to stop global warming, seize the means of production?
In today’s Gilded Age with global warming, advocacy for socialism is on the rise, framed as a requirement to save our planet. But the idea that socialism can save us from ourselves has been tried before. It ended badly.
Outspoken critics of capitalism seldom had a more target rich environment in which to air their grievances. From modern day robber barons unable to understand that robbing the public blind isn’t a sustainable business model, to rampant automation without retraining fueling populism and xenophobia, to employees being quite literally driven into an early grave with workaholism for the sake of workaholism, to the damage to our environment done in the name of greed. And taking all these issues one step further, writer Phil McDuff is advocating for ending capitalism as a necessity in tackling global warming seriously, insisting that throwing everything at reversing climate change is the only way we’re going to survive as a species and if the capitalist model is not destroyed in the process, it will just prevent us from making the changes we need.
But there’s a problem with his thesis. If we ignore the issues posed by switching to the kind of modern digital communism being advocated by socialists today, change our economic systems overnight, and stop worrying about GDP growth and what’s happening on stock exchanges, we will still have factories, power plants, cars, and industrial farms belching greenhouse gases into the air. We’ll still have plastics and other forms of pollution that contribute to the destruction of entire ecosystems and even affect our ability to reproduce. None of that will go away anytime soon either, even if we ended up with a tyrannical one world government dedicated to turning the Earth into a clean, green utopia at any cost and silenced every remaining critic in a scenario straight out of right wing pundits’ worst nightmares.
New technologies still have to be tested and deployed, old capacity has to be gradually wound down without leaving us with massive food shortages or constant blackouts as we rewire the grid. While it’s true that climate change left to run its course without any slowdown in emissions or changes to what we’re doing will kill more than 500,000 people a year by the 2030s, famines and haphazard, on the fly rebuild of our agricultural, energy, and transportation infrastructures could easily kill millions. Just look at what happened when Stalin overhauled the Soviet Union into a major industrial superpower over the course of a decade, or when Mao attempted a very similar feat in China with his Great Leap Forward. And make no mistake, a socialist government on a quest to stop global warming by any means necessary will be doing the same things.
We can absolutely argue that we place far too much emphasis on measuring the wrong metrics when it comes to the economy and government motivations. How quickly the GDP is growing is probably not the most important thing in the world, especially when you consider the degree of income inequality and how it mutes the benefits of an economy declared booming to so much of the electorate. We can also argue that capitalism today doesn’t have the right set of incentives thanks to corruption and unchecked greed. But corruption exists in socialist systems as well and it too may find that fighting global warming shouldn’t be its number one priority over pilfering the coffers of corporations it’s nationalizing and going crazy with the money while settling personal scores, much like Venezuela did during the Chávez regime.
Here’s the bottom line. Changing one runaway ism for another isn’t going to save us. If anything, it’s probably going to hurt. Fixing global warming is a complicated task, and while it’s tempting to think there’s a magical solution around the corner, we’re only doing a disservice to ourselves by pretending that could be true and advocating knee-jerk responses to it. We need to ensure that we have leaders who actually care about making the world a better place, something we sorely lack today. That in and of itself would do more to fix the problem than anything else because those leaders could create the right incentives for government labs and corporations to tackle global warming and climate change without resorting to recreating the Soviet Union 2.0 with a dream that this time, it will finally turn the world into a worker’s paradise.