Ben Wray finds radical honesty in Andreas Malm’s call for ecological War Communism, but wonders where the agency for such a shift will come from.
If the events of the past year and a half haven’t got you thinking about the importance of ecological catastrophe to the politics of the 21st century, nothing will. Following the pandemic, recent weeks have seen a spate of extreme weather events in North America, Europe and China which reinforce the mood of foreboding. The infrastructure of some of the most advanced economies in the world turned to rubble overnight – no internet, no electricity, no gas, no roads – by the sheer force of rain water alone.
In Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century Andreas Malm’s starting point is that while Covid-19 and Climate Breakdown are different in quite fundamental ways, they both have the same root cause: the global circuits of capital that continue to find new lands to churn-up and extract from in the never-ending search for greater profits. The specific processes which release carbon into the atmosphere are well known. In the case of Covid-19, the key process is mass deforestation, destroying wild habitats and disorientating those animals (in this case, almost certainly bats) which can then move to human settlements and shed their viruses, often via another species first (pangolins are in the frame in the case of Covid-19), and from them on to us, in a zoonotic spillover that can lead to an event like the current global pandemic.
Malm argues: “Capital is fastened to ever more land and sucking its contents into circulation at an ever madder pace, and this must, as a general law, result in a high risk of zoonotic pandemics, as one consequence of the ecological havoc caused.”
But there’s more. As the climate breaks down, wild habitats will increasingly become destabilised not only by the direct human intervention of deforestation, but also simply by the floods, heatwaves, droughts and other extreme weather events (as well as general heating) which will accompany our new reality, creating further possibilities for pandemics, at least in the next 30-40 years (after that, so many wild animals could be wiped out as to reduce the possibility of zoonotic spillover). In the last three cases of major zoonotic spillovers – Mers, Sars and Covid-19 – the places they occurred were all suffering from drought conditions at the time.
“The hypothesis here is that the coronaviruses themselves prosper in low humidity,” Malm writes.
“Like so many others, it has yet to be confirmed, but it should now be evident enough that corona and climate do not form separate, parallel lines. Corona can be an effect of climate; not the other way around. More importantly, the two are interlaced aspects, on different scales of time and space, of what is now one chronic emergency.”
One chronic emergency, but with an enormous divergence in political responses from states across the world. Why the disparity between the extraordinary state responses ot Covid-19 and climate change? Malm devotes the first section of this book to knocking back all suggestions which let the global system of highly uneven power relations off the hook.
Malm argues that the “timeline of victimhood” is key. Covid only became an emergency when wealthy people in the global north began to suffer. There was no lockdown planned when the virus swept through Iran in February. But by mid-March, Europe was considered by the WHO to be the “epicentre” of the pandemic. And since the super-rich travel most, they were often the ones to be hit first. Boris Johnson and Prince Charles were among the first to be on ventilators.
“The timeline of victimhood placed rich and poor at opposite ends for corona and climate: in the former case, inducing governments of the North to do the right thing; in the latter, to behave in a manner that can only be called evil,” Malm argues. “Perhaps humanity should thank Covid-19 for taking the early route through Europe.”
Malm was writing this in April 2020, and if you consider the responses from the global north (or perhaps one should say non-responses) to subsequent waves of Covid-19 in the global south, or the breathtaking inequalities in vaccine rollout between the global north and global south, it’s clear that he has a point. European states have all officially declared “climate emergencies”, but they will only act like it’s an emergency when rich westerners are the ones whose lives are in peril.
Given this political logic which steers the decision-making of the establishment, what hope that they will suddenly change course on climate breakdown and dismantle “fossil capital”? Malm draws on the marxist economist James O’Connor’s crisis theory of the second contradiction of capitalism – that the conditions of production (labour and non-human nature) tend to be undermined by capital itself – to argue that it is possible that climate breakdown could create a global crisis for the capitalist system, in the way the pandemic became a major global recession (which Malm calls “the first true O’Connor crisis”).
However, the timescales of such a crisis, and the unevenness with which it is likely to occur, rule it out as a viable means by which irreversible climate breakdown can be prevented. Furthermore, when capitalist states do respond to crisis in an emergency like fashion, that by no means includes tackling anything other than the most immediate and pressing symptoms. There’s nothing in how states around the world have responded to the pandemic which would make one believe that the root causes of zoonotic spillover – capital’s voracious appetite for extraction – is even on the agenda as an issue that must be tackled. Indeed, we have just learned that the Amazon has just become a net emitter of carbon as deforestation continues.
“Fossil fuel extraction in tropical forests combines the drivers of climate change and zoonotic spillover in one bulldozer,” Malm writes.
Given we cannot rely on capitalist states to deliver but we can expect capitalist crises linked to escalating ecological disasters, the ‘what is to be done?’ question is inevitable. The last part of the book is dedicated to developing an answer.
Social democracy and anarchism are quickly dismissed as incapable of rising to the challenge of overhauling the global economy at breakneck speed. Malm finds that social democracy has only ever thrived in periods of capitalist stability, where “time is on our side”. It is difficult to see how such periods are ever coming back, and thus gradualism looks increasingly redundant.
Anarchism is anti not just the capitalist state, but any state, which is a problem when you need the power of compulsion to prevent people from hacking down rainforests for tree-logging, or any other individual endeavour which in aggregate can wreck a collective plan to prevent ecological catastrophe. Just as some behaviours have been limited during the pandemic, the same requirement for compulsion – levied by an authority which can only have legitimacy as a state – would clearly be essential in any serious effort to address ecological crisis. A state, of some kind, is clearly needed in an emergency.
Which brings Malm back to revolutionary marxism. Malm finds that “the category of catastrophe” was “central” to the development of revolutionary marxism. It can be found as far back as Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto: class conflict ends “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes”. Malm quotes extensively from Lenin, Trotsky and Luxembourg, all three of whom never tired of emphasising urgency in the delivery of their programmes. And the more time narrowed, the greater necessity for avoiding the “half-measures”, hated by Lenin and which could fairly describe the climate action of basically all governments across the global north today.
Malm focuses on the Bolshevik policy of “war communism” which was introduced to defeat the ‘White’ counter-revolution ( supported by the imperialist powers) in the civil war of 1918-1921. This is a better metaphor for present day needs, Malm finds, than comparisons with the WWII mobilisation, when the allied side ultimately sought to defend the status quo and was reactive to the threat of fascism.
On the other hand, War Communism sought to radicalise Bolshevik policy on nationalisations and seizure of landed estates, as essential measures in a rapid marshalling of resources towards defeating the Whites. These measures largely eradicated what was left of the old Russian elites. War Communism was a success, but it was also brutal. It involved, among many other harsh measures the militarisation of labour, with workers sent into forests to cut trees as fuel for the state (coal and oil had been almost entirely seized by the Whites).
Of course, Malm is not suggesting militarising labour today, just as no one who uses the WWII mobilisation analogy is suggesting nuking Nagaski and Hiroshima. The War Communism metaphor carries two political purposes: 1) that “the basic make-up must harbour a predisposition for emergency action and an openness to some degree of hard power from the state”, and 2) that it will require political leadership from the centre to bring about the planned economy necessary to overcome climate catastrophe, or as Malm quotes Luxembourg: “Tendencies of capitalist development, at a certain point of their maturity, necessitate the transition to a planful mode of production, consciously organised by the entire working force of society – in order that all of society and human civilisation might not perish”.
This last point is key for Malm: Leninism has the methodological approach of attacking the roots of a problem: “First, and above all, ecological Leninism means turning the crises of symptoms into crises of the causes.”
Here, Malm is also critical of the present-day radical left, which has largely responded to the pandemic crisis by pointing to the symptoms of the crisis – rising poverty, unemployment, growing inequality – rather than the causes: zoonotic spillover generated by capital’s destruction of wild habitats.
“A left staying in its habitually defined social corner will only be capable of raising demands similar to ‘sea walls for all’ – better palliative action, but palliative,” he writes.
What’s admirable about Malm is, as a long-term climate justice activist, he knows talk of an ecological Leninism and War Communism will be uncomfortable territory for many of the people he has been working with for years, but he’s willing to follow the scale of the challenge to its logical solutions. There is a bravery and intellectual honesty about Malm which is refreshing. That said, there are some important aspects of his ecological Leninism which are suspect.
First, Malm does not answer the all important question of who is the revolutionary agent of our times? The bedrock of the Russian revolution was not the Bolshevik party, it was the soviets, or workers’ councils, which emerged early in the revolutionary process and were spontaneous and not created by the Bolsheviks. The soviets were workplace based power centres, and acted as the foundations for the new state following the Bolshevik-led October revolution. There was a material basis for forging a new state; i.e. it was based on the power of a different class, the workers.
Suffice to say, there is nothing remotely comparable to the soviets anywhere today, and Malm appears to acknowledge this by saying that Lenin’s conception in State and Revolution – of smashing the existing state and creating a new one – is not currently tenable.
“No workers’ state based on soviets will be miraculously born in the night. No dual power of the democratic organs of the proletariat seems likely to materialise anytime soon, if ever. Waiting for it would be both delusional and criminal, and so all we have to work with is the dreary bourgeois state, tethered to the circuits of capital as always,” he says.
Malm’s sense of urgency is perfectly understandable, but how does one transform the “dreary bourgeois state” into a mechanism of War Communism? All Malm has to offer in this regard is the strategies the broad left has been pursuing (usually unsuccessfully) for decades.
“There would have to be popular pressure brought to bear on it, shifting the balance of forces condensed in it, forcing apparatuses to cut the tethers and begin to move…”.
The lack of a class base for War Communism points to a second problem: if an emergency programme reliant on important aspects of compulsion and hard power is to be introduced by a bourgeois state, what is the social force which could stop this becoming a straight-forwardly authoritarian capitalist project? It is not actually impossible to imagine the Chinese state delivering the sort of rapid and huge changes to the economy that are required to seriously reduce emissions at ultra-fast speed, but under the current regime this would be done via a ramping up of the state’s authoritarian control over the populous, intensified worker surveillance, and exploitation.
Malm is acutely aware of the risks in this respect, which he describes as “the dilemma of how to execute control measures in an emergency without trampling on democratic rights, but rather by securing, building on and drawing force from them.” That is a dilemma that is closely tied to class dynamics, most critically between the state and the population at large.
These weaknesses do not mean Malm’s ecological Leninism should be dismissed. The whole point of War Communism was that it was an emergency plan to stave-off complete disaster, not a route-map to a blissful future. He is right to say that humanity is quickly reaching a point where there are no utopian pathways left; the dreaded tipping points are closing in, and as we cross them soon enough there will be no ‘mass abundance’, which Marx believed to be the material basis for a society free of class division. Ironically, ecological Leninism may be the pragmatic option.
Andreas Malm ‘Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency: War Communism in the Twenty-First Century’, is available from Verso Books.