Thursday, July 2, 2020

Cuba's two pandemics: The coronavirus and the US embargo

The Trump administration is trying to hinder Cuba's efforts to tackle the coronavirus emergency at home and abroad.

Cuban doctors attend a farewell ceremony before departing to Kuwait to assist the country's ongoing fight against COVID-19, Havana, Cuba on June 4, 2020 [Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters]

by Josefina Vidal Ferreiro

Josefina Vidal Ferreiro is the Cuban Ambassador to Canada. This article was first published on Al Jazeera.com.

21 June 2020

As soon as the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in Cuba, our country mobilised all its resources to contain the spread of the virus.

Our healthcare workers go door to door checking people for possible symptoms. Those with symptoms are transferred to specially designated centres to receive treatment, mostly with medication developed by Cuba's own pharmaceutical and biotech industry. The medical examinations and treatments are all provided free of charge.

As of June 20, 85 people have died of COVID-19 in Cuba. Our mortality rate of 3.9 percent is very low compared to the rest of the world. We reached the peak of the disease on April 24, but we are still encouraging people to respect physical distancing, isolation and sanitary measures.

Internationally, Cuba has responded to requests for collaboration from more than 20 countries, mainly in Latin America and the Caribbean, but also in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Cuba has a long history and tradition of international solidarity with other countries in the health sector that dates back to the 1960s, when we started sending healthcare workers to help other countries. From then on, more than 400,000 Cuban doctors and health professionals have provided services in 164 countries. We have helped strengthen local healthcare systems, provided services in remote areas and trained doctors.

Based on this long experience, in 2005 Cuba decided to create the Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade to respond to natural disasters and serious epidemics across the world. Since then, this brigade of over 7,000 doctors, nurses and other health specialists has provided services in more than 20 countries.

We sent doctors and nurses to staff 32 field hospitals after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. We sent a medical team to Indonesia in 2006 after the devastating tsunami. We sent more than 1,700 health workers to Haiti in 2010 after the catastrophic earthquake and the ensuing cholera epidemic. In 2014, we sent brigades to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone to combat Ebola.

Even Samantha Power, former US President Barack Obama's UN Ambassador, praised Cuba for its outstanding role in the fight against Ebola.

We even had brigades ready to assist Louisiana after New Orleans was hit by Hurricane Katrina but the US government rejected our cooperation.

Assisting others has always been part of who we are as a country and part of the ethical training Cuban doctors and health professionals receive.

In response to the current pandemic, Cuba has dispatched 28 contingents of the Henry Reeve Brigade to help 26 countries. This is in addition to the more than 28,000 Cuban doctors, nurses and health professionals who were already overseas before the pandemic.

Unfortunately, Cuban doctors and the Henry Reeve Brigade, in particular, have come under increasing attacks by the Trump administration, which has gone so far as to falsely accuse Cuba of human trafficking through its doctor programme.

It is a shame that the United States government has been trying to discredit Cuba's international assistance, including using pressure and threats against countries to force them to cancel these medical cooperation agreements.

They have even tried to pressure governments to reject Cuba's help during the coronavirus pandemic. They claim the Cuban government is exploiting these doctors because in the case of countries that can afford to provide monetary compensation, a portion of it is kept by the Cuban government.

However, working overseas is completely voluntary, and the portion the Cuban government keeps goes to pay for Cuba's universal health system. It goes to purchasing medical supplies, equipment and medication for Cuba's 11 million people, including for the families of the doctors who are providing their services abroad. This is how we are able to provide free, high-quality healthcare for the Cuban people.

Instead of exacerbating conflict during a pandemic, our countries need to work together to find solutions. For years, Cuba has been developing pharmaceuticals and vaccines to treat different diseases, from psoriasis and cancer to heart attacks. Now we are helping patients recover from COVID-19 with Interferon Alfa2b Recombinant, one of 19 medications being developed or under clinical trial in Cuba by our biotech and pharmaceutical industries to treat different stages of COVID-19. Globally, we have received more than 70 requests for pharmaceuticals developed by Cuba.

This would be a clear avenue for Cuba-US cooperation but unfortunately, the Trump administration is wasting this opportunity by dismantling the limited progress made by Cuba and the US during the Obama administration.

President Trump strengthened the 60-year US blockade against my country, implementing 90 economic measures against Cuba between January 2019 and March 2020 alone. These measures have targeted the main sectors of the Cuban economy, including our financial transactions, tourism industry, energy sector, foreign investments - which are key for the development of the Cuban economy - and the medical cooperation programmes with other countries.

These unilateral coercive measures are unprecedented in their level of aggression and scope. They are deliberately trying to deprive Cuba of resources, sources of revenue and income needed for the development of the Cuban economy. The effects of these measures are being felt in Cuba, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. The blockade is stopping Cuba from getting much-needed medical supplies. For example, if more than 10 percent of the components in the medical equipment or medications we want to buy are of US origin, then Cuba is not allowed to purchase them.

In addition, the US has imposed restrictions on banks, airlines and shipping companies to stop Cuba from receiving materials that other countries are donating or sending to Cuba.

In April, the Alibaba Foundation of China tried to donate masks, rapid diagnostic kits and ventilators to Cuba, but the airline contracted by Alibaba to transport those items to Cuba refused to take the goods because they were afraid the US would sanction them.

A ship recently arrived in Cuba with raw materials to produce medications but it decided not to unload because the bank involved in the transaction decided not to make the payment out of fear it would be sanctioned by the US government.

So this is why we say we are suffering from two pandemics: COVID-19 and the US blockade. For that reason, it is so important that people of goodwill around the world continue to raise the demand to end the blockade of Cuba and to forcefully assert that these are times for solidarity and cooperation, not sanctions and blockades. In the meantime, Cuba, as a country that understands the value of solidarity, will continue to do our best to stop the spread of coronavirus at home and globally.

For a more general description of Cuba’s healthcare, see the just-published book by Don Fitz, Cuban Health Care: The Ongoing Revolution (Monthly Review).

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Venezuela and Bolivia: Contrasting responses to COVID-19 pandemic

Troops impose lockdown restrictions outside a supermarket in La Paz, Bolivia.

An opinion piece published in the May 1 Globe and Mail offered a blatant example of how the COVID-19 pandemic is being used by imperialist politicians to mobilize support for their own agendas. Authored by former Canadian foreign ministers Lloyd Axworthy (Liberal) and Joe Clark (Conservative), and cosigned by two former and present U.S. State Department officials as well as a former official of Peru’s rightist governments, it issues a renewed call for the overthrow of Venezuela’s government, alleging that the country’s response to COVID-19, among other things, makes it “a threat to regional peace and security.”

“The crisis in Venezuela,” they claim, “has moved from an internal tragedy to a threat to regional peace and security, with increasing political breakdown, growing COVID-19 infection, and disarray in its internal fuel market. Its hungry and battered people are the victims. The country is in line to become the first failed state in the Americas without a functioning economy or government, with warring factions carving up territory.”

The authors call on the United Nations to negotiate presidential elections in Venezuela that will create “a space for a reformed successor movement to Chavismo,” a term used by the elected Maduro government to describe its program. The “transition government” proposed by the Trump administration, they say, “should be part of the design of this framework, opening the door to the U.S. linking sanctions relief to a credible agreement on broad humanitarian support and a full electoral process.”

That is their only mention of the crippling sanctions imposed on Venezuela in recent years by Washington, Ottawa following in lockstep. While the sanctions have imposed mass suffering on the Venezuelan people, they have failed to dislodge the Maduro government. Failed as well is the attempt by Trump, Trudeau and their allies to mount a coup in Venezuela through Juan Guaido, an opposition politician who proclaimed himself president in January 2019. As the Globe article indicates, they cynically hope to use the COVID-19 threat in yet another attempt to get their way in Venezuela.

The following article by Federico Fuentes documents how Venezuela’s actual response to the pandemic is very different not only from the sordid portrayal in the article by Clark-Axworthy and their Lima Group co-authors, but also from the very different response of the Anez coup government in Bolivia, enthusiastically supported by Washington and Ottawa and their allies. As of May 2 Bolivia registered its highest daily increase yet of COVID infections, 241, taking the total to 1,470, 71 of whom have died. Venezuela, in contrast, reported 10 new cases, bringing the total to 345, with 10 fatalities.


Bolivia vs. Venezuela: COVID-19 response reveals true nature of governments

By Federico Fuentes

Green Left Weekly, April 30, 2020

Government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have put into sharp relief their true nature. This is perhaps no more evident than when we compare Bolivia and Venezuela.

Despite having been installed as “interim” president after a coup last November, Jeanine Anez is presented in the media as leading Bolivia’s “transition back to democracy”. On the other hand, Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro is regularly described as a “tyrant” or “dictator” presiding over an “authoritarian regime”.

Yet, when we compare how these governments have responded to COVID-19, it is clear these labels bear little resemblance to reality.

Bolivia

In Bolivia, the government was quite slow to react to the pandemic and, when it finally acted, did so in an incoherent manner.

Eight days after the first cases were detected on March 10 the government closed the country’s borders and initiated a nightly curfew from 5pm–6am. But the curfew only served to raise the number of people on the streets at certain times of the day, thereby worsening the probability of contagion.

The government then shifted to a complete lockdown on March 22, imposed under threat of large fines (up to $450) and jail time (up to 10 years) for those who did not comply. Police and military were granted special powers to ensure compliance.

By April 11, almost 10,000 people had been arrested for violating lockdown restrictions. In comparison, Bolivia had only carried out 4800 COVID-19 tests by April 23.

In terms of alleviating the economic impacts of the lockdown, the government did not issue its first social security payments until mid-April. The government has also said it will subsidise basic utilities and provide companies with loans to cover wage bills.

In the midst of the pandemic, health minister Anibal Cruz resigned on April 8, but not before rejecting Cuba’s offer to help the country fight the virus. Hundreds of Cuban doctors were expelled from Bolivia shortly after Anez assumed power.

Cruz later revealed that modelling indicated Bolivia was facing the prospect of 3840 deaths from COVID-19 within 4 months. He was replaced by Marcel Navajas, who said expanding testing was not a priority, despite World Health Organization recommendations stating it is vital to any strategy to contain the virus.

Bolivia has also been extremely slow to allow hundreds of its citizens stranded in Chile to return home. After initially announcing on March 30 that 150 Bolivians would be allowed in, the government backtracked and said the border would remain closed.

Almost a week later, the first 480 Bolivians were finally allowed to cross, with a further 430 given permission on April 21. Hundreds more continue to wait their turn.

The government, however, has not wasted time in using the crisis to crack down on its main political rival, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), accusing it of seeking to break the lockdown to distribute food and other supplies to those who need it.

It also postponed the May 3 general elections. The most recent polling showed MAS candidate Luis Arce as the clear frontrunner (leading by about 15%), with Anez in third place.

Despite supposedly heading an “interim” government, installed with the sole purpose of convening new elections, Anez has used the lockdown — during which protests are banned — to overturn previous MAS government policies. These include lifting the ban on tin concentrate exports; allowing the state public works company to contract work without going to tender; and eliminating certain agricultural tariffs.

The economic minister has also flagged ramping up the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture, tax relief for big business and increased foreign investment in natural resource extraction, as part of its “recovery” plan. All without any constitutional or popular mandate.

As of April 23, Bolivia had detected 672 cases and reported 40 deaths from COVID-19.

Venezuela

The situation in Venezuela is starkly different.

Unlike Bolivia, Venezuela was much quicker to move, contacting China early to obtain details about how it dealt with the pandemic. On the basis of this information, it obtained a huge number of COVID-19 testing units and personal protective equipment for health workers.

Today, it leads the region in terms of testing, having carried out more than 350,000 tests. Due to this testing regime, it has only detected 288 cases and registered just 10 deaths, despite having a population two-and-a-half times larger than Bolivia.

Rather than focus on punitive measures, the Maduro government has prioritised policies to alleviate the social and economic impacts of the nationwide lockdown that began on March 17. Among the measures it has taken are a 100% wage guarantee for all workers, a moratorium on rent and loan repayments and social security payments for a range of sectors, including informal sector workers.

Importantly, the lockdown has not meant a complete halt to the circulation of people. Instead, doctors, together with local community activists, have been going door-to-door to seek out potential cases of COVID-19. They have been aided by the government’s online Homeland Platform system, through which people can notify authorities if they have any symptoms.

The same system has also been used to gauge citizens’ opinions on certain measures. For example, a poll was taken in mid-April to see if parents wanted schools to complete the schooling year via distance education and, if so, what would be the most appropriate mechanism to use (internet, radio, dropping off books with exercises).

Community activists have mobilised to distribute copies of a government-issued book (also available online) containing 101 measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The book is made up of written testimonies from residents of Wuhan recounting how they dealt with the outbreak.

Venezuela, which has experienced a wave of mass emigration in recent years due to the country’s economic situation, had received more than 20,000 returning citizens from neighbouring Colombia and Brazil by April 24. Approximately 600–650 more citizens are crossing the border each day, where they are tested and quarantined.

Given the discriminatory policies of many countries that have left migrants without protection, hundreds more Venezuelans have been flown back from Europe and the United States, in many cases on specially chartered flights organised by the government.

Venezuela has been able to pursue its people-first policy in spite of the fact that its health system has been devastated by extensive trade and financial sanctions imposed by the United States and European nations. Reports estimated the death toll from the impact of the sanctions was more than 40,000 in 2018 alone. Others claim the tally is now more than 100,000.

Because Venezuela represents an alternative to the profit-driven capitalist system, the US has chosen the COVID-19 crisis as a time to ramp up its attacks on the Maduro government.

Media outlets, rather than continuing to distort information, should be actively questioning why the US, amid a global pandemic, is supporting a repressive regime in Bolivia that is proving inept at dealing with COVID-19, while it tightens a sanctions regime that is putting lives at risk in Venezuela.

See also:

COVID-19 crisis: Bolivia’s Movement Towards Socialism says #PutLivesFirst,” by Federico Fuentes, April 24, 2020.

Venezuela: Combatting COVID-19 through solidarity,” by Federico Fuentes, April 1, 2020.

Venezuela: Community organisation key to fighting COVID-19,” by Federico Fuentes, April 9, 2020.

A Caracas Commune Prepares for the Coronavirus Crisis: Four Voices from the Altos de Lidice Communal Healthcare System,” by Cira Pascual Marquina, April 5, 2020.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

The role of planning in the ecosocialist transition – a contribution to the debate

Introduction

The semiannual French review Les Possibles, a publication of Attac France, in its most recent issue (23) features a number of articles on planning for the ecological and social transition. Most are addressed to the issue of socialist planning vs. capitalist markets that was prominent in the debates of 20th century socialism. The contribution by Michael Löwy puts this debate in the ecosocialist framework that has emerged in this century. My translation of it is published below.

Michael Löwy is a Franco-Brazilian philosopher and sociologist, and emeritus research director at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). He is the author of numerous books, including The War of the Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America and Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History.” He is also a leading member of the Global Ecosocialist Network.

Richard Fidler

* * *

Ecological and social planning and transition

By Michael Löwy

April 3, 2020

The need for economic planning in any serious and radical process of socio-ecological transition is winning greater acceptance, in contrast to the traditional positions of the Green parties, favorable to an ecological variant of “market economy,” that is, “green capitalism.”

In her latest book, Naomi Klein observes that any serious reaction to the climate threat “involves recovering an art that has been relentlessly vilified during these decades of market fundamentalism: planning.” This includes, in her view, industrial planning, land use planning, agricultural planning, employment planning for workers whose occupations are made obsolescent by the transition, etc. “This means bringing back the idea of planning our economies based on collective priorities rather than profitability….”[1]

Democratic planning

The socio-ecological transition — towards an ecosocialist alternative — implies public control of the principal means of production and democratic planning. Decisions concerning investment and technological change must be taken away from the banks and capitalist businesses, if we want them to serve the common good of society and respect for the environment.

Who should make these decisions? Socialists often responded: “the workers.” In Volume III of Capital, Marx defines socialism as a society of “the associated producers rationally regulating their interchange (Stoffwechsel) with Nature.” However, in Volume I of Capital, we find a broader approach: socialism is conceived as “an association of free men, working with the means of production (gemeinschaftlichen) held in common.” This is a much more appropriate concept: production and consumption must be organized rationally not only by the “producers” but also by consumers and, in fact, the whole of society, the productive or “unproductive” population: students, youth, women (and men) homemakers, retired persons, etc.

In this sense, society as a whole will be free to democratically choose the productive lines to be promoted and the level of resources that should be invested in education, health or culture. The prices of goods themselves would no longer respond to the law of supply and demand, but would be determined as much as possible according to social, political and ecological criteria.

Far from being “despotic” in itself, democratic planning is the exercise of the free decision-making of the whole of society — a necessary exercise to free ourselves from the alienating and reified “economic laws” and “iron cages” within capitalist and bureaucratic structures. Democratic planning associated with a reduction of working time would be a considerable step forward by humanity towards what Marx called “the realm of freedom”: the increase in free time is in fact a condition for the participation of workers in democratic discussion and management of the economy and society.

Advocates of the free market tirelessly use the failure of Soviet planning to justify their categorical opposition to any form of organized economy. We know, without getting into a discussion on the successes and failures of the Soviet experience, that it was obviously a form of “dictatorship over needs,” to quote the expression used by György Markus and his colleagues from the Budapest School: an undemocratic and authoritarian system which gave a monopoly over decisions to a small oligarchy of techno-bureaucrats. It was not planning that led to the dictatorship. It was the growing limitation of democracy within the Soviet state and the establishment of totalitarian bureaucratic power after Lenin’s death that gave rise to an increasingly authoritarian and undemocratic planning system. If socialism is to be defined as control of production processes by workers and the general population, the Soviet Union under Stalin and his successors fell far short of this definition.

The failure of the USSR illustrates the limits and contradictions of bureaucratic planning with its flagrant ineffectiveness and arbitrariness: it cannot serve as an argument against the application of genuinely democratic planning. The socialist conception of planning is nothing other than the radical democratization of the economy: if political decisions should not be made by a small elite of leaders, why not apply the same principle to economic decisions? The question of the balance between market and planning mechanisms is undoubtedly a complex issue: during the first phases of the new society, markets will certainly still occupy a significant place, but as the transition to socialism progresses, planning will become increasingly important.

In the capitalist system use value is only a means — and often a device — subordinated to exchange value and profitability (this in fact explains why there are so many products in our society without any utility). In a planned socialist economy, the production of goods and services responds only to the criterion of use value, which entails spectacular economic, social and ecological consequences.

Of course, democratic planning concerns the major economic choices and not the administration of local restaurants, grocery stores, bakeries, small shops, craft businesses or services. Likewise, it is important to emphasize that planning does not contradict the self-management of workers in their production units. Whereas the decision to convert, for example, an automobile factory to bus or rail vehicle production would be up to society as a whole; the internal organization and operation of the factory would be managed democratically by the workers themselves. There has been much debate over the “centralized” or “decentralized” nature of planning, but the important thing remains democratic control of the plan at all levels — local, regional, national, continental and, hopefully, global — since ecological issues such as climate warming are global and can only be addressed at that level. This proposal could be called “comprehensive democratic planning.” Even at this level, it is planning which contrasts with what is often described as “central planning” because economic and social decisions are not taken by any “center” but democratically determined by the populations concerned.

There would, of course, be tensions and contradictions between self-governing institutions and local democratic administrations and other larger social groups. Negotiating mechanisms can help resolve many such conflicts, but in the final analysis, it will be up to the larger groups involved, and only if they are in the majority, to exercise their right to impose their opinions. To give an example: a self-managed factory decides to dump its toxic waste in a river. The population of an entire region is threatened by this pollution. It may then, following a democratic debate, decide that the production of this unit must be stopped until a satisfactory solution to control its waste is found. Ideally, in an ecosocialist society, the factory workers themselves will have sufficient ecological awareness to avoid making decisions that are dangerous for the environment and the health of the local population. However, the fact of introducing methods to guarantee the decision-making power of the population to defend the most general interests, as in the previous example, does not mean that questions concerning internal management should not be submitted to the citizens at the level of the factory, school, neighborhood, hospital or village.

Ecosocialist planning must be based on a democratic and pluralist debate, at each level of decision. Organized in the form of parties, platforms or any other political movement, the delegates of the planning bodies are elected and the various proposals are presented to everyone they concern. In other words, representative democracy must be enriched — and improved — by direct democracy which allows people to choose directly — locally, nationally and, ultimately, internationally — between different proposals. The whole population would then make decisions on free public transit, on a special tax paid by car owners to subsidize public transport, on the subsidization of solar energy to make it competitive with fossil energy, on the reduction of the hours of work to 30, 25 hours a week or less, even if this entails a reduction in production.

The democratic nature of planning does not make it incompatible with the participation of experts whose role is not to decide, but to present their arguments — often different, even opposed — during the democratic decision-making process. As Ernest Mandel said:

“Governments, parties, planning boards, scientists, technocrats or whoever can make suggestions, put forward proposals, try to influence people. To prevent them from doing so would be to restrict political freedom. But under a multi-party system, such proposals will never be unanimous: people will have the choice between coherent alternatives. And the right and power to decide should be in the hands of the majority of producers / consumers / citizens, not of anybody else. What is paternalist or despotic about that?”[2]

A question arises: what guarantee do we have that people will make the right choices, those that protect the environment, even if the price to pay is to change part of their consumption habits? There is no such “guarantee,” only the reasonable prospect that the rationality of democratic decisions will triumph once the fetishism of consumer goods has been abolished. People will of course make mistakes by making bad choices, but don’t the experts make mistakes themselves? It is impossible to imagine the construction of a new society without the majority of the people having reached a great socialist and ecological awareness thanks to their struggles, their self-education and their social experience. So, it is reasonable to believe that serious errors — including decisions inconsistent with environmental needs — will be corrected. In any case, one wonders if the alternatives — the ruthless market, an ecological dictatorship of “experts” — are not much more dangerous than the democratic process, with all its limits.

Admittedly, for planning to work, there must be executive and technical bodies capable of implementing decisions, but their authority would be limited by the permanent and democratic control exercised by the lower levels, where workers’ self-management takes place in the process of democratic administration. It cannot be expected, of course, that the majority of the population will spend all of their free time in self-management or participatory meetings. As Ernest Mandel remarked: “Self-administration does not entail the disappearance of delegation. It combines decision-making by the citizens with stricter control of delegates by their respective electorate.”[3]

A long process not free from contradictions

The transition from the “destructive progress” of the capitalist system to ecosocialism is a historic process, a revolutionary and constant transformation of society, culture and mentalities — and politics in the broad sense, as defined above, is undeniably at the heart of this process. It is important to specify that such an evolution cannot be initiated without a revolutionary change in the social and political structures and without the active support to the ecosocialist program by a large majority of the population. Socialist and ecological awareness is a process whose decisive factors are the collective experience and struggles of the population, which, starting from partial confrontations at the local level, progress towards the prospect of a radical change in society. This transition would lead not only to a new mode of production and a democratic and egalitarian society but also to an alternative way of life, a truly ecosocialist civilization beyond the imperium of money with its consumption patterns artificially induced by advertising and its limitless production of useless and/or environmentally harmful goods.

Some environmentalists believe that the only alternative to productivism is to stop growth as a whole, or to replace it with negative growth — called in France “degrowth.” To do this, it is necessary to drastically reduce the excessive level of consumption of the population and to give up individual houses, central heating and washing machines, among other things, in order to reduce energy consumption by half. As these and other similarly draconian austerity measures may be very unpopular, some advocates of degrowth play with the idea of a kind of “ecological dictatorship.”[4] Against such pessimistic points of view, some socialists display an optimism which leads them to think that technical progress and the use of renewable energy sources will allow unlimited growth and prosperity so that everyone receives “according to their needs.”

It seems to me that these two schools share a purely quantitative conception of “growth” — positive or negative — and of the development of the productive forces. I think there is a third posture that seems more appropriate to me: a real qualitative transformation of development. This implies putting an end to the monstrous waste of resources caused by capitalism, which is based on the large-scale production of useless and/or harmful products. The arms industry is a good example, as are all these “products” manufactured in the capitalist system — with their planned obsolescence — which have no other purpose than to create profits for big companies.

The question is not “excessive consumption” in the abstract, but rather the dominant type of consumption whose main characteristics are: ostensible property, massive waste, obsessive accumulation of goods and the compulsive acquisition of pseudo-novelties imposed by “fashion.” A new society would orient production towards meeting authentic needs, starting with what could be described as “biblical” — water, food, clothing and housing — but including essential services: health, education, culture and transportation.

It is obvious that the countries where these needs are far from being met, that is to say the countries of the southern hemisphere, will have to “develop” much more — build railways, hospitals, sewers and other infrastructures — than industrialized countries, but this should be compatible with a production system based on renewable energy and therefore not harmful to the environment. These countries will need to produce large quantities of food for their populations already hit by famine, but — as the farmers’ movements organized at an international level by the Via Campesina network have argued for years — this is an objective much easier to reach through organic peasant farming organized by family units, cooperatives or collective farms, than by the destructive and antisocial methods of industrial agrobusiness with its intensive use of pesticides, chemical substances and GMOs.

The present system of odious debt and imperialist exploitation of the resources of the South by the capitalist and industrialized countries would give way to a surge of technical and economic support from the North to the South. There would be no need — as some Puritan and ascetic ecologists seem to believe — to reduce, in absolute terms, the standard of living of the European or North American populations. These populations should simply get rid of useless products, those which do not meet any real need and whose obsessive consumption is upheld by the capitalist system. While reducing their consumption, they would redefine the concept of standard of living to make way for a lifestyle that is actually richer.

How to distinguish authentic needs from artificial, false or simulated needs? The advertising industry — which exerts its influence on needs through mental manipulation — has penetrated into all spheres of human life in modern capitalist societies. Everything is shaped according to its rules, not only food and clothing, but also areas as diverse as sport, culture, religion and politics. Advertising has invaded our streets, our mailboxes, our television screens, our newspapers and our landscapes in an insidious, permanent and aggressive manner. This sector contributes directly to conspicuous and compulsive consumption habits. In addition, it leads to a phenomenal waste of oil, electricity, labour time, paper and chemical substances, among other raw materials — all paid for by consumers. It is a branch of “production” which is not only useless from the human point of view, but which is also at odds with real social needs. While advertising is an indispensable dimension in a capitalist market economy, it would have no place in a society in transition to socialism. It would be replaced by information on the products and services provided by consumer associations. The criterion for distinguishing an authentic need from an artificial need would be its permanence after the removal of advertising. It is clear that for some time the past habits of consumption will persist because no one has the right to tell people what they need. The change in consumption models is an historical process and an educational challenge.

Certain products, such as the private car, raise more complex problems. Passenger cars are a public nuisance. Globally, they kill or maim hundreds of thousands of people each year. They pollute the air in big cities — with harmful consequences for the health of children and the elderly — and they contribute considerably to climate change. However, the car satisfies real needs under the current conditions of capitalism. In European cities where the authorities are concerned about the environment, some local experiments — approved by the majority of the population — show that it is possible to gradually limit the place of the private car in favour of buses and trams. In a process of transition to ecosocialism, public transit would be widespread and free — on land as well as underground — while paths would be protected for pedestrians and cyclists. Consequently, the private car would play a much less important role than in bourgeois society where the car has become a fetish product promoted by insistent and aggressive advertising. The car is a symbol of prestige, a sign of identity (in the United States, the driver’s license is the recognized identity card). It is at the heart of personal, social and erotic life. In this transition to a new society, it will be much easier to drastically reduce over-the-road transportation of commodities — a source of tragic accidents and excessive pollution — and to replace it with rail or container transport. Only the absurd logic of capitalist “competitiveness” explains the present development of truck transportation.

To these proposals, the pessimists will answer: yes, but individuals are motivated by infinite aspirations and desires which must be controlled, analyzed, suppressed and even repressed if necessary. Democracy could then be subject to certain restrictions. Yet ecosocialism is based on a reasonable assumption, previously advanced by Marx: the predominance of “being” over “having” in a non-capitalist society, that is to say the primacy of free time over the desire to own countless objects: personal achievement through real activities, cultural, sports, recreational, scientific, erotic, artistic and political.

The fetishism of the commodity encourages compulsive buying through the ideology and advertising specific to the capitalist system. There is no evidence that this is part of “eternal human nature.” Ernest Mandel pointed out:

“The continual accumulation of more and more goods (with declining ‘marginal utility’) is by no means a universal or even predominant feature of human behaviour. The development of talents and inclinations for their own sake; the protection of health and life; care for children; the development of rich social relations as a prerequisite of mental stability and happiness — all these become major motivations once basic material needs have been satisfied.”[5]

As we mentioned above, this does not mean, especially during the transition period, that conflicts will be non-existent: between environmental protection needs and social needs, between ecological obligations and the need to develop basic infrastructures, especially in poor countries, between popular consumption habits and lack of resources. A society without social classes is not a society without contradictions or conflicts. These are inevitable: it will be the role of democratic planning, from an ecosocialist perspective freed from the constraints of capital and profit, to resolve them through open and pluralistic discussions leading society itself to take decisions. Such a democracy, common and participative, is the only way, not to avoid making errors, but to correct them through the social collectivity itself.

To dream of a green socialism or even, in the words of some, of a solar communism, and to fight for this dream, does not mean that we are not trying to implement concrete and urgent reforms. While we should not have illusions about “clean capitalism,” we must nevertheless try to gain time and impose on the public authorities some elementary changes: a general moratorium on genetically modified organisms, a drastic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, strict regulation of industrial fishing and the use of pesticides as chemical substances in agro-industrial production, a much greater development of public transit, the gradual replacement of trucks by trains.

These urgent eco-social demands can lead to a process of radicalization, provided that they are not adapted to the requirements of “competitiveness.” According to the logic of what Marxists call a “transitional program,” each small victory, each partial advance immediately leads to a greater demand, to a more radical objective. These struggles around concrete questions are important, not only because partial victories are useful in themselves, but also because they contribute to ecological and socialist awareness. Moreover, these victories promote activity and self-organization from below: these are two necessary and decisive pre-conditions for achieving a radical, that is to say revolutionary, transformation of the world.

There will be no radical transformation as long as the forces engaged in a radical, socialist and ecological program are not hegemonic, in the sense understood by Antonio Gramsci. In a sense, time is our ally, because we are working for the only change capable of solving environmental problems, which are only getting worse with threats — such as climate change — which are more and more close. On the other hand, time is running out, and in a few years — no one can say how much — the damage could be irreversible. There is no reason for optimism: the power of the current elites at the head of the system is immense, and the forces of radical opposition are still modest. However, they are the only hope we have to put a brake on the “destructive progress” of capitalism.


[1] Naomi Klein, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal (Random House, 2019), pp. 95, 98.

[2] Ernest Mandel, Power and Money (Verso, London, 1992), p. 209.

[3] Mandel, ibid., p. 204.

[4] The German philosopher Hans Jonas (Le principe responsabilité, Éd. du Cerf, 1979) raised the possibility of a “benevolent tyranny” to save nature, and the Finnish ecofascist Pentti Linkola (Voisiko elämä voittaa, Helsinki, Tammi, 2004) advocated a dictatorship capable of preventing any economic growth.

[5] Mandel, ibid., p. 206.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

In the wake of a right-wing racist coup, Bolivia’s MAS struggles to regain the initiative

Introduction

What happened in Bolivia in October and November may best be described, perhaps, as an unfolding coup: a rapidly escalating succession of violent street protests against the narrow election victory on October 20 of President Evo Morales and his party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), culminating in a police mutiny, the army’s refusal to defend the president, the resignation and exile of Morales and his vice-president, the resignations of their constitutionally designated successors, and the seizure of the presidency by Jeanine Añez, a right-wing senator, in a legislature without a quorum.

The coup terminated the quest by Evo Morales, the country’s president for 14 years, for an unprecedented fourth mandate in defiance of a referendum vote in 2016 that had reaffirmed the two-term limit in the country’s constitution.

Bolivia has now reunited with its longstanding record as the country in Latin America that has experienced the most coups d’état in its history.

Self-appointed president Añez moved quickly to violently repress anti-coup protests and begin reversing the former government’s progressive international alignments while launching a witch-hunt of former ministers and top officials, many of whom face trumped-up charges ranging from corruption to sedition and terrorism.

The de facto transition regime has agreed to hold new elections May 3 to be overseen by a new electoral tribunal chosen by the outgoing MAS-dominated legislative assembly. However, the coup has radically shifted the balance of forces in the country and there is no certainty that the electoral process will enjoy democratic legitimacy or that the results, if they conflict with the agenda of Añez and her allies, will be respected.

Leading the opinion polls are the MAS candidates Luis “Lucho” Arce for President and David Choquehuanca for Vice-President. Arce served as finance minister during most of the MAS government’s mandates and is considered the architect of its relatively successful economic record. Choquehuanca is an Aymará leader who served for 11 years as Morales’s foreign minister. The opinion polls give Arce and Choquehuanca a substantial lead over rival parties and alliances, and probably underestimate MAS support as the party is strongest in rural areas ignored by polling. The MAS hopes to win on the first ballot, as it did in October—in a vote discredited by the OAS and falsely denounced as “fraudulent” by its opponents[1]—with a score of more than 40% and more than 10 percentage points ahead of its nearest rival.[2] Should it fail in this, a run-off vote in June will probably see the right-wing parties unite behind the anti-MAS candidate.

Confronting the MAS are the presidential candidates of six right-wing parties and alliances—among them Carlos Mesa, a former president who came second to Morales in 2019, and “interim” president Añez, who publicly bemoaned the diversity of anti-MAS candidatures but then announced her own candidacy.

Evo Morales, barred by the constitution from running again for President, was nominated by the MAS as its primary candidate for Senator in Cochabamba but was ruled ineligible by the electoral tribunal on technical grounds, as was former MAS foreign minister Diego Pary nominated for Senator in Potosí.

However, the MAS has named Evo Morales, now exiled in Argentina, as its “campaign manager” and his influence—not always positive, in my view—has proved decisive in the designation of the party’s candidates. At a party leadership meeting in Buenos Aires, Morales rejected making Choquehuanca the candidate for president along with Andrónico Rodriguez, the dynamic young leader of the Chapare coca growers’ union federation, as vice-president—as proposed overwhelmingly by MAS assemblies in Bolivia seeking to reflect the Indigenous and peasant roots of the party. And he subsequently excluded popular MAS Senate leader Eva Copa—who has exercised remarkable leadership in the legislature independently of Morales—from the party’s list of candidates in El Alto, while endorsing the former Senate leader Adriana Salvatierra, a Morales devotee, as a candidate in Santa Cruz despite her rejection by party leaders in Bolivia.

In later articles, I will critically assess the balance sheet of the MAS’s 14 years in government. However, the following article by Emily Achtenberg provides a very useful account of the recent events and the challenges facing the MAS in this election. I have omitted a few paragraphs (indicated by ellipses) on potential election candidates, as this information in now out-of-date. Her article was first published January 10 in her column Rebel Currents on the website of the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA). Emily Achtenberg, an urban planner, is a member of NACLA's Editorial Board.[3]

– Richard Fidler

* * *

MAS Party Under Threat as Bolivia Moves Towards New Elections (Without Evo)

By Emily Achtenberg

Bolivians will head to the polls again on May 3 for the first presidential election in 18 years without Evo Morales as a candidate.

The “do-over” vote—for president, vice-president, and members of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, to be followed shortly by regional elections—has been called by Bolivia’s transitional president Jeanine Añez, who assumed power after Morales’s forced resignation on November 10 in a civic-military coup. A law adopted on November 24 annulled the results of the disputed October 20 election which led to Morales’s ouster, while guaranteeing a spot for his Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party on the new ballot. But it also ratified the existing constitutional provision that bars candidates, including Morales, from seeking more than two consecutive terms.

The compromise elections law was passed unanimously by the MAS-controlled legislature, in an effort to defuse the deadly violence that convulsed the country for weeks after the contested October 20 vote. At least 35 people were killed and 700 wounded in the post-electoral conflict, almost all following the coup.

Along with the elections law, negotiations brokered by the Catholic Church, the European Union, and the United Nations forced the Añez government to withdraw its troops from civilian conflict zones, and to annul a controversial decree granting impunity to the military in repressing social protests. In exchange, anti-coup protesters lifted the massive road blockades that had paralyzed food and gas deliveries to the cities for weeks, allowing an effective truce to be declared with the promise of imminent elections.

Añez supporters are flaunting the call for elections as a significant step towards the restoration of political normalcy and democracy in Bolivia.  In reality, while the killings and violent clashes have ceased, the country remains highly polarized and politically unstable, with explosive tensions simmering just below the surface. In no small part, this is due to the confrontational discourse and vengeful actions of a de facto regime that is governing widely outside its “caretaker” mandate, stoking divisiveness and eroding the prospects for a peaceful political reconciliation.

The De Facto Government

As has been widely reported, Jeanine Añez, an obscure right-wing Senator from the lowlands Beni region, acceded to the presidency when a power vacuum—created by the resignation of several MAS Congressional leaders in the wake of Morales’s departure—put her next in the line of succession. Her party received only 4 percent of the vote in October, and she herself did not seek re-election. According to some accounts, the MAS leadership agreed to her succession in a moment of desperation, in exchange for the promise of Morales’s safe passage out of the country.

Añez assumed the presidency with the support of the army and the Constitutional Court—the same institution that earlier upheld Morales’s “right” to run for a fourth presidential term. However, she failed to gain the legislative quorum required by the Constitution for presidential succession. According to conflicting narratives, MAS deputies either boycotted the session or stayed away out of fear.

Despite her limited mandate as a “caretaker” president charged only with preparing the country for new elections, within days Añez wiped out Morales’s cabinet and installed a new leadership team with deep ties to Bolivia’s right-wing sectors. For the past eight weeks, the Añez regime, elected by no one, has mounted an aggressive and vindictive campaign to undermine the MAS party by reversing its policies, persecuting its leaders, and intimidating its supporters. Not coincidentally, these tactics have served to energize the regime’s conservative base ahead of the upcoming election.

For starters, Añez deployed the armed forces to repress Indigenous anti-coup protesters at Sacaba and Senkata, leaving a toll of 19 dead and several hundred wounded. In its recent report, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) characterized these incidents as massacres, with massive human rights violations committed by the military under the government’s illegal impunity decree. To date, the interim government has refused to accept responsibility for these killings. The IACHR has called for an independent investigation.

The regime has issued an Interpol arrest warrant for Morales, charging him with terrorism and sedition for allegedly inciting the “siege of cities” carried out by MAS-affiliated protesters after the coup. Morales, currently a political refugee in Argentina, has assembled a formidable international legal defense team with the help of President Alberto Fernández, including famed Spanish jurist Baltazar Garzón.

Meanwhile, nine former MAS officials are holed up in the Mexican embassy in La Paz, having been denied safe passage to Mexico by the Añez government. Añez recently caused an international uproar by expelling three senior Spanish and Mexican diplomats who were alleged to be plotting the asylum-seekers’ escape.

To date, more than 100 MAS government officials  have been detained or are facing criminal charges, ranging from terrorism to electoral fraud to misuse of state resources. Añez has announced that close to 600 former authorities of the executive branch and their families are under investigation. 

In the Chapare, the highly-organized coca-growing region that historically has been a bastion of MAS support and is now the epicenter of anti-coup resistance, residents face severe government reprisals. Following the police mutiny of November 7-8—a key event leading to the coup—protesters burned down a local tourist hotel owned by Arturo Murillo (now interior minister) and torched all nine police stations, causing the police to flee and cede security operations to coca union federation guards.

Murillo has threatened to disenfranchise the entire region in the upcoming election if the police are not permitted to reenter. In view of the hard-line anti-drug discourse now emanating from the presidential palace, coca growers anticipate a crackdown that could undermine their livelihoods and the successful system of community-controlled coca production inaugurated by Morales.[4]

Domestic press censorship and media blackouts have been rampant under the de facto regime. TeleSUR, Russia Today, and other foreign outlets have been eliminated from the national cable system, while 53 community radio stations have been shuttered. While the new minister of communications has recanted her earlier pledge to crack down on free speech, three journalists were detained on New Year’s Eve and charged with terrorism and sedition for criticizing the government on social media.

The regime has overhauled the MAS government’s foreign policy, shifting allegiances in Venezuela from President Maduro to rebel opposition leader Juan Guaidó, restoring diplomatic ties with the United States and Israel, and expelling 700 Cuban doctors that were the backbone of Morales’s public health system. It has pulled Bolivia out of the left-leaning ALBA and UNASUR alliances and joined the U.S.-backed Lima Group. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has lifted a long-standing ban on foreign aid to Bolivia, imposed when Morales failed to cooperate with U.S. counter-narcotics efforts.

Añez’s development minister has declared his support for privatizing public enterprises and shrinking the state, raising the specter of a return to past austerity policies and control of the economy—including natural resources such as lithium—by transnational corporations. What’s more, the interim president’s divisive racist discourse—ranging from deleted past tweets scorning “satanic” Indigenous celebrations, to more recent comments characterizing MAS leaders as “savages”—suggests to many Indigenous Bolivians that the significant gains achieved under Morales’s decolonization policies are at risk of being dismantled. 

The Electoral Landscape

While the electoral timeline established by the interim government is longer than initially planned—leaving more time for Añez to wreak damage—the deadlines for party registration (January 24) and candidate selection (February 3) are relatively short.

Facing all these daunting challenges, the MAS party is struggling to realign itself and identify a new presidential slate. Predictably, without Morales as the party’s charismatic unifying and controlling force, competing factions have emerged, along with expressions of dissidence not publicly revealed in the past.

Still, Morales remains highly visible as the party’s official campaign manager operating from Argentina, commenting frequently on social media. […]

Since the coup, a more moderate, dissident wing of the party has gained increasing prominence, especially in the Legislature, where new Senate president Eva Copa has led negotiations with the Añez government.  Copa, 32 years old and representing the Indigenous city of El Alto, has openly criticized the hardline wing of MAS closest to Evo in Argentina, as a “privileged group” that has damaged the party. She has accused Adriana Salvatierra, who resigned her Senate leadership post after the coup, of handing over the presidency to the opposition in an effort to save her father, a former MAS minister, from prosecution.

Copa defends her legislative pragmatism—attacked by some as complicity with the regime—as a necessary strategy to move beyond the current political crisis. “We didn’t have the money to escape,” she says, “so we have to face the consequences.” While Copa has denied any interest in seeking the presidency at this time, she has challenged party leaders to ensure that the MAS ticket is not dictated from Argentina, but reflects a popular consensus of the party’s bases in Bolivia.

Opposition forces are also divided, but may be taking steps towards greater unity. Three candidates who participated in the October election have declared their intention to run again: Carlos Mesa, the center-right former president who was Morales’s chief rival, winning 36.5 percent of the vote; Chi Hyun Chung, an evangelical conservative who took 8.8 percent; and Félix Patzi, Aymará governor of La Paz, who captured 1.25 percent.[5]

In addition, Luis Fernando “Macho” Camacho, the charismatic Santa Cruz civic leader who was catapulted to national fame as the popular face of the coup that toppled Morales, has announced his candidacy. Camacho is a prosperous member of Santa Cruz’s new economic elite, whose family wealth derives from insurance, agribusiness, and natural gas distribution. He has deep ties to the far right, as former director of the Union Juvenil Cruceñista, a proto-fascist paramilitary youth group known for publicly beating and humiliating Indigenous people in Santa Cruz during the secessionist revolt of 2006-2008.

Also a born-again Christian, who famously laid a bible on the Bolivian flag when entering the presidential palace to demand Morales’s resignation, Camacho has been dubbed “the Bolsonaro of Bolivia.” It was his aggressive combination of “bible and balls,” say political analysts Pablo Stefanoni and Fernando Molina, that succeeded in radicalizing the middle class-led regional protests against perceived electoral fraud and channeling them into a national police-civic-military coup. In the process, Mesa’s more moderate center-right leadership was completely eclipsed.  

Camacho has also demonstrated considerable political skill in reaching out to, and pacting with, disparate popular sectors that have accumulated grievances against Morales, including dissident Yungas coca growers, miners, transportation workers, and even some peasant organizations. Most notably, his designated running mate for vice president is Marco Pumari, an Indigenous miner’s son who has led a long popular struggle around lithium extraction in Potosí, as well as recent anti-Morales protests in the region. 

The Camacho-Pumari ticket was announced on New Year’s Eve with great fanfare, together with a 14-point program for a “united Bolivia, with dignity, freedom, and democracy.” The slate offers a powerful antidote to Camacho’s racist history, as well as an image of east-west popular unity that belies his elitist, revanchist roots, with the potential for broad appeal.

Still, the alliance came close to self-destructing before it began. After initially denying their political aspirations, Camacho and Pumari shared their mutual interest in a joint ticket last November. Two weeks later, the partnership fractured when Camacho accused Pumari of having demanded a substantial payoff in the form of cash and ministry quotas, with audiotapes of the conversation leaked to social media and CNN. Each agreed to run separately.

A few days later, Camacho met in Washington, DC with Luis Almagro, head of the OAS, who heralded his “commitment to democracy.”  The next day, he was a guest speaker at the Inter-American Dialogue, a DC-based think tank, where activist group Code Pink protested him and the event. Two weeks later, the alliance was publicly revived.

Interim president Añez has called for an opposition summit to unify the anti-MAS vote—presumably behind Camacho, with whom she has close political ties. In a sense, the Camacho-Pumari alliance was literally made in the presidential palace, when Añez, after her swearing-in ceremony, appeared on the balcony flanked by the duo. 

While it’s still early in the game, the MAS has trumpeted recent polls showing the party’s still unnamed candidate in first place with 21 percent of the vote, as compared to 16 percent for Añez (who denies any intention to run),  16 percent for Camacho and Pumari combined (with each running separately at the time of the poll), and 14 percent for Mesa. Still, in a second ballot scenario, only 24 percent say they will vote for the MAS while 47 percent would vote for an opposition candidate.

The youth vote, representing approximately one-third of the electorate last October, will be even more critical this time around, since the registry will be updated to add newly-eligible voters. Significant numbers of youth turned against Morales in October to join the so-called “Revolution of the Pititas”—named for the makeshift cords strung across streets by novice protesters, which Morales ridiculed.

Camacho has significant appeal for this sector, which is strongly influenced by social media and susceptible to manipulation. The IACHR identified some 60,000 false twitter accounts created between November 9 and 17 that generated more than 1 million tweets in support of Camacho and Añez. Still, the coup has also spawned a resurgence of pro-MAS militancy among youth in places like El Alto, who were previously alienated from the struggles of their parents and grandparents.

As anthropologist Nicole Fabricant has argued, to defeat Bolivia’s ascendant right-wing forces—which will continue to be nourished and fortified by the Añez regime during the run-up to the election—will require a broad united front of left-Indigenous groups across the historic pro- and anti-Morales divide. For the MAS, choosing a presidential slate that is more independent of Morales could help to appeal to popular opposition sectors. For the anti-Morales left, which has been disturbingly silent regarding the Añez regime’s abuses, taking a stand against political persecution, racist discourse, and the erosion of democracy occurring under the de facto government could go a long way towards reconciliation. 

January 10, 2020


[1] For a rebuttal of these charges, see OAS Final Audit Report on Bolivia Elections Raises More Questions about its Own Work than It Answers, CEPR Analysis Concludes, and CELAG, Análisis del informe final de la OEA sobre las elecciones en Bolivia.

[2] Constitución Política del Estado, art. 166(1).

[3] For more on the background of the recent events, see Nicole Fabricant, “The Roots of the Right-Wing Coup in Bolivia.”

[4] See Linda C. Farthing and Kathryn Ledebur, Habeas Coca: Bolivia’s Community Coca Control.

[5] Patzi has since dropped out.

Friday, January 3, 2020

‘Capitalism, patriarchy, and racism now threaten to destroy this world’

A guest column by Dr. Laurie Adkin

To mark its 40th anniversary, Studies in Political Economy, A Socialist Review sponsored a conference October 26 at Carleton University, Ottawa. The theme: “The Limits of Capitalism and the Challenge of Alternatives.” Among the speakers was Professor Laurie Adkin of the University of Alberta, who addressed the conference via Skype. Prof. Adkin has kindly agreed to the publication here of the notes she prepared for her panel presentation, in my opinion an outstanding contribution. – Richard Fidler

* * *

The Limits of Capitalism

At this point in human history, the limits of capitalism and the limits of our species’ life on Earth have converged. We have never been here before, and we cannot go back.

The political activism of my youth was largely in solidarity with anti-colonial movements in Africa and Palestine, anti-US imperialist movements and dictatorships in Latin America, and solidarity-building between the labour and other social movements around a broad program of democratic, anti-capitalist reforms. In those struggles, there was always an assumption that social transformation could draw upon the resources of a reasonably intact natural world. No more. Capitalism, patriarchy, and racism now threaten to destroy this world, along with its tenuous civilizational achievements. We are all of us, now, face to face with the kind of “deworlding” that traumatized Indigenous peoples following the arrival of colonizers.

We, on the left, keep trying to find analogous moments in human history (the rise of fascism, world war two) when “normal” life is upended and nothing can go on as before -- including academic work, which must give way to activism on every front. Apart from the threat of nuclear war, humans have never faced a “limit” like this, and even that threat was unlike climate destabilization because at least it could be controlled by disarming the technology. What we have set in motion now, in the capitalocene, is likely beyond technological solutions, notwithstanding Promethean male fantasies of Mars colonies and planetary geological engineering.[1] What we have set in motion is now, at least in part, beyond human control. That is, no re-engineering of social relationships and modes of production will reverse the biological and physical processes that have been unleashed.

In the span of a single lifetime, since WWII, industrialized societies have loaded enough greenhouse gases into the atmosphere — mostly from the combustion of fossil fuels — to cause the breakdown of a climatic system that was relatively stable and friendly to biodiverse life for 800,000 years.[2] More than half of all the GHGs emitted since 1750 have been emitted since 1989 — that is, when we knew what we were doing.[3]

To give you just a few examples of climate breakdown:

Thawing soil in the Arctic is now releasing an estimated 600 million tons of C02 per year-- an amount that exceeds the CO2 emissions of 189 countries. This is a biofeedback effect of warming at the north pole, which has now warmed by 4oC (over the pre-industrial average).[4] This is not a genie that we can put back in the bottle.

Our emission of greenhouse gases has caused ocean warming,[5] acidification, and anoxification. One of the (frankly terrifying) consequences of ocean warming is reduced phytoplankton growth. Phytoplankton are the basis of the marine food chain, producers of half of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere, and drivers of the “biological pump that fixes 100 million tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide a day into organic material, which then sinks to the ocean floor” ....[6] They are responsible for half of the photosynthesis that takes place on Earth’s surface, although they account for less than 1 percent of photosynthetic biomass. Studies indicate that phytoplankton biomass has decreased by more than 40 percent since 1950 and continues to decrease at a growing rate.[7] Scientists warned in 2010 that if — due to warming surface waters — the phytoplankton in the upper ocean stop pumping carbon down to the deep sea, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide will eventually rise by another 200 ppm and global warming will accelerate.[8] (We’re now at about 411 ppm.)

Meanwhile, the die-off of phytoplankton, kelps, and corals has already affected marine species that depend on them for food or habitat. With the crash of wild fish stocks (due to multiple causes, in addition to global warming,) humans are losing a source of protein that currently supplies one fifth of our protein consumption. One marine scientist says that, “in the best case,” it will take another 1,000 years “for the current damage to be reversed.”[9]

Eco-Marxists like John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark have drawn attention to Marx’s investigation of the problem of the loss of soil fertility in 19th century Britain, following the commercialization of agriculture and changes in farming practices.[10] I picture Marx in the library at the British Museum, devouring all kinds of contemporary science, and wishing he had time to follow all the threads. I suspect that Marx would have been very interested in the life cycles of phytoplankton, had their existence been known to him. Could he have imagined that capitalism could survive in the face of widespread knowledge that it is destroying the conditions for life on our planet? That we could we arrive at a place, where, for millions, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism?[11]

Future scenarios range from the catastrophic to the unthinkable. We are now on track for warming of more than 4oC by 2100,[12] or 3.5oC if all countries actually meet their Paris COP commitments, and 8oC is no longer impossible (although we do still have a window of opportunity to hold the global average temperature increase to the lower end of the spectrum). In a 4ﹾoC world, climate models predict that the planet will not have the carrying capacity to support the current human population.[13] Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, an eminent climate scientist and director of the Potsdam Institute, said earlier this year that “at 4oC, Earth’s … carrying capacity estimates are below 1 billion people.” [14] Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change has reached a similar conclusion, estimating that “only about 10% of the planet’s population would survive at 4oC.”

The UN predicts that there will be 200 million climate refugees by 2050.[16] Depending on by how much global temperature rises, there could be “a billion or more vulnerable poor people” displaced from their homes by mid-century.”[17] Today’s governments are unable to co-operate to deal with 6 million Syrian refugees. Instead, most are building higher walls, using coast guards to turn back ships, and building detention centres.

And, of course, one can go on . . . I haven’t touched on the effects of chemically-and-fossil-fuel-intensive agriculture, beef consumption, over-fishing, toxic chemicals, plastics, industrial pollution, and so on. I haven’t mentioned the great loss of other species—half of all non-human life on the planet in my lifetime in this sixth period of mass extinctions. Our destiny is entwined with that of the other species with whom we share the planet.

That the over-shoot of planetary ecosystem boundaries is a limit to capitalism — and to human population growth and consumption — like no limit we have faced before, is what the global movement of school-strikers is trying to tell us. It is what the Extinction Rebellion movement is telling us.

What does this mean for political economy? Well, if I can repeat an argument I made in the pages of SPE in 1994 (25 years ago!) we have to stop thinking, programmatically, in terms of economic growth.[18] We must take up the calls for degrowth — in whatever discursive form best fits our political contexts — and for the rapid decarbonization of our systems of production, consumption, communication, and transportation. This is not the moment to rally behind incremental, contradictory, and often socially regressive, market-based approaches to environmental regulation; it is the moment to shift popular consensus in the direction of a much more radical agenda of reforms rooted in ecological and egalitarian principles. This agenda needs to be developed regionally, by civil society actors, taking into account local ecosystems and other factors, but in connection with other regions. We are at a crossroads where either global apartheid and authoritarian, nativist regimes will prevail, or a radical democratization from below motivated by humanist and universal values as well as love of biodiversity.

Actions like protests and civil disobedience need to be articulated to an agenda of reforms to realize political democratization and green transition. Where civil society is weak and disorganized — as in Alberta — we need to bring together our intellectual, institutional, and leadership resources to develop a program around which we can mobilize support. A major resource in this regard is the university, but disciplinary and incentive structures mean that there are trenches that must be won here, too, for the university’s resources to become available to community partners.[19]

Elections seem to be windows of opportunity and it is understandable that we turn our energies toward the debates and campaigns — and to preventing the worst outcomes. But given the existing institutional barriers to electing a green-left government, I think we should prioritize the work of coalition-building and democratic planning — bringing forward concrete alternatives that people can fight for. The slogan “What do we want? Climate action!” is a starting point, but it puts the ball in the court of governments (and economists) that are only going to offer market-based measures — at best — or delay meaningful action.

A few further points with regard to planning for green transition:

Instead of thinking in terms of full employment, we need to be thinking about how to ensure income security that is delinked from wage-labour and — for farmers — from commodity prices.

Instead of thinking about raising revenue only in terms of taxation, we need to be figuring out how to finance a rapid energy transition and other measures through public banks and public ownership of the new sectors.

In the Canadian context, green transition must also take as a starting point the restoration of land to Indigenous peoples and recognition of their full sovereignty over those lands.

A lot of thinking has been done about the general directions for green transition, and coalitions are starting to come together at provincial and municipal levels.

This organizing work is also a way of coping, psychologically, with the overwhelming grief that many of us feel about the world we are losing — a world our children will never know — and about the world they will be inhabiting in the decades ahead. At the very least, we must be able to say we tried.

Greta Thunberg uses the phrase: “We will not be bystanders.” I don’t know if this is her intention, but this phrase could be a reference to the choices available to people in the 1930s, as they observed the rise of fascism and the deportation of Jews, Communists, homosexuals, the disabled, the gypsies, and others to “concentration” camps.[20] Thunberg’s call is a moral one, recognizing that the world’s poorest populations will be the most devastated by climate destabilization. Shall those of us who are privileged to live in the northern hemisphere and in the global middle class “stand by” while millions die, or flee, from the disasters wrought by global warming?

Will we “stand by” while short-term greed renders our planet uninhabitable for future generations? Or we will commit ourselves fully to making another future possible? To wresting power from the ecocidal one per cent and its governments?


[1] On carbon capture, for example, see Mark Z. Jacobson, “The health and climate impacts of carbon capture and direct air capture,” Energy & Environmental Science (2019) [DOI: 10.1039/C9EE02709B].

[2] Rob Moore, “Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere Hits Record High Monthly Average,” Scripps Institution of Oceanography, May 2, 2018. https://scripps.ucsd.edu/programs/keelingcurve/2018/05/02/carbon-dioxide-in-the-atmosphere-hits-record-high-monthly-average/.

[3] Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, « Global, Regional, and National Fossil-Fuel CO2 Emissions » (Oak Ridge, TN. 2-17), https://doi.org/10.3334/CDIAC/00001_V2017.

[4] Joe McCarthy, “Soil in the Arctic is now releasing more carbon dioxide than 189 countries,” Global Citizen, October 23, 2019. https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/arctic-soil-releasing-carbon-dioxide/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=share&fbclid=IwAR3Zny0BMZID25qEPwldyzMobdLSHPIO7R-k--0Ar_UvOxmhPdl6p-ZEKsc&_branch_match_id=706172071176735627. The report is: Susan M. Natali, Jennifer D. Watts, Donatella Zona, “Large loss of CO2 in winter observed across the northern permafrost region,” Nature Climate Change, 21 October 2019.

[5] About 90 per cent of the heat trapped by greenhouse gases is absorbed by oceans. https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/marine-wildlife-sea-temperatures-extinction-2/

[6] Quirin Schiermeier, “Ocean greenery under warming stress,” Nature 28 July 2010 [doi:10.1038/news.2010.379], https://www.nature.com/news/2010/100728/full/news.2010.379.html

[7] Ibid.

[8] A paper in Nature, published in 2012, explained that the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide had already risen to more than 390 parts per million. This is 40 per cent higher than before the industrial revolution. See Paul Falkowski, “The power of plankton,” Nature vol. 483 (1 March 2012), S17-S19.

[9] Paul Falkowski, interviewed by Michael Eisenstein, in Nature 483, S21 (29 February 2012).

[10] John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, “Ecological Imperialism: The Curse of Capitalism,” in Socialist Register 2004, pp. 186-201.

[11] No, I don’t know who said it first!

[12] IPCC, Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report, Summary for Policymakers (Geneva, 2014), p. 11, https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg2/.

[13] David Wallace-Wells, “The Uninhabitable Earth” (annotated), New York Magazine, July 10/14, 2017. http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans-annotated.html.

[14] Quoted in Robert Unziker, “Earth 4C Hotter,” Counter Punch August 23, 2019, https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/08/23/earth-4c-hotter/.

[15] Ibid. See also, the map of the world at 4ﹾC by Parag Khanna: https://www.paragkhanna.com/home/2016/3/9/the-world-4-degrees-warmer?rq=warmer.

[16] Baher Kamal, “Climate migrants might reach one billion by 2050,” ReliefWeb, August 21, 2017, https://reliefweb.ing/report/world/climate-migrants-might-reach-one-billion-2050.

[17] United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, “Sustainability, Stability, Security,” www.unced.int./sustainability-stability--security.

[18] Laurie Adkin, “Environmental politics, political economy, and social democracy in Canada,” review essay in Studies in Political Economy no. 45 (Fall 1994), 130-169.

[19] This internal war of position is made harder when the universities are under attack by neoliberal petro-politicians, as is the case in Alberta. But the priorities of university research and the shaping of their degree programs are influenced, more generally, by corporate-government-determined “innovation” agendas. (See Laurie Adkin, Knowledge for an Ecologically Sustainable Future? Innovation Policy and Alberta Universities (Edmonton, AB: Corporate Mapping Project and Parkland Institute, forthcoming in 2020). Moreover, most universities have now implemented budget models that allocate revenue by performance criteria that put faculties (and departments within faculties) in competition with one another for student enrolments and external research funding. This competition suffocates interdisciplinary research and teaching. On the other hand, within faculties there can be a stronger esprit de corps and a degree of politicization vis-à-vis the neoliberal state.

[20] It is not surprising that analogies are made so often between the effort needed to wrest power from the ecocidal one percent and its governments, on the one hand, and the massive mobilization that was necessary to defeat fascist governments in WWII, on the other hand. There are significant differences, worthy of consideration because they are of strategic importance. For example, some governments mobilized their populations to fight Hitler and Mussolini; today, it looks like we are going to have to mobilize ourselves against our own governments.