Sunday, 30 July 2017

Is Naomi Klein a True Ecosocialist?

This is a question I have pondered myself since Klein’s book ‘This Changes Everything’ was published. For largely the reasons set out below by Richard Smith, I have had doubts, but for publicising the issue of capitalism as the cause of climate change, Klein has made a great impact. I am also persuaded by James Bellamy Foster’s argument also reproduced below, that she is indeed an ecosocialist.

This is an extract from a longer piece entitled Climate activism and ecosocialism: What kind of movement do we need?

Written by Brad Hornick and published at

In recent debates within the ecosocialist community, Richard Smith and John Bellamy Foster discuss themes of moving from place out across time. For ecosocialists, capitalism and the Anthropocene are the global signifiers upon which all worker and environmental movements must focus with urgency. The fate of humanity in the short term literally rests upon this universalist pursuit. Ecological alternatives are not possible within the framework of capitalism, so socialist demands must be articulated alongside transitional concrete ecological demands and reforms. In recent posts to, Smith and Foster (2017) brew over the subject of Naomi Klein and the ongoing tug-of-war to claim or disclaim her as an ecosocialist. At issue is her theoretical rigor and tendency to straddle the organic and traditional.

Ecosocialists can be quick to identify the dramatic irony in how the aims of environmental activism are consistently neutralized by activists themselves. Constrained by time and place, local activism is compelled by immediate circumstances to act on the self-evidential nature of particularist truths at the moment of apprehension. Capitalist culture is powerfully resilient for the very reason that it incorporates these contingent system threats into its own reproduction. If activism remains compartmentalized or reformist, it remains embedded in, and will not threaten the global power and inertia of, capital. If theory is neither precise nor rigorously explicit, it also evacuates revolutionary potential.

Klein positions herself within movements where people are already engaged in forms of making sense of the world while responding to immediate vital and existential needs. She is also, as are Foster and Smith, a "free-floating intellectual" maintaining methodological distance in order to infuse, widen, and contextualize conceptual abstraction and offer strategic direction. Her book, This Changes Everything, is important for popularizing the critique of our whole socio-economic system and the geological time scales of climate science. As I have argued elsewhere, whether intentional or not, she appeals to wide audiences in part because of theoretical and strategic ambiguity, or "wiggle room."

In Smith's writing, there is a potent sense of climate emergency and the desire to "keep the (strategic) eye on the ball." Read Smith's short book on Green Capitalism: The God that Failed, which could have been subtitled Ecosocialism: How to Be Loyal to Abstractions. It is a series of smartly written polemics, but with a sober theoretical foundation. Smith's irreverent, in-your-face fury is infused with the will to impose abstractions with different versions of scope and truth upon the "impeccably respectable premises" of conventional economics (and environmental activism).

Smith argues that Klein has "broken open the mainstream discourse, cataloguing the failures, contradictions, and corruptions of so-called green capitalism," and that she "nails climate change squarely on the door of capitalism with a withering indictment."

But when Klein talks about capitalism, she does so in an equivocating sense, qualifying "capitalism" with adjectives such as "neoliberal," "extractivist," and so on, which also reconfigures strategic goals. Klein's "Blockadia is not a strategy," says Smith, and neither are her other "maddeningly confusing, contradictory, even incoherent" prescriptions. Klein is thus "an eloquent liberal-radical investigative journalist ... but she is no ecosocialist ... with no systematic analysis or critique of capitalism as a system whatsoever."

In Smith, you will not see pithy pronouncements like Klein's "to change the world we need everyone." You will read sharp, interrogative distinctions drawn between ostensibly "radical" economists and environmentalists and a forceful evocation of Marxist and political economic positions geared toward the contemporary ecological crisis. Warrior up on a rhetorical level!

Ruthlessly reveal mainstream environmentalist absurdities, deconstruct platitudes, call out euphemisms! Strike at the heart of false gods and zero in on the unequivocal message: shut the system down ... move beyond technological visions of "decoupling" and "dematerialization" ... depose the 1%, halt market and profit driven growth, bring on radical global industrial economic contraction that the ecological crisis demands.


By contrast, John Bellamy Foster responds that while he may not agree with everything Klein says, "her influence and her radicalism, at the left end of the climate movement, are beyond question," that she "walks a fine line between social democracy and socialism/anarchism," and is "openly anti-capitalist." Foster argues that we don't want so much a movement that is "limited to advanced ecosocialists" but a "broader movement that can actually be effective today." Ecosocialists should "stay to the left of those like Klein and sharpen the critique within the movement but also support and work with them so as to not separate themselves from broader radicalism. ... If she does not always articulate this explicitly in terms of an ecosocialist strategy, it is because her strategy is rooted in the real movement as it exists today."

Foster is confident that he knows Klein as a comrade. He concludes the exchange with Smith with a personal story that is emblematic of the role of relationship and solidarity-building in action. Foster and Klein are together being chased by police in Johannesburg at a climate meeting in 2002. Outfitted in military gear, police throw percussion grenades, then kettle and point rifles in a stare-off with climate protesters. Foster claims Klein heroically "disregard[s] the danger." He remembers prophetically "thinking at that time that she was the kind of leader that the movement needed -- if she would once embrace the issue of capitalism versus the climate." As it turns out, Klein later penned a book with that name, Foster's uncanny prescience realized.

Foster's and Klein's shared "fuck-you-to-power" moment of anarchist rebelliousness is a powerful performative statement. The embodied moment concretely codifies political position vis-à-vis the state, capital, and ruling class as well as international, class, and gender solidarity. The moment is felt as something immediately trustworthy and an alternative to the certainties that abstract concepts promise but rarely deliver. The story illustrates that as much as conceptual clarity is important in moving goals forward, a sense of discernment about the metaphoric and affective dimension that initiates and builds associations and relationships requires cultivation.

To use Walter Benjamin's vocabulary, the moment's auratic quality imbues the relationship with profound symbolic density and meaning. A redemptive moment, it connects their present with history's revolutionary acts and cements their personal pact. In these moments, Foster seizes on the dialectical image of revolutionary negation and exits the argument with Smith without further explanation. Foster wants to enable Klein as a comrade rather than diffusing the power of the moment with theoretical dissimulation. Smith, in equally necessary moves, wants to embolden and equip comrades with revolutionary intellectual tools by asserting objective and logical necessity into vital and existential necessity.

Radicals are a tricky bunch. Anyone who has attempted to rouse significant numbers of Marxist intellectuals to action, or coalesce disparate groups of direct-action anarchists to a shared cause, knows it is like herding cats, and it is much easier to attract hoards of environmental nonprofit careerists, with their banal spectacle activism, with an ounce of foundation funding. This makes anti-(green)-capitalist and ecosocialist organizing that is directed to undermining the systemic logic of capitalism challenging. Yet, what inspires ecosocialist faith in their own relevance is the methodically reasoned account of a stable, identifiable conceptual and affective fault-line of the entire social whole that divides our present totality from the future, one that if we can name and permit ourselves to cross, and then recruit others, will open a new set of (non-catastrophically terminal) possibilities for the world.

Brad Hornick is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Simon Fraser University. He is active with System Change Not Climate Change – an Ecosocialist Network, and the Vancouver Ecosocialists. This article first published in New Politics.


  1. i'm sure Brad will get his phd in sociology and proceed to a shining academic career "undermining the systemic logic of capitalism", imo capitalist don't care much about systemic logic as long as the dosh keeps coming in.

    also ' identifiable conceptual and affective fault-line of the entire social whole that divides our present totality from the future, one that if we can name and permit ourselves to cross, and then recruit others, will open a new set of (non-catastrophically terminal) possibilities for the world.' should win the academic bullshit nobel prize

  2. Well Brad is allowed his opinion, the same as you. Personally, I think it is an interesting point generally. Can you really solve the crisis by talking in half measures? Not for long I fear.

  3. Can he not write clearly rather than trying to sound like a failed German philosopher from the 20s?. Most of the time this comes over as using obfuscation to mask lack of substance?

  4. He is a bit wordy, but I think it is a valid debate. It cuts to the heart of how ecosocialists should proceed.

  5. I found Brad's expression of his thinking about the topics he addressees, accessible and helpful. I judge he explores and reports from within things, rather than allowing himself to be seduced into the hubris of imagining these things can be captured and fixed.