A shift in global dominance among competing imperialist powers is underway, even as the open crisis of capital is about to return. After 18 months of tumbling, the world price of oil together with other key industrial and agricultural commodities has stabilized and in some instances begun to rise again as by far and away the world’s largest industrial economy is now renewing an infrastructural build out. The aim is to preserve the order of capital hegemony over which China’s “red” capitalists, still hesitant, are not yet sure is within their grasp.
A return of that open crisis only needs the refusal of a large financial capital to honor claims against its derivatives exposure, or the de facto bankruptcy of a major international firm without regard to whether it is a manufacturer, retailer or situated in transportation, a real attempt by a member state to withdraw from the EU, etc., for the whole global financial fabric to begin to unravel. The financial centers of power in the world today grasp this, and are now preparing to act once more: The Chinese effort will be inadequate, and this is understood; there will be no repeat of 2013-2014, for the debt (i.e., the enormous surfeit of paper claims against real productive assets) hanging over the world is too great; it will not lift the world economy. Instead, central bankers will double down, prod their governments to undertake and launch a global infrastructural build out (primarily in transportation and communications and, outside the US, “green” technologies, i.e., in those areas which will most quickly restart stalling production and lift trade, expanding economic activity without though renewing capital accumulation). Involving jockeying nation-states, this effort will be contradictory, its results will fall far short of what is required and atop all those other bubbles the extraordinary bubble will, exacerbated by interimperialist tensions, burst. In all this, US surrender of dollar suzerainty will be at issue. (Today, only 43% of exchanges globally are transacted in dollars, and only 64% of currency reserves across the world are held in dollars.) That surrender will be a fait accompli: It will be negotiated without Washington’s participation. Simultaneously, nativist and virulent nationalisms will form and, where working classes are not simply amorphous, precarious masses but have an organized core, mass fascist movement will appear aiming at smashing that organization to block the enormous impasse in accumulation; the implosion of its markets in the West will subject China to massive dislocations in production and the CCP will lose its coherency as a ruling party; the Chinese economy will, however, survive this collapse intact, less than more intact but still intact; those (and many states standing behind them) that conduct their trade primarily or exclusively in dollars will not: The next US President will preside over this loss of global hegemony, currency devaluations cumulatively amounting to 20%, 30% or even 50% of current valuation. Those devaluations will be lived and experienced by masses of men and women as unbearable inflation, countless sites of work will be shuttered, homes and businesses lost, and a consequent collapse in living standard will throw the entire country into social turmoil from which it was not recover. The next American President, then, will also preside over engagement in a major war as the US ruling class seeks a way out of this crisis. Whether the Americans will renew imperialist world war remains to be seen.
This comprehends the real situation, but does not do so actually, i.e., it does not capture and fix what immanently is the tendential direction of that movement which is society within nature: There is another crisis which looms just beyond the horizon…
While some form of climate change had been ineluctably part of the near future even before James Hansen first pronounced it a dangerous possibly in front of the US Senate back in 1988, in our view since autumn 2012 abrupt climate change has been irreversibly underway; furthermore, it is not only irreversible, it cannot be mitigated.
At a mass level, this transformation still lays beneath the horizon even though indicators of it are numerous (e.g., global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, 406 ppm, now higher than any time since the mid-Miocene, 15-17 million years ago while real levels, CO2e, at 485 ppm higher than any time since the early Miocene, 23 million years ago; average global atmospheric methane levels, 1870 ppb, now as high as those of the end Oligocene – begin Miocene, 25-30 million years ago; a year over year rate of CO2 increase from early 2015 to early 2016 of 3.8-4.2 ppb, an unprecedented rate which even the reconstructions of the “Great Dying,” the Permian extinction 249 million years ago, do not approach; rainfall on 29 December 2015 above 80° N latitude while the temperature on the same day hit 1° C / 34.6° F at the north pole instead of the geological norm of – 40° C / – 40° F).
What occurs in the Arctic, though, does not stay in the Arctic.
As warm water and warm air above it push into the Arctic Ocean through the Bering Strait by way of the Chukchi Sea, and hot Gulf Stream waters still flow into it by way of their western branch its Baffin Bay and through the Nares Strait and splitting from this branch a current along the southern and eastern coasts of Greenland north and east into the Arctic by way of the Barents Sea, as a daisy chain of low pressure systems transpose warm tropic air north into the Arctic between Greenland and Svalbard and as warm waters along both the Gakkel Ridge and the East Siberian Arctic Shelf dissociate gas hydrates and unoxidized methane is released directly into the atmosphere above the Arctic Ocean, the sea ice thins, its albedo darkens, the volume of sea ice keeps falling relative to the time of the year, and the resulting warming poses the likelihood, soon to be fact, of a seasonal melting of the entire Arctic ice cap. It is at that moment that the crisis in nature will completely engulf those in society: In the years that follow this event, say three to five, the period without sea ice will extend further and further back from mid-September and further and further forward with each year until it completely disappears. At this point, runaway planetary will depend upon the rapidity with which this transpires. (The whole ensuing situation will no doubt appear to some as a climactic struggle of nature against capital, Armageddon without, however, the Second Coming.)
All the effects that have and will flow from this are dynamic and nonlinear. Already, the planetary hydrological cycle has undergone major transformation and will continue to do so: We have now seen storms where they have never occurred; those storms have become more intense with rainfall events that have tapped into newly forming atmospheric rivers creating persistent massive downpours; drought too lasts longer, including “flash” droughts as the more moisture laden atmosphere evaporates waters from the soil quicker. But as Arctic ice disappears, the pace of climate change will dizzily quicken, become a geological blur.
A number of apocalyptic scenarios will soon begin to unfold. These include genuine superstorms, the first of which have already appeared, and those that follow which will expand to continental in size, become increasingly regular in occurrence, appear with a ferocity dwarfing the force and power of the great storms of the recent past, and multiply by an order of magnitude (at least ten times) that force and power; and they include rising sea levels with their attendant salination wrecking vast regions of agriculturally productive land and storms whose surges ruin urban infrastructure. But perhaps most terrifying are the wildfires. The land masses of Asia (Siberia) and North America reach as far as 75° north latitude where the permafrost runs several feet deep; but that permafrost extends discontinuously southward as far as 55° north latitude, though here is only a few inches deep. As winter continues to die, annual snowfalls across regions in the higher latitudes have dramatically fallen and, at the same time, anomalously warm spring weather… 20° C (36° F) above historic norms in April-May… is no longer rare. These anomalously warm temperatures and the low humidities accompanying them, drought conditions, forests with huge numbers of dead trees, extremely dry undergrowth consisting in leaf litter, organic material and deadfall extending down three feet, methane rich peat bogs and swamps which, already afire, smoulder right through the winter taken together create the conditions for a wildfire “season” that extends from April until November. In the near future, the entire northern hemisphere landmass above 55° north latitude… Alaska-Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia… will be a single mostly contiguous zone of wildfires. The smoke from this inferno belt will reach as far south as Mexico City and Havana, the Sahara, Dhaka and Hanoi, and its presence and particulate mass will compel voluntary and some cases forced evacuations of inland, mid-continental cities such as Chicago and Montreal, Rome and Istanbul, and Beijing and Harbin as visibility decreases to zero and the air become unbreathable.
In all these events states will intervene, and those interventions will become increasingly ineffectual, then meaningless, and then will stop altogether. Once seemingly stable political institutions and states will collapse, and armed force will take on a whole new meaning. At this moment, the movement of whole strata, classes, peoples and entire populations will be actual, and generalized as they, bereft of vision and an alternative, frantically move against the global social order. But popular, nay revolutionary upsurge will not put an end to capital, though the climatic transformation will: All this will transpire as the climate system passes through a period of unstructured, disorderly, destructive change which will not stop until the Arctic itself becomes tropical, the rest of the inhabited Earth unbearably hot, the civilization of capital in ruins and resources in nature only able to support populations densities two to three orders of magnitude smaller… all this if we are indeed fortunate… and it will simply not end at all if sea-based and permafrost methane releases accelerate so rapidly as to catapult the Earth into a runaway warming.
V. Barnes, 19 February 2016
for the Critical Study of Societies of Capital