...the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. - Charles Dickens
"...The piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness." - Charles Dickens Funtay/gettyimages.com

Socialists might find themselves in serious difficulty in the near future. By the look of things, the world is actually shifting away from oil, a major contributor in anthropogenic global warming. Wall Street has already initiated an eye-popping bubble in the clean energy industry. And there is the real possibility that much of the damage capitalism has wrought on our environment since the days of Charles Dickens and John Ruskin might actually be reversed just in the nick of time. There is nothing in science that can write off with certainty this possibility.

Now, recall that at the end of World War II, one of the most brilliant of commentators of those very grim times, the economist/sociologist Karl Polanyi, was convinced that capitalism would not rise from the sky-high rubble of two great wars and a massive economic crash. But it did. And it even thrived, thanks to Keynesian reformations that expanded government spending in advanced capitalist societies from an average of 10 percent to 35 percent, that married markets with welfare systems, and that weakened the influence of finance by imposing high tax rates on excessive capital growth and international controls on capital flows.

We may now be in a similar situation today, my fellow socialists. We might be making the same mistake as Polanyi.

By the look of things, the present president is placing climate change in the category of a national/international emergency with considerable economic consequences, and he is eyeing a massive reconstruction of how energy is produced and distributed in the US. This is the kind of Keynesian program that could give capitalism a long run for its money. Bloomberg is now reporting that Exxon Mobil Corp. has "plans for a carbon-capture business" due to "pressure from shareholder activists." And, most telling of all, "the oil and gas sector" was "14% of the S&P 500 Index when Obama took office" and "is now less than 3% of the benchmark."

Seen in this light, Bill Gates's new book, How to Avoid a Climate Change Disaster, and his big push for a low carbon world makes a lot of capitalist sense. And after the wildcats go into the dark, they will be followed by the cowboys.

The Golden Age of Capitalism was not at all expected, as it followed the publication of Karl Polanyi's 1944 masterpiece, The Great Transformation, which was itself guided by the influence two remarkable economists had on the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement, John Maynard Keynes and the US Keynesian and Soviet sympathizer Harry Dexter White. And its Les Trente Glorieuses evaporated Marxian economic eschatology like that.

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Indeed, as a consequence, the Marxism of our day is much less gung-ho about the liberatory powers of capitalist economic catastrophes, a feeling that in recent years has been revived by environmental catastrophism. (Even I held this view until recently, because I failed to pay closer attention to the innovative thinkers in the PM Press camp.) But what is always hoped for in leftist catastrophism is what the Marxist geographer and urbanist David Harvey calls "the limits of capitalism." There must be, somewhere in the world, the thinking/feeling goes, a hard limit to capitalist growth. Surely it has to the environment.

Maybe it's not. Climate change, to our surprise, may not present a limit to the system but rather a "barrier," to again use Harvey's language, in much the same way that the two World Wars and a market crash in the 20th century were not the hard limits that Polanyi thought them to be but instead barriers to capitalist expansion. (You cannot overcome a limit, but you can overcome a barrier.)

If this is indeed the case, if capitalism survives climate change by means of state-backed market solutions, should socialists then fall to the ground in despair? Yes, they should. As should those on the progressive left. This is the price you pay for reading capitalism as simply an economic system. But if the left adopts Nancy Fraser's reading of the system, then it will be clear that it is first and foremost an institution that regulates the flows of power in a rigid culturally structured class hierarchy. You begin with this point (class-based institution), and then see how its class order is maintained (the economy). And so, capitalism can solve the climate crisis and yet continue to impose a scarcity on the measure of its form of cultural power, capital. A clean-energy world can still have its favelas.