Debate: Politics and Climate Change

What follows is the first of two contributions to a debate triggered by the Red Ant feature article Can Australian Capitalism be forced to Quit Coal? By Sam King and Max Lane.

That article was written in the wake of Black Summer bushfire catastrophe across Australia’s East and before it became clear that the covid-19 pandemic would put on hold the intensifying global mass movement for “climate action now!”

In seeking ways to expand the power and reach of the climate movement in Australia King and Lane criticised the perspective put forward by one of the major groups active in the movement – Socialist Alternative – in their theoretical journal Marxist Left Review.

Socialist Alternative argues that Australian capitalism is unable give up the use of coal and that a socialist revolution must occur before coal production and consumption can be eradicated in Australia. King and Lane argued this position is both demonstrably false and extremely disorienting for a movement which views the rapid phase out of coal as an urgent priority.

Below is a response by Allen Myers who is a member of Socialist Alternative and works on the production of its newspaper Red Flag. Myers argues King and Lane’s Red Ant piece misinterprets the MLR articles which he says don’t really argue capitalism cannot give up coal but actually “treat coal as emblematic of Australian capitalism’s environmental destructiveness” in general. Further, he argues King and Lane end up presenting “almost a parody of reformist arguments that have been around for more than a century, and which have not at all improved with age”.

In the next few days Red Ant will publish a response by Sam King to Myers’ article.

Politics and climate change: a reply to Sam King and Max Lane

Allen Myers

Australian capitalism has a messy problem related to coal. Its obvious contribution to global warming has made coal a special target of the growing movement against climate change. As well, technological development has been and is undermining the usual capitalist defence of its especially harmful industries and processes: that they are cheaper, that they save money.

The article by Sam King and Max Lane goes into considerable detail to undermine that justification, and their information is certainly useful in arguing with anyone who is inclined to accept the capitalist sophistries. Unfortunately, the article also conducts a poorly grounded polemic with two articles in Socialist Alternative’s Marxist Left Review, by Catarina Da Silva and Sarah Garnham respectively. King and Lane take issue with those authors’ descriptions of why capitalism in general and Australian capitalism in particular cannot get along without fossil fuels. For example, they criticise, among others, this statement from the Da Silva article: “Any abandonment of the fossil fuel industry in economies ‘blessed’ with access to these natural resources will not come within the framework of capitalist social relations”; and from the Garnham article: “For capitalism, fossil fuels are not an addiction, they are oxygen … things like 100 percent renewables, no new coal and zero emissions … cannot be granted under capitalism …”

Melbourne September 20, 2019

There is an important difference between the approach of the MLR articles and that of Red Ant. The former largely treat coal as emblematic of Australian capitalism’s environmental destructiveness. Hence they sometimes speak of coal or coal and fossil fuels or coal and mining more generally, and this obviously can cause – has caused – some confusion. King and Lane focus on coal and largely ignore the broader context, and they then accuse the MLR writers of “conflating” different questions. But these are not so much different, as obviously interconnected, questions.

The Red Ant article makes a very good case that, if you had a few tens or hundreds of millions available for capitalist investment, putting it into coal mines or coal-fired power would be generally a worse idea than many other possible investments. But that tells us nothing about how current owners of existing coal-related assets are attempting to protect (or even increase) their value, or how particular capitalists, perhaps for lack of other opportunities, might try, say, to grab some quick profits from a coal mine in Queensland.

I don’t think the MLR writers would disagree with King and Lane’s argument that coal is a declining investment prospect for capitalists, and I don’t disagree with it. But that doesn’t settle the matter. King and Lane’s basic argument is that the capitalists are going in the right direction (to divest from coal), for their own reasons (profits), but they aren’t going fast enough: “The real issue is not if capitalism can be forced to abandon coal but how long the transition takes”.

Well, yes, but no. As Keynes infamously said, in the long run we are all dead. It is possible to imagine a dystopia in which, after global temperatures have risen enough for the consequences to wipe out much of current civilisation and large numbers of people, capitalism no longer uses coal. In that sense, King and Lane are “right”. But that is not the real issue. The real question is, What will it take to force Australian capitalism to abandon its current dependence on coal and other fossil fuels in time to prevent disaster? King and Lane argue that a big enough mass movement could force capitalists to switch to more or less carbon neutral powering of their economy. The answer of Da Silva and Garnham is that it can’t be done short of abolishing capitalist rule.

Why coal?

King and Lane’s argument that coal is not all that important to Australian capitalism fails to deal more than very superficially with the reasons that Australian capitalists are taking so long to abandon coal, a situation they describe as a “policy paralysis” on energy. It is hardly a secret that the Australian bourgeoisie’s alternating parties of government have done nothing that would seriously challenge the ability of the capitalists concerned to go on mining and burning coal for many decades, and that a significant proportion of the parliamentary Coalition and ALP are even in favour of new mines and coal-fired power.

In trying to explain this “paralysis”, King and Lane refer, briefly, to the fact that Australian capitalists do not all have identical interests: “Obviously there are large costs involved in setting up the new power infrastructure and plant (just as there are costs to capital associated with allowing climate change to go unchecked). The increasing divisions among the capitalist class appears to be over how those costs should be born, when and by who. Which classes and which sections of each class should pay. This is the situation which has evidently brought out serious divisions within the ruling capitalist class, both internationally and in Australia. Here the most important expressions of this division are the energy policy paralysis at a federal level and ever increasing public struggle over the issue.”

That is the extent of their explanation of why Australia’s capitalist government is not doing anything serious about coal. And even that brief passage makes an obvious mistake: we can be sure that the capitalist class is quite united on the question of which classes should bear the costs of combating climate change.

A slightly less obvious mistake is their equating of the expenses of new power infrastructure and the results of unchecked climate change as both just “costs” to capital. The kind of massive government investment in clean energy that is required could be funded only by serious taxation (immediately or to repay borrowing) on a scale that would be difficult to impose entirely on the non-exploiting classes, although the capitalists would certainly try to do so. And this involves considerably more than “new power infrastructure and plant”.

Also relevant here is King and Lane’s challenge to the MLR articles: “… what stops capital from further switching out [of] the coal and gas electrical generation for wind and solar? Obviously capital has started to do this to some extent. Why can it never be forced to do it more and faster? Garnham doesn’t address this issue – which seems to be the central issue …”. The question is misplaced: since it is King and Lane, not Da Silva and Garnham, who argue that it is possible to force Australian capitalism to do “more and faster”, it should be up to them to explain why the capitalists are not doing so, instead of taking refuge in a tautological “energy policy paralysis”.

Furthermore, Garnham’s article does point out an additional consideration, one that is not referred to in the Red Ant article: “… it is impossible for another commodity to replace fossil fuels by stealth. Their replacement as an energy source will require a deliberate and comprehensive conversion of a vast array of processes. Just to name a few: international shipping, aviation, plastics, fertilisers, and concrete production would have to be radically restructured or rendered obsolete to effectively phase out fossil fuels use. Capitalists will never embark on such a mammoth shift willingly, the disruption would simply be too great. Additionally, the militaries of the major powers, which are responsible for substantial carbon emissions, could not be transitioned without a substantial weakening of their fighting capacity. In a society that constantly stokes imperial tensions, states will not be prepared to open themselves up in this way.”

Further on “costs”, while climate change is already beginning to impose higher insurance premiums on capitalists (and working class home owners) in areas exposed to destructive weather events, more substantial costs to capital will be considered a matter for another decade or two or more down the track – by which time most capitalists will expect or hope to have amortised their current investments and found less affected areas or industries into which to put their money – especially if climate change is not totally unchecked but slightly slowed by the reforms that capitalism can be forced to accept.

In addition to the mammoth costs described by Garnham, I would hazard the guess that the motives for the dogged defence of coal also include a concern about politics and what the capitalists would call “setting a bad example”. Paradoxically, the fact that there is a large and growing movement trying to arrest the causes of climate change may make it more difficult for the capitalist class to abandon coal. The great majority of the movement would correctly see that as their victory, and victories have a way of encouraging the victors to see themselves as having the power to win further demands. There must be a good number of oil company executives and shareholders who fear that, after coal, the climate movement will be coming after them (some of them might also have shares in coal companies).

False political conclusions

After the above-quoted reference to “policy paralysis” and capitalist disagreements, King and Lane go on to say that these disagreements within the Australian bourgeoisie should be the “starting point” for developing “the mass [climate] movement into one that can win”. Those disagreements do open up greater opportunities for both climate activists and revolutionaries to make their voices heard in public debate. But they do not at all dictate what strategies revolutionaries should follow within that opening, which is what King and Lane imply, and which is the only reasonable explanation for their long polemic against the arguments presented in MLR.

Their view is that the environmental movement should focus on speeding up the inclination of the more sensible capitalists to do away with coal. They say explicitly that socialists should not raise the view that capitalism is incapable of solving the environmental crisis. (More precisely, they say we shouldn’t raise it within the environmental movement, but it seems okay to do so online to a small audience, since they say it in their article.) Thus they write that, when they speak of the movement “winning”, they “don’t mean win overall environmental sustainability”, but rather “to win the limited reforms that are already demonstrably technically feasible and [for which] there is a mass of people already willing to fight”.

This is an essentially defeatist position: we should focus on what we can win in the short term, which they admit is not enough to avert disaster. They defend that indefensible position with a diversion: they shift their argument from debating how far capitalism can be forced to make concessions to the false accusation that the argument in MLR is that no progress against climate destruction is possible until capitalism is overthrown: “we shouldn’t say that … reform is impossible no matter how big the movement”; “Arguing any worthwhile reform is impossible”; “if we think that emissions reductions are impossible”. No statement to that effect is made in either of the MLR articles. 

This false accusation allows the authors to argue against socialists presenting socialist propaganda and demands within the anti-climate change movement. The position that they misrepresent as presented by Socialist Alternative, they say, will discourage activists from fighting for environmental reforms, because SA will tell them that what they are fighting for is impossible.

Obviously, if SA tried to tell climate activists that reforms are impossible, SA would be ignored. What King and Lane present here is almost a parody of reformist arguments that have been around for more than a century, and which have not at all improved with age: forget about that revolution stuff, just concentrate on the reforms we might be able to win right now. That approach’s attractiveness can increase as the capitalist environmental crisis intensifies and every passing day increases the number of emergency measures that are required. But that attraction doesn’t change the reality that capitalism can’t implement all the necessary emergency measures, although the reforms it might be forced to implement might delay the impact of some of the problems.

Would there be any validity to King and Lane’s argument if it didn’t rely on jousting with straw men? Does saying, “This problem can’t be fully solved under capitalism” really even tend to discourage people from fighting for reforms? If it does, then many Marxists have been following a false strategy for a long time, beginning with Marx and Engels: the strategy of joining and if possible leading the fight for reforms in order to help raise consciousness of the need for revolution. They should long ago have stopped saying that capitalism can’t function without exploitation, because that might discourage workers from fighting for higher wages. We shouldn’t tell Black Lives Matter protesters that capitalism needs racism, because that might persuade them they might as well go home. I don’t think that King and Lane believe that, but it is the logic of the argument in their article. I hope they will reconsider.

‘Politics of the DSP’

Near the end of their article, King and Lane write: “The way to strengthen the credibility of socialists among the mass of working people and students is if socialists can prove themselves to be the most effective fighters for our climate justice program and its specific demands”.

As far as it goes, that statement is unexceptionable. But it doesn’t go far enough, as already indicated, because what the two mean by “our climate justice program and its specific demands” is limited to a list of reforms that they consider the most pressing. But since, as they argue, those reforms are achievable under capitalism, why can’t liberals fight just as effectively for them as do socialists, and thus win just as much credibility (if not more, since they have a head start thanks to current society’s ruling ideas)?

The comrades then conclude their article: “There is an enormous challenge to bring about the transition to renewables rapidly. It is through playing a leadership role in uniting and organising a mass movement to protect the planet and defending working people that socialist forces and the working class can begin to grow into a serious contender for power. The time to organise this is now.”

But, a question, posed from the imagined standpoint of a reader who is not currently a member of any political organisation: what next? what should I/we do about it? who/what should I “organise now”? The article doesn’t say.

The reader who looks in the “About” tab on its website will find that Red Ant’s outlook is “inspired by the politics” of the Democratic Socialist Party and the Revolutionary Socialist Party, organisations that no longer exist. The same tab says that those politics are not “advanced by any of the currently active socialist groups in Australia or elsewhere”. This seems a rather pessimistic observation from comrades who worry that saying capitalism can’t solve the environmental crisis might discourage activists. It is also open to serious challenge, because the politics of the DSP/RSP are not a fossil preserved in amber that can be studied under a microscope. Who defines what was essential and what transitory in those politics?

As I was, Sam King and Max Lane were members of the DSP who were expelled in 2008 after that organisation’s political degeneration. We were part of the RSP, which was established then to continue the former DSP’s revolutionary politics, and part of the RSP’s unanimous decision in 2012 to join Socialist Alternative, a decision that was implemented at the Marxism 2013 conference. Presumably these comrades believed then that SA was an adequate vehicle for advancing the politics we had advanced in the DSP and RSP. In the conference that voted to join SA, it was explicitly decided that we would not form any kind of separate group in SA, but would function like any other members, expressing our agreements or disagreements on any question without regard to our previous membership.

The Red Ant website provides no indication of when or on what issues they think SA ceased to advance the politics that it advanced when we all joined in 2013. However, Lane (as I do) supports King’s analysis of imperialism (due for book publication shortly, and which I highly recommend), which differs from that of the majority of SA members. I am not sure when King left SA. In his recent resignation letter, Lane cited his desire to devote himself to issues of imperialism.

Imperialism is of course a crucial issue. But, as King’s book documents, Lenin regarded imperialism as the last possible (“highest”) development of capitalism. To defeat imperialism as a system, it is necessary to overthrow the capitalist system. The most basic tenet of DSP/RSP politics was that overthrowing capitalism requires the construction of revolutionary parties in every country.

King and Lane’s article suggests that they think it is not possible to make significant advances in the building of a revolutionary organisation at present. Thus their very limited idea of “winning” is justified with the argument that “there is no basis, that has yet emerged, to turn the mass climate justice movement into a mass socialist movement”. Therefore, they conclude, we should put aside or play down that aspect of socialist politics and just fight for reforms that might be won if we build a sufficient mass movement.

This not an uncommon idea, but it is one they should be inoculated against. The DSP’s political degeneration involved the idea that a “broad party” based on the Socialist Alliance could obviate the building of a revolutionary organisation for the foreseeable future. The idea resurfaced in the RSP, when a substantial minority of the organisation resigned, stating explicitly that it was currently impossible to build towards a revolutionary party. And it is repeated on the Red Ant website when it states that the site “publishes new original contributions that aim to apply the Marxism of the former DSP/RSP to the contemporary situation” as “a modest contribution to … the basis for the formation of a future revolutionary party in Australia”. A contribution to something that might serve to help create a revolutionary party some day: no rush here.

“Future” was key in all those retreats. What they added up to was the idea: we will join the revolutionary organisation/party – not now, but when building it becomes easy. Spoiler alert: the difficulty increases and decreases with changing circumstances, but it is never easy.

If the intention of the comrades involved in Red Ant is to maintain the political outlook of the DSP/RSP, they should look to the origins of that tendency, which formed around the need to build a revolutionary organisation – starting now, not in the future. When the tendency had advanced to the point of being able to launch a paper, Direct Action, in 1975, its first issue stated: “To publish a paper without an organisation to build and be built by it is political irresponsibility. It is to play with politics. Only when a paper has an organisation to build, and that organisation has a program to guide it, does a little left-wing venture such as ours take on any meaning.”

I am sure that Comrades King and Lane are familiar with that quotation. I have never heard or read anything from either of them that contradicts it. Have they quietly decided to abandon it, or are they preparing to join or create another organisation? The website says they are not “currently” members of any organisation. And tomorrow? Are we to have still another left organisation that sees its raison d’etre as advancing a political a view or views that in reality do not require a separate organisation for their defence?

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