There are many similarities between the current financial crisis and the climate crisis. For example, in the mono-cultural discourses on crisis which restrict our imaginations. Economists, politicians and climate scientists alike preach the strange litany of “the rules of the market”, “the iron laws of economy”, “the inevitability of development and progress”, reducing people to consumers who always want to have more, have to work more and so on. David Graeber is a cultural anthropologist at Goldsmiths College, and he has opened up this black box in his widely acclaimed study about “Debt: The first 5000 years” (read reviews here and here). I recently found an article in which he links the financial and the climate crisis: “Against Kamikaze capitalism: oil, climate change and the French refinery blockades” (shift magazine, Nov. 2010). It’s worth to have a look at it for several reasons:
- the article links environmental justice with social justice;
- he argues against the “productivity ethos” and the “work ethos trap”
- and thinks that environmentalists and workers can be unlikely allies;
- and he argues that not money is scarce, but natural resources.
As in “debt”, Graeber shows that there are possibilities available to the administrative-academic monocultures which dominate the discussion about global warming. Instead, he opens up the discussion and translates the scientific consensus on climate change into a program of political activism.
In the first part, Graeber reports about a secret action from a group called “Crudeawakening”, in which he embarks in London. They successfully manage to blockade for five hours the access road to a refinery which supplies 80% of all oil consumed in London.
“It was nice to win one for a change. Facing a world where security forces—from Minneapolis to Strasbourg—seem to have settled on an intentional strategy of trying to ensure, as a matter of principle, that no activist should ever leave the field of a major confrontation with a sense of elation or accomplishment (and often, that as many as possible should leave profoundly traumatized), a clear tactical victory is nothing to sneeze at. But at the same time, there was a certain ominous feel to the whole affair: one which made the overall aesthetic, with its mad scientist frocks and animated corpses, oddly appropriate.“
This blockade was inspired by activists from the Climate Justice Action network, “for a kind of anti-Columbus day, in honor and defense of the earth”. But these world wide planned actions were over-shadowed by severe budgets cuts by the Torys in England, threatening the British welfare states. Even more, when the French Climate Camp came to blockade the Total refinery in Le Havre, they found it already occupied by its workers in their nationwide struggle about pensions, which already had shut down 16 of 17 French oil refineries:
“The police reaction was revealing. As soon as the environmental activists appeared, the police leapt into action, forcing the strikers back into the refinery and establishing a cordon in an effort to ensure that under no conditions should the activists be able to break through and speak with the petroleum workers (after hours of efforts, a few, on bicycles, did eventually manage to break through.)“
Activists celebrated the unity of workers and environmentalists, arguing that there is no environmental justice without social justice. Of course, they are fully aware that everybody considers this union as totally naïve. But it depends on how you argue:
“Environmental justice won’t happen without social justice,” remarked one of the French Climate Campers afterwards. “Those who exploit workers, threaten their rights, and those who are destroying the planet, are the same people.” True enough. “We need to move towards a society and energy transition and to do it cooperatively with the workers of this sector. The workers that are currently blockading their plants have a crucial power into their hands; every litre of oil that is left in the ground thanks to them helps saving human lives by preventing climate catastrophes.”
And he goes on:
"On the surface this might seem strikingly naive. Do we really expect workers in the petroleum industry to join us in a struggle to eliminate the petroleum industry? To strike for their right not to be petroleum workers? But in reality, it’s not naive at all. In fact that’s precisely what they were striking for. They were mobilizing against reforms aimed to move up their retirement age from 60 to 62—that is, for their right not to have to be petroleum workers one day longer than they had to.“
The remainder of the article goes into the debate between anarchism on the one hand and Marxism/capitalism on the other: neoliberalism, according to Graeber, is not about economy and productivity, it is a political and moral enterprise:
“The question is how to break the assumption that engaging in hard work—and by extension, dutifully obeying orders—is somehow an intrinsically moral enterprise. This is an idea that, admittedly, has even affected large sections of the working class. For anyone truly interested in human liberation, this is the most pernicious question. In public debate, one of the few things everyone seems to have to agree with is that only those willing to work—or even more, only those willing to submit themselves to well-nigh insane degrees of labor discipline—could possibly be morally deserving of anything—that not just work, work of the sort considered valuable by financial markets—is the only legitimate moral justification for rewards of any sort. This is not an economic argument. It’s a moral one. It’s pretty obvious that there are many circumstances where, even from the economists’ perspective, too much work and too much labor discipline is entirely counterproductive. Yet every time there is a crisis, the answer on all sides is always the same: people need to work more!“
From here on, Graeber enters his most familiar terrain of expertise, the money markets:
“I might add that this moralistic obsession with work is very much in keeping with the spirit of neoliberalism itself, increasingly revealed, in these its latter days, as very much a moral enterprise. Or I think at this point we can even be a bit more specific. Neoliberalism has always been a form of capitalism that places political considerations ahead of economic ones. How else can we understand the fact that Neoliberals have managed to convince everyone in the world that economic growth and material prosperity are the only thing that mattered, even as, under its aegis real global growth rates collapsed, sinking to perhaps a third of what they had been under earlier, state-driven, social-welfare oriented forms of development, and huge proportions of the world’s population sank into poverty.“
He makes the important step to establish a link between the climate crisis and the economic crisis, identifying capitalism as a potential suicidal enemy who even doesn’t believe in ist own success anymore: „ As a result, we are left in the bizarre situation where almost no one believes that capitalism is really a viable system any more, but neither can they even begin to imagine a different one. The war against the imagination is the only one the capitalists seem to have definitively won.“ That’s what he calls kamikaze capitalism.
Imagination is possible, and there is poetic clarity in how Graeber links economic and environmental crisis:
“What is the real relation between all that money that’s supposedly in such short supply, necessitating the slashing of budgets and abrogation of pension agreements, and the ecological devastation of our petroleum-based energy system? Aside from the obvious one: that debt is the main means of driving the global work machine, which requires the endless escalation of energy consumption in the first place. In fact, it’s quite simple. We are looking at a kind of conceptual back-flip. Oil, after all, is a limited resource. There is only so much of it. Money is not.”
The “no-no-word” (Unwort) in Germany last year was “alternativlos” (without alternative); Graeber’s take on economic theories is exactly challenging the logic of "without alternatives inherent" in economists’ talk. History of mankind shows that debt means establishing a relationship among people:
There is an utopian element in Graeber's take on the financial and climate crisis, as the New York Times states:“Money is treated as if it were oil, a limited resource, there’s only so much of it; the result is to give central bankers the power to enforce economic policies that demand ever more work, ever increasing production, in such a way that we end up treating oil as if it were money: as an unlimited resource, something that can be freely spent to power economic expansion, at roughly 3-5% a year, forever. The moment we come to terms with the reality, that we are not dealing with absolute constraints but merely promises, we can no longer say “but there just isn’t any money”—the real question is who owes what to whom, what sort of promises are worth keeping, which are absolute—a government’s promise to repay its creditors at a predetermined rate of interest, or the promise that it’s workers can stop working at a certain age, or our promise to future generations to leave them with a planet capable of human habitation. Suddenly the morality seems very different; and, like the French environmentalists, we discover ourselves with friends we didn’t know we had.”
“Debt” ends with a paean to the “non-industrious poor.” “Insofar as the time they are taking off from work is being spent . . . enjoying and caring for those they love,” Graeber writes, they are the “pioneers of a new economic order that would not share our current one’s penchant for self-destruction.”Those who preach hard work and austerity in the name of reason, they also talk about "invisible hands", "needs of markets" and other strange "phantoms of capitalism" . The "occupy movement" is for ages the first social movement that has inspired new thoughts about the way we live; from here, it is only a small step to have similar thoughts about the place where we live. David Graeber opens this door in his short and provocative article.