Friday, April 24, 2015

How to Change the Climate

Back in 2005, in the aftermath of the disastrous, Indian Ocean tsunami, The Militant coined a phrase that shouldn't need to be said: "Geology indisputably played a role." As though anybody argued with that. But The Militant thought geology played a rather small role, as the rest of the paragraph makes clear.
The staggering loss of life produced by the tsunami’s wrath, though, was largely due to the absence of any warning system—including in places such as India where the waves struck the shores four hours after the quake. Resources on hand—from communications, to roads, transportation, electrical grids, medical care, and food supplies—have also been scarce to respond to the disaster in its immediate aftermath. These are the products of the plunder of the region’s resources and labor over decades by the wealthy imperialist states—whose governments are now tripping over each other to paint themselves as generous benefactors—aided and abetted by the local capitalist regimes.
The claim--that capitalism bears most of the fault for the disaster--is silly. I argued as much in this blog's past incarnation, here. Still, at least The Militant granted some role for geology, or more generically, for acts of God. Not every problem can be laid at the feet of capitalism.

Not so with Socialist Action. They have gone from the plausible hypothesis that human activity has some influence on the climate, directly to the claim that the climate is completely within human control. It is only because of the greed of the bankers and capitalists that we have bad weather at all. The opening sentence of Andrew Pollack's article on Hurricane Sandy makes the point. "By now the scientific consensus is clear: the fury of Hurricane Sandy was greatly magnified by human-caused climate change." No room left for natural causes.

Far from being a scientific consensus, the sentence is a crackpot idea, arrived at by taking literally the most exaggerated fever dreams of extremist climateers. But our task here is not to argue with them, but rather to take the statement as a given. Assume, therefore, that the future climate (and not the distant future, either) depends sensitively on how we as a society organize our means of production.

The relevant question then becomes How do we change the climate?

That brings us to the speech by the South African activist, Patrick Bond, delivered in Tunis in March (reprinted in Socialist Action). The event was an organizing meeting in preparation for the COP21 United Nations shindig to be held later this year in Paris. Mr. Bond discussed different strategies that the Left might pursue. Socialist Action makes it clear they don't agree with either of his alternatives, and instead in a lengthy preface propose a third.

The first option (which I'll dub the reformist strategy) is to work "inside." That means collaborating with governments and NGOs to find practical solutions to curb CO2 and methane emissions, ideas such as carbon taxes, carbon capture, or more nuclear power.

Both Mr. Bond and Socialist Action reject the reformist strategy. First, it in no way rises to the urgent challenge of rescuing the planet from imminent disaster. Minor fiddling with CO2 output is drastically insufficient. Second, reformists will inevitably get bought off, making deals with the capitalists for small (albeit lucrative) favors that don't benefit the climate. Trotskyists have always opposed reformism as being class-collaborationist, which in their view always fails. (No doubt in terms of making revolutions it always does fail, but then so does Trotskyism.)

Mr. Bond supports the second alternative, that I'll dub the ultraleft approach. It can be summarized as shut the mother down. The template is the protests in Seattle around the WTO conference in 1999. Those did manage to short circuit the WTO meetings, but otherwise seemed to have rather little impact. It is not clear how similar events in Paris are going to modify the climate. Throwing a temper tantrum is rarely a constructive solution.

Socialist Action poses a third solution, which I'll call the mass movement strategy. This is always Trotskyists' favorite solution, since ultimately organizing the masses is the only way to effect revolutionary change. Their model is the People's Climate March in New York, last Fall, in which 400,000 people marched for--just what exactly? Socialist Action raises the slogan System change; Not climate change, which presumably is the modern analog of the Vietnam war era slogan, Out Now.

But the slogan is completely empty. First, system change is much more ambitious that simply changing the climate (though that seems hard enough). It requires a root and branch change in the very way we organize everything. Climate activists--i.e., people who are actually seriously interested in problems related to climate change--will be unwilling to make their task oh so much harder and more complicated. Rather than simplifying the problem for them, Socialist Action's slogan makes it sound impossible.

Second, system change is not obviously connected to climate change. What guarantee is there that changing the system will improve the climate? Certainly it didn't work in the former Soviet Union or Maoist China. The only evidence that it will work in the future are vague promises from Andrew Pollack, Bill Onasch, and Carl Sack. And activists are supposed to stake their cause on that? Not likely.

And finally, system change is completely disconnected from any individual effort. This, too, is a Trotskyist theme, because they maintain that all social problems are because of capitalism, not because of any individual cupidity.

So, for example, Socialist Action never asks how Patrick Bond got from Durban to Tunis. Presumably he took an airplane, which is not very environmentally conscious of him. Socialist Action will claim that this is irrelevant, because until we change the system, nothing Mr. Bond can personally do will change the climate. But after system change, then the airplane ride will be OK. Because--don't you know--pilots working for the working class pollute much less than pilots flying planes for capitalists. Go figure.

The problem with Socialist Action is they moralize everything. The climate is a moral issue, capitalism is immoral, and therefore capitalism must be bad for the climate. The argument doesn't even work as a syllogism even if you're willing to grant the premises. It's completely nutty, as I suspect the folks at Socialist Action realize. Their involvement in the climate fight is merely tactical--to recruit members to their cause--rather than any heartfelt seriousness about the urgency of climate change.

The climate movement is ultimately doomed. First, the catastrophe predicted by the likes of Socialist Action is unlikely to come true. So facts will eventually prove them wrong. But more importantly, solving the climate problem ultimately means forcing everybody into poverty. The marchers in New York believe themselves exempt from that fate. They are all part of the rich world, comfortably middle class, even by American standards. They can afford to ask other people to forfeit their comforts and livelihoods.

But poor people--people in China, India, Bangladesh--depend much more directly on world trade and fossil fuels for what little prosperity they have. The climateers--unwittingly to be sure--are condemning billions of people to utter destitution, forced back to scratching out a living as subsistence farmers. Poor people are smart enough to realize that the climate movement does not have their back.

That's why India, for example, is simply rejecting the whole movement. PM Narendra Modi speaks for the vast majority of his countrymen when he refuses to accept poverty as an outcome. I agree with him.

Down with poverty!

Further Reading:

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Paul Le Blanc & the Minimum Wage

Paul Le Blanc is surely one of today's leading Marxist theologians, as an article reprinted in Socialist Viewpoint proves. He will surely object to the noun, preferring instead to be known as a theoretician. And with some justification, since many (including me) use the religious term as a pejorative.

Yet the term fits, typically for two reasons. First, Marxist academics are known for their turgid, unreadable prose, presumably imitating the master himself. This, sadly, is a trait they share with other academics, especially those who call themselves post-modernists. Incoherence leads to nonsense, and accordingly these people are not worth reading.

But on this score Mr. Le Blanc is not typical. He is a limpid, clear-thinking writer who actually has something to say, unlike the reputed theologians of yore.

On the second point, however, I count Mr. Le Blanc as guilty. His article, entitled Explorations in Plain Marxism, is typical of the genre, being a Talmudic exegesis on ancient texts and commentaries. Actual data is used only for decoration, by way of example to illustrate some point. Marxists apparently have never heard of Big Data. Concepts such as statistical significance or correlation are completely foreign to them, as is, for that matter, any kind of mathematical relationship. For a discipline that claims to be scientific, it sure pays short shrift to empirical data.

So Mr. Le Blanc's current essay begins with a commentary on sundry descriptions of capitalism. He eventually settles on a baroque, four-part definition that ultimately says that capitalism is pretty much everything we encounter in today's society. Of course, being a Marxist, he misses capitalism's essential feature, so let me enlighten him with simpler language: Capitalism is an economic order that strives to maximize opportunities for consumption.

That's it. Capitalists (along with their employees) want people to buy things. They all work tirelessly to put more, better, and cheaper products and services on the market. They want people to be rich, happy, healthy, and acquisitive. Shop till you drop! So what's wrong with that?

Mr. Le Blanc's next exegetical effort is to define the working class. Here he acknowledges that the proletarian of yore--the brute laborer--is no longer a relevant part of the economy. Instead, skilled labor, people with some autonomy over their working conditions, and people who are part of the "labor aristocracy," have to be included in the working class, broadly understood. Otherwise the Marxist audience shrinks to the vanishing point.

Further, the relatively petty bourgeois layers of the working class are, in fact, most likely to be the class leaders. Mr. Le Blanc cites Engels as a source, as opposed to more modern authors such as Erik Olin Wright.

And then we get to the most interesting part of the article, under the post-modern heading Identity & Intersectionality. The problem is that workers lack class consciousness. This isn't because they are stupid, but because there are so many other ways for them to identify themselves. Or, as Mr. Le Blanc puts it,

One can begin an understanding of this conception by reflecting on the fact that each of us is conscious of having many different identities that are important to defining who we are. Among the variety of such identities—some of which seem more vibrant to us than others—are (in no particular order): our place within a particular family; our gender; our race and/or ethnicity; our nationality; our age; our religious orientation; our attitude toward specific political ideas; our sexual orientation and preferences; the foods we like; our musical preferences, the clothes we choose to wear, and other cultural inclinations; our favorite hobbies and pastimes; organizations that we happen to belong to; whether we live in a city, a small town, or a rural area; our income level; our particular economic occupation and skill level within that occupation; and the socio-economic class we happen to belong to.
Far from having the contradictions of capitalism driven home--as might have happened during the industrial revolution when workers were just workers pure and simple--today they're Sikhs, Jehovah's Witnesses, Koreans, Masons, Veterans, Grandfathers, bloggers, etc., etc. Being an employee of some company is just not the defining feature of life.

The classical Marxist view is that un-class conscious workers are simply stupid, befuddled by bourgeois trickery into believing unimportant nonsense. But Mr. Le Blanc is wise enough to realize that workers are people, too, and have the freedom to associate with whom they please. It will be impossible to squeeze workers back into a Marxist mold, from whence they'll emerge as identical and interchangeable proletons.

[w]e are many, but our success will be dependent upon a sufficient degree of class-consciousness among a substantial number of us. This class-consciousness, in our own time, must incorporate insights that reflect the realities associated with notions of identity and intersectionality. It must be said that this approach is not entirely new. “The Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects,” Lenin insisted.
So let's see how Mr. Le Blanc's Plain Marxism survives an encounter with the struggle du jour, namely the Fight for $15 (an effort to raise the minimum wage). His point that labor aristocrats are the leadership of the movement is true--the leaders are the traditional unions such as the SEIU. Indeed, the actual fast food workers are barely represented.

Second, the movement has had some apparent success--both Walmart and McDonalds have raised wages for their hourly employees. This is probably not because of activism, but rather because both companies have been losing market share. Even poor people--the folks who shop at Walmart and eat at McDonalds--demand high quality products and good service. Neither company has been able to meet that standard recently, and so they need to upgrade their workforce. Rather than hiring casual labor, they want to ditch the "dead-end" job label. They're building a career track for their workers.

This compounds Mr. Le Blanc's problem, creating yet another layer of "privileged" workers who have something to lose if the company goes bankrupt. Yet another layer of "intersectionality."

Richer people--including richer workers--can indulge more interests. They can afford to be Jehovah's Witnesses if they want to. They don't have to work two full-time jobs to earn a living. The problems of "intersectionality" get worse. We're all petty bourgeois now. Organizing a proletarian revolution becomes more and more like herding cats.

More, it is impossible to see how Walmart employees benefit from going on strike. A strike confronts the company with two choices: defeat the union or go out of business. Neither alternative benefits the workers. The Marxists template, that assumes that capitalists and workers are irrevocably opposed, is just wrong. Both of them depend on customers being happy and buying more products. Going on strike doesn't help at all.

So I think Mr. Le Blanc lives in a make-believe land. Admittedly, it's a fun one, with many intelligent participants. But, detached from empirical reality as it is, modern Marxism is more and more akin to a game of Dungeons & Dragons, rather than a true understanding of the world.

Further Reading: