‘Socialism or extinction’ is a scientific fact, not just a slogan

Socialism or extinction’ is not just a slogan, though; it is a statement of scientific fact. If XR does not stand for socialism, then it must necessarily stand for extinction, rendering its own alleged purpose redundant.[1]

In short: capitalism is a profit-dependent system, and must therefore continue to expand production in order to keep investment flowing and profits rising (in absolute terms).

And since profit arises from capital’s exploitation of commodity-producing labour, the intensity of the production based on fossil fuel and toxic, fuel-intensive metal mining is (increasingly) necessary.

To flesh this out a bit more: capital’s exploitation of commodity-producing labour is the sole source of profit — the capitalist appropriates surplus value (surplus labour time) from the worker, i.e the worker keeps less value than they create, covering their living costs (necessary labour time), and surplus value is then realised through commodity sales. This social relation is obscured by the money-wage relation.

Therefore, capital’s evermore demanding need to accumulate is based on the continual expansion of intensive production, i.e. the extraction of fossil fuel and metals, deforestation, intensive farming, etc., that is releasing carbon and other ‘greenhouse’ emissions — not to mention that they are fuel-intensive practices in the first place and toxic to the local environment — trapped in nature into the atmosphere, making the planet warmer and threatening runaway global heating that, according to numerous scientific studies, will make the planet uninhabitable for humans, probably before the end of the present century.

(Capital’s exploitation of labour is therefore also the root cause of alleged plummeting sperm counts (down a reported 59% from 1973 to 2011), further threatening extinction. The microplastics, nanoparticles and toxic chemicals sourced from fossil fuels and metal mines and consumed in everyday products penetrate and damage human cells.)

Although extractive industries are usually now very capital-intensive — the source of capitalism’s (now existential) economic crisis — the rate of exploitation of the remaining workers is very high.

It is not capitalism’s need for ‘infinite growth on a planet of finite resources’, as most leftists seem to put it, that is the central or immediate problem; rather, it is the pace of production and its expansion — determined by the size of an ever-larger total capital and its need to expand yet further by feeding off labour — relative to nature’s ability to replenish itself (something capitalism’s dependence on intensive extraction obviously hinders).

Just as surplus value is converted into capital faster than it is produced — resulting in (on average) decennial recessions and, eventually, a historical limit to capital accumulation — so nature is converted into capital faster than it can be replenished.

Compound accumulation

Fossil fuels (petroleum, coal, natural gas and orimulsion) would shrink to roughly half of total primary energy supply in 2050, from about 77% in 2020 — down from 81% in 2010 — if the world meets the ‘minimum’ internationally agreed target of 2 degrees Celsius warming, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics.

(Even 1C has already seen a reported 400,000 people (and counting) a year dying from climate-related causes; while the Arctic permafrost — containing 1.8 trillion tonnes of carbon, more than twice as much as is currently suspended in Earth’s atmosphere — is, we are told,[2] melting 70 years sooner than previously expected.

While fossil fuel may fall to 50% of the mix of energy production, its absolute production may rise, since economic output under capitalism tends to double every 20 years.[3]

As Jason Hickel writes in his book Less Is More, there was

“a steady rise of material use in the first half of the 1900s, doubling from 7 billion tons per year to 14 billion tons per year. But then, in the decades after 1945, something truly bewildering happens… material use explodes: it reaches 35 billion tons by 1980, hits 50 billion tons by 2000, and then screams up to an eye-watering 92 billion tons by 2017… This increase in material use tracks more or less exactly with the rise of global GDP. The two have grown together in lockstep. Every additional unit of GDP means roughly an additional unit of material extraction.

“There has been a radical acceleration of fossil fuel use since 1945, rising along with the explosion in both GDP and material use. And carbon emissions have gone up right along with it. Annual emissions more than doubled from 2 billion tons per year to 5 billion tons per year during the first half of the 1900s. During the second half of the century they rose fivefold, reaching 25 billion tons by the year 2000. And they have continued to rise since then, despite a string of international climate summits, reaching 37 billion tons in 2019. Of course, there is no intrinsic relationship between energy use and CO2 emissions. It all depends on what energy source we’re using. Coal is by far the most carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels. Oil — which has grown much more quickly than coal since 1945 — emits less CO2 per unit of energy. And natural gas is less intensive still. As the global economy has come to rely more on these less polluting fuels, one might think that emissions would begin to decline.… [But] because GDP growth is driving total energy demand up at such a rapid pace … these new fuels aren’t replacing the older ones, they are being added on top of them. The shift to oil and gas hasn’t been an energy transition, but an energy addition.

“The same thing is happening right now with renewable energy… To keep energy flowing when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing will require enormous batteries at the grid level. This means 40 million tons of lithium — an eye-watering 2,700% increase over current levels of extraction… It takes 500,000 gallons of water to produce a single ton of lithium. Even at present levels of extraction this is causing real problems. In the Andes, where most of the world’s lithium is located, mining companies are burning through the water tables and leaving farmers with nothing to irrigate their crops. Many have had no choice but to abandon their land altogether. Meanwhile, chemical leaks from lithium mines have poisoned rivers from Chile to Argentina, Nevada to Tibet, killing off whole freshwater ecosystems. The lithium boom has barely started, and it’s already a catastrophe…

“Today the world is producing 8 billion more megawatt hours of clean energy each year than in 2000. That’s a lot — enough to power all of Russia. But over exactly the same period, economic growth has caused energy demand to increase by 48 billion megawatt hours.

“There’s also something else going on. With every year that goes by, it becomes more and more difficult to extract the same amount of materials from the earth. Today, three times more material has to be extracted per unit of metal than a century ago.”[4]

There is no such thing as ‘green capitalism’. The ‘Green New Deal’ proposed by social democrats — which actually involves privatising the last areas of common land — is species suicide.

Socialism and non-intensive production

Under capitalism, commodities are only produced if they are profitable, i.e. if labour is exploitable enough to expand capital. They are use-values/utilities and exchange-values.

Under socialism, goods (having been decommodified) are produced if we deem them to be useful, via democratic regulation and demand. They are just use-values and socially owned, so no exchange of ownership takes place, i.e. exchange value and profit are abolished. If we deem that a good is not useful since it is damaging the environment or contributing to climate change too much, we can decide not to make it. Or we can find a way of making it that does not damage or exhaust nature.

Rather than fossil fuel (which disappears into thin air and so has to be extracted anew by exploited labour, making it perfect for the needs of capital) or metals (which are finite), we could use non-labour-intensive renewables — sunlight, wind and especially (for physical products) natural fibrous materials, especially hemp; mycelium (from which we can even make computers); and chitin; all three of which can combine to replace steel, concrete, graphene, lithium and fossil fuel.

And because socialism can plan and co-ordinate production as a whole on a break-even basis, instead of having to bow to the demands of capital accumulation and anarchic competition between private producers, we can grow economic output at the rate nature replenishes (or slower) — something that socialism could help instead of hinder.

Achieving the abundant material wealth for all promised by communism (as it develops into its higher stage, when production becomes fully automated and, eventually, free) is part of the solution. Fibrous plants like hemp quickly draw down and sequester CO2 while reviving the soil, reversing desertification; and the products made from them (including bioplastic that is 10 times stronger than steel; batteries that outperform lithium and graphene; and highly-insulating carbon-negative hempcrete) keep that carbon sequestered indefinitely. Abundant material wealth for all includes abundant vegetation, permaculture, afforestation, etc.

There is also the potential for micro-organisms to supply a near-infinite source of energy. In 2018, scientists in the US confirmed a theory first proposed by Soviet geologists when they found huge populations of bacteria living in the extreme temperatures of Earth’s crust, despite the lack of photosynthesis and nutrients, living solely from chemical reactions fuelled by geothermal energy. They estimated that up to 23 billion tonnes of micro-organisms live in this “deep biosphere”, making it the largest ecosystem on the planet and accounting for nearly 400 times the amount of carbon found in all living humans. Here lies a potential source of abundant energy (although we will have to assess whether the benefits outweigh the impacts of drilling).

Other scientists have even found that the Geobacter bacteria found in human waste can convert sewage into fresh water and produce electricity in the process. It is now thought that one day microbial fuel cells could power our phones, household appliances — and even spaceships.

Investment in microbial fuel cells will remain seriously limited, however, until value-creation is based solely on utility instead of exploitation and profit, since capital cannot exploit the labour time of microbes!

Modern science — which is looking more and more ‘presocialist’, i.e. systematic, holistic and dialectial-materialist (the Marxist method of assessing history as moving forward through material and social interactions)— has proven that humans depend on plants and bacteria for everyday life, smashing the myth of The Individual — the world is powered by collectivism. Indeed, trees, plants and bacteria are our relatives. The world is one interconnected whole.

The socialisation of the means of production, whereby the means of production are owned by humanity instead of capital, will thus be a ‘naturalising’ humanisation, plantification and microbiolisation of production.

Other forms of existing carbon-negative production that could be scaled up include ‘sky mining’ for diamonds that are chemically identical to earth diamonds, another industry that only exists on a small scale under capitalism because of the lack of labour exploitation involved.

Emissions-free, energy-dense nuclear power, is also an option. The initial impact of mining uranium on the environment must be re-assessed by an independent socialist state, but to prove our earlier point, nuclear has not been abandoned because of safety fears, but because its capital-intensity has become unprofitable as ever-growing total capital becomes harder and harder to expand by the relatively diminishing pool of human labour. In terms of worker safety, nuclear is the safest form of energy production.

There is also the prospect of space-based solar power and associated wireless transmission, without the intermittency of night time or winter suffered by solar panels and wind turbines on Earth. This, too, however, has proven too expensive for investors who won’t invest without the prospect of a higher return.

Reverting to overly local, small-scale production—which would make everything more expensive — is not an option. Sea levels are rising and we probably need to build incredibly vast dikes on every continent. Rising temperatures will also massively increase the demand for air conditioning, which will have to be powered by something abundant and emissions-free, like nuclear.

But socialism never works?

Clearly, we need world socialism. Countries that are arguably ‘semi-socialist’ or that are supposedly ‘working towards’ socialism, like China and Venezuela, still work to some extent on the basis of commodity-production. But even ‘fully’ socialist countries still have to trade with capitalist countries, and that means having to make concessions to capital, working within a world capitalist system and having to maintain military defences at the expense of the civilian economy. Nor can they fully plan their economies due to fluctuating, unpredictable foreign prices. The need to build up foreign currency also incentivises black markets.

Again, because socialist production is based on utility, socialism will also be able to invest in things like mineralising CO2 (turning it permanently into basalt rock). This is not a silver bullet since it is water-intensive, but it could certainly be scaled up significantly where water scarcity is not an issue (or if water can be ‘artificially’ produced). That we are not doing this is a travesty — but where it would be a productive industry under socialism, it is an unproductive industry under capitalism, since it does not offer a commodity that can be sold for profit (unless it is sold to the state using public debt, thereby creating no new value and contributing to money devaluation that will eventually (imminently) cause hyperinflation). It would therefore have to be funded by taxes that eat into already thinning profit margins, and so these taxes are resisted by capitalists, who anyway run the capitalist state. They are incapable of changing the system, even as it threatens to produce an ecocidal holocaust.

Capitalism is now effectively an extinction cult and can only continue to steer Earth into the sun. Socialism — which is anyway becoming an economic necessity for the first time — gives humanity the chance of steering Earth to safety, in the nick of time.

[1] Moreover, as Lenin says in his April Theses, “without the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies the convocation of the Constituent Assembly is not guaranteed and its success is impossible”.

[2] We should be conscious of the possibility that the ruling class and their media and social democratic lackeys may now be exaggerating the immediacy of the crisis in order to: firstly, justify false claims about ‘overpopulation’ and thus famines and genocides, since capital is increasingly suffering — from its point of view — from an oversupply of both capital (that cannot be reinvested profitably, and thus needs to be destroyed) and labour that it can no longer afford to employ or feed (pensions and benefits eat into profit margins); and, secondly, generally convincing people that they must live increasingly local, ascetic lives so that they accept lower wages and do not mobilise to oppose land privatisations. There is a very real chance that the increasing spates of wildfires are being lit deliberately to clear the way for intensive farming (which itself is highly polluting and exhausts the soil and its biodiversity). The same could be true of floods (although they are also symptomatic of capital’s denuding of natural flood defences) in order to devalue land so that it is cheaper for monopolies to purchase.

[3] In his 2019 lecture ‘How to enjoy the end of the world’, Sid Smith argues that doubling the size of the economy, as tends to happen every 20 years under capitalism, would finish off the habitability of Earth’s atmosphere — but also that the economy is now so large that the cost of doubling it, based on the expense of a diminishing energy return on investment (EROI) makes that impossible. “The collapse has already begun,” he says. That this is happening — as I argue in my book — at exactly the same time that capitalism is exhausting its primary fuel supply, human labour, can be no coincidence, but is remarkably humbling nonetheless.

[4] Hickel, J. Less Is More (2020), pp. 103–6; 142–151.

Ted Reese is a Marxist and author of: Socialism or Extinction; Humanising Production; and The Thought of Henryk Grossman (May 2022). linktr.ee/grossmanite