Naomi Klein at FODI: Using capitalism to solve a problem caused by capitalism?

Over the weekend climate activist Naomi Klein spoke at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas about her book, This Changes Everything. Not being in Sydney I watched Klein’s talk early this week. You can check it out here:

I am, in general, a big fan of Klein’s worked and really enjoyed This Changes Everything. In fact earlier this year I wrote an essay at Green Agenda on how we adapt Klein’s thesis to the Australian context. More than anyone else Klein has done what we’ve always needed to do — connect climate change to capitalism. This is a very important shift in the debate. 

Yet, in watching Klein’s speech I could not help but feel a little uneasy. Whilst Klein has connected climate change to capitalism she seems to at the same time use capitalism to solve the problem. 

In her FODI speech Klein said that climate change is “the collision between carbon pollution and a toxic ideology of market fundamentalism that has made it impossible for our shackled leaders to respond.” Later on, responding to questions from the audience, she said that she was not “against markets” but rather against the ideology that places markets above everything else. 

For the climate movement this has often been one of the biggest explanations as to why we are struggling to make progress. In her book Klein talks about “bad timing” — that the world has struggled to respond to climate change as it arrived at the exact same time as neoliberalism, which places markets above all other social and environmental needs.

It is here where Klein finds her solutions — a reinvestment in representative democracy that gives our leaders the space they to take action. In her speech she lists a number of these solutions — investment in green jobs, changing who profits from energy production, an end to corporate trade deals, carbon taxes, higher royalties on mining companies, and of course investment in public services. Of course this will never happen unless we change our democracy as well. The last phrase of that quote above is essential here. The problem with neoliberalism is that “it has made it impossible for our shackled leaders to respond”. We need therefore to turn this around, or as Klein says we need to “shut the revolving door between business and government.” We need to bring Governments back to a position of power so they solve the problem.

In other words the state will solve things for us — a position that is increasingly found in left reasoning. After the 2008 Global Financial Crisis for example many championed the idea of a “Green New Deal”; a model shaped on Roosevelt’s new deal of the 30s that saw mass public spending. Other activists have often looked at the investment Governments made during the early 40s to fight the Second World War. This investment changed the shape of Western economies dramatically within the space of just a few years. If they could do that then, why can’t they do it now? All we need to do, the left is saying, is give Government the authority to act.

It is this argument that I find increasingly unconvincing.

While the left often equates capitalism to neoliberal markets, capitalism is far more complex than that. In relation to this discussion in particular I think many in the left have failed to fully grasp the role the state plays in capitalist society. Let’s put this simply: the modern state is an integral part of capitalism. The state and capitalism grew together, and each depend on the other for their survival. The state is there to represent the interests of the capitalist, and political, class. It always has, and always will.

It is here where the idea of a once great and progressive state becomes problematic. While yes the state once had more authority to implement mass programs such as The New Deal, that did not mean it did so in order to best represent the interests of the general population. In fact Roosevelt, the great progressive hero, was regularly criticised for being too close to Wall St interests, with much of the New Deal being opposed by elements of the US left. The New Deal was a response to a political need of the time, but was a response that largely benefited the capitalist and political class.

And it is with this understanding that I fear the consequences of Klein’s solutions. While Klein often talks about building a ‘mass movement’, something which is clearly necessary, this movement is still one targeted at politicians. She wants a movement to convince politicians that they should act in our interests.

Klein therefore is advocating for the use of capitalism to solve a problem caused by capitalism. While it may be great (it also may not) if the state did much of what Klein wants it to do, I find it unconvincing it is possible. You cannot separate capitalist economy from the state and therefore I struggle to believe that our political class is ever going to implement major changes that threaten capitalism in the way Klein advocates. Here is where you end up with a strange middle proposition. If we rely on the state to solve the problems for us then they are going to do so in ways that benefit their own class interests. It was this that lead to the doomed emissions trading schemes in years gone by and it this that I suspect will result in geoengineering being presented as the next great solution. These are “solutions”, devised by the state, that in no way challenges their class interests. In doing so they are solutions that are non-solutions.

This all seems really strange when Klein, and the environment movement as a whole, seem to have many of the other answers right in front of her. Some of the greatest climate movements of recent years — divestment and direct action in particular — have been so successful because they have bypassed the political class in order to achieve their goals. These are forms of direct action that don’t rely on us asking our leaders to do something for us. They are actions in which we show our own leadership. Klein also talks about the rise of energy collectives in Germany, structures that operate outside the capitalist economic and political system, and are solving climate change at the same time. These structures are far more convincing to me than movements that ask our political class to do things for us.

Naomi Klein is certainly inspiration to watch and she certainly has got it right that capitalism is the problem. But by turning almost solely to the state she is also trying to use capitalism to solve the problem as well. Can you solve a problem caused by capitalism with more capitalism? I don’t think so.

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