Great Transitions roundtable on Global Capitalism
The Great Transition Initiative, of which I am a member, just held a roundtable debate of an interesting new paper by William I. Robinson called Global Capitalism: Reflections on a Brave New World.
It’s an interesting paper, by a smart guy, about the current state of the capitalist world system. The roundtable is here, and at it you will find my comments, the whole of which are here. The key general interest bit, which is to say my view on the Big Question of climate and capitalism, is as follows:
“The real question is if a properly constituted transformational movement, working within the rolling crisis that is now our certain future, can help to shape a new form of capitalism that is capable, minimally, of making an extremely rapid transition to an essentially zero-carbon economy. Does this require “ecosocialism”? Yes, I think so. But at the same time, I fear that many people will read the word to denote something that is already beyond capitalism. The problem is that, once you have reached such a conclusion, you really are done. Your only paths forward from there are optimism (which is increasingly a form of denial) and despair. If, on the other hand, you want honest hope and strategic thinking, you have to start by asking what, exactly, we are going to do to leverage the immense disruption that is now on the horizon, and drive towards a crash program of global decarbonization that is fair enough to actually succeed.
Robinson will perhaps disagree with me, for he says,
Rather than restructuring capitalism yet again, it is time to transcend it. A broad-based shift to ecosocialism must underpin any Great Transition. Achieving ecological equilibrium and an environment favorable to life is incompatible with capitalism’s expansive and destructive logic. Non-ecological socialism is a dead end, and a nonsocialist ecology cannot confront the present ecological crisis.
I say, in response, that, well, yes, sure. But this only means that we have to think strategically, and strategy has a lot to do with sequencing. And, sure, lots of NGOs function to maintain a “Conventional Worlds agenda,” but it’s also true that Robinson’s sense of the NGO movement as a whole is, frankly, dated. In reality, many of the “Conventional Worlds” people are less compromised than they are desperate, and this precisely because they are unable to imagine a positive path forward that they can actually believe in.
I fear that I, too, am verging on caricature here. But I just do not see policy reform as an alternative to transformation, not at least when it comes to stage-four capitalism in a climate crisis world. Which is to say that, while I agree with Robinson that “Moving beyond the nightmare of barbarization and the limitations of a reformist path requires a redistribution of power downward and a transformation towards a system in which social need and rational planning trump private profit and the anarchy of market forces,” I also see that those on the “reformist path” have a “sense of reality” (Isaiah Berlin) that must, finally, be taken seriously.
Also, importantly, things are changing. Even this conversation is evidence of that, for it features more talk of inequality than it does of planetary limits, the knowledge of which is, as they say, “banked.” In this we are on pace with the rest of the movement, which is similarly—and belatedly—facing the absolute centrality of “the equity question.” This is why Tim DeChristopher says the climate movement has already become the climate justice movement: not because the transformation is complete, but because justice is where the growth is, and the passion, and the pivot.
As for myself, I believe that the neoliberal capitalism that Robinson describes will kill us all. But I have reached the conclusion that, at least for now, it’s the “neoliberal” side of the term that we should be emphasizing, not the “capitalism” one. Because if anything is clear is that neoliberalism has got to go. And as soon as humanly possible.”