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If humanity is to have any future at all: John Bellamy Foster Interviewed by Ömur Şahin Keyif for BirGün (Istanbul)

Originally published: BirGün (Istanbul) on September 5, 2020 by Ömur Şahin Keyif (more by BirGün (Istanbul))  |

ÖŞK: The U.S. government is escalating the tension with China with the sanctions, consulate closures, harsher and more reckless rhetoric after the pandemic… According to a Pew Research Center poll, 73 percent of U.S. people say they have an unfavorable view of the country. Anti-China rhetoric is an election strategy for Republicans. Republicans are not alone in this. Democrats are racing with Republicans with their anti-China sentiment, blaming Trump for not being hard enough on China. Considering China’s success on innovation and improvement of the new technologies like 5G and its acceptance by West, what will be the future results of anti-China policies both inside and outside of the U.S.? There are reports suggesting that U.S. officials try to push the relations towards a point of ‘no return’. Would that be an outcome?

JBF: The history of capitalism as a world system is punctuated by struggles for world hegemony between declining hegemonic powers and rising states, usually leading to world wars. We are now in such a period, which had been building for some time under Obama and is now being pursued much more openly and belligerently under Trump. The shift towards a hegemonic struggle with China in the form of a New Cold War was apparent even before Trump came into office. Steve Bannon spoke openly of declining U.S. hegemony in the face of China’s rise and the need for an economic, political, and military struggle to weaken China and ensure U.S. supremacy. Trump appointed the most virulent economic critic of China, Peter Navarro, author of such works as The Coming Wars with China, as his chief trade advisor. This was followed by a so-called Trade War with China designed to get U.S. and Western multinational corporations to pull the key production nodes of their global commodity chains out of China and locate them elsewhere, such as in India in Mexico. This shifting of global supply chains is now rapidly taking place (though less rapidly in high-tech which is more dependent on Chinese production) and has accelerated with the pandemic as global supply chains are disrupted. This has been accompanied by an enormous military buildup, explicitly targeting China and Russia, with the official U.S. military budget for fiscal year 2021 equaling $705 billion and, in reality, well over a trillion dollars.

The shift against China has the support of both parties in the political duopoly, and, it appears, U.S. multinational corporations, and the U.S. ruling class as a whole, which collectively see China’s spectacular growth as a threat to the world economic, financial, technological, political and military dominance of the United States. None other than Michael Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state and former director of the CIA, now describes this as a struggle over hegemony and of the need to prevent a “Chinese Century” replacing the so-called American Century.

The struggle is envisioned today as what is known as a hybrid war (incorporating cyberwar, financial war, and disinformation), and a New Cold War. It is being fought by geopolitical and geoeconomic means. The nature of today’s technology and complex interdependencies give greater range to so-called mixed-method warfare. But it could end up in an outright thermonuclear exchange and a global conflagration.

The world has therefore reached a turning point. Every advance of China economically and in every other way—for example the Belt and Road initiative—is now viewed by the ruling interests in the United States as a threat to the U.S. imperium. The reign of capital, which is incompatible with any kind of global government, pushes us inevitably in the direction of global Armageddon, just as it is pushing us toward climate conflagration. The only answer is to leave the burning house, and build a socialist future, geared to a world of sustainable human development.

ÖŞK: Joe Biden has been nominated for President by the Democratic Party. As he accepted the nomination, he strongly criticized Trump’s policies and pledged to “rebuild” the country. His criticisms targeted racism, the way Trump handled the pandemic, Trump’s “attacks” to democracy… These are all structural problems rather than day to day politics… Can progressives push “right-wing, neoliberal Democrat” and “lesser evil” (as you named him in the first interview) Biden to reform these domestic policies? Democrats are even more hawkish on some of the foreign policy issues. For the rest of the world is there even a lesser evil U.S. president?  

JBF: A lot of this is sheer rhetoric. Biden’s explicit message to Wall Street is that “nothing will change,” by which he means ruling class relations, economics and finance, the police-penal order, and the entire neoliberal assault on the working class, women, and the racially oppressed. Biden represents the neoliberal wing of the U.S. ruling class as opposed to the neofascist wing, a distinction that I described in Trump in the White House. Presumably, the direct undermining of the rule of law, open repression, and explicit racism and sexism will be ratcheted back a bit under the Democrats if they win. This would make some difference and would presumably pull the country back from the neofascist brink. However, the political process itself won’t allow for structural change, which would require a societal revolt. Biden chose as his running mate, Kamala Harris a figure who, though black (her father is the well-known Jamaica-born Marxist economist and former Stanford professor Donald J. Harris from whom she is politically estranged), stands for the most brutal police state/pro-prison strategy in the Democratic Party. She openly prided herself on how many she was able to lock up as California’s attorney general.

Biden himself is a product of the right-wing of the Democratic Party, a long-time supporter of racial segregation. He was the principal author of the 1994 crime bill (associated with the New Jim Crow) that extended prison sentences. He was also one of the strongest backers of the corporate friendly 2005 bankruptcy bill that made it much harder for poor people to get out of debt and created in effect a condition of debt peonage in the United States. He was originally chosen by Obama as a running mate to give, in the terms of U.S. politics, a right-wing balance to the ticket, and to allay fears that Obama would promote racially progressive views. If he were to win the election (which is not at all certain at this point) we would see a neoliberal-neofascist alliance, albeit with the neoliberals for a time on top.

In terms of the projection of U.S. power in the world there would not be much in the way of any change regardless of the outcome of the U.S. presidential elections. The Democrats are strong proponents of NATO and the Atlantic Alliance and have been avid promoters of a New Cold War with Russia. The Trump administration, as I explained in Trump in the White House, preferred a detente with Russia so that they could proceed even more aggressively against China. The political fallout from that (not least of all from the so-called “intelligence community or deep state) was extremely negative in its political ramifications for the Republicans. The Trump administration was therefore forced to move away from the detente with Russia strategy. Nevertheless, Trump White House went ahead with its New Cold War with China, carrying the Democrats along with them. The result of all this is that a New Cold War is rapidly developing with what is increasingly seen as an emerging Sino-Russian geopolitical bloc. There is now no real difference in this respect amongst the Republicans and Democrats, and the effect will be to polarize the entire world.

In some other critical areas, such as climate change, relations with international organizations, such as the World Health Organization, and so on, there is a greater difference between the international policy of the two parties. And, of course, no wants someone as aberrant, unstable, and inclined to act with impunity as Trump having his finger on the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. But the grand strategy of a New Cold War is the same for both parties in the U.S. political duopoly.

ÖŞK: California wildfires continue to claim lives and force people to displace. It is known that climate crisis has a lot to do with the escalation of the fires. The book you coauthored with Fred Magdoff, What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, suggests: “The reality is that the major environmental problems we face today—of which climate change is only one—cannot be solved by means of technological or market-based solutions while keeping existing social relations intact.” Considering the urgency of the situation, what can be done in today’s world? How would you evaluate today’s environmentalist movements in West? And what are the important tools to build global radical environmentalist movements to achieve the goal of ecological revolution? Are there lessons to learn from Latin America?

JBF: Paul Sweezy, the great Marxist economist and editor of Monthly Review, once said to me, in the early 1990s, when I was writing The Vulnerable Planet, that, “It is impossible to exaggerate the environmental problem.” He was right. In the third decade of the twenty-first century we are—as the world scientific consensus keeps telling us—facing the prospect of planetary catastrophes threatening the very continuation of industrial civilization, undermining the condition of the human species as a whole, with hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people seeing their living conditions endangered in the present century. Nor is there even a shred of doubt today as to the cause: the prevailing economic system. To offer that system—the very cause of our problems—as the solution is beyond absurd, and yet we have watched while this absurd notion has been paraded decade after decade while situation has only gotten rapidly worse. The scale of impending and irreversible catastrophe has come rapidly closer, so that it is now on our very doorstep. Some techno-socialists (sometimes called accelerationists) argue, like so many in the status quo, that technology will save us. But the negative carbon technologies they imagine don’t exist on scale today and probably never will.

All of this raises the question, as you indicate, of the environmental movement and how it might reverse existing trends. Today, it is clear that the environmental movement hardly matters at all—unless it is ecosocialist and ready to transform the existing political-economic regime “from top to bottom,” as Marx said, that is, unless it is revolutionary. Listen to Greta Thunberg. She has shown us the Emperor’s Clothes. It is now a question of ecosocialism or exterminism.

I think this has been understood quite well in Latin America. Bolivia under Evo Morales and the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) (now removed by a coup) led the way in defying the dominant capitalist response to Climate Change, in excavating its failure, and in propounding a viable alternative strategy, rooted to a considerable extent in Indigenous traditions. In What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism we published as an appendix the April 22, 2010 Peoples’ Agreement in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Venezuela, with all of its problems, has been a center of ecosocialist analysis, rooted in its popular communes. Cuba is the most ecological country on earth. I recommend you read Mauricio Betancourt’s definitive study, “The Effect of Cuban Agroecology in Mitigating the Metabolic Rift” in Global Environmental Change (June 2020). In my various trips to Brazil, I was amazed by the grassroots support of ecosocialism, of which the Landless Workers Movement (MST) was emblematic. We can see in key locales in Latin America the emergence of an environmental proletariat, geared to the struggle for sustainable material conditions, in ways that are equally economic and ecological, aimed at sustainable human development. It is this that is the future of humanity, if humanity is to have any future at all.