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  June 7, 2009

Thoroughly modern Marx Pt. 2

Leo Panitch on Marx and the climate change debate
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Leo Panitch is the Senior Scholar and Emeritus Professor of Political Science at York University. He is the author of many books, the most recent of which include UK Deutscher Memorial Prize winner The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, In and Out of Crisis: The Global Financial Meltdown and Left Alternatives, , Renewing Socialism: Democracy, Strategy and Imagination and The End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labour. He is also a co-editor of the Socialist Register, whose 2017 volume, which will be released in time for the Labour Party Conference and launched in London in November, is entitled Rethinking Revolution

Paul Jay speaks to Leo Panitch, Professor of Political Science at York University about the relevance of Karl Marx's theories today. They discuss climate change and the economy as seen from a Marxist perspective. Panitch says that many non-Marxists are advocating Marxist-like ideas, such as putting "banks into the hands of the State" because "in the face of this [economic] crisis, it's rational."


PAUL JAY: Welcome back to The Real News Network. We're talking about: is Karl Marx relevant today? And, once again, we're talking about it with Leo Panitch, whose article [is] in the recent Foreign Policy Magazine. Thanks for joining us again, Leo. Leo is a professor of political science at York University in Toronto. Also, he's the author of the book Renewing Socialism. So let's talk about some of the specifics about what relevancy Marx has to�and we're going to fill in the blank. So let's start with climate change. The reason I picked climate change is there's a big debate going on in Washington right now, and also in Canada, on just what are the mechanisms to deal with carbon emissions. And there's this debate between cap-and-trade�which is to create a market, which you can explain to us more�carbon tax, or regulation. And the Obama administration recently said, and so did the EPA in the United States say, that they're quite wedded to the idea of cap-and-trade and they're not interested in much regulation. So what does Marx tell us about this?

PANITCH: The relevance of Marx to this issue is limited in some ways, because Marx didn't foresee the climate crisis. I think that has to be said. He was, however, very sensitive to the way in which capitalism was feeding off nature, often destroying nature and destroying the sustenance of human society through the contradictions of industrial capitalism. We see in the cap-and-trade proposal what Marx was [inaudible] in terms of the attempt to find market solutions, commodified solutions, solutions based on derivatives for the emissions problem. It's not only a matter of what Obama's putting forward by cap-and-trade or what's being put forward virtually by, you know, every green liberal, and for that matter green social democrat, in the world today. The whole Kyoto plan is based on precisely a trade in emissions standards. And this is the trade in derivatives products. It's the trade in a security that a firm has by virtue of not going over their level, staying under it, which is then trades�.

JAY: Explain the basic, 'cause some people may not know what cap-and-trade is.

PANITCH: Well, you know, the government sets a standard, which is what the cap is�you can't emit over a certain level. And it will issue a certificate to those firms that don't go over, that stay under. Those firms can then trade those certificates to another firm that goes over, and they use those in order not to go to jail or pay a penalty. So you get a trade in derivatives products, financial products. Of course, it costs them; insofar as they have to buy that security, it's costing them something. But you're getting a trade in derivative products. This is the kind of trade and financial instruments that brought us to this mess. And for us to attempt to resolve the climate crisis by relying on that volatile, open-to-manipulation, and crisis-ridden mechanism is a disaster. And why people are proposing it is that they're afraid to talk about planning. And you can't really imagine, given the seriousness of this crisis, that humanity can solve it without returning to a form of economic planning. I'd like it to be democratic economic planning as opposed to the bureaucratic central planning that we knew. But it's impossible that it can be done through this kind of system and this crisis. And Marx would tell you that this crisis produces this. Now, in order to do that, it leads on to the next thing. In order to do that, yes, you probably do have to have a banking system that isn't just regulated but is a public utility, you know, is a repository of a democratic, accountable state which directs the funds that pass through the banking system in such a way that the climate crisis�the type of production we need in order not to be destroying nature does in fact happen. Otherwise we're not going to be able to deal with this. And that applies thirdly to what's happening to the auto sector and the conversion already taking place in it. The whole of the parts industry, which is tanking, ought to be taken into public ownership, and all of the enormous skills, the tool and die makers, and the machinery that is all now going down the drain, you know, a legacy of generations of training of engineers, of workers, etcetera, is being dumped, whereas what we need is to convert that industry into ecologically sustainable types of production. There's no reason that tool and die makers can't be making solar panels. But in order to do that, you have to have a banking system that will lend into that conversion. So it is all connected. And, you know, the fifth of the ten things that Marx called for in the Communist Manifesto was to take the banks into the hands of the state. And we're hearing that now from all kinds of non-Marxist quarters, because in the face of this crisis it's rational.

JAY: The talk of anything that suggests taking control of the market or planning�and the auto industry is a good example, where you have a situation where the government's actually going to own, together with the unions, a majority of GM and Chrysler. But they're leaving the present management in place. The union's going to have one board member. And when the new president of GM was asked, "How are you going to bring GM back?" he essentially said by creating small stylish cars�in other words, get back to, hopefully, where they were with a little bit�maybe the odd battery car thrown in here and there. So if what Marx has to tell us about climate change, banking, and the auto industry requires this kind of planning, American politics is 100 million miles away from that.

PANITCH: A hundred million miles away in two senses. One is: does the state�. After all of these years of atrophy going back�since the Second World War, you know, when the state was highly capable of converting the auto industry into the production of air fuselages, right, it's no longer the case. It doesn't have that capacity. So, yes, the state would have to be changed, not only so it's democratic, but it has the technical capacity to be able to be able to do this. But then more than this, I mean, Marx was not about offering policy advice to capitalist states. It isn't a matter of bringing this to Obama.

JAY: He did write a letter congratulating Abraham Lincoln.

PANITCH: Well, yes, he was very happy to see slavery undone. But in terms of proposing to existing capitalist governments that they ought to introduce socialism, he wasn't that naive. He was the greater realist. What Marx was about was trying to encourage people to overcome their social isolation, which is produced in this market, individualist, commodified society; to create new social identities, new collective identities, and organizations that express those; and undertake a massive social and political transformation.

JAY: But, still, he certainly�they put forward and supported demands that led to certain kinds of legislation, whether it was an eight-hour working day or other sorts of things.

PANITCH: Yes, but those sorts of things don't just happen by policy advice. I mean, Marx's main emphasis was to build movements�

JAY: No, a movement to make demands.

PANITCH: �that iof course would try to win people to it by making immediate demands, you know, advocating the eight-hour working day, of course.

JAY: Well, the fundamental resistance to this in many countries, but particularly in the United States, which doesn't even have much of a social democratic tradition�I mean, they envision some of the Republicans in Congress debating health care. The great Satan right now is Sweden as the socialist menace.

PANITCH: No, but they aren't getting many votes these days, so maybe that's [inaudible]

JAY: But you're saying very similar things within the conservative Democrats. It's not just the Republicans. In fact, right now it's possible that within the conservative Democrats led by Baucus on the Finance Committee may actually be creating a situation where there won't be a public component of American health-care reform. So this is certainly not just some Republican phenomenon. But the core of all of this is that planning, anything to do with the word "socialism", government intervention, all denies individual rights. And that's the core of what the resistance, at least at the ideological-propaganda level, is. So in the next segment of our interview, let's let's talk about that: does this kind of planning, this kind of vision you're articulating, does that mean the abolition of individual rights? And if we go back to the cover of Foreign Policy, which is the magazine Leo's article was in, and we go back to bread, potatoes, and propaganda, I mean, this is supposed to be the vision of what state planning is. So is it? Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Leo Panitch on The Real News Network.


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