The Four Horsemen of the Capitalist-Imperialist Apocalypse

Followers of my writing have I hope noticed me repeatedly arguing that capitalism produces four mutually reinforcing and multiplying apocalyptic horsemen: ecocide, pandemicide, potentially terminal nuclear war, and fascism.

Capitalism at the Dark Taproot

I want to dig into this formulation here, explaining how capitalism generates each of these apocalyptic menaces and how the “four horsemen” reinforce and indeed multiply each other.

Let’s start with the first dark rider, ecocide.  Here I am talking only about climate change, fully aware that capitalism produces numerous “ecological rifts” besides (and intimately related to) global warming.

Capitalism’s underlying economic base requires constant, cancer-like growth, thereby placing livable ecology at grave risk. In the era of fossil fuels, in which capitalism is deeply and indeed terminally invested, this requirement is turning the planet into a giant Greenhouse Gas Chamber. The combination of constant growth and fossil fuels has created an epic climate catastrophe that is pushing humanity and countess other species under thermal siege.

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Capitalism is a disorderly and amoral global economic and state system devoid of any real capacity to sustainably re-orient and de-toxify human relations with the natural environment. An ever more poisoned world dominated by capitalist imperialists and broken up into dozens and dozens of competing nation states is not rational.  It is anarchic, competitive, and exterminist, so fundamentally socio-pathological that it sees the ecological destruction it generates as a source of new profit opportunities – new shipping lanes available in regions formerly covered by ice, for example. The long-term common good is perpetually trumped by the ruling investor class’s short-term bottom line under the reign of capital. And that class too invested in fossil fuels (both directly and indirectly) to permit governments under bourgeois control (whatever their democratic pretenses) to keep those resources in the ground before the extraction and burning of coal, oil, and gas pushes the planet past irreversible tipping points of runaway warming.

What’s capitalism got to do with  pandemicide?   Quite a bit. The system’s relentless expansion, without which the profits system cannot survive, destroys vast swaths of natural habitat, bringing humans into ever close contact with species that bear deadly zoonotic viruses from which humanity was previously insulated.  The capitalogenic climate catastrophe is causing species migrations that further break down previous epidemiological barriers. And contemporary globalized capitalism flies six million around the world in airplanes per day, guaranteeing the rapid and wide transmission of new diseases for which many lack immunity.

Potentially Terminal War? You betchyaMao Zedong was right to call capitalism “capitalism-imperialism.” The world is teetering closer to terminal nuclear war, helping (along with global warming) push the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock closer to Midnight than it has ever been in ways that should be at all surprising. Capitalism is a system of competition, rivalry, and conflict not only between individual capitals but also between capitalist-imperialist states, for control of and access to markets, raw materials, labor supplies, technologies, and more – and with that for exploitation and oppression of the vast global periphery, the so-called developing world, formerly know (during the Cold War) as the “Third World.”  There’s no way under capitalism for one nation state to remain forever the one and only major power, the role to which the US aspired (and attained to some transient and partial degree) after World War II. The leading capitalist-imperialist states butting heads with each other in the increasingly “multipolar” world system today – the United States, Russia, and China – are armed to the teeth with (ever more lethal) nuclear weapons, first developed during the second of the last century’s two massive inter-imperialist global wars (and used twice by the US in 1945, largely as a warning to the first state that tried to break out of and challenge the world capitalist system – the Soviet Union). With the capitalist-imperialist US menacing the other two great nuclear powers in their immediate regional spheres of influence (Eastern Europe and the far eastern Pacific), chances of catastrophic war are higher now than they were during the Cold War. Trigger zones include Ukraine, Taiwan, and of course the Middle East, where Israel’s escalated crucifixion of Gaza (after the October 7 Hamas terror attack) and the ongoing US campaign against Iran have the potential of setting off much wider conflict.

And then there’s fascism,  usefully defined by the US-based group Refuse Fascism (RF) as “a qualitative change in how society is governed. Once in power,” RF says, “fascism’s defining feature is the essential elimination of the rule of law and democratic and civil rights. Fascism foments and relies on xenophobic nationalism, racism, misogyny, and the aggressive re-institution of oppressive ‘traditional values.’ Truth is obliterated and fascist mobs and threats of violence are unleashed to build their movement and consolidate power.”

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What’s it got to do with capitalism-imperialism? Everything. By virtue of its inherent tendency towards the upward concentration of wealth and power, capitalism regularly makes transparently inauthentic its “democratic”  and “equality before for the law” pretenses – this while the underlying anarchy of capital regularly generates crises and catastrophes that require big government intervention.  It’s a deadly combination that encourages authoritarian “solutions” advanced by charismatic strongmen who find significant mass support for their claim that they alone can fix things with the backing of a party and mass base ready to discard previously normative parliamentary, civil, and legal niceties and moral compunctions.

Capitalism simultaneously creates mass politics, delegitimizes (exposing as inauthentic) democracy and rule of law, demonizes socialist and communist movements, and sustains and exploits the longstanding divisive and oppressive forces of racism, sexism, nativism, fundamentalism, imperialism, and nationalism.  It soullessly cheapens human life, rendering billions of people disposable in ways that help fuel sadistic dehumanization.

At the same time, the democratic, humanistic, “tolerant,” and “rule of law” pretenses of capitalism are always considered expendable by considerable portions of the ruling capitalist class. Plenty of powerful capitalists are ready to work with and through a political superstructure that dispenses with bourgeois democracy and go instead with the Iron Heel: capitalism-imperialism with a boot on the neck of the masses.

It’s a toxic jumble that generates fascist potential and reality like white on rice.

Multiplication, Not Addition

Now let’s get into how these four horsemen – I’ll keep the gender intact to reflect capitalism’s deep connection to patriarchy – do more than merely stand next to each other and add up, as in addition, but rather reinforce and expand each other, as in multiplication. It’s not ecocide plus potentially nuclear war plus pandemicide plus fascism.  It’s ecocide times potentially nuclear war times pandemicide times fascism.

Ecocide and Pandemicide. Climate change is helping drive the risk of pandemics by forcing human and animal migrations away from overheated, thermally unsafe regions, thereby increasing prospects for cross-species zoonotic virus transmissions.  At the same time, climate change’s negative impact on agricultural productivity incentivizes the expansion of land enclosure and cultivation, further eroding barriers between humans and pathogens carried by other species (Here I suppose a clever critic could argue that potential mass death and economic depression resulting from pandemics could help reduce carbon emissions!)

Ecocide and (potentially nuclear) war: the capitalist climate crisis damages global capitalist profitability (by reducing agricultural productivity and thereby raising the cost of food, other materials and labor, for example) in ways that intensify inter-imperial competition for markets and materials, sharpening conflicts between capitalist states in ways that encourage drifts and lurches toward global war. Militaries and their wars are themselves huge fossil fuel users and carbon emitters.  (Of course a global thermonuclear war could solve the climate crisis with the Nuclear Winter. World War III would also end the threats of fascism and pandemicide).

Ecocide and Fascism: In their important book White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism, Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Group have drawn numerous connections between these two.  The mutually reinforcing synergies include:

+ the far right’s strong attachment to fossil fuels as a great national/racial heritage and “stock,” a source of national greatness.

+ the fueling of racist anti-immigrant nativism within rich white nations by mass nonwhite migrations from poor nations where climate change is making life more miserable than ever.

+ fascism’s anti-intellectual opposition to truth and science, which encourages climate denialism on the far right.

+ right-wing anti-socialism, which undermines positive government action for environmental sanity.

+ the right-wing narrative that climate concerns are a cloak for poor nonwhite nations’ effort to “steal” rich white nation’s wealth and power.

+  the “eco-fascist” claim that immigration is the real basis for environmental spoilation in rich nations

+ right-wing indifference to climate change on the cruel basis of the notion that it only hurts poor nations and people in the nonwhite periphery of the world system.

+ the negative impact of climate mitigation efforts on the economic status of significant sectors and regions, providing ground for right-wing parties to sell eco-cidal anti-climate policies as economic “populism.”

+ the role of climate change in producing mass social dislocations and crises that provide fertile ground for right wing recruitment.

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Pandemicide and Fascism.  Fear of germ-carrying Others and outsiders fuels xenophobic nativism and nationalism, key parts of the fascist mix.  Government measures to control virus transmission feed paranoid right-wing “anti-government” sentiments. Economic decline and social dislocation resulting from pandemics create mass discontent and trauma the far-right exploits, depicting (for example) pandemics and related public health efforts to stem their spread as parts of a “globalist” conspiracy. Pandemics isolate masses of people from previously normal social contact, rendering them less prone to mutual concern and solidarity while making them more vulnerable to online hate. Pandemic origins stories are concocted by the far right to fuel mass paranoia and racism (e.g. “the China Virus,” “the China Hoax”). Fascism advances the potentially genocidal  dehumanization and demonization racial, political, cultural, sexual and additional Others, encouraging its adherents to welcome the real or imagined role of pandemics in eliminating portions of humanity they hate. At the same time, fascism is animated by a virulent Social Darwinian faith in the “survival of the fittest,” a mindset that welcomes the death of “the weak” and mitigates against positive government public health policy for the common good.

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Pandemcide and War.  A pandemic’s negative impact on profitability can produce a global profits squeeze that encourages an increased likelihood of war between competing capitalist-imperialist states. Wars themselves create mass devastation that increase humans’ susceptibility to disease of all kinds including new zoonotic plagues.

Fascism and War: The militarized and violent nationalism that capitalist-imperial inter-state rivalry and war generate and intensify feed the fascist-authoritarian menace within nations. The fascist ethos and fascist movements past and present draw heavily on nationalist militarism and current and former military personnel. Like war and militarism, fascism upholds the rule of force and men over the rule of law and electoral and parliamentary politics.  Like fascism, war and militarism rely on the dehumanization and demonization of designated enemy Others, required to justify the elimination of rivals and foes. Fascism and militarism both advance the notion of the survival of the strongest, identifying strength with capacity for and readiness to employ mass violence. (Clausewitz said that “war is politics by other means.”  Fascism is among the other things the penetration of politics by the violent mindset and practices of war/militarism.) War in turn often produced massive social dislocations, hardships, and defeats (and triumphs) that fascist politicos and propagandists exploit.

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And, of course, the political pathology that is fascism is a brutal enforcer of  apocalyptic capitalism-imperialism – an enforcer that works among other things to crush open public support and movements for climate sanity, public health (including responsible pandemic prevention and response), peace, social justice, and intellectual freedom…. for reform, not to mention for the real requirement: revolutionary socialism. (The Amerikaner fascist leader Donald Trump has made it abundantly clear that he intends as 47th US president to deploy the military to suppress “the radical Left,” a label under which he absurdly includes militantly capitalist-imperialist Democrats.  Any opposition to his “drill, baby drill agenda,” to his promised military invasion of Mexico, to his escalated militarization of the border, to his war on women’s reproductive freedoms, to his promised mass immigrant round up and so on will quite possibly be met with considerable state and extra-state violence and repression.)

It is of course true that capitalist-imperialism is clearly showing itself ready, willing, and able to poison and generally ruin life on Earth by generating the first three apocalyptic horsemen (ecocide, pandemicide, and potentially nuclear world war) without the full consolidation of the last one (fascism).  But once in power fascism threatens to smash all social-civil-political-ideological space for popular opposition to eco-cidal and imperialist pandemo-capitalism and its allied oppression and exploitation systems including of course racism and sexism. Fascism needs to be resisted, refused, and defeated in and of itself though as part of a deeper movement to rid ourselves of the toxic taproot system – the capitalist mode of production and its attendant political and ideological superstructure – that gives rise to fascism in the first place.

An earlier version of this essay appeared on The Paul Street Report.

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