by JF

On the eve of the “People’s Climate March” 2014, a member of U&S NYC offers up some theses for discussion. It has been rightly observed within U&S that these theses do not engage directly with the crisis itself, and its particular relationship to capitalism. In this regard, they can be understood as supplementary reading to the excellent pamphlet “Why Climate Change is Not And Environmental Issue“. A more rigorous engagement with these questions is forthcoming.


I. The first person to fence off a piece of land and say “this is mine” was the original “climate criminal”. The first person to defend this right was the forebear of today’s “green capitalist”.

II. Green capitalism tells us that the “environmental crisis” can be resolved within capitalism, by capitalist means — legislation, lobbying, fundraising, protest parades, and direct actions that “speak truth to power” and get the wheels of reform turning. Talk of “climate criminals”, the nefarious “Wall Street”, and the need for “climate justice” is perfectly consistent with green capitalism. For green capitalism, the solution to the climate crisis is more effective capitalist democracy, fairer capitalist justice, “Main Street not Wall Street”, or in other words: better capitalism.

III. Branding oneself “anti‐capitalist” hardly makes one any less capitalist; quite the opposite. A savvy eye to niche marketing makes the “anti‐capitalist” promoter of green capitalism a capitalist, par excellence.

IV. Green capitalism parcels out ecological crisis from the struggles we face in our daily lives and forces us to fight for “the environment” in abstraction from the fight for control of our lives. Torn from our everyday experiences of capitalist exploitation (wage labor, austerity, racism, gentrification, patriarchy, sickness, depression…), we are transplanted to the specialized site of the “environmental” struggle: whether through petitions in the halls of power, the theatrics of the ballot box, or long train rides to spectacular demonstrations in neighborhoods where nobody but a “climate justice” non‐profit director could afford to live.

V. Green capitalism seeks not to empower people to take control of their daily lives, but to manage peoples’ outrage into channels deemed acceptable in advance. These parameters are typically defined by legality and adherence to the institutions of the capitalist state, but also allow for a measured illegality as a means of blowing off a little steam. This type of management is intrinsic to the “non‐profit” form, to the political party (reformist and revolutionary), and to all organizations which do not accept the secondary role they play to facilitating independent activity outside of and exceeding their control.

VI. Speaking truth to power, and thus recognizing its legitimacy, offers access to official society as an acknowledged leader, favorable coverage in the press, book deals, “political” credibility in academia, cushy NGO jobs, and even access to ruling class representative politics when one should decide their days of sewing wild oats to be over. Building counterpower — defying self‐appointed movement managers, forging bonds across struggles resistant to leadership from above, and helping to push situations beyond the bounds of any recuperation — offers none of this, as it threatens the ruling class, rather than flattering it.

VII. If the central, albeit unspoken demand of Occupy Wall Street was the right of return to the middle class by those freshly expelled from it, green capitalism offers that possibility to a milieu of young activists who want to put their technocratic smarts to use and be the change they want to see in the world. In this perverse way, the middle class aspirations of Occupy may succeed for its most dedicated partisans, on an individual basis. Whether or not this rope ladder to social mobility is accepted (has and) will determine which side of the class line young activists fall in today’s struggles and the struggles ahead.

VIII. Green capitalism needs a “media strategy” because it has no desire to engage people by any other means. Through spectacular “actions” neatly staged for the press cameras, green capitalism summons modernity’s most effective tool for imposing disempowerment and isolation — capitalist mass media — to “get out the message” in the exact manner of the Ford Motor Company. For green capitalism, the alienation of struggle from daily life becomes the struggle to determine the form alienation should take: green capitalism needs alienated consumers of… green capitalism. It’s no coincidence that so much of “the movement” is preoccupied with what kind of consumers people should be.

IX. Green capitalism deliberately separates tightly-controlled lawful demonstrations from the sanctioned illegality of the “disobedient” direct action. The illegality of the latter allows for the movement-policing of the former, and is a source of its legitimacy. Thus there is a symbiosis, reinforcing their exclusivity. Even in illegality, human activity is tightly managed from above by green capitalism. Meanwhile “civil” illegality itself is scrupulously codified, and put to work peacefully in the service of an improved legality. Illegality which refuses to speak to power, adopting instead a language of its own understood only by its participants, is deemed illegitimate, divisive, and devoid of content. Occupy briefly challenged this dynamic, but many brave blockaders of the Brooklyn Bridge soon amended their story to become victims of a police plot.

X. The specter of the proletariat taking decisive action on its own terms, generalizing its daily struggles toward the struggle against environmental ruin, and pushing beyond the conservative parameters of “the environmental movement” is the nightmare of green capitalism. When this day comes, the self‐appointed leaders of “climate justice” will either suppress the movement back into neatly parceled channels, or will be left on the sidelines to order each other around while the class moves on its own. And there will be no question of willfully turning oneself over to the state for symbolic arrest. How we relate to green capitalism today will partially determine which direction is taken at this coming juncture, though the thrust of this movement will be (thankfully) out of anyone’s hands.

XI. Green capitalism seeks sustainable misery. Its dubious dream — of capitalism surviving ecological crisis and prolonging its project to degrade and disfigure humanity for thousands of years to come — is more horrifying than the prospect of humanity ceasing to exist altogether. Wrong life cannot be lived rightly.

One thought on “Green capitalism seeks sustainable misery.

  1. When he was working on the initial drafts for this, James (the author), noted that these theses are a polemic that is attempting to engage with the wide popularity, but imprecise appropriation of the ‘anti-capitalist’ label that has recently gained wide popularity in the struggle against climate change. Naomi Klein’s most recent book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, is a good example of this as Klein established herself as the right wing of the anti-globalization movement some 15 years ago, and can only, at best, be descried as a social democrat.

    Despite this, from a strategic angle, I think the above theses still need to be grounded in what the preface to this blog post accurately described as the climate crisis’s “particular relationship” to capitalism. The bulk of my thoughts center around what I think may be miscommunicated in thesis #4, although I think that there are a lot of great insights in this piece as a whole.

    Thesis #4 mentions that sort of parceling out and isolation of struggling for the environment that marks the path of reformism, cooptation, and ultimately defeat (even for those reforms). These dangers, however, that are a result of utilizing the channels of “change” within official society also exist for the struggles listed in parentheses. In fact, the most recent example of direct action and unmanaged civil disobedience being used in the struggle against the Keystone XL pipeline are evidence that we build counter-power by struggling for the environment. Maybe the task is in explaining how fighting for the environment is fighting for control.

    The writings of Murray Bookchin are helpful in these regards. He basically takes the categories of quantity and quality, and says that capital reduces nature to quantitative inputs for production. While the evolutionary development of nature and life in general depends on qualitative differentiation, or in other words ecological diversity, capital erodes that ecological diversity; think monoculture industrial farming (not just farming one crop for miles on end, but also only farming such a small percentage of edible plants for food), mass species extinction, the massive concrete jungles of unending sub/urban at the expense of diverse, unmanaged wildlife, etc. The quality of nature only features when it serves as a use within the value form.

    Further, Bookchin says that the social world (the potential ‘realm of freedom’) developed out of and is dependent upon the natural world. The uniqueness of humanity’s creative and free activity is a result of our evolutionary development — a biological/natural phenomenon — completely dependent upon ecological diversity. Because of this, he argues that diminished and degraded ecological diversity in the natural world leads to a diminishing and degraded possibilities for free, creative activity in the social world. He uses a pithy example in one of his writings that human needs are dependent on a far wider range of other parts of the eco-system than, for instance, algae. A diverse eco-system is a prerequisite for human freedom.

    Stopping there, however, still might leave us with a utilitarian conception of nature; that is, the health of the eco-system is only important in so far as it serves human desire and need and human freedom. He says that there is another characteristic of nature that cannot be ignored. The profound complexity of the natural world is marked by it’s own spontaneous development. It is far too rich and complex to be totally managed by human hands and minds. Possibilities for the natural development of freedom and complexity itself is dependent upon nature’s free, unmanaged spontaneity in its evolution.

    The rubric for determining whether the social forms of humanity are ecologically destructive or supportive depend on whether or not they encourage the free & spontaneous development of nature towards increasing complexity and diversity. As I noted above, capital and the value-form fail in those regards.

    In the same way that struggles over gender expanded communist theory by deepening the category of reproduction, for example, in relation to the historical specifics of the struggles of women, the particularity of nature throws up its own categories — complexity, diversity, spontaneity — related to the historical specifics of nature — its biological evolution and subsequent creation of the social world.

    I think it’s important to keep these ideas at the core of our engagement with the ecological and climate struggles since many if not most people see these struggles as an environmental struggle, and I think they’re correct in so far as it does in fact relate to the complexity and diversity of nature.

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