IN 2022, THERE ARE A LOT OF BOOKS about climate change and a lot of books that purport to tell us how to address it. Matt Huber’s book is not like most of these. It unambiguously centres class struggle, reconstituting materialist analysis as ecological politics. By doing so, Climate change as class war: building socialism on a warming planet provides us with a compelling case for how to address climate change with thoroughly socialist politics.
Huber’s main theoretical point is to argue that the historical materialism that has been so denigrated by large parts of the Left, especially in the so-called Global North since the 1970s, is well-suited as a tool for understanding the climate crisis we now face. It is far less disconnected from ecological questions than is typically thought. Indeed, he convincingly highlights how, “one could argue that when we say ‘materialist approach to history’ we actually suggest an ecological approach that understands human society as inextricably bound to the reproduction of the human species.”
Power and class at the centre
As Marx so famously said however, the point is not just to understand the world but to change it, and Huber uses this analysis to explicitly and consistently centre power in his book. He emphasises particularly the fact that the struggle over addressing climate change is a “class struggle over relations that underpin our social and ecological relationship with nature and the climate itself: ownership and control of books on the subject. Rather, we are given thorough case studies on the nitrogen cycle, the electricity sector and even a history of electric utility unions, all of which focus on the point of production. This focus on production is a key part of Huber’s analysis. Following the notion of materialist analysis as ecological, he argues “for a return to the quite orthodox understanding of class as a relationship to the ‘means of production’…In fact, the entire human relationship to the natural managerial class of people who dominate climate action currently. The second is that, if we are to address the climate crisis, we need a mass movement against the capitalist class; only the working class, Huber argues, has the power to do this.
Role of professional class
In laying out the role of the first, Huber production”. This is reflected even in the structure of the book which is split into three parts, each focusing on aspects relevant to a particular class: the capitalist, professional and working class. These are not, however, merely polemical accounts of the role of each, something which has become common in left-leaning books on the subject. Rather, we are given thorough case studies on the nitrogen cycle, the electricity sector and even a history of electric utility unions, all of which focus on the point of production. This focus on production is a key part of Huber’s analysis. Following the notion of materialist analysis as ecological, he argues “for a return to the quite orthodox understanding of class as a relationship to the ‘means of production’…In fact, the entire human relationship to the natural world is, at its core, a relationship of production – how we produce the food, energy, housing, and other basics of life.” This focus has at least two important implications for how we think about organising to address the climate crisis. The first is that we need to think critically about the role played by the professional managerial class of people who dominate climate action currently. The second is that, if we are to address the climate crisis, we need a mass movement against the capitalist class; only the working class, Huber argues, has the power to do this.
Role of professional class
In laying out the role of the first, Huber provides a fascinating account of their historical development and current class position. He takes some of the theoretical debates on this class – be it Ehrenreich’s notion of the “professional managerial class”, Poulantzas’s “new petty bourgeoisie” or Erik Olin Wright’s idea of “contradictory class positions”, and he weaves them together with an account of how the current climate movement evolved. Core to this is the idea that it is knowledge, to which these individuals by virtue of their unique class position have unique access, which is able to change the world for the better.
From this, Huber identifies three different types of professionals working in climate politics. The first are science communicators, those who believe that the problem with climate inaction is that people do not adequately understand the science. By extension, if they did, change would happen. The second are policy technocrats who work in think tanks or NGOs and believe that the solution to the climate crisis lies in smart, logical, rationally designed policy solutions. Finally, there are antisystem radicals who typically understand better that the root of the climate crisis is in the capitalist system. However, “their political response is to look inward through moralistic invocations to consume less, reject industrial society, and advocate micro-alternatives at the local scale.” Huber doesn’t discount the role of knowledge and education in the climate movement. However, the problem that arises from the dominance of this class and their fixation on it is the lack of understanding of how power operates and how organising works. Because of this, this group focuses on issues like making accessible the science of climate change and encouraging people to change their consumption choices, rather than thinking about how to organise a mass movement and what the class base for this is. This is undoubtedly a result of their fixation on it is the lack of understanding of how power operates and how organising works. Because of this, this group focuses on issues like making accessible the science of climate change and encouraging people to change their consumption choices, rather than thinking about how to organise a mass movement and what the class base for this is. This is undoubtedly a result of the fact that, within this paradigm, class is not about relationship to the means of production but about income levels. Here, people become not members of a class but consumers with different “consumer power”. This equation of class with income drives the focus on consumption choices. This in turn belies the centrality of production in the process of climate change. It is not capitalists who are therefore the problem but rich consumers who make up monolithic rich countries: all possibility of real class antagonism is eroded and replaced with a set of diffuse individuals whose main tool for change lies in their wallet. Perhaps the prototype of this approach is the degrowth movement which advocates for the idea that “less is more”, largely ignoring the fact that austerity and inequality have meant for the global working class majority – who exist even in “rich” countries – that less is often all they have known.
Need for a working class movement
In stark opposition to this, Huber argues that it is working class organisation that is ultimately what will deliver us a way out of the climate crisis. He is under no illusion about the difficulties of bringing this about. We may make the case that organising to overthrow fossil fuel capitalists or take ownership of for-profit. the crisis and the limited time to address these, this means we must be strategic in where we focus our organising energy. In particular, he cites electricity companies as a primary focus – something he “cheekily” (to use his word) describes as “socialism in one company”.
And South Africa?
As with much of the rest of the book this argument is centred on the particularities of the US context. Huber himself acknowledges that his focus is limited to this and, given the importance of American political economy to the climate struggle, this is largely understandable. However, it does also raise questions regarding what Huber’s argument means for those of us operating in quite different political, social and economic contexts, and also what those experiences may mean for US leftists like Huber.
The situation at Eskom for example illustrates that mere public ownership of an electricity company is no guarantee that it will act as a progressive force in the fight for climate change, or even provide affordable and stable electricity for the majority. Publicly owned companies can easily be co-opted by the same logic and struggles as privately owned ones and be just as susceptible to the vagaries of vested interests. Huber himself acknowledges that public ownership is only one step in this process, but it seems critically important to consider how the next step may be hampered and to plan for this. Having said that, I find Huber’s insistence on class analysis, understanding where power lies in a system and focusing on disrupting that, to be profoundly useful for struggles outside of the US. This includes South Africa as we try to understand the problems and possibilities of a just energy transition in our country.
Overall, Huber’s book is undoubtedly a must-read for anyone working in climate politics or even in Left organising more broadly. It is profoundly challenging, especially for those of us who come from and work within the professional managerial class and have worked in similar climate spaces. By illustrating the profound limitations of widely-accepted approaches and slogans (like for example “system change not climate change” or “less is more”), Huber forces us to think much more strategically and deeply about the mechanisms for bringing about change. As Mike Davis wrote in his review of the book, “here, at long last, is a concrete strategy for socialists.”
Carilee Osborne is a member of the Amandla! Editorial Collective.