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Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Against a climate popular front

A critical review of Seth Klein’s ‘A Good War’

Economic CrisisEnvironmentCanadian Business

Image adapted from an original illustration by Ben J.P./Flickr.

I can’t forget those crisp November mornings. I’d stand respectfully still, a Scout’s red sash across my shoulder. I remember the veteran steadying himself with his cane, standing as straight as he still could, crying silently as the “Last Post” rang out.

“How many of you would have fought?” Ms. Allen had asked our class.

Every tiny hand was raised.

The heroism of the Second World War was etched into my memory.

For the left, there are few national myths fit for duty, but author, activist and organizer Seth Klein has called up the the greatest conflict in history to serve as the key parable in the fight against global warming. Just as Canada mobilized for the war, it must now mobilize for climate change. Klein’s recent book, A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, published by ECW Press in September 2020, makes a powerful case against defeatism and timidity.

Yet despite his impressive call to action (A Good War spent 12 weeks on the CBC Books non-fiction bestseller list), Klein misinterprets Canada’s wartime history and misunderstands the capitalist state. Ultimately, his cross-class strategy cannot deliver climate justice.

Klein’s vision of climate politics is unapologetically state-centric. The stunning wartime transformation of the Canadian economy, vigorously directed by the federal government, proves what is possible. Such a transformation can simultaneously create a more equal society, a development good in itself, while winning public support for a difficult program. And if this seems unimaginable in today’s political climate, Klein argues the war teaches us that public opinion can be shifted through bold leadership from actors primarily, but not exclusively, in the state.

A Good War is written for political impact and as such, Klein gets quickly to the point. The book is structured as a series of lessons we can learn from the wartime experience, introduced in boldface for those too busy to read to the end.

His central argument is a historical comparison: Canada’s success during the Second World War demonstrates what is possible and necessary in our fight against climate change today. So why has such a mobilization not yet been repeated in our contemporary struggle against runaway global warming? Here Klein casts a villain in his story. Though he considers picking the fossil fuel industry, he instead settles on what he terms the “new climate denialism” as the key impediment.

Previous denialism dismissed the science on climate change, but today, our primary enemy is a “way of thinking and practice” that accepts the science while obfuscating its implications. This must be overcome through bold leadership. For Klein, Canada demonstrated such leadership in its fight against fascism. Now, he argues, we must wield it again.

Bold leadership, in his view, must seek to rally the public onside. As in the Second World War, this will involve propaganda, but also efforts to combat the inequality which corrodes a sense of common cause. Wartime plans for post-war social democracy must be echoed by today’s Green New Deal. Klein believes economic barriers can be overcome through a massive expansion of state planning. The government should spend whatever it requires and tax as necessary, but also intervene directly through regulation and the creation of new Crown corporations. Concrete ideas such as a jobs guarantee, a federal high-speed rail network and an inheritance tax add texture, but Klein’s argument does not hang on policy specifics.

In part, his text reads as a direct plea to progressive lawmakers. “This book is an invitation to our political leaders,” he writes in the preface, “to reflect on the leaders who saw us through the Second World War and consider who they want to be, and how they wish to be remembered.” The work was researched through a series of interviews with Canadian politicians, activists and academics. He questions parliamentarians and ministers from various parties on the barriers they face, quotes their responses, and replies in good faith. Central to his rebuttal is a poll commissioned for the book demonstrating strong support for emissions mitigation. “The public,” he argues, “is ahead of our politics.” His role for social movements is ultimately to shift our politicians.

A Good War stands at the cutting edge of progressive climate politics. Along with closely related proposals for a Green New Deal, the climate movement has finally identified a program both adequate for the scale of the challenge and capable of assembling a coalition to achieve it. The book should be lauded for making clear that only the state can coordinate transformation at the speed and scale required.

Yet while A Good War is correct that only the state can bring emissions to zero, Klein is wrong to assume that the state can show the markets who’s boss. And because he misunderstands the capitalist state, he proposes a cross-class coalition aiming to inspire “bold leadership” in our elites. Klein’s program is solid, but this strategy cannot win. Capitalists will fight a just transition tooth and nail, and we cannot overcome their resistance in alliance with them.

Canadian capital and French capital

For Klein, the war shows how, when it chooses to do so, the state can assert itself over the market. “The private sector had a role to play in wartime production,” he argues. “But critically, it was not allowed to determine the allocation of scarce resources during a period of economic transition. Rather, private factories were told what to produce, because in an emergency, we don’t leave such important and urgent decisions to the free market.”

Klein recounts the extensive and unmistakable economic planning: a Wartime Prices and Trade Board which set prices and wages, a Wartime Industries and Control Board which allocated supply of key commodities and twenty-eight new Crown corporations for direct government production.

“Effectively,” he writes, “Canada’s wartime economy was a planned economy.” The Mackenzie King government declared war, set terms that were not unreasonable to the interests of Canadian capital, and, in his eyes, made participation mandatory.

It follows for Klein that the state can overrule the market once again and force a just transition to a more equal and sustainable society. We just need to inspire the right sort of leadership. In his view, the war shows that the consent of business leaders to wartime economic planning was quite irrelevant. Capitalists had no choice but to convert to war production then, and they should have no choice but to decarbonize now.

Yet what if Canadian business had resisted war planning en masse? In Canada it may be counterfactual, but France offers another example.

In 1936, the French people elected a Popular Front government committed to anti-fascism, rearmament and social progress. Uniting Socialists, Communists and Radicals under Prime Minister Leon Blum, the new government proceeded with many of the same measures Canada would implement three years later: price controls, nationalization in the defence industry and expanded public works. Preparing both the armed forces and the economy for a potential confrontation with fascism was a key priority, even above social reform. Yet Blum’s government, duly elected and holding majority support, could not merely force capitalists to comply. Instead, French business responded by withholding investment. Threatened by the social reforms from above and popular resistance from below, the French elite took their money overseas and refused cooperation with the government. The fact that Hitler had just marched 20,000 troops into the Rhineland didn’t seem to matter.

Blum, in turn, devalued the currency and backtracked on economic reforms, but lost popular support in the process and resigned soon after. While rearmament continued, it stands to reason France would have entered the war stronger had French capital thrown their lot in with the government and prevented economic strife by continuing to invest.

Why, on the other hand, did Canada’s capitalists get on board with the government’s war planning? They were not merely forced to do so; instead, they decided it was in their interests. Canada’s capitalists wagered, correctly, that the regime created through both war and post-war planning would enable profitability for decades to come.

It is worth remembering the state of the Canadian economy on the eve of war. By 1939, GDP was still eight percent lower than it had been a decade prior, notwithstanding Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s tepid New Deal-style reforms. Excess capacity littered Canada’s cities, and gross capital formation had stalled at half the rate of 1929. The free market had ground to a halt, and Canadian business had good reason to look to the state to restart accumulation. Though, as Klein points out, while the state limited war profiteering, rearmament offered a profitable use for all those half-empty factories.

But why did Canada’s capitalists trust their government with this task, while France’s did not? Their reasons likely had less to do with specific policies and more to do with the people implementing them.

France’s Popular Front was a coalition of Socialists, Communists and Radicals. Though they were explicitly committed, both in word and in deed, to anti-fascism above revolution, France’s business elite had no interest in submitting to a government controlled by their ideological enemies, national security be damned.

Canada’s war production, on the other hand, was led by men Canadian business could trust. C.D Howe, King’s “minister of everything,” took the helm planning the nation’s war production. A businessman himself, Howe “loved the company of the rich and powerful, and tended to uncritically accept many of their social views.” Today, his name survives as the C.D. Howe institute, a leading centre-right think tank. One might expect contrition from Klein for his “newfound appreciation” for a figure so clearly opposed to his values. Instead, Klein just chuckles at the “delicious irony.”

As for Mackenzie King, what he lacked in anti-fascism, charisma or concern for racial minorities, he made up for in a long history of moderation. As Klein notes, Howe side-stepped the civil service and ran much of his ministry through “dollar-a-year” men recruited from the private sector without a salary. This led Tommy Douglas to object that “instead of government taking over industry, industry has taken over government.” Klein, however, disagrees:

But surely that was overstated. Unlike the way in which our mostly market-based economy functions today, the private sector did not get to decide on the allocation of resources. Rather, the economic mobilization was coordinated and of course paid for by the public sector—by public servants who planned the overall effort, orchestrated the supply chains, regulated economic conduct including prices and profits, and directed massive public investments into realizing this economic transformation.


Klein is certainly correct that the Canadian state directed war production. But can the Greatest Canadian really be dismissed so quickly?

Imagine for a moment Douglas was prime minister rather than King. Would the best and brightest of Canadian industry have worked for his government without pay? Would they have acquiesced to a massive extension of economic planning? Would they have even stood by his side against the Nazis?

Of course, Douglas was not prime minister and Canadian business cooperated with war production. Capital took a wager that government intervention could lead to renewed profitability, and it paid off handsomely. Their profits skyrocketed in the early 1950s. Undergirded by high productivity growth, capital enjoyed a sustained period of high returns. The expansion of state planning was not used against business interests, and the welfare state promised to Canadian voters in 1945 was largely delayed at their behest.

Though a full 39 percent of Canadians favoured state over private ownership when polled in 1943, the socialist tide receded, and business pressure forestalled most new social programs until the 1960s.

While Klein is correct that the Second World War inaugurated a period that was more progressive than the one which preceded it, it is also true that King broke his promise for social security. Two decades would pass before the Canadian Pension Plan was created.

Were Klein’s view of the state correct, Blum’s bold leadership should have been sufficient to force French capital onboard with his agenda. He was, after all, their elected leader during a time of emergency. Yet it was not enough, because a capitalist state must either maintain the expectation of profitability of private businesses or else face an economic crisis. The consent of the capitalist class is in fact a prerequisite for the extension of economic planning under capitalism.

Photo by Mike Harris/Flickr

Neoliberalism and the nature of the state

The Second World War kicked off a period of relatively full employment and gradually expanding social programs. But it was not to last, and neoliberalism is the name given to the form of capitalism that followed.

Klein uses the term repeatedly to describe what must be overcome in the fight against climate change, but for him, neoliberalism is only a set of policies and an ideology. It is certainly both of those things, but it was also a response to a very real crisis of profitability.

While post-war social democracy faltered for several reasons, the most fundamental was the combination of economic dynamism with exactly the sort of working class empowerment Klein has spent his career championing. With low unemployment and a relatively high social wage, the consequences of losing one’s job declined from the early 1960s until the mid 1970s. Through union contracts, wildcat strikes and plain old quitting, workers made good use of their newfound bargaining power. In the process, however, they caused profits⁠—and, more specifically, the expectation of future profits⁠—to fall. With an unclear horizon, investment stagnated. A resolution to this crisis⁠—either to the left or to the right⁠—was inevitable.

So when Klein asks “Why have our governments, even progressive ones, been so reticent to undertake large-scale investments in green infrastructure and renewables?” he misses the mark. “The answer,” he writes, “is that ultimately, they accept a core⁠—yet false⁠—neoliberal assumption that only the profit-seeking private sector creates wealth and jobs.” Klein also notes that they fear capital flight from the fossil fuel sector, but his emphasis in the passage, along with repeated references to “neoliberal thinking” throughout the book, present neoliberalism as primarily a challenge of ideology. Yet the hegemony of neoliberalism is structural as well—and we must understand this if we are to strategize its replacement.

Turning to the modern war against climate change, Klein argues that public support can, and in fact must, be won through a combined program of social reforms and emissions mitigation. Klein paints a bright future for workers under his proposed policies. Renewable energy is more labour-intensive, and this inherent advantage can be supplemented through ‘just transition’ policies such as income transfers, retraining and early retirement support. Most significantly, Klein proposes a Good Jobs Guarantee, pledging well-paid and unionized work to anyone who wants it. Such a policy would be utterly transformative, so it’s worth studying the contradictions it raises.

Michal Kalecki’s 1943 article “Political Aspects of Full Employment” provides the classic treatment of these issues. Even if profits might be higher through such a guarantee, perhaps through contracting out the companies which would provide such jobs, the increase in bargaining power from full employment will draw a political challenge from capital. The resulting rise in wages will likely drive inflation, harming rentier interests, unless wages are controlled through political means. Such a policy would be a fast track to exactly the contradictions which drove the breakdown of post-war social democracy.

Furthermore, why would capital permit a jobs guarantee to be implemented? A Good Jobs Guarantee could not be accomplished without a massive shift in the balance of class forces and the struggle that entails.

Klein’s misinterpretation of the Second World War and surface-level treatment of neoliberalism are based on a more fundamental misunderstanding of the capitalist state. For him, the state would appear to stand over society and adjudicate the conflicts within it. The oil companies may have the power to obstruct, though other businesses may have very different interests. Social movements can exert pressure, but ultimately, the state calls the shots. Thus, Klein believes, if we can inspire the right leadership in the state, we can implement a just transition.

Yet Klein’s view cannot survive a comparison with France’s wartime history, and his ultimately liberal conception of state power can’t fully explain the Canadian experience either. Their elected governments could not merely implement their programs over the objections of capital. As capitalist states, they must maintain the expectation of profitability. When such expectations fail, as they did in France, the economy will enter a crisis. To get out, a government has only two choices. First, it can reassure markets that profits will return once again (sacrificing whatever, and whomever, necessary). Or second, it can strip the market of its power to determine investment (ultimately, breaking with capitalism).

Here, the limits of our democracy come into view. Collective control of our economy can never fully coexist with private profit. Our elected governments may be at the steering wheel, but capital has built the road. Until we take the second exit, until we wrest control over investment, all we can do is change lanes.

Rather than assuming an essentially democratic entity steering society one way or another, we should think instead of a partnership between the state and the capitalist class. In Canada, capital and the state struck a partnership both to pursue the war and create the society which followed. In France, capital spurned a partnership with Blum’s government and he was promptly defeated.

The partnership then seeks to ensure the subordinate classes neither interfere with the profits of capital nor threaten to overturn the system entirely. Elected governments, while a real victory, do not change the essence of the capitalist state. Only the threat of disruption can shift this partnership away from service to capital alone.

Yet if the state is essentially capitalist, what power do the rest of us have? Clearly, our struggles are not always in vain.

For Klein, the logic of war required the Canadian government to fight inequality as well as the Axis. The state needed to inspire sacrifice from its citizens, especially to coax voluntary enlistment from most of its young men. The federal government implemented caps on wartime profits and promised a welfare state to which soldiers could return. Today, Klein argues, if we kick off the war on climate change, then our decision makers will be similarly compelled to ensure that sacrifices are shared and that a better world awaits. Yet why did the same logic not seem to apply during the First World War?

During the Great War, Canadian elites were happy to march tens of thousands to pointless deaths while profiteers reaped the rewards. The working classes of the world responded with a wave of militancy and a successful revolution, arriving in Canada with the near-insurrectionary Winnipeg General Strike.

These memories had hardly faded as men like King and Howe planned Canada’s next war, and the spectre continued to haunt them. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, a party still committed to a future beyond capitalism, was surging in the first opinion polls and the Communist Party of Canada had gained immense prestige from its fight against fascism. The threat of class rebellion, both historical and present, set the context for Liberal promises of a more equal future. It was not the logic of war, per se, which led to a more equal society—it was instead the logic of class struggle.

A climate popular front (with Liberals and bankers)?

Though Klein doesn’t evoke it explicitly, A Good War can be read as a call for a popular front against climate change.

The original popular front, like the war itself, mobilizes a proud heritage. Recognizing an existential threat, left forces across the world sought to make common cause with all available allies as the fascists grew stronger. Anti-fascism took priority over class struggle, and committed leftists found themselves supporting, or even in government with, those whom they had recently considered sworn enemies. The recruits of the Comintern-organized International Brigades fought to defend Spanish liberal democracy. Sectarianism fell to the wayside, and socialists and communists buried the hatchet. Eric Hobsbawm remembers the era fondly, as a time when socialists showed both pragmatism and heroism, winning themselves tremendous esteem.

The original popular front created alliances across classes in the fight against fascism, and Klein would like to see a new cross-class alliance today. “A successful mobilization,” he argues, “requires that people make common cause across class, race and gender, and that the public have confidence that sacrifices are being made by the rich as well as middle- and modest-income people.” Fossil fuel companies might be our enemies, but otherwise, he wishes to build a cross-class coalition. Though Klein argues “it is only by linking [inequality and climate change] that we win popular support,” he does not elaborate a program of struggle against capital to win such a link. For Klein, linking inequality and climate does not seem to necessitate conflict or contradict his cross-class strategy. It’s no surprise then that former central banker Mark Carney is lauded for his United Nations climate work as a “modern incarnation of the dollar-a-year men” or that Liberal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault is a “political climate champion.”

Given the urgency of our moment, a climate popular front has powerful appeal. Just as previous generations decided they must make common cause with all those willing to fight against fascism, so must we unite against global warming. If forming a coalition with Liberals and bankers requires sacrificing climate justice, so be it. Better to ally with progressive factions of capital to win decarbonization while we still can.

Klein doesn’t think that’s the choice we face, but if my arguments are correct, these are choices we can’t afford to avoid.

Conclusion

In A Good War, the state would take centre stage in the fight against climate change. The Second World War gives powerful inspiration for the capacity of governments to achieve massive economic transformation. For Klein, an equivalent climate program could make simultaneous progress toward a more equal and just society. In fact, the solidaristic logic of war compels our governments to ensure sacrifices are shared and a better future awaits.

Yet by insisting on the primacy of the war against climate change, Klein has neglected the prior war between classes. Against the liberal model, the state is in partnership with capital, not a force dominating over it. The rejection of that partnership doomed the Blum government in France, while its acceptance enabled the planned wartime economies in Canada and elsewhere. A class analysis of the state sets the green social democracy of A Good War in a different light. While Klein’s program is certainly possible, the key question becomes whether the working class can force it upon unwilling elites.

Klein’s strategy to win green social democracy can be read as a climate popular front: a cross-class alliance of all forces ready to address the climate emergency. Given the timeline we face, one can understand the appeal.

Nonetheless, a cross-class popular front for the climate would be a mistake. While capitalists might opt for an energy transition concerned only with their profits, they will fight against a just transition tooth and nail. To win, we need the power to force it upon them. But here’s the problem: we can’t simultaneously build our power and pursue a coalition with those who would rather us be powerless. In concrete terms, Klein’s program requires massive tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy. Yet his strategy requires an alliance with them. The contradiction is obvious.

The original popular front was composed of a labour-socialist movement that had already been organized. Today, what do we have? Building up such a left⁠—the kind that could force elites to do things they don’t want to do⁠—requires clear politics. It requires a distinct vision of society and organizational independence from those who would rather the left just not exist. Those requirements will be compromised with a popular front strategy.

Rather than a new popular front, we should insist on a climate politics of class struggle. The more just and equal society Klein champions cannot be won in coalition with capital. The relatively progressive post-war capitalism depended, among other factors, on a foundation of working class strength. Today, that strength has evaporated. Our overriding task is to build it back up.

Klein might reply that this choice is overdrawn: the movement should weave between class conflict and class alliance as the circumstances require. Flexibility, not dogmatism, is his favoured approach. Along these lines, Klein even suggests that unions bring climate change to the bargaining table, and if rebuffed, occupy workplaces. But such a tactic would force this choice upon us. Not only will capitalists oppose the occupations themselves, they and their political representatives will obstruct any effort to build a labour movement strong enough to make sit-down strikes possible. A local brewery owner would happily join you at city council to lobby for heat pump rebates; but if you help his workers unionize, then he would never speak with you again.

Insisting that the class war continue is not to say that truces are impossible. Yet even if we succeed in creating a new social democratic era, many of the same contradictions which spawned neoliberalism will reappear. Ultimately, a democratic and equitable economy can be won only by wrestling with the fundamental contradictions of capitalism.

In one of his most telling passages, Klein confides that he has “always been open to a mixed economy.” For him, Second World War history “liberates us from an overly polarized debate” on the fundamentals of our economic system. Yet the markets to which Klein gives his blessing cannot merely be subordinated to a reinvigorated state. Private profit sets in motion contractions corrosive to the social democracy he champions. Even if we can reach the more just and sustainable capitalism for which Klein is fighting, this accomplishment will be no more stable than the post-war settlement. The road will fork again, and if his childrens’ generation is to be ready for that juncture, social democracy must reject its Third Way muddle and return to its Marxist roots. We cannot shrink from this debate.

“At a very basic level,” he writes, “inequality undermines trust ‘we are all in this together.’” We aren’t though, and our movement should not be in the business of convincing people otherwise. Whereas Klein argues that the left should seek to rebuild that trust, I argue we should continue to undermine it.

The climate movement should absolutely take inspiration from the wartime era, but C.D. Howe must not be our protagonist. Let us find our heroes instead among the generation’s CCF and Communist militants: their bold labour unions, their independent political parties and their courageous struggles against oppression.

A Good War deserves to be widely read, and I will happily fight a war against climate change alongside Seth Klein, the broad Canadian left, and all my classmates who raised their hands in Ms. Allen’s second grade class. But we are not “in it together” with Mark Carney.

The climate movement can forget inspiring Justin Trudeau’s dreams. Let us instead arouse his nightmares.

Graeme Goossens is a warehouse worker and student.

A Good War can be purchased through the ECW Press website in print, ebook, or audio book..

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