Climate change has become the rallying point for the left in the aftermath of the ‘end of history’ in 1989. Apparently, it seems, humans aren’t good agents to overthrow capitalism and save society from the ever-encroaching tyranny that is ‘privatization’, as defended by liberals. This defeatism is best manifested by J.A. Cohen in his work, If you’re an Egalitarian, how come you’re so Rich?:
I remain skeptical of the human-nature premise of the selfishness defense of inequality, for something like the old reasons. But I am no longer so skeptical of the sociological premise...if people are by now irreversibly selfish (not by nature but) as a result of capitalist history, then, so I now think, structure alone could not suffice to deliver equality, in the face of selfishness. Even on reasonably sunny views about the limits of human nature itself, capitalist history would have thrown us into a cul-de-sac from which we could not exit and regain the road to socialism. (119-120).
The aforementioned quote is truly a concession to Fukuyama’s ‘the end of history’, and I think that most people of the ‘left’ agree with Cohen. Since the left has given up fighting this ‘human nature’ element of liberal-capitalism—even if it admitted as a sociological construction of capitalism—, it has thus conceded defeat to the forces of reaction and regression. The best that we can do is admit defeat, via Giddens ‘Third Way’ liberal-democracy, which seeks to ameliorate capitalist exploitation of Polanyi’s ‘fictitious commodities’—land, labour, and capital—, by exporting the worst elements of capitalism to the Third World and living in our debt-fueled, post-modern, ‘creative economy’. Since human beings cannot be the agents of change, a new agent of change is needed, one whose internal mechanisms can be predicted and act as a deus ex machina to save us from ourselves—no longer is the social-system that is capitalism the enemy, but rather our own inferior ‘human nature’. However, to admit such a fundamental and definitional defeat is not manageable by the left, because it would render the left irrelevant; the left needs a “fetish” in order for it to live with its apparent defeat: enter the environment.
The logic is as follows: the environment is a non-negotiable element in our collective space that has its own laws of regulation that transcend human manipulation and articulation, viz., that cannot be hegemonized. However, due to man’s uncontrolled exploitation of the Earth’s resources, primarily fossil fuels, the self-correcting mechanisms of the planet are no longer functioning properly and leading us towards the apocalypse. One of the effects, that affect every human regardless of class position, is climate change. Climate change, as agreed by most scientists, is a result of human action, linked to the industrial revolution; however, what is obfuscated is that this is fueled by the unending accumulation of capital in private hands as its motivation. Thus, climate change is like a semi-religious condemnation of capitalism from the abstract planet. Therefore, we must either conform to nature, or suffer the consequences of its wrath. What we are unwiling to do is actually conform, we are trying everything in our power to prevent the dirty truth of capitalism from exposing itself, with greater and greater unpaid debts, a la Wallerstein, accumulating in the future.
For the left this is the perfect agent of change, it has all the power of God and cannot be re-articulated. Nature, not man, has become the Jacobian agent of unrelenting, blind terror that delivers justice on a massive scale with no sense of hesitation. Of course, we all know that this is scientifically true and we, as a species, rich or poor, deserve this wrath. Why? Because we, as a species, have alternatives to this system that could help stop things from getting worse. First, the left has to fight the fundamental battle, which Cohen has given up, that human nature is not set in stone, but rather is a result of hegemonic articulation and was and can be changed. If we accept the liberal/neoclassical notion of human nature, of homo economicus, then the capitalist ‘free market’ is the only way that we can organize society and that means ‘the end of history’, literally. Secondly, assuming we have transcended capitalist subjectivity, we could democratically organize our societies in such a way to live within our means and socialize the means of production to take away the incentives that exist to ‘cheat’. Thirdly, we could strive for a more cosmopolitan world, something that can only be realized under socialism, rearticulating our sense of identity from our ‘nations’ to humanity in general, thereby allowing for a global distribution of resources.
I am not foolish enough to think that this is possible within the time frame given to us by an increasing number of climatologists, before we are essentially doomed. The recent climate change conference in Copenhagen will not result in substantive change, because real change means a post-capitalist society and those who are negotiating at the conference tables cannot even imagine such a reality. As Zizek once wrote, paraphrasing, ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world, than the end of capitalism’. The movie 2012, which I saw in theaters here in Uruguay, is a perfect testament to that axiom. The main characters looked at who was being allowed on the ‘arcs’, the rich who paid $1 billion for a "ticket", and knew that those who merited survival—like the Indian scientist who discovered the tectonic shifts in the first place—were left to die. The interesting thing about this is that the main characters knew it was wrong, yet did nothing and worse, could not even articulate what was going on: capitalism. As Marx wrote about ideology, “they do not know it, but they are doing it”.