Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt established the War Production Board to meet the needs of retooling the USA for the looming war effort.
His demands were staggering; they included 60,000 planes, 45,000 tanks, 20,000 anti-aircraft guns and eight million tons of shipping. The price was estimated at between $50 to $55 billion dollars, roughly the entire gross national product for the year 1941. An utterly strange economic landscape lay ahead, outside the traditional framework of the capitalist market and featuring price controls, wage controls, and rationing. In sum, a planned economy in which the corporate sector would take orders from the state as to what was to be made and how it is to be made.
It worked magnificently because it reflected the common will of the American people and included an entente between labor and capital, the former still burdened by the Great Depression and the latter grasping quite clearly that interrupting short-term profitability would pay off in superpower status once the war was won. In an effusion of patriotic generosity, magnates by the hundreds showed up to work as dollar-a-year volunteers, confident that they would be better off than ever down the road. It was the greatest, most concentrated, and swiftest productive transformation in the history of the world, and brought such amazing feats of productivity that, by war’s end, a “Liberty” transport ship could be launched 19 days after its keel was laid.
Shortly after the devastation wrought by Frankenstorm Sandy in November, 2012, Barack Obama held his first press conference since winning a second term as President. Obama knows that his campaign was marked by astounding neglect of climate change as an issue, but that his decisive victory had depended, in part, on demonstrating his superiority to Mitt “I Love Coal” Romney in taking care of the environment. Had not New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed him for that reason? And so, careful as usual, Obama promises the American people that in the years ahead he will devote himself to overcoming this terrible menace. And, careful as usual, he reassures that he will attend to climate change without bringing about major economic changes.
In short, he guarantees that the Market will continue to rule and the state will take orders from the corporate sector as to what is to be made and how it is to be made and distributed. He doesn’t say this directly, since a President has to watch his words, but Obama underscores the fact that whatever he intends to do to contain climate change will not perturb the capitalist system, which is still far from recovering from the depression of 2008. Nor would he dream of telling the truth that, inasmuch as this system has been in command of society for centuries, so must capitalism take the blame for Frankenstorm Sandy and all the calamities of climate change.
Thus, I will have to tell it for him.
Capitalism must expand or else it dies, and this fact drives its unending crises. Access to energy is a key factor in this; a lack of petroleum during the global Depression of the 30s was a prime stimulus to the expansive militarism of Germany and Japan during that era. Today, crisis again rages, and though it does not threaten great power warfare over resources (though it offers an endless series of smaller and still deadly wars, from Iraq to Afghanistan to the Congo and beyond), the drive of the system to expand endlessly upon a finite earth has reached the point of so perturbing nature as to undercut and destabilize the foundations of civilization itself.
The global ecological crisis—with its ever-proliferating set of disasters—should be understood as resulting from the normal, inevitable operation of capitalism, which sets the terms of the economy, and hires Presidents, pundits, ideologues and academicians to keep it running.
Had FDR said in 1941 that he was not about to tamper with the economic system, we would have simply lost the war. We should not overestimate FDR, however, whose work was lightened because he could rely on the cooperation of the capitalist class (which we today call the 1%) that allowed them to set aside their greed and craving for power until United States super-productivity crushed the Axis—and, alas, set the world on course for today’s ecologically driven catastrophes.
Barack Obama knows full well that this time around, the capitalists will make no such deal, for the simple reason that overcoming the ecological crisis means their liquidation as a class. We should understand that no ruling class ever gives up power voluntarily. We should also understand that their lackey and our President shows no intention of challenging his masters.
Our amnesiac press forgets that Obama ruthlessly engineered some of the most shameful episodes in the history of climate politics by ramming through retrograde measures that stifled the fragile yet growing consensus toward an ecologically rational world in the UN COP-15 (Copenhagen) and 17 (Durban) gatherings in 2009 and 2011, respectively. We can be sure that the Doha meetings this year will do no better. Obama has played a leading role in putting us on track toward a 4 degree Celsius warming by 2100, an utterly hellish and unacceptable level for everyone, including the two beautiful and beloved daughters he has essentially sacrificed in order to carry out the orders of his bosses.
The struggle to overcome climate change—and the whole ecological crisis of which it is the most spectacular aspect—bears some comparison with the Great War against fascism. World War Two terminated some 70 million human lives and much else in less than a decade. The ecological crisis will terminate far more—at least 180 million is estimated for Africa alone—and over a period for which the end cannot be defined. In both cases the “enemy” is not so neatly defined, either. Think of what the Allies did to Dresden and Hiroshima, of the economic alliances between the US and Nazi Germany, and of how fascism as well as the rape of the planet are malignant tendencies within capitalism, now, it appears, dying and willing to take much of nature with it. And think of what it took, and will take, to win: the “common will of the great mass of the people”—a will that, once articulated and mobilized, can override class and state power and work such wonders as will save life on earth. Is this not the greatest challenge ever?