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How we can change everything

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As activists gather for the This Changes Everything event in London Martin Empson looks at why workers are the key link in changing the world and saving the planet
Issue 2446
On the Peoples Climate March in 2014
On the People’s Climate March in 2014 (Pic: Guy Smallman)

From the big freeze in the US to the increasing number and ferocity of tropical storms, evidence of climate change is growing. 

Yet the response of governments around the world has got weaker.

So it is no surprise that the recent Time to Act demonstration in London had a distinct anti-capitalist atmosphere to it. 

Many climate activists are coming to see action against capitalism as key to saving the environment. 

But the key question is, how do we end capitalism? How should we organise if we want to fight for a sustainable world? Answering this means understanding how capitalism works. 

This weekend hundreds of activists will gather in central London to discuss themes raised in Naomi Klein’s recent book This Changes Everything.

Klein places the capitalist organisation of society at the heart of the problems that are causing climate change.

She suggests that climate change “could be the best argument progressives have ever had to demand the rebuilding and reviving of local economies; to reclaim our democracies from corrosive corporate influence…to take back ownership of essential services like energy and water”.

In Britain, the One Million Climate Jobs programme has argued for a similar vision. The creation of jobs in industries that can reduce emissions, and in turn have huge social benefits is a popular one among activists.

But despite the logic of this, politicians have done little. David Cameron promised that his government would be the greenest ever. Yet, in practice, the Tories are offering more roads, more airports and more fracking.


Capitalism is all about creating profit. It is based on competition between different blocks of capital—businesses, companies, multinationals—which each try and outdo each other. 

Under capitalism, as the revolutionary Karl Marx pointed out, production is about the accumulation of wealth for the sake of accumulation. 

In doing so, capitalism shows little interest in its impact upon the wider world. Indeed, the system organises to restrict behaviour that might hit profits.

In his masterwork Capital, Marx argued, “All progress in capitalist agriculture is progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility. 

“The more a country proceeds from large-scale industry as the background of its development, as in the case of the United States, the more rapid is this process of destruction.”

One frightening example of this is the way that in February of this year the Australian government organised a huge diplomatic campaign to prevent the United Nations listing the Great Barrier Reef as endangered. 

If this happened it would stop investment in industries that might damage the reef. So despite the threat to an important part of the world’s ecology, the government acted in the interest of big business.

In order to stop climate change we need to challenge not just the behaviour of individual companies, but the whole system. 

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote that “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”. For capitalist governments, all the state institutions, such as the army, the police, the judiciary and so on, are not neutral, but exist to protect the status quo.


Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein (Pic: Jess Hurd/

Protests have put fracking companies onto the back foot and in the US have helped temporarily stop the Keystone oil pipeline. This means that any mass movement that demands action on climate change must be strong enough to force governments to act, or replace them if they don’t. 

A mass movement could force governments to invest heavily in renewable energy, or mass insulation schemes to reduce energy use. 

We could win the renationalisation of the rail system and investment in public transport to reduce reliance on cars. The One Million Climate Jobs plan argues for a National Climate Service to co-ordinate climate jobs to reduce emissions on the scale needed.

But serious action on climate change directly challenges the profits of some of the largest and most powerful corporations on the planet. In the face of this, they would act to try and stop change taking place. 

Klein points out how the oil and gas industry in the US spent £270,000 a day in lobbying the US Congress in 2013. They would be prepared to spend much more if their very existence was threatened.

When Klein describes the mass movements that are needed, she highlights the Civil Rights struggle, the fight for the vote and the anti-apartheid campaigns as examples of movements that have won change. 

But these victories didn’t fundamentally alter capitalism, though they won important reforms.

Creating a sustainable world will mean ending capitalism. This is why socialists emphasise the importance of the working class as a force that can transform society.

Some environmentalists argue that capitalists must realise the damage they are doing. Surely they won’t simply sleepwalk into environmental catastrophe. 

But capitalists repeatedly allow environmental disasters such as oil slicks and chemical leaks. And the experience of nuclear weapons shows they cannot be trusted. 


World leaders led us close to nuclear destruction on more than one occasion. Their logic would have destroyed the world before backing down.

And since the recession began governments have backed away from the limited environmental reforms they had promised. They say their economies can’t afford them. 

Marx and Engels identified the working class as capitalism’s gravedigger. Without workers, capitalism couldn’t function. 

Workers drive buses, mine coal, erect wind turbines, run call centres, teach children and care for the sick. When they withdraw their labour they threaten the profits of the bosses.

Whenever workers fight back they begin to create their own organisations. 

An example from the 1980s shows how workers have slowed capitalism’s destruction of the environment. 

The revolutionary socialist, trade unionist and environmentalist Chico Mendes brought together workers who tapped rubber in the Amazon and defended the forest and their livelihood. 

Workers organised mass pickets to save the forest from ranchers’ chainsaws and bulldozers. 

Their success led a rancher to murder Mendes in December 1988.

At its height, this movement created a Forest Peoples’ Alliance. It united the rubbertappers and their traditional rivals and enemies, the Union of Indian Nations, which took over a rubber estate.


And at higher points of struggle, when revolutions shake capitalism, workers’ organisations become places that organise resistance, but also start to organise society. 

A socialist society would be based on organisations like these, where democratic planning of production would take place, rather than capitalism’s irrational and chaotic production driven by profit.

In this sense, socialism is far from the top down, centralised, totalitarian regimes that described themselves as Communist but had an appalling environmental and social record. 

At the heart of socialism is the idea of workers’ control of production—something that didn’t exist in the Soviet Union under Stalin and afterwards.

Marx and Engels also argued that under capitalism humanity had become alienated from the natural world. Healing this “metabolic rift” would require a revolution to transform social relations between people and to remake our relationship with the natural world. 

Nature would cease to be understood in terms of its importance to production, but in a more sustainable way.

When the politicians meet in December to discuss climate change we must organise massive protests demanding action. Crucially we must draw further and deeper links between the trade union movement and environmental activists. 

Big demonstrations in December can give further confidence to a movement that can begin to fight for real change. Saving the planet for future generations means fighting for an alternative to capitalism.

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