Editor’s note: Mainstream environmentalists have been demanding that countries across the world declare a “climate emergency.” But what does a climate emergency mean? What will the consequences be? Is there a possibility that it will be more detrimental to the environment? In this piece, Elisabeth Robson argues how declaring a climate emergency can be worse for the environment.
By Elisabeth Robson/Protect Thacker Pass
“Climate emergency”. We hear these words regularly these days, whenever there is a wild fire, a flood, or an extreme weather event of any kind. We hear these words at the annual Conference of Parties (COPs) on climate change held by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), including at the COP27 meeting happening right now in Egypt. And we hear these words regularly from organizations petitioning the U.S. government to “declare a climate emergency”, and from Senators requesting the same.
Most recently, here in the U.S., we heard these words on October 4, 2022 when a group of US Senators led by Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) urged President Biden to “build on the inflation reduction act” and “declare a climate emergency”, writing: “Declaring a climate emergency could unlock the broad powers of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the Stafford Act*, allowing you to immediately pursue an array of regulatory and administrative actions to slash emissions, protect public health, support national and energy security, and improve our air and water quality.”
The requests by these Senators include two related specifically to electric vehicles:
* Maximize the adoption of electric vehicles, push states to reduce their transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, and support the electrification of our mass transit;
* Transition the Department of Defense non-tactical vehicle fleet to electric and zero-emission vehicles, install solar panels on military housing, and take other aggressive steps to decrease its environmental impact.
The Senators continue, “The climate crisis is one of the biggest emergencies that our country has ever faced and time is running out. We need to build off the momentum from the IRA and make sure that we achieve the ambition this crisis requires, and what we have promised the world. We urge you to act boldly, declare this crisis the national emergency that it is, and embark upon significant regulatory and administrative action.”
What the Senators are requesting is that President Biden invoke the National Emergencies Act (NEA) to go above and beyond what the Biden Administration has already done to take action in this “climate emergency” by invoking the Defense Production Act and passing the Inflation Reduction Act. This is not the first time a US president has been asked to declare a climate emergency by members of Congress, but it is the most recent.
Invoking the Defense Production Act, as the administration did in April, 2022, allows the administration to support domestic mining for critical minerals (including lithium, cobalt, nickel, and manganese, which readers of this blog will recognize as essential ingredients in batteries for EVs and energy storage) with federal funding and incentives in the name of national security.
The Inflation Reduction Act, passed in August, 2022, codified into law support for domestic mining of 50 “critical minerals” to supply renewables and battery manufacturing. This law directly supports EV manufacturing by offering tax credits to car companies that use domestic supplies of metals and minerals above a certain threshold (40% to start).
We’ve already seen how the Biden Administration is using its powers under these two acts (the Defense Production Act (DPA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA)) to encourage more domestic mining for “critical minerals” and the expansion of electric vehicles and charging stations. Mining companies are “celebrating”, as one journalist wrote, including Lithium Americas Corporation (LAC) whose CEO said of the IRA “We’re delighted with it.” Car companies getting support from the government to expand manufacturing, companies getting support for building out the EV charging networks, battery-making companies, and the Department of Defense must also be celebrating the infusion of government cash and the tax incentives coming their way.
The administration would have even more power to fund and incentivize mining, manufacturing, development and industry with the National Emergencies Act, or NEA. The NEA empowers the President to activate special powers during a crisis. These powers could include loan guarantees, fast tracking permits, and even suspending existing laws that protect the environment, such as the Clean Air Act, if the administration believes these laws get in the way of mining, manufacturing, and other industrial development required for addressing the climate emergency.
As described in the Brennan Center’s Guide to Emergency Powers and Their Use, in the event a national emergency is declared, such as a climate emergency, the “President may authorize an agency to guarantee loans by private institutions in order to finance products and services essential to the national defense without regard to normal procedural and substantive requirements for such loan guarantees” [emphasis added]. This authorization could occur, as stated in the NEA, “during a period of national emergency declared by Congress or the President” or “upon a determination by the President, on a nondelegable basis, that a specific guarantee is necessary to avert an industrial resource or critical technology item shortfall that would severely impair national defense capability.”
Included in the long list of requirements for a Department of Energy (DoE) loan guarantee, the loan applicant must supply “A report containing an analysis of the potential environmental impacts of the proposed project that will enable DoE to:
(i) Assess whether the proposed project will comply with all applicable environmental requirements; and
(ii) Undertake and complete any necessary reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969.”
In the event a climate emergency is declared, could the administration then be able to “authorize an agency to guarantee loans” to a corporation “without regard” for these requirements? If so, then a corporation could potentially skip the NEPA process currently required for a new mining project, and not bother to do an assessment about whether their project would comply with all applicable environmental requirements (e.g. requirements under the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act).
In other words, a corporation could proceed with their project, such as a lithium mine, with little to no environmental oversight if the Administration believes the resulting products are “essential to national defense.”
We already know that the Biden Administration believes that lithium production is essential to national defense: they have explicitly stated this in their invocation of the Defense Production Act and in the Inflation Reduction Act.
Declaring a “climate emergency” would give the administration free rein to allow corporations to sidestep environmental procedures that are normally required during the process of permitting a project like a mine, resulting in more harm to the environment.
Aside from these technical details about the implications of declaring a climate emergency, we know that most organizations, including those participating in COP27 and the 1,100 organizations that signed a February 2022 letter to President Biden urging him to declare a climate emergency, are demanding actions that would further harm the environment, such as “maximiz[ing] the adoption of electric vehicles” and “transition[ing] the Department of Defense…to electric and zero-emission vehicles” as demanded in the Senators’ October 4 letter to President Biden.
While these actions may reduce some greenhouse gas emissions, neither of these actions will reduce other harms to the environment, because these actions require more extraction and more development. And neither of these actions will reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a scope large enough to solve the climate crisis. What the activists, organizations, and Senators crying out for the President to declare a climate emergency seemingly fail to understand is that the climate emergency isn’t the only emergency we face.
Industrial development, and more specifically, industrial agriculture, has caused a 70% reduction in wildlife numbers just since 1970. This is an emergency inextricably linked with and just as dire as the climate crisis, yet the Senators and organizations calling for a climate emergency don’t demand a reduction in overall industrial development, only a reduction in fossil fuels development.
Each year, 24 billion tons of topsoil are lost, due primarily to industrial agriculture practices and deforestation. In 2014, the UN estimated that if current degradation rates continue, all the world’s top soil could be gone within 60 years. This too is an emergency inextricably linked with and just as dire as the climate crisis, yet again, the Senators and organizations calling for a climate emergency don’t demand actions to rebuild and restore soil.
Industry, including the military-industrial complex, has polluted the entire planet with toxic levels of mercury, lead, PCBs, dioxins, forever chemicals such as PFAS chemicals, and micro- and nano-plastics. These toxics are in the water we drink, the food we eat, and the air we breathe—“we” being, of course, not just humans but all wildlife on the planet. Again, this is an emergency just as dire as the climate emergency.
More than 50 million gallons of wastewater contaminated with arsenic, lead, and other toxic metals flows daily from some of the most contaminated mining sites in the U.S. into groundwater, rivers, and ponds. Mining waste that is captured must be stored and/or treated indefinitely “for perhaps thousands of years,” as the Associated Press wrote memorably in a 2019 article on mining waste. Replicate this kind of mining waste pollution around the world, and obviously, this too is an emergency just as dire as the climate emergency.
There are many such emergencies. Humans, our industry, and our developments have destroyed half of the land on Earth, and one third of all Earth’s forests. 60% of all mammals on Earth are now human livestock, mostly cattle and pigs, and 70% of all birds are now farmed poultry. This along with the staggering loss of wild beings due to human development and the destruction of habitat has resulted in the sixth mass extinction of life in Earth’s history—the only one caused by us.
All of these emergencies are related to climate change, of course. The more our societies develop, the more harm we do to the natural world, including the atmosphere.
“Development” is really global technological escalation by industry to extract more materials more efficiently, destroying more of the planet in its relentless theft of “resources.” The more our societies develop, the less habitat for life is left, and the more we overshoot the ability of the Earth to sustain us and the rest of the species on Earth.
We ignore these other emergencies at our peril. Indeed, ignoring them in favor of the climate emergency often exacerbates these emergencies. When the organizations mentioned above demand increases in electric vehicles, increases in batteries, increases in renewables, and increases in climate mitigation and adaptation (building sea walls, retrofitting and improving roads and bridges, moving entire cities), what they are demanding is more development, not less, which means more harm, not less, to the natural world. For instance, we know that the materials required to supply the projected battery demand in 2035 will require 384 new mines. That’s to supply the materials just for batteries.
Ultimately, what most organizations that support declaring a climate emergency want is not to protect life on this planet, but rather, to protect this way of life: the one we’re living now, the one that’s killing the planet. These organizations believe that we can simply replace CO2-emitting fossil fuels with EVs and so-called renewables, and keep living these ecocidal lifestyles we have become accustomed to.
We know this to be true, because we can see it directly in the actions already taken by the Biden administration, actions that will dramatically increase mining in the U.S. Mining increases the destruction of the natural world, meaning MORE habitat loss, not less. Mining increases toxic pollution. Mining increases deforestation. Mining increases top soil loss. In other words, these actions will significantly worsen all the emergencies we, and all life on the planet, face.
Rather than demand governments around the world declare a “climate emergency,” we could instead demand governments around the world declare an “ecological overshoot emergency.” In place of demands to increase industry, increase mining, and build new cars and new energy infrastructure, we could instead demand governments reduce industry, end mining, help wean us completely away from cars, and dramatically reduce energy extraction, production, and consumption. In place of demands to continue a way of life that cannot possibly continue much longer, with its relentless destruction of the natural world, we could instead demand that all societies around the world center what makes life possible on this planet: flourishing and fecund natural communities, of which we could be a thriving part, rather than dominate and destroy.
Join us and help Protect Thacker Pass, or work to defend the wild places you love. We can’t save the planet by destroying the planet in the name of a “climate emergency.”
* In their October 4 letter to President Biden, the Senators mention how invoking the NEA could “unlock the broad powers of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and the Stafford Act.” The International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) authorizes the president to regulate international commerce after declaring a national emergency, for instance by blocking transactions with corporations based in foreign countries, or by limiting trade with those foreign countries. This would, like the IRA, incentivize building domestic supply chains and manufacturing capabilities. The Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act encourages states to develop disaster preparedness plans, and provides federal assistance programs in the event of disaster. In the event of an emergency, such as a declared climate emergency, the President could direct any federal agency (e.g. FEMA) to use its resources to aid a state or local government in emergency assistance efforts, and to help states prepare for anticipated hazards. In the event of a declared climate emergency, this would unleash federal funds and other incentive programs to states to build and harden infrastructure that is vulnerable to wildfire, floods, severe storms, ocean acidification, and other effects of climate change.
Featured Image: Climate emergency – Melbourne #MarchforScience on #Earthday by Takver from Australia. Via Wikemedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)
What does it take to make an electric car?
Editor’s note: This article has been published in The International Journal of Human Rights. Unfortunaltly we don’t have the rights to publish the whole article which is behind a paywall, but we are publishing the extract and some quotes.
Featured image: The surface mine storage place, mining minerals and brown coal in different colours. View from above. Photo by Curioso Photography on Unsplash
This article describes the connections between resource extraction, prostitution, poverty, and climate change. Although resource extraction and prostitution have been viewed as separate phenomena, this article suggests that they are related harms that result in multiple violations of women’s human rights. The businesses of resource extraction and prostitution adversely impact women’s lives, especially those who are poor, ethnically or racially marginalised, and young. The article clarifies associations between prostitution and climate change on the one hand, and poverty, choicelessness, and the appearance of consent on the other. We discuss human rights conventions that are relevant to mitigation of the harms caused by extreme poverty, homelessness, resource extraction, climate change, and prostitution. These include anti-slavery conventions and women’s sex-based rights conventions.
Farley writes: “In this article we oﬀer some conceptual and empirical connections between prostitution, resource extraction, poverty, and climate change.1 These associations are clariﬁed by Seiya Morita’s visual diagram, in Figure 1.2 In the short term, resource extraction leads to a sudden increase in the sex trade, as shown by the arrow on the left side of the diagram. In the long term, resource extraction causes climate change as indicated by the right arrow. Climate change then leads to crises in peoples’ ability to survive extreme events such as drought, ﬂoods, or agricultural collapse. These climate change catastrophes result in poverty which then mediates and channels women into the sex trade. The arrow on the bottom of Figure 1 illustrates this process.
The initial phase of resource extraction launches and expands prostitution
“At ﬁrst, colonists and their descendants subordinate indigenous people who live on lands rich in natural resources. Historically, extraction industries have exploited young, poor men who are paid well to perform jobs that no one else wants because the jobs are unplea- sant and dangerous. This initial phase of resource extraction temporarily results in a boom economy with cash-rich but lonely working-class men. In order to pacify the workers and enrich the pimps, women and girls who are under pimp control are delivered to workers in these boom/sacriﬁce zones such as the Bakken oil ﬁelds in USA and Canada, gold mines in South Africa, coltan mining regions in Colombia, and logging regions in Brazil.3 This movement of traﬃcked women increases prostitution both in the boom town and in neigh- bouring communities. Following is an example of this process.
“The Bakken oil ﬁelds of Montana/North Dakota/Saskatchewan/Manitoba are located in lands where the Dakota Access Pipeline causes physical, psychological, and cultural damage to the community, and ecocidal harm to the land and the water.4 In 2008, large numbers of pipeline workers moved into the Bakken region’s barracks-style housing which were named man camps. Sexual assaults, domestic violence, and sex traﬃcking tripled in communities adjacent to the oilﬁeld sacriﬁce zones,5 with especially high rates of sexual violence toward Native women.6 Adverse consequences of living near extractive projects include increased rates of sexually transmitted infections and still- births; general deterioration in health; ecological degradation and climate change; threats to food security; and political corruption – all of which severely impact women.7 When resource extraction is terminated, for example when coltan mining was halted in Congo because of environmental protests, the newly expanding sex trade remains in operation, an enduring legacy of colonisation. Belgium’s domination of Congo gradually shifted from state to corporate colonisation.8 The Belgian colonists’ commodiﬁcation of the nation diminished the people’s social and political power, leaving them poorer, with fewer resources, and often desperate for a means of survival even before the later phase of climate change occurred. This sequence happens wherever resources are commodiﬁed. Initially, a boom economy based on resource extraction creates short-term job opportunities and wealth previously unknown. Prostitution is established both to pacify the workers and to generate money for pimps and traﬃckers. When the boom economy goes bust, men’s continued demand for paid sexual access, combined with women’s need for survival – drive the institution of prostitution, which remains even after the extraction industry has ended.”
Melissa Farley (2021): Making the connections: resource extraction, prostitution, poverty, climate change, and human rights, The International Journal of Human Rights, DOI: 10.1080/13642987.2021.1997999
The whole article is accessible here: https://doi.org/10.1080/13642987.2021.1997999
Melissa Farley is a research and clinical psychologist who has authored many articles and 2 books on the topic of prostitution, pimping/trafficking, and pornography. She is the executive director of Prostitution Research & Education, a nonprofit research institute that conducts original research on the sex trade and provides a library of information for survivors, advocates, policymakers, and the public. Access to the free library is at www.prostitutionresearch.com.
“You Can Kill a Man, but You Can’t Kill an Idea” – Medgar Evers
This article first appeared in Common Dreams.
“After a year of strikes—and having faced brutal repression that claimed some 700 lives—India’s farmers are victorious in their struggle.”
By KENNY STANCIL
Workers’ rights activists around the globe rejoiced on Friday after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that his government will repeal three corporate-friendly agricultural laws that the nation’s farmers have steadfastly resisted for more than a year.
The Samyukta Kisan Morcha (SKM), a coalition of over 40 farmers’ unions that led the protests, called the development a “historic victory” for those “who struggled resolutely, unitedly, continuously, and peacefully for one year so far in the historic farmers’ struggle,” India Today reported, citing a statement from SKM.
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement to repeal three farm laws is a welcome step in the right direction,” said SKM, though the organized labor coalition did not commit to ending its mobilization. “SKM hopes that the government of India will go the full length to fulfill all the legitimate demands of protesting farmers, including statutory legislation to guarantee a remunerative MSP [Minimum Support Price].”
Rakesh Tikait, a leader of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, welcomed Modi’s announcement but said that “we will wait for the day when the farm laws are repealed in Parliament,” where the winter session starts on November 29. He added that in addition to the MSP demand, “the government should talk to farmers on other issues.”
Modi’s announcement—and the sustained resistance of India’s farmers—were celebrated by progressives worldwide.
“We will wait for the day when the farm laws are repealed in Parliament.”
Al Jazeera reported that Modi’s “sudden concession comes ahead of elections early next year in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, and two other northern states with large rural populations.” Opposition parties attributed the prime minister’s move to sinking poll numbers, characterizing it as part of an effort to appeal to voters who support or sympathize with the nation’s struggling farmers.
According to CNN, “Farmers are the biggest voting bloc in the country, and the agricultural sector sustains about 58% of India’s 1.3 billion citizens. Angering farmers could see Modi lose a sizable number of votes.”
As India Today noted, “Hundreds of farmers have been camping at three places on the Delhi border since November 2020, demanding the repeal of the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; Farmers’ (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; and the Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020.”
For over a year, CNN reported, “Indian farmers have fought the three laws, which they said leave them open to exploitation by large corporations and could destroy their livelihoods.”
Al Jazeera explained that “the legislation the farmers object to,” passed last September, “deregulates the sector, allowing farmers to sell produce to buyers beyond government-regulated wholesale markets, where growers are assured of a minimum price.”
Modi’s cabinet said the laws are “aimed at giving farmers the freedom to sell directly to institutional buyers such as big trading houses, large retailers, and food processors,” Reuters reported. While Modi claimed the legislation “will ‘unshackle’ millions of farmers and help them get better prices,” opposition parties said that “farmers’ bargaining power will be diminished.”
Small farmers expressed alarm about the legislation, saying that “the changes make them vulnerable to competition from big business, and that they could eventually lose price support for staples such as wheat and rice,” Al Jazeera reported.
Beginning last September, farmers from regions of India that are major producers of wheat and rice blocked railway tracks, which was followed by larger, nationwide protests, including some that used trucks, tractors, and combine harvesters to block highways leading to New Dehli, the nation’s capital.
By last December, “protests spread across India, as farm organizations call[ed] for a nationwide strike after inconclusive talks with the government,” Reuters reported, adding that demonstrations also took place throughout the Sikh diaspora.
In January, “India’s Supreme Court order[ed] an indefinite stay on the implementation of the new agricultural laws, saying it wanted to protect farmers and would hear their objections,” the news outlet noted.
Over the course of several months, which included a brutal winter and a devastating Covid-19 surge, farmers continued to agitate for full repeal of the three laws. Repression from Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party resulted in hundreds of deaths.
At the largest rally to date, more than half a million farmers gathered in Uttar Pradesh on September 5, roughly 10 weeks before Modi announced that he will repeal the laws.
In response to Modi’s decision on Friday, “farmers at [the] protest sites of Ghazipur, Tikri, and Singhu borders celebrated by bursting crackers, distributing sweets, and welcoming the [government’s] move,” India Today reported.
The Transnational Institute praised “the resilience, courage, and determination of India’s farmers who succeeded in overturning the pernicious farm laws,” calling it “the power of movements.”
“The repeal of the three farm laws… is a major political victory for India’s peasant movement.”
That sentiment was shared by numerous other observers.
“The repeal of the three farm laws—unconstitutional, with no demonstrable benefits, and aimed to expand corporate control over agriculture—is a major political victory for India’s peasant movement,” said R. Ramakumar, an economics professor in the School of Development Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. “Their resolute struggle has shown and amplified the power of dissent in our democracy.”
Priyamvada Gopal, a professor of postcolonial studies at the University of Cambridge, placed the overturning of Modi’s unpopular reforms in a broader context, arguing that “the victory of farmers in North India is not a local matter.”
“This is a victory of global significance,” she added. “Immense class and oppressed caste solidarity, fierce determination, [and] deep courage defeated the combine of chauvinist authoritarianism and corporate greed—our common enemy.”
This article originally appeared in Climate&Capitalism.
Editor’s note: We are no Marxists, but we find it important to look at history from the perspective of the usual people, the peasants, and the poor, since liberal historians tend to follow the narrative of endless progress and neglect all the violence and injustice this “progress” was and is based on.
How 16th century reformers fought privatization of land and capitalist agriculture
Featured image: A 16th Century printing press. Commonwealth views were widely disseminated in books, pamphlets and broadsides.
Capital versus Commons is a series of articles on early capitalism and agriculture in England. It was previously titled ‘Robbing the Soil.’
PART ONE discussed the central role of shared property and common rights to resources in pre-capitalist agriculture. In the 1400s that system began to break down, beginning the transition from feudalism to capitalism
PART TWO discussed the processes known as ‘enclosure.’ In the late 1400s, landlords began evicting small tenant farmers to increase profits, often by creating large sheep farms. In the 1530s that change was intensified when Henry VIII seized the church’s vast lands and sold them to investors who raised rents and imposed shorter leases. The twin transformations that Marx called primitive accumulation — stolen land becoming capital and landless producers becoming wage workers — were well underway when thousands of peasants rebelled against the changes in 1549.
PART THREE discusses the protestant reformers who opposed the growing drive for privatization of land in the mid-1500s.
by Ian Angus
“I must needs threaten everlasting damnation unto them, whether they be gentlemen or whatsoever they be, which never cease to join house to house, and land to land, as though they alone ought to purchase and inhabit the earth.”—Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1550
“Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!”—Karl Marx, 1867
The privatization of land has been justly described as “perhaps the weirdest of all undertakings of our ancestors.”
Enclosure — the transformation of common resources into private property — was a fundamental feature of the rise of capitalism in early modern England. It involved not only new ways of using the land, but also, as both cause and effect, new ways of thinking about it.
The idea that individuals could claim exclusive ownership of parts of nature on which all humans depend was very weird indeed. Contrary to the oft-expressed view that greed is inherent in human nature, the shift from commons-based to private-profit-based farming was not accepted easily — in fact, it was denounced and resisted as an assault of the laws of God and the needs of humanity.
+ + +
Henry VIII died in 1547, succeeded as king by Edward VI, then only nine years old. For the next six years, actual political power rested with a regency council, headed by the Duke of Somerset until 1549, and by the Duke of Northumberland from late 1549 until Edward’s death in 1553.
Somerset and Northumberland were strong protestants who wanted the English church to move farther from catholic doctrine and practices than Henry had allowed. To promote that, the law outlawing heresy was repealed and censorship was relaxed, beginning a period that has been called “the first great era in the history of English public discussion.”
Liberal protestants took advantage of that opening to campaign vigorously, not just for religious reform, but against sin and corruption in society at large, particularly the erosion of traditional economic values. Their powerful condemnations of greedy landlords and merchants circulated both as books and sermons addressed to the wealthy, and as inexpensive pamphlets and broadsides that were sold in city streets.
They don’t seem to have acted as an organized group, but their speeches and writings clearly reveal the presence of a strong current of anti-capitalist opinion in England in the mid-1500s. Because they focused on the common weal — common good — historians have labelled them the commonwealth men.
Cormorants and greedy gulls
R.H. Tawney’s 1926 book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism remains the best account of the complex connections between social and religious criticism in Tudor England.
“It was an age in which the popular hatred of the encloser and the engrosser found a natural ally in religious sentiment, schooled, as it was, in a tradition which had taught that the greed of gain was a deadly sin, and that the plea of economic self-interest did not mitigate the verdict, but aggravated the offence.
“In England, as on the Continent, doctrinal radicalism marched hand in hand with social conservatism. The most scathing attack on social disorders came, not from the partisans of the old religion, but from divines on the left wing of the Protestant party, who saw in economic individualism but another expression of the laxity and licence which had degraded the purity of religion, and who understood by reformation a return to the moral austerity of the primitive Church, no less than to its government and doctrine.”
The great sin they condemned was covetousness — the desire to accumulate ever more wealth. Hugh Latimer, the most popular preacher of the day, condemned landlords’ greed in general, and enclosure in particular, in a sermon preached before the King and other worthies.
“You landlords, you rent-raisers, I may say you step-lords, you unnatural lords, you have for your possessions yearly too much. For what here before went for twenty or forty pound by year, (which is an honest portion to be had gratis in one lordship of another man’s sweat and labour) now is let for fifty or an hundred pound by year. … Too much, which these rich men have, causes such dearth, that poor men, which live of their labour, cannot with the sweat of their face have a living …
“These graziers, enclosers and rent-raisers, are hinderers of the King’s honour. For where as have been a great many householders and inhabitants there is now but a shepherd and his dog.”
Those views found support in the country’s top ruling circles. The Book of Private Prayer, prepared by Archbishop Cranmer and other officials of the established church in 1553, included a prayer “For Landlords.”
“We heartily pray Thee to send Thy Holy Spirit into the hearts of those that possess the grounds and pastures of the earth, that they remembering themselves to be Thy tenants may not rack nor stretch out the rents of their lands, nor yet take unreasonable fines. … Give them grace also … that they … may be content with that which is sufficient and not join house to house and land to land, to the impoverishment of others, but so behave themselves in letting out their lands, tenements and pastures that after this life they may be received into everlasting dwelling places.”
One of the most vehement critics of greed and exploitation was the London-based printer and poet Robert Crowley, who offered this explanation for the 1549 peasant rebellions.
“If I should demand of the poor man of the country what thing he thinks to be the cause of Sedition, I know his answer. He would tell me that the great farmers, the graziers, the rich butchers, the men of law, the merchants, the gentlemen, the knights, the lords, and I can not tell who; men that have no name because they are doers of all things that any gain hangs upon. Men without conscience. Men utterly devoid of God’s fear. Yea, men that live as though there were no God at all! Men that would have all in their own hands; men that would leave nothing for others; men that would be alone on the earth; men that be never satisfied.
“Cormorants, greedy gulls; yea, men that would eat up men, women, & children, are the causes of Sedition! They take our houses over our heads, they buy our lands out of our hands, they raise our rents, they levy great (yea unreasonable) fines, they enclose our commons! No custom, no law or statute can keep them from oppressing us in such sort, that we know not which way to turn so as to live.”
Condemning “lease mongers that cancel leases on land in order to lease it again for double or triple the rent,” Crowley argued that landlords should “consider themselves to be but stewards, and not Lords over their possessions.”
“But so long as this persuasion sticks in their minds — ‘It is my own; who shall stop me from doing as I like with my own as I wish?’ — it shall not be possible to have any redress at all. For if I may do with my own as I wish, then I may suffer my brother, his wife, and his children toil in the street, unless he will give me more rent for my house than he shall ever be able to pay. Then may I take his goods for that he owes me, and keep his body in prison, turning out his wife and children to perish, if God will not move some man’s heart to pity them, and yet keep my coffers full of gold and silver.”
Back to the feudal
While no one can doubt the sincerity of their criticism of the rich, the commonwealth men were also “united in denouncing the rebels, whose sin could never be justified even if their grievances could.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury, whose denunciation of wealth accumulation is quoted at the beginning of this article, also, in the same sermon, condemned “unlawful assemblies and tumults,” and people who “confound all things upsy down with seditious uproars and unquietness.” “God in his scriptures expressly forbids all private revenging, and had made this order in commonwealths, that there should be kings and governors to whom he has willed all men to be subject and obedient.”
Speaking of the 1549 rebellions, Latimer declared that “all ireful, rebellious persons, all quarrelers and wranglers, all blood-shedders, do the will of the devil, and not God’s will.” Disobedience to one’s superiors was a major sin, even if the superiors were themselves violating God’s laws. “What laws soever they make as concerning outward things we ought to obey, and in no wise to rebel, although they be never so hard, noisome and hurtful.”
Immediately after condemning landlords as cormorants and greedy gulls, Crowley told the 1549 rebels that they had been misled by the devil: “to revenge wrongs is, in a subject, to take an usurp the office of a king, and, consequently, the office of God.” The poor should suffer in silence, awaiting royal or divine intervention.
Like the nineteenth century “feudal socialists” who Marx and Engels criticized three centuries later, the commonwealth men were literally reactionary — they wanted “to roll back the wheel of history.” “From the ills of present-day society this group draws the conclusion that feudal and patriarchal society should be restored because it was free from these ills.”
As historian Michael Bush says, the commonwealth men “showed concern for the poor, but accepted the need for poverty.”
“Without exception they subscribed to the traditional ideal of the state as a body politic in which every social group had its place, function and desert. … They pleaded with rulers to reform society, and proposed various means, but not by changing its structure. Their thinking was paternalistic and conservative. Although they censured the nobility, it was for malpractices, not for being ruling class.”
English protestant reformers in the mid-1500s “inherited the social idea of medieval Christianity pretty much in its entirety,” so their views were “especially antithetical to the acquisitive spirit that animated the emerging society of capitalism.”
In the 1500s, Tawney wrote, “the new economic realities came into sharp collision with the social theory inherited from the Middle Ages.” What shocked and frightened the commonwealth men was not just poverty, but the growth of a worldview that repudiated “the principles by which alone, as it seemed, human society is distinguished from a pack of wolves.”
“That creed was that the individual is absolute master of his own, and, within the limits set by positive law, may exploit it with a single eye to his pecuniary advantage, unrestrained by any obligation to postpone his own profit to the well-being of his neighbours, or to give account of his actions to a higher authority.”
The wolf-pack creed they were fighting, Tawney commented ironically, was “the theory of property which was later to be accepted by all civilized communities.”
A Losing Battle
The commonwealth men were eloquent and persuasive, but they were fighting a losing battle. The aristocrats who owned most of England’s farmland and controlled the government could tolerate public criticism and ineffective laws, but not anything that actually threatened their wealth and power. They blamed the 1549 rebellions on the critics, and quickly ousted the Duke of Somerset, the only member of the regency council who seemed to favor enforcing the anti-enclosure laws.
What remained of the commonwealth campaign collapsed after 1553, when the catholic Mary Tudor became queen and launched a vicious reign of terror against protestants. Some 300 “heretics,” including Hugh Latimer and Thomas Cranmer, were burned at the stake, and hundreds more fled to protestant countries on the continent.
Capitalist practices already had a strong foothold in the countryside in the 1540s, and they spread rapidly in the rest of the century, without regard to what Christian preachers might say. “Forms of economic behavior which had appeared novel and aberrant in the 1540s were becoming normalized virtually to the point of being taken for granted.”
For landowners who wanted to preserve their estates, that shift wasn’t a choice. It was forced on them by changes beyond their control.
“Between the beginning of the sixteenth century and 1640 prices, particularly of foodstuffs, rose approximately sixfold. … [This] put an unusual premium energy and adaptability and turned conservatism from a force making for stability into a quick way to economic disaster. Landed families which stuck to the old ways, left rents as they were, and continued to grant long leases soon found themselves trapped between static incomes and rising prices.”
As a result, the trends that Latimer and his co-thinkers opposed actually accelerated, and their vision of a reborn feudal paternalism was replaced in ruling class thought by what historian C.B. MacPherson calls “possessive individualism” — the view that society is a collection of market relations between people who have an absolute right to do as they wish with their property. That view has remained central to all variants of capitalist ideology, down to the present.
Parliament never passed another anti-enclosure bill after 1597, and the Stuart kings who succeeded the Tudors in 1603 only gave lip-service to protecting the poor from enclosure. “Commissions were issued from time to time for the discovery of offenders, but their crimes were pardoned on payment of a money fine. The punishment of enclosers had degenerated into a revenue-raising device and little else.”
As Christopher Hill writes, in the century before the English Revolution, ruling class attitudes toward the land changed radically. “No government after 1640 seriously tried either to prevent enclosures, or even to make money by fining enclosers.”
But only the rich had decided that land privatization was a good idea. The poor continued to resist that weird undertaking, and for some, the objective now was communism.
To be continued …
I have modernized spelling, and occasionally grammar and vocabulary, in quotations from 16th and 17th century authors.
 Thomas Cranmer, “A Sermon on Rebellion,” The Works of Thomas Cranmer, ed. John Edmund Cox (Cambridge University Press, 1846), 196. The date 1550 is approximate.
 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, (Penguin Books, 1976), 742.
 Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Beacon Press, 2001), 178.
 Arthur B. Ferguson, The Articulate Citizen and the English Renaissance (Duke University Press, 1965), xiii.
 Richard H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism: A Historical Study (Angelico Press, 2021 ), 140-41.
 Hugh Latimer, “The First Sermon Preached before King Edward, March 8, 1549,” Sermons by Hugh Latimer, (Christian Classics Ethereal Library)
 Quoted in Thomas Edward Scruton, Commons and Common Fields (Batoche Books, 2003 ), 81-2.
 Robert Crowley, “The Way to Wealth,” The Select Works of Robert Crowley, ed. J.M. Cowper, (Kegan Paul Trench Trubner & Co., 1872), 132-3.
 Robert Crowley, “An information and petition against the oppressors of the poor commons of this realm,” The Select Works of Robert Crowley, ed. J.M. Cowper, (Kegan Paul Trench Trubner & Co., 1872), 162, 157.
 Catharine Davies, A Religion of the Word: The Defence of the Reformation in the Reign of Edward VI (Manchester Univ. Press, 2002), 159.
 Thomas Cranmer, “A Sermon on Rebellion,” The Works of Thomas Cranmer, ed. John Edmund Cox (Cambridge University Press, 1846), 192, 193
 Hugh Latimer, “The Fourth Sermon upon the Lord’s Prayer (1552)” Sermons by Hugh Latimer, (Christian Classics Ethereal Library) https://ccel.org/ccel/latimer/sermons/
 Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 6, (International Publishers, 1976) 494, 355.
 M. L. Bush, The Government Policy of Protector Somerset (Edward Arnold, 1975), 61.
 Arthur B. Ferguson, The Articulate Citizen and the English Renaissance (Duke University Press, 1965), 248.
 Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, 135.
 Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, 146-7.
 Keith Wrightson, Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain (Yale University Press, 2000), 202.
 Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford University Press, 1965), 188, 189-90.
 C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford University Press, 1962).
 Joan Thirsk, “Enclosing and Engrossing, 1500-1640,” in Agricultural Change: Policy and Practice 1500-1750, ed. Joan Thirsk (Cambridge University Press, 1990), 67.
 Christopher Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968), 51.
This article originally appeared in Building a Revolutionary Movement
By Adam H
This post looks at if it’s possible to have a coherent strategy for the emancipatory transformation of a complex social system, 5 anti-capitalist strategies and revolutionary strategy.
What does ‘emancipatory transformation of a complex social system’ mean? We currently live in a capitalist society or capitalist social system that is not equal, just, democratic or sustainable. Emancipatory means the struggle for political, economic or social rights or equality for disenfranchised groups or sections of society. So this post is focused on thinking about how we think about the route to ending the dominance of capitalism so we live in an alternative society that is equal, just, democratic and sustainable.
Revolutionary and anti-capitalist strategy is a huge topic that will take several posts to explore. This first post aims to start in the broadest way by considering if it’s possible to have a revolutionary and anti-capitalist strategy and reference a useful framework to help understand the different anti-capitalist strategic approaches.
Is it possible to have a coherent strategy for the emancipatory transformation of a complex social system?
In other words, is it possible to create a desirable social transformation (revolution) through deliberate, intentional action? Eric Olin Wright, sociologist and educator who specialised in egalitarian future alternatives to capitalism, explains that there are desirable objectives of social transformation that are not possible, either because they are not viable (won’t work) or because there is no way to get there. Wright describes how Frederick Hayek, the arch-conservative and key advocate of neoliberalism, believed that a social transformation strategy was a fantasy. This is due to the negative unintentional consequences of such a large social engineering project that would overwhelm the intended consequences. Concern for unintentional consequences is valid, and I agree with Wright when he says:
“It remains the case that capitalism is immensely destructive, obstructing the prospects for broad human flourishing. What we need is an understanding of anticapitalist strategies that avoids both the false optimism of wishful thinking and the disabling pessimism that emancipatory social transformation is beyond strategic reach.” 
Eric Olin Wright in “How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century” describes five ‘strategic logics’: smashing capitalism, dismantling capitalism, taming capitalism, resisting capitalism, escaping capitalism. This framework is a useful starting point for thinking about anti-capitalist and revolutionary strategy. But it is simplistic and I explain where my thinking differs in the last section of this post.
This is the classic revolutionary strategy of seizing state power by force. I call this the vanguard Marxism.
Wright describes its rationale: The system is unreformable and all attempts to make life bearable will fail. Small reforms improve people’s lives when popular movements are strong but these gains are vulnerable to attack and reversible. It is an illusion that capitalism can become a benign social system so ordinary people can live meaningful happy lives. Capitalism needs to be destroyed and an alternative built. The progress of an emancipatory alternative society may be gradual but it requires a decisive rupture with the existing systems of power to get there.
Critiquing this theory, Wright asks how it’s possible for anti-capitalist forces to build enough power to destroy capitalism and replace it with an alternative. He explains that the power of the ruling classes blocks both reformist gains and revolutionary ruptures. He describes how those in the ‘smashing capitalism tradition’ argue that capitalism is a highly contradictory system that is prone to disruptions and crises, and sometimes these crises make capitalism vulnerable to a serious challenge. There is a further argument that these crises increase over time so in the long term capitalism is unsustainable and ‘destroys its own conditions of existence.’ The role of the revolutionary party is therefore to be ready for this situation and lead a mass movement to seize state power. The revolutionary party then works to ‘rapidly refashion the state itself to make it a suitable weapon of ruptual transformation,’ and also to repress the ruling class opposition and destroy their power structures to allow the new revolutionary state to build an alternative economic system.
Wright describes how this strategy was applied several times in the 20th century with some success, but never created a ‘democratic, egalitarian, emancipatory alternative to capitalism.’ This strategy gave people the hope and motivation to make great sacrifices in the pursuit of achieving such as a society, and material conditions were improved for a lot of people. Examples include Russia, China and Cuba. But, “it is one thing to burn down old institutions and social structures; it is quite another to build emancipatory new institutions from the ashes.”
He describes some of the reasons given for the failures of these revolutions: (1) history-specific unfavourable circumstances; (2) revolutions happened in economically backward societies surrounded by enemies; (3) strategic leadership errors; (4) leaders motivated by power and status rather than the well-being of the masses; (5) failure of these revolutions as being inherent to any attempt to radically rupture a social system – too many moving parts, too much complexity and too many unintended consequences.
This is a key point for me: “attempts at system-rupture will inevitably tend to unravel into such chaos that revolutionary elites, regardless of their motives, will be compelled to resort to pervasive violence and repression to sustain social order. Such violence, in turn, destroys the possibility for a genuinely democratic, participatory process of building a new society.” 
Wright is clear that he does not believe that ‘system-level ruptures’ work as a strategy for social emancipation.
Wright describes this as a transition to democratic socialism through state-directed reforms that gradually introduce socialism from above. He sees this strategy as having ‘revolutionary aspirations,’ because it seeks to replace capitalism with a different economic system: socialism. He explains that in this tradition there is no simple point of rupture when one system replaces the other. Instead, “there would be a gradual dismantling of capitalism and the building up of the alternative through the sustained action of the state.” 
Wright describes how this approach sees a period when capitalist and socialist relations will coexist, such as both private and state-run banks; private and state enterprises in transportation, utilities, health care and some heavy industry; capitalist labour markets and state employment; state-directed planning for investment decisions and private profit-driven investment.
Wright describes the necessary preconditions for this strategy to be possible. “First, a stable electoral democracy, and second, a broad, mass-based socialist party capable of winning elections and staying in power for a sufficiently long time that these new state-run economic structures could be robustly institutionalized. Of course, there would be opposition and resistance, but the belief was that these state-organized socialist economic institutions would demonstrate their value and thus be able to sustain popular support.” 
This strategy had significant support in the 20th century and following World War II, when several governments looked to be implementing this “mixed economy” approach. An example is Sweden. It did not succeed and Wright put this down to the ‘dynamism of capitalism,’ and to the right-wing ideological offensive against socialist ideas in many countries, which, from the 1970s “pushed the expansion of nationalization in mixed economies off the agenda.” He describes the “military overthrow of the democratically elected socialist government in Chile in 1973, along with other setbacks to efforts at democratic socialism, further eroding any belief that democratic elections could offer a reformist path to dismantling capitalism.” By the end of the twentieth century, neoliberalism and privatisation dominated the mainstream political agenda instead of nationalisation, even by large political parties thought to be on the left, such as New Labour in the UK.
This tradition sees capitalism as a “source of systemic harms in society,” but does not look to replace it. It wants to reduce and remove those harms. This was the main strategic approach of social-democratic reformist parties since World War II.
Wright describes that although this tradition identities the harms of capitalism, its response is to work on “building counteracting institutions capable of significantly neutralizing these harms.” This tradition does understand that to achieve this, there will need to be political struggles to reduce the power and control of the capitalist class, and that the capitalists will claim that these redistributions will undermine capitalism’s dynamism and incentives. These arguments are self-serving justifications for the privilege and power of the capitalists.
Wright describes two types of reforms: (1) those that stabilise capitalism (such as banking regulation to reduce system-disrupting, speculative risk-taking), and (2) anti-capitalist reforms that introduce egalitarian, democratic and solidaristic values and principles into how capitalism operates. He explains that these anti-capitalist reforms will also likely stabilise capitalism, and that is what makes them partially possible, but also result in the system working in a “less purely capitalist way.”
Wright describes three types of state policies which change the way capitalism operates to reduce the harms and increases egalitarian, democratic and solidaristic values and principles. Mostly these policies benefit capitalists but some benefit ordinary people:
- Reduce individual vulnerability to risks through publicly run and funded social insurance or a welfare state.
- The provision of public goods – such as basic and higher education, vocational skills training, public transportation, cultural and recreational facilities, research and development – paid for by re-distributional taxation.
- Use the State to develop a regulatory framework to reduce the most serious negative externalities caused by capitalist investors and companies, including regulation of pollution, product and workplace hazards, predatory market behaviour, and property and stock market volatility.
Wright states that during the “golden age of capitalism” in the 30 years after World War II, these policies were used to tame capitalism. Since the 1980s these gains have been rolled back under neoliberalism, leading to reduction of social insurance benefits, reduction in taxes and therefore social goods, deregulation of capitalist production and markets, and privatisation of many state services.
He describes the forces that have resulted in a reduction of the state’s ability to limit capitalism’s harms: “The globalization of capitalism has made it much easier for capitalist firms to move investment to places in the world with less regulation and cheaper labor. The threat of such movement of capital, along with a variety of technological and demographic changes, has fragmented and weakened the labor movement, making it less capable of resistance and political mobilizations. Combined with globalization, the financialization of capital has led to massive increases in wealth and income inequality, which in turn has increased the political leverage of opponents of the social democratic state. Instead of being tamed, capitalism has been unleashed.” 
Wright raises the question of whether the three decades of the golden age were perhaps a historical anomaly; “a brief period in which favourable structural conditions and robust popular power opened up the possibility for the relative egalitarian, social democratic model.” Before this period capitalism was rapacious, and it has become rapacious again under neoliberalism. He suggests that capitalism is not tamable. I certainly don’t think it is.
Wright concludes the section on taming capitalism with a thoughtful paragraph on how the limits of a state’s ability to raise taxes, regulate capitalism and redistribute wealth are based on people’s belief that globalisation imposes powerful constraints. But, he argues, it’s the willingness of voters to be taxed more that is the main factor, not if the capitalists move their capital to avoid taxation. The willingness of the electorate to be taxed depends on the general level of collective solidarity. He maintains that the “limits of possibility are always in part created by beliefs in those limits.” He explains that neoliberalism is an ideology backed by powerful political and economic forces and it is possible to break through the limits set by neoliberalism if there is collective will to do so. He argues that social democratic politics have become less effective and need rethinking, and that the political obstacles to their success are significant, but that it is still possible for the harm of capitalism to be reduced by state action.
Wright explains that ‘resisting capitalism’ could be a broad term for anti-capitalist struggles. Here, he is using it in a narrower sense to identify struggles to end capitalism from outside the state and parliamentary politics, and also that do not want to gain state power. This strategy is different from the previous three that were all aiming to gain and use state power.
This tradition aims to reduce the harms of capitalism by influencing the behaviour of capitalists and political elites through protest and campaigning: “We may not be able to transform capitalism, but we can defend ourselves from its harms by causing trouble, protesting and raising the cost to elites of their actions.” (p50) He lists some examples: “environmentalists protesting toxic dumps and environmentally destructive developments; consumer movements that organize boycotts of predatory corporations; activist lawyers who defend the rights of immigrants, the poor, and sexual minorities. It is also the basic strategic logic of unions that organize strikes for better pay and working conditions.” 
Wright sees resisting capitalism as the most common response to the harms caused by the capitalist system. It is based on civil society and the solidarities that exist in workplaces and the community. Different identities play a part in this approach including class, ethnicity, religion, race, gender, sexuality. Its most organised forms are social movements and trade unions. Even when unions are weak, workers can resist exploitation by withholding their maximum effort and diligence.
Wright explains that this may not have been developed into a systematic anti-capitalist ideology, but it does have a ‘coherent logic’, which is: Capitalism is too powerful to end. It is unrealistic that collective mass movements will form to dismantle or tame capitalism. The ruling class are too strong to remove and they always co-opt opposition and defend their privileges. Also, social systems are too large and complex to control. The best we can do is insulate ourselves from the worst harms. We may not be able to change the world but can escape the circuits of domination and build a micro-alternative to live better lives.
Wright lists some examples of groups attempting to escape capitalism: migration of poor farmers to the western frontier in the 19th century; utopian self-sufficiency communities in the 19th century; worker cooperatives that are managed collectively based on principles of democracy, solidarity, equality, working to avoid alienation and exploitation of capitalist firms; the hippies of the 1960s; religious communities such as the Amish. He also cites the family unit as a “non-competitive social space of reciprocity and caring in which one can find refuge from the heartless, competitive world of capitalism.”
Wright explains that escaping capitalism involves avoiding political engagement. For some, this is the ‘individualistic lifestyle strategy’, which can be contradictory if this lifestyle is funded by wealth that was gained from capitalist activities.
Intentional communities are a good example of a desire to escape capitalism, as well as being a model for more collective, egalitarian and democratic ways of living. In addition, worker cooperatives are an attempt to escape the oppressive nature of capitalist workplaces, and are a model of how an alternative economy to capitalism could operate so as to challenge the current capitalist economic system.
When I use the word ‘revolution’, I mean it in a broad way for the ending of capitalism and the creation of an alternative society – radical transformational system change. In the summary above of Wright’s description of the different anti-capitalist strategies, he labels ‘smashing capitalism’ and ‘dismantling capitalism’ as revolutionary. And I would agree.
The anti-capitalist strategy that Wright advocates is a combination of dismantling capitalism, taming capitalism, resisting capitalism and escaping capitalism. He calls it ‘eroding capitalism’ and I’ll describe this in more detail in a future post (reference). I agree with him on this and that we need both revolutionary and reformist approaches.
My understanding of Wright’s perspective is that he believed that we could end capitalism without a rupture. I don’t agree with this. I think we will need to fight for reforms to rebuild the power of the left but at some point, there will need to be a rupture, so that we would go from a mixed economy with socialist and capitalist institutions to one with only socialist/anarchist/communist ones and the end of private property. But at this dark point in history that we currently live, this is hard to imagine.
I don’t support the ‘smashing capitalism’ (vanguard Marxist) strategy for a few reasons. The main one is because although it has shown itself in history to be effective at ending capitalism, there are no examples of it creating egalitarian and democratic societies. In each case, it has involved a militant minority taking power and dominating the majority, and this can only result in repression. I have asked different people that advocate different versions of this strategy (Leninists, Trotskyists, Maoists, Stalinists), how to use this strategy and not end up with things turning repressive and sometimes totalitarian, but I have not got a clear answer. If you do have an answer, I’d love to hear from you.
There is a lot that needs to be unpacked for the ‘dismantling capitalism’ strategy. Wright states it would be a transition to democratic socialism through state-directed reforms that gradually introduce socialism from above and that it would require a broad, mass-based socialist party. Democratic socialism is a broad term which ranges in meaning between political parties led from the top like the Corbyn leadership, and those parties formed from grassroots movements such as Podemos in Spain. I’m not saying that Podemos is the exact model to follow but we can learn from this experiment and municipalist citizen platforms such as Barcelona en Comú. We have seen from the 20th century that big changes happen when the grassroots of labour unions become militant and make radical demands of union leaders and political parties. Social movements campaigning on specific issues have also made gains and reforms have been implemented.
This is an excellent constructive critique of Wrights ideas and then Wright’s response.
Two revolutionary strategies do not easily fit into Wright’s framework. The first is the council communism tradition of left communism. This Marxist strategy is based on the worker councils or soviets that formed in Russia during the 1917 Russian Revolution. It has elements of smashing capitalism, especially regarding the belief that there would need to be a clear rupture to end capitalism, but that this will be done from the bottom or grassroots, where different workplaces and community institutions are self-organised and working together in a federated governance structure. This worker control approach is anti-state and anti-parliamentary politics meaning that this tradition has elements of Wright’s ‘resisting capitalism’ strategy. Although this tradition does not seek state power, it does see ordinary people creating a federated system of self-government that would replace the state, so has elements of smashing capitalism and resisting capitalism.
The second revolutionary strategy that does not fit into Wright’s framework is anarcho-syndicalism, which has similarities to council communism. It aims to end capitalism, wage slavery and private property. A new society would be built without hierarchy, based on direct-democracy, workers’ self-management and an alternative co-operative economic system. This alternative society would replace the state with a federated structure of self-run workplaces and community institutions.
In future posts, I want to analyze how the left organises itself into social and political movements, by ideology and how groups operate in practice. Then look at the strategies these traditions follow. I also plan to summarise the different radical and revolutionary strategies that thinkers and writers on the left have proposed. After this I will start to explore the situation we find ourselves in and relate this to “Good Strategy Bad Strategy” by Richard Rumelt (read a summary here) and his three-part framework for developing a good strategy. There is:
- diagnosis, what is going on here;
- guiding policy – outlines an overall approach for overcoming the obstacles highlighted by the diagnosis;
- coherent action – this needs to be consistent and coordinated, and also requires making painful choices about what can be achieved with limited resources.
- How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century, Eric Olin Wright, page 37-8
- How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century, page 41
- How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century, page 43
- How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century, page 48
- How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century, page 50
- How to Be an Anti-capitalist in the 21st Century, page 52
This post includes sections on: can capitalism be reformed, proposed reforms, do reforms protect capitalism, why reforms won’t work, and capitalism undoes reforms that benefit ordinary people.
This post is critical of reforms because they mostly protect capitalism in different ways and get in the way of building transformational mass movements. But I also do not completely discount them, as I think they might have a positive part to play in moving us towards ending capitalism.
This article is from the blog buildingarevolutionarymovement.
Can capitalism be reformed?
The obvious answer is no. But its more complicated than that. It depends what you mean by reform and timescales. If the question means can capitalism be reformed long term to meet the needs of ordinary people, then no way. If you mean when capitalism gets out of control can it be reformed so things are a bit less unequal to quieten demands for system change, then quite possibly, such as the 1930s in the US and the post-war decades in the UK.
Twenty-first-century capitalism may be less profitable but the corporate elite are clearly securing massive profits. These could be redistributed in workers wages, or from tax increases to fund a welfare state to meet everyone’s needs, unlike the substandard social safety net we currently have. I do think redistributive reforms are possible but it will require pressure from mass movements, which do not currently exist.
The Tory response to Covid could be seen as a reform and it certainly shows what’s possible. It contradicts the neoliberal claims that if we leave things to the free market and everything will be fine. I more see this as crisis response, with the Tories needing to balance the demands of the public to meet their basic needs and capitalists demands to keep the economy running. Extending the job retention or furlough scheme in the Spring and Winter was due to pressure from unions and business leaders, but there has not been a strong demand from the left. The question now is how will the government deficit be paid for – tax rises or more austerity. We’ve still not recovered from the last round of austerity by the coalition government following the 2008 financial crisis. Austerity now would continue the process of rolling back postwar gains related to benefits, more NHS privatisation and the welfare support for the most vulnerable (see the final section of the post for more on this).
Many reformist capitalists do not support the neoliberal form of capitalism – extreme inequality and corporate power – that we live under at the moment. They want a ‘fairer’ or ‘more equal’ form of capitalism. There are no shortage of proposals to reform capitalism, these include Robert Reich, David Korten, Thomas Piketty, Murray Edwards College, Cambridge University, Dominic Barton, the global managing director of McKinsey & Company, Ray Dalios, George Soros, Joseph Stiglitz.
Then there are different names for a better capitalism: decent capitalism, responsible capitalism, inclusive cap, stakeholder cap, ethical capitalism, conscious capitalism, Economic Dignity, Common-Good Capitalism.
In the UK, Ed Miliband when he was the leader of the Labour Party (2010-2015) wanted to introduce a proper industrial strategy to introduce national and regional investment and to bring in controls over the excesses of corporate behaviour. The Corbyn project presented itself as democratic socialist but due to the limits of global neoliberalism, could have only moved us towards social democracy. The current Tory government are looking to copy past Labour Party policies with their ‘levelling up’ rhetoric, although it seems unlikely they will follow through.
The UK left-leaning think tank Institute for Public Policy Research came out with its 10 point plan for a better Britain in 2018: Reshaping the economy, Securing good pay and good jobs, Improving the private sector, promoting competition and protecting consumers, Increasing public investment, Strengthening the financial system, Tackling wealth inequality, Fair and simple taxes, Environmental sustainability, Devolution. It’s likely that Theresa May when Prime Minister was sympathetic to some of these ideas.
Do reforms protect capitalism?
Mostly yes. Many on the radical left argue that fighting for reforms maintains capitalism by making it more stable or profitable.
Nate Hawthorne has a more nuanced understanding. He describes in this post that reforms help capitalism function, he gives the example of extending credit to companies so they can operate. This could be broadened to include all the things that governments do that make the economy and business environment easier for companies to operate in and make profits.
Nate also describes the importance of the spreading of ‘capitalists class consciousness’ to ensure capitalist system stability. Capitalists will have ‘boss-consciousness’ related to their employees in their business but some will be more focused on increasing their personal wealth over the long term interests of the capitalists class. Reforms can limit the excesses of some self-serving capitalists. This is called the ‘corporate compromise’ by Young et al in Levers of Power: How the 1% Rules and What the 99% Can Do About It. The book describes how the creation of US legislation goes through a process of being generally agreeable to difference corporate interests to ensure the stability of capitalism . It describes how Barak Obama worked very hard to keep the capitalist system stable so it worked for the business world as a whole . And that Donald Trump violated the corporate compromise because he advanced certain business interests over others .
Reforms also prevent social unrest by doing just enough to stop it from boiling over. This relates to movements, campaigns, street protests, demonstrations and riots. Examples of this would be the US civil rights laws in the 1960s or the poll tax riots in 1990 in the UK.
Reforms have also saved capitalism from revolution by giving mass movements what they demand to quiet them down. The example here would be the New Deal in the US in the 1930s following a mass movements of trade unions, socialists and communists. 
As well as reforms protecting capitalism from itself, greedy capitalists or mass movements, reforms are also used to protect capitalisms profits in the form of anti-trade union laws. (for more information on this see a summary in the final section of this post).
Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression in the 1930s, several factors combined to saved capitalism: Keynesian economic theory; mass movements demanding state support and welfare reform; and the economic stimulation generated during the war and the rebuilding after. Richard Wolff asks an important question: has the systematic crushing of the left over the last forty years taken away one of the important mechanisms for protecting capitalism? 
Why reforms won’t work
There are several ways to think about this. First, if reforms are achieved that benefit ordinary people but you leave the capitalists in power, they will always undo or roll back any gains for ordinary people (see the next section for more details). The capitalists can’t help themselves. So reform is not enough and we need to end capitalism. 
Second, the mid-twentieth century reforms were achieved because of a combination of rebuilding after the war resulting in a high demand for labour, powerful working-class movements, the increasing profitability of capitalism with capitalist classes willing to share some of their profits, and British capital could not move abroad as it does now so had nowhere else to go. There is also an argument that the threat of communism from the Soviet Union put pressure on western elites and states. 
Third, currently, the left is so weak and corporate power so dominant that we’re not winning any reforms. This is the ‘structural power’ argument. 
Fourth, some on the left advocate a gradualist strategy through reforms to ending capitalism and creating a socialist society. There is a lot to unpack in future posts on this point but I do think that a rupture with capitalism will be required, a revolution.
Capitalism undoes reforms that benefit ordinary people
Since the 1980s the current form of capitalism, neoliberalism has been rolling back the gain that ordinary people made through the 20th century. Using the four categories from the previous post on these gains I will briefly describe how they have been undone.
First, what is privatisation? It is the selling off of publicly owned services, industries and institutions so they become privately owned and run. In the UK it started with the steel industry in the 1950s, then in the 1980s, Thatcher sold off a large number of public institutions, industries and services. Council housing was sold off in the 1980s through the right to buy scheme. The public services campaign group We Own It gives a great history of the privatisation of different publicly owned services, industries and institutions in Britain.
Paul Foot in The Vote: How it was won and it was undermined, provides an excellent history of success of electoral reform up to the early 20th century. And then how it was undermined for the rest of the century. The continuing struggle for electoral reform is ongoing and important to weaken the Tories and open things up for the radical left.
See a summary of the UK government anti-trade union legislation from 1980-1999 here and from 1979-2010 here. Since 2010 there has been the Trade Union Act 2016 , and then further restrictions since that act during related Covid.
Stephen Ball in The Education Debate describes how since the 1980s schools have been remodelled on commercial and industrial institutions. He argues that neoliberalism has changed the British education system through four key mechanisms: top-down performance management, greater competitiveness and contestability, choice and voice, measures to strengthen the capability of public servants to deliver improved public services. Here is a summary by Ball of neoliberal education policy in Britain from 1979-2010 under the Tory’s and New Labour. And here is the We Own It perspective on Academy schools.
The most recent reform of the welfare system was The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. A 2019 report by Frank Field MP, Heidi Allen MP and Feeding Britain called The ‘Other Britain’ and the failure of the welfare state, found that the welfare system is failing the most vulnerable. They list the key issues to be:
- benefit freeze – claimants no longer get an annual increase in line with inflation so have less and less to live on
- Universal Credit, issues include 5-week wait and advance payments, third party deductions and old social loans, sanctions, Work Capability Assessments
- Medical assessments and Personal Independence Payments (PIP)
- No recourse to public funds for migrants
- Jobcentres are unsupportive and uncaring
- The gig economy and the working poor cannot afford to cover their outgoing so need food banks
- Problem Debt due to low pay force people into high-cost debt
The increasing use of food banks in the UK is another clear indication that the welfare state is failing: “In 2019/20 approximately 1.9 million people used a food bank in the United Kingdom, around 300 thousand more than the previous year.” 
The NHS is a key institution of Britain’s welfare state. We Own It has identified three ways the NHS is being undermined:
- creating competition so private companies provide services funded by taxpayers;
- the reorganisation of the NHS so regional commissioning groups allow local NHS service contracts to be managed by private companies;
- the Tory governments have reduced the level of funding, which could make people think a publicly owned NHS isn’t working and so the private sector might be seen as a solution.
- Levers of Power: How the 1% Rules and What the 99% Can Do About It, Kevin A. Young, Tarun Banerjee and Michael Schwartz, 2020, chapter 2
- Levers of Power, page 131
- Levers of Power, page 133
- https://lithub.com/howard-zinn-how-fdr-forestalled-a-second-american-revolution/ and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bT8f72s2uU
- Crisis and Openings: Introduction to Marxism – Richard D Wolff, 130 min, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9Whccunka4
- AskProfWolff: A Critique of Robert Reich, 4 min https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SNRyDa79ygA; Understanding Marxism: Q&A with Richard D. Wolff, 35 min https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eU-AkeOyiOQ; How Reaganomics Killed America’s Middle Class, 54 min https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZdCNGkZoIZw&t=3004s; Crisis and Openings: Introduction to Marxism – Richard D Wolff, 129 min, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T9Whccunka4
- see conclusion of https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/12/27/the-tragedy-of-corbynism-a-postmortem. Also http://libcom.org/blog/reform-possible-22122011and http://libcom.org/blog/reform-possible-reformism-guaranteed-22122011
- Levers of Power: How the 1% Rules and What the 99% Can Do About It, Kevin A. Young, Tarun Banerjee and Michael Schwartz, 2020
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trade_Union_Act_2016 and https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jul/15/trade-unions-conservative-offensive-decades-strikes-labour