02 April 2013

Neoliberalism is a road to climate apocalypse

The threat of climate change looms in the background of any sensible discussion of humanity's future (see some handy summaries of the outlook here and here). The grim message is this: if progressive political forces fail to deal with this problem, then nothing else we achieve will matter very much for very long.

By 2100, this is what an exceptionally good growing season could look like in the Midwest

It is absolutely imperative that we deal with climate change. It is therefore also imperative that we overcome neoliberalism. This is because the actions we need to take in order to put the brakes on climate change are incompatible with neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is therefore a road to climate apocalypse.

To understand this point, we need to understand that the creation of a carbon neutral society requires something along the lines of  a Green New Deal which impacts all parts of the economy. The sorts of policies we need (here is one attempt to lay out some of the details) include an overhaul of urban planning and agriculture, intervention into the corporate sector to force the investment of idle capital (which currently exists in the trillions) into green economic development, and a massive spike in public spending to repair and overhaul infrastructure (the US is $2.2 trillion behind just on infrastructure repairs—never mind upgrades).

To clarify: it is not enough to oppose new extraction projects like Keystone XL and fracking (although that is important work). Nor is it enough to implement market-based solutions like cap-and-trade or a carbon tax (although these policies could play a role in a larger framework, they are completely inadequate when it comes to bringing about an overhaul of infrastructure). Although fights against KXL or for some kind of tax on carbon are already difficult ones, the harsh truth is that we need to think much, much bigger. What we need is extremely heavy-handed interventions by the state into the economy, including a massive expansion of the public sector, and coercive intervention into the financial industry, agricultural industry, and manufacturing industry... and so on.

These are measures which would shock the neoliberal conscience. They constitute unthinkable violations of the free market principles which are fundamental to that ideology. To capture the radical nature of the policies required, writers commonly use metaphors of a WWII-style mobilization. FDR's WWII policies involved (e.g.) a ban on the manufacture of private automobiles. In neoliberal America it is simply unthinkable that corporations should suffer such harsh state coercion. But the solution to climate change will involve very harsh state coercion inflicted upon corporations.

And since the financial crash and subsequent depression, the prospects for this kind of government intervention seem to have gotten even worse. The neoliberal elites have responded to economic troubles by doubling down on policies of austerity and intensified corporatization / privatization. These policies of course move us in the opposite direction from a Green New Deal or WWII-style climate mobilization. But so long as neoliberalism continues to be the dominant ideology among the elite, we should expect these policies to continue.

So the bad news is that we will never deal with climate change if we don't end neoliberalism. The good news is that neoliberalism is collapsing, and is begging to be ended. And if we do move beyond neoliberalism in a progressive direction, then we will open up radically new possibilities of climate action. The results of the WWII industrial mobilization stunned observers at the time, but today our productive and technological capacities are far, far greater than they were during WWII. In a post-neoliberal world, they could be mobilized in a transition to a carbon-neutral economy that could take place faster than most of us are currently capable of imagining. Those who are tempted to despair around the issue of climate change (and I know you are out there) should take this to heart.

This was Detroit. Imagine this, but with wind turbines.

In future posts I hope to continue to explore the relationship between climate change and the current crisis of neoliberalism. But let this be the moral of the story for now: if neoliberalism is a road to climate apocalypse, then overcoming neoliberalism is our road to climate survival.


  1. Great post, I completely agree with your conclusions. Thinking about the climate movement, could we say that its work is vitally important to holding the line against making things much worse (e.g. Keystone), but that with its current approach it is intrinsically incapable of reversing the march to catastrophe? If that's right—that only a movement that understands the source of climate deterioration to be based in the entire configuration of society itself—then that raises some tough issues in establishing the organizational preconditions for a successful movement.

    A single-issue campaign is by definition parochial. So it's no surprise that it would have conceptual difficulties when the source of its woe emerges from the social totality rather than within the narrow field of vision the campaign has set for itself. Acknowledging the role that practice plays in setting the parameters of thought, that suggests the movement we need cannot be single-issue but must take neoliberalism, understood as a social system rather than just an economic doctrine, as its object of critique and attack. It may also be true that the other main organizational alternative in the neoliberal era—the coalition of single-issue groups—is likewise inadequate because it cannot strategically privilege certain issues both in concept and in practice, which would be required to confront the totality.

    Right now these groups are essentially banging their heads against the poured concrete of neoliberalism's upper stories, where their particular issues are lodged (whether that's climate change, police brutality, austerity policies, you name it). Their only hope of success would be banding together and instead attacking the crumbling foundations of neoliberalism, but this is never considered because it has no immediately apparent relation to any of their particular issues. So the question is, how could we go about integrating all the single-issue campaigns into something larger and more organic with a clearer strategic vision?

  2. Quickly, and without showing all my math: my suspicion is that this integration will be possible only after a true social movement is already underway. Only after there is a movement with some momentum and some sense of progress and hope, will it become possible to integrate different issues into a vision of the whole.

  3. I think this post is fundamental for the whole project here. However, my suspicion is the opposite: that the existing social movements (the single-issue movements to which Walker refers) will only emerge when a critical mass of organic/networked intellectuals succeeds in both forging and propagating a unifying discourse that acts simultaneously as a social logic of production and as a new common sense, which must be effective at specific national and generic transnational scales. From my observations, many of the participants in single-issue movements know full well that they must attack the foundations of neoliberalism. However, they have no politically realistic way to do so. This leads, on the other side of the coin, to those who propose a fully fledged "Plan B" (which is the name of a very interesting book and website proposing an FDR-style total industrial mobilization against climate change). These people think they can sell their plan to existing elites with the support of the existing social movements we have now. Unfortunately, the Obama administration is proving them totally wrong... There is a huge need for a bottom-up intellectual movement that does not shun the big-scale problems. That's actually what interests me in this blog, btw.

  4. Thanks, Paul. Unfortunately I don't think there are all that many climate activists who have a decent analysis of neoliberalism and understand the strategic implications. For example, McKibben's "Do The Math" presents itself as a deep analysis, which it is comparatively speaking, but it identifies the fossil fuel industry as the political actor that's holding us back and therefore seriously understates the economic forces standing in the way of real climate action.

  5. I agree with Callicles that analysis of neoliberalism as a system, as opposed to criticism of some of the consequences (even systemic consequences) of neoliberalism's operations, is pretty rare on the left. But I very much also agree with Paul Cardan's point that what's missing right now is "a critical mass of organic/networked intellectuals" who are "forging and propagating a unifying discourse that acts simultaneously as a social logic of production and as a new common sense, which must be effective at specific national and generic transnational scales." There are huge, volatile feelings of discontent with neoliberalism all over the world. What's missing is, first, the vision that could mobilize them and, second, the organizational form(s) that could mobilize them. Intellectuals—immersed in the fragmentation and competition of neoliberalism, in the skepticism of totalizing narratives, in the distaste for collective endeavor—have basically forfeited both the conceptual leadership and organizational innovation that they supplied in previous moments of systemic crisis. I wrote this post over two-and-a-half years ago, and though the crisis grinds on, there seems to have been no movement since then. We could take Paul's point as a general mission statement for what we're trying to do here.