Climate Change and Human Alienation

[The] self-alienation [of humanity] has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.
– Walter Benjamin1

At the end of last year, the Humanist Workers for Revolutionary Socialism (HWRS) published a provocative position paper which presents their analysis of the climate crisis: “Alienation, Climate Change, and the Future of Humanity.” Aside from discussing the very real threat which anthropogenic climate disruption poses to humanity and terrestrial nature generally considered, the HWRS in this essay develop a theory of human alienation based on the thought of Karl Marx and Erich Fromm and posit such alienation as the main obstacle for the emergence today of radical mass-movements from below that would check the increasingly fatal trends toward unprecedented levels of suffering and death and global ecocide promised by climate catastrophe. Being Leninists, however, the HWRS recommend “revolutionary” party leadership as a means of directing the alienated masses toward the enacting of anti-capitalist social transformation and the rational mitigation of climate destruction. Clearly, such a recommended solution is highly problematic—yet the HWRS paper presents enough critical points for reflection and contemplation to merit a brief discussion of it here.

To begin, I would like firstly to delineate my agreements with the HWRS writers of “Alienation, Climate Change, and the Future of Humanity.” I certainly share the view that the capital-induced climate destabilization on hand necessitates a “worldwide revolution” as an equal and opposite corrective reaction (21), and I also hold that the psychical alienation and mutilation imposed by capitalism largely explains the fact that those from below “tolerate […] the constant wars, oppression, greed, cut[t]hroat competition, suffering, and destruction of the environment and this planet that the people in power inflict on the majority around the globe” (7). On the individual and group levels, too, the “only reasonable response” to the depth of the environmental crisis “would be for everyone who is aware of the situation to forget about their personal lives [sic] and immediately start a crusade to stop capitalism’s assault on nature and the entire planet” (18). I agree with the HWRS as well in their concluding thought that all organizations which claim the revolutionary mantle must “place the struggle against climate change […] as the highest priority in [their] program and [their] daily practice,” and that they should toward this end “immediately initiate a massive campaign about the need to overthrow capitalism as our only chance to avert the extinction of the human race, and combine [this] with daily interventions against the effects of ongoing environmental destruction” (30). In addition, the group’s social-psychological analysis of the grip which conformity, adjustment, bourgeois distraction, anxiety, and anomie hold over most people in “advanced” capitalist societal settings represents an intriguing explanation for the marked lack of mass-revolutionary consciousness and praxis vis-à-vis this seemingly quite terminal of threats to human happiness and flourishing and ecological balance. I believe this account—derived from Fromm, who in turn developed his critical, humanistic psychoanalytical approach from a synthesis of Sigmund Freud and the young Marx—to hold some merit, though with some reservations.

These important contributions notwithstanding, the HWRS account suffers from a number of grave issues. For one, as already mentioned, the grouping adheres to a Leninist/Trotskyist ideology, with all the distortions this implies: a highly delusional account of the historical rise of Stalinism in post-1917 Russia (8-9), a concomitant fetishization of Lenin and Trotsky (21), and the illogical assertion which follows—that only liberation “from above” can succeed in overthrowing capitalism and thus provide humanity and nature a chance of surviving climate chaos (30). Indeed, in Nietzschean (or even Heideggerian) terms, the HWRS resolve their stated concern for the problem of the alienated masses by saying that the possibilities for a post-capitalist, non-ecocidal future can be secured only through rule over the general populace by enlightened individuals who have somehow themselves transcended alienation (30). The HWRS clarify that the overcoming of alienation “cannot take place spontaneously” but must instead be the work of “a revolutionary [sic] party that knows what it is doing [!] and what is needed for victory” (28). Epitomizing dichotomous thinking, the HWRS opportunistically consider the only two options they believes possible in terms of staving off climate catastrophe: that either the global bourgeoisie will take steps to slow down global warming—which it is not doing and will not do—or Leninist parties capable of “leading the masses” will develop and intervene to outcompete the “reformist and centrist” oppositional alternatives and succeed in overthrowing the rule of capital within a quarter-century—that is to say, before climate change supposedly has progressed beyond the point of no return (23, 27).

Besides this highly authoritarian and unsavory political strategy, the HWRS account of human alienation may itself in some ways reify rather than help to illuminate the problem, for the essay presents something of a “locked-in” analysis. This is perhaps best illustrated in the authors’ citation of recent neurological studies which reportedly show that “[t]he brain is wired in a way that makes a person defenseless against the manipulation and demagoguery that are so common in capitalism” (26). If this claim is true—which it obviously is not—then how can the HWRS hope for the emergence of the Leninist vanguard which is heroically to lead humanity beyond capitalism, alienation, and total destruction in the first place? The assertion that “[p]eople are too alienated from life and from themselves to start a worldwide uprising against climate change” (19) is similarly extreme and unscientific. One need only look at the phenomenon of “group events” in China for a counter-example. Granted, the profundity of the climate crisis is truly horrifying, as the HWRS detail in this piece, and it is not as though any significant mass social movement—other than Occupy, in a way—has arisen within the Western world to the challenge of confronting the extent of its horror head-on. Under such conditions, tendencies toward despair and pessimism are natural and to be expected—yet they certainly are not justified as a means of prescribing “party socialism” as the only option available to humanity.

Anti-capitalism, socialism, and communism retain a truly world-historical importance at this late hour, as means of undermining and—it is to be hoped—ultimately tearing down the capitalist system that is without a doubt impelling life on Earth to utter disaster. In this the HWRS make an important point. Yet is simply not true that the chance for global communist revolution will arrive only through the domination of an actionist minority over the “average, backward person” to which the HWRS reduce the human multitudes (25). The writers of “Alienation, Climate Change, and the Future of Humanity” would do well to consult the opening line of the founding principles of the First International (1864), which reads that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” Consideration of the embodied history of Leninism and its monster-child Stalinism should be enough to delegitimize the tactics of Trotsky and company for all time.2 As an alternative, anarcho-syndicalism, particularly of the ecological variety, holds a great deal more promise with regard to interrupting the fatal tendency toward climate destruction, in terms of both means and ends. Yet to return to Fromm and the issue of alienation, the observed lack of revolutionary activism in terms of climate issues among workers and people in general in industrialized societies may itself well be a reflection of the popular understanding that the State neither represents nor enacts the people’s will, whether on the environment, military spending, social programs, drug policy, or any other critical issue. For their part, U.S. polls from recent years (2012 and 2013) have shown consistent majorities expressing “belief” in anthropogenic climate change and concern for its effects.

Decentralization of power, self-emancipation, and anarchism remain important radical political alternatives to the utter irresponsibility and mindlessness of the global ruling class with regard to anthropogenic climate disruption. Self-management in the workplace—guided by the principles of participatory economics (Parecon), for example—coupled with community control of the political sphere would provide a humanistic alternative to “party socialism” that could well solve for the factors impelling climate catastrophe without threatening to impose a horrid repeat of the totalitarian political oppression for which Leninism has been responsible. The devolution of power to the global demos would indeed represent a recovery of the “lost treasure” of the “revolutionary tradition,” as Hannah Arendt terms the council system.3 Moreover, it would constitute a true political manifestation of Arendt’s concept of natality, the potential birth of a new world—this, in the face of the threat of mass-involuntary suicide.

Nonetheless, as Herbert Marcuse writes at the end of his most pessimistic book, “[n]othing indicates that it will be a good end.”4 In the minor chord, the HWRS does honestly consider the possibility that the climate crisis may already have progressed beyond the point of no return, such that a successful global anti-capitalist revolution in the near term may itself come too late (29-30). Clearly, a great deal of uncertainty surrounds these questions, and we confront the unfortunate reality that humanity will only come to learn the precise truth about these matters upon the conclusion of the next decade or two. Equally clearly, however, no humane alternative exists than to struggle for anarchist, anti-systemic revolution today.

  1. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” 1936. []
  2. To examine the relationship between Leninism and Stalinism with a critical eye, please consult Maurice Brinton’s The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control (1970) and Gregori Maximov, The Guillotine At Work (1940). []
  3. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin, 2006 [1963]), 207-73. []
  4. Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon, 1964), 257. []

Javier Sethness is an educator, translator, and libertarian socialist. He the author of Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe, For a Free Nature: Critical Theory, Social Ecology, and Post-Developmentalism, and he is currently finishing a political and intellectual biography of Herbert Marcuse. Read other articles by Javier, or visit Javier's website.