We are living in ominous times. Every week something new: white supremacist murders in Kentucky and Pittsburgh; the continued rise of the far right in Europe; Trump’s attack on transgender rights; the election of aspiring tyrant Jair Bolsonaro to the Brazilian presidency; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that climate catastrophe is likely only about 20 years away. What’s next?
At a time when we should be uniting globally to reorganize our way of life to stave off climate disaster, many parts of the world are instead veering to the right, rejecting internationalism and demonizing marginalized communities. How did we get here? How can we escape annihilation?
Overlapping Roots of Fascism and Climate Catastrophe
Crucial to answering these questions is understanding how the rise of the far right and the imminence of climate catastrophe are related threats. Most obviously the far right promotes policies and perspectives that destroy the planet. Currently, the Trump administration is working hard to repeal Obama’s environmental protection policies. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has lifted a moratorium on mining exploration while pushing a constitutional change that would enhance multinational exploitation of the resources of the Philippines. The newly elected Brazilian President Bolsonaro is poised to allow agribusiness free rein to cut down the Amazon.
More fundamentally, fascist and far right forces promote notions of ultra-nationalism and xenophobia that block the essential task of putting the interests of the planet and all of its inhabitants over those of any single group. Nationalism has fueled not only opposition to the European Union but also a rejection of the Paris Agreement and widespread climate denial among European far right parties like UKIP, Front National and the Sweden Democrats. The threat of the climate catastrophe is far more imminent and egregious in the global south, and white supremacy clearly discourages caring about most of the world. There are “ecofascists” who coopt the concept of bio-regionalism to advance their genocidal politics, but their views do not have significant sway in actual far-right policy and their “environmental” solution is not worthy of reasoned engagement.
But our analysis cannot stop here. Centrist and even nominally “leftist” governments pursue anti-environmental policies. Major signatories to the Paris Agreement are not on pace to meet the agreement’s goals, and even if they were it would be too little too late. No, the roots of these crises extend much deeper.
We must recognize that the climate crisis and the resurgence of the far right are two of the most acute symptoms of our failure to abolish capitalism.
A capitalist system that prioritizes profit and perpetual growth over all else is the mortal enemy of global aspirations for a sustainable economy that satisfies needs rather than stock portfolios. “Green capitalism” was touted as a compromise that could allow humanity to keep the planet and eat it too. But scientific data show that incremental adjustments of pollution standards and banning plastic straws cannot compensate for the destruction wrought by the 100 companies that produce 71 percent of global emissions. Far too often, efforts to reel in pollution (or establish decent working conditions) are derailed by the ability of multinational finance to either run roughshod over local laws or divest from countries or regions that challenge their profitability.
Capitalist crisis, competition and manufactured scarcity also provide essential fuel for the growth of fascist and far right politics—especially when there is no viable left alternative. Early fascist and Nazi movements grew by exploiting economic insecurity during the Great Depression while the left tore itself apart. In the 1970s, the fascist National Front took advantage of economic turmoil in the UK and more recently, the emergence of parties like the fascist Golden Dawn in Greece owed a great deal to the 2008 financial crisis. In part, Bolsonaro rode to victory by harnessing popular disenchantment stemming from “the worst recession since the return of democracy.”
In times of crisis, we can either look outward in solidarity or turn inward in xenophobic, reactionary fear. Fascism and far right politics harness and promote fears of difference and anxieties about joblessness and financial ruin when left alternatives falter. When avowedly socialist political parties in Greece or Brazil enacted brutal austerity measures, they opened the door for the far right. In the United States, Trump managed to capitalize on opposition to free trade policies that had become the hallmark of the Democratic Party. In a context of economic anxiety, Hillary Clinton’s promise to “put a lot of coal miners” out of work — even if it was in the interest of saving the planet — played into the ability of the far right to generate support for Trump by taking advantage of the antagonism between working class livelihood and ecological sustainability that capitalism fosters.
System Change, Not “Civility”
Even the northern European welfare states that have avoided harsh austerity have failed to prevent the rise of the far right. In part, this stems from the rise of welfare chauvinism — the belief that welfare is beneficial, but should not be extended to “outsiders” — which demonstrates the limitations of “social democracy in one country” when such wealth is still produced by exploiting the resources and labor of the global South.
A very different analysis has been offered recently by centrist pundits and politicians in the US, who argue that the underlying root of threats to our society emerge from the growth of “extremism” at the expense of “moderation.” When Cesar Sayoc mailed bombs to Democratic Party figures, Chuck Schumer echoed Trump’s infamous “both sides” comments by arguing that “despicable acts of violence and harassment are being carried out by radicals across the political spectrum.” To Rachel Maddow, “Puerto Rican separatists” and the KKK are both simply “violent extremist groups.” The policy of interning migrant children in concentration camps spurred less of a public debate about institutional racism than it did about the “civility” of those who confronted the policy’s architects. Of course, this implicit argument — that no policy is ever more heinous than the “incivility” of one who violates common decorum in protesting it — paves the way for ascendant authoritarianism while curtailing the scope of resistance.
Centrist discourse has abstracted white supremacy and anti-Semitism into “hate,” depoliticized fascism and antifascism by caricaturizing them as mirror images of “extremism,” and ignored what should be one of the most important news stories: the fairly imminent destruction of the planet.
Debates about reformism vs. revolutionism have waged for generations on the left. But now we are on a deadline. Lesser-evilism among capitalist politicians may have some rationale when spending five minutes casting a ballot on Election Day, but we don’t have time for it to be a guiding strategical outlook. We need to organize movements to build popular power and shut down the industries that threaten our existence.
Fascism is ascendant. The world is on fire. This is no time to be patient. If we don’t abolish capitalism, capitalism will abolish us.