Revolution Online, March 21, 2011
We Cannot Solve the Environmental Emergency Under this System, But There Is a Way... and It Is Communist Revolution
The following is a slightly edited transcript of a talk by Raymond Lotta given at the Left Forum in New York City on March 19, 2011:
This is a very important moment to be holding this panel. The crisis in Japan, now the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, poses critical dangers to the Japanese people who have already suffered greatly from the earthquake and tsunami. This crisis carries potentially grave risks for the well-being of world humanity and the global environment. This is a global event, and we all have to take responsibility to be developing and struggling for demands on the system to deal with the effects of this disaster—at the same time that we dig into its larger significance.
The earthquake and tsunami in Japan were the result of natural tectonic forces. But why Japan was so reliant on nuclear energy and how this crisis continues to unfold is mediated through social relations.
The title of my talk is: We Cannot Solve the Environmental Emergency Under this System, But There Is a Way...and It Is Communist Revolution. I will discuss the nature of the system that dominates the world and plunders the planet—and what that has to do with this nuclear crisis. And I will talk about something new on the political-ideological scene, the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal) from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA—and what this has to do with a way forward for humanity.
I. Capitalism is the Cause
Now in the geological and ecological history of this planet, there have been massive environmental disturbances, changes in climate, and great extinctions. What is unique about the current environmental emergency is that it is primarily caused by human activity. Not by human activity in the abstract, but by the workings of the economic and political system we live under: capitalism-imperialism.
You see, capitalism is a system that operates according to certain rules. It's like basketball or soccer: there are rules of the game. If a basketball player kicked the ball like a soccer player to get it down-court, he or she'd be penalized; and if she kept doing it she'd be thrown out of the game. Well, capitalism has its rules. Yes, particular corporations have done egregious things to the environment. But the rules of capitalism make it impossible for it as a system to deal with the environment in a sustainable and rational way—even if an individual capitalist or group of capitalists wanted to. Let's look at these rules:
RULE #1: Everything is a commodity and everything must be done for profit.
Everything under capitalism is produced in order to be exchanged, to be sold. Things must be useful to be exchanged. But under capitalism, the measure and motivation of what is produced and how it is produced is profit—whether we are talking about housing, medicine, technology, or energy development. Profit comes from the exploitation of billions on this planet.
When a company like Texaco extracted oil in the Ecuadorian rainforest, it sprayed and spilled toxic waste and oil, destroying pristine forest, turning rivers and streams black with oil, and creating not only one of the worst environmental disasters in history, but also leaving people dead or dying from cancer. But this was a profitable investment.
Under capitalism, nature is either something to be seized and plundered...or viewed as a limitless and "free" resource to be exploited and poured into profit-based production.
RULE #2: Capitalist production is by its nature privately owned and driven forward by the commandment: "expand or die." A capitalist economy is fragmented into separate and competing units of capitalist control and ownership—like Toyota and Ford...like Exxon-Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell. Each unit of capital must fight others for market share, and must continually cheapen costs, in order to stay alive. And each unit of capital, because it is private, is fundamentally concerned with its operations, with its profits, and with its expansion.
Let's take the case of nuclear power plants. Investors will be paying close attention to the cost and efficiency of operations. But what happens outside that immediate sphere of operation and ownership—the environmental costs of mining the uranium that these plants depend on, the damaging effects of the release of hazardous gases, the health dangers to people in surrounding and distant areas, and the longer-term effects of disposal of nuclear waste—those costs are not the concern of their profit-and-loss ledgers.
Capitalism is an anarchic system. Its horizons are short term. There is no conscious, society-wide planning to meet social need, or to cope with the many-sided effects of what is being produced and how it is being produced.
RULE #3: Capitalism today is a global system and proceeds through the domination of oppressed nations by imperialist countries and through rivalry among the imperialist powers, rivalry that led to two world wars in the 20th century.
Today the great powers are in an intensifying race for control over sources of cheap fossil fuel and other energy sources in the oppressed nations in Africa and Central Asia. They are scrambling for position in the Arctic. And this is a dirty little secret of empire: the U.S. military, which enforces international exploitation and plunder, is the single largest purchaser of oil in the world.
In light of these three rules, let's look at Japan's commercial nuclear program.
Nuclear power now provides 30 percent of Japan's electricity. There is nothing preordained or necessary about this situation. One might ask why Japan did not invest in safe renewable energies—like wind, solar, or geothermal. Well, the decision to go nuclear was conditioned by those rules of the game: by profit in command and by rivalry and geopolitics.
Japan has been almost wholly dependent on imports for its oil. The oil crisis of 1973 was a major shock. It disrupted Japan's oil supplies. It jeopardized Japan's then rapid economic growth and increasing international reach. The decision by the Japanese ruling class to develop nuclear power was based on a certain calculus.
For Japanese capital to profitably expand, for Japanese capital to secure export markets, for Japanese capital to press its global economic challenge to rival imperial powers, it needed a fuel source that would be capable of producing energy on a massive industrial and commercially profitable scale. It needed a fuel source that would not be vulnerable to these kinds of supply shocks.
Those strategic imperatives trumped the then already-known dangers of building nuclear plants near one of the most active geological faults on the planet, and along coastal areas reachable by tsunamis.
The U.S. encouraged Japan's nuclear energy program. Why? Because Japan has been a key flank of the Western alliance the U.S. constructed after World War 2—and a stable Japan, a Japan that is host to U.S. military forces, has been integral to U.S. power projection in East Asia. The U.S. provided technological support for Japan's nuclear reorientation. Indeed, Japan's decision to ramp up commercial nuclear power provided a market for the U.S. energy industry. As people know, the reactors that are now in danger of meltdown are based on GE designs.
And for both the Japanese and U.S. ruling classes, commercial nuclear power has been an ideological wedge to pave the way for all things nuclear: including nuclear weapons. This was happening in the only country in the world to have experienced the devastation and horror of atomic bombs as a result of the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But that is not all.
Over the past three decades that Japan has been building these reactors, the rest of the capitalist world had largely put new nuclear power construction on hold, mainly for economic reasons. That is, until recently, with the so-called nuclear power renaissance. So Japan has been somewhat in the forefront of developing nuclear energy—and this has given Japanese imperialism a certain competitive leg up: to secure contracts for the highly profitable construction of overseas nuclear-powered plants.
This nuclear reactor export push has been especially important as part of Japan's efforts to overcome a 15-year economic slowdown in an increasingly competitive international environment. And how convenient that Japan's supposed watchdog agency over the safety of nuclear power, the Nuclear and Industrial and Safety Agency, is overseen by Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry!
So here we are. A nuclear catastrophe is looming. The same capitalist "rules of the game" that led to a situation where the Japanese state embarked on the rapid expansion of nuclear power also govern the response to the crisis. The main concern of the Japanese imperialist state is to maintain order and safeguard strategic interests. The main concern of the power companies is to protect investments.
This is why the Japanese people have been kept uninformed. This is why they have been kept from mobilizing in the way called for. Remember how BP monopolized control over information about the Gulf oil spill and set the terms for what would be done in response—because this was their proprietary investment. And in a world divided into contending imperialist nation states, there cannot be the kind of global mobilization of people and resources commensurate with the scale of this grave crisis.
This crisis did not have to happen. Just as the kind of suffering after Katrina made landfall did not have to happen. Just as impoverished conditions, lack of preparation, and poor medical infrastructure in Haiti or Kashmir at the time of those earthquakes were not necessary givens. Just as deep-shore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico is not some unavoidable feature of economic development.
No, these are outcomes of the working of this capitalist-imperialist system: of profit in command...of the blind, expand-or-die impulse of capital and its oppressive social relations...of the division of the world into oppressor and oppressed nations...of the rivalry between blocks of capital and contending imperial states. These crimes will continue as long as this system continues. But the world does not have to be this way.
II. Revolution Opens the Way
The only viable way to deal with the environmental emergency is revolution: a socialist revolution that establishes a radically new and different state power that unfolds its priorities from the needs of humanity overall, from the emancipation of humanity, and the protection of the planet.
The ultimate aim of this revolution is to bring a communist world into being: a world where people work and struggle together for the common good...where everyone contributes whatever they can to society and gets back what they need to live a life worthy of human beings...where there are no more divisions among people in which some rule over and oppress others, robbing them not only of the means to a decent life but also of knowledge and means for really understanding, and changing, the world.
Socialism is the first step towards that world. In socialist society, ownership and control of production, the means of production that are in fact socially worked by thousands and millions of people, are socialized through this new revolutionary state. There will no longer be Wal-Mart or ExxonMobil. There will no longer be an imperialist military machine that rains death and destruction on people in the interests of empire. And under socialism, the rules of commodity production—of profit first, of expand or die—these rules no longer set the terms and framework for what is possible and desirable.
The Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA sets out a framework for how a vibrant socialist society would be constituted and how it would function as a transition to a communist world. This Constitution is based on Bob Avakian's new synthesis of communism—which builds on the past experience of the Bolshevik and Chinese revolutions, draws on their positive and negative lessons, and raises this to a new, higher level of synthesis.
This is a socialism striving to overcome the great gap between mental and manual labor, where today only a small minority of society is engaged in the realm of working with ideas...but overcoming this gap on the basis of the flourishing of intellectual, scientific, and cultural life. A socialism where state power is held on to and used to solve the most accursed and vexing problems of society and to spread revolution in the world...but where power is held on to on the basis of the flourishing of great political ferment, dissent, and initiative.
This is not some utopia. A socialist society will face enormous challenges. There is the very gravity of the environmental crisis. For some time, any revolution that comes to power will face threats from considerable swaths of a hostile capitalist-imperialist world. The socialist society will have to confront the danger of counterrevolution. The new society will contain social divisions and backward ideas inherited from exploiting-class society. To make revolution, and keep it going forward, requires visionary leadership that bases itself on a scientific understanding of how society is and how it can be transformed.
The Constitution for the New Socialist Republic of North America sets out how a socialist economy and society would, and here I quote: "apply itself to contributing all it can to solving the environmental crisis and, to the degree possible, reversing its terrible and manifold effects and to ushering in a new era in which human beings and their society can truly be fit caretakers of the Earth." In a special issue of Revolution newspaper, we have put forth some key principles of socialist sustainable development.
* Economic development will be advancing the world revolution to uproot all exploitation and oppression and to emancipate all of humanity...this will be an economy meeting social need, creating a common material wealth that contributes to the all-around development of society and the individuals who make it up, and overcoming the oppressive divisions between mental and manual labor, town and country, different regions and nationalities, and men and women.
* The new socialist society will put the preservation of the ecosystems of the entire planet above its own national development...it will take special responsibility to heal the scars of environmental damage caused by the former U.S. imperialism to other countries...it will be promoting unprecedented planet-wide cooperation among scientists and sharing knowledge and expertise with the rest of the world—while learning from others. It will imbue people with an appreciation of nature and a sense of responsibility to it.
* Socialist planning will combine centralization with decentralization. There will be overall leadership in drawing up plans, coordinating the economy, and establishing key social priorities, like uprooting racial oppression and the subordination of women. At the same time, the new economy will maximize, to the greatest degree possible, local initiative, management, and responsibility, and give wide scope to grass-roots experimentation within the framework of a unified socialist economy.
* Society will move decisively away from reliance on non-renewable fossil as well as nuclear power, and rapidly transition towards safe and ecologically sustainable technologies. This will be an economy that no longer relies on long-distance supply and delivery systems—that no longer exploits people or plunders the planet.
Again, this is not some blissful utopia. The Constitution sets out the principles and orientation for the transformation of society: it sets out the processes and structures of governance of the new society. But the motion and development of the new society is complex and new things and new problems will emerge. Basic policies, economic plans, and indeed the very direction of society must be interrogated and debated out broadly in socialist society. Moreover, the unresolved contradictions of socialist society—around patriarchy, around issues of sustainability, of balancing long- and short-term requirements, and so forth—will give rise to controversy and struggle. This will be a source of dynamism in socialist society.
Bob Avakian has given the example of novelist and social activist Arundhati Roy. Many of you know that she's been in the forefront of struggles against the construction of environmentally destructive dams in India. The question is posed: will it be possible for people like Arundhati Roy to organize and protest in opposition to environmental policy and direction under socialism? Yes, Avakian has emphasized that socialism must be a society teeming with dissent, protest, and contestation.
This is all part of the process of getting at the truth of society and the world, of promoting critical thinking in socialist society and enabling those formerly on the bottom of society to more deeply understand and more profoundly transform the world; this is crucial in advancing the struggle towards communism. And this will get very tense and wild at times, including protests, strikes, and upheavals that can destabilize society. People like Arundhati Roy must also be looked to—in order to help develop solutions to these very deep and serious environmental problems, even as there will be ideological struggle over issues of socialism, communism and where humanity is headed and needs to go.
How would a new and radically different state deal with a natural disaster, like a Katrina or a major earthquake. It would have the capacity to mobilize economic and technical resources on a vast scale. It would unleash the most important resource: people. The socialist state would enable scientists, medical personnel, technicians and engineers to come together with basic people in new combinations to analyze and solve problems—and to learn from each other. If there were an industrial or power disaster the state would warn about and seek to limit damage to ecosystems. And in all of this it would put the health of the people front and center.
You would have to be doing this in real time. You would want to popularize successes as well as continuing problems and what is being learned in coping with such disasters. Information and knowledge, rather than being quartered up, would be disseminated and critically examined. Mass education and debate would be going on at the same time. The socialist state would be unleashing people at all levels to take responsibility and initiative.
In confronting such a disaster, you would be paying attention to social disparities that come from a whole history of inequality, like the legacy of racism—as well as the uneven ways that disaster strikes—sparing some and devastating others. You would be broadly projecting a "serve the people" ethos—as opposed to the passivity and "each for themselves" outlook of capitalism. In short, there would be a world of difference in how an emancipatory socialist society would deal with such a situation.
Let me conclude. Huge questions of life, health, and the global environment are being posed in extreme terms in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan. We are living in perilous times. But there is no permanent necessity to live this way. There is the potential, locked up and suppressed by this system, for humanity to deeply understand and profoundly change the world in a liberating direction—to get to a world where human beings can flourish and humanity can truly act as caretakers of the planet.
We are building a movement for that revolution. And debating out the causes and lessons of this latest calamity...formulating and fighting for demands that rise to the challenge of this crisis...and raising sights to a whole new world—this is part of building that movement for revolution.
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