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Scarcity and Class Struggle

Scarcity and Class Struggle

My parents were teenagers during the 1930s Great Depression; they saw want and fear spread and deepen over the world as economies contracted and millions suffered.  Economic collapse led to aggressive national leaders like Adolph Hitler and to World War II;  German, Japanese and Italian violent grabs for natural resources collided with interests of other nations, such as the United States, who defended  the existing international order.  During the 1930s, there had been much said in the United States and elsewhere about the “class struggle” between labor and capital.
Blood shed on WWII battlefields silenced that talk, and my own generation’s post-1945 world has enjoyed a long run of continuing economic growth, with most of us getting satisfactory chunks of a growing economic pie.  The political and economic dislocations spreading from the 2008 financial crisis forecast an era of more aggressive competition for resources.  I suggest that deteriorating natural systems will intensify that competition and extend it into the indefinite future.
A few see “class struggle” taking front and center in our political and economic dialogues.   Immanuel  Wallerstein is  a sociologist and prolific author  with intellectual and personal roots in the Depression and  left-wing thinking.  Now in his 80s and at the Yale Sociology Department, Wallerstein puts it this way in his June 1, 2012 commentary, “The World Class Struggle: The Geography of Protest:”

When times are good, and the world-economy is expanding in terms of new surplus-value produced, the class struggle is muted. It never goes away, but as long as there is a low level of unemployment and the real incomes of the lower strata are going up, even if only in small amounts, social compromise is the order of the day.But when the world-economy stagnates and real unemployment expands considerably, it means that the overall pie is shrinking. The question then becomes who shall bear the burden of the shrinkage – within countries and between countries. The class struggle becomes acute and sooner or later leads to open conflict in the streets. 

In the 1950s, Wallerstein decided that the struggle to overcome Western control of the rest of the world was the 20th century’s biggest issue.  For him, the “world-system” is a unit of analysis with its parts all interdependent.   Broadening Wallerstein’s analysis, climate change and diminishing pools of natural resources imply, in Wallerstein’s term, a “class struggle” between have-much and have-little countries as well as among economic classes within the same nation.  Many posts outline a tsunami of evidence that human activities, particularly our burning four cubic miles of hydrocarbons a year, has changed world climate, and that larger changes are in the pipeline.  Climate change models predict that global warming will be much less damaging to northern tier lands, like Canada, the northern United States, Denmark and Russia, than to tropical and sub-tropical  countries.  Human history has many examples  of people pulling up stakes and migrating to survive; immigration is already a hot  topic because millions  from the South have entered the United States illegally and stayed, undocumented aliens in a shadow economy.  Accelerating deterioration from climate change will ratchet up pressure to flee collapsing economies.

There are ways for the South to pressure the North  in a Wallerstein “class struggle” beyond sending illegal immigrants. Tropical rain forests are important for fixing carbon dioxide, for supporting most of our planet’s animal, plant and bacteria species, and as a storehouse of environmental benefits.  Burning and  clearing rain forests harms everyone, but their preservation is beyond the control of  wealthy northern countries.  Poor Southern countries with tropical rain forests  may  insist that rich Northern countries pay to keep them alive.  They may also be OPEC-like attempts to create stricter monopoly pricing for Southern raw materials  the North needs. More directly, the United States  spends almost as much on  military forces as the rest of the world combined, partly to guard its access to natural resources, partly to deter direct violence against the United States.  I don’t know how this movie plays out, but without doubt we live in interesting times.


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