It is in vogue nowadays to describe the multifaceted and intertwined crises of capitalism without referring to capitalism itself. Obscure jargon of ‘overlapping emergencies’ and ‘polycrisis’ are brought up to describe the complexity of the situation, and they serve, with or without intention, to conceal the culprit, namely the totality of capitalist relations. This short piece discusses the content, function, and limits of these evasive practices with concrete examples.
A Hodgepodge of Risks
“A polycrisis is not just a situation where you face multiple crises” writes Adam Tooze, it is rather a situation “where the whole is even more dangerous than the sum of the parts” (Tooze 2022a). Even at first sight, he is able to count seven radical challenges on the radar, including Covid, inflation, recession, hunger crisis, climate crisis, nuclear escalation, and a ‘Trumpite’ Republican Party storming back to power.
Former long-time Harvard President, Larry Summers celebrates the term polycrisis for its capacity to capture the many aspects at stake, and adds: “I can remember previous moments of equal or even greater gravity for the world economy, but I cannot remember moments when there were as many separate aspects and as many cross-currents as there are right now” (Summers 2022). Make no mistake, the approval comes from a life-time mouthpiece of the establishment, foe of the working classes and the oppressed, frank enough toargue as the then Chief Economist of the World Bank that “the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable”.
In Tooze’s view, in the 1970s, too much or too little growth, or late capitalism could be shown as the ultimate source of the problems at hand depending on one’s political position. What makes the current moment distinctive is the fact that “it no longer seems plausible to point to a single cause” (Tooze 2022b). He is thus quite explicit that one should avoid the use of grand narratives, or, in line with that, the designation of the capitalist mode of production as the root cause of the radical challenges upon us.
Following the resolution introduced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, the term Green New Deal (GND) has become the gravitational center of climate action debates. On the one hand, conservatives, as well as some leftist circles, designate the AOC-Markey resolution as “socialist”. On the other hand, the term GND was first made public by Thomas Friedman in his NY Times column as a capitalistic and patriotic project which serves as “the basis of a new unifying political movement for the 21st century” (p.4). It comes as no surprise that so much political confusion accrues around the concept of a GND.
Max Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal is the best leftist response I have read to the discussions whirling around this notion. It is clear-minded and well written. Politically, it constructs a consistent, uncompromising, anti-imperialist vision, well aware of the fact that tamed horizons are easily coopted and rearticulated by the ruling classes thanks to the elasticity of capital accumulation. Theoretically, its foundations are found in the “inherently polarizing” frameworks of dependency theory, world-system analysis, and (environmentally) unequal exchange (p.14).
Ajl evaluates GND proposals not only on the basis of targeted changes in physical production, but also in terms of their systemic implications. Some GNDs aim to preserve or strengthen capitalism, while others are designed to attack or abolish it (p.3). Correspondingly, the book is divided into two parts. The first one is concerned with what Ajl calls Capitalist Green Transitions (p.16) or “ruling class agendas” (p.20), while the second part sketches his vision of a People’s Green New Deal.
The 2018 Bank of Sweden Prize (falsely known as the Economics Nobel Prize) winner William Nordhaus opens the revised version of his Prize lecture as follows: “I begin with the fundamental problem posed by climate change – that is a public good or externality. Such activities are ones whose costs or benefits will spill outside the market and are not captured in market prices.”
The concept of externalities is a catch-all term, or, an empty box to capture the so-called spillover effects. Under the presumption that the market mechanism brings about the efficient allocation of resources, mainstream economic theory as well as many of its heterodox critiques argue for internalizing these spillovers by determining their costs (or benefits) and including it in the price of the commodity. In other words, the spillover effect itself must be turned into a commodity so that the market can efficiently handle it through the price mechanism.
Insofar as human-induced global warming has not been priced, so the story goes, it is an externality. In fact, it is today “the most significant of all environmental externalities” even in Nordhaus’ wisdom. Make no mistake – Nordhaus fiercely advocated inaction for over three decades, and portrayed projected levels of global warming, which are defined as devastating, or even catastrophic by scientists, as optimal.
The newest book by Giorgos Kallis, one of the most prolific degrowth advocates is entitled Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care. It is a short and accessible read which contains some important and unconventional arguments. In what follows, I will first briefly summarize the core arguments of the book, which promises to provoke important discussions on the matter of limits and subjects. Then I will reflect on the fuzziness of the primarily cultural conceptualization of capitalism, and argue that neither self-limitation nor degrowth qualifies as a mode of production, such that they could constitute an alternative to capitalism.Read More »
The Green New Deal resolution by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey sparked an immense amount of discussion on all layers of political discourse, national and international. The way Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders and many others phrase the problem in the broader context of social, economic, and environmental grievances caused by capitalism is crucial for setting the terms of debate and struggle. This opens up space the left can use to address such issues in a systematic way rather than being content with symptomal healing. In fact, countlesscontributionshavealreadybeenmadeon theoretical and tactical grounds. In this piece, we build on those contributions, and unpack the dynamics inherent to the capitalist system that would need to be addressed in the ongoing discussions. We also shed light on the limitations of a market-based and growth-centered approach to tackling climate destabilization, while offering other domains of political intervention such as property relations and demarketization of subsistence.Read More »