Tag Archives: State capitalism

State capitalism and climate emergency

A continued look at {Why capitalism massively intensified the climate crisis, and why only collective action can solve it}

Continuation of

Capitalism and relevance to climate change

Capitalism and The environmental record of the communist world

In his article “Why capitalism massively intensified the climate crisis, and why only collective action can solve it” Gezwin Stanley confirms that the climate emergency couldn’t have happened without fossil fuel driven industrialisation. But there is more:

human technology plus the very human inclination towards short termism tends to result in environmental degradation. It isn’t just capitalism that caused the climate crisis. But it is clear that capitalism, or rather the different varieties of capitalism, meaning any system where the few both control and benefit from the engines of wealth creation, the very same productive forces that can damage the environment, while also being best able to use their position to shield themselves against any environmental side effects, did and will dramatically exacerbate environmental damage. And, comparing state capitalism with private capitalism, it isn’t markets or consumerism that appeared to make the difference: the West had those in abundance, but the Communist world did not, and the outcomes were similar: critical environmental crises. The implication is that mass-scale industrial technology, combined with the control of that economy by a few who are compelled to strive for growth at all costs and to disregard, even deliberately hide, all externalities, is sufficient to cause environmental collapse, even if consumerism and insufficiently democratically regulated markets really don’t help. {Why capitalism massively intensified the climate crisis, and why only collective action can solve it}

We must remember that important pressures contributing to current and future ecological collapse include habitat loss, habitat degradation, and habitat fragmentation, monocultures, overgrazing, overexploitation of ecosystems by humans, human industrial growth and overpopulation. The Soviet Union sinned against the respectful use of the earth by the practice of growing the same crop each year on a given acreage. The Soviet government found out, to its shame, that their large-scale plan of mass production or to produce huge quantities of cereals, vegetables and fruit, impoverished the country and did not produce good harvests. This because nonlegume crops usually exhaust the nitrogen in the soil, with a resulting reduction in yields. When they wanted to make the fertility level of the soil higher, they introduced fertilisers that poisoned the soil. The idea of greater flexibility in planning the system to meet year to year changes in the need for various crops, failed dramatically with food shortages and starvation as a result.

That environmental damage will be even more extreme if the masters of the economy, under private or state capitalism, are actively competing with each other whether for profit or to hit targets mandated by some dictator’s latest five year plan. {Why capitalism massively intensified the climate crisis, and why only collective action can solve it}

writes Gezwin Stanley, admitting that

 the vital experiment, of a technologically advanced society that combines political and economic democracy, hasn’t as yet really been tried, perhaps because it is so offensive to the powerful and power-hungry.

Would such a society be able to better balance environmental and economic concerns? It certainly seems likely in theory, but in practice all we have to go on are smaller scale examples, often embattled and created despite huge challenges, such as the Zapatistas in Mexico or Rojava in Kurdistan. While environmentalism is a core thread of the ideology of both these movements (see for example: “What the Zapatistas can teach us about the climate crisis” or “Rojava is trying to build a green society”), how that would play out in the long term, in more stable conditions and at scale, has still to be determined. Though social democracy may be precarious, because the super-rich often buy politicians, parties and media influence, the historically more thorough-going social democracies may offer a clue as to what would be possible environmentally if economic control was more democratic, with (again according to the World Bank figures here: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EN.ATM.CO2E.PC) per capita carbon dioxide emissions in 2018 for Denmark being 5.8 tonnes, for Norway 7.0 tonnes and for Sweden 3.5 tonnes, compared to the USA at 15.2 tonnes, though the Nordic countries are at a similar level of technological advancement and average prosperity and overall have a colder climate. The same figure for the Russian Federation is 11.2 tonnes per capita and for considerably poorer China 7.4 tonnes. It may also be worth contrasting how Scandinavia confronted the problem of acid rain from the 1970s with how the former Soviet Union attempted to “bury” its multiple environmental crises. {Why capitalism massively intensified the climate crisis, and why only collective action can solve it}

For him, it is no wonder that the state-capitalist communist countries of the past or the present were the cause of environmental calamities.

There have been more human generated greenhouse gas emissions since 1990 than in the rest of history (see this excerpt from “The Uninhabitable Earth”, published in 2019). Nor should we ever forget the whole corporate funded global disinformation campaign of climate change denial , and now “greenwashing”. For example, Exxon knew of climate change in 1981, but it funded climate change denial for 27 more years. None of this is surprising as the richest have an incentive to care least about climate change, because they can most easily escape its effects, from basing themselves in less affected countries, through being able to afford air conditioning, coastal defences and other protections to participating in the growing market for elite bunkers and safe havens (see “‘Billionaire bunkers’ that could shelter the superrich during an apocalypse”).

COP15 Logo.svgIf the economies of at least the most technologically advanced and richest nations had been run along lines of distributed economic power, of economic democracy as described here: https://gezwinstanley.wordpress.com/what-is-economic-justice-and-how-can-we-create-it/ , then there would most likely still have been a climate crisis. We are not angels. But without hugely powerful billionaires willing to conspire to deny climate change, and able to rig the political debate in many countries such as the USA, we would have acted a decade or two, possibly three, sooner. For example, the climate change deniers’ “Climategate” conspiracy in 2009 sabotaged the Copenhagen COP15 Conference and alone may have set back progress a decade, while none of the conspirators or those enlisted to help with the subsequent public relations have ever been brought to book. All that lost time could prove to have been crucial.

To resolve this conflict of interest we need to place everyone in control of the things they need to live and make a living. Then no one can disproportionately reap the economic benefits while disproportionately avoiding the environmental costs. That ensures everyone has an incentive to co-operate to create environmental regulations, pricing, taxes and subsidies, that avoid collective catastrophe, because no one can rig the deadly serious economic “game” of balancing economic output against environmental costs by largely reaping the economic benefits while passing most of the environmental impact onto someone else. {Why capitalism massively intensified the climate crisis, and why only collective action can solve it}

 

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Capitalism and The environmental record of the communist world

Continuation of Capitalism and relevance to climate change

When looking at the pollution in communist countries questions can be posed if those communist regimes were somehow unable to regulate the use of their common resources.

Nice to notice that Gezwin Stanley finds it more reasonable to posit that the communist failures were also failures of capitalism, specifically “state capitalism”, the economic system in which the state undertakes business and commercial (i.e. for-profit) economic activity and where the means of production are nationalized as state-owned enterprises (including the processes of capital accumulation, centralised management and wage labour). He writes:

The environmental record of the communist world, once it finally started to be revealed with the fall of the Warsaw Pact and the at least partial “opening up” of China to Western business interests, was, at times, disastrous. The proposition is essentially that ownership makes owners take more care of the environment, and that the communist record is one huge tragedy of the commons (for example, see: “Marxism and the Failure of Environmental Protection in Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R.”). {Why capitalism massively intensified the climate crisis, and why only collective action can solve it}

Though in the idea of communism is included the ownership of everybody of everything. Everything is namely part of that what we are allowed to use or to be confronted with. We do not own the world, but we may use the world, as having it in loan. As such in communism is expected that everybody shows respect for the goods of others and for the nature where we are allowed to live in.

We agree that in the communist system we have seen it evolve in the wrong way, in the Soviet Union going to dictatorships as Stalinism and Leninism, which have not much to do with real communism, as well with the hypercapitalism we can see now in the Republic of China.

The communist world’s track record on the environment really is rather catastrophic. The most infamous examples include the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, the shrinking of the Aral Sea and the irradiation of northern Kazakstan by the Semipalatinsk (present-day Semey) nuclear testing site. The Soviet record in terms of air and water pollution is also very poor. Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, in the early 1990s, Russia’s Hydrometeorological Service, which monitors air quality, reported that 231 out of 292 cities exceeded maximum permissible concentrations (MPCs) for particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, or carbon monoxide, with eighty-six cities exceeding MPCs by a factor of ten. At around the same time 75 percent of Russia’s surface water was polluted, 50 percent of all water was not potable according to quality standards established in 1992, and an estimated 30 percent of groundwater available for use was highly polluted (http://countrystudies.us/russia/25.htm). {Why capitalism massively intensified the climate crisis, and why only collective action can solve it}

Gezwin Stanley looks at (a) communism where there is an economic system where the things that people need to live and make a living are controlled by the few. For him it doesn’t have to mean “free” markets as many capitalists aim for and sometimes achieve oligopoly or monopoly.

Also, though “control” normally means “legal ownership” that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case: there are situations where very effective control of the things that people need to live and make a living is possible without formal legal ownership, from a company where directors are able to laud it over shareholders to the situation we are about to explore: state capitalism in the Soviet Union.

One very clear reason why we should take the concept of “state capitalism” in Marxist-Leninist regimes seriously is that it is not an invented phrase imposed on such regimes after the fact. It was, in fact, a phrase use by Lenin himself in 1918, not to describe a state of affairs that should be avoided, but as a stage in a plan to modernise Russia as part of its road towards socialism. Basically the idea was that, to transition to a system where the workers would take over the means of production, large-scale, centralised industries had to be created first, under state control, but using the techniques and expertise of capitalists.

The main aim of “state capitalism” was therefore to build, in relatively backward and agrarian Russia, the very capitalist enterprises that the workers could later control as part of socialism. From the very inception of Soviet “state capitalism” though there was a secondary aim: to modernise the economy of Russia so that it could better defend itself militarily against foreign hostility. In 1918 Russia had just lost a war to a much more industrially advanced Germany. This was a further driver influencing the nature of state capitalism in the Soviet Bloc that would persist for the duration of the Soviet Union. {Why capitalism massively intensified the climate crisis, and why only collective action can solve it}

Here was how, in 1918, Lenin who claimed that World War I had transformed laissez-faire capitalism into the monopolist state capitalism, described his plan for state capitalism:

“What is state capitalism under Soviet power? To achieve state capitalism at the present time means putting into effect the accounting and control that the capitalist classes carried out. We see a sample of state capitalism in Germany. We know that Germany has proved superior to us. But if you reflect even slightly on what it would mean if the foundations of such state capitalism were established in Russia, Soviet Russia, everyone who is not out of his senses and has not stuffed his head with fragments of book learning, would have to say that state capitalism would be our salvation.

I said that state capitalism would be our salvation; if we had it in Russia, the transition to full socialism would be easy, would be within our grasp, because state capitalism is something centralised, calculated, controlled and socialised, and that is exactly what we lack: we are threatened by the element of petty-bourgeois slovenliness, which more than anything else has been developed by the whole history of Russia and her economy, and which prevents us from taking the very step on which the success of socialism depends.” (Session of the All-Russia C.E.C. April 29 1918: https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/apr/29.htm)

The greatest problem is man’s love for power and control and often when people come to power they start enjoying their status and often want more. Often those who got in power want to stay in power and do not want to share their power with others.  The article writer notices this also and writes

once a state capitalist system under the control of Communist Party apparatchiks was created, any transition to actual socialism was stalled indefinitely.

Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin, secretary-general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1922–53) and premier of the Soviet state (1941–53), misusing his power eliminating everybody whowas in his way or did not agree with his ruling (and dictatorship).

“State capitalism” had severe effects on how the Soviet system would deal with environmental concerns. As with western style capitalism this was partly because those in control had much more to gain by, say, maximising production, than they had to lose through environmental degradation. It was those at the top, higher up the party structure, who by driving up their production figures, could gain promotion or at least, at times, and especially during Stalin’s rule, avoid being purged. Also, as ever, it was those at the bottom who were generally least able to escape the effects of environmental degradation, as in the “exemplar” Soviet steel producing city of Magnitogorsk, where party officials enjoyed a comparatively luxurious life in the wooded “American town” that was originally built for specialists from the United States in 1930, while many workers lived in barracks where filthy conditions and a lack of clean water contributed to the spread of deadly disease ( see “The secret history of Magnitogorsk, Russia’s steel city”). {Why capitalism massively intensified the climate crisis, and why only collective action can solve it}

Magnitogorsk: monument

Magnitogorsk: Monument depicting a steelworker giving a sword to a Soviet soldier, Magnitogorsk, Russia. – Photo © ekb/Fotolia

The whole command and control system of the Soviet Union felt compelled to drive for economic growth at almost any cost, and did not mind losing lives for it. It became so bad that there was an obsession with economic growth and with high status on all levels, but in particular in sports and arts, like ballet. Any opposition to the ideas of those in power had to be killed by the root, as that could endanger targets.

The “Plan” and the careers, or at times lives, of individual apparatchiks. Similar to how in the West the climate crisis was first concealed with well-funded and orchestrated denial and then greenwash, in the Soviet Union the true state of the environment was kept hidden by deeming environmental statistics to be state secrets. {Why capitalism massively intensified the climate crisis, and why only collective action can solve it}

Next: State capitalism and climate emergency

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