Mike Downham and Pete Cannell review CLIMATE CHANGE AS CLASS WAR by Matthew T. Huber: Verso 2022
A couple of weeks ago one of us had the opportunity to join an early morning direct action outside the SSE offices in Glasgow. The action, called by Unite rank-and-file construction workers and the Black List Support Group was against the dismissal on Christmas Eve of high-voltage electrician Greig McArthur by Kirby Engineering, an SSE subcontractor. No reason was given for the dismissal, but it followed closely on McArthur’s request for recognition of Unite as the negotiating Union in his workplace. The direct action, which consisted of about 20 of us with leaflets, banners and a film-crew outside the main entrance, resulted in McArthur’s reinstatement. No attempt was made to enter the building, but the perceived threat of entry resulted in the main entrance doors being locked, and visible panic of staff in the foyer as they directed arriving employees to the back entrance of the building. On the back of this win, against one of the five big energy companies in the UK, McArthur’s branch is organising a combine of all electrical and mechanical workers in Scotland to not only push for recognition but also for proper wages and conditions.
As the power of rank-and-file of workers grows, the seizure of the means of production of energy and its distribution moves from being a pipe-dream to something highly possible. Nothing less than public ownership and democratic control of energy is necessary to prevent climate chaos. It’s the only way we can decarbonise energy in time, and the only way we can make sure that workers in the energy sector have secure jobs with proper wages and conditions – two goals which are inextricably linked.
When so much is at stake, when there’s so little time, and when left politics, nationally and globally, remains so weak, it’s inevitable that this will be a time when many people suggest different strategies. None of them will have all the answers. Rather than accept or reject a particular view-point, we need to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each proposal and evolve a strategy which is truly collective. Discussion of each contribution to the debate is an opportunity to move forward to address the most urgent issue of our time. In our view Mathew Huber’s book Climate Change as Class War has significant strengths but also significant weaknesses. First, we’ll discuss the strengths.
Huber writes with refreshing urgency. In his first paragraph he reminds us that
in 2018 the IPCC gave us 12 years (now eight!) to implement rapid far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society
Scientists are saying that humanity must unite and face what could be its last fight.
It’s also helpful to be reminded that capitalism has made human emancipation possible because on the one hand it has developed production to the necessary level, and on the other hand it has created a class which has the collective power to emancipate.
Seizing the means of production
This is the focus of Huber’s call to action – as it surely must be for any successful and sustainable climate strategy. The only solution is for global production to become socially coordinated. We need to seize the means of production of energy, housing, transport and food so that they can all be decarbonised.
Reconciliation with nature
Also unarguable is Huber’s contention that the working class, now the vast majority of humanity, is most critically separated from the land, so that its livelihood no longer has a direct relationship with nature. The working class is entirely dependent on a wage for survival. This social coordination of global production, Huber says, needs to be entrenched in a reconciliation of humanity’s relationship with nature.
Social coordination of production, Huber says, also needs to be rooted in “species solidarity” – which looks beyond international solidarity towards a world ethos
where workers in all countries recognise that the very conditions for species survival are at stake, and that survival depends on defeating the small minority of our species who control production
Recognising the daunting scale of the difficulties ahead of us, Huber encourages us by pointing to the current growth of strikes in the US. Here in the UK, we are also seeing a big resurgence of strike action. Particularly inspiring is the intensification of strikes by NHS workers –
Click here to watch video (8 mins 24 secs)
At the same time, we should keep in mind that most strike action is still dominated by a trade union leadership who are concerned to operate within the straitjacket of anti-union law, desperate to get to the negotiating table and ready to compromise on agreements that don’t meet the needs of their members and fail to tackle systemic issues that underpin appalling working conditions. At the moment we don’t have a strong enough rank and file to resist these poor compromises and operate independently of the leadership.
Huber also offers the encouraging point that the increasingly stark indifference of the wealthy and powerful to working-class well-being is creating increased militancy. He reminds us too that the working class in the US was able to turn round quickly it’s powerlessness in the late 1920s and early 1930s into power which forced the New Deal of 1933-36.
Where to start?
It’s also helpful to be given suggestions of where to make a start. Huber suggests reviving the simple demand of public good over private profit. And he goes to some length to argue his case that we should start by seizing the means of production and distribution of electricity.
But there are also significant weaknesses in Huber’s book:
Huber sets out his arguments four times – in a long introductory chapter, then in a chapter dedicated to each main argument, then in a Conclusion at the end of each chapter, and in a final chapter headed Conclusions. This makes the book a bit of a slog for the reader. It could have been a shorter and more easily digestible book. Moreover, the multiple Conclusions are not always consistent with each other (see the next point).
Huber devotes a whole section to his theory that there is a distinct “Professional Class” and that its class interests determine the politics of the climate movement. This argument is not convincing. He seems confused between the idea that almost anyone with a degree is in this class, or whether it’s only some people, particularly lawyers and managers, who occupy contradictory class positions. Furthermore, the Professional Class concept doesn’t survive into the conclusive final chapter, where it gets no mention at all.
It’s true, though Huber doesn’t specifically mention this, that in the US non-profit organisations tend to dominate social movements and struggles. They often have shed-loads of money and pay their employees fat salaries. But does this constitute a distinct class? In contrast, Cooperation Jackson made the political decision not to be a non-profit, based on years of activism in organisations where nobody was paid (see Michael Haber’s Breaking Out of the Nonprofit Industrial Complex).
The concept of a Professional Class is perhaps, at least partially, an example of US exceptionalism. Although Huber recurrently and correctly emphases that climate solutions have to be global, he sometimes slips into assuming that the US context is representative of the global context. For example, the considerable detail he goes into about the electricity sector in the US may not be transposable to the electricity sectors of other nations. And levels of unionisation vary widely internationally.
Workers’ Power and State Power
Huber argues that organised workers have the potential power to force a transition into new sustainable forms of production. To shift from potential power to actual power he advocates a rank-and-file strategy (RFS). The case for building from the grass roots is clearly made – however, the politics of the strategy and the relationship between the rank and file and the union leadership is less clearly articulated. Is the RFS a means to an end – a reinvigorated union movement – or should it be more than that? Put simply the strategy seems to be that a resurgent working class can force change through the ballot box and then the state can take the decisive action required to transform the economy.
Climate Change as Class War is a valuable contribution to the debate about building the power to avert a climate catastrophe. It asks the right questions and does the movement a service in putting production under capitalism at the centre of its concerns. However, in our view, its critique of the politics of the climate movement is undermined by a concentration on the material interests of a so-called professional class. Important questions about why the left internationally is at such low ebb; about the relationship between social movements, parties and working class organisation; and about the role of trade union bureaucracies are not addressed.
We have a small number of copies of the book available at the reduced price of £11 – use the contact on the menu to get in touch if you are interested in a copy.