Anti-capitalism, Climate Change, and Copenhagen

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How should anti-capitalists intervene in coming IPCC meetings in Copenhagen? Cynthia Kaufman says she wrote this piece for Climate and Capitalism “to incite some serious conversation among anti-capitalists.” She suspects that C&C readers “might be pretty divided on its content.” Of course we encourage reader comments …

By Cynthia Kaufman

Given the world-wide financial and economic meltdown, and the consequent delegitimation of capitalism as a whole, there has been no time in the past 50 years like the present for the spreading of anti-capitalist analysis and politics.

The part played by climate change at this critical juncture could be a powerful spur to anti-capitalist activity. And yet, if anti-capitalist agents make the wrong choices at this moment, action around climate change could be the undoing of a movement about to be born. All of this will played out in a chapter of world history being written presently as the world builds toward the international climate negotiations set to take place in Copenhagen in December of 2009.

The global capitalist system is the one force most responsible for the climate crisis. An economy predicated on allowing those with resources to use them in ways that maximize profits, along with the political structures set up to facilitate that profit making, have led to a system of production that uses tremendous amounts of resources and is accountable to no one. This unaccountable system presently runs on fuels that are destabilizing the climate system within which human society has emerged.

Many sectors of capital are doing all they can to undermine real action on climate change. We have seen how offsets are being used as an excuse for delayed action. We have seen the billions of dollars worth of giveaways as Europe set carbon caps that were too low, and gave away permits to emit. We have seen how the pursuit of biofuels is causing worldwide hunger, as the world’s food supply gets used to power cars.

Right now the more enlightened leaders of the capitalist world are working hard to make a transition to a green form of capitalism. Many anti-capitalists are arguing that we need to stop this transition in its tracks and use the climate crisis to put an end to capitalism. For some, that means trying to derail the climate negotiations process at Copenhagen.

Here’s bad news: we have less than ten years to solve the climate problem. Significant progress needs to be made on the transition away from a carbon-based economy as quickly as possible. Any forces getting in the way of that transition will, and should, be held to account by future generations.

Another problem: 19th century anti-capitalists were wrong in their analysis of the brittleness of capitalism. The virus we call capitalism is amazingly flexible in its ability to adapt to problems and to take action to keep its host alive. Capitalism may be crisis prone, but it is also very able to weather the crises it creates.

Here’s the good news: Concerted action on climate is in itself a challenge to capitalism as we have known it. The devastations caused by capitalism have relied on the rhetoric of free markets. They have relied on the notion that business should be able to do what it wishes with as little oversight as possible. A global climate deal that does not take the needs of the world’s poor into account will not be politically viable, so the needs of the world’s poor have been forced onto the agenda. Taking action to deal with global poverty pushes the global economic system in the direction of less capitalism. A Gramscian war of position against capitalism can move forward in powerful ways as the climate crisis helps delegitimize capitalism and limit its range of motion.

The climate crisis can be a powerful opportunity to make progress in the fight against capitalism. We can work to show the ways that capitalism has caused the climate crisis; the ways that forces in governments have blocked action on the crisis; the ways that businesses are taking every opportunity to create false solutions.

If the left is seen as partially responsible no deal being reached at Copenhagen, we loose in a big way. If the forces of green capitalism win a deal that is too weak to deal with the climate crisis, forces that support capitalism need to be the ones blamed for that. In the unlikely case that green capitalist forces are able to constitute a form of capitalism that is sustainable, we need to glory in the fact that the world has been taken from the brink, and then move on to build support for an anti-capitalist position.

The truth is that capitalism is radically unsustainable. An economy based on consumerism, along with political systems that take maintaining the conditions of profitability to be their main job, will continue to push up against the limits of the environment in which those activities take place.

We need to be there at every turn exposing the false solutions proposed by capitalists, be they green or not. We need to be there at every turn making sure that the needs of the world’s poor, in the global North as well as in the global South, be at the center of the discussion. We need to expose green-washing and partial solutions.

What we don’t need to do is to be obstructionist, responsible for undermining the best deal the world can get, or willing to set aside the needs of reducing carbon emission in favor of an unrealistic dream of overthrowing capitalism in the next 5 years. The process of liberating the world from capitalism will take a little bit longer than that, and the fight against climate change can be a huge opportunity for making steps in that direction.

Cynthia Kaufman, a climate justice activist in the US, aisthe author of Ideas for Action: Relevant Theory for Radical Change (South End Press: 2003). She is completing a new book on Liberation from Capitalism: Vision of a Post-Capitalist Future and Directions for Getting There.

1 Comment

  • Hi,

    I’m always happy to see anti-capitalists engage in serious debate about strategy.

    However, I really don’t get the point of this particular piece. How exactly is it possible, even in principle, that anti-capitalists could “derail international climate negotiations”? I mean, for one thing, there will (I assume) be no anti-capitalists allowed in any of the meetings. And even if there were, those individuals would have no influence on the outcome.

    So, I guess the thought must be that maybe a demonstration, outside the meetings, could disrupt them, as happened to the WTO in Seattle 1999.

    However, even if that kind of ‘shut-down’ tactic is being advocated by some anti-capitalists (which I haven’t heard anything about, personally), and even if it were to succeed, governments could still proceed to negotiate a deal in other forums. If the powerful want a deal, they can work out the logistics of how to organize it. All that mass protests do is increase the pressure on elites to respond to demands for serious action.

    A far, far more dangerous possibility is the scenario which Kaufman seems to be actually advocating (if I understand her view correctly), which would be a de-mobilization of popular protest, and placing of our hopes in the hands of elite representatives of government and big business. Now THAT would be dangerous. And, frankly, that is more likely to happen than any successful shutting down of climate talks (if this is attempted — although I agree that this would be a dubious tactic).

    In the meantime, I hope we can all agree, including Kaufman, that all activists should urgently support the Mobilization for Climate Justice actions that will be happening on 30 November 2009. Check out the web site:

    In solidarity,