Sean Thompson writes:
I’ve always thought of Richard Seymour as the Cassandra of the Left, whose take on Gramsci’s famous maxim is usually very heavy on the pessimism of the intellect and rather light on the optimism of the will. Unfortunately he is very often right. This extended essay, The Tragedy of the Worker – towards the proletarocene by the Salvage Collective (Jamie Allinson, China Mieville, Richard Seymour and Rosie Warren) published by Verso, takes a typically bleak Seymourian view of the global climate crisis. It isn’t an easy read – and not just because of the academic (and dare one say, occasionally pretentious?) style in which it is written, but because of the authors’ unblinking assessment of the cataclysm that is bearing down on humankind – on all life on the planet – and their message that we have to reassess some of our most basic assumptions about the shape of a future socialist society, built, as it will have to be, in the ruins of our biosphere.
The question they pose is a crucial, though unwelcome one for socialists: how do we imagine human emancipation on an, at best, partially habitable planet? They quote Marx’s famous rallying cry “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win.” But, they ask, “what if the world is already lost?” They point out that “from the vantage point of the present, the history of capitalist development is, as Marx expected, the history of the development of a global working class, the proletarianisation of the majority of the world’s population. But the very same process has brought us to the precipice of climate disaster.”
The authors remorselessly point out that the catastrophic effects of global warming are already starting to make their presence felt and that we are almost certainly going to pass tipping points that will lead to further disastrous and irreversible damage to the biosphere. Our options remain those of socialism or barbarism, but the odds on barbarism are shortening by the day.
Apocalypse, the authors say, has begun – the sixth mass extinction is underway. In May last year, levels of CO2 in the atmosphere reached 417 ppm, the highest ever recorded and the first breach of 400ppm since the Pliocene. Since then, the extreme weather of 2021 – the heat domes, droughts, fires, floods and cyclones that have been experienced across the globe – point to the increasing likelihood that many of the planet’s complex and interrelated systems, such as the Amazon rainforest, the Eastern and Western Antarctic ice sheets, the boreal forests and the Arctic tundra, are approaching the thresholds at which, pushed too far out of one equilibrium state, they can flip suddenly into another.
Crucially, a study of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) – the system that distributes heat around the world and drives the Gulf Stream – published in August this year in Nature Climate Change analysed eight independent AMOC indices and concluded that the system may now be “close to a critical transition.” And if/when that transition occurs, it cannot realistically be reversed, at least not within human timescales..
The authors quote MIT research which, they say, indicates that by 2070, the new norm for ‘many billions’ of people will be impossibly high temperatures that will make outdoor work impossible and that half a billion will experience temperatures that would ‘kill even healthy people in the shade within six hours.’ They conclude that “precise metrics of the scale of what will unfold are to be determined, not least by class struggle, but there is no longer, if there ever was, a choice between adaptation and mitigation.”
They recognise that we have now entered the Anthropocene, although they are not entirely happy with the concept, seeing it “in one sense an obvious political evasion, diluting as it does the necessary focus on capital accumulation itself” yet recognising that, of course, “capitalism is something that the human species, and no other, does.” But they accept that “the concept of the Anthropocene is a tacit acknowledgement that the alienated labour of humanity has itself become a selective evolutionary pressure.” And while it has already forced rapid evolution in some species, where it has not resulted in extinction, that pressure is now coming for us, “as powerful as the asteroid strike behind the Cretaceous-Paleocene mass extinction.”
While for many environmental activists and ecosocialists it is an article of faith that capitalism, the motor of the global climate crisis, is incapable of solving – or at least trying to ameliorate – it, the authors argue that this is – up to a point – failing to recognise the shape shifting nature of the beast, it’s “protean flexibility” as they put it. “Capitalism”, they say, “like certain bacteria,…is immortal. It has its limits and its crises, but, perversely, seems to thrive on these. Unlike the multi-species life-systems powering it, the only terminal limit to capital’s perpetual augmentation is, if driven towards from within, external: either revolution or human extinction; communism or the common ruin of the contending classes.” Thus, they say, it is a mistake to assume that climate reformism is impossible, it’s just that any reforms will have to operate within the limits set by a system in which “of course it is always and only profit that will be prioritised.”
As the realities of global warming have become increasingly more difficult to deny or ignore, capitalists and the political managers of capitalist states have started to ‘believe in’ anthropogenic climate change and to become advocates of ‘green’ capitalism. In 1972, the OECD proposed a green economy, with polluters paying for their contamination of the environment. In 1987, the Brundtland Commission urged governments to adopt ‘sustainable development’ policies and the following year the IPPC was established. In 1992, the Rio Earth Summit took place and this led to the first COP (the ‘Conference of the Parties’ to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) in Bonn in 1995. In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol agreed what were supposed to be binding targets for the reduction of carbon emissions and in 2015 these were strengthened (and the USA signed up to them) in Paris. However, carbon emissions have continued to rise. In 1950, global emissions were 6bn tonnes – by 2019 they were over 36bn tonnes. In fact, the majority of carbon emissions in the whole of human history havebeen emitted since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.
The various silver bullets that have been promoted as providing the route out of climate disaster while maintaining an adapted status quo – carbon trading, techno-fixes like carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), carbon offsetting (the basis of the fraud of ‘net zero’ carbon targets) – or, God help us, geo-engineering – are chimeras. As the authors say of the panacea of carbon trading, it “is a particularly cultic iteration of neo-classical economics, groping for the invisible hand for more than mere survival.” As for CCS and carbon offsetting, the current very dubiously claimed global capacity of CCS and ‘nature-based’ offsetting is around 80mtpa, would have to be expanded by 2,500% to meet the IPCC’s targets. The IPPC has, very politely, pointed out that the large scale use of CCS is “subject to multiple feasibility and sustainability constraints”, and as far as ‘nature-based’ offsetting is concerned, Action Aid, in a technical briefing published in 2020, stated baldly that “There is simply not enough available land on the planet to accommodate all the combined corporate and government ‘net zero’ plans for offsets and Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage tree plantations.” According to the two German policy and scientific institutes that produce the Climate Action Tracker, the New Climate Institute and Climate Analytics, even when all the promised techno-fixes and offsets are counted, current policies commit us to a disastrous 2.9ºC of global heating by the end of the century.
The essay’s authors reject, rightly I think, the view that we have to seek to restore an unrestorable balance, the natural equilibrium that existed before humanity came on the scene. But clearly, such an equilibrium has never existed; life on Earth has always been just one gigantic volcanic explosion, or a shift of tectonic plates, or meeting with a stray asteroid, away from extinction, and life on the planet, particularly human life, is a lucky fluke. Humanity, has of course added, in the the mere moments of geological time, that it has existed, new and lethal dangers to the biosphere that we now have no alternative but to deal with – but are we too late?
Humanity has been altering environments, and being the cause of extinctions, deforestation and desertification in the process, at least since the development of agriculture, and the development of capitalism and the industrial revolution have led to humanity inadvertently having the power to reshape – and destroy – the entire biosphere. We truly have become the sorcerer’s apprentice. We have created the Anthropocene and like it or not, our role in the evolution of the planet has become Promethian. For the book’s authors, it’s vital that humanity “neither denies its unique nature among Terran life, nor retreats into blinkered exceptionalism” – a synthesis of “Promethianism and humility that does not yet have a name.”
So here we come to the heart of the dilemma that confronts us. As the authors put it: “In the era of Marx and Engels, and in the long century after, communists dreamed of liberating humanity and enjoying a world of plenty, sharing in abundance. Had October inaugurated a new era of revolutions, had barbarism’s reign ended a century sooner, perhaps that is the world we would have had. If Luxury Communism – automated or otherwise – was possible that moment, our hypothesis is that now, as we race past tipping point after tipping point it is no longer – at least not before a long and difficult age of repair. From our benighted vantage point, the birth, growth and exploitation the working class has been inextricable from biocide and catastrophe. That is to say, global proletarianisation and ecological disaster have been products of the same process. The earth the wretched would – will – inherit, will be in need of an assiduous programme of restoration. While we may yearn for luxury, what will be necessary first is Salvage Communism.”
The authors end the book with the ringing (if portentous) statement that “Against all dreams of compromise, against geo-Fabianism, the only path to an Anthropocene of a liberated and self-transformed Anthropos runs through the destruction of the Capitalocene, the Proletarocene dawn.” Unfortunately, a major weakness of the book is its failure to provide any sort of picture of what a ‘salvage’ communist society would be like, nor even the sketchiest map of potential routes for getting there. They ask: “How do we imagine emancipation on an at best partially habitable planet?” but unfortunately don’t attempt to answer their own question – but perhaps that is asking too much in just one extended essay.
One of the contributors to the latest IPCC report has pointed out that the history of all human societies and all human achievements occurred in a climate that no longer exists. The Salvage Collective are pointing out that many of the socialist movement’s past (and for some, present) assumptions about a post capitalist world being one of shared plenty no longer hold, and for that salutary and uncomfortable contribution they should be thanked. As they say: “Capitalism has, one hundred and fifty years after Marx predicted, finally produced enough diggers to complete the grave, but in doing so it ensured that all that was left to inherit was the graveyard. A Weltkclasse has at last come into being but at the price, unchosen, of the world it was promised. This is the tragedy of the worker.”