Three Legs of Needed Social Change: US Empire, US Capitalism, and Global Climate Change
Traditional projections by US politicians, when talking about the United States in a global context, is that the US is seen by other countries as the “Shining City on the Hill” or as “the indispensible nation,” or in other congratulatory terms.[i]
Whether this was ever true to not, these congratulatory terms have given way to more critical understandings of this country’s role and activities in the world.
Accompanying this more critical understanding, there has been a growing awareness of the worsening social conditions in the country (see Greenhouse, 2008), and the escalating recognition of the need for qualitative social change in the United States (see Scipes, 2009; Hedges, and Sacco, 2012).[ii]
Nonetheless, once activists begin to engage in addressing the worsening social conditions in this country, one of the key questions they will face is this: how do we understand the level of change that is necessary?
This is a question that bedevils most of progressive activities in this country. Those that are aware of the increasing social problems in this country generally concentrate only on domestic issues, and do not incorporate them into a global analysis. Many who are aware of US foreign policy issues do not connect them to environmental issues. And many who are aware of environmental issues do not recognize that these are caused by the continuing, required, expansion of capitalism. In short, many implicitly argue “my analysis, my analysis” to the exclusion of everyone else’s, and so we keep competing among ourselves, while the powers that be laugh at our stupidity.
In this article, the literature developed to date on these issues is considered, and it is argued that the current field is too limited. Ultimately, my argument is that we need to engage in three overlapping but not conflated issues, explicated below, and not just one or two of them.
Literature Review: Introduction
Much of the literature on macro-level (i.e., broad-based) social change has focused on policy related to three areas: US foreign relations, the economic situation at home, and, to a much less extent, albeit increasingly, the environment. Generally, these three policy areas have been approached individually or, at best, by looking at two of these three areas in combination.
This paper argues that focusing on one or even two of these respective areas, while necessary, is not sufficient: to adequately understand the necessary social change for the well-being of people of the US (and, implicitly, for the well-being of people across the planet), it is herein argued the necessity to combine all three areas of interest into a unified whole.[iii] The argument herein is that each of the individual areas has sufficient weaknesses that can only be overcome by combining with the other areas.
To make this argument, literature in each of these areas is examined for strengths and limitations. By doing this, it is demonstrated that a combined approach surpasses understandings developed by more limited approaches.
Theoretically, this work is guided by the work of Jan Nederveen Pieterse in his 1989 book, Empire and Emancipation: Power and Liberation on a World Scale, especially as interpreted by Kim Scipes (see especially Scipes, 2010a: xxv-xxix; 2010b: 467-469).
Quickly, Nederveen Pieterse’s approach rejects the work done under the aegis of World Systems Theory or WST (for a theoretical dismemberment of WST, see Nederveen Pieterse, 1989: 29-45), and replaces it with a model incorporating both politics and economics, with dominance taking place between political communities. This allows one to incorporate the traditional Marxist understanding of imperialism (Lenin, 1916), of one nation state dominating another, but yet transcend it by including analyses of one nation-state dominating other political communities (which allows consideration of indigenous peoples, as well as communities such as the Kurds, whose population is encompassed in four different Middle Eastern countries), as well as extending analysis of imperialism both above and below traditional nation-state relations (Scipes, 2010b: 467-469).
Yet this work does not incorporate the issue of global climate change into the discussion. As far as known, Nederveen Pieterse has not addressed climate change, and which has only been done at a tentative level by Scipes (1984, 2009). In short, while building on their work, this effort seeks to extend it.
To do this, focus herein will be on three subjects: US Empire, US Capitalism[iv] and Global Climate Change. However, to continue, discussion must first focus on single explanations, and then on double ones.
Literature Review: Single Explanations
US Empire. Critique of US foreign policy, with some attention as to its subsequent “blowback” on the United States itself, has been gaining steam over the past 20 or so years (see, among many others, Blum, 2000; Chomsky, 2003; Cox, ed., 2012; Engelhardt, 2010; Enloe, 2000; Fox Piven, 2004; Grandin, 2007; Johnson, 2000, 2010; McCoy, 2009; Nederveen Pieterse, 1989; Scipes, 2010a, b; Stone and Kuznick, 2012; Turse, 2012, 2013). Basically, the argument is that the United States’ social order extends globally, and that to understand it, we must examine it accordingly. Doing this, we see the US has an Empire: not like the Roman Empire based on territorial expansion, but rather based on political economic domination by the US of political communities around the world.
Scipes (2010a, b), following Nederveen Pieterse, not only argues that the US has a global empire, but that the level of domination is specifically not limited to that of the nation state. For example, he extends it to a sub-national level, in this case, that of the leaders of the US labor movement, the AFL-CIO. Thus, his extension—laid out most clearly in his 2010b article—takes the study of American institutions outside of the “traditional” foreign policy realm (see also Cox and Bass, 2012).
The strength of recognizing that the US has an empire is that we have a more complete understanding of US Government activities around the world; we recognize that the US Government, under both Democratic and Republican governments, has a larger purpose than just engagement with the rest of the world; it is to maintain and extend US hegemony over the other political communities of the world for the benefit of the United States government itself and corporate capital in general, which is predominantly US owned, but to a smaller and smaller extent over time. And that the US Government will unleash all-but-unlimited violence to get its way (see especially Turse, 2013).
However, while providing a totally superior level of clarity about US foreign relations, a recognition of Empire alone usually leaves us with little understanding of the economic base of the Empire—which provides the material resources for Empire—and with even less understanding of Global Climate Change. Focus on the Empire tends to capture well US efforts to dominate the world, but little else. Nonetheless, it is essential that the scope of the US social order (i.e., the global US Empire) be included, because diversion of resources to enable the Empire to exist affects US capitalism itself as well as diverts resources away from addressing social problems such as Global Climate Change.
US Capitalism. For those who read outside of the mainstream, it has long been recognized that Marxist analysis has provided the greatest critique of our capitalist economic system. Marxism has long been dismissed by “serious” American thinkers, however, who have seen it as an ideology unworthy of consideration. Nonetheless, for those who do not listen to the serious thinkers, and who examine Marxist writings on their own, it becomes obvious that Marx and his followers have a very compelling critique of capitalism as an economic system.[v]
The most extensive effort in the United States over the past 60+ years to develop Marxism has been the work of people of and/or who are associated with the journal, Monthly Review. The heart of their argument has been developed to fit the modern American experience by Nobel economic prize winner, Paul Sweezy, and his co-author, Paul Baran, in their 1966 classic, Monopoly Capitalism. Others, writing since, have worked to extend the critique even further.
Their analysis shows that there is a flaw at the heart of any capitalist economic system, and that is the contradiction between the production of use-values and exchange-values, and the affects on those who produce them (i.e., the workers) by having their labor alienated from them and then expropriated to create surplus value and, hence, profit. Part of this profit is subsequently appropriated by the state apparatus, and used to ensure domination over working people, ensuring future surplus and (hopefully, for capitalists) profits.
During the stage of monopoly capitalism—recognizing oligarchic control over vast sectors of the economy—which results in increasing surplus, the economic system is caught in a contradiction; because this surplus must be absorbed by investment opportunities, which generate even more surplus, it becomes more and more difficult to utilize the surplus rationally (Baran and Sweezy, 1966). Yet investment opportunities in industry are becoming less and less advisable in the United States because there is over capacity in the industrial sector; however, when there is investment, it is in capital-intensive production instead of labor-intensive production, meaning even greater production while creating fewer jobs than in the past. It is this “absorption” problem, according to Foster and Magdoff (2009), that has led to the explosion of “financialization,” which has led to great indebtedness and ultimately the crisis of 2008-09. But Foster and Magdoff (2009: 20-21) write, “There is no possibility that the enormous surplus capital that has fed the financial explosion can be absorbed by productive investment under the present system at this stage in its history and with the existing structure of inequality.”
There are two “angles” from which the crisis can be seen. Capitalism is an economic system that requires continuous growth, and this comes at the direct expense of the environment. According to Foster and Clark:
This ceaseless drive for the amassing of greater and greater wealth, requiring more and more consumption of energy and resources, and generating more waste, constitutes “the absolute general law of environmental degradation under capitalism.” Today the scale of the human economy has become so large that its everyday activities, such as carbon dioxide emissions and freshwater use, now threaten the fundamental biochemical processes of the planet” (Foster and Clark, 2012: 6-7).
Further, the capitalist economic system is irrational and cannot provide jobs for all who want to work, much less at good wages and benefits (however defined); recognizing this, however, requires we must incorporate an analysis of US capitalism into our over approach: if the system cannot provide jobs for everyone who wants to work, here and abroad, then its reason for continued existence becomes more and more untenable.
Yet there is also a political problem for the Empire. As the “1 percent” have overwhelmed the US political system—not only through lobbying and related activities, but now with unlimited campaign contributions thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision in 2010—and it has become more and more obvious that the government (especially at the Federal level) has become a tool for the rich to use against the “99 percent,” there is less and less willingness by the 99 percent to support US foreign policy over time. Concurrently, with the decreasing ability of the economic system to provide jobs for Americans, there is increasing demand for social services. Yet the cost of Empire has soared so tremendously over the past 32 years—US national debt has grown from $ .9 trillion to over $16.4 trillion in just this period, with over $10 trillion going to fund the military (without including costs for nuclear weapons or military veterans’ benefits)[vi]—that politicians suggest that these social service programs be seriously cut back so as to enable the continued expansion of the war machine (aka US Empire): something here has to give, because the US cannot fund both the Empire and take care of Americans; it can do one, perhaps, but it definitely cannot do both.
And we haven’t even gotten to Global Climate Change….
Global Climate Change (hereafter, GCC). Attention on GCC properly focuses on the environment, but it overwhelmingly ignores the role of US capitalism, and almost never addresses the US Empire.[vii]
There is a exploding literature on GCC or as it is commonly referred to, “global warming.” One of the most active writers on the subject is Professor Bill McKibben, whose August 2012 piece takes us to a totally different understanding of GCC (McKibben, 2012). The long and short of it is that the Earth is heating up, and the best thinking today is that we face extinction of human beings, animals and many plants by the early 22nd Century at the latest unless we drastically reduce the heat of the planet and remove large quantities of Carbon Dioxide and equivalent gasses from the atmosphere. Having an atmosphere containing 391 ppm of Carbon Dioxide or its equivalents in 2011, we have to reduce the heating and contamination so as to preclude us from getting to 450 ppm, when the accompanying heat will release the trillions of tons of methane (CH4) that currently lie under the tundra of Canada and Russia (and the sea beds); an act, should it happen, that would be “unstoppable.” Methane harms the atmosphere—that “thin” membrane surrounding the Earth that keeps it at temperatures suitable for human and animal life—at a rate 23 times worse than does Carbon Dioxide!
Obviously, focusing on GCC draws attention to the greatest threat to all life on the planet. And as the planet gets hotter—with accompanying forest fires and draughts, and intensifying hurricanes like Sandy—increasing numbers of people are becoming more and more aware of these changes. And there is increasing awareness that this is happening globally, that it’s not just a US problem. In fact, it was just reported that Australians have had to add a new color to their weather maps; it represents temperatures of 129.2° F (54° C) or higher (Abad-Santos, 2013).
However, incorporating climate change into the analysis, which this author deems essential, it is not sufficient in and of itself. A major problem is that most proponents of CGG do not address what is causing the Earth to warm the way it has since approximately 1750, which limits efforts to address it.[viii] Additionally, they do not understand that efforts to maintain the Empire—based on American nationalism—precludes governmental “leaders” from addressing problems like CGC, which means that resources to address this life-threatening problem are not being made available.
Literature Review: Multiple Explanations.
US Capitalism and the Empire. Kim Scipes’ work builds off a Marxist economic analysis, but he does not confine his thinking to Marxism. Following Nederveen Pieterse, he sees US expansion globally as a product of political and economic reasons where, in some cases, economic motivation is primary, while in others, political motivation is primary; thus, he does not accept an economics or politics dichotomy, but rather sees is as an issue of “both-and.” In other words, he examines factors to see which in any situation is primary or secondary, and recognizes that different situations may bring forth different analysis, or that even the same situation over a different time period may result in a changed analysis.
What is interesting about Scipes’ analysis is that he does not only look at changes in the economic system, but he specifically focuses on how this has been affecting, and continues to affect, American workers. He has been examining this episodically since 1984, when he first joined off-shoring of American jobs with technological displacement: “And finally, the situation for workers was summed up: ‘Every way, workers are going to loose. Either they will loose their jobs to foreign competitors—oftentimes subsidiaries of US corporations—or lose them to robots and computerized machines, or have their wages and benefits severely reduced’ (Scipes, 1984: 22),” (quoted in Scipes, 2010a: 222, endnote 9).
Scipes was able to come to this analysis by taking a global approach, and what he saw was that “The cause of these and related problems is that the international economic system is undergoing massive restructuring. It is changing from being centralized and dominated by the United States to one which is much more decentralized and competitive” (Scipes, 1984: 1, quoted in Scipes, 2010a: 222, endnote 9).
Scipes’ global analysis has continued to develop, recognizing how global processes can have domestic impacts. In a piece published in 2009—which interestingly provides a snap-shot of economic developments right before the 2008-2011 recession, so none of his findings can be attributed to the recession—he points out that the share of income going to the bottom 80 percent of American society (that is no typo) decreased under the first George W. Bush administration, from 2001 to 2005. In fact, the total share going to each of the bottom four quintiles was less than the respective share in 1947! (Scipes, 2009: 26).
However, while Scipes is aware of Global Climate Change—and discusses his 1984 findings in the light of what he suggests might have to replace the current economic system with a specific ecological understanding—he has subsequently never developed this ecological understanding.
US Capitalism and the Environment. John Bellamy Foster, the current editor of Monthly Review, has been working diligently to combine the understandings of an understanding of US capitalism with the understandings about the environment and Global Climate Change. He argues—correctly, in this author’s opinion—that the production required by capitalism is destroying the planet and all of its resources.
Foster’s understanding is excellent, and he makes this connection well. He gives classical Marxism more weight in addressing the environment than this author believes is due, but he and his coauthors use Marxist analysis to address the problem today, and his analysis certainly deserves consideration (see Foster, Clark and York, 2010; Foster and Clark, 2012; Foster, 2013).
The problem with Foster’s analysis—and that of the Monthly Review school in general—is that while they extend their analysis of capitalism globally, they do this economistically; in other words, for purposes herein, they do not recognize that the United States has an Empire. What this means practically is that they ascribe capitalism’s expansion globally to seeking profit, an economic approach, which does not explain why the US oftentimes acts for political reasons.[ix]
It is clear, from this quick overview of the literature, that each of these three areas of interest are important, but that trying to explain current social conditions on the basis of one or two of them—no matter how sophisticated—is insufficient. A full explanation requires a global level of analysis, demands incorporation of global climate change to the analysis, and yet must explain accurately how things got to this stage, so they can be comprehended and addressed. In short, only by understanding the extent of the problem can we be certain that any proposed solution can move towards rectifying it, rather than providing hope while continuing to lead us into the abyss of social disaster.
We have to understand that the US economy has been and remains the most productive economic system the world has ever seen. This is an economic system built on a slave-based plantation agricultural system that was so profitable that it provided the capital for industrialization, both in scope and depth, and projected the US economy to the fore globally prior to World War I. Further, the US economy emerged from World War II in an even stronger position: while the US population was about six percent of the world’s, this country produced 48 percent of all of the goods and services in the world sold in 1947—had production reached 50 percent, this would have equaled that of all other countries of the world, combined.
Events in the 1930s and early ‘40s, however, provided the social stability required for the further development of the economic system. Key to this was industrial unionism, developed predominantly by the unions of the CIO, the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
It was the militant unionism of the CIO that played an essential part of the 1945-46 strike wave: within the first year after the end of World War II, strikes and related activities cost industry over 116,000,000 production days. While these were products of a complex measure of issues and situations, in general, they were the unionized workers who were telling the “Captains” of Industry that, “Look, there’s a world of money to be made out there, helping everyone recover from the war, but you’ve got to cut us into the economic bounty”; i.e., higher wages, greater benefits, better working conditions were the sine qua non for a post-War industrial “detante.” (see Scipes, 2009). The eventual deal accepted provided higher wages that laid the groundwork for creating the “working middle class” portion of the Great American middle class (see Metzgar, 2000).
Accompanying this were other factors, however, that undermined the power of American Labor. First, was the determination by the elites that the US should dominate the non-Soviet part of the world after the end of the war, with the propagation for and/or acceptance of this by conservative and moderate labor leaders. Second was the decision to purge broader-thinking unionists from the union movement, resulting in the expulsion of 11 unions from the CIO in 1949, basically disemboweling the labor movement and certainly removing most of the critically-thinking leadership (see Rosswurm, ed., 1992). And third, was the ultimate dominance of business unionism in the labor movement, which collapsed all concerns of American Labor to wages, benefits and working conditions, meaning that the union membership could be basically “bought off” with better collective bargaining agreements (CBAs), regardless of detrimental social impacts, etc.
US unions were strong on the shop floor, so they could enforce their CBAs, especially where leadership was willing to fight. However, most unions had given into management to the extent that management was not constrained in confronting Labor, as long as CBAs were observed. So that meant that corporations could replace workers with new technology, shut down production lines, or were able to close plants and transfer production to other locations, within or without the US, when management could make a good case for it.
Although this was already hurting unions by the mid-1950s, it got especially bad by the late 1970s, as increased economic competition was taking its toll in the United States on US corporations. As Scipes (1984) reported, above, this was when workers began seriously loosing their jobs due to off-shoring and technological displacement.
Yet, where did the jobs go when off-shored…? To that, we must address the concept of the US Empire.
Many analysts divide the countries of the world into two categories: developed and developing countries. The so-called “developed countries” are the countries of Western Europe, the US, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, while the developing countries are those located in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. The one thing that the developing countries have in common—with the exception only of Ethiopia, Persia/Iran, and Siam/Thailand—is they have all been colonized by the developed countries; in fact, key to the development of the developed countries has been the exploitation of the developing countries (often in collusion with their respective elites), and the brutal oppression of their peoples. In plan language, the developed countries developed economically on the backs of those they oppressed and exploited.
Colonization of the countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East was in all cases backed by military force, which was very brutal when utilized, although places where divide and conquer strategies were successful reduced the need for military force. Still, whether controlled by foreigners or elite collaborators, the economies of the colonized countries was restructured to meet the needs of the colonizing country, away from the needs of the native populations, and a political/administrative/ education system installed that insured the new system would benefit the colonizers.
While the United States should be considered an imperial country from the moment of independence from England—it developed stealing Native lands and African labor, and this was later joined by half of Mexico and later Hawaii and Alaska, as well as labor by Mexican, Chinese and European “white ethnic” (from the “periphery” of the continent) workers—it began expanding around the world as a byproduct of the Spanish American war, beginning in 1898. This war was preceded by building a modern Navy of steel-hulled ships, and an elite Marine Corps, to enforce US dictate on the high seas or on coastal islands/cities, etc. As a result of the Spanish American war, the US gained Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam and, after an incredibly vicious war against the Filipinos, the Philippines. After supporting insurgents who created Panama after leaving Colombia, the US also had decided to build a canal across the new isthmus country that, of course, had to be defended. And the US invaded Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as well as Nicaragua, numerous times in the new century.
As a result of World War II, the US qualitatively expanded around the world; it emerged from the war as the dominant capitalist country in the world, and the only one with the resources and determination to stop the spread of that evil, Soviet “communism.” Western European allies deferred to the US when challenged, but generally were able to resume their colonial projects as long as they followed the lead of the United States in global politics (Nederveen Pieterse, 1989).
It is only by recognizing that what emerged after World War II were two Empires, one dominated by the United States, one being dominated by the Soviet Union, and that they faced each other across the “chessboard” of the globe. Obviously, the “contest” between the two empires potentially was much more lethal than a set of chess pieces—and local insurgencies in places like Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Cuba, Algeria, Northern Ireland, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Angola, Nicaragua, as well as Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia challenged the domination of colonialism with massive cost of lives lost—but basically, both empires were able to maintain their control until 1989-91, when the Soviet Empire and then the Soviet Union itself imploded. This left the US dominant in the world, at least until 2003, when its hubris led to the invasion of Iraq, etc.
The importance of recognizing the existence and reality of the US Empire is that by controlling developing countries, the US allowed local elites and US corporations to set up production facilities, paying workers wages far below those in the US for comparable products, and then were able to export products back to the United States.[x] Paying workers “third world” wages to produce goods that could be sold at “first world” prices enabled US corporations to make exceptional profits—and this prospect lured increasing amounts of investment overseas, while wiping out millions of labor-intensive jobs in the US.
However, US imperialism cannot be collapsed into just overseas economic opportunities for US corporations, no matter how profitable. There is also—and much more importantly for the nation-state itself—the ability to dominate much of the world for its own purposes, whatever they may be, but as defined by US elites.
Key to this is the massive military-industrial-university complex, which is the networks of “defense-related” corporations and their supply chains, the politicians they support, and the universities that sponsor their primary research that has, in turn, generated trillions of dollars of “defense” spending, creating the most advanced technology to kill people that the world has ever known. And this, in turn, has allowed ruling elites in the developing countries to use their resources to purchase arms from the United States so as to suppress their peoples, often to benefit the US politically, while further enriching US war contractors.
It is this global production system—supported by US military-backed corporate capitalism, and financed by trillions of dollars of US taxpayers’ money—that has enabled the US elites to dominate the world to they extent that it has.
Yet, as countries recovered from the devastation of World War II, and as a growing number of developing countries have economically developed, there have been exceedingly obvious social impacts on working Americans. The key issue has been job loss: workers have had jobs sent overseas, or lost them through technological displacement, or through free trade-based competition, and the social situation of working people has gotten much worse in the 21st Century (Greenhouse, 2008; Scipes, 2009; Hedges and Sacco, 2012). This social situation was exacerbated by the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANIF) Act by Democratic President Bill Clinton in the mid-1990s, and the 2007 housing collapse by Republican President George W. Bush, each which attacked working people at almost all income levels. Things have not qualitatively changed under Democratic President Barack Obama, although he did stop the massive job hemorrhaging that had taken place under the second President Bush.
Yet, while this US dominated capitalist production system has been expanding around the globe, it has been causing great ecological harm. While this environmental destruction cannot—and should not—be collapsed into global climate change, it is in dealing with GCC that enables us to get a handle on the threat to the very existence of people around the world.
Our planet is encompassed by a “membrane” that protects us from the sun’s rays and regulates the temperature of the planet—this is what we call the “atmosphere.” The atmosphere is nothing more that a combination of chemicals held in orbit by the Earth’s gravity. Scientists can measure the Carbon (CO2) content of the atmosphere back over the last 650,000 years. What they have discovered is that when the atmospheric CO2 content varies, the temperature of the Earth responds accordingly—and what they have been able to establish is that over this approximately 650,000 year period, there have been repeated cycles of heating and cooling of the planet. Interestingly, at no time previous to now has the CO2 component of the atmosphere exceeded 300 parts per million (ppm). Until now. The heating cycle that began about the time of the Industrial Revolution (1750) has only continued to increase, following an increasing CO2 amount that has reached 391 ppm in 2011. Scientists now say that the Earth has warmed about .8° Celsius above what it was in 1750, with perhaps another .7° C already in the pipeline but as yet unmeasured.
While this sounds slight—perhaps a total increase of 1.5° C over the past 263 years (1750 to 2013)—the problem is that an increase of no more than 2° C is expected to cause such massive changes in our global climate system that it threatens the very existence of human beings, animals and many plants on this planet by the beginning of the next century.[xi] The accompanying CO2 number is 450 ppm—and we are currently at 391. Nonetheless, what seems certain is that if the Earth’s temperature rises 2° C (above the temperature in 1750), the tundra across Canada and Russia will melt, and the trillions of tons of methane (CH4) will be released into the atmosphere. As methane is 23 times more harmful to the atmosphere than CO2, this means “game over.”
How “certain” is this? With the caveat that nothing in the future is certain, it is the best, most solid prediction that can be made with the level of evidence that currently exists. We know for certain the average temperature of the Earth is warming: the ten warmest years since temperatures began being recorded in 1850 have each taken place since 1998. We know that the CO2 content of the atmosphere, which has never exceeded 300 ppm over the past 650,000 years, is now at 391 ppm. Scientists have known that global warming has been taking place for over 20 years, and the evidence keeps getting stronger and stronger, and more specific and reliable. We know that weather patterns that have existed for over 100 years in the United States have been changing—as we’ve seen in 2012. The average annual US temperature jumped over 1° F between 2011-2012, an increase said to be “off the charts” (Borenstein, 2013). And hurricanes have been getting stronger, as we saw in New York in 2011 and 2012: Hurricane Irene and then Sandy, each considered a “once in a 100 years” storm that struck in two successive years, caused the Atlantic Ocean to surge 11 feet and then over 14 feet, respectively.
Whether one wants to believe the accumulating evidence in whole or only in part, it is quite clear that something quite unusual is affecting the global climate. It is, as they say, the canary in the coal mine. We ignore it as our own expense.
So, what does this all mean? If George Monbiot, writing in his excellent 2007 book, Heat, is to be believed, we have only until about 2030 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90 percent. He believes we can make many of the necessary changes to do this, and comes to this conclusion after engaging in very hard-headed, detailed analysis. However, he is unable to envision accompanying changes in air travel, and he refuses to address the issue of Empire and wars. Whether it is or is not possible to meet this goal, nonetheless, the longer we wait to address such crucial issues, the less likely we will be able to respond in time.
There is no question that there is an interactive effect between the US Empire, US capitalism and Global Climate Change. US capitalism is the most economically productive economic system the world has ever seen, but it also must be recognized that this production takes place globally; it is no longer confined to the geographic US, nor are the greenhouse gases produced by subsidiaries of US corporations confined to the geographic US. Joined with this is the continued expansion of capitalism across the other “developed” countries—each with related contributions to greenhouse gas emissions—and their respective expansions around the globe. And then the increasing development of capitalism in certain “developing” countries such as Brazil, Russia, China, India, South Africa (the BRICS countries), along with other countries such as Turkey and Israel, each which are not confined to their “homeland.” What is obvious is that capitalism has been, and continues to expand globally, as capitalist firms seek an increasing number of investment “opportunities” for their continued survival, expansion and profitability.
This global expansion of capitalism is based on two things, that must be included in any analysis: (1) the continued ability of the US Empire to maintain the current global social order in a way that enhances the capability of capitalist firms to expand globally without generating extreme nation-state competition that could lead to war—and no other nation-state (including China) has the ability to do this globally anywhere near the level reached by the United States; and (2) this—both the US global military force and the global expansion of capitalism—is based on fossil fuels, the production of which contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, intensified carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, and global climate change that realistically threatens to exterminate all humans, animals and many plants.
The hope to stop this onslaught—as overwhelming as it appears to be—lies in the recognition by a growing number of people around the world that capitalism (in all its forms, not just the US) offers no way forward for increasing numbers of people and that it is, in fact, leading towards global extermination in the foreseeable future; the efforts to join in a global movement for economic and social justice (i.e., globalization from below) to advance the interests and project well-being to each of the peoples of the world; and determination to replace capitalism with an economic system based on ecological and economic sustainability. This task appears impossible—and yet, there is no alternative. We have to be willing to face this problem with courage, determination and clear sightedness, and that includes a complete analysis of the situation: anything else is an invitation to almost certain disaster.
Although this paper has not tried to suggest a program as what should or must be done—the scope is beyond the reach of this paper—it has, quite forcefully, suggested that three overlapping but not conflatable issues must be combined into a single approach: an understanding of the US Empire, US capitalism and Global Climate Change.
This paper has shown that an approach including these three factors can provide a much stronger case for social change—and of the scope necessary—than can only one or two of the factors. It is a consideration that must be factored into larger Left analyzes.
Kim Scipes is a long-time labor activist and an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, IN. He presented this paper on February 9, 2013 at the Open University of the Left in Chicago, and the video is at /www.youtube.com/watch?v=VLkOuj_fNQs .
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Blum, William. 2000. Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press.
Borenstein, Seth. 2013. “US Roasts to Hottest Year on Record by Landslide.” Associated Press, January 8.
Chomsky, Noam. 2003. Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance. New York: Metropolitan Books.
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[i]. Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick (2012: xiii-xiv) say the origin of this “shining city on the hill” imagery goes back to 1630, when John Winthrop, speaking on board the ship Arbella, claimed that America shall be “a divinely ordained ‘city upon a hill’—a beacon for the rest of the world to follow.”
[ii]. This literature is expanding by leaps and bounds, and far exceeds these three references. These have been used because they speak to the specific points being made in this paper.
[iii]. This does not limit the need for social change to just these areas of society, but argues these three areas are generally those discussed most in the alternative media, where the fullest discussion of social conditions and needs for social change have taken place to date.
[iv]. “US” capitalism is specified because capitalism is not a monolithic system across the globe; it is embedded in each particular country’s history, culture, and legal/industrial relations system, and thus differs—to greater or less extents—by nation-state. Thus, comments here are limited to the US version.
[v]. This paper accepts Marx’ economic analysis, but rejects Marx’ sociology or efforts to extend Marx’ analysis to the whole of society; thus, it is a very specific utilization of Marx.
[vi]. Author’s research of military spending taken from the annual Economic Report of the President, from 1980-2010.
[vii]. For one source that specifically includes the US Empire, see Sanders, 2009.
[viii]. John Bellamy Foster challenges James Hansen’s strategy for just this weakness (Foster, 2013).
[ix]. Monopoly Capital (Baran and Sweezy, 1966), the theoretical base for the Monthly Review “school,” does admit the US has an Empire, and specifically names a number of countries that it places under its aegis (p. 183, FN #6). A careful reading of Chapter 7, however, shows that the purpose of “militarism and imperialism,” according to these authors, is “absorption” of the some of tremendous surplus being created by monopoly capitalism; concentrating overwhelmingly on this economistic issue, they do not address the issue of US Empire as political dominator. While there may be mention of “empire” by some writers of this school of research, it certainly is not central nor essential, as is being argued herein.
[x]. Recognizing that this benefitted US corporations, a growing number of these countries have demanded “free trade” agreements, where their products could enter the US market without paying tariffs, as a quid pro quo for this arrangement. This, in turn, has hurt American workers, as many goods entering under free trade agreements have lower labor costs, and thus has helped force wages down and/or driven American companies out of business.
[xi]. There is considerable debate over this 2° C threshold, with a growing number of scientists now arguing that it is too high; that the damage will come long before that. When we see the environmental damage done in 2012 alone—especially the massive draught across the US, plus the massive forest fires in the Rocky Mountain states in the spring, plus the intensifying Arctic ice melt-off this past summer, Hurricane Sandy and its impact on New Jersey and New York City, and all following years of preceding ecological disruptions—it seems obvious that the 2° threshold is too high.