The global advancement of capitalism requires two things: a larger host and violence. The World Wars provided the violence during the last transition. Climate change will provide the violence this time.
The global advancement of capitalism requires two things: a larger host and violence. The World Wars provided the violence during the last transition. Climate change will provide the violence this time. Spencer Platt / GETTY

Today, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer received a lot of heat from the right for stating the obvious: The "extreme flooding in the New York area from Hurricane Ida illustrated the need for concrete legislative action on climate change."

This statement should not be controversial. It's just a plain fact that our oceans are getting warmer, and therefore contributing more power to hurricanes such as Ida. A very aggressive infrastructure program (somewhere north of the Green New Deal) could provide the US better protection from the impacts of a warming world and dramatically reduce the liberation of carbon.

In a moment that demands a unified sense of the scale of the crisis, we instead got a lot of this sort of rubbish:


We also got to see a lot of cars getting caught and twirled like toys by flood waters:

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But here is something to consider. At this point in the history of capitalism, the United States is in the process of being replaced by its top economic rival, the People's Republic of China. The United Kingdom was in a similar position only 80 years ago with regard to the US. The UK's moment as the center of capitalism did not survive two world wars. And the United Provinces, the first large-scale capitalist society, was in decline at the end of the 17th century and was completely replaced by the UK at the start of the 18th. There are two important features of this development, one of which connects to the climate crises of our times.

The first is this: The global advancement of capitalism "consists of units of increasing size, resources, and world power," to use the words of the Italian world-systems analyst Giovanni Arrighi. The UK was bigger than the UP, the US was bigger than the UK, and the PRC is much bigger than the US.


The other is that each transition was mind-bogglingly violent. For the UK/UP unit, it was the Anglo–Dutch Wars. This is how W. G. Sebald described one of the battles in this capitalist conflict:
At that date [May 28, 1672] there can have only been a few cities on earth that numbered as many souls as were annihilated in seabattles of this kind. The agony that was endured and the enormity of the havoc wrought defeat our powers of comprehension, just as we cannot conceive the vastness of the effort that must have been required...

For the UK/US unit, it was two incredibly massive wars initiated by the leading European powers. But what of the present US/PRC unit? Can we expect it to be peaceful? No, we can't. There will be violence, but, as I will point out in the following paragraph, it may not be caused by the mother of all wars.

As the US is dealing with a pandemic that will likely claim 800,000 American lives, wildfires are turning huge sections of the country into smoke, and increasingly destructive weather events are flattening and flooding its cities, towns, and farms. Under these conditions, which are bound only to get worse due to inaction and rampant misinformation, the transference of economic power from the US to the PRC may not need a direct world-historical conflict. Four more years of this kind of battering and burning will certainly enervate the US in much the same way the wars of the first half of the 20th century enervated the UK, forcing a dying empire to beg the ascendant one for help.