Class Struggle and the Parable of an Environmental Victory

Photograph Source: torbakhopper – CC BY 2.0

The great mystery of the neoliberal takeover of the American left lies in differing class outcomes being attributed to ideology. The liberal view of ideology is classless— the rich, PMC, working class and poor can be right or left as is their predilection. Quite remarkably, given how insistently differences have been proclaimed, this is the view of much of the American left as well. However, to the extent this is descriptively accurate, it hides more than it reveals. For the rich and PMC, ideology is a tool of class management. Yesterday’s law and order politician is today’s anti-racist warrior.

This isn’t a matter of political evolution or even opportunism, per se. The idea of political compromise is that both sides get something, which implies that there are two sides, e.g. right and left. When the dimension of class is added, right and left can both win while all but the rich and PMC lose. In other words, the political space where both ‘sides’ win is a function of class. Through ideology, these wins can be dispersed amongst the classes without any material redistribution of political or economic power. In this system, winning or losing a political contest depends on one’s class, not one’s ideology.

By way of an extended analogy: in 2012 it came to light that the Sierra Club, the premier American environmental group, had taken $26 million is ‘secret’ donations from Chesapeake Energy, the fracked-gas company known for being a political player, to launch a public relations campaign against coal in favor of fracked natural gas (methane). In a controlled environment, methane produces half of the CO2 per unit of energy that coal does. By 2012, it was well understood that fracking wasn’t a controlled environment. Chesapeake Energy’s slash-and-burn businesses practices made it certain that its fracking never would be a controlled environment.

Chesapeake Energy invented the fracking playbook of leasing land in economically depressed areas and rendering the water unfit for human and animal consumption. The company preyed on economic desperation and treated the land, air and water with utter contempt. Its lobbying points, that methane is a ‘bridge fuel’ that is ‘clean,’ were adopted by the Obama administration coincident with the Sierra Club’s lobbying efforts. The EPA then moved to outlaw the burning of coal by American utilities. Regardless of whether there was an explicit quid pro quo, the Sierra Club served Chesapeake’s business objectives quite effectively.

The liberal frame of capitalism is as cooperative social organization where the products that corporations produce benefit consumers. Paradoxically, market exchange that is claimed to be fully commensurate, a completed transaction, is also considered to carry social virtue beyond mere exchange value. Cars get people to and from work. Industrial food delivers food to consumers. Banks, insurance companies and realtors provide essential services to people who need them. To the extent that people benefit from these, rather than merely rely on them, exchange doesn’t extinguish the debt. The point: capitalism doesn’t simply make stuff; it produces moral capital in the form of a claimed public benefit— it is an ideology.

Professional environmentalists proceed from the perspective that they are paid to perform a public service. The ‘partnership’ frame is ubiquitous. And it is seductive— why can’t people on different sides of an issue, who otherwise live in the same neighborhoods, whose children attend the same schools, and who have similar career aspirations, work together to create outcomes that are mutually beneficial? Compromise is a virtue as long as both sides get something they want. The Sierra Club can get large donations and Chesapeake Energy can purchase support to get its business done. Who loses when all transactions are win-win?

Lest this have been missed, these transactions took place exclusively amongst the rich and the PMC. Professional environmentalists and corporate bureaucrats are bourgeois by class. Through class wealth and power, the consequences of four decades of declining wages, lost benefits, crapified public services, wars for resources and accelerating environmental decline have fallen primarily on those outside of the PMC. In absolute terms, helping Chesapeake Energy sell fracked methane as a ‘bridge fuel’ and ‘clean’ is why catastrophic environmental problems are politically unsolvable.

The Sierra Club could have refused the donations from Chesapeake. Or it could have disclosed them if it felt they were justifiable. No one who was paying attention believed that Chesapeake had an environmental interest when it made the donations. An analogy would be Dick Cheney donating $26 million to fund the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The Sierra Club used its ‘moral capital’ to broker the move from coal to fracked gas in return for a very large payoff. Too harsh? Eight years later, the U.S. is farther from having the political resolution to solve environmental problems than when the EPA was founded in 1970.

Graph: CO2 emissions have grown in lockstep with the professionalization of the environmental movement. Liberal crowing that the U.S. has reduced greenhouse gas emissions ignores that most were outsourced to China. American legislation to limit the use of coal domestically led to its export to be burned overseas. In environmental terms, these nominal victories are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Source:

The key ‘takeaways,’ to write in the parlance, are that what was posed as a moral battle to save the environment, was in fact an internecine struggle within the PMC where well-paid representatives worked together to present the appearance of opposing sides. Chesapeake Energy was clear about its goals and methods. It put coin in its own pocket by purchasing moral authority from the Sierra Club to further its business interests. The Sierra Club sold its moral authority to Chesapeake, assuring that real existing fracking, rather than the abstract case it argued, would be the result. The result: the capitalist assault on the planet proceeded apace.

When the 2016 presidential election resulted in an upset victory for Donald Trump, an ‘opposition’ strategy dubbed #Resistance was launched in coordination with current and former executives of the CIA, NSA and FBI. Operatives from the PMC framed it as a moral struggle between liberal democracy, represented by Democrats, and racists, sexists and fascists, represented by Donald Trump. The report from the Director of National Intelligence released in 2017, at the outset of the Russiagate investigation, specifically cited the ‘threat to liberal democracy’ that Mr. Trump’s election posed.

There is a moral and political case to be made that Mr. Trump demonizes vulnerable populations and acts more like a corporate CEO than an elected representative. Additionally, he used his elected office to implement brutal immigration policies, wildly disproportionate military responses and he perpetuated resource imperialism vis-à-vis Venezuela and Bolivia. To tie this together, there is a strong moral argument to condemn Donald Trump in his person, political strategies and policies— just not by the people and institutions that have been doing most of the condemning.

As with the case of the Sierra Club and fracked gas, there was and is a real argument to be made that burning coal is killing the planet. But with $26 million in payola from oil and gas devil Chesapeake Energy in its pocket, the Sierra Club thoroughly compromised the role it claimed as an honest opposition player. Anyone with even cursory knowledge of the history of the CIA and FBI, and the means and methods of the NSA, knows that these agencies have acted to protect the imperial prerogative of the rich and powerful and the institutions they control. These agencies exist to crush liberal democracy by any means necessary. And they have done so by posing themselves as protectors of liberal democracy.

By posing as opponents of competing ideologies, the CIA and the U.S. military have been able to crush democratic movements to maintain a system of imperial plunder. The CIA coup in Iran in 1953 was to secure Iranian oil for U.S. and British based multinational corporations. The CIA coup in Guatemala in 1954 was to reverse a minimum wage that would have impacted United Fruit. And in the present, the CIA coup in Bolivia is to secure lithium for electric storage. And the (most recent) attempted coup in Venezuela is to ‘liberate’ Venezuela’s oil for American based multinationals. Each of these actions overthrew democratically elected governments for American business interests using the ruse that doing so promoted liberal democracy.

Likewise, anyone who cares to can find the senior leadership of the Democratic Party saying approximately the same things that Donald Trump says and advocating approximately the same policies that he advocates. It is telling that #Resistance Democrats amongst the party leadership have limited themselves to symbolism while passing almost all of the legislation that promotes Mr. Trump’s political program. And much as the Sierra Club has sincere, caring and committed environmentalists amongst its members, the #Resistance has sincere and committed members who are morally and politically opposed to Donald Trump’s political program.

For those of us with a borderline obsessive interest in politics from outside of the duopoly system, the gig was up the minute that Democratic party operatives began calling people racists. Blacks are a core constituency of the Democrats. Contemporaneous reports had it that enough black voters sat out the 2016 election to have impacted the outcome. Democratic pols who owed their careers to dog-whistle politics, e.g. the Clintons, were denouncing ‘racists’ using moral authority that they hadn’t earned. Stated differently, the moral authority that was granted by #Resistance liberals derived acts of denouncement, not from histories of anti-racist activism.

Graph: from the end of WWII through today, liberalism has become the state religion. When asked, most whites support racial integration— in the abstract. The calculated and self-serving argument from Democrats that masses of racist whites elected Donald Trump ignores their own deeply troubled history with race, and that blacks have done quite poorly under their political leadership. Source: University of Illinois.

In fact, denouncing racism in the U.S. in 2020 (or 2016) is about as controversial as denouncing cancer (graph above). Even former KKK leader David Duke couches his racialist drivel in the language of ‘equal rights.’ The neoliberal project that emerged after WWII posed capitalist democracy in opposition to communism and racialized (German) fascism. And even though the U.S. served as the model for much of the Nazi political program, by 2020, the neoliberal project had fulfilled its imperial purpose of restoring a moral basis for American exceptionalism. Equal opportunity— the neoliberal canard, is used to hide capitalist class relations behind a patina of social inclusion.

As with the Sierra Club versus the coal industry, the political struggle between Democrats and Donald Trump is taking place on multiple levels. The core is an internecine contest between competing (PMC) managers of empire— with the spoils divided between the winners and the losers. The Sierra Club got $26 million in donations from oil and gas interests, Chesapeake Energy got to earn a profit raping the environment, and the coal industry went on to sell unused ‘American’ coal to China. From an environmental perspective, the result was an unmitigated disaster. From the perspective of serving the class interests of the PMC, everyone got rich.

In the realm of electoral politics, four years of shouting ‘racist’ allowed the Democrats to run the most retrograde member of the Democratic Party (Joe Biden) as an ‘opposition’ candidate. Much like the Sierra Club, the Democrats started with a real issue, sort of. In terms of analysis, proceeding from the conclusion that race is determinant isn’t analysis. This is in no way to diminish America’s tortured racial history. But American history is tortured in a lot more ways than just race. At any rate, if you start an analysis from the premise that race is determinant, you’ve eliminated other possible explanations. In fact, all you’ve done is restate your premise.

As the facts have it, the party leaderships of both the Republican and Democratic parties are members of the PMC. As should be evident by the Democrat’s support for Donald Trump’s political program, their fortunes are largely unaffected by which party holds the White House. Their role is to provide the illusion of political choice. Much as professional environmentalists are out of a job if they solve the problems they exist to solve, neither party benefits from rocking the boat. Should Joe Biden be elected, he has already told congressional Republicans that he plans to work with them. Their livelihoods are secure.

As this relates to ‘cancel culture,’ my neighbors who work at Dunkin Donuts or drive delivery trucks aren’t that worried about it. The issue is posed as between left and right, while in class terms it is within the PMC and its aspirants. Strong union representation would protect jobs. And lest this come as a shock, ‘at will’ employment is the legal convention in the U.S. of A. The corporate roots of ‘White Fragility’ and the cultural sensitivity training that my significant other (along with coworkers) is regularly subjected to, are to divert attention away from the fact that their boss earned 150X what s/he did last year.

Surprisingly (not), ‘Economic Fragility’ hasn’t hit the bestseller list yet even though it is the defining characteristic of most people’s lives over the last four decades. And while ‘White Fragility’ can in theory be solved within the existing economic order through diversity, economic fragility requires a reordering of political and economic power. Given that the duopoly parties exist to maintain the political and economic status quo, shouting pseudo-political epithets at the alleged political opposition is a lot less threatening to existing power than telling campaign contributors that their wealth is going to be redistributed and their power taken away.


Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.