Climate Crisis and Social Transformation in the Age of Corona

Why capitalist wealth produciton is up for renegotiation

By Norbert Trenkle

Note:  An expanded version of this text will appear this fall in the book Shutdown. Klimacrash, Corona-Krise und die notwendige Aufhebung des Kapitalismus (published by Unrast Verlag) by Norbert Trenkle & Ernst Lohoff.

One of the peculiar side effects of the corona crisis is the fact that it has done more to improve the global climate in a few weeks than all the climate policy of recent years. Due to the fact that car traffic in large cities has declined by up to eighty percent, air traffic has been drastically reduced, and many manufacturing facilities are now idle, the Global Carbon Project calculates that CO2 emissions could drop by about five percent in 2020. And by all appearances, even the German government may yet manage to reach its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by forty percent compared to 1990 despite its toothless climate policies (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 24 March 2020).

Short-Term Slowdown

However, there is no reason to hope that the corona crisis might lead to a lasting reduction in ecologically harmful emissions or a limit to global warming. The temporary moratorium on economic activity in large parts of the world has done nothing at all to change the fundamental logic of the capitalist mode of production, which is driven by the end-in-itself motion of endlessly reproducing abstract wealth, represented by money. It is an end unto itself produced by the growth imperative and the steps that have been taken to combat the corona pandemic have by no means suspended that compulsion. On the contrary, they have only slowed it down for the short term. At the same time, governments and central banks are doing everything they can to make sure the deceleration does not go too far and to keep the dynamics of the economy at least precariously in motion so they can jumpstart them again as quickly as possible once the containment measures have been lifted. However, we can hardly assume that they will actually succeed. Even if the major global economic crisis that is just beginning was triggered by the steps that have been taken to combat the pandemic, the momentum that it will presumably develop has underlying structural causes that cannot be fixed by stimulus packages and infusions of cash.

At the moment, one could cynically argue that a global economic crisis would be good for the climate because the decline in economic activity would mean that less greenhouse gas and other harmful substances would be released. All statistics from crises in recent decades confirm this (not least of all the financial and economic crisis of 2008/09). But that ecological relief is only the flipside of massive impoverishment and immiseration for large segments of the population. Given that all social relations in capitalist society tend to adopt the commodity form and access to material goods is therefore overwhelmingly gained via money, a disruption in the commodity-money stream will necessarily lead to a collapse in social provisioning: companies will go bankrupt, workers will be laid off, and, because their sources of income will dry up, millions of people will no longer be able to pay for their necessities. Whether or not the products and services affected are socially necessary, their ecological balance and the conditions under which they are produced go unquestioned due to the fact that these are not criteria that factor into the world of commodity production. What matters more is whether the things that are produced can be sold on the market and yield a profit in the process.

Material Wealth

That is why cars are still produced and coal-fired power plants operated, air travel still happens and luxury apartment buildings go up as a matter of course during crises even while many people cannot buy food and hospitals are closed down because they are no longer “profitable” or public funds are cut. In crises, it becomes particularly clear that only abstract wealth, which is to say wealth that is expressed in monetary units, has value under the conditions of capitalism; by contrast, material wealth, which is to say wealth in the form of useful things and utilities, is only ever a means subordinated to the objective of capital accumulation and is therefore sacrificed when that objective can no longer be achieved.

During the corona crisis in most countries, the state has stepped in to more or less ensure public utilities and prevent companies from immediately collapsing due to stay-at-home orders and the paralyzed economy. But despite the fact that the emergency measures are making it quite clear that the market is not at all capable of governing everything (contrary to what neoliberal ideology has always proclaimed), the state’s grasp on the production of social wealth nonetheless remains limited.

The State

In capitalist society, the state represents the general welfare and is responsible for maintaining social cohesion in the face of an inherent centrifugal tendency. Without the state, capitalist society would fly apart immediately due to its fundamentally contradictory nature. Universal commodity production means that people establish their social cohesion by producing things privately for anonymous others. They therefore behave socially by pursuing their particular, private interests. Put another way: they are asocially social.1 The resulting, fundamentally contradictory dynamic of conflicting particular interests would demolish social cohesion very quickly if there were not a separate authority to prevent precisely that and safeguard the framework for commodity producers’ universal activity. The state, however, is by no means above the logic of abstract wealth production, but rather an essential precondition for it and dependent upon it. Keeping the dynamics of commodity production and capital accumulation in motion are among its most essential core functions. When it fails to do so, it first loses its legitimacy among the populace and then it loses its capacity to act because it can only fulfill its functions when it has access to the funds it needs to do so.

Therefore, the state can intervene in market activities and temporarily shut markets down when doing so serves a universal interest, as in the case of the pandemic, but it also has to do everything it can to stimulate capital accumulation, while all other interests and objectives are usually subordinated to that one objective.

Sweeping Away Regulations

Once the acute phase of the corona crisis is over, it is therefore also conceivable that the climate policy measures that have been enacted in recent years, which were half-baked in the first place, will all come under renewed attack. Even now, business representatives are demanding that obstacles like environmental regulations have to be swept away so that the economy can get back into gear quickly after the lockdown. For instance, Germany’s largest automotive concern is pressuring the European Commission to suspend the CO2 limits that went into effect this year. The Minister President of the German state of Lower Saxony is even calling for a scrappage bonus for cars, though of course it is only meant to encourage a transition to “environmentally friendly engines” as though car traffic itself was not one of the greatest environmental problems we face. This will not last. Just as the ideologues of the market economy are now weighing the consequences of the corona pandemic against the economic damage of the lockdown, they will also argue that, in addition to global warming, a paralyzed economy is also a threat to humanity because it will mean that millions of people will lose their means of existence. Consequently, while they effectively admit that capitalism makes humanity fatally dependent on its destructive logic of accumulation and proposes a choice between dying because of ecological destruction and dying because of economic adversity, that argument is nonetheless very appealing among people who fear for their existence in light of the crisis and do not hold out any hope for another form of society.

If the “climate question” will not be stricken from the political agenda, it therefore has to be reformulated in a way that is adequate to the new social crisis. That is not as difficult as it might seem at first. Steps toward salvaging the climate and protecting the natural basis of life are only at odds with safeguarding human existence and social provisioning if we take the capitalist form of wealth production for granted. Given that every member of contemporary society is fundamentally dependent upon the production of abstract wealth to survive, we all find ourselves in a kind of hostage situation. We have to hope that the end-in-itself motion of endless capital accumulation keeps going because that is the only way we can sell our labor or our commodities, even when we know that doing so will keep pushing the ecological catastrophe that is already happening forward.2

However, if we challenge this form of wealth production, the contradiction dissipates. If social production is oriented toward material wealth, then the objective of producing useful things to satisfy the concrete sensuous needs of all humanity, then a society that is oriented toward ecological sustainability is no longer in conflict with good, material safeguarding of life. On the contrary, they coincide. For instance, under those circumstances, it would be extremely irrational to pump gases that are harmful to the climate into the atmosphere, cut down massive forests, or contaminate the ground water if it is generally recognized that doing so will destroy the basis for human life. It would be absurd to advocate the production of things that would damage the environment or people’s health just because it would allow a certain number of people to sell their labor and generate income. Under the conditions of capitalism, however, that very logic is “reasonable” because the entire existence of society is based on the production of abstract wealth.

So it is a matter of focusing our criticism on this kind of “reason” and the mode of producing and living that it is based on. Of course, that would also mean a change in political orientation.

Free Market Apologists: Starting from a Weak Position

The “climate question” is therefore one of a whole bundle of essential “questions” that can all be answered by a radical transformation of wealth production or, more precisely, by consistently aligning the social production of wealth toward concrete, material criteria and the objective of a good life for everyone. Of course, setting political objectives like these will provoke fierce conflict, because doing so ultimately means fundamentally challenging the capitalist mode of producing and living, which is far more than an “economic system.” It is deeply embedded in social relations and subjectivities. Still, in that respect, the corona crisis has, in a way, done its part to unsettle some of what was previously considered self-evident. If rent can be temporarily suspended, if public transit systems can stop charging fares, if there is a demand everywhere to undo the privatization and economization of healthcare systems, and if governments want to nationalize businesses in order to ensure public utilities, then the logic of abstract wealth is broken and material wealth is centered. These are only temporary emergency measures that the state has implemented in its role as guardian of the general welfare, however they nonetheless represent a profound break with neoliberal ideology, which was already under severe pressure in connection with the 2008 financial and economic crisis.

For that reason, any attempt to return to the previous political status quo after the acute phase of the crisis is over will provoke fierce social conflict around the question of how the general provisioning of society is to be organized and ensured. That argument has already started at the media level. The free market apologists are again starting out in a weak position in this debate because the corona crisis has mercilessly revealed that privatizing and economizing healthcare and other public provisioning sectors have catastrophic consequences for society. Under these circumstances, a broad nationalization or re-nationalization of those sectors would seem to be the obvious solution. In the discourse on the left, the voices calling for a renewal of the Keynesian social and regulatory state or even state socialism are growing louder, while, on the green spectrum, there is hope that capitalism will be reformed along social-ecological lines by means of state guidelines and market-economic incentives.

These perspectives overlook the fact that the state’s actions and its access to material wealth still always fundamentally refer back to the system of abstract wealth production. Within that framework, it does certainly have room to maneuver with respect to how it exercises public functions, the extent to which social inequalities are attenuated, and how it influences the conditions of production and labor. And, of course, in political terms, using that wiggle room to push through social and ecological improvements is the right thing to do, to the extent that it is even possible. However, the state cannot shut down the fundamental, end-in-itself dynamics of the production of abstract wealth. It can only ever fix or cover up its worst consequences.

States’ Leeway

There is also the fact that the era of state-regulated, socially cushioned capitalism based on mass industrial employment and a strong domestic economy is long gone and cannot be brought back. States’ room for maneuver has been increasingly restricted in the age of financialization and globalization because they have to do everything they can to keep their own territories attractive as locations for capital and, above all, ensure the inflow of fictitious capital.3

Since the Third Industrial Revolution has rendered more and more labor “redundant” in terms of commodity production, the accumulation of abstract wealth has shifted to the financial markets where it has developed a breathtaking dynamic based on anticipation of future value in the form of financial securities (fictitious capital). As a result, states are left with no other option in recurring and increasingly harsh financial crises except to do “whatever it takes,” as Mario Draghi said, to save the financial and banking systems from collapse. That is no different during the corona crisis. The course of this crisis is different from the financial crises of recent decades in that it was triggered by a politically decreed shutdown of economic and social activities and therefore has also had a direct impact on the “real economy.” Nonetheless, it also immediately encroached on the financial markets, which were overheated anyway, and caused enormous shockwaves with consequences that we cannot yet foresee.

It is therefore easy to predict that governments’ and central banks’ priorities will very soon focus once more on rescuing the banking and financial systems. When the avalanche of unsecured future promises in that system comes down, it will carry a large portion of the “real economy” and public utilities into the abyss with it. Unlike 2008/09, this time the tools that central banks use to enact monetary policy are already largely exhausted and, moreover, at the global political level, there is no reason to expect that the major economic powers will agree upon a shared course of action. On the contrary, it is becoming apparent that each of them will pursue their own interests at the cost of the others and the trend toward nationalistic and regional isolation that is already underway will gain more momentum.4 The German government is leading the way insofar as its rejection of Eurobonds lit a fuse under the EU, which is not only disgraceful and sleazy but also narrow-minded, given that objectively no country has benefited more from European unity and the euro than Germany. But nationalism follows a dangerous logic of its own and it by no means needs to be functional, in the economic sense.

Authoritarian Crisis Management and Social Resistance

The return of the state will therefore be on completely different terms from the hopeful left and green blueprints. Although we can safely assume that the emergency nationalization of many sectors will be retained or even expanded due to public pressure, governments will also point to the costs of crisis management to justify rigorous new austerity policies supported by nationalistic appeals to the population’s willingness to sacrifice as well as intensified surveillance and policing measures, as are already being tested on a grand scale. It is not just the logic of the market that is compromised under the impending social challenges. Rather, the entire framework for the production of abstract wealth is unraveling. This is why state activity in more and more countries is increasingly reduced to authoritarian crisis management. The less the state can ensure its legitimacy as the guardian of the general welfare by safeguarding public utilities, the more prominently its authoritarian essence stands out.

In order to be able to fight back against this menacing development, the participants in the disparate forms of social and political resistance that it will provoke – or has already provoked – will have to work together. That is not as obvious as it may seem at first. The various struggles against the intensified austerity and state surveillance policies, against the destruction of the natural elements and car traffic, against the unaffordability of housing and the precarization of labor, etc. will shift very quickly into particular competing interests within the system of abstract wealth production. Those separate interests can then be played against each other, for instance if the climate movement demands a high CO2 tax that would hit the poorer segments of the populace harder than others. So it has to be made clear that these struggles and conflicts, however different they may be at first glance, always negatively converge on one point: they are all an effect of the self-perpetuating and destructive logic of the production of abstract wealth and the underlying contradictory form of asocial sociality.

Only when this negative commonality becomes deliberate can the different struggles transform into a joint power that can fundamentally challenge the capitalist mode of producing and living. Moreover, we need a new perspective on social emancipation derived broadly ex negativo from criticism of the system of abstract wealth.


We obviously cannot recycle the old idea of nationalizing social life, because, apart from the fact that the state was only ever the other side of the market, its return today is only conceivable in the form of crisis authoritarianism, nationalism, and political regression. Far more appropriate would be a comprehensive socialization of production and public utilities within the framework of a universal and free social self-organization beyond commodity production and the logic of state administration and domination. Of course that will not happen all at once, but rather only in the course of a longer process of social transformation. The details of that process are impossible to foresee at the moment. What is clear, however, is that it will be characterized by adversarial political disputes over the resources and potentials of wealth production as well as the general conditions for developing new forms of social cooperation, communication, and planning. A social alternative will not grow out of any niche, as some alternative concepts imagine. It can only be constituted in the struggle over the socially universal. That means reconceiving and redefining the functions that are currently performed by the state and politics – not as a authoritarian side of wealth production, but as part of a society in which people consciously have control over their circumstances.

2 Norbert Trenkle: “Lizenz zum Klimakillen,” Streifzüge 77, Vienna 2019.

3 Ernst Lohoff & Norbert Trenkle, Die große Entwertung, Münster 2012; Norbert Trenkle: “Workout. Die Krise der Arveit und die Grenzen des Kapitalismus,” www.krisis.org 2018.