Laurie Adkin teaches comparative politics and political ecology in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta.
War to Save the Planet: The Hegemony of Fossil Capitalism
Hegemony relates to the ways in which a ruling class or group holds on to (and wields) power over time. While different theorists have used the term to mean somewhat different things, it is commonly associated with the Italian Marxist theorist, Antonio Gramsci (1891–1936). Gramsci developed the concept of hegemony in the context of the anti-capitalist and anti-fascist struggles of the first half of the 20th century.
Counter-hegemony refers to the efforts of social and political actors that challenge the cultural and institutional foundations of hegemony. They call into question the structures, beliefs and norms that underlie the economic, social, and political order, and attempt to show that alternatives to the status quo exist, are needed, and are achievable.
Hegemony is not equivalent to “domination.” While domination conveys the idea of rule by force, hegemony implies foundations of rule that are far more complex. Gramsci (1971) argued that, in 20th-century, western capitalist societies, hegemony rests on people’s internalized belief that capitalism is the best—or only—way of organizing social relationships. Liberal democracy is “democracy,” even if it does not encompass social equality. The quid pro quo for workers’ loss of control over the fruits of their own labour and time, and for their subordination to bosses, is the wages that allow them to rent homes and feed their families. Built into this trade-off are cultural and sports events that relieve the tedium and stress of working life, and religions that preach the virtues of obedience and promise rewards in an afterlife. Such material and cultural conditions generate the consent of those who are ruled, and are intrinsic to hegemony, allowing it to appear as the ‘normal’ order of things.
During times of economic or political crisis, however, the injustices and flaws of the hegemonic order may become more visible to the subordinate classes. When the economic system fails to deliver basic needs, or the ruling class discredits itself by governing badly (or by excessive corruption), people will question whether the system is deserving of support, or should be reformed. These are moments of opportunity for counter-hegemonic movements to advance their critiques of the system and to propose alternative ways of organizing production and government. When this happens, those who occupy key positions in the hegemonic order (in political and economic institutions) may respond by using the coercive powers of the state—the police and the military—to suppress protests, strikes, occupations, or other forms of organized opposition. Hegemony thus relies not only on the consent of the ruled, but also on the tactical use of coercion by the state. Another response of the ruling group might be to accept some of the demands of the reformers, and even to bring some of the opposition bloc’s leaders into the ruling coalition. Such compromises might be enough to persuade at least some elements of the counter-hegemonic movements that they should support the existing system.
Gramsci viewed politics as a “war of position” (or a war for position) between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic forces (which, for him, were predominantly class-based). That is, these actors struggle to capture ground—or “trenches”—within state institutions, the economy, and the cultural sphere, that is, where people’s beliefs are shaped. They try to build or maintain coalitions in support of their class interests, either to shore up the hegemonic order, or to undermine it and lay the foundations of a new order.
The crisis of hegemony of fossil capitalism
The capitalist order that became hegemonic after World War II was characterized by rapid economic growth and mass consumption, made possible by both political-economic reforms and by fossil fuels. Ecological thinkers refer to this economic system as “fossil capitalism” (Altvater, 2007; Malm 2016). Fossil capitalism spread around the globe with colonialism and, in the 1980s, involved the relocation of many industries to the Majority World.
As we have known for some time, our reliance on fossil fuels (and capitalist industrialization more generally) has had catastrophic ecological consequences for climate stability and biodiversity (Steffen et al., 2018; Wallace-Wells, 2017). As the science demonstrating these relationships has become established, a global movement has arisen to challenge the hegemony of fossil capitalism. This movement is often referred to as the climate justice movement because it brings together the social and ecological dimensions of the crisis. Indigenous movements around the world play a leading role in these counter-hegemonic efforts; their demands for the restoration of land and for the recognition of their sovereignty pose deep challenges to the existing order. These movements propose reforms that would create new, “post-carbon” and decolonized economies and societies (Klein, 2020). Some examples include 350.org, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and Acción Ecológica.
The initial response to these counter-hegemonic movements from leading elements of the hegemonic, fossil capitalist order (i.e., corporate and political leaders) was to deny the science (McGreal, 2021). But as people everywhere experience the effects of climate destabilization in the forms of frequent and severe floods, droughts, fires, heat waves, the spread of pathogens (and their consequences for agriculture, fisheries, forests, and other systems upon which human and other species depend), the risks and failures of the hegemonic order become more “visible” to ordinary people. Millions are being displaced from their homes as their lands become uninhabitable (UNHCR, 2021). These experiences reinforce the arguments of the climate justice movements that rapid, profound changes to our economic system must take place. Faced with such challenges, actors who are invested in the existing order have adopted a new hegemonic strategy, characterized by theorists as “climate capitalism” (Sapinski, 2016; Adkin, 2017).
Climate capitalism seeks to win consent for an incremental, long-term response to the climate crisis, acknowledging that global warming is really happening, and that it is a serious concern, but downplaying the need for radical responses. These responses have included a ban on new fossil fuel exploration and extraction, termination of state subsidies to fossil fuel industries, carbon rationing, and “degrowth” (Kallis et al., 2020; Victor, 2019). But such responses would shift power away from the capitalist class and substitute ecological sustainability for profit-driven economies. Climate capitalists propose, instead, a gradual replacement of fossil fuels with other forms of energy, but at a pace that would allow them to profit from their existing investments. They advance technological solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and resist measures that would shrink capitalist control over our economic systems. (These include larger roles for governments in deciding where investments should be made, and public or community ownership of renewable energy systems.) (Sapinski et al., 2020). In these ways, climate capitalists attempt to engineer a form of capitalism that might continue long into the future, without any radical changes in who owns resources and productive capacity, or what they are used for.
These broadly delineated lines of conflict are being played out in countless trenches around the world—from the curriculum children learn in schools about climate change, to the lobbying of governments, to divestment campaigns targeting financial institutions. The trenches also include civil disobedience to stop new pipelines and fracking, as well as attempts to get candidates elected to political office who will back climate justice projects. Gramsci may never have imagined that the 21st century’s war of position would be a global war for a habitable planet.
How do you see hegemonic politics surrounding the climate crisis being played out where you live?
Why do you think fossil capitalism is so entrenched and difficult to reform, despite the scientific consensus that if we continue this economic system, it will continue to destabilize Earth’s climate, possibly leading to a very inhospitable planet for humans and many other species?
What actors would you place in the “denial,” climate capitalist, and climate justice camps? How do you understand your government’s approach to climate change in relation to these different camps?
Adkin, L. E. (2017, Spring). Crossroads in Alberta: Climate capitalism or ecological democracy? Socialist Studies/Etudes socialistes, 12 (1). URL: https://www.socialiststudies.com/index.php/sss/article/view/27191
Altvater, E. (2007). The social and natural environment of fossil capitalism. In Socialist Register: Coming to Terms with Nature. Edited by L. Panitch and C. Leys. London: Merlin Press.
Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks. Edited and translated by Q. Hoare and G. N. Smith. New York: International Publishers.
Kallis, G., S. Paulson, G. D’Alisa, F. Demaria. (2020). The case for degrowth. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Klein, S. (2020). A good war: Mobilizing Canada for the climate emergency. Toronto: ECW Press.
Malm, A. (2016, Fall). Who lit this fire? Approaching the history of the fossil economy. Critical Historical Studies, 3 (2): 215-248.
McGreal, C. (2021). Big oil and gas kept a dirty secret for decades. Now they may pay the price. The Guardian, June 30. URL: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jun/30/climate-crimes-oil-and-gas-environment
Sapinski, J. P. (2016, January). Constructing climate capitalism: Corporate power and the global climate policy-planning network. Global Networks, 16 (1): 89-111.
Sapinski, J. P., H. J. Buck, and A. Malm (eds.). (2020). Has it come to this? The promises and perils of geoengineering on the brink. Bucknell University Press.
Steffen, W., J. Rockström, K. Richardson, et al. (2018, August). Trajectories of the earth system in the Anthropocene. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America [PNAS], 115 (33): 8252-8259.
United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). 2021. “Climate change and disaster displacement.” https://www.unhcr.org/climate-change-and-disasters.html
Victor, P. A. (2019). Managing without growth: Slower by design, not disaster. 2nd ed. Cheltenham, UK; Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing.
Wallace-Wells, D. (2017, July). The uninhabitable Earth (annotated). New York Magazine. URL: https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans-annotated.html