For the Climate: Protecting the Commons and Fixing Democracy

Biomass power plant, Woodland, California. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Uruguayan ecologist Silvia Ribeiro, reporting on the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos (on the agenda was “better capitalism”), notes that the “transnationals, the main causes of climate change, finally are recognizing the gravity of the situation … What they are doing is settling into a new wave of business opportunities, new ways of taking over land and eco-systems and developing geo-engineering capabilities.”

Either capitalists don’t recognize reality or, more likely, have turned a blind eye – a covetous one. Climate change, unchecked, promises planetary disaster. All forms of life are threatened. Scientific evidence strongly suggests capitalist forms of production and consumption gave rise to climate change in the first place and have allowed the process to advance.

Politics is the enabler of capitalism, and capitalism’s victims must return to politics. Politically-aware inhabitants of industrial countries, looking around, can easily visualize a chain of causation from profit motive, to expanding production, to addiction to fossil fuels, to lethal levels of atmospheric hydrocarbons. But only the stirrings of anti-capitalist resistance have emerged in response to the climate crisis. What’s needed are massive, continuing mobilizations appropriate to looming catastrophe.

Outcries are heard and political action is taken also in the poverty belts of the world, but, again, the impact and scale are small. Even so, it’s worthwhile to explore possibilities there for the building of a sizable, anti-capitalist, and useful political movement for survival. There are two reasons.

First, the impact of climate change affects these areas and their masses of people more acutely than it does elsewhere. Populations are facing severe droughts, water shortages, water contamination, floods, rising sea waters, extreme weather events, fires, and soil deterioration. Already vulnerable, they suffer from food insecurity, according to one United Nations report, and from widening social inequalities, according to another.

Secondly, class- based antagonisms have long disturbed human experience in these regions. That reality theoretically favors the development of anti-capitalist political activity. At first glance, class conflict shows up in the great divide between rich and poor parts of the world. A deeper look reveals the gross criminality of capitalist methods used in the past and never abandoned.

The legacy of horrors bestowed upon poor peoples of the world, most of them black, brown, and of Asian heritage, left a larger footprint than did the suffering of marginalized populations in the industrialized countries, as grievous as that was. Victims in the first instance, one assumes, can remember that they and their forebearers suffered dreadful abuse at the hands of capitalist oppressors.

The possibility emerges that people with their memories will make correlations between past experience and contemporary reality, here the capitalist contribution to the climate crisis. Expanded political awareness may prompt them to enter into political struggle.

They remember two weapons of oppression fashioned mostly to apply to them. The resulting calamity resonates still.

The first is robbery, and Karl Marx paints a picture: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre.” (Capital, chapter on the “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”)

Marx is describing expropriation, which he regards as “the point of departure for the capitalist mode of production.” According to Monthly Review, “the bloody usurpations of land, labor, and corporeal life on a world scale has continued … up to the present day [and the] global commons are being destroyed everywhere … a growing planetary ecological holocaust [is] bearing down especially on the most vulnerable populations.” At fault is “the ferocious growth imperative of capital.” The article’s title is “Capitalism and Robbery.”

Capitalist financiers, entrepreneurs, shippers, bankers, manufacturers, mining conglomerates, agricultural entrepreneurs, oil producers – and military forces – have extracted wealth from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Capitalist United States, robber of land from indigenous peoples, is an old hand at expropriation. Settler occupiers stole labor from stolen people to produce sugar and cotton. Cotton morphed into investment and speculative capital.

Lords of the earth engineered die-offs, cultural demise, and political repression. In his magnificent book, Red Round Globe Hot Burning, historian Peter Linebaugh recounts happenings in the late 18th century. He chronicles trans-Atlantic plundering, military forces on the move, revolutionary ferment, the insides of prisons, deaths on the gallows, and the commons under siege. This last is a term signifying freedom and also people’s rights to water, land, and their own bodies. Capitalism is death to the commons.

The second weapon utilized by capitalists and lurking the memories of victims is white supremacist ideology. Once more, Peter Linebaugh highlights uncomfortable truths. His narrative covers enslaved Africans in Central America, English cruelties inflicted on the indigenous Irish, inter-racial marriage, and unity in rebellion across racial boundaries. The Haitian Revolution, carried out by enslaved people who freed themselves, figures prominently.

Two centuries later under capitalism, racism is either tolerated or is a matter of policy. U.S. military planners see climate change as a security threat; they want to monitor and manage distant uprisings and migrations. Already hundreds of U.S. military bases blight the homelands of black and brown people. Physical and political walls go up in Europe, the United States, and Australia to block the passage of poor and non-white peoples.

Race hatred is a capitalist money-maker. Laboring in cotton, enslaved people created wealth that by 1850 had established the U.S. economy as the world’s second-largest. (1) Their bodies served as equity for loans for purchases of land, more slaves, and the creation of fortunes. These days, privatized U.S. prisons holding mostly black and brown inmates are profit centers. A legal analyst explains: “The process of racial capitalism relies upon and reinforces commodification of racial identity, which degrades that identity by reducing it to another thing to be bought and sold.”

The point is, simply, that to make capitalism work, you need racism. It’s a license to steal. There’s no certainty that peoples in the poor parts of the world, suffering from climate-change effects and already vulnerable, can come together, mobilize, and help save the environment. Divisions by race, class, culture, and geography stand in the way and ruling-class maneuvers never stop.

Racial hatreds are exacerbated to divide resistance movements. Owners and their union allies targeted black workers to break down labor unity. Fascist governments in 20th century Europe, enabled by capitalists, scapegoated Jews to gain space to overcome financial crisis and the Soviet alternative. In debt-fragile and deindustrialized United States, the Trump administration must divert attention from benefits lavished on the very rich. In demagogic fashion, authorities abuse migrants at the border, slander their homelands, and fire up hatred.

This inquiry concludes. Its message hopefully is clear: capitalism, never a prerequisite for democracy, is destructive of democracy. The criminal behavior on display here – robbery and racism – represents the very antithesis of democracy.

In that regard, advocates for the Green New Deal call for environmental protection and, significantly, for the strengthening of democracy and for economic justice. They advance a comprehensive program ready-made for rebellion on behalf of the climate, the environment, and the commons. (For more on the Green New Deal, see Marc Brodine’s Green Strategy)

Peter Linebaugh provides a road map: “As a general idea the commons means equality of economic conditions. As a particular practice the commons refers to forms of both collective labor and communal distribution. The term suggests alternatives to patriarchy, to private property, to capitalism, and to competition.” (3)


1) Peter Linebaugh, Red Round Globe Hot Burning, (UC Press, Oakland, 2019)

2) Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told, (Basic Books, NY, 2014), p. 413.

3) Peter Linebaugh, op. cit., p. 4.

This essay first appeared on Monthly Review.

More articles by:

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

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