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If Climate “Changes Everything”, Why Does So Much Remain the Same?


Unlike #occupy and anti-austerity politics, the movement organized around the demand for “system change, not climate change”—the climate justice movement—has only continued to grow. For many, most prominently the Canadian author Naomi Klein in her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, this development places climate justice at the center of attempts to revive the project of the Left.


But with commitments by both China and the U.S. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and a Papal encyclical that equates climate change with spiritual degradation, one is left with the distinct impression that discontents around climate change are readily being integrated back into the status quo. In fact, in the E.U., decarbonization of the economy became a feature of political stability long ago, and action on climate change figures nowhere in the current E.U. crisis, which centers on debt, austerity and a refugee crisis. Consequently, sustained activity around climate change seems poised to join other post-2008 protest movements which fell well below their aspiration for “changing everything.”

Clearly, one dimension of this failing is the opportunistic character of Democrats, E.U. politics, popes, etc. But as Adolph Reed Jr., writing in the 1970s about the ultimate failure of the Civil Rights movement to sustain itself beyond the 1960s (“Black Particularity Reconsidered” Telos 1979), reminds us: “The opposition must investigate its own complicity.” What then does the Left’s orientation around the climate justice movement fail to investigate about itself? Why hasn’t the Left managed to advance through a socioecological crisis of capitalism, even though the contemporary environmental movement and its critique of affluence has been a permanent fixture of political life for over forty years? And how might the Left’s conceptualization of capital-induced ecological degradation and the discontents surrounding climate change be implicated in its inability to (really) put revolutionary politics on the agenda?

Return to Marx

While asymmetrical flows of energy and resources from the Global South to the Global North (what scholars call “ecologically unequal exchange” and activists term “climate debt”) is a defining effect of neoliberal global capitalism, we must be clear: processes of uneven and combined development, unequal ecological exchange, and so on are not the cause of the problem of capitalism (and, by extension, environmental degradation) but rather its effect. Similarly, Naomi Klein’s latest work takes the manifold features of neoliberalism, including climate change, income inequity and the decline of public services, as being the central guiding structure of neoliberalism rather than the surface phenomena of a deeper social dynamic. For neither concrete exploitation (of land and labor) nor [Klein] can explain the structure of the system itself and its alien developmental logic, which, despite current efforts, no one controls and to which all are subject. While there have been numerous surface-level changes in capitalism since the nineteenth century, below we discuss how, at the general theoretical level, Marx remains essential for making sense of these changes, including their link to the deeper social dynamic of capitalism. Part of the problem associated with Klein’s approach is that she treats discontents surrounding climate change (which we take as “surface-level” phenomena) as if they were somehow directly indicative of a more fundamental, underlying social dynamic—namely, the production of value (discussed below). Consequently, Klein cannot understand climate change discontents as a feature of capitalist society that nevertheless points beyond this deeper social dynamic toward a post-capitalist world.

It is for this reason that the Left has persistently been unable to link environmental politics across other forms of discontent with capitalism.

. . . the Left has persistently been unable to link environmental politics across other forms of discontent with capitalism.

Instead, Klein defers to an unwavering commitment to new social movements, a consistent theme in her writing beginning in the 1990s around the anti-globalization movement. But as Klein is well aware, such movements proved largely disconnected in their challenge to neoliberalism in the 1990s. Yet, with climate change she takes these interests to now be increasingly unified and progressing towards change in what she characterizes as “blockadia.” But Klein fails to contextualize this so-called ‘progress’ in relation to the transition (from post-Fordism to neoliberal global capitalism) within which it emerged and, as a result, is unable to register how political currents within society can change without, however, rendering capitalism more coherent. For Marx, on the other hand, discontents mean very little if not in relation to the crisis of bourgeois society—a form of society that becomes increasingly contradictory with the industrial revolution. Klein simply adapts to the seeming “coherence” of the political phenomena she encounters and assumes their “progressive” character. Of course, Klein calls for the valorization of labour etc. and may seemingly have much in common with Marx. For Klein, recovering Marx’s point of departure would mean simply siding with the labor movement against corporations and climate change. But Marx saw much more at stake in the politics of the working class in the nineteenth century than an ongoing battle with corruption and the elite (e.g., the democratic concerns of the earlier French and American Revolutions). What Marx discerned was how the crisis being provoked by the working class was drawing attention to the possibility that the social currents during his time, which were actively undermining the ground of traditional forms of society, might themselves be transitional. The working class could change everything but only to the extent that it clarified the basis of this transition—namely, the crisis of bourgeois society—in what he came to understand as capital (“Capital in History” Cutrone, C. Platypus Review 2008).

Capital, history, and alienated labor

The conventional conceptualization of class identifies the exploitation of labor, hidden by the market exchange of commodities, as a defining feature of capitalist society. However, labor exploitation and markets existed well before the formation of classes under capitalism. If class is conceptualized solely in terms of concrete exploitation, then we have no way of distinguishing it from other historical forms of social organization. It is this inability to determine what is historically specific about capitalism that leads Klein, for example, to assume the problem of ecological degradation extends back to the Enlightenment. Yet, such an account is unable to explain how the accelerated pace of ecological degradation is so specifically related to the rise of capitalism, as well as how, within the historical developments of capitalism itself, inequity could possibly be reduced (i.e., as it was in most industrial countries in the two decades following WWII).

In the Grundrisse, Marx is very clear about what distinguishes capital in history—as something new—namely, a form of abstract, impersonal social domination: “Personal independence in the framework of a systematic objective [sachlicher] dependence(quoted in Postone, 1993: 125 [translation amended]). This form of abstract domination is structured by a historically specific form of labor (what the early Marx called “alienation,” which he later specified at various levels of social mediation).

As prominent Marxian scholar Moishe Postone emphasizes: “The nonpersonal, abstract ‘objective’ form of domination characteristic of capitalism (…) refers to the domination of people by abstract, quasi-independent structures of social relations, mediated by commodity-determined labor” (Time, Labor, and Social Domination, 1993: 125-6). If labor is bonded in traditional society and becomes a social bond in bourgeois society, it becomes the form of social domination with the advance of capitalism.

Treadmill of production of surplus value

According to Marx, commodity-determined labor is characterized by a historically-specific double character in the form of abstract value-creating labor and concrete useful labor. The double-character of labor constitutes a form of abstract domination, which structures the two dimensions of the value-form of the commodity (e.g., use-value/exchange-value; concrete labor/abstract labor; wealth/value, etc.) that characterize the social forms in capitalism.

More specifically, the two dimensions of the social forms in capitalism are related through the commodity form of labor as a function of time. The exchange-value of a commodity, including labor, is determined by the time socially necessary for its reproduction. The structure of modern capitalist society, according to Marx, is determined by the drive to produce surplus value and capitalize on labor (measured in socially necessary labor time). Hence, the constant need to produce value above the exchange-value of the labor employed (i.e., surplus value). Following Marx, it is important to bear in mind that the reference point for socially necessary labor time, as the determination of a commodity’s magnitude of value, is society as a whole.

Figure 1 below depicts the production of relative surplus value and its expansion required by capital. This process—initially theorized by Marx—has been elaborated most fully by Moishe Postone in his book, Time, Labor, and Social Domination (1993). Postone explicates a dialectic of labor and time, whereby the social labor hour and base level of productivity are moved forward in time, giving rise to a particular “treadmill” dynamic, which we refer to as the treadmill of production of value. Our use of the “treadmill” metaphor is also an intention allusion to the well-known “treadmill of production” (ToP) concept advanced by the American environmental sociologist Allan Schnaiberg. However, Schnaiberg focuses solely on the production of wealth, which he specifies in relation to the environmental impact of increasing use-value output. Our metaphor of the ToP of value, on the other hand, emphasizes the temporal dimension of Marx’s concept of capital as self-expanding value (more on this below), which, in turn, redirects focus toward the growing contradiction between wealth (measured in terms of the quantity and quality of products produced) and value (whose magnitude is a function of the expenditure of abstract labor time).



Figure 1. Treadmill of Production of Value

In fully developed capitalism, once the working day has been limited, relative surplus value is effected by increasing productivity (so as to yield a larger output per hour worked). But, as Postone explains, this is only effective indirectly, for once a given level of productivity becomes general at the level of society as a whole, this then becomes the basis against which a new socially necessary labor hour is measured: although increases in productivity turn out greater quantities of material wealth and reduce socially necessary labor time, these developments do not change the total value produced per abstract time unit because the “constant” time unit itself is determined by productivity as a function of the use-value dimension of commodity-determined labor (292). In this sense, the social labor hour, although constant, undergoes what Postone refers to as a “substantive redetermination”—that is to say, “with increased productivity, the time unit becomes ‘denser’ in terms of the production of goods” (292). However, the retention of direct human labor in the production process, as that which underlies the value form, becomes increasingly anachronistic in the face of the immense wealth-producing potential of industry. As Marx notes in the Grundrisse, “The theft of alien labor time, on which the present wealth is based, appears a miserable foundation in the face of this new one, created by large-scale industry.”

Although the wealth/value contradiction points beyond capital, it does not automatically undermine the necessity represented by value, for each “new” hour (and, by extension each increase in productivity), produces and is reproduced by our actions (i.e., the necessity of work in capitalist society). It is in this sense that the social necessity of socially necessary labor time is quasi-objective—that is, an “external” social necessity which we’re forced to enact (i.e., alienation as self-generated domination). Similarly, although the environmental impact and uneven distribution of the ToP of wealth is becoming increasingly obvious, contrary to Klein’s claim that that climate change changes everything, the underlying process at work remains concealed because the ToP of value is not immediately apparent at the “surface-level” of society.

According to Marx, capital is “self-expanding value” which ‘preserves itself only by constantly multiplying itself’ (Capital, Volume 1). The ToP of value is propelled forward by capital and as such, dictates the form economic growth must take. The temporality of the ToP of value is characterized by accelerating productivity growth so as to produce as many commodities as possible as rapidly as possible. This so-called “capital time,” in turn, demands accelerating biophysical throughput. The nature of the contradiction between material wealth (measured in terms of the quantity and quality of products produced) and value (whose magnitude is a function of the expenditure of abstract labor time) therefore calls attention to how the social-ecological tensions underlying modern society are structured by a historically-specific form of human activity (commodity-determined labor).

Dialectic of Transformation and Reconstitution

In the Grundrisse, written over 150 years ago, Marx identifies a tension that is strikingly similar to our current ecological predicament—namely, the perpetuation of a self-destructive form of social organization in the face of the objective imperative to do otherwise: “Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.” The growing disparity between the accumulated historical potential of humanity and the production of value does not, however, automatically undermine the necessity represented by value. While strands of environmentalist thought since at least the 1972 study, The Limits to Growth, have posited finitude (of natural resources) alongside a critique of the expansionary logic of economic growth—that is, a critique of the ToP of wealth (increasing levels of use-value output), the logic of the treadmill itself can only be grasped in light of the value dimension. Without such critical recognition we risk enabling capitalism to advance, precisely because we are unable to recognize what it is.

The most insidious aspect of the treadmill, which has eluded green thinkers of all persuasions, is the dynamic process whereby the necessity of value is continuously established in the present (Postone, 1993). Following Postone, the necessity of value is continually established in the present through a dialectic of transformation and reconstitution of the two dimensions of the commodity form. We alluded to this previously when, in discussing the treadmill of production of value and capital time, we mentioned the dialectic of labor and time, whereby the social labor hour and base level of productivity are moved forward in time. At the level of totality (i.e., capital), Marx’s analysis of the valorization process, including what we call the ToP of value, “involves a dialectic of transformation and reconstitution that results from the dual nature of the commodity form and from the two structural imperatives of the value form of wealth—the drive toward increasing levels of productivity and the necessary retention of direct human labor in production” (Postone, 1993: 308).

Following Postone (308), Figure 2 depicts the ToP of value with regard to: 1) ongoing transformations at the surface level of immediate appearance (the concrete, material wealth dimension) and 2) the continual reconstitution of the underlying conditions necessary for the production of value (the value dimension). In Figure 2 the twofold character of labor—the active mediation between the material wealth and value dimensions—is indicated by the solid lines, whereas the two structural imperatives of the value form of wealth (the drive toward increasing levels of productivity, on the one hand, and the necessary retention of direct human labor in production, on the other) are indicated by the dashed lines.


Figure 2. Dialectic of transformation and reconstitution

Neoliberalism and contemporary environmentalism

The Marxian critical theory framework outlined above allows one to gain a better understanding of the spread of neoliberalism and the concomitant growth of environmentalism. The onset of neoliberalism in the 1970s marks a transition from what Friedrick Pollack termed “state capitalism.” In state capitalism the precipitous decline in industrial output that plagued the 1930s was overcome through state planning and coordination of the economy. This shift resulted in tremendous advancements in productivity and related forms of accumulated knowledge that fueled the post-WWII spike in environmental degradation; an approach to development that environmentalist critics characterize as productivism. These developments also entailed massive transformations in social life. The technologies associated with the productivist dimensions of state capitalism, for example, allowed the mass production of commodities, which in turn allowed a decline in prices and facilitated a mass consumer market. The discontents articulated by the environmental movement during the late 1960s and early 1970s expressed the fact that a productivist industrial society is not adequate to the well-being of the natural environment.

But precisely when it became possible to question the ecological impacts of the capitalist work regime during the 1970s, the necessity of this regime reasserted itself: as unemployment rates skyrocketed, “work” became a matter of increasing social necessity. Although the early environmentalist criticism was articulated at a time when the material expansion of the post-WWII regime had developed to such an extent that it became possible to question its necessity, the development of contemporary environmentalism did not correspond to a related shift in how society was organized. In fact, the exact opposite happened as the growth of environmentalism during the 1970s and 1980s corresponded to the advent and continuation of neoliberalism.

The crisis of state-centric capitalism (measured by a general decline in the rate of profit) during the mid-1970s incited a sweeping restructuring of capital that continues to this day. We have already mentioned the spike in unemployment and the resurgence of the necessity of work that accompanied this economic downturn. Other important developments include trends commonly associated with “neoliberal” capitalism: financialization, the shift toward monetary, supply side economics bolstered by the nation state, the transformation of business and labor, and the creation of an infrastructure conducive to the formation of a global economy. The restructuring of capital in neoliberal form is an attempt to reconstitute the underlying structural preconditions for the capitalist production of value discussed above.

The Left’s inability to organize discontents around ecological degradation arise from confusion over two issues, which have dogged progressive forces since the 1960s—namely, productivism and its connection to the problem of redistribution. The Left’s orientation around the climate justice movement, for example, foregrounds the issue of redistribution (e.g., “carbon debt,” “ecologically unequal exchange,” etc.) but opposes redistribution predicated on productivism. While such an approach correctly identifies the great ramping-up of ecologically destructive patterns of development that took form in the 1930s, the notion that socialism would reconcile the capitalism-nature antithesis by decoupling productivism from redistribution is highly suspect. Such an approach misses the historical connection between socialism and state capitalism (1930s), the crisis of state capitalism and the emergence of contemporary environmentalism (1960s), as well as the failure of the Left to advance this crisis (the emergence of a New Right in neoliberalism) (see “When was the crisis of capitalism” Cutrone, C. Platypus Review 2014). Consequently, the Left’s orientation around the climate justice movement appears backward-looking; as both as an attempt to defend the vestiges of “state capitalism”—under changed circumstances—as well as a reflection of how productivism is transformed under neoliberalism. The Left is unable to bring about “system change” through climate change because it is unable to make historical sense out of the ways in which ecological degradation and discontents are intimately connected to the transformations that have taken place within capitalism itself. Rather than conceptualizing these discontents as somehow “outside” capital-induced ecological degradation, the Left would need to regard how such discontents are bound up with, yet nevertheless point beyond, capitalism. What the strategies and possibilities for this type of action might be cannot be directly predetermined by the research at hand, but certainly the contradiction between wealth and value, particularly the ambivalent meaning of the “superfluousness” of labor in capitalism, needs to be (re)considered in light of the foregoing discussion.

Pulling the emergency brake

Last winter in New Politics the prominent ecosocialist Michael Löwy pointed out that by the 1930s socialists had adopted a narrow focus on productivism and redistribution of industrial surpluses in state capitalism. Although state capitalism (particularly the 1940s to the 1960s) effectively reduced income disparity in industrial countries to levels not since seen, Löwy is correct to draw attention to Walter Benjamin’s call to pull the “emergency break” on this form of historical development. But Löwy, paralleling Klein, takes the “emergency brake” that Benjamin is calling for as one centered on the “locomotive” of productivism, rather Benjamin’s actual focus, on the problematic approach that Marxists took to history in the 1930s. What Benjamin is taking for granted (a feature largely obscure in the present) is that Marxists in the early twentieth century had assumed a linear and progressive notion of history (characterized under various terms—‘revisionism’, ‘economism’, ‘reformism’, etc.), and hence a progressive concept of the advancing necessity for socialism. Although this notion was effectively challenged by a younger generation who viewed themselves as being Orthodox to Marx (Lenin in Russia and Rosa Luxemburg in Germany) resulting in a revolutionary upsurge after WWI, Benjamin wrote of the “emergency brake” (1940) after it was clear that this challenge had entirely collapsed.

Löwy and Klein’s approaches may carefully steer clear of productivism, but they do so in a manner that recapitulates (in a far weaker and less political form) progressive notions of historical development characteristic of 1930s Marxism: both (mistakenly) assume a straightforward, rather than dialectical, relation between discontents, climate justice and neoliberalism. Indeed, this is what allows them to envision a growing social basis for revolutionary social transformation. The nexus of this transformation, according to this perspective, does not lay at the heart of capital, but among those displaced by its relentless logic (e.g., the actors of “blockadia” such as indigenous people, small-land holders and dwellers of massive urban slums with no prospects of employment). In the same way, Marxists in the 1930s felt confident that the deepening misery associated with the economic crisis would bring about a renewed wave of revolution and not the deepening of state capitalism.

What Walter Benjamin may be trying to indicate to us—exactly seventy-five years later—is that we must pull the “emergency brake” on the notion that discontents lead automatically to “system change.” As a distant and weak ghost, he is reminding us of the catastrophe that attended the proliferation of vulgar one-sided conceptions of capitalism. This would include pulling the emergency brake on the various “economistic” arguments that motivate the climate justice movement, in which neoliberalism is narrowly conceived as the victory of the economy over “values.”

If climate change indicates anything, perhaps it’s a reminder of Benjamin’s insight that the Left changes very little in the present, precisely because we fail to consider capitalism dialectically. He reminds us that we will only create new horrors unless we task ourselves with understanding and practically taking hold of the complex and dynamic character of capitalist society. Klein’s assertion that climate change “calls for strategy, clear deadlines, dogged focus— all of which are sorely missing from most progressive movements at the moment” (134) is invariably essential to political action, but it parallels the calls for urgent and concerted action that Benjamin could foresee as heading off a cliff. We urgently need a better conception of how ecological degradation and political change are integrated if the Left is to consciously provoke a social crisis that could truly put “system change” back on the agenda.