Ecosocialism or Catastrophe
A Review of Naomi Klein’s On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal
Naomi Klein’s latest book On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal is an inspiring and emphatic argument for dramatic action on the climate that has provoked a wide variety of responses, from reviewers on both the left and center. The thesis of the book is becoming increasingly inarguable to all those whose paycheck does not depend on denying it: neoliberal capitalism with its unbounded growth and consumption of resources is incompatible with human survival faced with the realities of the climate crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has also opened new fronts on the environmental debate with the emergence of a cultural perception that reduced human activity is causing “nature to return” or that “humanity is the virus”. But the fossil-fuel driven climate instability of the “old normal” makes it clear that capitalism, not humanity, is the virus.
Regular people are eager for their grandchildren to have a safe and healthy world to live in. We know that they will sacrifice the profits of billionaires to make the bold changes that will be needed to address climate change. In contrast, big business and the corporate-backed political class are unable to apply the brakes, even as they are putting humanity’s future on the line. In the context of COVID-19, polls show overwhelming majorities oppose reopening businesses if it puts people at risk. The numbers are a reminder that working people will put human well-being over profit, which is an important underlying strength of the climate justice movement. On Fire is a useful starting point for democratic socialists to define the world that can replace the current order, and how we will build a fighting movement capable of getting us there in time.
The book is laid out as a series of essays that chart Klein’s views over time beginning with her more “anarcho-liberal” focus in the early 2000s on anti-consumerism and combating the rhetoric of libertarians and climate deniers. The arc of her thought shows a good trend towards advocating more political, systemic solutions that has been mirrored on the broader left since Occupy and since the Bernie phenomenon began in 2015. Naomi Klein has a lot of faith in mass consciousness and social movements to force change, but her lack of a clear direction for organizers mirrors the process happening in DSA today, where a diversity of approaches and tactics are being debated and tried out across the US without yet having an overarching approach to unite our work.
The response from left-leaning reviewers has understandably been very positive. Jacobin and the Guardian’s reviews sing Klein’s praises, rightly pointing to her evocative writing and inclusion of diverse issues under the climate justice umbrella ranging from Palestinian liberation to housing and healthcare—and her identification of neoliberal capitalism as the root that must be torn up to get humanity to a sustainable future. Articulating these large systemic issues in an understandable way is one of Klein’s amazing talents, and is an important reason why democratic socialists should read all of Klein’s work, including this book.
The Washington Post, in its otherwise critical review of On Fire, admiringly points out that,
“in the vision laid out in ‘On Fire,’ capitalism is not discarded, just somewhat tamed. Klein talks about ‘democratic eco-socialism,’ but the examples she holds up are Sweden and Denmark, places where capitalism is alive and well...The pursuit of wealth is not eliminated, but obscene excess is constrained, with resources channeled back into supporting infrastructure for a cleaner, fairer economy and safety nets for those displaced in the transition.”
While the Post appreciates Klein for not going further with a call to end capitalism entirely, from a democratic socialist perspective it is one of the book’s biggest limitations. Capitalist production is based on infinite growth, waste, and exploitation of people and natural resources. Industry has dragged its feet for decades, even as the IPCC shows we have to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 to forestall disastrous consequences, with wealthier countries like the US reaching that mark far earlier. In order to decarbonize our society in time, workers will have to be substantially in control of the economy. This means dramatic steps starting with putting major corporations under democratic public ownership in order to rapidly convert their infrastructure to green energy production. As long as we leave the levers of power in the hands of boardroom executives, they will continue to put their profits over people and the planet.
We have no reason to expect that the billionaire class will “go quietly” faced with a mass movement powerful enough to carry this transformation out. Hinting at this reality, Klein talks about the background of the original New Deal in the 1930s, including the Teamsters rebellion in Minneapolis, the eighty-three day shutdown of West Coast ports by longshore workers, and other mass mobilizations in the labor movement—correctly crediting them rather than FDR for delivering New Deal social programs.
But surprisingly she seems almost sympathetic to FDR for tamping down the revolutionary energy of the time, saying that “the [New Deal] programs...appeared at the time to be the only way to hold back a full-scale revolution...this pressure from the left, in the form of militant movements and political parties, delivered the most progressive elements of the New Deal.” It seems to me that she envisions a Green New Deal as a WWII-like mobilization for government control over industry that can take real steps against neoliberal inequality, but not yet as a permanent transition away from a capitalist economy and towards a truly egalitarian society.
These are important lessons of the strength of social and labor movements to make big changes in society, but the book lacks a vision of the contours of a truly eco-socialist world, where working people are in control of our own society and able to take the dramatic steps needed to address the climate crisis, like complete decarbonization, a just transition for workers, and addressing centuries of environmental racism. Our movement should envision a world where a three day work week gives workers time to enjoy life and collectively run the economy, and where we dramatically reallocate resources towards low-carbon jobs in education, care work, and green transportation. In this time of ecological catastrophe paired with increasing radicalization, especially of young people around the world, it’s important for those on the Left to begin articulating a transformation that goes beyond assuming capitalism must and will continue in some form.
As the largest socialist organization in the US in generations, DSA has an important role to play in popularizing this ecosocialist vision. In my view, the most promising projects already underway to accomplish this are spreading a radical analysis in the international youth climate movement, rank-and-file organizing around climate issues in the labor movement, and class struggle electoral campaigns that raise the demand for free public transit and taxing large corporations for green initiatives (such as housing). Over the next few months, there will be important opportunities for DSA to present an ecosocialist vision for rebuilding the economy after the COVID-19 crisis. Along with green housing and a jobs program, DSA should be calling explicitly for taking the entire fossil fuel industry into democratic public ownership, rapidly converting it to produce green energy and infrastructure, and holding fossil fuel executives accountable for their crimes. This program would be an important first step along the road to the truly free society we deserve.
DSA's 2019 National Convention adopted this call for democratic public ownership of fossil fuel companies, but it is up to DSA's National Political Committee and local chapters to center this political stance in our messaging. We should publicly call on DSA members in office, especially Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, to raise the demand for democratic public ownership. These bold steps are common sense given the scale of the climate crisis, and we should do everything we can to push the movement around the Green New Deal to embrace solutions that will actually provide a safe and just world for working people.
The future will be either democratic ecosocialism or capitalist-controlled environmental catastrophe. Billionaires and big business will not be suffering the worst effects of climate change, and their hold over our institutions is tight and pernicious. The only real solution to the climate crisis requires whole industries coming to an end in short order, costly retooling of the energy sector and supply chains, and a redistribution of their economic and political power to working people, which is ultimately not in their interest. Taken together, that means going beyond Nordic-style social democracy isn’t a preference, it’s a necessity. Naomi Klein’s book provides a good starting point for these discussions, and her evocative writing makes it well worth the read.