Rick Amherst, member of The Virginia Worker Editorial Board, offers the following review of Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann’s ‘Climate Leviathan’
As the authors of Climate Leviathan concede, climate change is not a debate– it is a reality that will inevitably wreak at least some degree of havoc on the world, especially for the most vulnerable (pg. 13).
Given the severity of the problem, a reasonable person would assume that the best course of action is the one that is most likely to be implemented and most likely to successfully confront these problems head on. But alas, Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann are not reasonable people.
This book review is certainly not the first critique of the Wainwright-Mann thesis, as Patrick Bigger’s article “Red Terror in the Atmosphere” pointed to major weaknesses in the Climate Leviathan framework, and the Red Menace podcast similarly provided some critical feedback in a recent episode.
However, Bigger’s excellent analysis was published in 2012 in response to an earlier version of the thesis, and the hosts of Red Menace treated this truly deranged thesis with kid gloves, tempering their misgivings with far too much unearned praise.
More recent and robust takedowns of works like Climate Leviathan are needed because the clock to confront climate change is ticking and the more time the climate movement wastes with boutique and impotent varieties of anti-Marxism the more lives will be lost.
Idealism and the absence of a Marxist theory of the state
Many chapters of Climate Leviathan read like a rambling literature review, drawing from an eclectic cast of characters, including Gramsci, Adorno, Hegel, Schmitt, and more to explain the idea of sovereignty.
The authors admit that sovereignty is “historically specific but seemingly transhistorical.” And yet, through all of their intellectual history of sovereignty as a concept, they never probe its historical origins and, though they proclaim the need to abolish sovereignty, they make virtually no argument for how sovereignty can be overcome.
The authors, as proud idealists, cannot recognize the material origins of sovereignty or the power to invoke the sovereign exception in the advent of the state, and the state’s emergence alongside class society.
Sovereignty did not emerge when it was articulated as an idea by theorists like Hobbes– it emerged as a practical reality when the first ruling classes’ states acquired the ability to use force against the laboring classes. To acknowledge that every state is a class state and sovereignty is a form of class rule would provide an obvious solution to sovereignty– the working class must struggle against the ruling class (today the capitalist class), overthrow it and its state, and become a new ruling class that leads a transition to a classless stateless society (see The State and Revolution).
In other words, a world without sovereignty and the state can only exist after a period of global proletarian sovereignty and transition to socialism. Such a strategy is the beating heart of Marxism, but, while the authors make many citations of Marx and Lenin, this Marxist theory of the state is never mentioned and their failure to make use of it is never justified.
When the authors do mention Lenin, it is to excoriate him for being a materialist. The authors mock as “one sided” Lenin’s suggestion that “one or the other [the material world or ideas] must be primary” (pg 89), but nothing about this statement is one-sided.
Just because Lenin knew that the material base is primary does not mean that he denied that ideas could dialectically react back on the material base that birthed them. Lenin never wavered in his insistence that revolutionary ideas were one component of revolutionary social change.
In his famous work “What is to Be Done”, he echoed Engels’s assertion that “the great struggle of Social Democracy” had three roughly equal components– the political struggle, the economic struggle, and the theoretical struggle. Lively and urgent discussions of class consciousness appear in nearly all of Lenin’s major writings.
Subsequent Leninists like Mao have further developed the dialectical relationship between base and superstructure without denying the primacy of the latter (see “On Contradiction”).
Why do the authors go so far out of their way to twist Lenin, and why do they fail to advance a coherent theory of the state? Because to wrangle with these ideas would make their knee-jerk dismissal of the idea that the class struggle is the key to confronting the climate crisis seem ridiculous (pg. 18).
It is notable that they fail to provide any other rationale for dismissing the working class as the revolutionary subject, and seem guarded or agnostic about firmly suggesting another.
Internationalism vs. Autonomism
The ponderous argument about sovereignty and materialism eventually leads to the most consequential sections of the book, which describe the difference between what they call Climate Mao (a socialist, internationalist project that confronts climate change head-on at the highest levels, and uses centralization as a force multiplier), versus what they call Climate X, which they hope will be a decentralized movement based on equality, inclusion, and a rejection of worldwide governance (regardless of whether it is the capitalist class or proletariat governing).
In a sense, Climate X may as well be described as Climate Question Mark or Climate Deus Ex Machina, given the fuzziness of the details surrounding it.
Can a decentralized system provide food and medicine for billions of people? Does it have the logistics to distribute these fairly and effectively? As climate change forces many millions of people from their home countries, can a decentralized system ensure that there will be dignified jobs and ample material resources as they arrive in their new homes?
The authors make no case that Climate X can solve any of these problems. Instead of planning, we are left only with hollow hopes that disparate protest movements will solve these problems or otherwise render them moot at some point in the future.
In this sense, Climate X closely resembles the faith in technocracy that leads some to believe that we need not work out any details for adapting to a changing climate, as some quick fix from Silicon Valley will be arriving shortly.
There is, perhaps, an even more ridiculous problem that the authors mention but see no reason to meaningfully examine: Climate Al Qaeda.
The authors rightly note that the threats of climate destruction and of capitalist, technocratic global governance will certainly create breathing room for reactionary religious sects ruling over bloody fiefdoms. The authors note that Bin Laden’s worldview can be seen as “one potential variety of Climate X.”
They assure readers that it is “not the Climate X we hope to see”– what a relief!– but then merely “raise the question of how this vision might be distinguished from something to which the Left can commit.” The authors miss the real question posed by Climate X Qaeda: not how it might be distinguished from a left-wing vision, but how a socialist movement might defeat it. Nowhere in the text is this question even mentioned.
Herein lies a major problem with elevating the Zapatistas’ slogan of creating “a world where many worlds fit” into a sort of unchallengeable religious dogma as Wainwright and Mann do– some “worlds” are mutually exclusive.
The authors seem content with democratic villages with a low material standard of living for some, beheadings of LGBTQ people for others, and a dying and pollutive capitalism for others still (and let us a be clear– in spite of the author’s reasonable assertion that the valorization of capital endangers the planet, a strategy of slowly subtracting individual communities from states will leave capitalism mostly intact for all of the foreseeable future).
But as long as the latter two exist, the former will always be encircled and unable to freely develop. The authors can acknowledge this problem and come within a hair’s breadth of conceding that Climate Mao possesses a credible solution, but when asked what the solution might look like from the perspective of Climate X, they look to Walter Benjamin, to autonomism as a “regulatory ideal”, to Pope Francis, and more.
Yet again, they treat capitalist and reactionary encirclement as an idea to reimagine, and not as an inevitable material reality requiring an actionable strategy (pgs. 183-184)
Beyond encirclement, another glaring weakness of making “many worlds fit” emerges, namely, the fact that we are not living in different worlds but instead are forced to share the same planet, whether we like it or not.
Wainwright and Mann note that the Zapatista-inspired strategy they favor does not involve forging a workers’ state or seizing the commanding heights of the economy, but merely “subtracting” individual villages from the existing state. This slow-moving strategy poses major problems for the climate movement– what if those communities which choose to subtract themselves are neither major consumers of goods which cost the climate the most, nor are communities where fossil fuels are extracted or burned in large quantities?
In that case, their subtraction would do little to lessen emissions and, given that carbon released into the atmosphere anywhere can have an effect everywhere, their saintly asceticism may nevertheless be rewarded by making their communities less and less livable each year. Worse, what if communities that produce or transport fossil fuels subtract themselves from states and markets before alternative green power supplies are developed and before a central plan can make a greener economy?
If farmers and transportation operations are suddenly without fuel and without a way to produce and distribute food in its absence, the result will be mass starvation. Is famine one of the “worlds” the authors insist we must accommodate?
Adorno is quoted approvingly as saying that: “the single genuine power standing against the principle of Auschwitz is autonomy [meant in a Kantian sense more than the modern political sense].”
Yet Auschwitz was not a principle and it wasn’t stopped by the ideas of Kant; Auschwitz was a death camp that was liberated not by small, free bands but by millions of well-organized soldiers who were members of centralized organizations and who were carrying out centralized strategic plans.
Much can be learned from World War II, which saw the non-fascist countries forced to commit to total social mobilization against fascism. In the struggle against the worst outcomes of climate change, we cannot hope that a capitalist empire like the United States might join some future team of “Climate Allies” nor can we have faith that small protest movements will magically solve the problem– the proletariat can only rely on revolutionary states of, by, and for workers carrying out the transition to a green socialism.
Mann and Wainwright define Climate Mao as the movement which “expresses the necessity of a just terror in the interests of the future of the collective, which is to say that it represents the necessity of a planetary sovereign, but wields this power against capital… [this anticapitalist sovereign] determines who may and may not emit carbon– at the expense of unjust wastefulness, unnecessary emissions…” (pgs. 38-39)
What the authors see as a terror– a global working class movement that can force capitalists to keep as much carbon in the ground as possible, and can plan efficiently for human wellbeing rather than capitalist profits– is precisely what makes Climate Mao such a hopeful possibility.
The authors even come close to recognizing it– they cannot help but acknowledge that China’s aggressive plans for afforestation and getting rid of overly wasteful automobiles have borne fruit, and promise to bear more in the future. (pg. 40)
If the current capitalist government of China can achieve such things with bureaucratic central planning, how much more could a massive socialist bloc achieve with democratic central planning, which mobilizes the insights and initiative of millions of workers at the highest level?
The authors acknowledge their arguments’ weaknesses and fail to propose how Climate X might overcome them, and they must admit the strengths of Climate Mao– practically the only downside of Climate Mao they can name is that Horkheimer or Adorno might find it dispeptic.
This is a textbook case of dogmatism in which the authors can stare the feebleness of their argument square in the face and not change their minds in lieu of the evidence.
Those of us who are not enchanted by academic dogmas and fads, those of us who not only want to fight for a better world but to actually win a better world must think scientifically and follow the evidence and stand for class struggle ecology, for proletarian internationalism, for a democratically planned economy, and for socialism!