The Illusion of Climate Justice

How Leftist German Opportunism Domesticated the Radical Climate Movement

Tomasz Konicz, 04.03.2024

The German left has arrived late to the climate crisis – and is still dragging anachronistic ideological baggage with it. Almost every current of the same stock-conservative left that for decades ridiculed or trivialized the climate crisis has now switched to the inflationary use of the term “climate justice.” No flyer, no event, no call for a demonstration can do without the use of a word that seems to amalgamate the “social question” with the climate crisis. From Junge Welt to Jungle World, from the Left Party to the notorious trade union left, from post-autonomists to old Marxists – if there is a common denominator in the climate policy statements of this regressing spectrum, then it is the inflationary use of a word in which opportunism, laziness of thought and ideological delusion merge.


Climate justice means that climate issues should be dealt with fairly. In other words, it calls for a fair distribution of the burden of the ecological transformation of society (“decarbonization”), and/or of bearing the consequences of climate change. At the global level, climate justice means that rich metropolitan regions should bear the brunt of the climate crisis and decarbonization, thus relieving and supporting the beleaguered periphery. According to this view, the climate crisis is the great catalyst that will enable a redistribution of wealth from top to bottom – both within each society and globally between core and periphery. The Green Party’s critique, formulated in terms of climate justice, consequently criticizes the lack of a social component in Berlin’s climate policy measures.

But the big problem with all this talk of climate justice is simply that the climate crisis is not a distributional crisis, so it cannot be addressed by raising the social question. The climate crisis is a systemic crisis,[1] which inevitably raises the systemic question. Capital, as value valorizing itself by means of commodity production, must burn up the world’s resources, it must deprive humanity of the ecological foundations of life in order to maintain its boundless valorizing movement. The eternal production of surplus value is the essence of the fetishistic capital dynamic. And it must be transformed into history – or it will turn the process of civilization into barbarism. It is not a question of “burden sharing,” but of the struggle for a systemic alternative worth living for. Specifically, it’s about emancipating ourselves from the commodity form, in which needs are satisfied only to the extent that they generate demand on the market. It is not a question of distributing more fairly the ecologically ruinous process of commodity production, which is only an expression of the valorization process of capital, but of overcoming it before it turns into barbarism.

Instead of babbling about climate justice, a left that still wanted to act progressively according to its concept would have to speak of a capitalist climate crisis to point out the necessity of the emancipatory overcoming of the capital relation as a social totality for the survival of civilization. Not because it would be popular, but because it corresponds to the objective reality of the crisis, because it is simply the truth. The transformation of the system is a factual necessity resulting from the internal, ecological as well as economic contradictions of the capital dynamic, to which the world serves as mere material for real-abstract self-valorization.[2] Consequently, late capitalist societies will break down because of their contradictions. What remains open is what will come after that. This will be decided in the course of the coming transformation struggle.[3] The task of the left would thus be to spread a radical crisis consciousness among the population – as a precondition for the possibility of an emancipatory course of transformation.

In order to overcome the fetishism of capital that unconsciously dominates humanity and arrive at a conscious organization of the process of social reproduction, it would be necessary, as a first step, to recognize the nature of the crisis as described above. People would have to be able to reflect on what kind of deep capitalist shit they are in in order to find a way out of it. It’s just a matter of saying what’s wrong. And it is by no means difficult or remote to practice this. Arguments that endless growth is impossible in a finite world are, as a start, understandable and generally comprehensible, without oversimplifying and distorting the problem too much. Meanwhile, a vague, unreflective awareness of crisis – or rather a sense of systemic crisis – has long been widespread among the population. It is a matter of consciously reflecting on this inkling of a serious systemic crisis in order to form a radical crisis consciousness out of it – that is, a consciousness that makes the necessity of an emancipatory system transformation for the survival of humanity the basis of any practice.

Bones for The Conservative Old Left

It is obvious that capitalism is incapable of dealing with the climate crisis. One look at the relevant empirical material suffices.[4] And there is hardly a pseudo-leftist term that obstructs this insight into the necessary transformative struggle for a post-capitalist future more effectively than that of climate justice, which distorts an objectively given anti-capitalist system question into a social-democratic-reformist redistribution question. Climate justice is merely ideology and opportunism pressed into conceptual form. While many groups or individuals may parrot this word out of ideological delusion and sheer thoughtlessness, there are objective factors that explain its rise.

On the one hand, it is the process of disintegration of the so-called “Left Party” that promotes the popularization of such linguistic monstrosities. The traditionalist, national-socialist and simply reactionary currents on the left, which Wagenknecht has oxymoronically branded as “left-wing conservatism,” are in the process of completing their transition to the New Right, which began a good decade ago, by founding a new party.[5] Yet it is precisely the products of the populist decadence of the old, anachronistic class-struggle Marxism that are driving this rightward regression. This spectrum of talk-show millionaires and Porsche drivers, in which an insubstantial, nationally colored and ultimately fascism-compatible fetishization of class-struggle is cultivated, is to be thrown a bone in the form of the catchword “climate justice” in order to keep the exodus of the old leftists from the ranks of the Left Party to the New Right in check.

The whole thing is already taking on comic features, resembling an absurd reenactment of the Stalinist fetishization of the proletariat, when, for example, Left Party chairwoman Janine Wissler extols the proletarian virtues of the list of candidates for the European elections,[6] in order to immunize them against criticism from the national-socialist Wagenknecht millionaires, who deplore an affront to “traditional voters” from the working class. The top candidate Carola Rackete, who has become known for her involvement in maritime rescues, is not only a climate activist who links “the class question with the struggle for climate justice,” she has also become acquainted with the “hard working conditions” of seafarers and is “clearly closer” to the working class than many others.

In a party milieu dominated by middle-class snobs and talk-show millionaires like Wagenknecht, this anachronistic praise of calloused workers’ hands thus fulfills an inner-party function: it is supposed to help integrate the regressive old-left currents in order to keep their drift toward the Querfront in check. This is accompanied by corresponding narratives which, with adventurous contortions (using mostly Marx quotations), attribute to the working class an objectively given, leading role in climate protection. This truncated leftist fetishization of class struggle may still be comprehensible in countries like France, which are periodically shaken by large waves of protest, albeit without consequences due to their blindness to the crisis. But in the Federal Republic, it is simply absurd.

“Ecological Class Warfare”?

This fetishization of class struggle has little to do with the German reality, where wage workers express their class standpoint as variable capital by raging against the “Last Generation” climate protesters, whose blockades prevent the timely resumption of work (and thus capital valorization). And the Left Party implicitly takes into account the class standpoint of variable capital (sorry, the working class!). Die Zeit published excerpts from a letter addressed to the climate movement by Die Linke’s top candidate, Rackete, among others, criticizing the Last Generation’s blockades and direct actions in the name of an “ecological class struggle” in which “climate protection must improve social justice in the Global North.” In the name of climate justice, “social inequality and class differences” should be reduced (so everyone should drive a Porsche, not just Klaus Ernst?).[7]

This social demagoguery, the crazy idea of reviving the old capitalist welfare state in the midst of the escalating climate crisis, is coupled with appeals for moderation in climate protests.[8] Radical forms of protest aimed at “media images” are apparently not a “sufficient solution,” activists must put aside their “missionary zeal” and also take note of other social problems. While it is right to clearly name the climate criminals, it is also be necessary to “continue to talk and participate and look for common concerns.” Radical actions would apparently prevent the formation of a “social majority” for climate protection, etc. These people express concerns that an “escalation of tactics” would lead to the climate movement losing its “connection to society,” and this is accompanied by the usual references to the parliamentary route, through which even RWE and Wintershall are now to be expropriated (probably in the same way as the Left Party implemented the expropriation of the Berlin housing corporations). It is simply absurd to write this at a time when late capitalist societies are in danger of losing all reference to the escalating climate crisis thanks to the constant stream of reactionary sound bites.

The whole thing reads like one of the usual attempts to domesticate, to bring under control, a disruptive movement that has arisen spontaneously.[9] It’s a classic example of managing a movement in order to serve the late capitalist functional elites as crisis administrators – and, en passant, it finally denies the old leftist belief in the historical mission of the proletariat. The fetishized “revolutionary subject,” despite the escalating capitalist climate crisis, wants peace on the labor front above all – and the Left Party tries to implement this veritable satire of “class interests” through strategies of domestication.

So what is the ecological class struggle? It is a survival, in the post-Wagenknecht left, of the dull German Wagenknechtism, which has always been outraged that people who want to work get stuck in traffic jams caused by the climate protests. A post-proletarian phrase-mongering that is supposed to enforce the interest of variable capital in smoothly-functioning capital valorization. This phrase-mongering around the castle in the air of the ecological class struggle serves to nip in the bud the real struggles that are being fueled by the socio-ecological systemic crisis. This is the “class standpoint” of variable capital – it does not want to be late to the work that is the substance of capital.

Radical Criticism – Even of The “Last Generation”

It is not only opportunism that fabricates such absurdities as a class struggle that seeks to avoid struggle; it may also be a simple ignorance of the crisis that fails to grasp the fetishistic character of the fully unfolding systemic crisis. The capitalist climate crisis is a market-mediated dynamic in which the boundless accumulation of capital must burn up more and more raw materials in commodity production. No one has any social control over this process of capital valorization, which blindly strives to obtain the highest possible rate of profit. This real-abstract process will only stop burning the world if it is either consciously overcome or if it collapses due to its own ecological and social contradictions – dragging the process of civilization with it into the abyss of barbarism.

To put it on the infantile level on which conceptual aberrations like climate justice are fabricated: The capitalist climate crisis – the interplay of capital valorization and greenhouse gas emissions – is absolutely indifferent to what obtuse old leftists or even entire sectors of the population think about it. There are no interests that profit directly from the increase in extreme weather conditions that devastate entire regions, no class standpoint that materializes in the threatening uninhabitability of entire regions. Capital as a contradictory blind dynamic of self-valorization destroys the world, society – and its own economic bases.

Even if the vast majority of the population clings to capitalism with all its might (which is probably not far from the truth), it will break down because of its social and ecological contradictions. What the population thinks about capitalism or the climate crisis is irrelevant in this respect. No one needs to be “convinced” or “picked up” to act in a somehow “revolutionary” way. It is not a matter of winning majorities for any “revolutions” that should result quasi automatically from their position in the valorization process of capital (the proletariat). Since there is no “revolutionary subject,” the question of crisis consciousness is decisive. There is only a chance of avoiding the fall into fascism if a radical consciousness of the character of the systemic crisis spreads among the population, and they start reflecting on the necessity of transforming the system.

And it is precisely this formation of a radical, transformative crisis consciousness that large sections of the left are sabotaging. The destructive fetishism of capital slaps the old left, which thinks in terms of “interests” and “class positions,” in the face every day. And it is almost admirable how the ideology of the old left, in cooperation with sheer opportunism, manages to ignore this time and again, to reel off the old class-struggle spiel, and in the meantime to push the regression so far that in its reactionary criticism of the climate movement, it calls for a return to Rhenish capitalism or 20th-century state capitalism in the midst of the incipient climate catastrophe. The tipping points of the climate system have already been passed, yet the regressive left simply wants to go back to the GDR or the old, West German FRG.

Of course, the climate movement – especially the “Last Generation” – should also be criticized. But a radical, progressive critique would involve confronting the concrete actions and demands with the reality of the climate crisis and the systemic crisis of capitalism. The willingness of activists to risk life and limb in dangerous actions stands in stark contrast to their naïve faith in politics, which they call upon to simply protect the climate effectively. This is where leftists who want to act in accordance with the concept must start, in order to confront these late-bourgeois political illusions with the reality of the systemic crisis. Criticism should therefore not be directed at confrontational practice, but at the well-behaved demands of the “Last Generation,” which would also anchor the necessary radical crisis consciousness in the movement. The disruptive actions of the “Last Generation,” which practically disrupt the everyday constraints of late capitalist business as usual, would then point to the actual, inescapable constraint of transforming the system, instead of feeding illusions about a political management of the climate crisis.

Systemic Crisis, Opportunism and State Capitalism

It is obvious that the capitalist climate crisis cannot be solved by raising distributional questions, either nationally or, more importantly, globally.

After all these decades, people should realize that the Marxist view of class struggle is wrong. Everything would be simpler if the proletariat acted as a “revolutionary subject,” if class struggles were the “locomotives of progress” – but they are not. In class struggles, variable capital (according to Marx, who was contradictory on this point, this is constituted by the working class in the process of capital production) negotiates its share of surplus value. And that’s it, there is no potential beyond capital. In view of the climate crisis, it is simply ridiculous to still maintain this fetishization of class struggle. It is similar with the world system. The ecological costs of China’s rise prove that an equalization of living conditions between the periphery and the core of the capitalist world system is ecologically impossible[10] – and that it is necessary to look for a post-capitalist path of development so that people on the periphery don’t sink into misery and climate chaos.

The reasonable, moderate consequence of the capitalist climate crisis is thus the search for a post-capitalist alternative, for ways to transform the system, as well as the corresponding, radical, categorical critique of late capitalist societies in all their agony. The ecologically ruinous and selective satisfaction of needs within the commodity form, the function of money as the universal equivalent, the subordination of society to the monstrous and fetishistic constraints of the capital dynamic, which is breaking down due to its inner contradictions – these must be questioned offensively. Not because this would be particularly “radical,” but because these categories are in the process of crisis-induced dissolution. This is no abstract prophecy. This process of self-dissolution is already taking place in a very concrete way, for example in the case of money losing its value through stagflation.[11]

What the Left Party, together with its ideologically blinded environment of old communists and trade union leftists, is doing within the left is marginalizing categorical critique and radical crisis theory, in order to make room for regression – the crisis-related assault of old left terms and concepts such as proletariat, class, and class struggle outlined above. The capitalist system is in an irreversible ecological and economic crisis. A transformation of the system is inevitable. The only open question is: what comes next? That will depend on the concrete struggles that will be waged during the period of transformation. And it is precisely this inconvenient, simple truth that the old left is doing its best to obscure. What is the point of all this? It can already be assumed that it is clear to quite a few decision-makers in the “Left Party” that they are propagating nonsense here when they react to the consequences of the systemic crisis with grandiose, failing redistribution campaigns.[12]

It is the stubbornly opportunistic hope for participation in government. The Left Party sees itself as the “social conscience” of the already failed Green New Deal, an illusory ecological transformation of capitalism – hence the absurd talk of climate justice and an “ecological class struggle,” accompanied by appeals for moderation in concrete protests. The anachronistic proletarian talk is only an expression of the fear of proletarianization in a party dominated by middle-class snobs, which stands on the edge of the abyss and seeks refuge in an illusory opportunism to avoid descending into the “working class.”

This fetishization of class struggle, which has degenerated into a mere phrase, is consequently accompanied by a pervasive fetishization of the state, in which all hopes for reform are pinned on the late capitalist state, i.e., an institution formed in the course of the history of capitalist assertion and indispensable for the valorization process as the “ideal total capitalist.” A state which, of course, has also long since been caught up in the processes of erosion caused by the crisis. In times of crisis, the state gains weight as a “crisis manager” – for example, in the 1930s, when state-capitalist tendencies often went hand in hand with the fascization of crisis-ridden societies. The threatening drift, especially in the Federal Republic, into authoritarian crisis management by an overgrown state apparatus interspersed with brown cronies, is sold, for example by Taz journalists, as post-capitalism by means of a cheap relabeling,[13] which arouses lively interest across a broad spectrum of left-liberal currents, from the trade union left to the stone-age communists of the junge Welt.[14] A longing for a warm place in the state and party apparatus – that is the practical reaction of these post-left currents to the crisis.

But the horror of being administered and harassed by ideologically crazed alt-leftists and morally derelict left opportunists in the coming systemic crisis pales in the face of the reality that is actually looming: for it is the new German right that, because of its rapid rise in the wake of the crisis, has the best chance of heading up the coming domestic capitalist crisis administration.






[6] (I thank Claas Gefroi for pointing out this interview)









Originally published on on 09/06/2023

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