Our worst nightmares reverberate with the prediction of respected scientist James Hansen: if we don’t stop TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, then it’s “game over” for stabilizing the climate. With final US governmental approval (or not) to complete the pipeline looming, struggle over it is intensifying.
In late January, representatives from more than 25 First Nations in what is currently known as Canada and the US met in South Dakota to pledge mutual support in halting all Alberta tar sands oil production projects, including specifically the Keystone XL pipeline.
On February 17, tens of thousands rallied in Washington, DC, to demand that the Obama administration reject the XL pipeline. Even the members of the Sierra Club were sufficiently alarmed that the staid environmental NGO had to lift its 120-year ban on civil disobedience.
Protesters want to believe Obama’s promises to “act decisively” on climate change. (His statement is suspiciously vague enough to leave the door open for insanely dangerous projects such as geo-engineering, the next big gold rush. It also certainly includes increased production of natural gas through fracking, which is destroying our water supply. What it doesn’t include is limiting greenhouse gas emissions from their primary source: existing power plants.)
They also want to believe John Kerry, who will lead the State Department review of the pipeline plan, when he describes himself as a “passionate advocate” for taking action in response to climate change. (His wording, like Obama’s, is extremely careful not to call for preventing it but for responding to it). Before making his decision, this “passionate advocate” has promised to divest nearly $750,000 of his money from Canadian tar sands companies Suncor and Cenovus.
Protesters desperately want to encourage or pressure these men to do “the right thing.” They want to believe they have the capability of making an ethical choice.
In reality, the choice is not theirs to make. These politicians are nothing but puppets. They represent the interests of the ruling class, the capitalist class. They are installed in office and given specific jobs to perform: to regulate capital’s flow and accumulation, to smooth the relations between competing capitalists, and to keep the masses sufficiently pacified so they don’t get in the way.
Capitalism can deal with a few thousand people protesting and getting arrested. In fact, it helps bolster its legitimacy, serving as proof of how democratic the system is. Those in power tolerate dissent; how nice. (Never mind that they only pretend to listen to it).
No amount of symbolic action will stop them from extracting whatever fuels will make money for them at any given time. A million people could scream, chain themselves together, or set themselves and their children on fire in front of the White House, but this would not mitigate capital’s compulsion to expand.
If an action is not going to be effective, it’s not worth taking. Fighting losing battles is simply depressing. When we do decide to engage in these struggles for strategic reasons, we need to understand their limitations to avoid being demoralized.
Many people understand what we’re up against. They know that capital has no ethics, no limits to the atrocities it will perpetrate in the pursuit of profit. They recognize that it is not a rational entity; it will not respond to reason or pleas or threats. So some have been attempting to physically block or otherwise interfere with the construction of the pipeline.
But capital, faced with obstacles, will take alternate routes. While our attention has been focused on the Keystone XL, which would be capable of moving 830,000 barrels of tar sands oil every day, another Canadian company (Enbridge) has outfitted a pipeline network capable of moving more than a million barrels a day. The price of each barrel will rise by nearly $40 once it reaches Louisiana refineries. The decision to make $40 million a day additional profit to destroy the planet is not a difficult one for companies like Enbridge to make. $40 million a day is not to be denied.
Capitalism is facing structural economic crises that, for capitalists, are even more urgent than the ecological crisis. Too high a proportion of their economy has become based on debt and speculation—profit based on “fictitious” value. This is becoming increasingly unstable and untenable. The global “structural adjustment” measures they’re currently imposing are attempts to shift back into more industrial production, which produces the “real” value on which their entire economy ultimately rests.
Faced with impending annihilation as capitalists, they can’t afford to care—or even to pretend to care—about their likely future annihilation as carbon-based life-forms. They are compelled by economic forces more powerful than any addiction.
Tar sands, fracking, deep-sea drilling, Arctic drilling, ecocidal agriculture, GMOs, prison labor, privatization of social services, sweatshops in “free trade zones”—however destructive or exploitative or evil the means, capital must expand. It has no choice.
Capital reproduces itself through surplus value. This is the new value that is created by the exploitation of labor in the process of industrial production (converting the natural world into commodities). It is embodied in commodities until it’s realized as profit and re-invested as new capital.
Capital must accumulate surplus value. It is the blood, the fuel, the essence of capital itself. Therefore, capital will push itself into every investment opportunity it can possibly locate within the global economy, no matter how destructive. It will not stop. Capital’s pursuit of surplus value is a relentless force that is poisoning the air, water, and land all over the world. It is capable of killing us all, of rendering the planet uninhabitable.
The problem is not the greed of individual capitalists. They are merely social agents who fill positions that are required and generated by capital itself. Capital has motion, needs, a life of its own. It cannot sit still and depreciate; it must expand by being invested somewhere. If one area of investment is blocked, it will find another. If we begin to block it effectively, it will annihilate us. Recall how effectively the police dispersed the Occupy encampments (once those in power decided to do it), and how quickly the Democratic Party and organized labor have been attempting to recuperate what is left of it for their own objectives. Capital will sweep away any obstacle, by whatever means are necessary.
Ecocide (quickly leading to omnicide) is an effect of capitalism, of commodity production. It is an extremely dire consequence, but nevertheless peripheral to the generation of capital. In order to stop ecocide, global capitalism must be destroyed. The generation of capital itself must be halted at its source: surplus value.
We can’t stop it by attacking it only from the outside; we must go after it at the core, its inner contradiction. The only ones who can ultimately overturn capitalism are those who are, through being enslaved to it, producing it: the working class.
The fundamental internal contradiction of a capitalist society is capital vs. wage labor. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the most important contradiction—that’s a value judgment that will be made differently by people depending on their positions and interests. What it means, instead, is that the push-pull of the struggle between capital and wage labor is what moves society in the direction it is going. It is the engine driving our society over an ecological cliff.
The production of surplus value is an economic process embedded in a social relationship. The contradiction between capital and wage labor is manifested in class struggle between capitalists and workers. The relationship between these classes is an antagonistic one: workers are exploited by capitalists in the process of the production of surplus value. To force them to produce, and to accept exploitation, capitalists dominate workers economically, politically, and ideologically.
It is only by the workers overturning and destroying this entire ensemble of social relations through which capital reproduces itself that capitalism can be stopped. When workers liberate themselves, they liberate all of society from the domination of capital. To end capitalism, those of us directly exploited by capital should intensify our efforts to organize ourselves and crush our enemy. We can only be effective if we are organized collectively; individually we are helpless.
What does that mean for those of us who are not workers, not part of the process of producing surplus value, but are still part of the “popular masses”? Those of us who are unemployed, or nonproductive (service) workers, or students, or members of the progressive or radical petit bourgeoisie (“middle class”)—we can’t touch capital; we can’t get our hands on it. We can’t go on strike to make it stop reproducing itself.
We can still organize ourselves, however, and build alliances to expose and resist various forms of domination by capital, as well as its effects. Mobilizing as a means of building mass movements is positive and necessary. Strategically blocking the flow of capital and resource extraction can complement and enhance struggles at the point of production. There is a lot we can do to damage capital, and capitalism, and we should strive to maximize all of our efforts in that direction.
The struggle against the capitalist accumulation of surplus value must be led by those who produce it: the working class. This is the only class that can follow through to the end, to actually defeat capitalism. In line with that orientation, we should build alliances and offer solidarity for every form of autonomous (not co-opted by collaborationist unions) struggle. Because capitalism is at a global stage of imperialism, the struggle against it is also global. Inside the imperialist social formations, we must fight imperialism, as well as build solidarity for the struggles against imperialism by the international working class.
To liberate the world from the domination of capitalism, workers must overturn political domination (smash the current state and seize political power) in order to take the means of production and subsistence out of private hands. Only then can profit be abolished. When the profit resulting from surplus value is no longer the motive force of expansion of production, then will we be free to figure out, and implement, a way of life that can be sustainable.
For now, our enemy is stronger than we are. We have to overcome that, and deal with the fact that if we begin to be effective, they will commit any conceivable atrocity to crush us. But we are potentially stronger than them. We have right on our side. We outnumber them. When we organize ourselves, we will be unstoppable.
Stop the Keystone XL pipeline: absolutely. But let’s not delude ourselves that that will be enough, or even close. Capitalism could easily absorb that loss and flow around it. If we keep on fighting its effects, we will never solve the problem. There is no quick fix. To stop ecocide, we must wage class struggle to overturn the entire system of global capitalism, all forms of domination that comprise that system and keep it in place, the entire matrix of social relations that brings tar sands oil pipelines into existence in the first place.