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Naomi Klein bares the limitations of her liberal environmentalism, by Roger Annis

David Klein

Naomi Klein bares the limitations of her liberal environmentalism

By Roger Annis, A Socialist In Canada, Aug 4, 2018

Naomi Klein has published a lengthy critique of an important feature essay appearing in the New York Times Magazine on August 1, 2018: Losing Earth: The decade we almost stopped climate change, by Nathaniel Rich, with photos and video by George Steinmetz. Klein’s commentary on the Times magazine article is published on August 3 in The Intercept, where she is a regular columnist.

Indian ragpicker at municipal waste dump in Dimapur, India on World Earth Day, 2013 (Getty Images, on Ecomaps)
The Times essay argues that the world lost the battle against global warming during the years of the 1980s, a time when scientists began loudly warning of a global warming emergency requiring immediate and radical action to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Klein correctly argues against the central tenet of the essay—that “human nature” was to blame for the failure to respond to the now-evident emergency. Intercept editors placed the word ‘capitalism’ in the title of Klein’s critique: Capitalism killed our climate momentum, not ‘human nature’. But Klein dismisses the compelling argument against capitalism in her very critique.

Klein writes, “But simply blaming capitalism isn’t enough. It is absolutely true that the drive for endless growth and profits stands squarely opposed to the imperative for a rapid transition off fossil fuels…” This is followed by “But we have to be honest that autocratic industrial socialism has also been a disaster for the environment, as evidenced most dramatically by the fact that carbon emissions briefly plummeted when the economies of the former Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s.”

But who in the world argues today that the authoritarian socialist countries of the Soviet Union, eastern Europe of China provide an example for countering the global warming emergency (though importantly, scientists in the Soviet Union were always in advance of their Western counterparts in understanding the danger)? It’s a bogus argument that, as her very article shows, actually dismisses socialism as a path forward.

By ‘socialism’, we are speaking of a planned, social economy operating under democratic, citizen control in which the expansion imperative of outmoded capitalism is constrained and eventually eliminated.

Klein goes on to attack one of the few socialist experiments taking place in the world: “And as I wrote in [her 2014 book] This Changes Everything, Venezuela’s petro-populism has continued this toxic tradition into the present day, with disastrous results.” Here, Venezuela, a country ravaged and underdeveloped by imperialism for several centuries, is supposed to be the standard bearer of the fight against global warming. Yes, the Bolivarian Revolution underway in Venezuela since the late 1990s should be faulted for not reducing the country’s dependence on fossil fuel exports. But Klein’s article lets the imperialist countries of North America, western Europe and the Asia-Pacific (Japan and Australia) off the hook. Those countries are the prime guilty parties, not the countries of the global south and not the long-passed authoritarian socialist countries.

So what is Naomi Klein’s alternative to the ‘capitalism’ identified in her article title? She offers the ‘novel’ but lame phrase ‘democratic eco-socialism’ and goes on to write, “Countries with a strong democratic socialist tradition — like Denmark, Sweden, and Uruguay — have some of the most visionary environmental policies in the world. From this we can conclude that socialism isn’t necessarily ecological, but that a new form of democratic eco-socialism, with the humility to learn from Indigenous teachings about the duties to future generations and the interconnection of all of life, appears to be humanity’s best shot at collective survival.”

Denmark and Sweden? These are militarized countries that happen to be in the forefront of imperialism’s new cold war against Russia and China. Denmark is a direct partner in the ongoing U.S. wars being waged in the Middle East. Sweden is a major armaments producer. Both countries are experiencing the rise of extreme-right movements (though not to the degree as that in Ukraine). The rise of the far-right in Europe is a direct consequence of the aggressive, imperialist foreign policies of NATO, a fact that escapes nearly every left-wing writer on the subject.

Denmark is a significant fossil fuel producer and exporter. It is heavily dependent on fossil fuels for the operations of its capitalist and imperialist economy. Sweden, another middle imperialist power, derives more than 35 per cent of its energy from nuclear power. Both countries are examples of the madcap, expansion dynamic of capitalism which is taking the world to ruin. Sweden’s IKEA corporation could serve as trophy symbol of this productivist and consumerist expansion.

In her article, Klein targets “neoliberalism” and “unregulated capitalism” as the source of the global warming emergency”. According to her, the problem can be traced to the onset of “neoliberalism” beginning around 1980. This fits with her argument that the militarized, imperialist countries of Denmark and Sweden offer a path forward for humanity. But it is capitalism per se, not its episodic variants, that is to blame.

None of what Klein writes in this latest article is new. She has long held up the Scandinavian countries as leaders in combatting climate change. Similarly, she has favorably cited the militarized and fossil fuel-soaked Germany as an environmental leader. What may be new are the discussions and published responses to Klein’s article by her fellow liberal environmentalists and by the eco-utopians of the ecosocialist school of thought. We shall see.

Ever since the publication of This Change Everything, ecosocialists have had nothing but praise for Klein’s misleading ideas in which she posits a social democratic, green capitalism (otherwise known as ‘democratic socialism’ become ‘democratic eco-socialism’) as a path of salvation from the global warming emergency. One reason for this commonality of ideas is that Klein and the ecosocialists take little or no account of the extreme danger to a warming world of imperialist war and militarism. (They also share a dismissal of the urgency of radically reducing all the productivist waste and excess common to present-day capitalism.)

Imperialist war and militarism as well as the rise of social and national inequalities are insurmountable barriers to mitigating the worst of the global warming emergency now fully washing over the world. There will be no mitigation of global warming and its harsh consequences if the expansion dynamic of capitalism is not curtailed and eventually eliminated. That can only be done by an informed and mobilized global population, using the levers of political power to refashion human civilization. Our common goal must be the creation of a planned, social economy providing meaningful human development while respecting humanity’s utter dependence on a healthy natural environment.

[1] ‘Neoliberalism’ is the nonsensical term used by most Western leftists and by liberal academia in the West to describe the rise of globalized capitalism beginning the mid-1970s.
Roger Annis makes good points in re Naomi Klein's liberalism which makes for a big problem in what she writes. She is an ideological/theoretical limp noodle, in my opinion. Best, Dennis

Ted F

I agree with some of Roger's specific points, but he goes way overboard in making glib claims like "ecosocialists have had nothing but praise for Klein's misleading ideas" and "ecosocialists take little or no account of the extreme danger to a warming world of imperialist war and militarism" and ecosocialists "share a dismissal of the urgency of radically reducing all the productivist waste and excess common to present-day capitalism." Peruse the voluminous ecosocialist literature catalogued on our website, read the books written by authors like Angus, Foster, Williams, and Magdoff, come to a meeting of an ecosocialist organization like Bay Area System Change Not Climate Change and you cannot write such silliness. If we want to be relevant to a larger audience, we need to critique Naomi Klein, but not forget that the article that will appear in tomorrow's New York Times Magazine will be a huge topic of discussion. I'd like to see us post ecosocialist critiques of that.

P.S. Roger's dismissal of the term "neoliberalism" as nonsensical is itself nonsensical. Globalized capitalism has been around for a very long time. As a political project, however, capital has gone on the offensive for the past 40 years or so seeking the privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of capital, elimination of unions, disestablishment of the welfare state and public services, reduction of taxes, etc. The ideological component of this offensive is generally referred to as neoliberalism. You can call it whatever you want, but it is not the same thing as "the rise of globablized capitalism." Its hegemony is cracking which opens up fresh opportunities for the Left while unleashing new demons on the Right.

Ted F

Also, I don't know anyone who has written more eloquently on "the urgency of radically reducing all the productivist waste and excess common to present-day capitalism" than ecosocialist Richard Smith who has also skewered Klein for her promotion of social democratic Scandinavia as a model of visionary ecological societies.

David J

I agree with Ted. We all know Klein came up short in her book but let's give credit to the radical opening it presented and the other admirable work she (and husband Avi Lewis) have done. For example, Klein's piece was just forwarded to our local 350 leadership group by the chair, a liberal for whom discussion of capitalism has always been uncomfortable. Her book and movie made this leap possible.

The overly broad generalizations and hyperbole in the Annis piece are exactly the opposite of the rigor and clarity needed right now. For a scholarly examination of neoliberalism, Annis should read Wendy Brown.

David Klein

The key issue here in my opinion is that Naomi Klein's quarrel is with neoliberalism and "unregulated capitalism," but not capitalism itself.

In her writings the word "capitalism," without the qualifiying adjective "unregulated," rarely appears. The disagreements on the left over her writings are really disagreements between green capitalism and ecosocialism. Green capitalist liberals rail against neoliberalism and unregulated capitalism, pointing to northern European capitalist countries for their models (even if they call them "socialist"). By repeatedly indicting "unregulated capitalism" and neoliberalism, green capitalist advocates like Naomi Klein, Bernie Sanders, or Bill McKibben are explicitly or implicitly supporting capitalist models that they think can address the environmental crisis.

The green capitalism advocated implicitly in this way would be an obvious improvement over neoliberalism, but that path ultimately leads to environmental catastrophe. The reason is simple. Capitalism requires economic growth in order to avoid economic catastrophe such as the Great Depression. In other words, capitalism, green or otherwise, must expand. But you can't have infinite growth on a finite planet. This basic principle is justified, explained, and supplied with examples by resources on systemchangenotclimatechange.org and I won't elaborate here. But the basic lesson for any one who is serious about combatting the forces driving the climate crisis is that "it's capitalism, stupid." It's not "unregulated capitalism". It's not neoliberalism. And it's not human nature (Kudos to Naomi Klein for making that point at least).

Something that I think many on the left don't recognize is that the stark inequalities in wealth that have emerged during the neoliberal period of capitalism are not at all exceptional in the history of capitalism. Extreme inequality is the norm under capitalism, not the exception. The period preceding neoliberalism, that includes the 1950s - 1970s, when many of today's liberals and activists grew up, is an anomaly, an exceptional period when wealth inequality was not so extreme. Extensive data for the history of inequality under capitalism is laid out in Piketty's book "Capital in the 21st Century," and the data is clear. Prior to those exceptional decades inequality was extreme and after this anomalous period it is extreme again. The graphs look like a giant U, with the low point for inequality during those decades. Normal capitalism has extreme inequalities. Neoliberalism is "normal capitalism" in this sense, with all of the consequences this implies.

I am not saying that neoliberalism, which might be characterized as a period in which financial capital dominates industrial capital (because of greater profitability), is identical in every way to earlier chapters of capitalism. It's not. Of course all periods within capitalism are different from each other. But the tendency for capitalists to free themselves from restrictions on their investments (environmental or otherwise) is normal capitalism, and not the exception.

Naomi Klein has done very positive things. But does that mean that ecosocialists should not militate to push further to the left? I hope that we can all agree that the answer to that question is no.

David Klein

Roger Annis

New Member
Thank you for the commentaries on my recent article. They are informative and thought provoking. Here is a reply to some of them.

Most leftists and academics refer to the present stage of globalized capitalism as 'neoliberalism'. Wikipedia defines neoliberalism as follows:

Neoliberalism or neo-liberalism refers primarily to the 20th-century resurgence of 19th-century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism. Those ideas include economic liberalization policies such as privatization, austerity, deregulation, free trade and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society. These market-based ideas and the policies they inspired constitute a paradigm shift away from the post-war Keynesian consensus which lasted from 1945 to 1980. (End citation.)

This is also how I have heard those who use the term describe it. As a term, it is coded language, indecipherable to the ordinary mortal. Meanwhile, the modern world which the term 'neoliberalism' purports to describe has, to say the least, evolved greatly since the 19th century. The world suffered two world wars and the advent of the nuclear age during the 20th century. A new imperialist world order issued from WW2, with a strong element of consensus between the large imperialist countries. This replaced the dog-eat-dog competition whose two world wars nearly cost capitalism its system. This new consensus created a state of semi-permanent war by an imperialist cabal of some 15 to 20 countries (North America, western Europe, Japan and Australia/New Zealand) against all those who would challenge imperialism's supremacy.

In the 21st century, we are living a stage of hyper capitalism (globalized capitalism) in which barriers to the expansion of capitalist trade and investment have been systematically broken down. The social wage has been eroded as have economic policies designed, at least in word, to protect national sovereignty and the social wage from the worst ravages of capitalism and imperialism. I disagree with David's argument that 'capitalism is capitalism' regardless of stage and time. Why not use the term 'globalized capitalism' which describes the specific conditions of today instead of a term 'neoliberalism' referencing a long-gone 19th century whose specific history is lost on most people?

Ted writes that "globalized capitalism has been around for a very long time". We are speaking of two different things. Yes, capitalism has always aspired to be a global system. But capitalism only came to span the 'globe' and all of its nooks and crannies through the course of the ascent of globalized capitalism, beginning in the late 1970s. Recall that at the outset of the 1980s, some one third of the world's population and land mass lay outside the immediate grip of capitalism's tentacles, in the form of the authoritarian socialist systems in Russia, China, eastern Europe and southeast Asia. (Cuba sat as a uniquely distinct and positive model of socialist development and still does.) What's more, many if not most countries had trade and investment policies in place that blunted the worst ravages of capitalism. All this has been swept away in the ensuing several decades. This is new and unique, including the uniquely consensual forms of imperialist rule. ( I leave aside the specific case of China, where state intervention in economic policy remains substantive and leads many people to conclude that China still retains important characteristics of socialist economic planning.)

Ted argues that ecosocialism does indeed take account of the central role of imperialist war and militarism in contributing to the global warming emergency and it does, indeed, warn of the need for a drastic reduction in all the productivist excess and waste of capitalism. I won't repeat here why I believe this is not the case. I wish it were.

I have listened to or read closely the speeches, interviews and writings of Naomi Klein since the publication of This Changes Everything. Yes, like many other environmental writers, she has opened the eyes of many people to the urgency of the global warming crisis. But advocating an anti-capitalist alternative to it all? I'm sorry, that is wishful thinking. The higher up the media chain that Naomi Klein speaks, the less that any reference to 'capitalism' appears. That's fine, she is who she is. Radical environmentalists should seek as many points of agreement with her and her colleagues as possible and work from there. But what about the specific responsibilities of radical environmentalists and Marxists to describe the world as it is and make proposals to change it? It behooves us to take up the slack left by Naomi Klein and her colleagues. There are some very good writers who have written about the limitations of her book and her 'down with unregulated capitalism' outlook. Unfortunately, I don't see them among the ecosocialists.

Radical environmentalists are obliged to present a vision for a drawdown of all the pillaging by expansionist capitalism of natural resources and human labour. Advocacy of transitional measures to improve the material and spiritual condition of humans while being consistent with the need of a drawdown is needed. Yes, such measures include measures not specifically socialist—vastly improving social services, reducing the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, ending megaprojects, and on and on. Many such measures are outlined in the Leap Manifesto and in other texts. But the larger tasks of societal change are more difficult because they require sharper inroads against the prerogatives of capital. Food production must be valorized socially and localized, for example. The production and consumption of energy must likewise be localized, and be scaled down. Cities have to be redesigned and rebuilt, including the creation of public transit that serves defined social needs instead of the present prerogatives of urban sprawl and the daily, hyper-movement of wage labour. The list is long. This is one of the areas where ecosocialism falls short; the other is the failure to recognize and campaign against the war and regime-change agenda of imperialism.


David Klein

Roger wrote, "I disagree with David's argument that 'capitalism is capitalism' regardless of stage and time." So do I, and I never wrote that. Instead I said the opposite, "Of course all periods within capitalism are different from each other."

But more important to the discussion, here is a penetrating ariticle by William Robinson explaining in large measure what global capitalism is doing now, and what we can expect to see in the near future. I strongly recommend reading it.

"The next economic crisis: digital capitalism and global police state," by William Robinson, Race & Class 2018


Roger Annis

New Member
David has cited one sentence from his original comment posting. My précis was based on the sentence which immediately follows that one. The two sentences together read: "Of course all periods within capitalism are different from each other. But the tendency for capitalists to free themselves from restrictions on their investments (environmental or otherwise) is normal capitalism, and not the exception." Readers may now judge whether my précis--'capitalism is capitalism'--is fair game or not.