Beyond the Real Time Catastrophe of Capital

In a recent column on Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Laudato Si, the conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat says that “After this document, there’s no doubting where Francis stands in the great argument of our time….But,” Douthat elaborates, “I don’t mean the argument between liberalism and conservatism. I mean the argument between dynamists and catastrophists.” Here’s how Douthat understands that “great argument”:

“Dynamists are people who see 21st-century modernity as a basically successful civilization advancing toward a future that’s better than the past. They do not deny that problems exist, but they believe we can innovate our way through them while staying on an ever-richer, ever-more-liberated course….Dynamists of the left tend to put their faith in technocratic government; dynamists of the right, in the genius of free markets. But both assume that modernity is a success story whose best days are ahead.”

“Catastrophists, on the other hand, see a global civilization that for all its achievements is becoming more atomized and balkanized, more morally bankrupt, more environmentally despoiled. What’s more, they believe that things cannot go on as they are: That the trajectory we’re on will end in crisis, disaster, dégringolade…that current arrangements are foredoomed, and that only a true revolution can save us.”

Douthat puts Pope Francis in the “catastrophist” camp because of the pontiff’s call for humanity to take climate change seriously by undertaking global action and “radical change” to move off fossil fuels and selfish profiteering and consumerism. Thanks to anthropogenic global warming, the Pope writes, “Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth.”

Douthat mildly applauds Pope Francis for increasing the likelihood that Catholics and non-Catholics will “think anew” about climate change. Still, Douthat rejects the Pope’s “catastrophism” and related radicalism. “It’s possible,” Douthat argues, “to believe that climate change is happening while doubting that it makes ‘the present world system … certainly unsustainable,’ as the pope suggests. Perhaps we’ll face a series of chronic but manageable problems instead; perhaps ‘radical change’ can, in fact, be persistently postponed.”

“Successful Modernity”: The Present is Stranger Than Dystopia

It’s not an impressive argument. Who thinks anymore that the U.S-of American “argument” between “liberalism [translate: the Democrats] and conservatism [translate: the Republicans]” (both of which are aligned with corporate plutocracy, global U.S. Empire, and eco-cide against democracy, social justice and the common good) marks “the great argument of our time? (Try democracy and the common good versus the unelected and interrelated dictatorships money and empire or, more simply, the people versus the ruling classes.) What is a leftist who believes in governmental technocracy? A contradiction in terms, not to be taken seriously – no more seriously than “the genius of free markets.” No such markets or genius remotely exist. Contemporary capitalism, likes its antecedents, relies heavily and thoroughly on state protection and subsidy. Its “market logic” (cover for corporate and financial rule) is the amoral enemy of democracy, justice, and livable ecology.

Who in their right moral and intellectual mind could possibly believe that “21st-century modernity” (the world capitalist system) is “a basically successful civilization” moving on “an ever-richer, ever-more-liberated course….a success story whose best days are ahead”? Why should anyone take Douthat’s unnamed “dynamists” seriously? Humanity today isn’t merely moving towards a potential catastrophe. It’s in the middle of multiple and interrelated catastrophes right now: mass poverty and hunger; mass involuntary migration; shocking inequality (the Guardian reported last year “that the richest 85 people on the globe – who between them control as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population put together – could squeeze onto a single double-decker” bus); massive structural unemployment; permanent war and endemic militarism; nuclear re-escalation; ubiquitous corporate and financial totalitarianism, (both hard and soft); abject corruption and plutocracy; mass incarceration; rampant governmental police statism; ubiquitous propaganda in ever more potent mass media; a corporate-crafted mass culture of stupidity, selfishness and cruelty; rampant disease and poor health more generally; a compromised food supply and the degradation of food; the ever-escalating crisis of livable ecology, led by anthropogenic global warming (AGW), which poses the very real near term risk of human (self-) extinction. “Successful modernity” indeed!

You don’t have to turn to the dystopian warnings of 20th century writer and filmmakers like Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451 and other writings), George Orwell (1984), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), Kurt Vonnegut (Player Piano), Robert Brunner (The Sheep Look Up), John Carpenter (They Live, Escape From New York), Richard Fleischer (Soylent Green), Norman Jewison (Rollerball), Phillip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and other novels), and Ridley Scott (Blade Runner) to glimmer a world gone mad and suicidally eco-cidal under the rule of elites. You can pay close attention to current events and developments.

Truth, the old saying goes, is stranger than fiction. And the present, I might add, is stranger than dystopia. We don’t have to imagine and warn of authoritarian and ecological nightmares at some point in the far-away future. The nightmares are happening in real time.paulstreet The catastrophic future, brought to us by the financial-corporate and military state, is now. The Pope’s “Doomsday predictions” are coming true right now. And, no, this planet-cooking present is not remotely sustainable. The judgement of Earth science on that is clear as day: only prompt and radical change leading to a radical reduction in carbon emissions can save prospects for a decent future. Anyone who thinks that such a future is possible if “things go on as they are,” without radical change, is in deep denial and/or lost in a dream world.

Calling such judgements and observations “catastrophist” is an interesting choice. I’ve always found that choice gendered in a patriarchal sort of way, as in the outwardly composed man who tells a distraught and “emotional” woman to “calm down” and “stop being so hysterical.” So consider a clinical analogy. If you went with terrible symptoms to a team of expert doctors and received a carefully considered diagnosis of potentially terminal cancer, would you denounce those medical professionals as “catastrophists” and ignore their prognosis – or would you accept the diagnosis and undertake a serious, likely radical, plan of treatment and change to prolong and enhance your life?

The real questions for those who wish to save the prospects for a decent human future isn’t whether Douthat’s “dynamists” or Douthat’s “catastrophists” are correct about the state and trajectory of the species. Instead, they are: what is/are the cause/s of current cancerous catastrophes? What must we do about it/them before it is too late?

Capitalism is the Disaster

Regarding climate change, the problem isn’t “modernity” (whatever that term really means at the end of the day) or “industrial civilization” as such. It is a particular form of “modernity” known as capitalism, which stands in an inherently antithetical relationship to livable ecology. The taproot is the growth-, accumulation- and exploitation-addicted world capitalist system, with its anarchic and atomized dispersion of economic decision-making, inherently antithetical to public planning for the common good. As the Canadian Marxist Sam Gindin explained last winter:

“It is not just that…capitalism is inseparable from the compulsion to indiscriminate growth, but that capitalism’s commodification of labor power and nature drives an individualized consumerism inimical to collective values (consumption is the compensation for what we lose in being commodified and is the incentive to work) and insensitive to the environment (nature is an input, and the full costs of how it is exploited by any corporation are for someone else to worry about)….[furthermore…] A social system based on private ownership of production can’t support the kind of planning that could avert environmental catastrophe. The owners of capital are fragmented and compelled by competition to look after their own interests first, and any serious planning would have to override property rights — an action that would be aggressively resisted.”

There’s a lot more that could be said about how and why the soulless and chaotic bourgeois mode of socioeconomic management (furthered and not tempered by the modern corporation) is wired to destroy life on Earth, but that will do for a useful summary at present. Louis Proyect is correct when he argues that “capitalism and capitalist politics have to be superseded if humanity and nature are to survive. Once we can eliminate the profit motive, the door is open to rational use of natural resources for the first time in human history. How we make use of such resources will naturally be informed by our understanding that reason governs the outcome and not quarterly earnings. The alternative,” Proyect reminds us, “to this is a descent into savagery, if not extinction.” To update Rosa Luxembourg for the age of “the ecological rift,” it’s eco-socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky.

The Canadian journalist and activist Naomi Klein deserves credit for identifying the profit system as the main culprit behind global warming in her latest book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate.  “The really inconvenient truth,” Klein notes, “is that [AGW] is not about carbon – it’s about capitalism…. [and] the war [that system] is waging on earth.” But what does Klein mean, exactly, when she says “capitalism?”  Listen to the following passage from This Changes Everything:

“What is really preventing us from putting out the fire that is threatening to burn down our collective house? I think the answer is far simpler than many have led us to believe: we have not done the things necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis.  We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe – and would benefit the vast majority – are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets”

The final sentence in this passage is consistent with Klein’s radical statement about “the really inconvenient truth” – that the problem is capitalism.  Not so the second sentence, which attaches the moderating description “deregulated” to the overall system supposedly in the docket. The problem recurs across This Changes Everything, which repeatedly attaches such qualifiers (“free market,” “neoliberal,” “market fundamentalist” and the like) to the profit system It leaves space for Ross Douthat’s foolish hope (formulated in a critique of the Pope, not Fidel Castro) “that perhaps ‘radical change’ can, in fact, be persistently postponed.”

This is not a new difficulty in Klein’s writing.  Her previous book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007) was directed primarily at neoliberalism – at (Milton) “Friedmanite capitalism” and at so-called disaster capitalism, not at capitalism itself. It exhibited no small nostalgia for the Keyensian “regulated” and “welfare” capitalism that reigned across much of the rich world in the post-World War II “Golden Age” – a rapidly growing capitalism that (among its many terrible consequences) pushed the world into environmental crisis by the last quarter of the last century.

Capitalism itself is the disaster and the catastrophe. Understanding and transcending capitalism in a systemic fashion is going to be essential for moving beyond d the real time dystopian catastrophes of the present. For the profit system lays at the base of all the “Doomsday” developments mentioned above (environmental ruin, mass poverty, stark inequality, plutocracy, mass incarceration, the police state, racial hyper-disparity, corporate media, etc.) and not just AGW, the biggest issue of our or any time.. All these and other evils of so-called modernity are – to use the language of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the middle and late 1960s – intimately “interwoven” and “interrelated.” They suggest that King was right near the end of his life when he wrote that “real issue to be faced” beyond superficial matters (like, say, the color or gender or sexual orientation of a corporate-captive political candidate) was “the radical reconstruction of society itself.” And that King was correct when he said that “the United States will have to adopt a modified form of socialism.”

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)


Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).