What is the connection of Covid 19 to the climate crisis? How can we solve both?
Corona, Climate , Chronic Emergency, War Communism in the 21st Century, Andreas Malm, Verso 2020
This is a short, very useful and interesting book ! Malm does a great job of connecting and contrasting the two crises. Both flow from capitalism. Corona and other past and future pandemics come primarily from the human attack on nature for capitalist profit. Likewise , the reliance on fossil fuels also flows from capitalism — -the profits it produces and the interconnection of it with all other aspects of the economy.
Pandemics come from viruses and bacteria in one species, often bats spilling over to other usually transitional species and then into humans. The likelihood of this happening increases when wild areas are disturbed or destroyed. Bats seek new homes often closer to humans and their feces etc. infects other animals that are in direct human contact. The solution to this is to end the destruction of the wild areas and actually to restore the ones that have been destroyed. Of course global heating (Malm’s term) accelerates this process and forest destruction accelerates global heating. The only solution to global heating is to stop burning fossil fuels. Even this will not fully solve the problem. Processes such as the melting of the permafrost are already underway and would continue even if all fossil burning ended immediately. Malm’s plan for this is to take co2 out of the atmosphere. He is not for then turning it into another fuel as some green capitalists want. He doesn’t mention reconverting CO2 into Carbon and Oxygen which seems like it would be the only long term solution. Of course planting more trees performs the same function. Not sure if we could plant enough trees to lower the global temp enough even after stopping fossil fuel burning.
He starts out by asking why the response of governments to Covid 19 has been better than on global heating. His answer betrays a too optimistic assessment of governments. He believes that the fossil lobby has had more time to organize a defense of its privileged position . There was no such lobby on Covid 19, so governments generally did better prioritizing human needs. I think this is fundamentally mistaken. The various governments reacted as we would expect capitalist governments to operate. They saw the virus as a threat to the economy. Some took a more individualistic capitalist response and favored the interests of particular corporations in continuing to make profit and thus balked at shut downs. Others took a more collective capitalist response and favored fuller shutdowns to contain the spread of the virus and prevent as much damage to the economy as possible. This is shown by the difference of the U.S. response and the Chinese/Korean/New Zealand response with Australia and others in between. Sweden in spite of its Social Democratic history was more like the U.S. or even worse. None of these responses were keyed to human needs. None of them actually show a movement of bourgeois states toward human health.
The government responses have of course been plagued by the usual inequities of capitalism and the effects of neo-liberalism: Differential rates of death by race, class and occupational position in the US; The overwhelming of hospitals even in Europe due to years of Neo-Liberal underinvestment; Privileged access to vaccine; Nationalistic hoarding of vaccines; Disruption of supply chains due to Neo-Liberal underinvestment and privatization; Competition between big pharma companies; Big pharma demanding the Southern nations pay through the nose for vaccine; The differential effects of the economic crisis etc. As Malm says crises reveal the real situation. They may exacerbate it but don’t cause it.
Malm says the Left has mostly focused on these later things — criticizing the methods used to fight the pandemic. He says that that is important but not enough. The Left needs to fight against the causes as well. Until we end global heating and destruction of the wild, and factory farming, we will be subject to pandemics and of course the possible collapse of civilization and the human race. These crises are written into the nature of capitalism. He does note that time scale is a bit different. Global heating is chronic , but it breaks out in big ways in particular places at particular times — hurricanes, floods, droughts, fires in certain regions. Covid seemed to hit the earth as a whole all at once which made it easier to fight he feels. He wrote this at the end of April 2020, so he was more positive about the response to Covid than was warranted.
His overall solution to the twin crises of pandemics and global heating is War Communism, a reference to the Bolshevik policy after the successful Russian Revolution of 1917, government command of the whole economy to meet humane goals.
“ … during the transitional period there is no escaping outlawing wildlife consumption and terminating mass aviation and phasing out meat and other things considered parts of the good life… the left that pretend that none of this needs to happen that there will be no sacrifices or discomforts for ordinary people are not being honest.”(163–4)
Malm is correct here but overly negative about the transition. He is right that sacrifices will be necessary. However, immediate improvements will be possible quickly as well. We should be able to abolish rents and mortgage payments and end homelessness by taking over buildings owned by the capitalists. We should be able to eliminate bus and train fares, school tuition charges and medical fees etc. We should not lie about what the transition period will be like, but also should not paint too negative a picture. People will be less likely to fight for a future that doesn’t show at least some immediate improvement.
However, his use of “Leninism” is misplaced. He notes with approval the Bolshevik commitment to ecology, based on the knowledge of the time. Yet he doesn’t understand that this was only possible because the Bolsheviks led a workers’ revolution and created a workers’ state. They were able to eliminate the dominance of the private capitalist drive for profit.. This state was able to stand up for the interests of the working class, which included preservation of the earth. Given the knowledge and technology of the time, what the Leninists were able to accomplish was limited. Much of it was reversed with the Stalinist counter-revolution.
Malm naively believes that the capitalist state can be pressured through electoral activity and direct action into enacting “War Communism” and making the changes necessary to save the earth and humanity.
The author has kind words for the anti-Stalinist Leninist and Trotskyist tradition ( p165–6) but does not agree in reality with its fundamental goal — -smashing the bourgeois state and creating a workers’ state.
On page 151 , he says:
“ We have just argued that the capitalist state is constitutionally incapable of taking these steps. And yet there is on other state form on offer. 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 materialize any time soon.”
This rejection of the necessity and possibility of workers’ revolution leads him to reformism:
“ …all we have to work with is the dreary bourgeois state, tethered to the circuits of capital as always. There would have to be popular pressure ,brought to bear on it, shifting the balance of forces condensed in it.”
Despair of the possibility of a revolutionary solution leads Malm to a reformist conclusion that contradicts his analysis (“ the capitalist state is constitutionally incapable of taking these steps.”). His glib dismissal of the possibility of workers’ revolution is belied by mass popular reaction to the crisis of Neo-Liberalism. Before the Covid crisis, political revolutions broke out in a series of countries around the world. Even during the pandemic, millions in the US rose against police brutality and racism. Class struggle has been continuous in all class societies and certainly under capitalism. Turning these struggles into success will require clarity of goal and revolutionary organization. Dismissal of the only possibility of creating “War Communism” is not helpful to that goal. Malm’s pulling back from the only road to an ecologically sane world is disappointing but very typical of commenators today.
His major excuse for his reformism is the needed time scale. He rightly says that the changes must be made rapidly. Yet he assumes that reforming capitalist states on a world scale will be quicker than an international working class revolution. Even assuming he was right that reforming capitalists states is possible, he does not show how this would be quicker than building for a revolution.
In conclusion, “ Corona ,Climate , Chronic Emergency” is a very useful book. It is well written and explains clearly why capitalism is the root of these inter-related crises. It shifts our attention to the underlying causes of these crises instead of just looking at mitigation. Activists of all stripes can learn a lot from this book ! However, its strategy for bringing about “War Communism” is unrealistic and rejects what could be an actual successful strategy .