Naomi Klein and the Left

Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate has been greeted enthusiastically by the Left. The book garnered extravagant praise from major Left institutions, revealing her shortcomings are those of the Left.

People are more able to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But this lack of imagination is even a greater problem on the Left. Naomi Klein’s focus on changing governmental policy to ameliorate the worst effects of neoliberalism reflects deeper problems of the revolutionary movement, which can’t be attributed to her alone. If she alone held these views it would not be such a problem.

She exhibits a purely quantitative approach to change, endemic on the Left. What we need is the rejection and replacement of class society as a whole, an end to the commodity system and wage labor. The quantitative approach has whittled the limits of social change down to a slightly improved version of what we have now: better wages and less repression. The quantitative approach in fact changes very little. It would leave the institutions of capitalism, the corporations and their government, universities, etc., intact. This is the net result of the approach Klein takes in her book. (This is implicit in her other books, which I’m not dealing with here). It doesn’t “change everything.” Nor is it an isolated phenomenon.NaomiKlein_ThisChangesEverything

Syriza, greeted with wild enthusiasm on the Left, talks only about the debt, imposed by the neoliberal order. Yet in Greece today a revolutionary crisis appears to be brewing, which might permit an assault on the foundations of the system as a whole. Syriza does not appear equipped even to consider such things. Syriza, in this sense, demonstrates the limitations of Klein’s approach.

Klein puts forth a partial criticism of capitalism, not a comprehensive analysis, much less a total critique. Throughout the book she describes one or another aspect of the system in order to condemn it. This could be a good start, but she never calls to end capitalism as a whole. The fact that the system is threatening all life on earth would seem sufficient reason to want to end it. A few phrases suggesting a wholesale rejection of the system – scattered through the book, most emphatically on pp. 461 & 462 – and a brave title are not enough.

More than partial or fragmentary criticism of the system, we need a critique that goes to the heart of the system, a critique of the extraction, not only of fossil fuels from the ground, but of surplus value from the exploitation of labor.

Today’s dominant worldview holds Mother Earth a dead pile of resources to be exploited for private gain. This is at the heart of the system’s operation; climate change cannot be stopped and reversed while this attitude remains in command. But the viewpoint cannot be changed while those who hold it retain power. As long as they dominate society, theirs are the society’s dominant views.

Klein’s suggestions about what to do are all policy changes which would leave in place the existing institutions. Nowhere does she call to end the class system nor does she articulate how the commodity system, not just neoliberal institutions, has brought the world’s ecological balance to collapse. She does nothing to reverse the pattern of thought I am criticizing.

From where does the intellectual impoverishment of the Left come? Klein properly rejects communism with a few broad strokes, but offers no alternative approach to supersede capitalism. Her approach does not suffice. A deeper look at the revolutionary movement’s history is necessary.

The legacy of the Third International is the inability to think. The Third International under Lenin subordinated all the world’s revolutionary parties to the dictates of the Bolsheviks. Revolutionary parties flocked to the Third International because the Second International had collapsed – and the Soviet Union seemed the incarnation of their hopes. Lenin diagnosed this fall as a product of the Second International parties’ support for “their own” bourgeoisie in pursuing the imperialist’s First World War. He memorably called the Second International “a stinking corpse.”

But by subordinating all the parties, the Bolsheviks caused revolutionaries around the world to forget how to think about making revolution, which Lenin once called an art. It allowed only one model of how a revolution can take place, the Bolshevik model. The Bolshevik approach to making revolution is that embraced by the Left (and by capitalist propagandists seeking to divert people from working to transform society).

In summary form: a vanguard party leads the masses to overthrow the capitalist state and to build a workers’ state (the dictatorship of the proletariat), over which the vanguard governs. The workers’ state redistributes the wealth of society more equitably to raise the standard of living of the laboring people. However, this wealth is still produced by exploited workers; the vanguard now controls the surplus derived from the workers’ efforts.

In effect, private capitalism has been replaced with state capitalism. Now the vanguard sits at the apex of this new class system. Bolsheviks abandoned the effort to eliminate exploitation, yet few are willing to criticize this method.

The refusal to criticize communism is particularly strong in the US Left where McCarthy cowed a generation into silence. The few who dared oppose him publicly were justly called heroes.

People also believe the rejection of communism can result only in the embrace of capitalism. All the anticommunist classics (The God That Failed, Darkness at Noon, Invisible Man, etc.) suggest that when you reject communism you cannot oppose capitalism any longer – you have no place else to go. This perspective serves the capitalists and the communists, another example of how both oppose genuine liberation. We need to create a new non-communist revolutionary trend.

The collapse of the Soviet Union may prove to be more of a blow to capitalism by freeing the revolutionary movement from communism’s constraints. Occupy Wall Street in the US and the many occupation movements across the globe show this. They share a disinterest in Leninism and are beginning to articulate an alternative vision of social transformation.

We might imagine a movement succeeds in largely occupying all the institutions of society using non-hierarchical, non-violent methods. If this occupations movement can withstand the inevitable repression by the police and army still in possession of society’s wealth and productive power, it would then face the most revolutionary task of all, rebuilding the economy. This reconstruction work would take place under entirely new terms – everyone owns everything. We can only guess what kind of society might grow up in these circumstances. But we can confidently say this approach would change everything.

It may be said that I am asking too much of Naomi Klein. She has been a consistent supporter of Occupy Wall Street, and this is, after all, a book about battling climate change. She can’t reasonably be asked to propose a revolutionary strategy.

I disagree on two counts. First, by igniting the hope of changing everything, she incurs an obligation to address these questions, at least cursorily. Second, if she is to promote a nonhierarchical change, she, like all of us, must think these problems through. Letting someone else to do our thinking for us is only waiting for a new vanguard.

Paul C. Bermanzohn‘s website is Survival and Transformation.

Paul C. Bermanzohn is working on his book, called “Decoding the Matrix: A Preliminary History of the US Propaganda system.