Globally, there is simply not enough capacity to satisfy the existing demand for energy without relying on fossil energy sources. Not even the automotive industry would be able to develop and technically process enough copper, cobalt, coltan and rare earths to entirely convert their fleets to electric vehicles. Even if it wanted to, the industry currently lacks enough of the proper raw materials. This is because renewable energies are extremely resource-intensive, and building an infrastructure for renewable energies will itself continue to consume huge amounts of fossil energy. In order to keep the prices of raw materials low enough so that the prices of renewables do not exceed those of fossil fuels, an imperialist race is already underway to control and develop raw material deposits. A “green” capitalism is therefore, necessarily an imperialist one.
The greenhouse gas emissions budget has been depleted in the imperialist countries which historically bear the primary responsibility for these emissions. Yet governments talk about “net zero emissions”. Behind this rhetoric lies a great red herring to which, unfortunately, the climate movement and left-wing parties sometimes succumb when they adopt the term unquestioned. “Net-zero” strategies involve appropriating and using vast areas of land in dependent, poor countries to absorb carbon emissions so that the large emitters in imperialist countries can avoid significant reductions of their own emissions. Such compensation strategies lead to an explosion in land demand. Industrial forests and plantations for CO2 sequestration come into competition with food production and thus aggravate hunger. This development is based on a massive increase in the unequal distribution of land, thus the impoverishment and displacement of people in the affected countries. “Green” capitalist modernization thereby intensifies neocolonial plunder and intra-imperialist rivalry which must be stopped. “Net zero” is part of a global imperialist climate policy. The climate movement needs to clarify and oppose this diversionary tactic.
Hypothesis: revolutionary strategy
With Anthropocene capitalism, we are entering a phase full of uncertainties and abrupt turns. These include both the physical foundations of social life, economic instability, social confrontations, as well as the sharpened imperialist rivalry and accompanying geopolitical shifts in hegemony. Earth system dynamics with their tipping points will impose harsh and unexpected changes on societies. Pandemics, as well as societal catastrophes from droughts, floods, and hot spells, will become the normal state of affairs. They will shape the struggle between classes.
The heated planet is already abruptly breaking off many long-established and familiar ways of life. This is what we already experience in these times of the pandemic, what has already been experienced by people whose homes are washed or burned away, and what will continue to be experienced by people who have to leave their cities because of unbearable heat. There are neither safeties nor certainties.
These changes force all movements and organizations working to overcome the capitalist mode of production to fundamentally reflect on strategy. What kind of anti-capitalist strategy would be appropriate to confronting these fundamental challenges? The reform-oriented strategies have long been on feet of clay. Productivity advances since the 1970s have not been sufficiently big to permit both the capture of a high rate of profit and any considerable raising of wages, let alone the building and maintenance of a well-developed social infrastructure.22Husson 2021; Roberts 2021. Moreover, the planetary boundaries of the Earth system23Steffen, et al. 2018; Steffen, et al. 2015. pose substantial obstacles to the accumulation process upon which reform-oriented strategies must themselves rely.
But the intensified global ecological crisis makes a socio-ecological reform of capitalism completely impossible, especially in the short time needed. It is becoming clearer than ever that the ideas of gradual progress as well as a continuous strengthening of socialist forces through participation in bourgeois governments or taking charge of government responsibility are built on sand. The political as well as the economic and ecological, that is, the material preconditions for a gradual reform strategy to improve conditions accepting ecological restrictions simply do not exist within the framework of the capitalist mode of production.24In another article, I explain in detail why notions of social-ecological reform of capitalism and proposals for a (left) Green New Deal are ecologically insufficient and economically inconsistent (Zeller 2021a).
Unfortunately, the more radical forces of the socialist movements have been content with a poverty of strategic debates and a strange self-restriction for several decades. If ecosocialists want to change the balance of power, they are challenged to formulate strategic hypotheses which require an appropriate understanding of the current period and of societal dynamics in time and space. There are almost no debates on how to change the social balance of power to such an extent that the build-up of counter-power institutions results in a situation of dual power. However, any form of dual power will be fragile and, therefore, must finally lead to a decisive struggle between the continuity aimed at by a restoration of the old order and a victory of the revolutionary forces.
Only by rapidly imposing an anti-capitalist rupture can the global heating be slowed down to such an extent that a disastrous momentum of its own is prevented, which would seriously jeopardize the survival of our societies.
Before sketching some outlines of a revolutionary ecosocialist strategy, I shortly present reflections on the socio-political consequences of the non-linear and jerky developments of the Earth system and society. For this purpose I take up Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s, Walter Benjamin’s and Daniel Bensaïd’s considerations on non-linear understanding of time. I argue that ecosocialist forces must be prepared to deal with these abrupt turns and develop appropriate transition programs oriented toward strengthening self-organization and counter-power.
Broken and condensed time in Anthropocene capitalism
In an inspiring article Daniel Bensaïd argued that the idea of mechanical progress without crises or ruptures corresponds to an understanding of homogeneous and empty time.25Bensaïd 2002. This is ultimately a non-political time. He recalled Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s understanding of politics as a strategy for direct intervention and breaking up of state and economic structures. In contrast to classical social democracy, Lenin understood politics as a time full of struggles, a period of crises and collapses. Drafting his concept of revolutionary crisis, he captured situations that did not correspond to the continuous strengthening of a social movement, but rather expressed a general crisis of the relations between all classes of a society.26Lenin 1916.
Bensaïd developed this line of thinking via Walter Benjamin’s understanding of history. Benjamin argued that the strategic time of politics is neither linear nor empty in the sense of a mechanical process. Rather, he argued, it is a discontinuous, a disjointed and fractured time, full of knots and events pregnant with meaning. Benjamin criticized the linear understanding of progress of social democracy, a criticism that also applied to the degenerated communist movement of his time and which is still valid today. For progress does not advance inexorably. Socialist potentials cannot grow from a linear reformism in the midst of the rapid collapse of the Earth-system. In the midst of sudden social shifts and ecological devastation, the idea of linear development in a homogeneous and empty time is completely inappropriate.27Benjamin 1940; Bensaïd 2002: 3; 2003: 154.
Another thought of Walter Benjamin helps us to see the sharpness of the present challenge. Under the impression of fascism, the Hitler-Stalin pact, the beginning of the World War II, and the failure of the workers’ movement to stop fascism and the bureaucratic degeneration of the USSR, he wrote: “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But perhaps… revolutions are the grasp of the human race for the emergency brake traveling in this train.”28Benjamin (1940: 153) refers to Marx’ The Class Struggles in France 1848-1850, where he analyzed social renewal through the conscious intervention of the peasantry alongside the proletariat (Marx 1850: 85). Making this point, Benjamin clearly expressed his understanding of societal development. There is no linear progress; development is rather characterized by leaps, condensations, stagnation and regression. What is important is action because the emergency brake does not pull itself. “The only hope lies in real social movements”, concludes Michael Löwy.29Löwy 2016: 88.
Today, grabbing the emergency brake is the only way to prevent productive forces from fully unfolding into destructive forces and dragging humanity into the abyss. Revolution is no guarantee of an emancipatory perspective, but it is a prerequisite for preventing the locomotive from derailing. However, the time in which we can pull the emergency brake is short and is getting shorter. So the strategic question is: how can we pull this emergency brake?
Bensaïd and Benjamin presented an understanding of a broken time. Figuratively speaking: the hand on the dial of a clock jumps again and again, but irregularly and surprisingly. This means that constellations change abruptly, societies change by leaps and bounds, history, so to speak, leaps and quantity changes into quality. Such an approach helps in understanding the present challenges in a view of the rifts of the Earth system and suddenly unstable social processes. But time not only breaks, it condenses before it breaks.
This condensed time is the result of partly mutually dependent historical processes. Many changes coalesce: the sudden changes of the Earth system and ecosystems caused by the predatory and destructive social metabolism with nature, economic and social crisis, impoverishment, precaritization and fragmentation processes, geopolitical rivalry, political orientation crisis of the ruling capital fractions and an existential crisis of the classical labor movement.
These dynamics form an inextricable conglomeration with immense social consequences. They occur spatially in a markedly uneven manner, both concentrated and selectively dispersed over a large area, mostly interdependent. This period of condensed time differs from the stable phases of capitalism from World War II to the 1970s, or even to a certain extent from 1990s when there were only few sudden changes and social eruptions.
A current example of comparatively minor significance serves to explain such concatenation of circumstances: In late August 2021 SARS-CoV2 contagions spread rapidly during the fourth pandemic wave in some southern U.S. states. Hospitals were overcrowded. A hurricane passed over the affected region. Hospitals could not be evacuated. Governments had not made preparations. The material and social infrastructure in the affected region was inadequate, being a result of general profit orientation, austerity policies in recent decades and capitalist uneven development in the USA. Large segments of the population are impoverished. The federal government, state and city governments have other priorities. Caught in their logic of competition and in their roles as the guarantor of the conditions of accumulation for capital, they were not acting adequately to the situations and were thereby, through denying the qualitatively new condensation of major challenges and through prioritizing business friendly conditions, actually exacerbating the very same disasters.
The processes of pandemic, state retreat, impoverishment, and climate disaster collide, chain and condense in a short time. They not only have an enormous impact on a large number of people, but can also reinforce each other and trigger chain reactions. The condensed and broken time are mutually dependent. Whether this compression then results in a leap, thus a qualitative change in society, depends on the subjective actions of the people affected and their organizational power.
Revolutionary ecosocialist strategies
A crucial question is whether these interlinking processes and events, some of which result from substantial changes or even the crossing of tipping points of the Earth system, also lead to revolutionary tipping points – to situations in which the shift to a qualitative new situation takes place in part through radical agency.
So far, the coincidence of the different crisis processes has indeed led to revolutionary crises in various places in recent decades. Examples include the revolutionary uprisings in the Arab world in 2011 and the revolts in Ecuador, Chile, Lebanon and Iraq in 2019 and 2020. But socialist forces were nowhere able to win substantial influence. Anti-capitalist structural reforms have not been implemented anywhere, not even in Venezuela. Everywhere, one or another form of counterrevolution prevailed.
Moreover, these uprisings lacked socially anchored revolutionary organizations that would have been able to process previous experiences and bundle different concerns in these movements into an anti-capitalist transitional program.30See the extraordinary balance of revolutionary rehearsals in the neoliberal age (Dale, Barker, et al. 2021). In no country do revolutionary or even ecosocialist organizations have a social anchoring that would allow them to take major, much-needed political initiatives.