A lot has been written, including by myself, on why capitalism, by its very nature, cannot tackle or stop climate change. The purpose of this article is not to repeat those arguments but to make the positive case for socialism as necessary to deal with this existential crisis for humanity.
By socialism I mean simply the combination of two things: public ownership and democratic control of production and society.
By public ownership I mean not the elimination of personal private property or the nationalisation of every small business and corner shop but of the main banks, corporations, industries, services and utilities. For example public ownership of bus and transport networks, of the health service, of one main state bank and one main state insurance company, of social housing, of waste management, of water, electricity, gas, wind and solar power production and so on.
By democratic control I mean that each major workplace – each hospital, factory, train station, school, university, construction company etc – should be run by the elected and recallable presentatives of its workforce, within the context of a democratic plan for the economy and society as a whole. That would need to be proposed by government based on and accountable to democratically elected popular assemblies.
Without large scale public ownership, capitalism and the laws of the capitalist market will continue to dominate and this will have disastrous consequences for the environment as it has done already. Without democratic control you have not socialism but state capitalism with a new ruling class of state bureaucrats which, as has been seen in Stalinist Russia and in China, also has terrible ecological consequences because it subordinates the needs of the people and nature to accumulation for accumulation’s sake in competition with other states.
Only through socialism will it be possible to generate both the political will at the top and the genuine popular support and collaboration to achieve the immense coordinated transformation of the national and international economy necessary in the current emergency. Only public ownership and democratic planning can coordinate the establishment and expansion of free public transport, the urgent transition to renewal energy, the mass retrofitting of homes and a vast programme of aforestation and rewilding.
Most of the climate and environmental movement support the idea of a just transition but only socialism with its commitment to ending class privilege and inequality can actually deliver this. In any society where there are billionaires alongside homeless people, and immense divisions between rich countries and poor countries as a result of imperialism and globalised capitalism all attempts at transition to ending carbon emissions , even where they are made, will inevitably be structured and blighted by this inequality. The rich will look to protect themselves and their life styles in gated communities in the uplands while trying to shift the burden of paying for the transition onto ordinary people.
Take the example of transport. If, as is absolutely essential, we get people out of the private car and onto free public transport, what will be the consequences of this? Under capitalism it will mean the bosses of the giant auto companies (Volkswagen, Toyota, General Motors etc) will see which way the wind is blowing, loot their own companies and put the proceeds in their Swiss bank accounts , while throwing their hundreds of thousands of workers on the scrap heap. Under socialism the auto industry CEOs and big shareholders could be relieved of their ill-gotten gains while the rundown of the industry is managed in a way that retrains and re-employs the workers in socially useful work eg building wind turbines. The same applies to flying. If air travel were to be reduced, as it must be to save the planet[i], under capitalism this would most likely be done by a price mechanism so that executives would continue to jet round the world to their conferences while ordinary people had to give their holidays to Spain and the Greek Islands . That in turn would mean redundancy for airline workers and crisis in the Spanish and Greek tourist industry. Again only socialist planning could solve this.
And it would be the same for the utterly
deadly coal industry. When Margaret Thatcher destroyed the British coal
industry in 1984-5 she did it for entirely capitalist ‘economic’ reasons – there wasn’t an ounce of environmentalism
in it – but the effect on mining communities and villages was devastating; many
have still not recovered. Avoiding such communal destruction requires socialist
[i] There are currently no signs of this happening – witness the expansion of Heathrow Airport