A New Strategy: Conservative Revolt
Although climate change gets much of the attention today, it is only one aspect of a much broader and deeper problem. The real ecological crisis resulting from humankind’s economic activities is correctly characterized as overshoot – the violation of multiple environmental limits at roughly the same time. The only solution to this pervasive crisis is to rapidly contract the global economy and to sharply increase its efficiencies until sustainability is achieved. These steps must be taken with particular urgency in the rich capitalist countries, which have long been the most significant contributors to the biosphere’s destruction.
There are two obstacles to this solution. First, capitalism is inherently expansionary: growth is its historical rationale and systemic impulse. Second, the system seeks efficiency improvements only when these are profitable or socially unavoidable. The clear implication is that capitalism must now be historically superseded. However, this step will be strongly resisted by the capitalist class, which is the ruling force in these countries. The critical question, then, is how the power of this class can be negated in the time that is ecologically available.
Until recently I believed that the capitalist class could be overthrown by a coalition of progressives and other social elements, including some conservatives. This approach is explained in my book, Contractionary Revolution. After deeper research since the book appeared, I have concluded that this approach is unworkable in the countries of interest. One reason is that most people in these countries are not experiencing the oppression and extreme deprivation that have historically stoked the revolutionary fires. Another is that past failures to prevent its overthrow have taught the capitalist class to impose highly effective methods of social control. I have also concluded that, even if these problems could be overcome by an advanced revolutionary movement, this would not happen in time to prevent ecological catastrophe. For these reasons I have abandoned a revolutionary strategy for the affluent countries.
In searching for a new strategic approach I was guided by three criteria. First, due to the extreme time constraints, the main agent of systemic change must currently exist. Second, this agent must have the capacity to move the economy from an expansionary to a contractionary trajectory. And third, it must be actuated primarily by the powerful motivation of self-interest. Briefly stated, I was looking for an existing, authoritative social force driven predominantly by its own interests. As someone who has always looked to systemic change from below, I was surprised to find that the only social entity that meets these criteria is a segment of the ruling capitalist class. This means that the core feature of the new strategy is not revolution from below, but revolt at the top. In the remainder of this article I will briefly outline this new approach. A full explanation will be provided in my next book, tentatively titled Conservative Revolt.
The core feature of the new strategy is the split of the capitalist class into contractionists and expansionists. Contractionists are capitalists who have decided that risking ecological collapse through continued economic expansion is irrational based on their interests, and that a future economy must either contract or remain in a steady state. Expansionists are those who have made the opposite choice: economic expansion must continue despite the ecological threat. Once the capitalist class has been split into these contending groups, the contractionists must assert their superior power and oust or otherwise neutralize the expansionists. Among the ways this could be accomplished are removing them from positions of influence, passing laws that severely restrict their ecocidal behavior, and compensating those – such as the oil barons – who will lose substantially when rapid contraction is initiated.
Another key feature of this strategy is unrelenting pressure on the capitalist class to resolve the ecological crisis and to move beyond the current system, thereby accelerating the split. This pressure will be exerted by concerned humankind and traditional conservatives. “Concerned humankind” refers to those who are deeply troubled by the ecological crisis and are willing to take meaningful action to resolve it. This includes virtually all progressives and environmentalists, but also segments of youth, workers, the religious, indigenous people, etc. “Traditional conservatives” refers to those who are rooted in the original conservatism of Edmund Burke, and who thus espouse the pre-capitalist principles of humility, prudence, and environmental stewardship. I expect traditional conservatives to exert pressure based on these ancient principles, and concerned humankind to do so based on their commitment to social justice and concerns for future humankind and non-human life.
An important question is why a significant fraction of the capitalist class would agree that capitalism must be superseded because of the ecological risks. The key to the answer is private enterprise – that is, business. The majority of capitalists must be convinced that their true interests lie not with capitalism, which is a historically specific form of business, but with business itself, which long predated the system. (See, for example, A History of Business in Medieval Europe, 1200-1550, by Hunt and Murray.) In this view, the transition to a post-capitalist form of private enterprise is simply a rational adaptation to altered environmental circumstances. Contractionists are the nimble winners of this evolutionary challenge, whereas expansionists are the sluggish losers who must be culled from the capitalist herd.
Is there any evidence of the class split on which this strategy depends? There certainly is. Some capitalists vehemently reject the evidence on climate change, as shown by the activities of the Heartland Institute, think tanks like the Cato Institute, and newspapers like the Wall Street Journal. Many others, however, fully accept this evidence. Aside from numerous media outlets and business consultants, a striking example is Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google. Schmidt recently pulled Google out of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) because, “Everyone understands climate change is occurring and the people who oppose it are really hurting our children and grandchildren … we should not be aligned with such people – they’re … literally lying.”
The contractionists will also find support from capitalist elements that, because of their social roles, are compelled to face objective reality. An obvious example is insurance companies, which must pay out when disasters strike and are thus committed to the ecological truth based on their bottom lines. An even more significant example could be called the rational state. As George Orwell pointed out in his novel 1984, war is the ultimate guarantor of sanity because a false view of the world almost certainly means defeat. The same is true for the broader aspects of “national security”: if the global poor are likely to flood the rich countries as ecological conditions worsen, these conditions must be realistically assessed. This is why various military and intelligence agencies, including those in the United States and Germany, have issued highly enlightened assessments of the crisis we face.
To summarize, I have concluded that the strategy I proposed in Contractionary Revolution is inapplicable to the rich countries, largely because I overestimated the revolutionary potential from below. My new strategy is based on the interests of contractionary capitalists. The key idea is to deepen the incipient split between these capitalists and their expansionary colleagues, and then to negate the latter’s influence.
This strategy will be fleshed out in the months to come, and I welcome your constructive comments during the process. My email address is frank (at) contractionism.org.