Revolutionary Reconstitution or Common Ruin

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The United States is moving beyond bourgeois democracy atop capitalism towards fascism atop capitalism with the population and some parts of the ruling class divided horizontally between:

+ the (supposed) left and (an actual and ever more dangerous) right.

+ red (Republican and blue (Democrat).

+ metropolitan and rural America.

+ white and nonwhite America.

+ coastal and “heartland” America.

Our job on the actual Left (not to be confused with the corporate and imperial Democratic Party) is to change the fracturing equation. Without ignoring the need to defeat of lethal enemies to our “red” (how ironic) right, we need at the same time to move the nation (and world) beyond bourgeois democracy, fascism, and capitalism towards socialism by polarizing the population vertically between the majority populace on one hand and the parasitic capitalist and imperial system on the other.

In explaining why, just to pick one area in recent headlines, with extreme weather, which has just wreaked murderous havoc across “flyover” zones in Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Why did a record-setting wave of high-powered night-time tornadoes kill many dozens of people and level thousands of structures across a 200 mile-plus stretch of the nation’s rural heartland in the second week of December? This was no random act of God. Intimately related to the fact that local weather broadcasters in Chicago are telling me to (idiotically) look forward to 60 degrees tomorrow, ten days out from Christmas (as if this is a good thing), it is a product and symptom of escalating climate change. And that (catastrophic) climate change is the outcome of a capitalist system that is driven to relentlessly expand while hopelessly and lethally addicted to the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

ExxonMobil itself determined long ago and then hid its research showing that the mass extraction and burning of fossil fuels was going to fundamentally alter the planet’s natural systems through warming. Here we are now, four decades later, living with the deadly consequences of a capital-cooked planet: epic drought, wildfires, record rainfalls, massive floods, mudslides, epidemic heat deaths, ruined food growth, climate-driven mass migration, meandering jet streams and polar vortex madness, record snowfalls, species loss, methane-spewing permafrost and clathrate disintegration, and more. We are on pace for the melting of the Antarctic by 2050 as we blow past one tipping point and into one more feedback loop after another. It’s not for nothing that climate scientists and others of child-rearing age are foregoing parenthood.

Humanity as such did not do this, capital did, or, if you prefer, humanity did this under the command and control of capital. This is a capitalogenic climate catastrophe, not just “anthropogenic climate change.” It must be countered by millions uniting as a mighty force for eco-socialist revolution.

And to do that we must struggle against the rugged individualist ideology expressed by the Kentucky candle factory tornado survivor CNN kept showing. She was smiling and saying “if I can survive this well then“… [“I can survive anything” was left unsaid but understood]. It’s not just that the survivor’s grin was misplaced given that eight of her fellow workers did not survive. The bigger difficulty here is that the extreme December weather that ended the lives of likely more than 100 other “heartland” residents (including six workers at an Amazon warehouse in southern Illinois) needs to be understood as the reflection of a dire threat to humanity brought to us courtesy of our ruling class – not as something that proves we can survive anything as individuals with help from God, genetics, and/or luck.

I get the workers relief but that’s just not the response fore responsible media to be broadcasting. It is unfortunately a common way in which everyday people do in fact respond to the escalating of extreme weather traumas: “Hey I survived that, bring it on!” No, no, no. We cannot survive the baking of the planet by the eco-cidal capitalist project of turning the entire planet into a giant Greenhouse Gas Chamber – a project that would have terrified no less of a mass-murderous sociopath than Adolph Hitler. Even as it melts the world’s water-giving glaciers and burns down its oxygen-giving forests, capital shamelessly runs one television commercial after another showing gleeful humans roaring across mountains and through forests in gas-guzzling jeeps and SUVs. The capitalist media constantly sells products and a way of life that are unsustainable while encouraging citizens qua consumers to worry about the excessively high price of gas. It reports “new normal” winter warmth as if it’s a good thing and has nothing to do with climate doom rooted in the capitalist monopoly of the means of production, investment, and distribution.

Dare I add along the way that the candle factory workers killed and injured in Kentucky last Friday night should not have been stuck in a giant, shoddily built, sitting duck candle plant while a killer tornado rolled up on them. The factory’s capitalist owner had to know that epic severe weather and deadly night tornadoes had been widely predicted in the region.

Surviving workers have reported that they demanded to talk to their supervisors about wanting to leave due to the weather emergency and that they were told they’d be fired if they left. The plant was located in a “red “state where some of the supervisors were likely racist-sexist climate-denying Trumpists. Still, these reports are standard symptoms of longstanding and planet-wide managerial despotism in the “hidden abode of [capitalist] production” (Marx) – in this case of capital seeking to push out as many Christmas candles in as short a time as possible under the pressure of the holiday season market and supply chain problems. Candle factories, by the way, are by design long and flat, structured in such a way as to be especially vulnerable to tornadoes.

Meanwhile, thousands rendered homeless by the capitalogenic tornado explosion must now try to steer clear of a pandemic whose emergence and global spread is rooted in the capitalist system. That relentlessly commodifying “expand or die” system can’t stop tearing up the barriers between human and nonhuman nature, species, and zoonotic pathogens. It can’t stop rapidly streaming goods, people, and viruses across space. It can’t provide adequate health care to any but a small and privileged minority of humanity. It can’t privilege public health over private profit. It can’t bring about the full vaccination of the world to stop the relentless and potentially terminal mutation of Covid-19. It can’t divert untold trillions of dollars to the meeting of human needs from highly profitable means of mass military production and mass destruction and a permanent war state. Its sick capitalist war regime is the planet’s leading carbon emitter.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were on to something when in 1848 they posited a core choice for humanity under the rule of “the bourgeoisie” (of capital): either (A) “a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large” or (A) “the common ruin of the contending classes.” Choose your adventure.

A is the obvious choice. It’s not really “socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky” (Istvan Meszaros, updating Rosa Luxembourg). It’s always and still socialism or capitalism, with the latter’s ruling class ready to preserve its rule through authoritarian/fascist political means and superstructural modes (“barbarism” doesn’t capture the perverse capitalist “modernity” of that terrible path) while leading the world towards “common ruin.”

In their shining 1848 document, the two young peripatetic bourgeois Germans straddling The Age of Revolution and The Age of Capital prophesied that the proletariat, brought into being by capital, would be the bourgeoisie’s gravediggers. But this was not a call for non-proletarians to follow other pursuits while waiting for the toiling masses to wake up and smell the socialist revolutionary coffee. And they did not mean to fetishize or sentimentalize proletarians as such. People who moronically replicate the anti-scientific idiocy of race- and/or-gender “standpoint” epistemology (based on the childishly unscientific claim that “knowledge stems from social position”) in relation to the working class might want to consider how much time Marx and Engels spent trying to organize and guide proletarian struggles despite their own bourgeois backgrounds. Here is an interesting line in The Communist Manifesto, which leaps out at me with new or forgotten insights each time I re-read it: “Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.” Is this not the history of Left revolutionary leadership from Marx and Engels through Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, and Fidel Castro among others to no small extent?

The moral and scientific and political responsibility of actual Left intellectuals and activists (of whatever class background) is to work for a seismic shift of the populace not away from “unpleasant” conflict to (fading and obsolete) bourgeois-democratic peace and harmony (the lost Obama-Biden-Clinton-Dole-Lincoln Project-David Brooks-“P”BS dream) but through and beyond the horizontal polarization described at the top of this article to the vertical class polarization pitting exploited and oppressed masses (with the most oppressed in the majority but with as many bourgeois, petit-bourgeois and professional class traitors as possible on their side) against a parasitic capitalist system that is literally running humanity and other living things into the ground. We wage this revolutionary struggle for “the workers of the world,” to be sure, but also in the name of all humanity and the common good.

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