Fossil Capitalism: The Only System The New York Times Can Publicly Imagine

Image by Callum Shaw.

It’s nice that two New York Times video-makers understand that top corporations are lying when they claim to meaningfully address the climate catastrophe. Too bad the underlying system that’s turning the planet into a giant Greenhouse Gas chamber and cancelling prospects for a decent human future is beyond serious scrutiny at the United States’ “paper of record.” Telling the whole truth about capitalism and its responsibility for the biggest issue of our or any time is not part of “all the news that’s fit to print.”

Corporate Fantasies on a Planet That’s Not Waiting Until 2040

A recent Times opinion video rightly takes down idealistic-sounding pledges recently made by CEOs of some of the world’s largest corporations at the World Economic Forum. Commanding heights business promises of “net zero” carbon emissions and a new “environmental capitalism” wherein “economic growth and global trade” continue without climate ruin amount to what Times video producer Agnes Walton and filmmaker Kristopher Knight call “corporate fantasies.”

In reality, Walton and Knight show, the pledges fall far short of net zero — the point at which companies and nations remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as they emit. They “might be worse than just empty promises,” the Times video argues: “they could obstruct efforts to stop climate change before it’s too late.”

The corporate net zero promises are set so far in the future as to be like a lung cancer victim promising to quit smoking in two decades. They kick the can so far down the road as to be meaningless given the extent and pace of the global warming calamity.

The promises leave out much if not most of big companies’ real-world carbon footprint. Exxon-Mobil’s net zero pledge absurdly refers only to its internal business operations, deleting the carbon emitted when other firms and people burn the massive amount of gas and oil it extracts and sells.

The promises rely on technology and methods that are nowhere near ready to meet the challenge they purport to address. Direct air capture technology is decades away from at-scale use. Tree planting on a level that could meaningfully counter current emissions is fanciful at best.

“TED Talks, endless panels and ovations, these glitzy events mask a terrifying truth: these corporations don’t yet know how to fulfill their science fiction net-zero pledges, and they’ve given themselves decades to figure it out. But outside the board room,” the Times video says, “one thing’s certain: the planet is in a full-blown meltdown, and it’s definitely not waiting for 2040.”

A Critical Deletion: Capitalism

It’s a strong argument with something critical missing: revolution.

Perhaps it would be better to say there were two things missing. The first deletion is the capitalist system, bigger than the corporations the video calls out. Capitalism depends on perpetual quantitative expansion to sustain its rate of profit and to seem to escape its savage inequalities through “growth.” At the same time, it is fatally addicted to fossil fuels, in which it has massive sunk, fixed capital investments and around whose transport, settlement, and distribution patterns and imperatives “modern” (capitalist) society is structured.

As a world system of endless anarchic competition between capitals with a wild multiplicity of sovereign governments (195 by one recent count), moreover, capitalism is incapable of the global coordination required to chart and implement a sustainable environmental path for homo sapiens (The great iconoclast Bertrand Russell was on to more than he knew when his concerns over potential nuclear war led him to advocate a single world government).

As The New York Times Company (US$2.6 billion) will never acknowledge, the corporations justly criticized in the Times’ chilling video are both creations and agents of an eco-exterminist mode of production and of corresponding political and ideological superstructures that militate against a non-malignant relationship between humans and nature beyond humanity. As the late “last Marxist” Louis Proyect noted on CounterPunch in 2015, “Capitalism and capitalist politics have to be superseded if humanity …[is] to survive…The alternative to this is a descent into savagery, if not extinction.” (“The alternative” is already visible in ways pointing to real-world dystopia combining the menaces presaged by such novelists as Jack London, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Brunner [author of the environmental dystopia The Sheep Look Up], Ray Bradbury, Phillip K. Dick, Cormac McCarthy, and Margaret Atwood – and as suggested in films like They Live, Escape From New York, Mad Max, Rollerball, Running Man, Idiocracy, Punishment Park, Equilibrium, Moon, Silent Running, Blade Runner, Strange Days, Waterworld, The Truman Show, Okja, World on a Wire [Fassbinder], The Trial, Wall-E, and Robocop.)

“Not Only Against Separate Conditions of Society”

The second thing logically thereby missing from the Times video is the alternative to capitalism: radically greened (eco-socialist) dictatorships of the proletariat (please see my postscript on this “trigger” phrase below) that put humanity on the path to ending class rule while forging radically new social relations and a radically altered stance of homo sapiens towards Earth. That would be nothing less than revolution – a revolution that would need to be understood not simply in narrow, revisionist, workerist, and economistic terms of “what’s in it for me and other oppressed people?” but rather as a collective determination to fundamentally transform both social relations and humanity’s relationship with the broad “web of life.” As the communist environmentalists Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in their 1840s German Ideology critique of Ludwig Feurerbach’s vulgar materialism, “[The] material elements of a complete revolution [include]… the formation of a revolutionary mass, which revolts not only against separate conditions of society up till then, but against the very ‘production of life’ till then, the ‘total activity’ on which it [is] based.

Understanding: Public v. Private

A good friend who sent me the link to the Times video says that “the paper has no solution because the system that’s killing us is the only system The New York Times can imagine.”

The only system Times reporters and video-makers can publicly consider via the Times, for sure. Are Alton and Knight unaware that there no solutions under the profits system? They may well grasp this basic fact, actually. Who knows? I’ve never really liked this oft-quoted passage attributed the once famous US social democrat Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” I’ve known plenty of academic and other intellectual workers who understand far more than they let on in classrooms and more broadly in public. I’ve seen this holding back play out again and again on such topics as the abject criminality of the US invasion of Iraq, the cringing corporatism and imperialism of Barack Obama, and the rising menace of fascism in the United States. I know a celebrated left-liberal author who wrote a book on the need for socialism but chose to leave it unpublished so as not to endanger his elevated position in the literary market. I have myself on numerous prior occasions held back on what I understood to be the taproot cause of certain problems I’ve been assigned to write or teach about because of the calculation that revealing my full understanding would put my employment and/or fundraising (grant-writing) abilities at risk, thereby endangering the security and life chances of myself and family members.

Are You Experienced?

Another thought, hardly specific to the subject of this essay but worth mentioning nonetheless: the “formation of a revolutionary mass” is not just some abstract historical process in the minds of 19th Century intellectuals. It’s a shit-ton of hard work by dedicated organizers and sparkplug militants, most of whom go without mention in radical literature but whose contribution is if anything greater than those who wield the pen, the keyboard, and the speaking platform. Marx and Engels themselves spent endless hours trying to organize workers and others into socialist organizations, hardly waiting for inevitable laws of history to magically manifest. Lenin’s pamphlet What is to be Done? was a manual for organization, not a blueprint for life beyond capitalism and imperialism. Never forget his Jimi Hendrix-anticipating comment at the end to the November 30, 2017, postscript to The State and Revolution:

“This pamphlet was written in August and September 1917. I had already drawn up the plan for the next, the seventh chapter, ‘The Experience of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917.’ Apart from the title, however, I had no time to write a single line of the chapter; I was ‘interrupted’ by a political crisis–the eve of the October revolution of 1917. Such an ‘interruption’ can only be welcomed; but the writing of the second part of this pamphlet (‘The Experience of the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917’) will probably have to be put off for a long time. It is more pleasant and useful to go through the ‘experience of revolution’ than to write about it.”

Postscript: On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat

Trigger warning! (Apologies in advance for the length of some of the sentences in this postscript.). In my experience, this phrase sets off many on “the left,” especially those with “anarchist” inclinations. Sorry, not sorry. Marx applied his friend the German-American abolitionist and Union Army officer Joseph Weydemeyer’s phrase “the dictatorship of the proletariat” to mean (consistent with Weydemeyer) (a) that class inequality, class politics, and class ideology – in a word, class – would not magically disappear overnight after a socialist revolution and (b) that a successful transition to a world beyond class rule and class states – to communism – depends on the suppression of capitalist counterrevolution. Revolution has always bred counterrevolution and always will. In a world of capitalist empire and nation states, of course, new and nationally bound socialist revolutions like the ones that occurred in Russia in 1917 and in China in 1949 face the problem of imperialist encirclement, invasion, and aggression. The restoration of capitalism in late 1970s China, including the massive marshalling of newly proletarianized Chinese labor power and other “cheap nature” to the parasitic depredations of Western and Japanese capital was intimately related to the vicious “neoliberal” turn of western and world capitalism and is surely one of the greatest social, political, economic, and ecological disasters in human history. Along with the final collapse of what was left of Soviet socialism, whose misleaders foolishly embraced both “peaceful co-existence” with US-led world capitalism and trade unionist reformism inside wealthy capitalist states (neither surrender was required in the course of repudiating Stalin’s pathologies, crimes, and errors) during the environmentally calamitous post-WWII “golden age of capitalism,” it contributed to the capitalogenic environmental crisis that is now poised to terminate the human experiment.

Some on “the left” (including many friends) seem incapable of engaging in real world people’s struggle thanks to childish workerist fantasies of revolution as a dreamy overnight transition to proletarian self-management – no socialist transition required. The magical thinking at the heart of this “vision” both reflects and informs their alienation from and dismissal of actual revolutionary and united front politics with all its imperfections and difficulties. Like hyper-woke identity politics, it translates into unwitting objective alliance with 21st Century neo-Weimar neoliberalism and fascism. The big bad scary state – including a global state formation – will be required not only to fight literally cancerous capitalist restoration, but to plan implement, and enforce environmental transformation and repair on a planetary scale.

It is worth remembering that bourgeois democracy (gravely menaced from the Republi-fascist right in the world’s leading capitalist state right now) was always in essence superstructural cover for a de facto capitalist class dictatorship. The “commoners” – the proletarianized majority of everyday people – don’t democratically call the shots under capitalism.  They never have and they never will. As the great Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote in the introduction to his magisterial volume, The Age of Capital, “the global triumph of capitalism” meant “the triumph of a society” based on “buying everything (including labor) in the cheapest market and selling the dearest.” It was (and remains) a society where “participation in politics [on the part] of the common people” takes place only “within such limits as would guarantee the bourgeois social order and avoid the risk of its overthrow.” The outwardly democratic forms have always been considered expendable. They have been dispensed with many times in the history of supposedly democratic capitalism.

The cancellation of previously ruling class-normative bourgeois constitutional “democracy” and “rule of law” is a distinct possibility in contemporary Trump-Biden-ClintOnbama-Rittenhouse-Kavanaugh-Garland Amerika. It is something to which the US billionaire class will for the most part readily accede, consistent with the “stealth politics” it has long practiced. A considerable portion of the moneyed elite is down with fascitization and it’s not at all clear that those parts of the billionaire class who oppose the authoritarian drift could stop it even if they want to, particularly within the killing confines of an ancient constitutional order that was already heavily weighted toward the right (thanks to the malapportioned and powerful US Senate + the absurd Electoral College + rampant US House and state legislative gerrymandering + the extreme judicial review power of the Supreme Court + campaign finance laws that turn elections into “wealth primaries” + constitutionally protected corporate control of the media and other ideological institutions + the mass arming of the right wing resulting from the racist Second Amendment) even before the majority fascist takeover of the Court (completed just weeks before the 2020 presidential election courtesy of Barack Obama, Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, the Federalist Society, Trump, and then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell among others) and the latest wave of right-wing voter suppression, vote dilution, and election cancellation measures concentrated in the red states. Only the people organized as a mighty force in the millions can stop the fascist drift in the world’s most powerful nation. Fearing the mob (the people) more than neofascist consolidation. The Democrats are playing their usual Weimar (fascism-appeasing) role of passive and hollow “resistance” and “inauthentic opposition” (Sheldon Wolin). Amerikaner fascitization is richly bipartisan.

We are still very much if quite late in the broader half-millennium Age of (the dictatorship of) Capital (Hobsbawm’s title referred to the specific period of European and North American industrial take-off and global trade expansion following the failed European revolutions of 1848). Revolutionary state formations – properly updated versions of what Weydemeyer and Marx called “the dictatorship of the proletariat” – will be very much required to prevent the long capitalist era (a small portion of total human history) from proving terminal for homo sapiens. The stark choice posed by Marx and Engels in their 1848 Communist Manifesto – “the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large” or “the common ruin of all” – stands before us. While its current version/update of the vengeful nationalist political pathology that is fascism is framed mainly around race and ethnicity in white supremacist and intimately related patriarchal terms (with a distinctively strong “Christian” dimension in the US strain), it is one of “late fascism” and “fossil fascism’s” (Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective’s useful phrases) many dark assignments to make sure that capital-imposed “common ruin” wins the day.

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