The Communist University in South London (CUiSL) is sponsored by the Croydon Branch of the Communist Party and meets on the third Thursday of every month (August and December excepted) at Ruskin House, Croydon. In these classes and workshops we study and discuss Marxism, science, history and contemporary political issues. It is open to everyone, charges no fees, does not seek to indoctrinate, attempts learning though discussion and debate, not from lectures by ‘experts’, and has the confidence to adopt the slogan
In recent years CUiSL has met to discuss and study a multiplicity of topics including those addressed in this paper. This paper is an attempt to reconcile and summarise these discussions where they deal with, or are related to, global warming. Many of the books cited have been read and studied by students and discussed in classes – with differing views expressed on many of them. As one would expect from such a process, this paper is very much a discussion document. Just as we have learned from each other in preparing it, we hope that our paper will stimulate others to do likewise and that the process whereby we learn from each other will continue. The proposal for a six point strategy which concluded the paper carries no authority; it is simply the result of our own examination and analysis
Our paper addresses the implication of anthropogenic global warming, that is global warming caused by greenhouse gasses and in particular CO2 emissions arising from our consumption of fossil fuels (Footnote 1). It is not a review of the scientific evidence for global warming- we hold this to be incontrovertible. The reader who accesses the many sources of reliable information, including the expert reports to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IGPCC), can confirm this and should have little difficulty in distinguishing between such scientific evidence and the lies and propaganda promulgated by the oil industry or disseminated by the most misanthropic defenders of capitalism, whether they be global warming sceptics or climate change deniers. A reliable and succinct summary of current information is provided in Climate Change – a very short introduction by Mark Maslin (2014). Maslin’s book also provides a good summary of the current achievements (such as they are) and future commitments of governments to counter global warming.
This paper is not a study of every form of environmental harm caused by capitalism in its ruthless pursuit of profit. This harm includes, but is not confined to: industrial pollution; soil exhaustion; nitrate run-off; ocean contamination by plastics; land misuse (Footnote 2); mass extinctions; and unsustainability. While the global connectivity of our environment, brought home with such force in 1985 by the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer caused by CFCs, cannot be denied, the threat posed by global warming is qualitatively different from other threats to the environment, not only because of the scale of the potential damage but because 21st Century capitalism, we conclude, is incapable of addressing it: the profits that fossil fuels generate are simply to irresistible to a profit driven system.
Neither is this paper a review of Marx and Engels’ thinking on the relationship between humanity and nature. This is a deep philosophical issue, not without practical implications, but the reader wishing to investigate this must look elsewhere, for example in Ecology and Historical Materialism by Jonathan Hughes (2000) and Marx and the Earth: an anti-critique by Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster (2017).
1. The Discovery of Global Warming
As Ian Angus pointed out in A Redder Shade of Green (2017), Marx and Engels were both avid followers of scientific discoveries. Marx was, however, unaware of the discovery of global warming which occurred after his ‘discovery’, as Engels put it in his Graveside Oration (1883), of Historical Materialism and the Marxist Labour Theory of Value. It was not until 1886 that the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius theorised that human activity was substantially warming the Earth by adding CO2 to the atmosphere. Marx would undoubtedly have studied the implications of Arrhenius’ theory had he known of it and, when confirmed, he would hardly have ignored it in developing his political economy. There appears, however, to have been little attempt by Marxist theorists to apply either Historical Materialism or the Marxist Labour Theory of Value to global warming. We seek to address this in this paper.
Arrhenius’ theory was largely ignored at the time as it was then believed that the oceans had sufficient capacity to absorb all the CO2 that industry could produce. It was not until the 1950s that improved measurement techniques confirmed that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere was indeed rising at an alarming rate (Footnote 3). It was subsequently discovered that the global mean temperature had been increasing since the mid-1970s (Footnote 4). Finally, in 1987 the Antarctic Vostok ice-core samples essentially validated the relationship proposed by Arrhenius by revealing the correlation of CO2 levels and global temperature over hundreds of thousands of years (Footnote 5).
An important factor in the growing awareness of global warming and its implications has been the exponential growth in computing power, enabling climate modelling to make huge advances since the mid-1980s. The latest generation of models can accommodate ocean and atmosphere dynamics, atmospheric chemistry, clouds, aerosol processes and the carbon cycle. The greatest uncertainty in the predictions of these models now arises not from deficiencies in the models themselves but from the assumptions made about future levels of CO2 emissions. Contrary to what the climate change deniers would have you believe, global warming is now a subject for political economy rather than scientific controversy.
Climate modelling can also indicate the time over which average global temperature will rise as well as the magnitude of these rises. Until the 1980s it had been assumed that significant large scale global and regional climate change occurred slowly over many centuries or even millennia. The improved models, supported by evidence from the geological record, now indicate that catastrophic change can happen in much shorter time spans – in decades or even less (Footnote 6). Associated with this new recognition is an appreciation that there are potential tipping points that can accelerate otherwise gradual temperature rises.
CO2 levels have recently breached the 410 parts per million and continue to climb at a rate of over 2 ppm per year. If this trend continues models predict that, even without tipping points being reached, average global temperature could rise by 20C in less than 25 years. Possible consequences include:
- greater instability in the global climate, resulting in more extreme weather events including droughts and storms;
- the Greenland and/or Antarctic ice sheets melting and raising sea levels by many metres, flooding coastal areas wherein most urban centres are located;
- increased acidification of the oceans;
- the Gulf Stream shutting down, producing extreme weather in Northern Europe;
- drought conditions and the likelihood that these will provoke ‘water wars’; and
- famine in and mass migration from the worst affected areas.
All these calamities could arise within the lifetime of readers of this paper or their children, and seem certain to affect the grandchildren, born and unborn, of those reading this paper. There is also a risk of a tipping point being reached which would accelerate climate change. Methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, could, for example, be released from gas hydrates beneath the oceans and permafrost, threatening the habitability of the world. As Mark Lynas pointed out in Six Degrees – our future on a hotter planet (2008), we don’t really know what a world that is six degrees warmer – a level predicted by 2100 in some models if the growth in CO2 emissions is not halted – would be like, but the geological evidence from, for example, the Permian-Triassic boundary suggests that it could trigger an apocalyptic super-greenhouse effect and the destruction of most life on the planet. Our sister planet, Venus, which may have started with an atmosphere and oceans not dissimilar to our own7, underwent just such a runaway greenhouse effect. Its oceans boiled away and its surface temperature now exceeds 400 degrees C – sufficient to melt lead. James Hansen refers to this as the “Venus Syndrome”.
While computer models enable us to predict future global temperatures, they tell us nothing about how combatting them – or failing to do so – will affect social structures.
2. The Response of Capitalism to Global Warming
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up under the auspices of the UN in 1988 at the request of member governments to provide an objective, scientific view of climate change and its political and economic impacts. It does not carry out its own research or directly monitor climate change, basing its assessments on published literature. Its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) was completed in 2014 and concluded that, without new policies, projections suggest an increase in global mean temperature in 2100 of 3.7 to 4.8 degrees C relative to pre-industrial levels. The scientific evidence in the light of which this conclusion was reached is summarised in the Working Group 1 Contribution (2013).
An objective assessment of this evidence leads us to share the conclusion previously reached by James Hansen in Storms of my Grandchildren (2009):
If we burn all reserves of oil, gas and coal, there is a substantial chance we will initiate the runaway greenhouse [effect]. If we also burn the tar sands and tar shale, I believe the Venus syndrome is a dead certainty.
Capitalist Governments’ primary response was not, however, to rein in their coal and oil industries. It was to initiate protracted negotiations in the UN. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was formed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 with the aim of negotiating a worldwide agreement for reducing greenhouse gasses and limiting the impact of climate change. After many ups and downs, with the USA opposing binding targets and thereby discouraging China, India and other rapidly developing counties from doing so, UNFCCC culminated in December 2016 in the Paris Agreement, COP21. As of June 2018, 195 UNFCCC members, including the USA and China, signed the agreement, and a further 178 nations have become party to it. The Agreement adopts a long-term goal of keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels; and to aim to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees C. If achieved, this would significantly reduce the risks attached to the increase in global temperature, but the prospects of doing so do not look good. Under the agreement, each country determines its own plans to mitigate global warming and then reports these to the UN. While each new target must go beyond the previous one, there is no requirement to set specific targets by specific dates. Signatories can also withdraw their agreement. In June 2017, President Donald Trump announced his intention of withdrawing the USA (Footnote 9).
The Paris Agreement is already be out of date. According to a Policy Brief from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research in June 2018 even if the carbon emission reductions called for in the Paris Agreement are met, there is a risk of the planet entering “Hothouse Earth” conditions with a global average of 4-5 degrees C higher than pre-industrial temperatures with sea level 10-60 m higher than today.
Other largely cosmetic solutions have been initiated by capitalist nations such as the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme. This covers the EU, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein with eleven thousand installations responsible for 40% of the EU’s CO2 emissions. It is a so-called ‘cap and trade’ system whereby a cap is set for each participating country and, if this is exceeded, the installation must purchase unused allowances from others who have not exceeded the cap. The allowances for the seven years to 2020 would represent a 21% reduction in greenhouse gasses since 2005. The extent to which this ‘saving’ is real is, however, questionable. The principle of issuing free allowances to CO2 emitters benefits only capital; and ignoring emerging industries fundamentally weakens the scheme. An attempt in 2012 to extend the EU’s carbon trading scheme to aviation failed completely. Despite the disproportionate effect that burning fossil fuels in the upper atmosphere has on global warming, capitalism has no interest in curbing this particular source of CO2 emission.
Carbon trading is perhaps the only way in which capitalism could address global warming, but it would require a cap-and-dividend version of the system as advocated by James Hansen (2009). Under this system a rising ‘fee’ or tax on carbon would be set at a rapidly escalating rate so as to render carbon-free and carbon-saving technologies cheaper than fossil fuels in a short number of years. To make this electorally possible under liberal democracy, the fee/tax would be distributed to citizens equally, enabling them to pay the resulting higher energy prices and rendering the system tax neutral – and therefore appealing to voters. The fee/tax would be levied at the well/or mine head or when the fossil fuel was imported. It would have to apply to the carbon content in imported manufactured commodities from countries without a comparable cap-and-dividend system of their own. There would be no privileged exemptions, for example for aviation fuel. Given its redistributional implications and the threat it poses for the oil and gas industry, it is, of course, deeply unattractive to capitalism.
In the UK the government set up in 2008 the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) which recommended that the UK adopt a long-term target to reduce emissions of all greenhouse gases by at least 80% by 2050. In line with this recommendation the Government set a target of a 34% cut in carbon emissions by 2020. In December 2010 the Committee recommended that the Government should aim to cut emissions by at least 60% by 2030 to ensure that the UK is on track to meet this 2050 target. This is a demanding target, but how seriously it is being taken is another matter. The independence and competence of the CCC (Footnote 10) has been brought into question by its failure to object to the government’s decision to push ahead with fracking and its decision in June 2018, endorsed by the CCC on the most flimsy of grounds, to expand Heathrow Airport. This decision was defended on 26 June by the Transport Minister on the grounds of supposed future efficiency gains11, but as David J C MacKay demonstrated in his book, Sustainable Energy – Without Hot Air, after more than one hundred years of flying there are no more significant efficiency gains to be extracted from aircraft. If Heathrow expansion goes ahead, aviation will, on current projections, account for 50% of our carbon target for carbon emissions by 2050. This starkly reveals not only the feebleness of the UK government’s response but also the class nature of this strategy. If the national target is met, 50% of our hydrocarbons consumption by 2050 will be consumed by the affluent 1% making multiple leisure and (supposed) “business” flights (Footnote 12).
David Cameron once infamously boasted that his Tory-Lib Dem coalition government was the “greenest government ever”. On global warming his and subsequent Tory governments have been big on gestures and small on action. Typical of the cosmetic gestures they have made were the promised ban on new petrol and diesel cars by 2040 – falling short of even France’s commitment to ban all petrol and diesel cars by then – while having no plans to generate electricity for electric cars other than by fossil fuels (Footnote 13). In the UK, with its ravaged manufacturing sector, the key to reducing emissions is transport. According to the Department of Transport Road Use Statistics (2016), cars account for almost two thirds of road transport greenhouse gas emissions; and those in the highest income group travel twice as far than those in the lowest. What is needed is an integrated, low carbon public transport system, but since the Transport Act 1985 and the privatisation of British Rail, UK governments, Labour and Tory, have been moving in the opposite direction, cutting bus subsidies and refusing to cancel the franchises of operationally failing but highly profitable train operators.
3. Why have the responses of capitalism been so weak?
In the Communist Manifesto (1848) Marx and Engels characterised the executive government of the then modern state as nothing more than a “committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”, i.e. the owners of capital. Despite subsequent developments in capitalism, this portrayal remains essentially correct. Under the subsequently developed state monopoly capital model described by Binus, Landefeld and Wehr (2017), the capitalist state, as an “instrument of the ruling class”, has to secure the conditions for the reproduction of capital and preserve the strategic interests, both internally and externally, of the relevant monopolies whose growing power it makes possible and promotes. This helps explain the weak response to global warming. Modern capitalism is dependent on oil, and the accumulation of capital has become dependent on its extraction and consumption.
There is only one policy that can address global warming – leave hydrocarbons (oil and coal) in the ground. No capitalist government is prepared to even contemplate this.
If catastrophic climate change threatens the conditions for the reproduction of capital, why don’t capitalist governments take the threat more seriously? One explanation is provided by the way in which capitalists make investment decisions. As explained in the next section, capital grows through the exploitation of labour and the generation of surplus value which then appears as profit. Capitalists are, however, concerned only with capital’s exchange value, i.e. its market price, and they make investment decision with a view to maximising this. Their objective is to maximise the money value of their capital today, M0, when this depends only on the present, certainty equivalent value of anticipated, uncertain future revenues from the investment, discounted at the risk free rate of interest (Footnote 14). This can be expressed in the form of Equation 1 below:
Ci is the expected income in year i;
P i is the probability that this income will actually be so generated, where P=1 means absolute certainty and P=0 means complete improbability;
n is the number of years over which the investment will generate income; and
r is the risk free interest rate.
Equation 1 reflects the net present value methodology which is fundamental to and embedded in market-based economies (Footnote 15). It is taught with great sophistication in business schools (Footnote 16) and treated as simple common sense by those engaged in business. It is central to the capitalist world view. Furthermore, as it’s seen as a rationale for market prices themselves, it helps explains why the governments of capitalist nations are so obsessed with markets and marketization. As a criterion for society’s decision making it has, however, severe limitations. In particular, it takes no account of inter-generational responsibility – it is solely concerned with maximising today’s wealth, not that at the disposal of future generations. For example, assuming a risk free interest rate of 3%, it equates a benefit, or a cost, of £100 in 50 years with one of only £23 today. Furthermore, it treats risk and probability as if they were a linear property of welfare. Thus a certain sum of £100 (i.e. P=1) is treated as equivalent to £1,000 with a probability of 10% . Yet it is such long term prospects and high degrees of uncertainty that arise with global warming. Thus net present value methodology provides one explanation for why the responses of capitalist governments have been so weak and why a stronger response would be forthcoming from communist governments that would assume responsibility for the welfare of future generations of workers, not just the present generation. While markets and net present value methodology may play a limited role under market socialism, allocating resources in the short term between competing needs and helping to address distribution problems for consumer products, they have no role to play in strategic decisions with inter-generational implications such as the response to global warming.
Another possible explanation for the weak response of capitalist governments is a naïve belief that a geoengineering ‘fix’ will be discovered that will re-balance the planet’s thermal equilibrium while we continue to burn of fossil fuels. Such fixes are not impossible but they would be extremely expensive and inherently unstable. For example, Ian S F Jones (2011)estimates the annual cost of injecting sufficient aerosol into the stratosphere at $25 billion per annum and low level aerosol (i.e. clouds) containing seawater droplets at a bargain $1.5 billion per annum. While this might be less damaging to capitalist s’ profits than leaving fossil fuel in the ground, it would be inherently unstable. If the programme halted for any reason, rapid and catastrophic temperature increase would quickly ensue. The only geoengineering fix providing a measure of stability to the global climate would be extracting CO2 from the atmosphere on an industrial scale. According to Lackner, Grimes and Ziock (2001) such technology might actually be feasible. It would, however, require huge social investment and would be highly susceptible to the free riding inclinations of competing capitalists. It is difficult to see how it could be implemented under capitalism.
A final, possible explanation for the weak response of capitalist governments is more chilling. As Peter Frase argued in Four Futures – Life After Capitalism (2016) the super-rich, the owners of big capital, might believe that they could survive quite well in a significantly warmer world where advances in technology rendered a global working class of 8 billion unnecessary to their prosperity.
The pressure exerted by electorates in representative democracies can explain why at least some modest action is being taken by the governments of capitalist countries. This pressure is, however, limited. It is difficult for green parties to make electoral advances in two-party liberal democracies dominated by a business party and a social democratic or other supposedly progressive party; and, even when they achieve some electoral success, as in Germany, the pressures of coalition government can dilute their best intentions. Social democratic parties, on the other hand, assuming they have not been captured, as was New Labour, by capital, have other more immediate priorities such as combatting growing inequality and attacks on social services which they see as more pressing and more likely to win them votes.
The dominant social structure in the world is capitalism. Only China currently holds out any prospect of building a significantly different form of society (Footnote 17); and it remains in an awkward position relative to the developed capitalist countries when responding to global warming. In international negotiations on emissions it has generally aligned itself with developing countries. Since 2007 it has become the largest emitter of CO2, overtaking the USA, but on a per capita basis its emissions are four times lower than those of the USA and by 2007 had contributed only 9% of the anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere ((28.8% USA, 5.8% UK). It is, however, fast catching up (Footnote 18).
Speaking in June 2014 at the sixth meeting of the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs, Xi Jinping identified five priorities for China’s energy policy:
- control and rationalise energy use;
- ensure energy security with diversified supply;
- develop energy technology and upgrade the related industrial structure, pursuing green and low-carbon energy development;
- restore energy’s status as a commodity by employing a system of workable competition with prices largely driven by the market; and
- while relying mainly on domestic energy sources, make effective use of resources secured with international co-operation from other countries.
If the order of this list reflects priorities, it appears that energy security still dominates Chinese thinking. Furthermore, the speech committed China to continued building of large coal-fuelled generating “power bases”, each with a capacity of ten million kw. On a more positive note, however, and subsequent to this speech, China signed up to the Paris Agreement. As Rob Griffiths (2018) advises, socialists and communists outside China need to study events there rigorously and refrain from rushing to offer gratuitous advice. While he was referring to advice on making revolution and building socialism, this advice could equally apply to global warming.
5. Global warming and the class struggle
Marx and Engels opened the Communist Manifesto with the statement that
the history of all hitherto existing society (Footnote 19) is the history of class struggle…that each time ended in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.
Yet the threat of global warming is not widely seen, even by socialists, as being part of the class struggle. If one believed the capitalist press, global warming, when not completely ignored, is either an exogenous shock to the system for which the ruling class bears no responsibility or the fault of consumers who must make greater, individual efforts to cut energy usage. For communists the question is not whether global warming is part of the class struggle – clearly it is – but rather how might it be understood within our framework of Marxist thought and, more especially, Marxist theories of crisis and social, revolution. We now turn to these.
6. Marxist Theories of Crisis and Social Revolution
Most schools of social science either ignore crisis and social revolution or conclude, like Francis Fukuyama (1989), that Western liberal democracy signals the conclusion of humanity’s sociocultural evolution. Marxists reaches a different conclusion. It is this approach that we now discuss.
6.1 Dialectical Materialism
Marx and Engels rejected the reductionist approach and preferred to address problems dialectically. Rather than seeking a single causal explanation for any phenomenon, they preferred systematically to develop composite and comprehensive explanations. In addition they employed a materialist perspective, consistent with all the evidence amassed by science over the last four to five hundred years of an objective, independent reality “out there” (Footnote 20) rather than subscribe to a metaphysical, religious or mystical reality. This approach is called dialectical materialism.
In the Communist Party’s current guide to Dialectical and Historical Materialism – understanding why change happens (2017), four dialectical principles are identified:
* Everything is connected
* Everything is in motion
* Change occurs in small, incremental ways (quantitative change)and in large leaps (qualitative change)
* Change is propelled by the struggle of opposites, whether internal to the thing being changed or through conflict with other things.
The corollary of these principles is that nothing, including social systems of which capitalism is one, is permanent or in equilibrium, the latter being a favourite assumption of neoclassical economists. Thus the very foundations of Marxism have revolutionary implications.
In this paper we employ flow charts to summarise some of Marx and Engels’ analysis and conclusions employing dialectical materialism as they can depict inter-connectivity and motion, the distinction between quantitative and qualitative change and the struggle of opposites.
6.2 Historical Materialism
Applying the principles of dialectical materialism, Marx, in Engels’s word, ‘discovered’ historical materialism which Engels described in his graveside oration for Marx as
the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.
Historical Materialism led Marx to conclude in the Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy that social revolution begins when the property relations of a society act as an impediment or ‘fetter’ to the growth of productive forces. Thus the path to social revolution – or the common ruin of contending classes – can be depicted for every form of society with the following flowchart:
Flowchart 1 – the route to social revolution in every society
It must be emphasised that there is nothing deterministic in this flowchart. It is never the case that we should passively wait for the growth in productive forces to encounter a fetter and deliver social revolution. As Eric Hobsbawm pointed out in 1968, one of the great merits of Marx’s writings is to show that communists can and must avoid both the error of waiting for history to happen and the error of opting for unhistorical methods such as Bakuninite anarchism and pointless acts of terrorism.
Marx recognised that class struggle to remove the fetters on productive forces by attempting social revolution can end in the mutual ruin of both classes. The responsibility for this rests with the dominant, ruling class, but it will also be a factor, ex ante, for the exploited class consciously to consider before pressing for social revolution.
As David Harvey (1982) has pointed out, while limits to the availability of natural resources can represent a fetter on the growth of productive forces, capitalism has demonstrated great resilience in overcoming such limits. There are all sorts of ways, he argues, in which supposed natural limits can be confronted, sometimes overcome and, more often than not, circumvented. Global warming, however, represents a qualitatively different kind of fetter to those provided by previous natural limits to resources. The problem it presents is not one of a natural limit to society’s consumption of fossil fuels, its primary and cheapest source of energy, it is capitalism’s inability to deprive itself of its most profitable source of energy. Thus not only will global warming result in social revolution and the replacement of capitalism with socialism, this result must be achieved if humanity is to survive.
Had Marx concluded his study of society with Historical Materialism, he would still have left us with sufficient insight to conclude that, regardless of the type of society, global warming could lead to social revolution or the obvious destruction of all classes. In Capital volumes 1-3 he provided us with an understanding of a specific society: mid-nineteenth century capitalism. As Engels described it in his Graveside Oration for Marx (1883), Marx discovered
the special law of motion governing the present-day capitalist mode of production, and the bourgeois society that this mode of production has created. The discovery of surplus value suddenly threw light on the problem, in trying to solve which all previous investigations, of both bourgeois economists and socialist critics, had been groping in the dark.
This discovery still holds good today and can be applied to understanding 21st century capitalism. At the heart of Marx’s “special law of motion” lies his Labour Theory of Value. It was based on earlier labour theories of value which also assumed that only living labour can create value (Footnote 21) but the problems with these earlier theories were resolved. Value and price, whether of inputs or outputs of commodities, are united through the medium of exchange – governed by the laws of supply and demand and, where they exist, markets. But while exchange can redistribute value across commodities, it cannot create new value. This idea is formulated dialectically and so can again be illustrated with a flowchart:
Flowchart 2 – Marx’s Labour Theory of Value
M0 is an initial sum of money at the disposal of the capitalist, exchanged for labour power (Footnote 22), purchased with wages, and the means pf production C0 comprising material and machine usage.
C1 is the expanded capital after the production process has been completed.
M1 is sum of money for which the expanded capital is exchanged.
The production process is sandwiched between these two exchanges and can be considered to be inside a “black box” in which the surplus value from production is generated. It is a black box because the surplus value from producing an individual commodity is not directly observable- only the profit can be directly measured (Footnote 23). As exchange (and markets where they exist) can re-allocates value across commodities in response to supply and demand (Footnote 24), the individual surplus value from the production and sale of an individual commodity is not equal to the corresponding individual profit from the production and sale of that commodity. The sum of surplus values generated by an entire economy is, however, measurable – it is the sum of profits generated in that economy.
Marx’s concept of surplus value and his Labour Theory of Value help us to understand the various crises which recur repeatedly under capitalism. These crises can take various forms, including:
- under-consumption – lack of effective demand and a tendency towards stagnation as in the 1930s
- profit squeeze – profits fall because real wages rise as in the 1970s
- financial, credit and banking crises – of which there are many examples, including perhaps the 2007-8 financial crisis – although Rob Griffith (2018) argues convincingly that it was caused by over-expansion of fictitious capital.
The underlying cause of all these forms of crisis is, however, the over-accumulation of capital, which periodically arises from the disequilibrium inherent in the system due to capital growing through the absorption of labour while decisions about investment of capital are made in the light of anticipated profits. These decisions are taken in the light of the net present value criterion determined by Equation 1.
Just as capitalism has shown great resilience in overcoming limits to the availability of natural resources, it has also shown great resilience in overcoming the above types of crisis. Global warming, however, may result not only in more extreme instances of the above crises, but could trigger a terminal crisis for capitalism due to a particular feature of capitalism described in the third volume of Capital, the Tendency for the Rate of Profit to Fall (TRPF).
TRPF has been contentious ever since von Bohm-Bawerk denounced Marx’s Labour Theory of Value in 1896 for being ‘inconsistent’ and von Bortkiewicz, responding to this criticism and ‘corrected’ Marx’s Labour Theory of Value in 1907 using simultaneous equations. Von Bortkiewicz’s algebra is sound enough – you can check it out in Marx’s Revenge by Meghnad Desai (2002) – but it fails to recognise (as did the author) that, as in Flowchart 2, production is a discrete activity that does not occur simultaneously with exchange. Von Bortkiewicz’s erroneous ‘correction’ simply generates more inconsistencies, the principal one being the so-called ‘Transformation Problem’, which rumbled down the 20th and into the 21st Century. The Temporal Single System Interpretation (TSSI) of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value developed by Alan Freeman (1996) and Andrew Kliman (2007) effectively demolished the transformation problem and confirmed TRPF as an integral feature of capitalism.
TRPF is a dialectical process driven by the individual capitalist’s attempt to increase her own rate of profit by technological innovation, while disregarding the consequence that the average rate of profit of the economy as a whole will decline. There are a number of responses open to capitalists that give temporary relief, the most important ones being shown in the flowchart below. None of these, however, provides a permanent solution.
Flowchart 3 – The Tendency for the Rate of Profit to Fall
As with our previous flowcharts describing routes to social revolution, nothing deterministic is implied by the above flow chart. This absence of narrow determinism has prompted some Marxists to question TRPF’s significance by stressing the counteracting influences recognised by Marx himself, some of which are reflected in the flowchart above. David Harvey, for example, in The Enigma of Capital (2011)argues that TRPF falls short of being a “mechanical response” to labour-saving technological innovation. Despite his reservations, David Harvey himself employed it in his own complex synthesis of Marxian crisis theory in The Limits to Capital (1982), acknowledging that it has a key role in producing crises ‘of one sort or another’.
The significance of TRPF for global warming arises in two ways –
- If capitalists fail to respond adequately to global warming, the adverse environmental impact could depress the rate of profit, thereby accelerating TRPF to such an extent that capitalism’s typical response – destruction of sufficient capital to halt the fall but without destabilising the ruling class itself – might not be successful. The consequence could be a terminal crisis.
- If capitalists do make significant efforts to reduce society’s extraction and consumption of fossil fuels, this could depress the rate of profit, again accelerating TRPF. Again, the consequence could be a terminal crisis.
TRPF cannot be avoided by making workers pay. Capitalism’s historical resilience in the face of crises does, however, also extend to crises caused by TRPF. Provided sufficient capital is destroyed one way or another and without undermining the framework on which it relies, the rate of profit can be restored, at least until the next crisis. The scale of the costs needed to halt global warming, or, alternatively, the cost to society of not halting it, are, however, huge. Estimates of the former vary greatly and are very uncertain, but even conservative ones such as those reported by Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (aimed at reducing CO2 to pre-industrial levels by 2100 consistent with confining temperature change to below 20C) indicate that it could cost 1–4% of global consumption in 2030, 2–6% in 2050 and 3–11% in 2125. The resulting reduction in the rate of profit could be of a similar order of magnitude, putting huge downward pressure on the rate of profit already subject to a structural TRPF. This could test capitalism’s historical resilience to breaking point.
6.4 Capitalism’s Inability to Respond
There is one policy that can avoid global catastrophe: keep fossil fuel in the ground. There is only one conceivable way under capitalism of achieving this: the fee-and-dividend version of carbon trading proposed by James Hansen and described in section 2 above. In our view, capitalism is inherently incapable of adopting such a strategy. Its rationale is the accumulation of capital by generating profits. Due to market-based discounting, its time horizons are too near, leading it to under-estimate catastrophe in coming decades. There is simply too much profit to be made today and in future from fossil fuel extraction to leave it in the ground; and there is too much capital tied up in fossil fuel extraction to see it written off. Capitalism can only respond by developing alternative, greener sources of energy and attempting to extract profit from these, but these attempts will be undermined by the huge profits to be made from extracting and burning fossil fuels and ignoring the future, discounted consequences.
6.5 Social Revolution
The conclusion we draw from this brief review of Marxist theory of crisis and social revolution is that, whatever the response of capitalism, global warming will provide both the opportunity and the necessity for social revolution. There is, however, nothing inevitable about this outcome. The working class will require leadership and organisation; and we should be mindful that, as the 1930’s demonstrated, working class hardship does not necessarily provide fertile ground for revolution. Furthermore, these theories provide for another possible outcome – the mutual destruction of both the capitalist and working classes. In the context of Global Warming this can clearly take the form of a runaway greenhouse effect and the extermination of humanity.
7. What is to be done?
We have concluded that global warming is part of the class struggle. We have concluded that, if a runaway greenhouse effect is to be avoided, the world’s reserves of fossil fuels must be left in the ground. We have concluded that capitalism is incapable of implementing this. Finally we have concluded that Marxist theories of crisis and social revolution indicate that global warming can provide conditions for ending capitalism and, without such a social revolution, no effective response to global warming will be forthcoming. All that remains is to determine how we should respond.
In his book A Redder Shade of Green (2017) Ian Angus claimed that the greatest weakness in the mainstream environmental movement is its failure to recognise that capitalism is the root of the problem. As in his view the socialist movement is not going to triumph in the immediate future, he recommended that we should seek to unite the broadest possible range of people, socialist or not, in a mass movement to achieve whatever is possible “in this social order. We reject this advice. While such a ‘popular front’ might represent a necessary short term strategy, we have concluded that capitalism cannot meet the challenge of global warming – to do so successfully would be inconsistent with capitalism’s fundamental aim, the accumulation of capital. The only way of avoiding catastrophe is social revolution leading to socialism. Thus, rather than settle for participation in what would amount to a Popular Front with greens, we propose a strategy based on these six initiatives –
- Educate and argue within communist and socialist parties, in the UK and internationally and in social democratic parties including the Labour Party for recognition of the reality of global warming and the priority of addressing it. The message we must get across is that global warming is a class issue and threatens the entire working class.
- Increase our links with green parties, seeking to persuade them that we take global warming seriously and that capitalism is at the root of the problem.
- Work within the democratic structures of trade unions to persuade their members and thus their leaderships that global warming must be addressed and that trade union policies that run counter to this are not in the best long term interests of their members and their families.
- Campaign to ensure that the cost of global warming and the cost of measures to address global warming are born by capital, not workers. While recognizing that they do not go far enough, so-called ‘Just Transition’ initiatives such as the Joint Statement from the Greener Jobs Alliance and the TUC’s pamphlet Green and Fairer Future should be supported.
- Ruthlessly expose every instance where government ignores global warming – for example the UK government’s decisions to expand Heathrow, license fracking, not support renewable energy and cut subsidies for public transport.
- Press governments to adopt the only policy that, within capitalism, has any hope of addressing global warming – the fee-and-dividend version of carbon trading proposed by James Hansen and described in section 2 above.
While the last action should be given the highest profile, we need to be realistic and recognise that capitalism is inherently incapable of adopting it.
The fate of future generations – the grandchildren of those reading this paper – may well depend on our success in implementing this strategy.
- All references to “global warming” from this point on should be taken as referring to “anthropogenic global warming”.
- While it is estimated that around one fifth of CO2 emissions arise from land use changes, primarily from cutting down forests, land use is clearly a broader issue than global warming and is not directly addressed in this paper.
- For CO2 levels measured at Mauna Loa since 1958 see http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/full.html
- See https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/
- Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane correlates well with Antarctic air-temperature throughout the record. Present-day atmospheric burdens of these two important greenhouse gases seem to have been unprecedented during the past 420,000 years. See http://www.nature.com/articles/20859
- An example would be the flooding of Doggerland, the area now beneath the southern North Sea which flooded around 6,500–6,200 BC possibly following a tsunami caused by climate change.
- See 2017 report of NASA climate modelling suggesting that Venus might once have been habitable. Nasa (2017), https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2016/nasa-climate-modeling-suggests-venus-may-have-been-habitable
- See https://unfccc.int/news/finale-cop21
- This could become effective shortly before the end of Trump’s term in 2020.
- See https://croydoncommunists.wordpress.com/2016/11/25/the-sleeping-poodle/
- Chris Grayling on the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 as reported at https://croydoncommunists.wordpress.com/2018/06/25/criminal-irresponsibility/
- ‘Notwithstanding the likely improvement in remote conferencing facilities by 2050. The reality is, of course, that much international business travel is either a perk for senior management or an investment in their ego. Hologram projection is no substitute for executive travel at the company’s expense.
- France has, of course, a large nuclear power sector supplying ‘clean’ electricity, but while the problem of nuclear waste disposal remains intractable, the nuclear industry worldwide is heading for contraction, not expansion.
- Which can also be expressed using the risk adjusted discount rate, ra where ra = (1+r)/P’i -1 where P’i is the undiversifiable probability, that is that risk that cannot be eliminated by diversification.
- The distinction between diversifiable and undiversifiable risk is an important distinction but one we abstract from in this brief discussion.
- The classic text is Principles of Corporate Finance by Richard A Brealey and Stewart C Myers, Principles of Corporate Finance, 12th Edition, McGraw Hill, 2017.
- Cuba, of course, remains a shining example of a country struggling to build an alternative socialist future in the teeth of US hostility, but Cuba is a small, developing country struggling to survive, not (yet) a counterweight to international capitalism.
- Source http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/apr/21/countries-responsible-climate-change
- They did clarify in a footnote that they were not referring to prehistoric, i.e. hunter-gatherer societies.
- Quantum Mechanics, developed in the second and third decades of the last century, is seen by some as an exception to this body of evidence, indicting as it does that reality depends on observation. This is explained by some as evidence of the theory’s ‘incompleteness’ – see Peter Coveney and Roger Highfield, The Arrow of Time, Flamingo, 1991 – but there is little or no evidence for such an interpretation. It thus appears that Quantum Mechanics does indeed describe the reality of the physical world “out there” but, at the atomic level, this reality is probabilistic, not deterministic and does nothing to undermine the Marxist concept of materialism.
- The logic being that, as labour is the only common feature in every commodity, the value of every commodity can be expressed by, any only by, its labour content, some of which will arise from the past labour in commodities consumed in making this commodity.
- Labour power, the commodity sold by workers, reflects average labour costs and productivity rather than the actual wages paid.
- Something of a simplification. Surplus values, as opposed to profits, can be estimated by revaluing the labour content in the production process by employing an estimate of the Monetary Equivalent of Labour Time (MELT).
- This is sometimes described as price (exchange value) approximating to (labour) value, sometimes above, sometimes below, but tending to converge. It is more accurately envisaged as the total price of commodities in an economy equalling their total value, while individual prices and values diverge, perhaps even permanently, in response to supply and demand.
- These estimates allow only a 66 per cent chance of success. It should be appreciated that this is equivalent to accepting a 33% chance of failure –in effect asking our grandchildren to play Russian roulette with two bullets in a six bullet chamber.
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This version corrected at 6 May 2019 (Footnote 20 amended)