Against Leviathan, a workers' plan

Submitted by AWL on 1 December, 2020 - 8:36 Author: Todd Hamer
Climate change

Zack Muddle’s review of Climate Leviathan is right to point out the eclectic list of thinkers who shape the analysis of the authors, Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann.

That eclecticism masks a major blind spot. Despite writing elegantly about Gramsci and Marx, the authors do not appear to have noticed the world is separated by competing classes. They appear oblivious to the structural divide between capital and labour that was at the animating idea of Gramsci and Marx’s life work. That crucial part of our reality and the idea of working-class agency is missing fromClimate Leviathan.

Despite this, the authors have enough of a grasp of reality that their book provides a useful stimulus for exploring the question of what might happen to politics in a warming world. Reading and discussing this book should stimulate working-class militants to think through the possibilities: how might workers respond to a warming world? What program and forms of organisation might lead to a revival of working class militancy and a challenge to capitalist power?

Climate Leviathan presents a reasonable scenario for what capitalists might do. The world capitalist class has been unable to achieve any reduction of carbon emissions despite ambitious aspirations. Many big capitalist institutions, like the Deutsche Bank, openly advocate a Green Keynesianism to adapt and mitigate climate change.

The structures of world capitalism, rather than the oft-cited “lack of political will”, have blocked progress. Competition between nation states has thus far made Green Keynesianism impossible to achieve. But successive climate disasters may create a state of emergency in which a “planetary sovereign”, Climate Leviathan, could emerge.

For the writers, Keynesianism is not simply a set of monetary and fiscal policies. It is a ruling-class strategy to save not just capitalism, but civilisation itself. They draw on the work of Thomas Hobbes to explain how the structural obstacles to this Keynesian strategy can be overcome. Writing in exile in Paris, Hobbes, a monarchist, was alarmed at the chaos of the English Civil War and longed for the restoration of order. At times of social crisis, the Sovereign is the person or institution who can call an emergency and pose themselves as the necessary restorer of social order. The authors predict that escalating climate shocks may provide conditions where such a Sovereign will emerge on a planetary level.

Climate Leviathan is some form of world state: “a regulatory body with democratic legitimacy, binding technical authority on scientific issues, and a panopticon-like capacity to monitor the vital granular elements of our emerging world: fresh water, carbon emissions, climate refugees and so on.”

This is the often vaguely articulated goal of the progressive bourgeoisie and much of the environmentalist left.

Working-class movement

But escalating climate crises may also provoke the emergence of a combative global working class movement well before conditions are ripe for Climate Leviathan. The same structures that inhibit action on reducing carbon emissions also inhibit capitalist states from making adequate preparations.

Adaptation — the battle to our infrastructure climate resilient — may well become the terrain of increased class conflict and workers’ mobilisation. It is possible to imagine a near future where working-class communities mobilise to defend homes, livelihoods and basic standards of human decency against climate catastrophe and disaster capitalism.

The need to use productive wealth and our skills as workers in the service of robust adaptation plans will run up against the logic of private property and capitalist control of productive wealth.

Although Wainwright and Mann’s predictions are credible, their lack of class analysis also means they lack a social force and a program to realise their libertarian anti-capitalist alternative “Climate X”. To paraphrase Gramsci, the act of making predictions is to work for the victory of a program where the prediction is an element contributing to that victory.

What is needed as we emerge from the Coronavirus pandemic, enter the biggest economic crisis in the history of capitalism, and confront escalating climate crises is a program to confront this new reality.

Workers’ Liberty is hosting an online discussion on Climate Leviathan on Sunday 13 December, 6:30 p.m.

I hope that will be the start of discussions leading to the development of a workers’ plan for the climate crisis.

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