CLIMATE CHANGE AS CLASS WAR

by Jan 26, 2023All Articles

Bruce Baigrie interviewed the author, Matt Huber

Amandla!: Your recent book is titled Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet. Can you explain what you mean by that? Why is class so important here?

MATT HUBER: The title is very explicitly trying to get us to understand climate change as a kind of war waged by a class in society. The class focus goes back to a very basic socialist or Marxist definition of class as a relationship to the means of production.

Climate change is ultimately about our industrial production system. Within this system, it’s particularly how we produce energy, but also how energy fuels various other types of material production, particularly carbon intensive forms like cement, steel, chemicals. Ultimately, the challenge of solving climate change really has to confront the power of the people who control and profit from this production.

Even when people talk about climate change as a class problem, they typically mean rich people have higher carbon footprints than poor people. They only analyse people’s carbon responsibility and impact on climate change through their consumption. What I’m really trying to get people to direct their attention to is the real cause of climate change – capitalists profiting from owning production systems.

A!: There are slogans like, “system change, not climate change” which are very popular in South Africa, as well as the rest of the world. But you seem to have some problems with those who you call the “anti system radicals.” 

MH: I’ve been a little frustrated with a kind of politics that creates an enemy of the system itself – we’re fighting this abstract thing called capitalism. I was trying to remind all of us that capitalism is not just a system. There is a class of people whose power we actually need to confront and overcome if we’re going to solve the crisis.

There’s this folk singer in the United States called Utah Phillips. He has this great line that the Earth isn’t dying, it’s being killed, and the people who are killing it have names and addresses. I really liked that. Because I think it reminds us that there are humans who control this capitalist system, although I don’t want to make it too individualistic and personal about the capitalists themselves, and I do think we have to have a more structural critique of capitalism.

A!: You have said that livelihood environmentalism is looking to the margins of society for an authentic basis for environmental politics that comes from a direct lived experience of the environment. What are the issues with this? 

MH: A lot of climate activists talk about centering what are called frontline communities – those that are both first and worst hit by the effects of the climate crisis: fishing communities in coastal areas where they’re seeing more flooding; or drought-stricken farmers in South Asia and parts of Africa; and indigenous peoples all over the world.

But climate activists don’t quite recognise that because they’re on the margins of society, they by definition, lack much political power to take on the capitalist class who is causing climate change. What defines the majority of the working class under a capitalist system is you’re actually torn from the land, torn from the environment, torn from the ecological conditions of life, and forced to sell your labour power for a wage to access the things you need via the market.

It’s that experience – I call it a proletarian ecology – of struggling to survive via money and commodities and market systems, which is really the most immediate threat to most people. So we’re going to actually have to build a climate movement for the masses of these proletarians. They need to be won over to the environmental climate transformation politics that we need.

A!: Do you think we need to be prioritising organising workers in the energy sector and electricity sector? Are they ever going to get behind a programme that risks their jobs? 

MH: I think we have to be serious that the climate change transition is going to lead to certain workers losing their jobs. So if we’re going to convince them that the transition is something reasonable to do, we actually have to have some material weight behind an idea of a just transition.

It would entail a massive expansion of the welfare state to give people a basis from which to transition. Unfortunately, right now, coal workers, oil workers, they don’t believe there’s anything called just transition, because all they see is economic devastation and unemployment when these mines shut down, when these power plants shut down. So they have very good reason to be suspicious. Holly Jean Buck has a great new book called Ending Fossil Fuels. She points out that oil and gas workers could actually be key to large-scale carbon removal programmes, those which take carbon from the atmosphere and then often inject it into the same wells where the oil was drawn from in the first place. Some of those technologies are the very same that these workers already have intimate training and knowledge on.

The other thing is that you can actually close down a coal-fired power plant and replace it with a nuclear power plant. Then you are not only able to link to the existing transmission, but you likely will be able to employ many of the same unionised workers who worked in the coal plant. So these types of solutions that actually harness the skills and knowledge and existing jobs and livelihoods of the fossil fuel workforce need to be a central part of the equation.

A!: What is the political case for a nuclear policy? Why does the leftist need to really value this technology?

MH: If you’re concerned about the climate, it’s a proven, reliable source of electricity that is, if not zero carbon, very low carbon. In Sweden, and France, they actually did a public sector build-out and investment programme in nuclear and large-scale hydro in response to the energy crisis of the 1970s, to try to create more energy security.

And they did this quite rapidly, within 10 to 15 years. And it has this capacity to deliver electricity 24/7, which renewables don’t have. And whenever the unions talk about climate change, they almost always say that nuclear has to be a central part of the solution, because they know that they have good, unionised jobs in the nuclear industry.

I think we have to be serious that the climate change transition is going to lead to certain workers losing their jobs. So if we’re going to convince them that the transition is something reasonable to do, we actually have to have some material weight behind an idea of a just transition.

A!: But you need a strong public sector to do this. 

MH: Yes. When you bring up nuclear, the main thing people mention is that it costs too much, it’s too risky, and that the market says no. But that didn’t stop France from going with a public-oriented investment programme. If we were to, again, build up the kind of political power that could revive those ideas of large-scale public investment for larger social goals, irrespective of cost effectiveness and short-term profits, then the case for nuclear is much clearer. Once you socialise those costs within the public sector, you can actually deliver electricity quite cheaply and reliably to masses of people.

A!: Do you think that renewables always have to come about under market conditions? Do they just align too strongly with them? 

MH: The renewable industry was empowered by a process of deregulation, that basically said, we’re going to allow a market for generation. This is what allowed for little solar and wind generators to become viable in these markets.

The challenges of unionising these are formidable, and it’s not just that they’re scattered around. It’s also that they’re mostly short-term projects rather than permanent jobs. Once solar and wind facilities are up, they don’t take a lot of workers to actually maintain them, as opposed to a power plant.

But if you can get a ton of construction jobs building solar farms, building wind systems, then the unions are going to love it. But it’s offshore wind that I think is a real potential stronghold for unions and labour. Denmark right now has a very unionised offshore wind industry.

From a labour perspective, I think there are lots of opportunities from the different types of technologies. And we should, like the unions, take a very flexible perspective on technology.

A!: In South Africa, we already have a big state-owned utility, Eskom. And there are segments of the Left in South Africa who are saying, look, if Eskom can’t keep the lights on, private renewables are better than nothing. What would you say to them?

MH: Public power, big or small, is no guarantee of positive outcomes. All it does is create public systems that are more responsive to public input and public pressure. They are able to have a larger public mission different than that of an investor-owned firm. So it gives you the possibility to shape these institutions in a more progressive direction. But it is no guarantee.

But the Left around the world is quite demobilised and defeated and the working class and labour movement are quite atomised. In those conditions, these institutions will get captured by powerful capitalist and state bureaucrats who are corrupt and hand over public assets to all sorts of insidious forces.

Public institutions are a field of struggle. We have to build a Left that actually vies for power over them and tries to contest what they are for. And to do that, you have to have a powerful Left that’s organised, and that’s obviously not easy. It’s much easier to just say, well, these institutions are hopelessly corrupt. So let’s just hand it over to the private market and hope that they solve it. But we’ve been waiting for the private sector to solve climate change for decades. When you’re hoping for this, you’re basically hoping that solving climate change and profit for shareholders align.

But there’s a lot of decarbonisation work we need to do that is clearly not profitable. Take the example of the Tennessee Valley Authority. In the 1930s it really was a big public power that was shaped by a larger Left movement. The slogan of this institution was “electricity for all”. And they actually accomplished tremendous gains. In 1934, only 10% of farmers had electricity and by 1950 it was over 90%. They electrified the countryside as a public mission because capital would not service these farms in these rural areas, since it wasn’t profitable to do so.

A!: You’re a bit of a pariah for proponents of degrowth. But what are your problems with degrowth? Capitalist growth is surely the biggest threat to the environment. Why are you opposed?

MH: I actually don’t think capitalist growth is the real threat. When you look at our society, it’s not that it really needs growth, per se. What it needs is accumulation for private capital. So capitalists need to be investing money and seeing returns on those investments for the system to be healthy. And we’ve created this metric that we call growth, or GDP. But it’s just an indirect kind of statistical measure that tries to capture what drives capitalism – investors being confident that when they invest money, they’ll make money out of it.

Degrowthers would agree that one of the problems with GDP is it takes this very abstract statistical measure and acts as if that very narrow measure is a stand in for the health and positive goodness of a society as a whole. But GDP measures this at the aggregate level. And we live in a class society that’s divided between different groups with different interests.

My argument is that you shouldn’t take this aggregate metric and say, well, we just want to do the opposite and negate it with degrowth. You should think more about how to craft a more antagonistic class strategy that says we need to degrow the rich and the capitalist class to provide growth and benefits for the many. Take on the few to benefit the many – classical class struggle politics.

Degrowthers bemoan consumption itself, talking about how we need to lessen consumption, how we need to “live better with less”. For the large majority of people under neoliberal capitalism, they’ve seen nothing but eroding living standards, wage cuts, increasing debt. So the working class has been living with less for many decades.

However, I do agree with them when they call for decommodifying of basic human needs – they call it universal public services. And so we might agree on some of our goals. My critique is more about strategy.

A!: Finally, the COPs are these big events on the calendars of the global climate justice movement. But there’s a lot of debate on how to approach these talks. Do you boycott them, or try to go and disrupt them? Do you hold alternative kinds of meetings? Do you think there’s merit in organising some sort of public disengagement, a series of alternatives? 

MH: I think we have to think seriously about the fact that, for all these COPs, year after year, time after time, they have failed to produce an institutional form of power that can achieve international coordination. So, for all the excitement around the Paris Agreement, the defining characteristic of it was that it had no teeth. It was purely voluntary. Until we actually have an international system that really can force countries and governments to abide by a certain set of commitments, I do feel like it’s a bit of a sideshow.

Bruce Baigrie is a PhD student at Syracuse University researching the South African and Mexican electricity sectors. 

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