Ecosocialism

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By MICHAEL LÖWY*

The emergence of a social and ecological civilization based on a new energy structure and a set of values ​​and post-consumer lifestyles is essential.

Capitalism and ecological crisis

Contemporary capitalist civilization is in crisis. The unlimited accumulation of capital, the commodification of everything, the relentless exploitation of work and nature and the resulting ecological catastrophe compromise the foundations of a sustainable future, thus endangering the very survival of the human species.

The capitalist system, an economic growth machine powered by fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution, is responsible for climate change and the wider ecological crisis on the planet. Its irrational logic of endless expansion and accumulation brings the planet to the brink of an abyss.

Does “green capitalism” – the strategy of reducing environmental impact while maintaining dominant economic institutions – offer a solution? The improbability of such a political reform scenario is illustrated most startlingly by the failure of a quarter of a century of international conferences – the COP – to deal with climate change. The political forces committed to the capitalist “market economy” that created the problem cannot be the source of the solution.

The recent COP 26 (Glasgow, 2021), bringing together governments from all over the planet, perfectly illustrates the impossibility of a solution to the crisis within the limits of the system. Instead of concrete measures over the next 5-10 years – a necessary condition, according to scientists, to avoid global warming above 1,5°C –, we got ridiculous promises of “carbon neutrality” for 2050, or even (India ), 2070… Instead of precise and quantified commitments of immediate suspension of the exploration of new sources of fossil energy (coal, oil), we obtained vague promises of “reduction” of its consumption.

Ultimately, the fatal defect of green capitalism resides in the conflict between the micro-rationality of the capitalist market, with its myopic calculation of profits and losses, and the macro-rationality of collective action for the common good. The blind logic of the market resists a rapid energy transformation to move away from dependence on fossil fuels: it is in intrinsic contradiction with ecological rationality. It is not a question of accusing the “bad” ecocidal capitalists, as opposed to the “good” green capitalists; it is the fault of a system anchored in relentless competition and a race for short-term profit that destroys the balance of nature.

An ecological policy that works within the framework of the dominant institutions and rules of the “market economy” will not be able to face the profound environmental challenges with which we are confronted. Ecologists who do not recognize that “productivism” stems from the logic of profit are doomed to failure – or, even worse, to be absorbed into the system. Examples abound. The lack of a coherent anti-capitalist position has led most European green parties – especially in France, Germany, Italy and Belgium – to become mere “ecoreformist” partners in the neoliberal, or social-liberal, management of capitalism by governments.

Much more than an illusory reform of the system, the emergence of a social and ecological civilization based on a new energy structure and on a set of post-consumerist values ​​and lifestyles is essential: ecosocialism. The realization of this vision will not be possible without public planning and control of the “means of production”, that is, of the installations, machines and infrastructures.

 

Ecosocialism and ecological planning

The core of ecosocialism is the concept of democratic ecological planning, in which the population itself, not the “market”, or bankers and industrialists, or a politburo bureaucratic, which makes the main decisions regarding the economy. At the beginning of the transition to this new way of life, with its new mode of production and consumption, some sectors of the economy must be suppressed (for example, the extraction of fossil fuels involved in the climate crisis) or restructured, while new sectors are developed.

Ultimately, such a view is irreconcilable with private control of the means of production. In particular, for investment and technological innovation to serve the common good, decision-making must be taken out of the capitalist banks and companies that currently dominate, and placed in the public domain. It will then be society itself, and not a small oligarchy of landowners or an elite of technobureaucrats, that will democratically decide which production lines should be prioritized, and which resources should be invested in education, health or culture. Big decisions about investment priorities – such as closing all coal-fired power plants or shifting farm subsidies towards organic production – will be taken by direct popular vote. Other less important decisions will be taken by elected bodies at the national, regional or local level.

Contrary to what the apologists of capitalism claim, democratic ecological planning ultimately provides more freedom, not less, for several reasons. First, it offers a liberation from the reified “economic laws” of the capitalist system that chain individuals in what Max Weber called an “iron cage”. Second, ecosocialism suggests a substantial increase in free time. Planning and the reduction of working time are the two decisive steps towards what Marx called “the realm of freedom”. Indeed, a significant increase in free time is a condition for workers' participation in the discussion and democratic management of the economy and society. Finally, democratic ecological planning represents the exercise by a whole society of its freedom to control decisions that affect its destiny. If the democratic ideal does not confer political decision-making power on a small elite, why shouldn't the same principle apply to economic decisions?

Under capitalism, use value – the welfare value of a product or service – exists only in the service of exchange value, or market value. Thus, in capitalist society, many products are socially useless or designed to quickly become unusable (“planned obsolescence”): the only criterion is profit maximization. On the other hand, in a planned ecosocialist economy, use value would be the only criterion for the production of goods and services, with considerable economic, social and ecological consequences.[1]

Planning would focus on the big economic decisions rather than small-scale decisions that might affect local restaurants, grocery stores, small stores or craft businesses. It is important to note that such planning is compatible with the self-management of workers in their production units. The decision, for example, to transform a car production plant into a modern bus and tram production plant would be taken by society as a whole, but the internal organization and operation of the company would be democratically managed by its workers. Much has been discussed about the “centralized” or “decentralized” character of planning, but what is most important is democratic control at all levels – local, regional, national, continental or international. For example, planetary ecological problems such as global warming must be dealt with on a worldwide scale and therefore require some form of worldwide democratic planning. This integral democratic decision-making is the opposite of what is generally described, often dismissively, as “central planning”, in that decisions are not taken by any “centre” but decided democratically by the population involved, on the scale appropriate.

A democratic and pluralist debate would take place at all levels. Through parties, platforms or other political movements, varied proposals would be submitted to the people, and delegates would be elected accordingly. However, representative democracy must be complemented – and corrected – by direct democracy, in which people choose – locally, nationally and, later, globally – between major social and ecological options. Should public transport be free? Should private car owners pay special taxes to subsidize public transport? Should solar energy be subsidized to compete with fossil energy? Should the work week be reduced to 30 hours, 25 hours or less, with consequent reduction in production?

What guarantee is there that people will make ecologically sound decisions? None. Ecosocialism bets that democratic decisions will become increasingly thoughtful and enlightened as culture changes and the hold of commodity fetishism is broken. Such a new society cannot be imagined without the population reaching, through struggle, self-education and social experience, a high level of socialist and ecological awareness. In any case, aren't the alternatives to democracy – the power of finance capital or an ecological dictatorship of “experts” – much more dangerous?

The transition from destructive capitalist progress to ecosocialism is a historic process, a permanent revolutionary transformation of society, culture and mentalities. The realization of this transition leads not only to a new mode of production and an egalitarian and democratic society, but also to an alternative way of life, to a new ecosocialist civilization, beyond the realm of money, beyond artificially constructed consumption habits. produced by advertising, and beyond the unlimited production of useless goods and/or harmful to the environment. Such a transformation process depends on the active support of the vast majority of the population to an ecosocialist program. The decisive factor in the development of socialist consciousness and ecological consciousness is the collective experience of struggle, from local and partial confrontations to the radical change of global society as a whole.

 

The question of degrowth

The issue of economic degrowth has divided socialists and ecologists. Ecosocialism, however, rejects the dualistic framework of growth versus degrowth, development versus anti-development, because both positions share a purely quantitative conception of the productive forces. A third position sounds more favorable to the task at hand: the qualitative transformation of the economy.

A new development paradigm implies putting an end to the blatant waste of resources under capitalism, fueled by the large-scale production of useless and harmful products. The arms industry is certainly a dramatic example of this, but more generally, the main objective of many of the “goods” produced – with their planned obsolescence – is to generate profits for big companies. The problem is not excessive consumption in the abstract, but the type of consumption that prevails, based on massive waste and the ostentatious and compulsive search for novelties promoted by “fashion”. A new society would orient production towards the satisfaction of authentic needs, including water, food, clothing, housing and basic services such as health, education, transport and culture.

It is evident that the countries of the South, where these needs are far from being satisfied, must pursue more classical “development” – railways, hospitals, sewage systems and other infrastructure. However, more than imitating the way rich countries built their production systems, these countries can pursue development in a much more respectful way towards the environment, especially through the rapid introduction of renewable energies. While many poor countries will need to increase their agricultural production to feed hungry and growing populations, the ecosocialist solution is to promote agroecological methods based on family units, cooperatives or large-scale collective farms, not methods destructive of industrialized agribusiness involving intensive application of pesticides, chemicals and GMOs.[2]

At the same time, the ecosocialist transformation would put an end to the odious debt system that the South faces today due to the exploitation of its resources by advanced industrial countries, as well as by rapidly developing countries like China. Instead, we can envision an important flow of technical and economic assistance from North to South, based on a deep sense of solidarity and the recognition that planetary problems require planetary solutions.

But how to distinguish authentic needs from artificial and counterproductive needs? To a large extent, 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, shaping ostentatious and compulsive consumption habits.

Furthermore, the advertising industry itself is a source of considerable waste of natural resources and labor time, paid for, after all, by the consumer, for a branch of “production” that is in direct contradiction with real socio-ecological needs. Although indispensable to the capitalist market economy, the advertising industry would have no place in a society transitioning to ecosocialism; would be replaced by consumer associations that oversee and disseminate information about goods and services. Changing consumption habits is a permanent educational challenge that is part of a historical process of cultural change.

One of the fundamental premises of ecosocialism is that, in a society without the commodity fetish and without capitalist alienation, “being” precedes “having”. Instead of the endless search for goods, people will seek to have more free time, as well as personal achievements through cultural, sports, recreational, scientific, erotic, artistic and political activities. Nothing indicates that compulsive greed stems from an intrinsic “human nature”, as conservative rhetoric suggests. On the contrary, it is induced by the commodity fetishism inherent in the capitalist system, by the dominant ideology and by advertising.

Ernest Mandel sums up this critical point well: “The continual accumulation of more and more goods . . . is by no means a universal or even predominant feature of human behavior. The development of talents and inclinations for themselves; the protection of health and life; the care of children; the development of rich social relationships […] become major motivations once basic material needs are satisfied”.[3]

Certainly, even a classless society faces conflicts and contradictions. The transition to ecosocialism would face tensions between the demands of environmental protection and the satisfaction of social needs; between ecological imperatives and the development of basic infrastructure; between popular consumption habits and the scarcity of resources; between communitarian and cosmopolitan impulses. Struggles between competing aspirations are inevitable. Therefore, assessing and balancing these interests must become the task of a democratic planning process, freed from the imperatives of capital and the pursuit of profit, in order to find solutions through transparent, plural and open public debate. Such participatory democracy at all levels does not mean that there will be no mistakes, but it allows members of the social collectivity to self-correct their own mistakes.

 

Why Socialists Should Be Ecologists

The survival of civilized society, and perhaps a large part of life on the planet, is at stake. A socialist theory or movement that does not include ecology as a central element of its program and strategy is anachronistic and ineffective.

Climate change is the most threatening expression of the planetary ecological crisis, representing a challenge without historical precedent. If we allow world temperatures to rise more than 1,5°C above pre-industrial levels, scientists predict increasingly serious consequences, such as a rise in sea levels so severe that it could submerge most maritime cities, Dhaka in Bangladesh to Amsterdam, Venice or New York. Large-scale desertification, disturbance of the hydrological cycle and agricultural production, the increase in the frequency and intensity of meteorological phenomena and the extinction of species are some of the threats. We are already at 1,1°C. At what temperature rise – 4,5°C or 6°C – will we reach a tipping point beyond which the planet cannot support civilized life, or even become uninhabitable?

It is particularly unsettling to see that the effects of climate change are accumulating at a much faster rate than predicted by climatologists, who, like most scientists, tend to be very cautious. The ink of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel about Changes Climate it had barely dried when the increased climate impact made it too optimistic. While the focus used to be on what will happen in the distant future, attention is increasingly focused on what we are facing now and in the years to come.

Some socialists recognize the need to integrate ecology, but oppose the term “ecosocialism”, arguing that socialism already includes ecology, feminism, anti-racism and other progressive fronts. However, the term ecosocialism, by suggesting a decisive change in socialist ideas, carries an important political meaning. First, it reflects a new understanding of capitalism as a system based not only on exploitation but also on destruction – the massive destruction of living conditions on the planet. Second, ecosocialism extends the meaning of socialist transformation beyond a change in ownership to a civilizational transformation of the productive apparatus, consumption patterns and the entire way of life. Third, the new term emphasizes its critical view of XNUMXth-century experiments carried out in the name of socialism.

Twentieth-century socialism, in its dominant tendencies (social democracy and Soviet-style communism), was, at best, inattentive to human impact on the environment and, at worst, downright dismissive. Governments adopted the western capitalist productive apparatus in a frenetic effort of “development”, without realizing the considerable negative costs of environmental degradation.

The Soviet Union is a perfect example of this. The first years after the October Revolution saw the development of an ecological current, and a number of measures to protect the environment were actually adopted. But in the late 1920s, with the ongoing Stalinist bureaucratization process, an environmentally insensitive productivism was imposed on industry and agriculture by totalitarian methods, while ecologists were marginalized or eliminated. The 1986 Chernobyl accident is a dramatic emblem of 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 the reorganization of the productive system at the center of the transformation, as well as a firm commitment to ecological management.

 

The immediate and concrete struggles

The fight for a long-term green socialism requires the fight for concrete and urgent measures in the short term. With no illusions about the prospects of “clean capitalism”, the movement for profound change must try to reduce the risks to people and the planet, while buying time to build support for more fundamental change. In particular, the battle to force the powers that be to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions remains an essential front, as do local efforts to move to agroecological methods, cooperative solar energy and community resource management.

These concrete and immediate struggles are important in themselves, as partial victories are essential in the fight against environmental deterioration and despair in the face of the future. In the longer term, these campaigns can contribute to raising ecological and socialist awareness and promoting activism from below. Both awareness and self-organization are preconditions and decisive foundations for the radical transformation of the world system. The scaling up of thousands of local and partial efforts into a systemic global movement paves the way for the transition to a new society and a new way of life.

Ecosocialism sees itself as part of an international movement: since the world's ecological, economic and social crises know no borders, the fight against the systemic forces behind these crises must also be globalized. There are many significant intersections between ecosocialism and other movements, especially efforts to link ecofeminism and ecosocialism as convergent and complementary movements.[4] The climate justice movement brings together anti-racism and ecosocialism in the fight against the destruction of the living conditions of discriminated communities. In indigenous movements, some leaders are ecosocialists, while many ecosocialists, in turn, consider the indigenous way of life, based on community solidarity and respect for Mother Nature, as an inspiration for the ecosocialist perspective. Likewise, ecosocialism finds a voice in peasant, trade union, and other movements.

The power of the ruling elites is undeniable and radical opposition forces remain weak. But they do develop and represent our only hope of stopping the catastrophic course of capitalist “growth”.

Walter Benjamin defined revolutions not as the locomotive of history, in the manner of Marx, but as humanity's attempt to pull the emergency brake before the train plunges into the abyss. Never before have we had such a need to grab this lever and set new paths towards a different destination. The idea and practice of ecosocialism can help inspire this global historic project.

*Michael Lowy is director of research in sociology at Center nationale de la recherche scientifique. Author, among other books, of Romantic anti-capitalism and nature. the enchanted garden (with Robert Sayre) (Unesp).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

 

Notes


[1] Joel Kovel, Ennemi de la nature: La fin du capitalisme ou la fin du monde? (New York, Zed Books, 2002), 215.

[2] Via Campesina, a worldwide network of peasant movements, which has long advocated this type of agricultural transformation. To see: https://viacampesina.org/en/.

[3] Ernest Mandel, Power and Money: A Marxist Theory of Bureaucracy (London, Verse, 1992), 206.

[4] View: Ecofeminism as Politics by Ariel Salleh (New York: Zed Books, 1997), or the recent issue of Capitalism, Nature and Socialism (29, n. 1: 2018) about “Ecofeminism against Capitalism”, with essays by Terisa Turner, Ana Isla and others.

 

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