Tag: capitalism

Info-Tech Is Not the New Utopia

Is another (economic) world possible? When economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek helped invent the doctrine of neoliberalism in the 1930s and 1940s, they meant to say, decisively, “No!” Only the unregulated price system could assure the rational allocation of resources, economic growth, and stability over the long haul. That is why Margaret Thatcher famously declared, “There is no alternative” to free market principles, and hence what you see is what you’ve got: The future can only be the same as our present, history has ended, and capitalism is permanent. We have lived with that dispiriting sense of closed horizons for some time now, but suddenly, over the past five years, a refreshing stream of new books has appeared with titles such as Does Capitalism Have a Future?, How Will Capitalism End?, and Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. Similarly, the Nation recently devoted a special issue to the theme of getting “out from under capitalism.”[i]

Among all these, Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, has gained a good deal of attention as an engaging, forceful argument that another world is not only possible but indeed in the offing.[ii]  Hidden in today’s information technology and “networked” knowledge, Mason argues, lies the promise of a grand social transition toward a collaborative mode of production surpassing the price system of bourgeois markets, a transition made absolutely imperative in our time by the coming, combined threats of climate disaster, aging populations, and the gargantuan growth-killing overhang of debt the world over. Let me say that I’m all for a democratic and egalitarian future beyond capitalism (though for reasons suggested below, I’d still prefer to call it “socialist”), and I welcome and embrace his argument for the necessity of such a future, especially in the face of the present and coming dangers he cites. Mason’s book, however, is less a sure guide to the future than a ghost of futures past. His presentation of “postcapitalism” as a dramatically new analysis of present conditions and future prospects actually evokes visions that are at least fifty or sixty years, maybe a century, old—visions that proved too facile and optimistic a long time ago. We need something more hard-headed—as Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci’s old slogan put it, a mind more pessimistic, combined with a forward-looking will—when we think about how we might get from where we are to where we want to be.

Hidden in today’s information technology . . ., Mason argues, lies the promise of a grand social transition toward a collaborative mode of production . . .

First, let me outline Mason’s perspective; then I will compare it with futures past. Mason mines the Marxian, socialist, and labor-movement traditions for insights into the dynamics of capitalism while tapping contemporary reportage on business, finance, and technology to diagnose the yet-unsurpassed crisis of  2007-2008  and  to  forecast  trends  eating away at the old mechanisms of market society. He does this all in the service of a view Mason considers post-Marxist and up-to-date. He unearths the long-wave theory of Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratieff to outline a history of industrial capitalism since the late eighteenth century in four major phases, culminating in an abortive fifth cycle commenced by the “neoliberal” masters of the 1990s. At previous junctures between one long wave of roughly fifty years’ duration and another (i.e., from the end of a long downturn to a new long boom), Mason explains,  a  combination  of  social  struggles, new technologies, and exogenous shocks led in each case to a reinvention of the capitalist mode: Those shift points led, in the late nineteenth century, toward the monopoly form and in the mid-twentieth century, toward the American-led “Fordist” system. Now, however, any comparable shift has stalled.

Despite the false dawn of the boom in globalized, dot.com capitalism during the late 1990s, he writes, the neoliberals’ unbridled free-trade, low-wage, and financialized order has proven not only crisis-ridden but also unable to build a viable growth engine on the basis of our time’s new technology (“info-tech”). He argues this is the case precisely because the networked, digital world cannot be assimilated to the cost-accounting methods and accumulation process of capitalism. Borrowing not a little from the “wired” technophilia of author and futurist Stewart Brand, Mason repeats Brand’s line, “information wants to be free”: that is, in principle, digitized, networked knowledge is so shareable and enduring that its “marginal cost” tends toward zero.[iii] Thus, the value of goods and services built by digital means steadily declines, except as they are propped up by the losing battle of new monopolists (Apple, etc.) to rigorously enforce intellectual property rights.

Given this trend—and here Mason is an orthodox Marxist—the declining rate of profit becomes virtually irreversible. The consequent lack of productive investment opportunities shunts growth into the financial sector, which despite its apparent profit engine mainly promises repeated bubbles and bloated debt. The presumptive motor of what would have been a new (fifth) capitalist long wave—”info-capitalism”—has  not,  and  indeed  cannot,  take  off, precisely because the technological resources, shareable and enduring as they are, tend to reduce value: That is, info-rich products become a sink for capital rather than a means of collecting new profits. (In years past, prior theorists made a similar point when they speculated about technology that is not only labor-saving but also capital-saving, or what happens when capitalism enters a “disaccumulationist” phase.) Thus, economic stagnation and more devastating financial crises await us, even as climate change, aging societies, and new massive flows of migration from the impoverished world pose daunting, unavoidable demands for public investment and social provision. Not info-capitalism but info-tech postcapitalism is the way of the future.

. . . [N]ew massive flows of migration from the impoverished world pose daunting, unavoidable demands for public investment and social provision.

Mason argues that at this very moment, the working class and the old labor movement as agents of change have been entirely fragmented or atomized by the employers’ offensive beginning in the 1970s. Workers proved unable to resist the wage-lowering, job-cutting program of “neo- liberal” financialized capitalism. Consequently, our times have lacked the labor resistance that at previous long-wave turning points compelled capitalists to shift gears, innovate technically and organizationally, and find ways of sustaining mass purchasing power. Here, Mason turns post- Marxist, doubting that the industrial working class ever represented a revolutionary, anticapitalist force. He stakes out a position as a post- “socialist” as well, since prior transformative models, notably the Stalinist command economy, proved calamitous.

In place of those agents now comes the productive force of info-tech, bearing within it not only potentially skyrocketing productivity and cost reductions that can make available an abundance of “free stuff,” as Mason often says, but also behavioral models of shared knowledge, collaborative creativity, and casual attitudes that “blur” the boundaries of work and leisure. The “networked” generation of the young who are accustomed to mobile connectivity, he writes, expects lots of “free stuff” (why should cost-free file-sharing of pop music be prohibited?), and they act productively for the sake of the work without pay (namely, the power of Wikipedia’s contributors, or the computer geeks who make modular improvements to “open source” software). New models of “peer-to-peer” exchanges and services outside the marketplace, cooperative workshops, and the collective provisioning that emerged in popular insurgent movements like the defense of Istanbul’s Gezi park: These forecast the future. Government and business will need to make way, as we embark on the postcapitalist “project,” for a long, gradual shift to a new mode that will increasingly displace the marketplace, private productive property, and compulsive profit-making.

This way forward, Mason insists, is not utopian: To begin with, it is imperative (in the face of climate catastrophe and the coming, radical devaluing of fossil-fuel industries if that is to be avoided) and practicable as economists work out means of a universal basic income—a key step toward recognizing the growing disjuncture between available work and income. This postcapitalist future, in Mason’s view, is not “socialist,” it seems, since it dispenses with old ideas of centralized state planning: consumer markets and entrepreneurship will persist (even as free, shareable goods and services gradually expand their sway) while government will need to undertake the key measures of providing basic income and nationalizing the finance system as well as the energy companies.

This postcapitalist future, in Mason’s view, is not “socialist” . . .

Any number of excellent points appear in this scenario: its sharp sense of the contemporary crisis, its critique of the price system and conventional economic (and neoliberal) dogma, the profoundly historical analysis of capitalist development, and, crucially, its attempt to bring the postcapitalist “transition problem” into serious and imaginative consideration. Yet much of the argument is also all too familiar, surprisingly vague, and weakly defended.

A “postcapitalist vision” of change, understood as something distinct from the struggle for socialism, actually flourished in the mid-twentieth century, dating back as far (in the United States) as journalist Walter Lippmann’s 1914 claim that “a silent revolution is in progress” as corporate combination “is sucking the life out of private property”—and that only determined intelligence was needed to acknowledge the actual “collectivism” of the time and combine it with democratic government. Later, invoking again a “silent revolution” in the con- text of post-World War II reconstruction, politician and author Anthony Crosland coined the term postcapitalist society for the “statist” order initiated by Britain’s Labor Party that, he said, steadily moved the productive order away from the absolutes of private property and profit toward social services; others at the time cited the postwar European “mixed-economy welfare state” as a “post-bourgeois society.”[iv]

This intellectual trend culminated in the original theory of a “post-industrial society,” especially in the United States, as a way of describing tendencies believed to lead away from market absolutes. In this view, very much as in Mason’s diagnosis, the transition from the hegemony of an “economizing” logic toward a “sociologizing” logic (those are sociologist Daniel Bell’s terms) stemmed from the growing, noncommodity form of knowledge as a social resource. Bell, the best- known exponent of “post-industrial” theory, was explicit: The emerging new society was “one in which the intellectual is predominant.” This was decidedly not a “new class” notion of an elite, technocratic intelligentsia. Rather, he argued that contemporary productivity stemmed from advances in “basic science” and its technological applications, rendering the research university as central an institution as the business corporation was to industrial society and injecting into the heart of development the inevitably public good of knowledge. Bell’s meaning was clear: The advancement of scientific knowledge demanded a kind of indicative planning in major social investments, and this crucial new resource was not a marketable commodity. It was not only science as such but also new “intellectual technologies,” by which he meant to highlight the computer-based modeling and planning tools of the sort now used in climate science, that shifted the ground away from the sole calculus of the marketplace.

A writer for the . . . League for Industrial Democracy . . . predicted a standard fifteen-hour work week by the end of the twentieth century.

And Bell was far from the only figure to work in this vein. The historically coincident debate over “automation” (the term coined in the early 1950s to refer to computer-controlled continuous-flow production processes capable of displacing great amounts of living labor) arose in the early 1960s to make many of the same arguments that Mason and other “end-of- work” theorists offer today: The prospect of mass redundancy meant either a social disaster of mounting, permanent unemployment (and coercive means of controlling a superfluous underclass) or the radical reduction of the work week and a break between work and wage accomplished by publicly provided basic income. A writer for the sober-minded League for Industrial Democracy (LID) predicted a standard fifteen-hour work week by the end of the twentieth century.[v]

There too was a bit of fond optimism. That does not mean, however, that there is no genuine rational kernel within such speculation, and Mason rightly finds an origin to it in the pas- sage in Marx’s (1858) Grundrisse often cited as the “Fragment on Machines”: Here Marx wrote, the human laborer in the course of what we would later call automation “steps to the side of the production process” as “watchman and regulator,” and what matters is not the worker’s measured and exploited time on the job but rather the appropriation of his [the worker’s] general productive power, his understanding of nature and his mastery over it by virtue of his presence as a social   body—it is, in a word, the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation- stone of production and of wealth. It is then, Marx wrote, that “the theft of alien labour time . . . appears a miserable foundation [of social wealth] in the face of this new one.”[vi]

Mason rightly expands on this: Marx recognized “general social knowledge” as a force of production, the role of “the general intellect” as the new key of human social capacity to meet the needs of social reproduction.[vii] And Mason’s argument that contemporary capitalism cannot maximize the contributions that knowledge-based productive forces can make to human welfare is a plausible translation of Marx’s point about the obsolescence of the wage and property relation under late capitalism. But it is not at all accurate to read Marx’s argument as offering “a knowledge- based route out of capitalism”[viii] or to suggest, as Mason does, that Marx’s “general intellect” is now present in the mobile internet. Marx’s point, rather, was that production would become so profoundly social in practice, manifested in the generally educated individual, that private appropriation and disposition of wealth was both injurious and rooted in an outmoded, baseless claim to property rights. What social force could break with that illusion and that practice was, for Marx, and for us too, another question. There’s the rub.

Contrary to the LID prediction of a fifteen-hour work week, no automatic mechanism of social reason was at work in the late twentieth century to meet productivity gains with scaling back labor and building new means of social provision. Despite the “post-industrial” confidence that knowledge resources could not be commodified, business, legislatures, and courts have managed to go rather far in that direction, even if Mason is correct that the intellectual property regime is in the long run a losing battle against the free flow of tech knowledge. In line with his view that “information wants to be free”—that “info-tech” is by nature the incubus of a new society—he tends to count on the modes of “spontaneous” collectivity and collaboration evident in the worldwide protests of 2010-2013 (from the Arab uprisings to the communal assemblies of Spain and Greece and to Occupy Wall Street) as the source of social energy: “The 99 percent are coming to the rescue,” he states simply in the book’s next to last line. “Postcapitalism will set you free,” is the last.[ix]

Would that it were so. But the key elements of the old socialist and labor movements that Mason leaves behind as putatively obsolete are precisely the things we need to think much harder about in imagining “transition”—and that is, what new forces of solidarity (agents who imagine collectivity as an alternative to illusory, marketized individualism) and organization (a base for persistent agitation) can be built in our time to put his kind of “postcapitalist project” into effect, in opposition to the terribly powerful forces we know are arrayed against that project. For it isn’t at all clear that the 99 percent or networked millennials “spontaneously” generate those forces; we need, in addition to forecasts like Mason’s, a hard-headed new politics of social movements and new strategies of mobilization for change.


[i] Immanuel Wallerstein, Randall Collins, Michael Mann, Georgi Derluguian, and Craig Calhoun, Does Capitalism Have a Future? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System (London: Verso, 2016); Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (London: Verso, 2015); Sarah Leonard, “Zombie Ideology,” Nation 304: 16 (May 22/29, 2017), p. 3.
[ii] Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).
[iii] Mason, Postcapitalism, 115.
[iv] Howard Brick, Transcending Capitalism: Visions of a New Society in Modern American Thought (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), 4-6, 50-53. See also Anthony Crosland, The Future of Socialism (London: Jonathan Cape, 1956) and George Lichtheim, The New Europe: Today, and Tomorrow (New York: Praeger, 1963).
[v] Brick, Transcending Capitalism, 189-200, 208.
[vi] Karl  Marx, Grundrisse:Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus (New York: Vintage, 1973), 704-705.
[vii] Mason, Postcapitalism, 136.
[viii] Ibid., 137.
[ix] Ibid., 292.

White-Working Class in Action

White Working-Class Voters and the Future of Progressive Politics

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, there have been hundreds of reflections written on the behavior, attitudes, needs, and prospects of the “white working class,” a segment of the population that will prove vital to any progressive coalition that stands for both social and economic justice. But what do we mean by "white working class"?

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Corporations Call for “Net Zero” Emissions: Do They Know How to Get There?

In the months leading to the December 2015 Paris Climate Conference, representatives of global institutional investors and multinational corporations made headlines after they demanded that world leaders adopt radical emissions reduction targets, among them “net zero” emissions by 2050. Examples include the Global Investor Statement on Climate Change, which was signed by 409 investors representing more than $24 trillion in assets, and the Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group (which includes the likes of Shell Global and Heathrow Airport Holdings Limited). Following the Statement’s adoption in Paris, a cluster of corporate heads led by Virgin Group’s Richard Branson (calling itself the “B Team”) demanded that all governments turn the Paris net zero emissions target into national-level laws.

What are we to make of this? The practical implications of the net zero target adopted in Paris—if it is seriously pursued—are nothing short of revolutionary, opening up a “system crunch” scenario when the forces of growth, profit, and accumulation that presently propel capitalism collide with the political imperatives required to reach virtually total “decarbonization” in little more than a generation.

Paradoxically, the corporate push to adopt net zero by 2050—a target that is unprecedented in terms of its ambition—merely draws attention to the fact that the corporate elite has no clear or convincing idea about how it might be achieved. The capitalist spirit is progressively willing, but the flesh grows all the time steadily weaker.

Thus, the Paris Agreement can be a clarifying moment for labor, the climate movement, and the broader left in that, more than ever before, it exposes the gulf between what needs to be done from a scientific standpoint and what the global corporate and political elite are actually able to deliver.

Elite Consensus

Corporate statements on climate change invariably attract media attention, but it is worth remembering that major institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the International Energy Agency (IEA)—all of them unswervingly loyal to the corporate neoliberal agenda—have for some years been sounding the alarm about climate change and have urged, in fact demanded, bold action. As a result, the Paris Agreement included the goal of net zero emissions by 2060-2070. This is more or less consistent with what is required to control global warming. With still more emissions projected in the years ahead, it is virtually certain that the world will approach and perhaps exceed dangerous temperature thresholds. The adoption of net zero therefore reflects a consensus held by the majority of the world’s business and political elite that the situation is serious; the science needs to be acknowledged, and determined action at the global level is required.

The Paris Contradiction

The problem, however, is not a lack of consensus on the need to dramatically reduce emissions; it is, rather, the inability to actually act on the consensus that has already been achieved. To illustrate this, we need look no further than the Paris Agreement itself. It acknowledges the need for global warming to stay “well below 2 degrees Celsius” and states that efforts should be made to limit warming to 1.5°C. However, the “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) that lie at the heart of the agreement—even if they are fully achieved—will set the world on a pathway toward 2.7°C to 3.5°C of warming (and that assumes a comparable level of ambition after 2030). The 1.5°C threshold will therefore be breached long before the Agreement’s 2030 expiration date. Thus, the Agreement acknowledges the scientific reality and then institutionalizes “contributions” that are not even close to being consistent with that reality.

Instead of reducing emissions, the INDCs in the Paris Agreement will result in an increase in emissions—albeit at a slower rate than would be the case according to the “business-as-usual” scenario. The IEA notes, “There is no peak in sight for world energy-related CO2 emissions in the INDC Scenario: they are projected to be 8 percent higher than 2013 levels in 2030 while primary energy demand grows by around 20 percent.”1

The elite consensus around the net zero goal is solid enough, but when the discussion turns to considering how the target might be reached the consensus breaks down and differences emerge. Three perspectives can be distinguished. For convenience, these three can be labeled the “Gaia Capitalists,” the “Carbon Traders,” and the “Adaptationists.” Each of the three can tell us something different about the kind of responses that the system’s representatives are considering.

Go Gaia

The term Gaia Capitalism was apparently the creation of Richard Branson. Just prior to the Paris talks, the Branson-led B Team—adherents to “Plan B,” described as an ecologically focused alternative to “Plan A” profit-based ‘business as usual’—issued the call for net zero emissions by 2050. But the statements issued by the B Team and similar groups are largely devoid of details as to how this can be achieved. Branson’s group assures us that once governments turn the Paris commitment into national laws, it will, in Branson’s own words, “unleash new innovations, mobilize large-scale investment, and reshape consumer behavior, all of which will create new jobs and economic growth.”2

However, for the Gaia Capitalists, laws will not be enough. Reaching net zero will also require corporations to embrace a new ethic, one that combines ambition with altruism. The defining trait of the capitalist—making money—can be turned into a humanitarian act if CEOs can embrace a new set of values. The world needs a new form of capitalism—one that is not driven exclusively by concern for the bottom line.3 This new capitalism must recognize that the earth is one large living organism, and all life is connected. Before the Paris conference, the Plan B group issued an awkwardly phrased rallying cry to other corporate heads, one that urged them to embrace “people and planet . . . alongside profit.”

It is hard not to see this group as heirs to the paternalistic anti-union “welfare capitalists” of the early period of the twentieth century, among them John D. Rockefeller, George Pullman, and J. P. Morgan. As Naomi Klein reminds us, a decade ago Branson said he would commit $3 billion to green investments, of which less than 10 percent materialized (mostly in biofuels) and then dried up altogether.4 During the same period, Branson opened new airline companies and the aviation business is presently booming as a result of cheap oil.

Branson’s group attracts a level of media attention but, one or two exceptions aside, the companies identifying with this approach are not major players in the global economy. And in common with “green growthers” everywhere, the problem of decoupling economic growth from emissions is simply brushed aside.

Trader Woes

The most important camp of climate-concerned capitalists is the “Carbon Traders.” Carbon pricing lies at the heart of neoliberal climate policy—the “primary mitigation mechanism” according to the IMF and the World Bank, and think tanks like the Stern Commission.5

Carbon Traders (the Traders) represent a hard-nosed subset of investors and corporate CEOs, most of whom probably look at the narcissistic hubris of Branson’s “B team” with disdain and perhaps some embarrassment. For them, net zero is needed to preserve their assets and investments, but reaching the target will require governments to introduce a global price on carbon to drive and incentivize the low-carbon economy. Governments need to “take carbon out of competition.”

The Traders understand that capitalists primarily respond to the laws of capitalist competition. Singing from the Milton Friedman songbook, they take seriously the idea that the fiduciary responsibility of a corporation or bank is to provide a return on investment regardless of the social and ecological implications. As the Prince of Wales group candidly admitted, “The private sector invests trillions of dollars . . . but in most cases the goal of reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions does not guide such spending.”6 Therefore, “a clear, transparent, and unambiguous price on carbon emissions” is needed.7 Similarly, in February 2015, British Petroleum’s chief economist Spencer Dale described how, over the next twenty years, the use of oil and gas would grow 25 percent and, therefore, climate goals could not be reached. “Policy makers may wish to impose additional policies,” principal among them being a “meaningful global price for carbon.”8

The problem for the Traders—a problem they have thus far refused to acknowledge—is that carbon pricing has failed to have an impact on emissions and is going nowhere. The World Bank’s detailed assessment of carbon markets reported that, in 2015, only 12 percent of global GHGs were covered by a price. “A global average carbon price,” the Bank reminds us, “of between US$80 and US$120—per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e)— . . . would be consistent with the goal of limiting the global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.”9 The average carbon price is today around $10 per ton. So more than twenty years after the Kyoto Agreement established pricing carbon as the principal policy instrument for reducing emissions, still 88 percent of global GHGs are not covered by a price, and the price on the emissions that are covered is so low as to be completely useless. The World Bank cannot point to a single instance where carbon trading has had more than a barely measurable impact on emissions levels.

The prospects for carbon markets are poor. Corporations do not want to pay for their pollution because it cuts into the bottom line. Any anxieties with regard to the long-term viability of the system are almost invariably trumped by short-term competitiveness concerns of an individual company. Meanwhile, unloading the net zero responsibility on to governments allows corporations to continue more or less on a “business-as-usual” course. If the Traders were to face up the failure of carbon pricing, they would need to offer something different—the most obvious solution being decisive government interventions, ranging from heavy and restrictive regulations to all out social ownership of key economic sectors. But this would require an ideological shift away from neoliberal groupthink—and there are few signs that this is going to happen absent sustained pressure from social movements.

Adapting to the Future Normal

The “Adaptationists” resemble something of a secret society. And while few corporate heads will openly admit it, there is a growing belief that the net zero target will not be reached by 2060-2070. The INDCs submitted in Paris already reflect the distance between the scientific consensus and the declared intentions of governments, many of whom are mere mouthpieces for business interests. Net zero will require full decarbonization of the global economy in just four or five decades. At that point, any GHGs released—to generate electricity; make products; power cars, trucks, ships, and airplanes; heat and cool buildings; raise and slaughter billions of animals, and so forth— must somehow be offset or “neutralized.” In the case of CO2 , this can be done by enhancing photosynthesis through reforestation and expanding the amount of vegetation on the surface of the planet. However, at present, some forty-six to fifty-eight thousand square miles of forest are lost each year—equivalent to fortyeight football fields every minute.10 Currently, the global economy emits roughly fifty-seven billion tons of CO2 per year; almost twice the annual emissions levels of the mid-1990s.11 Emissions from fossil fuel use have risen a staggering 61 percent since 1990 and will continue to rise, albeit more slowly.12 Furthermore, the global economy is expected to be three times larger in 2050 than it is today.13

Aware of these realities, the Adaptationists have concluded that the chances of reaching net zero amounts to, well, practically zero. And rather than adopt a politically dangerous or untenable target that could become a lightening rod for discontented radicals, they are trying to shift the policy focus toward dealing with the effects of warming, and the need for building resiliency. This perspective is presently expressing itself via important pro-corporate think tanks—perhaps a clear sign that CEOs are also thinking in similar terms. According to the World Economic Forum,

Advocating for greater attention to be paid to adaptation is controversial in some quarters as it is interpreted as a tacit admission that mitigation efforts are no longer worth pursuing. However, the less effective mitigation efforts are, the more pronounced adaptation challenges will become.14

Using stronger language, in a 2013 report titled Too Late for Two Degrees? the pro-corporate PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) noted, “This year (2013) we estimated that the required improvement in global carbon intensity to meet a 2 degrees warming target has risen to 5.1 percent a year, (every year) from now to 2050.” Governments’ ambitions to limit warming to 2°C, it noted, therefore “appear highly unrealistic.” The PwC report concluded, “businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a warming world—not just 2°C, but 4°C, or even 6°C.”15 Such levels of warming are, in the words of one of the world’s leading climate scientists, Kevin Anderson, “incompatible with an organized global community.”16

How we can actually plan for global chaos remains something of a mystery—but the key message of the Adaptationists is valid. PwC’s report makes this point: “The only way to avoid the pessimistic scenarios will be radical transformations in the ways the global economy currently functions.”17 Such radical transformations would threaten the system itself—which is a political “no-no.” Therefore, we need to suck it up and hope for the best.

Capital’s Conundrum and Climate Justice

These differences of approach among the global corporate elite are unlikely to lead to open conflict, at least not yet. But it is already clear that none of these perspectives warrant the support of labor and other social movements. The Paris Agreement expresses the distance between what the science says is needed and the “best we can do” reality offered by those who work within the ideological and systemic confines of competition and accumulation.

To get even close to net zero in the time agreed will require dramatic changes in the global political economy. The capitalist paradigm of extraction, accumulation, and consumption, wrapped up in the ideology of growth, is incompatible with true ecological sustainability or a stable climate.

For labor, climate justice, and other social movements, capital’s climate conundrum is an opportunity. We need to continue to develop our own proposals to pursue radical emissions reductions by way of deep restructuring of the global political economy; to reassert the need for extending democratic control, advancing “public goods” approaches to essential needs and services; and to implement a just transition based on mass popular participation in key economic decisions.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.



  1. International Energy Agency (IEA), “World Energy Outlook 2015 Special Report on Energy and Climate Change” (Paris: International Energy Agency, 2015), available at http:// www.worldenergyoutlook.org. The IEA also reported that the Paris Agreement would see electricity generation from coal grow by 24 percent by 2040, available at http://www. worldcoal.org/signing-ceremony-paris-agreement-what%E2%80%99s-next.
  2. https://www.virgin.com/richard-branson/ climate-opportunity-paris.
  3. People and planet alongside profit available at http://bteam.org/the-b-team/watch-the-b-teamdeclaration/Branson in Guardian, http://www .theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/06/ paris-climate-change-summit-richard-branson? CMP=twt_a-environment_b-gdneco.
  4. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/ 2014/ sep/13/greenwashing-sticky-business-naomiklein.
  5. For example, see May 29, 2015, letter to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat and the COP21 Presidency, available at http://s08 .static-shell.com/content/dam/shell-new/local/ corporate/corporate/downloads/pdf/media/ speeches/2015/letter-to-unfccc.pdf.
  6. Carbon Price Communiqué (first issued 2012). Statement available at http://www.climatecommuniques.com/Carbon-Price.aspx.
  7. Ibid.
  8. 2015 BP Energy Outlook 2035 (published February 26, 2015). Presentation by BP Chief Economist Spencer Dale energy trends, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fy PBww4o_Do.
  9. World Bank, State and Trends, page 23. How much more the price would need to be to limit warming to “well below 2°C” or even 1.5°C per the Paris Agreement has still to be calculated, but perhaps $150 per ton seems a fair estimate.
  10. https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/ deforestation.
  11. http://www.globalcarbonproject.org/carbonbudget/15/files/GCP_budget_2015_v1.02.pdf.
  12. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “IPCC Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report,” available at https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/SYR_AR5_FINAL_full .pdf.
  13. http://www.pwc.com/gx/en/issues/the-economy/assets/world-in-2050-february-2015.pdf.
  14. http://reports.weforum.org/global-risks-2013/ risk-case-1/testing-economic-and-environmental -resilience/#view/fn-10.
  15. https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature =player_embedded&v=ct6cJc G5o1M.
  16. http://www.slideshare.net/DFID/professorkevin-anderson-climate-change-going-beyonddangerous.
  17. http://www.slideshare.net/DFID/professorkevin-anderson-climate-change-going-beyonddangerous.

Organizing in a Brave New World

Austerity, growing inequality, and the economic and political domination of billionaires, bankers, hedge funds, and giant corporations make the current moment ripe for birthing a movement that can radically transform the country and the world. This is a time of great peril, but also of extraordinary opportunity and—yes—reasons for hope. The last four decades have been characterized by unrelenting attacks on the working class, the weakening of unions and the financialization of capitalism.

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Feeling the Bern: An Analysis of the Sanders Phenomenon

When Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy for president, his assertion that he was in this to win seemed like maybe the kind of statement a candidate feels he has to make. If you followed this sort of thing, a more modest and reasonable hope seemed to be that he’d at least fare better than Dennis Kucinich, the last candidate of the left to attempt a significant candidacy, in 2004 and 2008. As a U.S. Senator, self-identified socialist, and the longest serving independent member of Congress, Sanders hopefully could...

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The Subprime Specter Returns: High Finance and the Growth of High-Risk Consumer Debt

Recognizing the risks to the public, regulators have begun to step in to curtail abuses and hold accountable those who violate the law in lending practices that affect all borrowers, including those with subprime credit scores. While default rates remain relatively low thus far with these subprime loans, we should guard against complacency. Despite the fact that large banks may be pulling back...

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The Fissuring of the Republican Party: A Road Map to Political Chaos

Donald Trump took his own stab at idiocy by reading out Graham’s phone number, encouraging his audience to “try it.” Trump’s antics came in response to Graham’s own a day before when in an effort to defend his friend John McCain, another of the billionaire’s targets, he called the rich politico the “world’s biggest jackass.” The contest intensified in September after GOP polls...

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Indentured Studenthood: The Higher Education Act and the Burden of Student Debt

Promising to do something about student debt has become the means for politicians to pretend they are doing something for the 99 percent. That was true even before the 2016 election campaign really got underway. Obama, after all, promised two free years of community college in his 2015 State of the Union address. That idea, like so many others from Republicans and Democrats, did not go anywhere, even though the most recent re-authorization of the 1965 Higher Education Act (HEA) expired in 2013. However, inaction is not just a symptom of Washington gridlock. The reality is that paying for college is a confounding, sprawling sector of the economy involving loans, grants, scholarships, and tax credits.

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