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Wednesday, October 25, 2023

An Overdue Look at the Environmental Crisis

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

― Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Our global environmental crisis is widely understood to be reaching a crucial moment; the danger signals are flashing almost daily. Yet a certain complacency follows the many catastrophic climate events attributable to a critically injured environment. People talk easily of a climate Armageddon, while maintaining business as usual.

Is this fatalism? Are there onerous sacrifices necessary to save the planet? Are there insurmountable obstacles to finding solutions? Are we beyond the point-of-no-return? 

These questions need urgent answers.

The truth is that some leftists have been addressing these problems and ringing the alarm for decades. But some of us, though recognizing the crisis, have paid only lip-service to its solutions, neglecting to apply the unique perspective that Marxism could bring. Looking at the crisis through the lens of class and exploitation surely offers a deeper understanding than the sensationalism and superficiality of the capitalist media and their punditry.

Mea culpa.

Hopefully, my own absolution began with acquiring a copy of Monthly Review’s July-August issue devoted to perspectives on the environmental crisis from a left, Marxist-friendly perspective. Entitled Planned Degrowth: Ecosocialism and Sustainable Human Development (volume 75, number 3), the volume offers eleven contributions, with an important, essential, introductory essay by John Bellamy Foster. Foster has labored productively in the vineyards of ecosocialism for some time. The journal number comes highly recommended.

Much of the popular response to the unfolding environmental disaster is reducible to cultural environmentalism. Advocates call for a change in consumption patterns-- switching from products whose production, reproduction, or disposal is most harmful to our land, water, or air. Some cultural environmentalists demand a radical overall cut in consumption, insist on the elimination of conspicuous consumption, or even pose a philosophical challenge to the very concept of consumerism so prevalent in capitalist societies. 

But cultural environmentalism alone does not thoroughly address the institutions that encourage or incur needless carbon emissions, senseless waste, and the depletion of precious resources-- institutions like the military, the security, judicial, and penal system, the sales and marketing effort, mass entertainment, etc. Nor does it challenge capitalism itself.

On a global level, conserving only the twentieth-century resources allocated for war making, the social wealth lost to the destruction of past wars and necessitated by the remedial costs of death and suffering would put us uncountable years behind our current rendezvous with disaster. Even eliminating today’s bloated military budgets and stopping the current wars would lessen the immediate crisis dramatically. 

Most of the mainstream liberal and social democratic cultural environmentalists ignore these institutions that are deeply embedded in the capitalist infrastructure, instead opting for campaigns to eliminate or recycle the most energy-soaked articles of convenience-- cans, bottles, plastic bags, etc. or forcing the issue into the thick, impenetrable muck of bourgeois politics, legislative decision-making, and state regulation.

The Green New Deal, the consensus approach of the techno-environmentalists, promises to restructure capitalism by rewarding positive changes in energy generation and use, while sanctioning corporate foot dragging and avoidance. Implementation rests with the commitment of political puppets of corporate power-- the political strata. Again, there is no substantial challenge to capitalism and its institutions with techno-environmentalism.

The contributors to the Monthly Review anthology more or less understand the shortcomings of the liberal/social democratic approach. They grasp that capitalism-- with its insatiable thirst for accumulation-- cannot meet the challenge of environmental catastrophe. That reality animates all of the selections in Planned Degrowth. Yet, among the writers, there is little agreement on how to move beyond capitalism (of all the contributors, Ying Chen makes the strongest case for a robust, planned socialist economy genuinely independent of the capitalist mode of production).

Resolving those differences is made all the more difficult by the ambiguities and confusions accompanying the central concepts of planning and degrowth. 

It is commendable that nearly all of the participants understand that market forces alone are inadequate to extract humanity from the catastrophe awaiting us. Moreover, the alternative to markets necessarily is some form of economic planning-- some form of conscious human-based decision making. This alone is a departure from the left’s post-Soviet love-fest with market mechanisms and market socialism-- indeed, a welcome departure opening the way to a more robust socialism. But what form should the planning take? Who should make the plan?

Foster wisely sees the cause of environmental disaster in the capitalist’s insatiable need to “accumulate! accumulate!” -- borrowing Marx’s succinct summation. Accordingly, the challenge is to organize the economy around social usefulness, and not profit-- “focusing on use value rather than exchange value,” to employ Foster’s words.

Certainly, contrasting use value against exchange value, advantaging the former, requires some exiting from the market mechanism and a turn toward a different mechanism for the allocation of resources: conscious human decision-making, i.e. planning.

This makes a neat, compelling argument for some form of planning.

Unfortunately, most of the contributors have little regard for the rich twentieth-century experience in planning afforded by the now-defunct European socialist community. It is fashionable, among Western academic Marxists (or Marxians, as they sometimes like to be called), to heap scorn on the Soviet central planning mechanism in its different iterations despite its relative successes even without the benefit of today’s astounding computational powers. Apart from Paul Cockshott and some of his colleagues, there is little interest in exploring how a similar planning mechanism could be optimized using available technologies.

Foster, to his credit, offers a very modest defense of Soviet planning, especially regarding its impact on the environment. But others acknowledge the need for planning without providing even a sketch of how that would be done. 

Instead, several writers revisit the old New Left fetish of participatory democracy, as though the more fingers in the planning pie, the better, regardless of the results. This reaches the limits of absurdity with the Venezuelan rural commune proposed as the model for a planning mechanism to rescue the world economy from the throes of environmental crisis, a utopian fantasy.

The other Western Marxist obsession is decentralization. Apparently, the political model beloved by the North American-European left is the Swiss canton, the landsgemeinde, combining the smallest possible political units with the most direct democracy. How such decentralized planning could successfully redirect a modern juggernaut economy to escape the tyranny of markets requires a giant leap of faith (As Nicolas Graham understates, “... it is quite difficult to imagine effective planning… without some coordinating authority and external arbiter.”) 

Planned Degrowth’s other key idea, degrowth, is also underdeveloped. Informing this concept is the looming disaster cited by Foster and implicit with all of the authors: 

The world scientific consensus, as represented by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has established that the global average temperature needs to be kept below a 1.5-degree Centigrade increase over pre-industrial levels this century-- or else, with a disproportionately higher level of risk, “well below” a 2-degree Centigrade increase-- if climate destabilization is not to threaten absolute catastrophe… All of this is predicated on reaching net zero (in fact, real zero) carbon emissions by 2050, which gives a fifty-fifty chance that the climate-temperature boundary will not be exceeded.

Understandably, faced with these limits, most of us recognize that, in some sense or another, we cannot have our cake and eat it, too. That is, growing carbon emissions, growing consumption patterns, more broadly-- growing GDP as support for growing consumption or growing population, and any and all other forms of growth that potentially increase carbon emissions cannot be simultaneously sustained without an existential threat to life on the planet.

But is it misleading, simplistic, and maybe even harmful to popularize degrowth in general as the solution to the life-or-death challenge of carbon-emission limits? Are there different kinds of “growth” -- minimal emissions, emissions-neutral, or even emissions-free-- that sidestep the rendezvous with climate disaster? Would not market-free, planned economic growth, itself, forestall that rendezvous? Can we not envision a growing, planned socialist economy that stems or reverses increases in emissions?

In the historically nuanced Marxist perspective, growth of the productive forces of society need not be coupled with an anarchical, unfettered, profit-driven economy, nor has it always been so associated. On the other hand, the preferred capitalist measuring stick of growth-- gross domestic product-- reflects that association: in the capitalist industrial era, growth (GDP), national wealth, the unregulated exploitation of carbon-based energy, and the exploitation of labor are inextricably bound. 

For Marxists, there is no such necessary link. Free of the wasteful uses of social wealth for class aggrandizement, class suppression, and endless accumulation, growth can be redefined as the unbounded improvement in both the quality and prospects of all human life. For example, the development of vaccines for Covid or future attacks of new viruses requires the further development of productive forces and constitutes a growth in social wealth, but with far less impact on the environment when undertaken outside the framework of the profit-driven capitalist system.

Marx and Engels gave us a different perspective on growth in The German Ideology, linking the development of forces of production directly to the improvement of humanity’s survivability and flourishing, while faced with ever-arising challenges from nature and other humans. They remind us that the mode of production is not only what people produce but how they produce. That ever-present, evolving challenge may, in some sense, at some time, require “growth,” but growth away from carbon emissions, waste, excess, inefficiency, and greed. Thus, we would define a new, humane concept of growth and production.

Foster comes close to recognizing this possibility by distinguishing “a quantitative as well a qualitative sense” of productive forces. But he seems to overlook that the qualitative expansion of productive forces might well be qualitative production, production independent of fossil fuels, carbon emissions, and environmental degradation-- production of new ideas, new living arrangements, new divisions of labor, etc. This would be a more refined notion of growth, far more useful than the BEA or OECD definition of gross domestic product that degrowth addresses. 

Two contributors, Isikara and Narin, are dismissive of the explanatory power of the second law of thermodynamics in the social world. Yet it does capture the fundamental struggle that only humans wage with ultimately limited, but astonishing success against a system’s tendency toward disorder. The development of productive forces was-- qualitatively or quantitatively-- the primary effective human response to this law: the law of entropy. The idea of degrowth, so superficially compelling in its simplicity, fails to account for this universal struggle. The environmental crisis is only the latest chapter in the perpetual struggle against species extinction. Like previous struggles, it will take development (and in the broadest sense, growth) of the productive forces to win, even if only temporarily from the inevitable disorder of closed systems.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to a just, viable solution to the environmental crisis is the gross inequalities found in the capitalist countries and found between the advanced capitalist countries and those less advanced. The weakness of the degrowth mantra aside, any immediate solution to the crisis will require limits to carbon emissions, limits that will fall unfairly upon the disadvantaged unless some compensatory distribution-- national and global affirmative action-- is established. In other words, should sacrifices be necessary, they must be fairly imposed. No poor country or poor population should be required or even asked to make commensurate sacrifices with wealthy countries or wealthy elites. More importantly, their development-- their ‘catching up’-- should not be delayed as long as they lag behind their wealthier counterparts. Jason Hickel and Dylan Sullivan make a powerful historico-empirical argument that capitalism can never meet this demand in their contribution. 

The only large-scale affirmative action program ever effectively actuated was the post-World War II collaboration of the socialist countries, coordinated by the Council on Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA, known in the West as Comecon). The CMEA based itself on the Leninist doctrine and the history of intensive investment of Soviet resources in the former Russian empire’s disadvantaged oppressed nations. Cognizant of the uneven development produced and reproduced by class society, the Soviet Union proportionately devoted far more resources to the “backward” constituent republics than to the more advanced Russian Republic.

The CMEA sought to continue this policy with the post-war socialist community. For example, the Soviet Union would offer an extended contract for oil to Cuba at the lowest market price of a previous period, while agreeing to purchase a fixed amount of sugar at the highest market price of that period. In addition, the Soviet Union would grant the poorer member state favorable, extended payment terms. It should be noted that the Soviet beet crop was more than adequate to supply Soviet sugar needs at a lower cost. At the same time, the Soviet Union would provide grants and low-interest, long-term loans for Cuban infrastructure and industrial development.

This, and most internal CMEA agreements, typified affirmative action on a massive scale to correct uneven development.

Given that capitalism has never known or even devised such a leveling, developmentally egalitarian approach in international affairs nor that any country today practices it (apart from socialist Cuba, generously, but with limited resources), the necessity for global affirmative action on the environment would seem to be a powerful argument for socialism among leftist activists. 

True to the history of Western Marxism, European-North American socialists find little worthwhile in the history of the Soviet Union, so the argument seldom sees the light of day.

That is not to say that the contributors to Degrowth Planning are unaware of the inequalities standing in the way of any fair and equitable answer to the environmental crisis. Foster is explicit: “At the same time, the poorer countries with low ecological footprints have to be allowed to develop in a general process that includes contraction in throughput of energy and materials in the rich countries and the convergence of per capita consumption in physical terms in the world as a whole.”

But what is lacking with all the participants’ accounts is agency. Who will tackle these challenges? Who will adopt a program that incorporates these considerations? Who will build a movement to move a program forward? 

It would be unfair to fault the twelve academics contributing to this issue for having no ready answer to these questions. Nonetheless, if theory is to matter, we must have practical answers (Isikara and Narin almost broach this issue, but deliver it in unnecessarily opaque academic language) and avoid utopia-spinning. Too often intellectuals deliver theory in the passive voice: “What is objectively necessary at this point in human history is therefore a revolutionary transformation… governing production, consumption, and distribution… a shift away from the system of monopoly capital, exploitation, expropriation, waste, and the endless drive to accumulation.”

Yes, but who is to accomplish this and how are they to do it?

It is far easier to say who will not do it! But surely it can be conceded that we need a class-based revolutionary party committed to a robust socialism that will wrest political and economic power from the capitalist class. Should we not be vigorously working toward that end if we want to avoid our date with doom?

Despite my reservations, I strongly recommend the special Monthly Review issue devoted to the environmental crisis, entitled Planned Degrowth: ecosocialism and sustainable human development.

Greg Godels

Saturday, October 7, 2023

Our Dirty Little Secret Revealed

I grew up in a small Midwestern town that was part of an industrial oasis located in the midst of corn and soybean fields. The oasis existed because bituminous coal had been discovered under the flat lands well over a hundred years ago. 

The mines attracted thousands of workers from Eastern and Southern Europe, including my two grandfathers. The large immigrant working class, in turn, attracted industry as well. General Motors, General Electric, Hyster, and several other corporations soon made a home in this rural area. 

At the time of my birth, the mines were exhausted for profitable exploitation (My grandfather had the dubious distinction of being one of the last miners killed). But industry continued on until the deindustrialization that wracked the entire Midwest in the 1990s.

I probably first heard the expression “DP” in the late McCarthy era when family 

and friends spoke of some people who were new to the area. My inquiring mind soon learned that these DPs were “displaced people” -- Eastern European refugees from camps in Western Europe relocating to the US through humanitarian agencies. In keeping with the tenor of the time, I was told that they were fleeing Communism. 

Since Chicago was the choice of many of the first wave of Lithuanians arriving in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, it was no surprise, then, that many Lithuanian DPs found their way to Chicago, then sometimes merged into the large Lithuanian immigrant community where I lived.

Given the time and the reigning sympathy for the “victims” of Communism, they were unsurprisingly welcome. Their children went to school with me and socialized with my circle of friends.

Later, when in graduate school and taking more than a superficial interest in European history, I had a Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment about the DPs: What-- I asked myself-- were Lithuanians doing in Nazi Germany at the close of World War II? 

If they were anti-fascists, surely, they would have remained East. If they were forced laborers or prisoners-of-war, they would have been repatriated. Since the Nazis were not kind to the ordinary untermenschen of the East unless they were sympathizers or collaborators, it would be a reasonable assumption that many, if not most, traveled ahead of the Red Army across Poland and Eastern Germany with the help or acquiescence of the Nazis-- they were collaborators and would have been treated accordingly. Of course, there may have been myriad explanations for some displaced Lithuanians who found their way to these camps, but not thousands.

This squared with my US experience. Unlike the impoverished peasant wave of immigrants who came to the US at the turn of the century, the post-World War II immigrants brought a heavy dose of cultural nationalism and tradition. The first wave had their cultural ties to the old country severed at Ellis Island when our names were butchered by the immigration officers. Assimilation was made easy in the mines, mills, and factories; and cultural identity grew thin.

Where the first wave was shaped by oppressive, exploitative working conditions and welcomed, even led progressive unionism and a solidarity culture, this second wave was decidedly conservative and battled to move many of the existing ethnic organizations away from their secular, progressive direction.

Of course, it was not only Lithuanians, but other Eastern and Central European peoples who were welcomed to the US and Canada because their anti-Communism was unwelcome in the country-of-origin, but welcome here. That ticket was valid for collaborators as well, especially if they had skills useful to the anti-Communist crusade.

Much of this history is rarely spoken. We all know about the Nazi, Werner von Braun, the father of the US missile and space program, but little else besides an occasional death-camp guard who flies too close to the flame and is exposed.

Therefore, the recent Canadian parliament fiasco comes as no surprise to those of us familiar with the embarrassing welcome mat extended to the fascists, ultra-nationalists, and collaborators with Nazism after World War II. Indeed, that collaboration with collaborators evolved into an open door for the exiled reactionaries from every anti-Communist, client regime that the US has sponsored since 1945. From the Cuban gusanos to Venezuelan golpistas, the US government has found a happy haven for the world’s most violent anti-democrats, thereby polluting our own politics.

So, watching the standing ovation for a 98-year-old Ukrainian veteran of the Waffen-SS by every Canadian parliamentarian and most of the Canadian government only underscores the hypocrisy of Western governments that presume to lecture the world on democracy and human rights. 

Imagine that people who want and expect to be taken seriously on world affairs wildly applauding a rare surviving participant in history’s greatest mass slaughter. It should be even more embarrassing that a mainstream corporate media had to be reluctantly goaded into indignation over this outrage, a media that wallows in sanctimonious self-righteousness and smugness.

Major media commentators have a short, selective memory.

Upon the July 5, 1986 death of Yaroslav Stetsko, the former Ukrainian Premier during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, President Ronald Reagan sent condolences to his widow celebrating his “courageous struggle” and closing with “Your cause is our cause. God bless you.” Stetsko had no doubt cherished the pictures taken with Reagan, Bush, and UN ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick.

Stetsko, a notorious anti-Semite, was instrumental in forming the infamous Nachtigall and Roland battalions made up of Ukrainian fascists who worked alongside the Nazis in killing Jews, Communists, prisoners, gypsies, and members of the resistance. In July after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Stetsko sent a warm, fawning letter to Adolf Hitler expressing gratitude and admiration for the Nazi action and hoping for a victory against the Soviet Union. 

He is the ideological father of Svoboda, the ultra-nationalist, anti-Communist, anti-Semitic, racist, Nazi-nostalgic party that, continuing Stetsko’s ideology, exercises far-too-much influence in modern Ukraine’s political life. 

Outrages like the Canadian parliamentary fiasco and Reagan’s celebration of the life of a war criminal occur because no one in official circles or the capitalist media expects the public to know about the vast amount of collaboration with Nazism that occurred as the Wehrmacht and the SS marched East in their Lebensraum im Osten campaign. Nor are most people in North America aware that Nazis and their Eastern European collaborators were welcomed to our shores by the thousands.

Also, most people in North America have not learned of the incredible crimes committed against Jews and other ethnic groups, as well as Communists and anti-fascists in the Baltics, Ukraine, and Poland by the ultra-nationalists, fascists, anti-Semites, and anti-Communists of those countries (one mustn’t forget that fascist volunteers from Finland, Romania, Norway, Hungary, and Italy also fought with the Nazis on the Eastern front).

Countless studies, memoirs, and documents exist recounting the role of Eastern European collaborators in ethnic and political murder, though they garner no interest from the pundits, the commentators, and the popularizers. Instead, a book like Alliance for Murder: The Nazi-Ukrainian Nationalist Partnership in Genocide, ed. B.F. Sabrin (1991) goes unheralded, unreviewed, and relegated to a few library shelves.

Gruesome first-person accounts and documents portray the terror, cruelty, and murder conducted by the Ukrainian nationalists. Told mainly by surviving Jewish victims, Alliance for Murder focuses on the nationalist murders in the Tarnopol region of Ukraine but shows the systematic collaboration of the Ukrainian nationalists. The book quotes a former Nazi general, Otto Korfes:

[The trenches] were filled with men, women, and children, mostly Jews. Every trench contained some 60-80 persons. We could hear their moans and shrieks as grenades exploded among them. On both sides of the trenches stood some 12 men dressed in civilian clothes. They were hurling grenades down the trenches… Later, officers of the Gestapo told us that those men were Banderists (July 3, 1941) [Banderists were followers of Stefan Bandera, a founder of the OUN nationalist organization].

Another book, Fraud, Famine, and Fascism, by Douglas Tottle (1987), dared to challenge the mythology of a calculated, purposeful famine in the Ukraine organized by the Soviets. The so-called Holodomor has become the standard Western narrative that fuels and justifies Ukrainian hatred and contempt for Communism and Russia-- much like today’s Western angst over the Uyghurs in the Peoples’ Republic of China-- while distracting Westerners from the brutal actions of Ukrainian nationalism from its beginnings until today. 

Tottle’s book was of special interest because it came after Robert Conquest-- a serial contriver of Communist perfidy-- published his widely influential book on the 1930s famine-- The Harvest of Sorrow. Tottle, a Canadian union activist, former editor of the USW The Challenger, and a movement organizer, rocked the smug, well-connected Conquest’s carefully constructed anti-Soviet tome so effectively that the nationalist Ukrainian diaspora was rattled and motivated to hurriedly convene an “international commission” to determine the “truth” about Ukraine. Organized and hand-picked by the nationalist World Congress of Free Ukrainians, the inquiry set out to place its stamp of approval upon Conquest’s accusations and dismiss Tottle’s rejoinder. 

The biographies of former top leaders of the World Congress of Free Ukrainians (later the Ukrainian World Congress) exhibits the political flavor of the organization: Anton Melnyk, member of Stepan Bandera’s fascistic OUN; Mykola Plaviuk, member of the Nazi-collaborationist Ukrainian National Army, 2nd Division; and Peter Savaryn, member of the notorious 14th Waffen-SS volunteer Division “Galicia.” With this illustrious group of former leaders of the World Congress of Free Ukrainians, it is not difficult to imagine how objective their inquiry into the so-called Holodomor would be. 

The ultimate tribute to the impact of Tottle’s research comes from the arch anti-Soviet pundit, Anne Applebaum, who proclaimed that Tottle-- a mere Canadian leftist with no elite credentials-- could not have written his book without Soviet help.

Citing Reuben Ainsztein, Tottle says: “In the first three months of Nazi occupation of Western Ukraine, 15 per cent of Gallician Jews-- 100,000 people-- were slaughtered by the joint action of the Germans and Ukrainian nationalists.”

He concludes:

…collaboration between the Nazis and Ukrainian Nationalists began long before the war and continued throughout the war, even after the Germans were completely driven out of Ukrainian territory. The Nationalists were firmly locked into the Nazi occupation machine. Their police and punitive units mass-murdered Jews and Ukrainians alike. Vast numbers of Ukrainians were also rounded up, with the help of Ukrainian collaborators for shipment to Germany as slave laborers. Thousands of actions were carried out by Nationalist militias, SB, UPA and Ukrainian police units, often under German supervision. Nationalist-recruited troops served Hitler in Ukraine, Poland, Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. Ukrainian collaborators assisted in the murder of hundreds of thousands in death camps like Trblinka, Sobibor, Yanowska and Trawniki.

As Max Blumenthal notes, after the war the Canadian government in “Ottawa placed thousands of Ukrainian veterans of Hitler’s army on the fast-track to citizenship” while classifying thousands of Jewish refugees as “enemy aliens.” Undoubtedly, the US government welcomed even a greater number of Nazi collaborators who were “proven” anti-Communists.

If the brief glimpse into the sordid history of Ukrainian (and other Eastern European) collaborators afforded by the Canadian parliamentary fiasco serves any purpose, it is to remind us of the lingering disease of twentieth-century European nationalism and its ugly inhumanity. Those who turn their eyes away from this legacy and its continuing influence over today’s Ukrainian politics will never begin to understand the dynamics of the conflict within that country and with its neighbor. The symbols of Ukrainian nationalism, so readily embraced by Western armchair warriors raging at Putin, are dripping with the blood of Jews, Poles, Russians, Communists, partisans, and anti-fascists who encountered Ukrainian nationalism and its virulent practitioners.

Greg Godels