Capitalism destroys the environment
The following excerpt is taken from "Capitalism's Deadly World Disorder," a talk given at a regional socialist educational conference in Greensboro, North Carolina, April 10, 1993, and the following day to a similar gathering in Des Moines, Iowa. The talks were followed by discussion periods; this selection was in answer to a question from a conference participant. The entire speech appears in Capitalism's World Disorder: Working-Class Politics at the Millennium. Copyright © 1999 by Pathfinder Press, reprinted by permission. Subheadings are by the Militant.
BY JACK BARNES
The modern communist workers movement has long had a position against capitalist degradation of the environment. [Karl] Marx and [Frederick] Engels wrote powerfully and convincingly about capital's destruction of the soil, the water, the air, and the basis for human life and civilization. I do not think there is anything to take back from the foundation they laid.1
Environmental pollution is a social question, a class question. Workers must not fall into accepting the common view that the environment — any more than "education" —is a "scientific" question, a "natural" question, that somehow hovers above classes and outside the class struggle. That is how many middle-class opponents of nuclear energy, and of nuclear weapons, for example, often present those questions. Many who call themselves environmentalists say the problem is "consumerism," or industrial development per se. But the workers movement has to explain the true source of ecological destruction and why the answer lies along the revolutionary line of march of the working class.
Conflicting class interestsIt is unlikely there will ever be "an environmental movement" as such, because conflicting class interests and perspectives will point to diametrically opposed causes and irreconcilable solutions. Young people, outraged by the abuses they see all around them and looking for answers, can become involved in activities and groups that are disconnected from any line of march that points to changing the class character of the state, to changing the class structure of the government and thus the character of society. Ultimately, such activity corrodes their initial motivations and too often develops into a search for middle-class nostrums for improving their own quality of life as individuals.
Of course, there can and will be broad action coalitions to act against specific dangers to the natural environmental and human health and safety: the incinerator you mentioned, a nuclear power plant, a toxic waste dump. These fights will often involve workers, farmers, students, people from the middle class, and others. Labor must join in these battles against the horrifying breakdowns that capitalism creates and help to lead these fights. But there will never be some general, classless environmental protection movement.
The working class must also reject all forms of fake science, exaggeration, and crankism. There is a decades-long record of such frenzied prophecies — the impending exhaustion of fossil fuels and other natural resources, the "limits to growth," and so on. These originate in sections of the bourgeoisie and are then picked up and propagated by petty-bourgeois reformers. They feed into the conspiracy nostrums that are floated in the working class and labor movement, taking workers' eyes off the true source of such social ills: the capitalists and their profit system. Such views usually end up as pseudoscientific rationalizations for reactionary, and often racist, "overpopulation" propaganda and calls for belt-tightening —with "equality of sacrifice," of course — to husband the earth's disappearing riches.
Oppose 'environmental taxes'In the name of protecting the environment, middle-class reformers join forces with bourgeois politicians to figure out ways for both the state and voluntary agencies to control the benighted masses who do not understand these questions. They call for steeper cigarette taxes and bans on smoking anywhere; they seek stiffer fines on individuals who do not recycle just right, while capitalists destroy entire rivers, lakes, and forests.
It is not unknown for the new First Lady herself to take this tax-and-scold approach on a wide variety of questions. This has nothing to do with working-class politics or protecting the interests of working people. Instead, it has to do with the regimentation of the working class and the hysteria of middle-class social engineers.
Many things that are called environmental questions today are not. I live in New York City and work a lot of the time in a building on the Hudson River. Virtually all of what is called the environmental movement there thought it was a stupendous victory back in the 1980s when the renovation of the West Side Highway was held off for years by a federal judge because of the potential effects on the spawning of striped bass. But the whole thing was a con. I do not know the truth about the striped bass; maybe its spawning grounds needed to be protected. But I do know the fight had nothing to do with protecting the striped bass, much less with transporting working people in New York City.
Instead, it was a multibillion-dollar battle between two sections of finance capital. At issue were the conflicting interests of current and potential bondholders, big real estate developers with riverfront properties, and these and other capitalists weighing the likely tax credits and burdens. Billions of dollars were at stake — massive development funds and eternal interest transfers to coupon clippers.
So, a federal judge simply put the project on hold for a number of years until consensus was reached in the ruling class that rebuilding the West Side Highway was not in their best interests. And then everyone forgot about the fish.
Effects of pollution on working classIt is important to remind ourselves of such examples, because similar considerations are at the heart of a certain amount of what passes for environmental questions. But if we translate everything commonly thought of as an environmental issue into how to advance the protection of the working class, and how the working class can extend that protection to all, then we can hardly ever go wrong. With that approach, we will increase the possibilities for concrete solidarity in fighting against ecological abuses and outrages.
The labor movement should expose the differential effects of pollution on the working class, including the even more devastating consequences for sections of the working class that are Black, Chicano, or foreign-born. We can point to the kinds of neighborhoods and parts of the countryside where waste dumps just happen to be located, and where incinerators just happen to be built. We can point to the impact on working farmers, and the connections with speedup and with health and safety on and off the job.
The workers movement must take the lead in actively exposing the destruction and dangers produced by capitalism and in organizing opposition to them. If labor does so, this effort can develop over time into a broad and powerful, working-class-led social movement like the CIO movement in the 1930s. It would help the working class galvanize our allies to fight for our common interests against the propertied families and their state.
True environmental horrors are accelerating under capitalism today (and the Stalinist regimes across Central and Eastern Europe and the USSR are responsible for unthinkable devastation as well). Revolutionary governments of the workers and farmers can and will reverse this deadly course.
Take a couple evenings and reread the Communist Manifesto; reread the sections in Capital on capitalism's destruction of the natural environment. You will be stunned at how clearly this question is placed within the historical development of capitalism, its uncontrollable tendencies, and its social consequences. You will be stunned at how uncompromising, how committed the communist workers movement was from its origins to combating capitalism's ravaging of the earth and its atmosphere.
Marx explains how human creativity is turned into its opposite under capitalism, how advances in the forces of production simultaneously increase the forces of destruction of nature itself. How the sources of all wealth—land and labor—are increasingly the victims of the domination of capital. And, most importantly, why the working class–led struggle for a socialist revolution opens a way forward on this front as well.
1For example, Marx wrote in Capital that "Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and ... the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker." And elsewhere in the same work: "The development of civilization and industry in general has always shown itself so active in the destruction of forests that everything that has been done for their conservation and production is completely insignificant in comparison." Capital, vol. 1, p. 638, and vol. 2, p. 322.