a positional good for Gorz is the car. He begins from the proposition that ‘the motor car is only interesting and advantageous so long as the mass of people do not own it, in the same way as a villa on the coast’. [9] Once car travel is extended to the masses the problems of pollution, congestion and the destruction of the countryside by road building become insolvable. But the solution to this is not to reinstate cars as a luxury item but rather that ‘we should never deal with the transport problem in isolation but always in conjunction with the problems of the city, the social division of labour and the fragmentation it causes between the various dimensions of existence’. [10]

This kind of analysis provides a framework for linking policies for ecological limits on consumption to more general projects of social transformation. What is necessary is to see that many of the commodities provided by capitalism are positional goods whose benefit to those consuming them depends on structured inequality that excludes the majority from their use. In such circumstances quotas on the use of such goods may be the only immediate way of saving the planet. But in the longer term such quotas need to provide the basis for social mobilization that can ensure the provision of a completely different set of goods, linked to a different way of living.


[1] This article originated as the introduction to a workshop at the dayschool on Ecosocialism or Barbarism, organized by Socialist Resistance, on 2 December 2006. I am very grateful to the participants in this workshop for many stimulating comments and ideas.

[2] Marx writes that `the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things’ (K Marx Capital Volume 1).

[3] See J Bellamy Foster (2000) Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, Monthly Review Press.

[4] See Capital Volume 1 chapter 7.

[5The GuardianDecember 15 2006 p.37)

[6] See, for example, G Monbiot (2006) Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning, Allen Lane.

[7] F Hirsch (1977) Social Limits to Growth, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

[8] M Bosquet (1977) Capitalism in Crisis and Everyday Life translated by J Howe, Harvester Press.

[9] Bosquet, p.20.

[10< Bosquet, p.26.

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