Contribution to GTI Roundtable Global Capitalism

Tom Athanasiou

I found William Robinson’s piece—well, most of it—to be both clear and helpful. It is the kind of big history that we need, the kind that (in contrast to, say, Yuval Harari) keeps capitalism at the center of the spotlight. I would agree that its core analysis is essentially correct. And it obviously raises a whole set of useful questions, many of which have to do with the relationship between nations and the new world system. It is great to see it featured here.

That said, I think that Robinson’s strategic vision is weaker than his analysis of capitalism, and that his overall view of the NGO movement is rather schematic, sometimes to the point of caricature. I do appreciate that he is trying to be provocative. He claims, for instance, that “TNS agencies, corporations, and corporate-funded foundations poured billions of dollars into financing vast transnational networks of NGOs. This strategy has helped the transnational elite to secure its hegemony in global civil society by channeling the demands of mass social movements into institutional arenas that do not transgress the logic of the system”—which certainly caught my attention. But, that said, I could only conclude that the last section of the paper is less useful that the preceding analysis. In particular, it seems to me that Robinson’s conception of the Davos class, and the problem of “Policy Reform” more generally, and its relationship to the larger challenge of transformation, is somehow off.

Robinson has a lot to say about governance crisis and focuses in particular on how capital and its agents capture the institutions of the state. What he does not do is suggest the contestation that is going on at the elite levels. My views are perhaps colored by years trudging around the climate negotiations, but it seems to me that Robinson misses the key fact that, even at the top, people are becoming terrified. Worse, he never quite gets around to saying that this new crisis of global capitalism is, perhaps like all the others that came before, a governance crisis. This is important, because it means that, at least in principle, there is a way forward.

My animus here has a specific root. To wit, it seems to me that most of the “radical” people in the sustainability/climate movement—the ones who think that, at root, capitalism is the problem—also think (at least privately) that we are doomed. But we are not doomed. We can still save ourselves. And one of the reasons this is true is that capitalism in general, if not neoliberal capitalism, can at least in principle be turned away from ecocide. The problem is that we don’t have a lot of time to make it do so. In fact, we have very little time indeed.

I won’t reiterate the details here; they are quite familiar enough, at least here in the GTI circle. But I will say that the climate crisis really is going to define the twenty-first century, even more than artificial intelligence and gene editing—and even more, at least in the short term, than extinction itself. In fact, all else being equal, it will only be about ten years before a 1.5°C warming—the maximum that, in Paris, our governments recognized as our proper goal—is physically unattainable. We have a bit more time for 2°C, but not much, and it is important to remember that 2°C is not safe, and may not even be stable.

The bottom line here is that, bloody though the twentieth century was, the twenty-first century is likely to be worse—and that, if we are going to make it through, we are going to do so within a capitalist social formation. In particular, we are going to have to prioritize stabilizing the climate, while getting past capitalism will take a bit more time. And to achieve this stabilization, we are going to have to do more than just “advance an alternative vision for global society that goes beyond reformism.” We are going to have to draw global emissions down to almost zero, and we are going to have to do so fast.

This is primarily a challenge of politics, justice, and governance. But while Robinson has a lot to say about today’s global capitalism, he really doesn’t have much at all to say about how it might be reformed/governed. His discussion of the “increasingly dense institutional networks that constitutes the transnational state” is astute, but I found nothing useful when it comes to understanding how these networks might, for example, be made more effective and democratic. Or, ideally, both.

The real question is if a properly constituted transformational movement, working within the rolling crisis that is now our certain future, can help to shape a new form of capitalism that is capable, minimally, of making an extremely rapid transition to an essentially zero-carbon economy. Does this require “ecosocialism”? Yes, I think so. But at the same time, I fear that many people will read the word to denote something that is already beyond capitalism. The problem is that, once you have reached such a conclusion, you really are done. Your only paths forward from there are optimism (which is increasingly a form of denial) and despair. If, on the other hand, you want honest hope and strategic thinking, you have to start by asking what, exactly, we are going to do to leverage the immense disruption that is now on the horizon, and drive towards a crash program of global decarbonization that is fair enough to actually succeed.

Robinson will perhaps disagree with me, for he says,

Rather than restructuring capitalism yet again, it is time to transcend it. A broad-based shift to ecosocialism must underpin any Great Transition. Achieving ecological equilibrium and an environment favorable to life is incompatible with capitalism’s expansive and destructive logic. Non-ecological socialism is a dead end, and a nonsocialist ecology cannot confront the present ecological crisis.

I say, in response, that, well, yes, sure. But this only means that we have to think strategically, and strategy has a lot to do with sequencing. And, sure, lots of NGOs function to maintain a “Conventional Worlds agenda,” but it’s also true that Robinson’s sense of the NGO movement as a whole is, frankly, dated. In reality, many of the “Conventional Worlds” people are less compromised than they are desperate, and this precisely because they are unable to imagine a positive path forward that they can actually believe in.

I fear that I, too, am verging on caricature here. But I just do not see policy reform as an alternative to transformation, not at least when it comes to stage-four capitalism in a climate crisis world. Which is to say that, while I agree with Robinson that “Moving beyond the nightmare of barbarization and the limitations of a reformist path requires a redistribution of power downward and a transformation towards a system in which social need and rational planning trump private profit and the anarchy of market forces,” I also see that those on the “reformist path” have a “sense of reality” (Isaiah Berlin) that must, finally, be taken seriously.

Also, importantly, things are changing. Even this conversation is evidence of that, for it features more talk of inequality than it does of planetary limits, the knowledge of which is, as they say, “banked.” In this we are on pace with the rest of the movement, which is similarly—and belatedly—facing the absolute centrality of “the equity question.” This is why Tim DeChristopher says the climate movement has already become the climate justice movement: not because the transformation is complete, but because justice is where the growth is, and the passion, and the pivot.

As for myself, I believe that the neoliberal capitalism that Robinson describes will kill us all. But I have reached the conclusion that, at least for now, it’s the “neoliberal” side of the term that we should be emphasizing, not the “capitalism” one. Because if anything is clear is that neoliberalism has got to go. And as soon as humanly possible.

Tom Athanasiou
Tom Athanasiou co-directs the Climate Equity Reference Project. He is the author of Divided Planet: the Ecology of Rich and Poor and Dead Heat: Global Justice and Global Warming.

Cite as Tom Athanasiou, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Global Capitalism," Great Transition Initiative (June 2017),

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