You Say You Want a Revolution?

Since the latest UN climate report, some friends and acquaintances have been saying (repeating, actually) that“>only a revolution can save us. This strikes me a not just wrongheaded, but dangerously so.
By “revolution,” these people generally mean something like seizing direct collective control of the means of production—of necessity on a global scale. Given that the IPCC report gives us about a decade to get off carbon energy sources, the revolutionary strategy would have to be launched and successfully completed in rather short order. More or less immediately, in fact. If, as the revolutionaries insist, this is the only way to compel the changes necessary to save the planet, the odds of success are…daunting. If it’s almost too late to abandon carbon, it is far, far too late to set about transforming the global mode and relations of production in order to become carbon-neutral.
The problem, then, is that this line of argument makes the perfect (global socialism or communism) the arch-enemy of the indispensable (preserving the planet as a potential site for global socialism or communism). Perversely, the revolutionary strategy would pose a bigger obstacle to the urgently needed changes than the global capitalism it would overthrow. In this way (and only in this way), it resembles the right-wing predilection for advocating tax cuts as a solution to literally every problem. Even if collective control of the means of production is the best possible outcome, it is one of the worst possible vehicles for saving the planet in the near term.
One side-effect of the urging revolution above all else is that doing so blinds us to the range of practical solutions already available. More precisely, it conflates radical solutions with the revolutionary one. In particular, the US and other “capitalist states” could nationalize their energy industries and shift them to non-carbon energy sources as rapidly as technology allows. This would surely resemble the revolutionary option, but it is nothing of the sort. Energy companies and industries have been nationalized numerous times in the past, in practically every country. British Petroleum is only the most obvious example, but there are hundreds of others, notably including the banking, telecommunication and transportation sectors. It’s been done during wartime, economic crisis, and political regime change, but also during more stable periods. The same companies have been nationalized and privatized again and again. There is nothing remotely revolutionary about this option, as it leaves the means and relations of production undisturbed—or saves capitalism from collapse.
It would seem, in fact, that advocates of revolution have something like this in mind, but imagine it to be so repugnant to the ruling class as to be unthinkable except as the overthrow of that class. Nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, government-led efforts to end the use of carbon fuels would almost certainly spur unimaginable new levels of prosperity. The accelerated development of new technologies, construction of new energy facilities, installation of massive new energy grids, retrofitting millions of buildings, ocean cleanup, and a host of other projects promise economic benefits that the ruling class would welcome, even if it foolishly opposes the initiative at the outset.
The main obstacle here is not private control of the means of production; it’s the vastly disproportionate political influence of one relatively restricted economic sector. To see why, simply imagine how the world would look if, by some chance, the primary energy source for the Industrial Revolution had been carbon-free. We would still have capitalism and corporate political power, but no global warming. Conversely, imagine that carbon is indispensable to industrialization, but that the latter takes place via socialist arrangements, as it actually did in some countries. Could global warming have been averted then? Hardly. In sum, apart from the contingency of path dependence, neither requires or implies the other.
In truth, when self-described socialists and communists actually debate climate change, they seldom go so far as to call for seizing the means of production. Much more commonly, they outline “bold” and “radical” political programs that amount to nothing more than the “mainstream” proposals they dismiss as inadequate. Typically, the “radical” vision establishes its socialist bona fides by ruthlessly straw-manning the “gradualist” mainstream. (E.g., attacks on Nordhaus substitute for analysis of actual policy recommendations emanating from thinks tanks and academia, with which economists have nothing to do.) In effect, then, the talk of revolution is unserious, and perhaps even a form of self-serving virtue signaling. As such, it diverts crucial political energies from the urgent task at hand, holding them hostage to a hypothetical future that we will never reach unless we immediately set about the dull, conventional work of ending carbon dependency.

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