Michael Löwy is a French-Brazilian Marxist sociologist and philosopher. He serves as Emeritus Research Director at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris and is the co-author, with Joel Kovel, of An Ecosocialist Manifesto (2001). His published works include On Changing the World: Essays in Political Philosophy from Karl Marx to Walter Benjamin and Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to the Capitalist Ecological Catastrophe.
The capitalist system, driven at its core by the maximization of profit, regardless of social and ecological costs, is incompatible with a just and sustainable future. Ecosocialism offers a radical alternative that puts social and ecological well-being first. Attuned to the links between the exploitation of labor and the exploitation of the environment, ecosocialism stands against both reformist “market ecology” and “productivist socialism.” By embracing a new model of robustly democratic planning, society can take control of the means of production and its own destiny. Shorter work hours and a focus on authentic needs over consumerism can facilitate the elevation of “being” over “having,” and the achievement of a deeper sense of freedom for all. To realize this vision, however, environmentalists and socialists will need to recognize their common struggle and how that connects with the broader “movement of movements” seeking a Great Transition.
Contemporary capitalist civilization is in crisis. The unlimited accumulation of capital, commodification of everything, ruthless exploitation of labor and nature, and attendant brutal competition undermine the bases of a sustainable future, thereby putting the very survival of the human species at risk. The deep, systemic threat we face demands a deep, systemic change: a Great Transition.
In synthesizing the basic tenets of ecology and the Marxist critique of political economy, ecosocialismoffers a radical alternative to an unsustainable status quo. Rejecting a capitalist definition of “progress” based on market growth and quantitative expansion (which, as Marx shows, is a destructive progress), it advocates policies founded on non-monetary criteria, such as social needs, individual well-being, and ecological equilibrium. Ecosocialism puts forth a critique of both mainstream “market ecology,” which does not challenge the capitalist system, and “productivist socialism,” which ignores natural limits.
As people increasingly realize how the economic and ecological crises intertwine, ecosocialism has been gaining adherents. Ecosocialism, as a movement, is relatively new, but some of its basic arguments date back to the writings of Marx and Engels. Now, intellectuals and activists are recovering this legacy and seeking a radical restructuring of the economy according to the principles of democratic ecological planning, putting human and planetary needs first and foremost.
The “actually existing socialisms” of the twentieth century, with their often environmentally oblivious bureaucracies, do not offer an attractive model for today’s ecosocialists. Rather, we must chart a new path forward, one that links with the myriad movements around the globe that share the conviction that a better world is not only possible, but also necessary.
Democratic Ecological Planning
The core of ecosocialism is the concept of democratic ecological planning, wherein the population itself, not “the market” or a Politburo, make the main decisions about the economy. Early in the Great Transition to this new way of life, with its new mode of production and consumption, some sectors of the economy must be suppressed (e.g., the extraction of fossil fuels implicated in the climate crisis) or restructured, while new sectors are developed. Economic transformation must be accompanied by active pursuit of full employment with equal conditions of work and wages. This egalitarian vision is essential both for building a just society and for engaging the support of the working class for the structural transformation of the productive forces.
Ultimately, such a vision is irreconcilable with private control of the means of production and of the planning process. In particular, for investments and technological innovation to serve the common good, decision-making must be taken away from the banks and capitalist enterprises that currently dominate, and put in the public domain. Then, society itself, and neither a small oligarchy of property owners nor an elite of techno-bureaucrats, will democratically decide which productive lines are to be privileged, and how resources are to be invested in education, health, and culture. Major decisions on investment priorities—such as terminating all coal-fired facilities or directing agricultural subsidies to organic production—would be taken by direct popular vote. Other, less important decisions would be taken by elected bodies, on the relevant national, regional, or local scale.
Although conservatives fearmonger about “central planning,” democratic ecological planning ultimately supports more freedom, not less, for several reasons. First, it offers liberation from the reified “economic laws” of the capitalist system that shackle individuals in what Max Weber called an “iron cage.” Prices of goods would not be left to the “laws of supply and demand,” but would, instead, reflect social and political priorities, with the use of taxes and subsidies to incentivize social goods and disincentivize social ills. Ideally, as the ecosocialist transition moves forward, more products and services critical for meeting fundamental human needs would be freely distributed, according to the will of the citizens.
Second, ecosocialism heralds a substantial increase in free time. Planning and the reduction of labor time are the two decisive steps towards what Marx called “the kingdom of freedom.” A significant increase of free time is, in fact, a condition for the participation of working people in the democratic discussion and management of economy and of society.
Last, democratic ecological planning represents a whole society’s exercise of its freedom to control the decisions that affect its destiny. If the democratic ideal would not grant political decision-making power to a small elite, why should the same principle not apply to economic decisions? Under capitalism, use-value—the worth of a product or service to well-being—exists only in the service of exchange-value, or value on the market. Thus, many products in contemporary society are socially useless, or designed for rapid turnover (“planned obsolescence”). By contrast, in a planned ecosocialist economy, use-value would be the only criteria for the production of goods and services, with far-reaching economic, social, and ecological consequences.1
Planning would focus on large-scale economic decisions, not the small-scale ones that might affect local restaurants, groceries, small shops, or artisan enterprises. Importantly, such planning is consistent with workers’ self-management of their productive units. The decision, for example, to transform a plant from producing automobiles to producing buses and trams would be taken by society as a whole, but the internal organization and functioning of the enterprise would be democratically managed by its workers. There has been much discussion about the “centralized” or “decentralized” character of planning, but most important is democratic control at all levels—local, regional, national, continental, or international. For example, planetary ecological issues such as global warming must be dealt with on a global scale, and thereby require some form of global democratic planning. This nested, democratic decision-making is quite the opposite of what is usually described, often dismissively, as “central planning,” since decisions are not taken by any “center,” but democratically decided by the affected population at the appropriate scale.
Democratic and pluralist debate would occur at all levels. Through parties, platforms, or other political movements, varied propositions would be submitted to the people, and delegates would be elected accordingly. However, representative democracy must be complemented—and corrected—by Internet-enabled direct democracy, through which people choose—at the local, national, and, later, global level—among major social and ecological options. Should public transportation be free? Should the owners of private cars pay special taxes to subsidize public transportation? Should solar energy be subsidized in order to compete with fossil energy? Should the work week be reduced to 30 hours, 25 hours, or less, with the attendant reduction of production?
Such democratic planning needs expert input, but its role is educational, to present informed views on alternative outcomes for consideration by popular decision-making processes. What guarantee is there that the people will make ecologically sound decisions? None. Ecosocialism wagers that democratic decisions will become increasingly reasoned and enlightened as culture changes and the grip of commodity fetishism is broken. One cannot imagine such a new society without the achievement, through struggle, self-education, and social experience, of a high level of socialist and ecological consciousness. In any case, are not the alternatives—the blind market or an ecological dictatorship of “experts”—much more dangerous?
The Great Transition from capitalist destructive progress to ecosocialism is a historical process, a permanent revolutionary transformation of society, culture, and mindsets. Enacting this transition leads not only to a new mode of production and an egalitarian and democratic society, but also to an alternative mode of life, a new ecosocialist civilization, beyond the reign of money, beyond consumption habits artificially produced by advertising, and beyond the unlimited production of commodities that are useless and/or harmful to the environment. Such a transformative process depends on the active support of the vast majority of the population for an ecosocialist program. The decisive factor in development of socialist consciousness and ecological awareness is the collective experience of struggle, from local and partial confrontations to the radical change of global society as a whole.
The Growth Question
The issue of economic growth has divided socialists and environmentalists. Ecosocialism, however, rejects the dualistic frame of growth versus degrowth, development versus anti-development, because both positions share a purely quantitative conception of productive forces. A third position resonates more with the task ahead: the qualitative transformation of development.
A new development paradigm means putting an end to the egregious waste of resources under capitalism, driven by large-scale production of useless and harmful products. The arms industry is, of course, a dramatic example, but, more generally, the primary purpose of many of the “goods” produced—with their planned obsolescence—is to generate profit for large corporations. The issue is not excessive consumption in the abstract, but the prevalent type of consumption, based as it is on massive waste and the conspicuous and compulsive pursuit of novelties promoted by “fashion.” A new society would orient production towards the satisfaction of authentic needs, including water, food, clothing, housing, and such basic services as health, education, transport, and culture.
Obviously, the countries of the Global South, where these needs are very far from being satisfied, must pursue greater classical “development”—railroads, hospitals, sewage systems, and other infrastructure. Still, rather than emulate how affluent countries built their productive systems, these countries can pursue development in far more environmentally friendly ways, including the rapid introduction of renewable energy. While many poorer countries will need to expand agricultural production to nourish hungry, growing populations, the ecosocialist solution is to promote agroecology methods rooted in family units, cooperatives, or larger-scale collective farms—not the destructive industrialized agribusiness methods involving intensive inputs of pesticides, chemicals, and GMOs.2
At the same time, the ecosocialist transformation would end the heinous debt system the Global South now confronts as well as the exploitation of its resources by advanced industrial countries and rapidly developing countries like China. Instead, we can envision a strong flow of technical and economic assistance from North to South rooted in a robust sense of solidarity and the recognition that planetary problems require planetary solutions. This need not entail that people in affluent countries “reduce their standard of living”—only that they shun the obsessive consumption, induced by the capitalist system, of useless commodities that do not meet real needs or contribute to human well-being and flourishing.
But how do we distinguish authentic from artificial and counterproductive needs? To a considerable degree, the latter are stimulated by the mental manipulation of advertising. In contemporary capitalist societies, the advertising industry has invaded all spheres of life, shaping everything from the food we eat and the clothes we wear to sports, culture, religion, and politics. Promotional advertising has become ubiquitous, insidiously infesting our streets, landscapes, and traditional and digital media, molding habits of conspicuous and compulsive consumption. Moreover, the ad industry itself is a source of considerable waste of natural resources and labor time, ultimately paid by the consumer, for a branch of “production” that lies in direct contradiction with real social-ecological needs. While indispensable to the capitalist market economy, the advertising industry would have no place in a society in transition to ecosocialism; it would be replaced by consumer associations that vet and disseminate information on goods and services. While these changes are already happening to some extent, old habits would likely persist for some years, and nobody has the right to dictate peoples’ desires. Altering patterns of consumption is an ongoing educational challenge within a historical process of cultural change.
A fundamental premise of ecosocialism is that in a society without sharp class divisions and capitalist alienation, “being” will take precedence over “having.” Instead of seeking endless goods, people pursue greater free time, and the personal achievements and meaning it can bring through cultural, athletic, recreational, scientific, erotic, artistic, and political activities. There is no evidence that compulsive acquisitiveness stems from intrinsic “human nature,” as conservative rhetoric suggests. Rather, it is induced by the commodity fetishism inherent in the capitalist system, by the dominant ideology, and by advertising. Ernest Mandel summarizes this critical point well: “The continual accumulation of more and more goods […] is by no means a universal and even predominant feature of human behavior. The development of talents and inclinations for their own sake; the protection of health and life; care for children; the development of rich social relations […] become major motivations once basic material needs have been satisfied.” 3
Of course, even a classless society faces conflict and contradiction. The transition to ecosocialism would confront tensions between the requirements of protecting the environment and meeting social needs, between ecological imperatives and the development of basic infrastructure, between popular consumer habits and the scarcity of resources, between communitarian and cosmopolitan impulses. Struggles among competing desiderata are inevitable. Hence, weighing and balancing such interests must become the task of a democratic planning process, liberated from the imperatives of capital and profit-making, to come up with solutions through transparent, plural, and open public discourse. Such participatory democracy at all levels does not mean that there will not be mistakes, but it allows for the self-correction by the members of the social collectivity of its own mistakes.
Although ecosocialism is a fairly recent phenomenon, its intellectual roots can be traced back to Marx and Engels. Because environmental issues were not as salient in the nineteenth century as in our era of incipient ecological catastrophe, these concerns did not play a central role in Marx and Engels’s works. Nevertheless, their writings use arguments and concepts vital to the connection between capitalist dynamics and the destruction of the natural environment, and to the development of a socialist and ecological alternative to the prevailing system.
Some passages in Marx and Engels (and certainly in the dominant Marxist currents that followed) do embrace an uncritical stance toward the productive forces created by capital, treating the “development of productive forces” as the main factor in human progress. However, Marx was radically opposed to what we now call “productivism”— the capitalist logic by which the accumulation of capital, wealth, and commodities becomes an end in itself. The fundamental idea of a socialist economy—in contrast to the bureaucratic caricatures that prevailed in the “socialist” experiments of the twentieth century—is to produce use-values, goods that are necessary for the satisfaction of human needs, well-being, and fulfillment. The central feature of technical progress for Marx was not the indefinite growth of products (“having”) but the reduction of socially necessary labor and concomitant increase of free time (“being”).4 Marx’s emphasis on communist self-development, on free time for artistic, erotic, or intellectual activities—in contrast to the capitalist obsession with the consumption of more and more material goods—implies a decisive reduction of pressure on the natural environment.5
Beyond the presumed benefit for the environment, a key Marxian contribution to socialist ecological thinking is attributing to capitalism a metabolic rift—i.e., a disruption of the material exchange between human societies and the natural environment. The issue is discussed, inter alia, in a well-known passage of Capital:
Capitalist production […] disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural conditions for the lasting fertility of the soil. […] All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil […]. The more a country […] develops itself on the basis of great industry, the more this process of destruction takes place quickly. Capitalist production […] only develops […] by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.6
This important passage clarifies Marx’s dialectical vision of the contradictions of “progress” and its destructive consequences for nature under capitalist conditions. The example, of course, is limited to the loss of fertility by the soil. But on this basis, Marx draws the broad insight that capitalist production embodies a tendency to undermine the “eternal natural conditions.” From a similar vantage, Marx reiterates his more familiar argument that the same predatory logic of capitalism exploits and debases workers.
While most contemporary ecosocialists are inspired by Marx’s insights, ecology has become far more central to their analysis and action. During the 1970s and 1980s in Europe and the US, an ecological socialism began to take shape. Manuel Sacristan, a Spanish dissident-Communist philosopher, founded the ecosocialist and feminist journal Mientras Tanto in 1979, introducing the dialectical concept of “destructive-productive forces.” Raymond Williams, a British socialist and founder of modern cultural studies, became one of the first in Europe to call for an “ecologically conscious socialism” and is often credited with coining the term “ecosocialism” itself. André Gorz, a French philosopher and journalist, argued that political ecology must contain a critique of economic thought and called for an ecological and humanist transformation of work. Barry Commoner, an American biologist, argued that the capitalist system and its technology—and not population growth—was responsible for the destruction of the environment, which led him to the conclusion that “some sort of socialism” was the realistic alternative.7
In the 1980s, James O’Connor founded the influential journal Capitalism, Nature and Socialism, which was inspired by his idea of the “second contradiction of capitalism.” In this formulation, the first contradiction is the Marxist one between the forces and relations of production; the second contradiction lies between the mode of production and the “conditions of production,” especially, the state of the environment.
A new generation of eco-Marxists appeared in the 2000s, including John Bellamy Foster and others around the journal Monthly Review, who further developed the Marxian concept of metabolic riftbetween human societies and the environment. In 2001, Joel Kovel and the present author issued “An Ecosocialist Manifesto,” which was further developed by the same authors, together with Ian Angus, in the 2008 Belem Ecosocialist Manifesto, which was signed by hundreds of people from forty countries and distributed at the World Social Forum in 2009. It has since become an important reference for ecosocialists around the world.8
Why Environmentalists Need to Be Socialists
As these and other authors have shown, capitalism is incompatible with a sustainable future. The capitalist system, an economic growth machine propelled by fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution, is a primary culprit in climate change and the wider ecological crisis on Earth. Its irrational logic of endless expansion and accumulation, waste of resources, ostentatious consumption, planned obsolescence, and pursuit of profit at any cost is driving the planet to the brink of the abyss.
Does “green capitalism”—the strategy of reducing environmental impact while maintaining dominant economic institutions—offer a solution? The implausibility of such a Policy Reform scenario is seen most vividly in the failure of a quarter-century of international conferences to effectively address climate change.9 The political forces committed to the capitalist “market economy” that have created the problem cannot be the source of the solution.
For example, at the 2015 Paris climate conference, many countries resolved to make serious efforts to keep average global temperature increases below 2o C (ideally, they agreed, below 1.5o C). Correspondingly, they volunteered to implement measures to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. However, they put no enforcement mechanisms in place nor any consequences for noncompliance, hence no guarantee that any country will keep its word. The US, the world’s second-highest emitter of carbon emissions, is now run by a climate denier who pulled the US out of the agreement. Even if all countries did meet their commitments, the global temperature would rise by 3o C or more, with great risk of dire, irreversible climate change.10
Ultimately, the fatal flaw of green capitalism lies in the conflict between the micro-rationality of the capitalist market, with its short-sighted calculation of profit and loss, and the macro-rationality of collective action for the common good. The blind logic of the market resists a rapid energy transformation away from fossil fuel dependence in intrinsic contradiction of ecological rationality. The point is not to indict “bad” ecocidal capitalists, as opposed to “good” green capitalists; the fault lies in a system rooted in ruthless competition and a race for short-term profit that destroys nature’s balance. The environmental challenge—to build an alternative system that reflects the common good in its institutional DNA—becomes inextricably linked to the socialist challenge.
That challenge requires building what E. P. Thompson termed a “moral economy” founded on non-monetary and extra-economic, social-ecological principles and governed through democratic decision-making processes.11 Far more than incremental reform, what is needed is the emergence of a social and ecological civilization that brings forth a new energy structure and post-consumerist set of values and way of life. Realizing this vision will not be possible without public planning and control over the “means of production,” the physical inputs used to produce economic value, such as facilities, machinery, and infrastructure.
An ecological politics that works within prevailing institutions and rules of the “market economy” will fall short of meeting the profound environmental challenges before us. Environmentalists who do not recognize how “productivism” flows from the logic of profit are destined to fail—or, worse, to become absorbed by the system. Examples abound. The lack of a coherent anti-capitalist posture led most of the European Green parties—notably, in France, Germany, Italy, and Belgium—to become mere “eco-reformist” partners in the social-liberal management of capitalism by center-left governments.
Of course, nature did not fare any better under Soviet-style “socialism” than under capitalism. Indeed, that is one of the reasons ecosocialism carries a very different program and vision from the so-called “actually existing socialism” of the past. Since the roots of the ecological problem are systemic, environmentalism needs to challenge the prevailing capitalist system, and that means taking seriously the twenty-first-century synthesis of ecology and socialism—ecosocialism.
Why Socialists Need to Be Environmentalists
The survival of civilized society, and perhaps much of life on Planet Earth, is at stake. A socialist theory, or movement, that does not integrate ecology as a central element in its program and strategy is anachronistic and irrelevant.
Climate change represents the most threatening expression of the planetary ecological crisis, posing a challenge without historical precedent. If global temperatures are allowed to exceed pre-industrial levels by more than 2° C, scientists project increasingly dire consequences, such as a rise in the sea level so large that it would risk submerging most maritime towns, from Dacca in Bangladesh to Amsterdam, Venice, or New York. Large-scale desertification, disturbance of the hydrological cycle and agricultural output, more frequent and extreme weather events, and species loss all loom. We’re already at 1° C. At what temperature increase—5, 6, or 7° C—will we reach a tipping point beyond which the planet cannot support civilized life or even becomes uninhabitable?
Particularly worrisome is the fact that the impacts of climate change are accumulating at a much faster pace than predicted by climate scientists, who—like almost all scientists—tend to be highly cautious. The ink no sooner dries on an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report when increasing climate impacts make it seem too optimistic. Where once the emphasis was on what will happen in the distant future, attention has turned increasingly to what we face now and in the coming years.
Some socialists acknowledge the need to incorporate ecology, but object to the term “ecosocialism,” arguing that socialism already includes ecology, feminism, antiracism, and other progressive fronts. However, the term ecosocialism, by suggesting a decisive change in socialist ideas, carries important political significance. First, it reflects a new understanding of capitalism as a system based not only on exploitation but also on destruction—the massive destruction of the conditions for life on the planet. Second, ecosocialism extends the meaning of socialist transformation beyond a change in ownership to a civilizational transformation of the productive apparatus, the patterns of consumption, and the whole way of life. Third, the new term underscores the critical view it embraces of the twentieth-century experiments in the name of socialism.
Twentieth-century socialism, in its dominant tendencies (social democracy and Soviet-style communism), was, at best, inattentive to the human impact on the environment and, at worst, outright dismissive. Governments adopted and adapted the Western capitalist productive apparatus in a headlong effort to “develop,” while remaining largely oblivious of the profound negative costs in the form of environmental degradation.
The Soviet Union is a perfect example. The first years after the October Revolution saw an ecological current develop, and a number of measures to protect the environment were, in fact, enacted. But by the late 1920s, with the process of Stalinist bureaucratization underway, an environmentally heedless productivism was being imposed in industry and agriculture by totalitarian methods, while ecologists were marginalized or eliminated. The 1986 Chernobyl accident stands as a dramatic emblem of the disastrous long-term consequences.
Changing who owns property without changing how that property is managed is a dead-end. Socialism must place democratic management and reorganization of the productive system at the heart of the transformation, along with a firm commitment to ecological stewardship. Not socialism or ecology alone, but ecosocialism.
The struggle for green socialism in the long term requires fighting for concrete and urgent reforms in the near term. Without illusions about the prospects for a “clean capitalism,” the movement for deep change must try to reduce the risks to people and planet, while buying time to build support for a more fundamental shift. In particular, the battle to force the powers that be to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions remains a key front, along with local efforts to shift toward agroecological methods, cooperative solar energy, and community management of resources.
Such concrete, immediate struggles are important in and of themselves because partial victories are vital for combating environmental deterioration and despair about the future. For the longer term, these campaigns can help raise ecological and socialist consciousness and promote activism from below. Both awareness and self-organization are decisive preconditions and foundations for radically transforming the world system. The synthesis of thousands of local and partial efforts into an overarching systemic global movement forges the path to a Great Transition: a new society and mode of life.
This vision infuses the popular idea of a “movement of movements,” which arose out of the global justice movement and the World Social Forums and which for many years has fostered the convergence of social and environmental movements in a common struggle. Ecosocialism is but one current within this larger stream, with no pretense that it is “more important” or “more revolutionary” than others. Such a competitive claim counterproductively breeds polarization when what is needed is unity.
Rather, ecosocialism aims to contribute to a shared ethos embraced by the various movements for a Great Transition. Ecosocialism sees itself as part of an international movement: since global ecological, economic, and social crises know no borders, the struggle against the systemic forces driving these crises must also be globalized. Many significant intersections are surfacing between ecosocialism and other movements, including efforts to link eco-feminism and ecosocialism as convergent and complementary.12 The climate justice movement brings antiracism and ecosocialism together in the struggle against the destruction of the living conditions of communities suffering discrimination. In indigenous movements, some leaders are ecosocialists, while, in turn, many ecosocialists sees the indigenous way of life, grounded in communitarian solidarity and respect for Mother Nature, as an inspiration for the ecosocialist perspective. Similarly, ecosocialism finds voice within peasant, trade-union, degrowth, and other movements.
The gathering movement of movements seeks system change, convinced that another world is possible beyond commodification, environmental destruction, exploitation, and oppression. The power of entrenched ruling elites is undeniable, and the forces of radical opposition remain weak. But they are growing, and stand as our hope for halting the catastrophic course of capitalist “growth.” Ecosocialism contributes an important perspective for nurturing understanding and strategy for this movement for a Great Transition.
Walter Benjamin defined revolutions not as the locomotive of history, à la Marx, but as humanity’s reaching for the emergency brake before the train falls into the abyss. Never have we needed more to reach as one for that lever and lay new track to a different destination. The idea and practice of ecosocialism can help guide this world-historic project.
An exchange prompted by the essay Why Ecosocialism: For a Red-Green Future
Herman Daly is an ecological economist and Emeritus Professor at the University of Maryland, School of Public Policy. He previously served as a Senior Economist in the Environment Department of the World Bank and was the co-founder and associate editor of the journal Ecological Economics. He has written extensively on theorizing the steady-state economy and co-developed the Index of Sustainable Welfare.
Those of us old enough to remember the Cold War know that it was basically a contest between Socialism and Capitalism to see who could grow faster, and thereby accumulate more wealth and military power. The audience was the uncommitted countries of the world who would supposedly adopt the economic system of the winner of the growth race. What happened? Basically, Socialism collapsed, and Capitalism won by default. The losers (Russia, China, Eastern Europe) got back in the growth race by adopting State Capitalism, and China has become the growth champion. The present system of world growthism, in the broadly capitalist mode, is triumphant. But growthism itself has turned out to be a false god because growth in our finite and entropic world now increases ecological and social costs faster than production benefits, making us poorer, not richer (except for the top few percent). Recognition of this reversal is obscured by the fact that our national accounts (GDP) do not subtract the costs of growth, but effectively add them by counting the expenditures incurred to defend ourselves from the unsubtracted costs of growth. Even more egregiously, GDP counts the consumption of natural capital as income. Growthism is consuming the life support capacity of the ecosystem for the benefit of a small minority of the present generation, while shifting the real but uncounted costs on to the poor, future generations, and other species.13
Ecosocialists, ably represented by the distinguished scholar Michael Löwy, seem to recognize this disaster, so environmentalists and ecological economists are inclined to be glad of their help in opposing rampant growthist capitalism. We certainly need help. But how much help in developing a workable green economy are red ecosocialists likely to be? Maybe not much, for reasons suggested below.
Marx himself was overwhelmingly a perceptive critic of capitalism, and hardly at all an architect of socialism, which remained for him a vague prophetic vision. Marxist socialist states have an impressive historical record of economic failure, political oppression, and abuse of human rights and religious freedom. The net flow of refugees was decidedly away from, not toward, socialist countries. How does Löwy deal with this well-documented and very negative historical experience? First by frankly recognizing it, and then by asking us to simply ignore the “actually existing socialisms of the twentieth century” and focus on Marxist theory instead. This reminds me of the growth economists who ask us to focus on the elegance of neoclassical optimization theory and downplay the massive external costs and monopoly concentration of wealth and power of actual corporate capitalism. Theory is always neater than reality—for both capitalism and socialism. While Scandinavian socialism is an example from which we can benefit, Marxist socialist economies no longer exist (except for North Korea). Our given starting point for reform is rampant growthist capitalism. If socialism had won the disastrous growth race, then we would be starting our reforms from socialist initial conditions, and Marxist theory would have been more relevant. But that did not happen, however much Marxists may regret the fact.
If one believes that Marxist theory is nevertheless true, then it would be worth starting over on that basis. But it contains basic errors that would likely lead to a repeated failure. Marxists have been very slow to recognize the reality of limits to growth, in spite of Marx’s now oft-quoted prescient paragraph about “metabolic rift”—a paragraph certainly worth building on. Furthermore, there are some basic reasons for Marxists’ unwillingness to identify growth as the core problem. Marx dismissed any appeal to morality or sharing as “utopian socialism.” The “new socialist man” would emerge from his bourgeois greed only on the basis of overwhelming material abundance, emerging under historically determined scientific socialism, “guided” by the dictatorship of the proletariat. Overwhelming abundance requires growth to the point that scarcity is objectively overcome, and therefore the moral demands for sharing scarce goods, emphasized by the “utopian” socialists, become unnecessary in “scientific” socialism.
Löwy has a section on growth, in which he opines that “[t]he issue is not excessive consumption in the abstract, but the prevalent type of consumption” dominated by fashion and advertising. I agree with his criticism of advertising, but the basic problem is the actual, not abstract, level of per capita resource consumption, mainly of the wealthy, not just the frivolous things they consume. And of course the number of consumers. There is no discussion of limiting resource consumption, much less limiting population growth—the latter a topic which Marxists, as well as the capitalist cheap-labor lobby, go far out of their way to avoid. With the exception of post-Maoist China, Marxist regimes have generally thought that more people are better than fewer, a view that environmentalists would actually agree with, as long as the people are not all alive at the same time! Marx’s hatred for Malthus and his dismissal of overpopulation are well known, and continue to mute Marxist attention to limits to growth.
Löwy, and Marxists in general, take a very dim view of markets and a very rosy view of central planning. There is plenty of need for both markets and planning, depending on the type of good in question. Goods are either physically rival or non-rival, and either legally excludable or non-excludable. My shirt is a rival good—if I am wearing it, you can’t wear it at the same time. It is also excludable because I have the right to keep you from wearing it, or to allow you to. Goods that are both rival and excludable are market goods that can be, and usually are, allocated by markets. Goods that are non-rival and non-excludable are pure public goods, like a just legal and ethical code or the Pythagorean Theorem, for which there can be no market. Goods that are rival but non-excludable, like fish caught on the high seas or water pumped from an aquifer, are subject to the tragedy of the open-access commons and require collective action to avoid overexploitation. Goods that are non-rival but excludable, like patented knowledge or information, are inefficiently allocated, and the revenue from their artificial price is unjustly distributed by markets. For the last three categories, markets work poorly or not at all, and consequently, collective planning is necessary. That should provide plenty of opportunity for ecosocialists’ contributions! For market goods, a large category including the basics of food, clothing, and shelter, market allocation usually works better than planning, if governments can limit or regulate monopoly. Since three of the four categories require government planning, it is doubly important to avoid overloading government capacity for needed collective planning by unnecessarily imposing it on the large first category as well.
However, Löwy, and Marxists generally, have an ideological antipathy to markets—to supply and demand, and prices, and especially to profit. They prefer central planning, or as Löwy calls it robust “democratic ecological planning.” If Löwy means economic planning in the light of ecological limits, then we would need much more discussion of limits. The historical failure of War Communism with its direct physical requisitioning of goods was corrected by Lenin’s New Economic Policy, which reinstated considerable reliance on markets. That socialist lesson seems to be ignored. Likewise ignored are the theoretical criticisms of even socialist economists, such as those of Oskar Lange, who in his On the Economic Theory of Socialism demonstrates how markets can efficiently serve socialism as well as capitalism. Löwy dismisses criticism of central planning as “conservative fearmongering.” Instead, he tells us that “the core of ecosocialism is the concept of democratic ecological planning, wherein the population itself, not ‘the market’ or a Politburo, make the main decisions about the economy.”
Imagine the consequences of market goods (food, clothing, and shelter, plus a whole lot more) being “freely distributed, according to the will of the citizens.” The democratic will of the citizens is to be expressed by voting. How much steel shall we produce? Citizens vote. How much of that steel will go to the production of, say, wood screws, for example? The citizens vote again. Of the wood screws how many will be round head, how many flat head countersunk, slot head, or Phillips head? How many cadmium-plated; how many chrome-plated? And some screws are made of brass or aluminum, not steel. And how many of each length and diameter, etc.? And who shall receive how many of each type? The citizens robustly and democratically vote again and again as conditions change, although most have no idea of the myriad special uses of different types of screw, and may not even know which end of a screwdriver to hold.
Meanwhile those people who actually use screws and know their uses are not able to “vote” with their money in markets and thereby convey reliable information to producers about what mix of the nearly infinitely many types of screw is most needed, and would be most profitable to produce. Instead we have all citizens spending absurd amounts of their time “democratically” voting, mostly about things they don’t understand, while those with the most information about actual use-values of screws are “disenfranchised” by the absence of markets. Yet Löwy claims that in a planned ecosocialist economy, “use-value would be the only criteria for the production of goods and services.” Use-value as judged mostly by non-users—what could possibly go wrong?
With so much effort wasted on attempting to plan the allocation of market goods, there will be little capacity left to plan the use of true public goods, to avoid the tragedy of the commons and the larcenous market enclosure of non-rival goods. Of course, the humble wood screw is only one of millions of market goods that would be grossly misallocated by “democratic ecological planning.” If one thinks my example of the wood screw is too trivial, then ask the same questions about a more complex commodity of your choice. Löwy expects that “as the ecosocialist transition moves forward, more products and services critical for meeting fundamental human needs would be freely distributed, according to the will of the citizens.” Overwhelming material abundance and the “new socialist man” will apparently have arrived, along with the abolition of scarcity. But with little discussion of growth or its costs.
Without markets (supply and demand, prices, and yes, profit), there could be no self-employment. Everyone would be a salaried employee of the state, giving the state monopsony power in the labor market. No one could identify a needed good or service and make a living by providing it. Happily, Löwy at least would allow small shops and artisan enterprises to escape the planner.
Ecosocialism aspires to be egalitarian and ecologically sustainable. But nothing is said in this essay about proper limits to the range of inequality in the distribution of income and wealth. Should the richest citizen be four times as wealthy as the poorest, as Plato thought? Ten times? A thousand times? And what do ecosocialists think about macro limits to growth of resource throughput? Many of the ecosocialists’ objections to market allocation would disappear if the underlying degree of inequality of wealth and income distribution were more formally and tightly limited, and if the aggregate scale of throughput of energy and materials were restricted to some level of ecological sustainability. Instead of correcting excessive throughput scale, and excessive distributional inequality, which of course are reflected in market prices and allocation, ecosocialists just attack market allocation itself, as if underlying scale and distribution problems could be solved by breaking the mirror that reflects them. What are ecosocialists’ policies for directly limiting throughput scale and distributional inequality? Voting is indeed required at this point, but there must be some policy to vote on. And in the three categories where planning has long been recognized as necessary, what policies are recommended for providing and financing public goods, for avoiding overexploitation of the commons, and for protecting non-rival goods from illicit privatization?
John Bellamy Foster
John Bellamy Foster is the editor of Monthly Review and a Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon. His research is devoted to critical inquiries into theory and history, focusing primarily on the economic, political, and ecological contradictions of capitalism and imperialism, but also encompassing the wider realm of social theory as a whole. He is the author of The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism (1986, 2014), The Vulnerable Planet (1994, 1999), Marx’s Ecology (2000), Ecology Against Capitalism (2002), Critique of Intelligent Design (with Brett Clark and Richard York, 2008), The Ecological Revolution (2009), The Great Financial Crisis (with Fred Magdoff, 2009), The Ecological Rift (with Brett Clark and Richard York, 2010), What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know about Capitalism (with Fred Magdoff, 2011), The Endless Crisis (with Robert W. McChesney, 2012), and Marx and the Earth (with Paul Burkett, forthcoming 2016).
When reading Michael Löwy’s “Why Ecosocialism,” I found myself in almost complete agreement (although, I would admit, I was disturbed by Löwy’s misreading of the urgency of the climate emergency). It is true I would have said some things differently, and there are many things that I think might have been included and that are vital which are left out of his short piece. Nevertheless, I would be happy generally to have Löwy’s statement stand as an extension of my own 2015 piece for GTI, “Marxism and Ecology: Towards a Great Transition.” The reason is that for me he presents the revolutionary perspective that is needed today. While it is certainly possible to go beyond what he has to say (there is not enough on materialism, embodiment, racism, gender, social reproduction, imperialism, Indigenous peoples, depeasantization, expropriation, nonhuman species, and many other core issues in his short statement), such attempts to “go beyond” or deepen his analysis would clearly be welcomed by Löwy himself and would easily fit into and ground his vision. Perhaps I have also been affected by the fact that I have just been reading his stunning Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s “On History.”
Critics of Löwy’s perspective fall into two groups: those who, for various reasons, often described as pragmatic, would prefer a Lesser Transition, and those that seek to chart a revolutionary Great Transition—in some respects more revolutionary than Löwy himself managed to present, though consistent with his vision of ecosocialism. First and foremost, among those who, seek a Lesser Transition I would include Herman Daly, whose work has enormously impressed me over the years and from whom I have learned a great deal and have enormous admiration. Daly insists, in a powerful critique of business as usual, on the need for a steady-state economy, which means an economy with no net capital formation. But he believes this can be done within a capitalist free-market institutional context. This strikes me as what Paul Sweezy once called “utopian reformism.” For Daly, socialism is off the table because of what transpired in the Soviet Union. The idea of a more rock-bottom socialism that stands for substantive equality and ecological sustainability seems to him to be a kind of impossibility theorem, much less a system that combines democratic planning with some reliance on markets. From my standpoint, though, such views are stuck in the old Cold War divide. We have to create a movement toward socialism, a twenty-first century socialism as an ongoing struggle, which seeks to go beyond the pursuit of profit and capital accumulation and the reliance on commodity markets, if we are to have any hope of coming out of the tunnel. We can’t afford a Lesser Transition that begins and ends with the quantitative notion of “no growth,” as if this in itself is enough, and that does not address substantive equality, while pretending to address ecological sustainability—as if the two were not inseparable. The goal has to be sustainable human development, which must necessarily make room for the poorest countries to develop.
Likewise, I find myself at odds with the approach of those among Löwy’s critics who promote an eco-localism, having sworn off politics at higher levels due to a sense of fatalism. It should be remembered that ecosocialism is a world movement, and we cannot judge the world by the yardstick of Washington politics. Such eco-localists believe that we have to work within the established political order and thus mainly on a regional or local level, where we can exert control, while the Trumps, Bolsonaros, and Exxon Mobils are taking over the world. This comes with an emphasis on adaptation at the expense of mitigation as if it is time to accept our fate. The local/regional struggle is critical (everyone remembers the slogan “think globally and act locally”), but we are living in an age of planetary emergency and a Great Transition has to address the logic of capitalism itself.
What is needed in such a transitionary movement at present is something both more and less than simply overthrowing capitalism. We need, through our struggles to move against the logic of capitaland at all levels and in all spheres of society—to abandon a “creative destruction” that puts profits before people and the planet. And that battle at its highest level is what ecosocialism is about.
Although reformist solutions are insufficient, they can buy us precious time while we push for systemic change.
Kerryn Higgs is an Australian writer and historian. She is currently a University Associate at the University of Tasmania and a fellow of the Club of Rome. Her research has focused on the intersection of the environment, social justice, and social-ecological limits. Her latest book—Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet—was published in 2014.
Thanks to Michael Löwy for setting out some of the possible positive social structures that might emerge from pursuing an ecosocialist destination for the Great Transition. And thanks to everyone for such a varied and stimulating discussion.
Whatever form the Great Transition takes, it must both address the destruction of the ecological basis of Nature (and human civilization) and deal with the legacy of centuries of imperialism and the endemic poverty of billions of people.
Like Löwy, I am skeptical that capitalism, especially in its current corporate and transnational form, can carry out either of those crucial tasks. Driven by the profit motive and dependent on consumption for consumption’s sake (i.e., intractable waste), it is liquidating the natural world and simultaneously deepening inequalities. Though we may continue to use market processes for certain allocation functions, we have to get past the ideological insanity of the last forty-odd years where markets are supposed to solve all social problems. As Herman Daly argued long ago, markets cannot supply just distribution or sustainable scale. But both are indispensable.
It is fair to say, as some have said in this debate, that Marxists (and the Left in general) have been slow to recognize the ecological dimensions of the current crisis. And we still hear the argument that fixing distribution problems will automatically lead to ecological sustainability. Growth of both population and production scale are thought by some on the Left to warrant no particular attention.
But socialism is a broad concept. Communist regimes of the twentieth century are not terribly relevant, with the partial exception of post-1990 Cuba, where sustainable practices were imposed by the withdrawal of fossil fuel subsidies when the Soviet Union collapsed. Life expectancy in Cuba is now as high as in the US, and Cuba provides medical access for everyone. On both my crucial criteria, they are doing a lot better than most of the West.
In this connection, I am often reminded of formulations of human rights made back in the 1940s (UN Declaration, 1948; and FDR’s “four freedoms,” 1941) which ranked the rights to food, shelter, work, etc., alongside those to belief and free speech. The prevailing notion of human rights now refers principally to the right to speak and habeas corpus, while excluding all aspects of material survival—which is designated as the problem of the individual. Cuba has lacked the former but has addressed the material rights better than most countries.
While supporting much that Michael says, my main criticism of his essay is the lack of urgency. Michael says, “We’re already at 1 degree C. At what temperature increase—5, 6, or 7 °C—will we reach a tipping point beyond which the planet cannot support civilized life?” Sadly, if we were to have to wait until such temperatures occur, we are history.
The evidence shows that only drastic immediate changes will suffice and thus allow time for any transition. The situation is dire; we now face ecological emergency. Not just climate, but species loss, nitrogen and phosphorous contamination of waterways and groundwater, and the continuing march of forest and wetland conversion, while other forms of pollution, including plastics, are also undiminished.
When we were out on the streets of Australia in the 1970s, pressing for radical change, we still had time, I believe, to make a transition of the kind Löwy favors. Sadly, we were not fully aware that the actual revolution being undertaken at that time was that of the ideologues of “liberalism” and the billionaires who funded their tsunami of think tanks; these would lay the ground to transform the accepted version of “common sense” and lock out social and ecological priorities.
The IPCC said in October that we have only twelve years to accomplish an energy transition; these reports are vetted by governments and reflect the reluctance of the least enthusiastic (such as Australia, Saudi Arabia, US) to engage in any transition at all, so we may fairly deduce that this is a rosy scenario.
In reality, we already face the possibility of runaway warming, even if the Paris targets are met—which seems improbable at present. When potential “tipping cascades” are considered, we may already be heading for something far worse: “hothouse earth.”14 Hans Schellnhuber has argued that Holocene climates are no longer accessible to us and we are heading for conditions such as the mid-Pliocene, three million years ago (+2 °C – 3°C, 400-450ppm), or the mid-Miocene, seventeen million years ago (+5 °C, as much as 500ppm).15 While there is a slight chance that humans might adapt to the former, we have little hope of adapting to the latter.
Up to now, we have not seen a popular upsurge sufficiently strong to mandate a new direction, nor have we seen our corporate-controlled democracies adopt adequate policies to stabilize carbon emissions, species loss, land-use change, or fertilizer contamination of waterways–let alone reduce these. Such policies run counter to the trajectory of capitalist extraction. I place any hope I have in unstoppable public demand from a critical mass of people. In response to our inaction on climate, many of the children of Australia walked out of school in the end of November, despite rebukes from the Prime Minister, and they spoke with compelling passion. We need much more of this.
It is not clarity about where we are going that will achieve any transition, so much as it is finding a way through the thickets of propaganda and resistance. It may be that reformist approaches and specific campaigns that will not ultimately solve the root problems of ecological overshoot are now essential to buy the time we need to slouch towards deliverance.
Giorgos Kallis is an ecological economist, political ecologist, and ICREA Professor at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Barcelona. He is the coordinator of the European Network of Political Ecology and editor of Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era (2014). His research crosses conceptual divides between the social and the natural domains, with particular focus on the political-economic roots of environmental degradation and its uneven impacts across lines of power, income, and class.
Michael Löwy gives an excellent and concise presentation of the ecosocialist vision. I am sympathetic to ecosocialism and do not need much convincing. I am perhaps more indifferent than Löwy to what type of “ism” (or if any type of “ism,” rather than a pluriverse of alternatives) should replace capitalism, but I agree with Löwy that capitalism, in any meaningful sense of the term, is ecologically unsustainable. Given the re-emergence of democratic socialism as a powerful political force in the US and the UK, and in my view as the only real progressive alternative to the two poles of neoliberalism and populist authoritarianism, I think it is important to make sure that democratic socialists are “eco” and not “accelerationists.” Löwy’s efforts in this direction are to be applauded.
Löwy’s text, as any text with such a grand vision, opens more questions than it answers. For instance, the content and procedural details of “democratic ecological planning” are underspecified. What would the democratic councils decide? Everything, including the production of each and every commodity? If mostly everything, how much time would we need to dedicate to them? I just finished reading a Greek translation of Polanyi’s unpublished last writings on classical Athens’s market economy. Citizens spent most of their day in assemblies and juries. Compared to ours, Athens was a simple and non-specialized economy. Still, people had to eat before they debated. Who was producing the food if everyone spent most of their time debating in the agora or being in charge of a public function? Securing grains for a population that left the fields for the polis, Polanyi argues, was the cause behind Athens’s imperial adventures, and eventually over-reach and collapse. To feed its citizens, Athens extracted tribute from vassal cities. I do not mean this as an argument against democracy or democratic planning, but this link between democracy and colonialism as an example invites us to think harder about the metabolic implications and feasibility of our proposals (and I mean this also for myself and those who argue for degrowth).
Moreover, Löwy argues that the issue is not quantity, but quality. Ecosocialism will not produce less, but differently. Again, this may evade some of the tough questions we should be asking. Will a country like the US consume the same amount of energy as it does now under democratic ecosocialism, or reduce it to between 20 and 30% of its current level, closer to a more sustainable world average? If energy use is not to be reduced, only cleaned, how feasible is this, what environmental implications would it have, what impacts and unequal exchanges with other parts of the world from where the materials for renewable energies would come from, and how is this different, as far as the technical content is concerned, from the capitalist ecomodernist vision? If energy use is to be reduced, as I think it should, how would democratic ecosocialism do it, and how will it sustain a popular appeal pushing a transformation that will challenge the core of American lifestyles?
Finally, Löwy starts the section on democratic planning with the argument that some sectors of the economy, such as fossil fuels, “must” be suppressed. This “must,” with which I agree, does not sound very democratic. What if people convene in democratic assemblies and decide that they “must not” (and one can think of democratic socialists in Saudi Arabia or Russia deciding that they want to extract and sell more fossil fuels)? Why would the citizens of a single country decide democratically to limit certain sectors of their economy?
Given that climate change is a global collective action problem, this hints to democratic ecological planning at a global scale. How feasible is this, and how would it work? The “socialism in one country” problem is accentuated by global problems such as climate change. There are few incentives for democratic socialists in any single country to limit themselves while capitalists in others keep consuming out of the global commons as much as possible.
Yes, our vision should be anti-capitalist, but it should be post–nation state as well.
Alex Khasnabish is an anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian writer, researcher, teacher, and organizer. He is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology at Mount Saint Vincent University. His books include The Radical Imagination: Social Movement Research in the Age of Austerity (with Max Haiven) and Zapatismo Beyond Borders: New Imaginations of Political Possibility.
I very much appreciate Michael Löwy’s essay on ecosocialism and the ensuing discussion. I want to point out one dimension of Löwy’s proposals for a red-green alliance that I think needs to be considered: the issue of the state.
I agree entirely that there simply is no future for humanity on this planet that is capitalist. Either our struggles for radical social change will carve out alternatives to capitalism (alternatives that are obviously already present, not just in the form of novel experiments but in so much of the daily, collaborative labor that people do for and with each other that capitalism exists parasitically on top of), or we face a future that will only double down on the grotesque inequality, exclusion, and violence that marks our world now. The richest will escape to ever more exclusive enclaves while they can, and, ultimately, even those will be unable to withstand the kinds of climate and social crises unleashed by our capitalist industrial civilizational model as it caves in on itself. There is no half measure achievable here, no compromise with capital that can be worked out in hopes of making things survivable for a little longer. Like the welfare state before it, “green capitalism” is, at best, a temporary ceasefire declared in the interests of those who are busy hoarding power and wealth aimed at pacifying truly radical movements for social change and social justice.
But I think the one point where I am left wondering with respect to Löwy’s paper is the seeming presumption that the nation-state will remain the unit of organization and transition beyond our apocalyptic capitalist present. While the argument for a red-green alliance makes absolute sense to me, the dimension I would add is that this alliance needs to incorporate an anti-authoritarian and, I would argue, a non-state dimension as well. As a unit of organization, the nation-state arises alongside capitalism to protect property rights, discipline and control the masses, and subsidize and protect in myriad ways capitalist accumulation and wealth-taking. In other modern moments, the nation-state has been occupied by avowedly socialist and communist forces that end up putting the bureaucratic apparatus of the state to work over and against “the masses” and always in the interests of “the revolution.” The outcomes have been predictably nightmarish. Anarchists have long identified the state as an inherently coercive and violent institution, and many of the most inspirational and effective revolutionary movements in recent years (the Zapatistas, the Kurdish struggle for autonomy in Rojava) have repudiated the seizure of the state as a necessary or desirable means to a revolutionary end. Green anarchist approaches like those of Murray Bookchin also resonate here, as do a variety of anti-capitalist, non-state solutions offered by a host of radical Indigenous struggles, especially in the Americas. We don’t need singular models for our resistance and alternatives, but as points of inspiration, these are, I think, amongst the very best and most valuable in pointing the way toward collective liberation.
Löwy’s paper advocates for significant direct democratic planning in this transition away from capitalist ecocide, but I would push this still further by suggesting that while we may indeed need to work within the state form for the time being, the longer-term horizon of human (and other species) survival is not only an anti-capitalist one but a non-state one as well. We cannot afford to be conscripted by the lure of efficacy; the kind of authoritarian power mobilized by the state apparatus is not a pathway to liberation. The global scale of the climate crisis often means radical ecological thinking bends away from these collectively liberated possibilities since the apparatus of the state seems so necessary to implement the solutions necessary to confront this phenomenon. I would certainly grant that radical movements need to be willing to work nimbly within the spaces available at this critical time; there is no utility in occupying a politically pure position. But at the same time, and to quote an old slogan coined by the Industrial Workers of the World, we need to be nimble and adaptable using the tools and opportunities available to us while remaining resolutely committed to “building a new world in the shell of the old.” Familiar forms of hierarchy and domination that have served the ruling classes will not be the pathway for just, democratic, and peaceful futures.
Ashish Kothari is a founder of the Indian environmental group Kalpavriksh. He has coordinated India’s National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan processes, served on the boards of Greenpeace International and India, chaired an IUCN network on protected areas and communities, and helped found the global ICCA Consortium. He helps coordinate the Vikalp Sangam (Alternatives Confluence) and Radical Ecological Democracy networks, and has recently co-edited Alternative Futures: Unshackling Indiaand Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary.
While I concur with Michael Löwy’s assessment of the fundamental flaws of capitalism, and much of what he says regarding the vision of ecosocialism, I feel that (a) on some aspects one needs to go further, and (b) at least one crucial element is missing. Let me elaborate.
(1) The notion of democracy in its Western liberal sense needs to be squarely challenged, for it has spawned competitive, lowest-common-denominator politics across the world. Löwy mentions that “representative democracy must be complemented…and corrected…by Internet-enabled direct democracy.” Given the crucial failures of the former, I think any fundamental paradigm shift needs to stress the centrality of direct, radical, or deep democracy (In India, we would call it Swaraj) in which communities and collectives at local level are the beginning and the most important point of decision-making, with larger circles of decision-making emanating from and accountable to these. This also necessitates the reconceptualization of current political boundaries, including nation-state ones, to give centrality to peoples of the world. Without this, ecosocialism runs the risk of going the former state socialist way, a model that Löwy clearly rejects.
(2) In relation to the above, the ecosocialist notion of the state also needs to be spelled out further. Will there be a state, and if so, what would be its nature? How would one avoid concentration of power in its hands? Which makes me think, why not eco-communism? A society in which power is flatly distributed, where each of us is an equal part of decision-making regarding the commons in our collectives/communities, would that not come closer to anarchist or Marxist notions of communism (which incidentally would also be closer to the Gandhian notion of Swaraj, mentioned above)? By using socialism instead of communism, are Löwy and other ecosocialists explicitly saying that we need to continue to have some kind of centralized state?
(3) It is not clear why ecosocialism would still promote “development,” even if it is a “new development paradigm.” If, by development, one means constant economic unfolding, the consequent material and energy flows remain ever expanding. In this sense, “sustainable development” is an oxymoron, and it is not clear how a “qualitative transformation of development” would help avoid this (unless one believes in the myth that one can effectively and globally decouple growth from material/energy flows). Instead, the radical alternatives of “well-being” (called many different things in many different movements and cultures) need to be embraced by ecosocialists.
(4) It is puzzling why there is no mention of the spiritual aspects of transformation and just, sustainable living. Perhaps this derives from the sidelining of this crucial part of life in Marx’s writings (though I confess to not knowing enough about them to say so conclusively)? For many Eastern/Southern thinkers and practitioners such as Gandhi, spiritual (not necessarily religious) transformation is one core of the path towards achieving peace with the earth and with each other, including for a point that Löwy repeatedly stresses, the reduction in consumerism, or to the “civilizational transformation” he also mentions.
(5) Finally, while Löwy does mention attempts to synthesize ecosocialism with ecofeminism (and commendably acknowledges that ecosocialism is one of many revolutionary movements), it seems to me that the paper largely puts the blame of the current crises on capitalism. Given that patriarchy and masculinity are much older than capitalism (and may indeed be amongst its bases), any new paradigm needs to squarely tackle these structural forces (as also racism, casteism, and other forms of systemic discrimination and exploitation), and integrate such struggles within itself, rather than rely on aligning with other movements that do the same. In the transformational paradigms called “ecoswaraj” or “radical ecological democracy” emerging from movements in India, the attempt is to integrate political, economic, social, cultural, and ecological spheres of transformation, based on a set of ethical or spiritual principles and values (equality/equity, diversity, dignity, commons and cooperation, peace, non-violence, autonomy, etc.). At least the essence of all elements of justice and ecological wisdom needs to be within each such paradigm, even as they may differ from each other on some ideological, strategic, and practical grounds.
Socializing the means of production can’t guarantee ecological sustainability. But it makes it possible.
Fred Magdoff is Emeritus Professor of Plant and Soil Science at the University of Vermont. His research interests include soil science, agriculture and food, the environment, and the US economy. He is the co-author of the third edition of Building Crops For Better Soil: Sustainable Soil Management and What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism.
There are two possibilities, according to an old joke from Eastern Europe. This certainly applies to Löwy’s lucid essay and the comments made so far. Either the system of capitalism—based on producing commodities in order to sell for a profit, compelling competition, propelling perpetual growth (and needing it to avoid recessions and depressions), needing and promoting extreme consumerism, and lacking a built-in mechanism to minimize or avoid social and ecological consequences of production—can somehow be reformed in such a way as to provide equitable access to what is needed for a good life (buen vivir), in which all have the opportunity to reach their full human potential, while regenerating and maintaining environmental health…OR it can’t.
In a book I co-authored with Chris Williams, Creating an Ecological Society: Toward a Revolutionary Transformation, we make the case that it is the way capitalism normally functions that is either the root cause or an aggravator of the critical social and ecological problems we face. The overwhelming economic and political power concentrated in “actually existing capitalism” (as Joseph Stiglitz put it, “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%”) is so great as to make it impossible to bring about the major needed changes to the system without challenging its very existence. And as Joan Robinson wrote in words perhaps truer today than when she wrote them in the 1930s, “Any government which had both the power and the will to remedy the major defects of the capitalist system would have the will and the power to abolish it altogether.”16
It is not an issue of “fossil fuel” or “neoliberal” capitalism, but rather capitalism itself, of which these facets are but symptoms of a certain developmental stage. This does not mean that we shouldn’t be fighting for urgently needed reforms as part of the struggle for a new society, as Löwy points out.
A system under social control (socialism or ecosocialism), instead of one with decisions made by owners of private property, alone cannot guarantee an equitable and ecologically sound outcome. However, it offers the only possibility for this to happen because it affords an opportunity to take social and ecological consequences into consideration (to make rational decisions) when deciding what to produce, how to produce, where to produce, and how much to produce. Moreover, the people making the decisions, workers and people living in communities surrounding workplaces, will have to live with the results of their decisions. In capitalist society, there is no concept as “enough” for the wealthy, but goods and services are rationed for moderate to low-income people. Clearly, there will need to be limits on consumption and modest ways of living (less stuff than a “middle class” consumerist, though rich socially and culturally), but these can be based on societal decisions for all to live with.
For those who want to see a short discussion of what went wrong in post-capitalist societies (“actually existing socialism”), you might find value in the article “Approaching Socialism” (written with my father, Harry Magdoff), in which there is a section titled “Learning from the Failures of Post-Revolutionary Societies.” I would also suggest the same article for those concerned with planning as an issue. Once there is a significant social purpose and goal for the economy, there is no alternative to planning. In fact, the US had a highly successful central plan for production and distribution during the Second World War. With production for the purpose of satisfying the basic needs of the entire population in ecologically sound ways, planning—carried out locally, regionally, and multi-regionally—becomes an essential aspect.
Those who doubt that a Great Transformation to a new society based on substantive equality that incorporates ecological principles and practices will happen in time to avert the impending catastrophe may well be right. But the alternative will not be pretty.
Many young people are searching for something better than capitalism, and we need to help them imagine real alternatives.
Simon Mair is an ecological economist and research fellow at the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP) at the University of Surrey. His work focuses on building narratives about what a desirable and sustainable society might look like and how to get there, including the development of ecological macroeconomic models for exploring the economic dynamics of such societies.
Capitalist realism is the idea that at the level of our cultural imagination, there is no alternative to capitalism. The term originally named a 1960s German pop-art movement concerned with a growing consumer culture. In his 2009 book, Mark Fisher extended the meaning of the term from art to everything. According to Fisher, capitalist realism is the condition where vast swathes of society are unable to imagine alternatives to capitalist social structures.
I am a product of capitalist realism. I was born in 1990, several months after the Berlin Wall was opened. I do not remember the wall coming down. I have no memories of the “actually existing socialism of the past” that Löwy references. In this way, I am a good proxy for the new wave of “socialists” in the UK. (I will focus on the UK context because I know it best, but there are parallels with other countries—not least the US).
The clearest example of the new socialists are those who joined the UK Labour party when Corbyn was elected. Dismissively named “Corbynistas,” we are simultaneously critiqued by many as being radical fools who want planned economies, and middle-class moderates more interested in cheaper train fares than actual economic change. There are grains of truth in both accusations. We do want genuinely radical change. But it is simply much easier to articulate how we deliver on nationalizing the railways than genuinely democratic ownership of all the means of production.
In a nutshell, this is the manifestation of capitalist realism amongst UK millennials: we don’t want capitalism. But we’re not able to articulate just what it is that we do want.
This is the context in which I approached Löwy’s essay, and in this context I think it is valuable. I am sympathetic to the view from skeptics that we do not have time to dismantle capitalism before catastrophic climate change hits. But I fear that misses the point that we need to motivate people to action. I am not convinced that at this particular political moment (at least in the UK), arguing that fighting climate change must mean propping up an increasingly atomistic and alienating society will spur people to action. What anti-capitalist alternatives like Löwy’s offer is hope: fight climate change by building something better. For those living on a steady diet of capitalist realism, the utopian impulse of anti-capitalist programs can be motivating.
If I have a criticism of Löwy’s essay, it is that it does not go into enough detail on the structures of the new ecosocialist world. If ecosocialism, or any alternative, is to motivate climate action by inspiring us to collective political action, it must compete with the capitalist social structures that my generation have lived with all our lives. To do this, the alternative must be presented with enough detail that we can believe it could be real.
The distribution of goods is a good example of my desire to see more detail. To be honest, I am not particularly interested in defending markets. I remain skeptical of the idea that they offer the best possible way to distribute food, clothing, and shelter. Nor am I convinced that markets really can be separated from inequalities of power and money. (Of course, this could just be because I, unlike others here, have not experienced non-market economies firsthand.) But while I am ready to reject market-dominated production, I struggle to understand exactly how distribution would work in the ecosocialist vision Löwy sets out. I understand the principle of nested democratic decision-making, but I struggle to picture concrete structural forms. In my reading, Löwy doesn’t actually do away with markets altogether, but restricts them and puts them under democratic control. But how?
Similarly, what are the cultural principles that guide production in Löwy’s ecosocialist vision? Löwy argues that he is describing a society with a different cultural basis than capitalism. Specifically, one free from commodity fetishism and the imperative of profit making. I know it is a big ask, but I would really like to know what Löwy would like to see replace these cultural imperatives. Personally, I am taken with the idea of a life-centered economy that we find in feminist-socialist works like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland and, more recently, Kathi Weeks’s The Problem with Work. Here the guiding principles for a socialist economy are based on a cultural ethic of care. Is such an ethic compatible with ecosocialism, or does it imply something else altogether?
To wrap up, I would argue that this kind of leftist theory has a crucial role to play in a Great Transition. Growing numbers of people want something better than capitalism. The kind of work done by Löwy here can help to cultivate social imaginations so that those of us who live under capitalist realism are able to imagine something better. Only then will we build towards it and enact change. Löwy’s essay helped me to push at the boundaries of my own capitalism-constrained imagination. But, because capitalism is so real to us, we need more. And in this vein I ask, very unfairly, for Löwy and others to go further, to put more flesh on the bones of this vision and to help me get to the point where this vision is not just vaguely imaginable, but something that can be a tangible objective of political organization.
Socialism must be not only green but also feminist—and that requires recognizing the importance of care work.
Mary Mellor is Professor Emerita at Northumbria University in the UK and the founding Chair of the University’s Sustainable Cities Research Institute. Her work focuses on the development of alternative economies, combining environmental, socialist, and feminist ideas. She is the author of the recent books The Future of Money and Debt or Democracy and is working on a new book on the history of money.
I agree with the main thrust of Michael Löwy’s essay that capitalism is a system that is both grossly unequal/exploitative and ecologically unsustainable. However, I have major problems with the assumptions made about the alternative. The abstract of the paper expresses this as elevating “being” over “having,” which will usher in a “deeper sense of freedom for all.” This echoes Marx’s “kingdom of freedom” that will emerge when exploitative labor and profit-seeking are abandoned—where it will be possible to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and be a critic after dinner. No mention of who cooks the dinner. This is the huge blind spot in much green and socialist writing: lack of attention to the condition of “being.” The ending of capitalism/industrialism/consumerism is seen as opening up an era of choice and fulfillment in harmony with nature.
In order to explore this problem, let us unpack “being.” Humans are embodied beings. They have a life cycle that requires nourishing, physically and emotionally. This requires constant work. Caring, cleaning, comforting, feeding, listening, watching, accompanying. There is no choice about this. If everyone is left to choose whether to carry out these activities people will die, get sick, starve, despair. Nor can this be left to democratic ecological planning. Embodied needs have to be met immediately. It is well recognized that by default this work falls mainly to women and girls whether as mothers, wives, daughters, or low-paid workers. If a red-green future will be bucolic freedom for the ex-workers/consumers, women’s burden of work will never pass from them. To be fair, this burden is also increasingly shared by men where longer lifespans and fewer children mean that many men become caregivers later in life.
There are huge resource implications in the work of embodiment. In the more prosperous modern societies, domestic, caring, and sustenance work is highly energy-consuming: washing machines, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, central heating, hot water, cars to ferry children to school, industrial agriculture and food distribution, household furnishings, readymade clothes. Ending capitalist production and unsustainable energy consumption will not mean freedom from work; it will re-introduce subsistence production. Everything will take longer: walking to school, growing food locally, washing clothes, heating water, cleaning by hand, making and mending.
Nearly thirty years ago, I argued the need for a feminist, green socialism in my book Breaking the Boundaries (Virago 1992). If at long last this is to be realized, radical red-green thinking must start from the realities of the human condition as embodied beings rather than gendered romantic notions of freedom. Democratic ecological planning needs to start from human provisioning in all its elements, not just what currently comprises production. This should begin with a major debate about what to maintain and what to jettison of current living standards.
One area in which such a democratic debate could begin is the size and function of the welfare state. Areas that have been socialized such as nursing, teaching, and caring represent the work of embodiment and development. I would argue that these areas could be expanded into a public/social economy that ensures that everyone has the means of sustenance. To enable such a development, the public economy would need to be rescued from capitalist “handbag economics.” This sees the public sector as dependent upon the “wealth” created by the market. As I explained in my GTI paper “Money for the People,” there is a fundamental misunderstanding about how public expenditure is funded. The public sector does not extract money from the market to spend; it spends money which it then retrieves from the public and private sectors. This gives a completely different dynamic to the public economy—one that can be built into a democratic alternative to the market.
Vishwas Satgar is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. He edits the book series Democratic Marxism and serves as principal investigator for the Emancipatory Futures Studies in the Anthropocene project.
Michael Löwy’s essay on ecosocialism has stimulated an interesting array of critiques from feminists, democrats, eco-capitalists, and more in this exchange. This is an exciting debate and, I would argue, a necessary one to ensure the twenty-first-century return of “socialism” is not grounded in abstract certainties, dogmatic formulas, and intellectual vanguardism. From the African context, particularly South Africa, after two decades of disastrous post-apartheid financialization and unleashing of unbridled markets, we are facing realities that even the World Bank is confounded by in its recent 2018 report. The World Bank suggests that, by any metric, we are one of the most unequal countries in the world. Yet the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) has made these observations since 2014. Their research has shown that the top 10% gets two thirds of South Africa’s income, while half of all South Africans are chronically poor, living in households with a per capita income of R1,149 or less per month.
Beside such hideous inequalities, South Africa has a structurally contracting economy and a carbon intensity per capita surpassing that of China, India, and Brazil. Its democracy has been dramatically weakened by the power that credit rating agencies wield, the grip of monetarist policy that merely privileges globalized interests and systemic levels of corruption, which most political elites have surrendered to, as part of the normalcy of a “market democracy.” Our current drought is the worst in the history of the country and is certainly our first climate shock. Pre-existing inequalities are supplemented by new climate inequalities such as increases in food prices, water privatization, etc. South Africa is a poster nation for a 3-4 degree increase in planetary temperature. Of course, it is not alone alongside other OECD countries, including the US, which has eclipsed Saudi Arabia and Russia in fossil fuel extraction, due to the fracking boom and Trump’s carbon capitalism.
South Africa and its carbon democracy do not have a future with more of the same marketized approach, even in a lightly renovated form, as suggested by economists such as Dani Rodrik. So we are sitting with a National Development Plan (neoliberal, financialized, and marketized), which is meant to guide our development till 2030. This plan includes more exports of primary commodities like minerals and agriculture, reproducing our coal driven minerals-energy complex and a globalized food system while 14 million go hungry every day. Carbon emission scenarios are based on science that is already outdated due to the latest IPCC report, and renewable energy is locked into a ceiling of 20,000 megawatts by 2030 to ensure that the World Bank can recover its loan finance (plus interest) for some of the biggest coal-fired power stations in the world.
South Africa’s National Development Plan is not about democratic planning as envisaged by Löwy. Instead, it is a technocratic ideological device that even fails at class compromise. It speaks to global markets and institutions that merely want to see a disciplined subject, a “good governed” African state that marches in tune with the strictures of the IMF, World Bank, WTO, and the global power structure that manages a globalized capitalism and is not willing to learn lessons from history. Karl Polanyi’s historical sequence, highlighted in The Great Transformation, of marketized capitalism in the late nineteenth century which led to the collapse of the international system and World War I, then again, unleashed with the return to the gold standard and which ultimately led to World War II, does not inform the economics departments or institutions in Europe or the US. After the crash circa 2007-2009, we are returning to more of the same, more dis-embedded markets!
In this context, capitalism has clearly not learned lessons from its past, including the hollowing out of democracy it has engendered, and its current failures. A democracy that privileges the sovereignty of capital over the state and society is not a democracy. It is a market democracy based on the tyranny of the modern corporation. The demos reduced to a political market with limited ideological choices is not a democracy. In this context, is the US taking us into World War III as it tries to reassert its dominance after the recent and ongoing crisis? A naturalized hegemony of capitalism is as dangerous as an unreflective socialism.
Capitalism carries the burden of its horrors, limits, and failures. So does socialism. It does not help the debate to be one-sided on these issues. For socialism, there are two issues in this rich history which ecosocialists cannot run away from and which has been foregrounded in this exchange. Democracy as rule by, with, and for the demos is absolutely necessary. Moreover, markets as embedded, regulated, values-based, and socialized institutions are also absolutely necessary. Radical democracy and markets will have to find a place alongside democratic planning in variegated contexts and through the struggles that are emerging in different societies to prevent the ecocidal extinction of all of us. These institutions cannot be blueprinted, designed, or prescribed, but will emerge as struggles develop to advance democratic systemic reforms to achieve democratic ecosocialisms (plural) in the twenty-first century. Food sovereignty, solidarity economy, climate jobs, socially owned renewable energy, zero waste, and water commoning are just some of the democratic systemic reforms envisaged by current movements at the frontlines of climate justice. They embody radical democracy, socialized markets, and democratic planning as crucial aspects of the logic of these democratic systemic reforms. Moreover, anti-racism and women’s emancipation are central to the imaginary of these decolonizing and transformative alternatives. Many of these democratic systemic reforms feature in a volume I recently edited titled Climate Crisis: Democratic Ecosocialism in South Africa and the World.
Finally, socialism was diverse in the twentieth century—social democracy, Sovietized socialism (and its copies), and revolutionary nationalism (Nyere’s African socialism, Nehruvian socialism in India, etc.). In the Global South in reflecting on our legacies of socialism, we also have to take stock of the paths not taken, which also feed into the constitution of the democratic ecosocialist imagination in the twenty-first century. In this regard, various examples stand out, such as Minqi Li’s critique of China’s socioecological limits and the transformations required. Another example is Gandhi’s critique of Western modernity, commitment to village-based democracy and stewardship of the commons, and his bioethic of living slowly and minimally which did not triumph against Nehru’s productivist and nationalist socialism. Add to this the historical critique by indigenous communities of forced modernization (including productivist socialisms), its dangers, and the need for the validation of indigenous ecologies. Democratic ecosocialism is not merely an intellectual debate; it is central to the practice, struggles, and visions of movements struggling to overcome the eco-fascist logic of carbon capitalism. Moreover, in the twenty-first century, the horizons and imaginary of democratic ecosocialism certainly do not belong exclusively to Marxist ecologists, including myself.
Michael Löwy addresses points raised by the contributors to this roundtable.
Let me begin by thanking Paul Raskin for inviting me to participate in this important dialogue on the Great Transition. I am pleased that my paper on ecosocialism provoked such a lively discussion. Of course, there were many criticisms and polemics, but this will help me to clarify, revise, or reassess my arguments. As Paul Raskin has emphasized elsewhere, the aim of the GT is a post-capitalist civilization. This distinguishes us from the array of well-wishing environmentalists (and/or social-democrats) that still believe that a reasonable solution for the ecological crisis is possible in the framework of the capitalist system (designated by the usual euphemism “market economy”).
I am pleased that Herman Daly, who is not only a distinguished scholar but also a very influential environmentalist, decided to participate in this dialogue. I entirely subscribe to his critique of “growthism” and his call for limiting resource and energy consumption. He describes such “growthism” as a system that is “consuming the life support capacity of the ecosystem for the benefit of a small minority of the present generation, while shifting the real but uncounted costs on to the poor, future generations, and other species.” This is what we are up against.
Most commenters agree on the need for a substantial degrowth in production and consumption. However, there are problems with the concept of degrowth which have to be discussed.
For one, degrowth is a necessary but insufficient term to describe the needed changes. A qualitative distinction between different sorts of activities is essential. As an ecosocialist, I believe that some branches of “production” or services should not “degrow” but be suppressed as soon as possible: coal-fired facilities, coal-mines, oil extraction, weapons production, the advertisement industry, glyphosate pesticides, etc. And we need to suppress in-built obsolescence, which concerns most of the products in capitalist markets. The production and consumption of a number of goods should be significantly reduced (“degrow”): private cars, trucks, air conditioning, meat consumption, etc. And others should grow, such as renewable energies and organic agriculture, which should grow until they practically replace fossil energies and agro-industry. Essential services such as education, health, and culture should grow as well. The concept of “degrowth” does not take into account these decisive differences.
In his comment, Daly speaks of “growthist capitalism.” Does this mean that there can exist a “non-growthist” capitalism? There is no clear answer in his comments. He speaks of a “green economy,” where the basic goods are allocated by the market according to “supply and demand” and where the “profit motive” remains a legitimate driver of economic behavior. This looks suspiciously similar to capitalism. In any case, Daly does not mention postcapitalism as basic presupposition of the Great Transition.
Instead, Daly spends much of his comments criticizing the so-called “really existing socialisms.” Well, I agree with most of his critical remarks. In fact, in my view (and that of many Marxists), these societies were not really “socialist,” but, at best, (failed) attempts of transition from capitalism to socialism. But pointing to the disasters of the USSR to delegitimize any socialist proposal is a Cold War throwback. Such a line of argumentation has lost much of its power recently, particularly in the United States, as a new generation of young people seems to be actively interested in democratic socialist proposals.
I agree with Daly that we need a combination of planning and markets, but the way both are combined in a “green capitalist” and in an ecosocialist economy is quite different. Vishwas Satgar, for example, has some very useful comments on how to combine regulated markets and planning in ecosocialism. Democratic planning of course has nothing to do with the choice between wooden or brass screws (another old argument from the 50s against the idea of planning). As John Bellamy Foster and other ecosocialists point out, it concerns the main issues in production and consumption. For instance, the decision to subsidize organic fruits and vegetables instead of industrial chemical agriculture is a political one, and it would be part of the process of democratic planning. The minutiae of their distribution via markets or other mechanisms? Less so.
I entirely agree with those who underscored the value of eco-localism, ecovillages, etc. Does this mean we should ignore the nation-state? As John Bellamy Foster argues, it is a mistake to remain only on a regional or local level “while the Trumps, Bolsonaros, and Exxon-Mobils are taking over the world.” I have much sympathy for the idea of a non-state political organization, but it cannot remain only at a local level: one must combine action and organization at the local, regional, national, continental, and global levels.
In his discussion of moving beyond the state, Alex Khasnabish refers to Murray Bookchin. In my view, Bookchin’s social ecology is very near to ecosocialism, first of all by its outspoken anticapitalist orientation. My main objection to his socialist municipalism is that it seems grounded in the idea that local communities could be self-contained, or even autarkic. The fascinating Kurdish experience in Northern Syria, based on Bookchin’s ideas and mentioned in the debate, has a more realistic practice, combining local assemblies with a strong democratic political coordination: elected representatives at a Democratic Syrian Council, and a common government for the whole region.
Let me now come to one of the main objections to my paper: that we have no time, that climate change is so urgent (in a few years, it will be too late to stop disastrous global warming) that we cannot wait for ecosocialism. Well, I did not really propose that we “wait”! In my paper, I emphasized that the struggle for green socialism in the long term requires buying time and fighting for concrete and urgent reforms in the near term. The fact that “sustainable capitalism” is as possible as a vegetarian crocodile does not mean that we should not fight for immediate and urgent change.
One of the forms this short-term change can take is a “Green New Deal,” as recently popularized by New York Congresswoman-Elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In some renditions, this would entail the early nationalization of the energy industry in every nation, coupled with their decentralization and with community management and ownership of clean energy. Great! But I see this as a clearly anticapitalist measure, which goes against the most fundamental principles of the system.
Any measure which limits the destruction of nature, even if on a limited, local scale—such as stopping the Keystone XL pipeline—is vital. But I see these measures as a process, leading to growing antisystemic opposition, not as the effort to create a stable “sustainable capitalism.”
Several participants (Simon Mair, Mary Mellor, Ashish Kothari) criticized me for lacking details, for not providing a more concrete description of how ecosocialism works and how we get there. For one, I had a limited number of words. But, more importantly, my ecosocialist proposal does not aim at a detailed blueprint, a readymade system, because flexibility and openness are needed, and, frankly, I do not have the answer to all questions.
As Bellamy Foster noted, there are many proposals to “go beyond” and deepen the analysis. Let me mention a few:
Indigenous struggles: Indigenous communities, for instance in the Americas, from Canada to Patagonia, are on the forefront of the struggle against capitalist destruction of the environment, against the razing of forests and poisoning of waters. They are at the moment the socio-ecological vanguard of humanity, and their fight in defense of the Amazonian forest is of utmost importance for the future of climate in the planet. It should be added that women are often the most active component of these traditional communities, from which we have much to learn. As the well-known Peruvian indigenous leader Hugo Blanco used to say, “We have been practicing ecosocialism for the last 5 centuries.”
Class struggle: Of course, this is essential for a true system change. But it cannot be reduced, as it is often done, to the struggle between industry workers and factory owners. For a social-ecological transition, a broad anticapitalist coalition is needed, including workers (male and female), unemployed people, homemakers, farmers, indigenous communities, racial minorities, students, artists, youth, and poor people in general, against the entrenched fossil oligarchy.
Care, discussed, for example, by Mary Mellor and Simon Mair: I believe that a culture of care ethics, both in human relations, and towards our Mother Earth, is perhaps the most important contribution of ecofeminism to the ecosocialist project.
- Joel Kovel, Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World? (New York, Zed Books, 2002), 215.
- Via Campesina, a worldwide network of peasant movements, has long argued for this type of agricultural transformation. See https://viacampesina.org/en/.
- Ernest Mandel, Power and Money: A Marxist Theory of Bureaucracy (London, Verso, 1992), 206.
- The opposition between “having” and “being” is often discussed in the Manuscripts of 1844. On free time as the foundation of the socialist “Kingdom of Freedom,” see Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Volume III, Marx-Engels-Werke series, vol. 25 (1884; Berlin: Dietz Verlag Berline, 1981), 828.
- Paul Burkett, Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy (Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2009), 329.
- Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Volume 1, Marx-Engels-Werke series, vol. 23 (1867; Berlin: Dietz Verlag Berlin, 1981), 528-530.
- See, for example, Manuel Sacristan, Pacifismo, Ecología y Política Alternativa (Barcelona: Icaria, 1987); Raymond Williams, Socialism and Ecology (London: Socialist Environment and Resources Association, 1982); André Gorz, Ecology as Politics (Boston, South End Press, 1979); Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle: Man, Nature, and Technology (New York: Random House, 1971).
- “An Ecosocialist Manifesto,” 2001, http://environment-ecology.com/political-ecology/436-an-ecosocialist-manifesto.html; “Belem Ecosocialist Declaration,” December 16, 2008, http://climateandcapitalism.com/2008/12/16/belem-ecosocialist-declaration-a-call-for-signatures/.
- See https://www.greattransition.org/explore/scenarios for an overview of the Policy Reform scenario and other global scenarios.
- United Nations Environment Programme, The Emissions Gap Report 2017 (Nairobi: UNEP, 2017). For an overview of the report, see https://news.un.org/en/story/2017/10/569672-un-sees-worrying-gap-between-paris-climate-pledges-and-emissions-cuts-needed.
- E. P. Thompson “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past & Present, no. 50 (February 1971): 76-136.
- See Ariel Salleh’s Ecofeminism as Politics (New York: Zed Books, 1997), or the recent issue of Capitalism, Nature and Socialism (29, no. 1: 2018) on “Ecofeminism against Capitalism,” with essays by Terisa Turner, Ana Isla, and others.
- See my earlier essay “Economics for a Full World,” Great Transition Initiative (June 2015), https://greattransition.org/publication/economics-for-a-full-world.
- Will Steffen et al., “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” PNAS, 115, no. 33 (August 2018): 8252-8259, http://www.pnas.org/content/115/33/8252.
- Hans Schellnhuber, “2018 Aurelio Peccei Lecture: Climate, Complexity, Conversion,” 50th Anniversary Summit of the club of Rome, October 17, 2018, Augustinian Patristic Institute, Rome, Italy, tinyurl.com/yavzm6s8.
- Joan Robinson, “Review of R.F. Harrod, The Trade Cycle,” Economic Journal 46, no. 184 (December 1936): 691–693.