The earth’s ecological crisis has reached a decisive turning point with the phenomenon of climate change, a fateful process that is accelerating much more rapidly than predicted.
The accumulation of CO2, the rise in temperature, the melting of the polar ice, drought, floods: everything is happening very quickly, and the scientific assessments, while the ink is still drying, are already superseded, and perceived as too optimistic. Observers are increasingly inclined to the higher levels in the predictions for the next ten, twenty, thirty years. One must add that the official climate balance sheets do not take into account certain dangers, insufficiently studied, but which could provoke an uncontrollable runaway warming of the planet: for instance, the 400 billion tons of CO2 for the moment imprisoned in the permafrost, this frozen swamp which extends through Siberia. If the Arctic ice is melting, why not the permafrost? Above a certain temperature increase – six degrees for instance – would the planet still be inhabitable for our species?
Who is responsible for this situation, without precedent in human history? It is human activity, answer the scientists. The answer is correct, but a bit too simple: human beings have been living on earth for thousands of years, but the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has become dangerous only in the last few decades. As Marxists, our answer is: the culprit is the capitalist system. Its absurd and irrational logic of infinite expansion and accumulation and its productivism obsessed with the search for profit at any price are responsible for bringing humanity to the brink of the abyss. As John Bellamy Foster recently wrote, “the planetary ecological crisis is increasingly all-encompassing, a product of the destructive uncontrollability of a rapidly globalising capitalist economy, which knows no law other than its own drive to exponential expansion”.1
How should we react to this danger?
Partial reforms are completely inadequate: the failure of Kyoto illustrates the impossibility of meeting the dramatic challenge of global warming with methods of the capitalist “free market”, such as the “emission rights stock-exchange”. Not to speak of the pseudo-technical solutions, such as the so-called “bio-carburants” which use food grain to fill up the hungry oil tanks of cars and generate, in their production process, as much CO2 as they are supposed to spare in comparison to gasoline.
What is needed is the replacement of the micro-rationality of profit by a social and ecological macro-rationality, which demands a veritable change of civilisation. That is impossible without a profound technological reorientation aimed at the replacement of present energy sources – responsible for global warming – by “clean” and renewable ones, such as wind or solar energy. The first question, therefore, concerns control over the means of production, especially decisions on investment and technological change, which must be taken away from the banks and capitalist enterprises in order to serve society’s common good.
Socialism and ecology—or at least some of its currents—share objective goals that imply a questioning of this economic automatism, of the reign of quantification, of production as a goal in itself, of the dictatorship of money, of the reduction of the social universe to the calculations of profitability and the needs of capital accumulation. Both socialism and ecology appeal to qualitative values — for socialists, use-value, the satisfaction of needs, social equality; for ecologists, protecting nature and ecological balance. Both conceive of the economy as “embedded” in the environment — a social or a natural environment. Ecosocialism is an attempt to provide a radical civilisational alternative founded on the basic arguments of the ecological movement, and of the Marxist critique of political economy. It opposes to capitalist destructive progress (Marx) an economic policy founded on non-monetary and extraeconomic criteria: social needs and ecological equilibrium. This dialectical synthesis, attempted by a broad spectrum of authors, from James O’Connor to Joel Kovel and John Bellamy Foster, and from André Gorz (in his early writings) to Elmar Altvater, is at the same time a critique of “market ecology”, which does not challenge the capitalist system, and of “productivist socialism”, which ignores the issue of natural limits.
According to James O’Connor, the aim of ecological socialism is a new society based on ecological rationality, democratic control, social equality, and the predominance of use-value over exchange-value. I would add that these aims require: a) collective ownership of the means of production, – “collective” here meaning public, cooperative or communitarian property ; b) democratic planning that makes it possible for society to define the goals of investment and production, and c) a new technological structure of the productive forces. In other words: a revolutionary social and economic transformation.2
Marx and Engels themselves were not unaware of the environmentaldestructive consequences of the capitalist mode of production; there are several passages in Capital and other writings that point to this understanding. 3
Moreover, they believed that the aim of socialism is not to produce ever more commodities, but to give human beings free time to fully develop their potentialities. To this extent, they have little in common with “productivism”, i.e. with the idea that the unlimited expansion of production is an aim in itself.
However, the dominant 20th-century interpretation of Marxism – based, it is true, on some passages in both Marx’s and Engels’s writings – held that the goal of socialism is to permit the development of productive forces beyond the limits imposed on them by the capitalist system. According to this approach, socialist transformation involves only capitalist relations of production, which have become an obstacle – “fetters” is the term often used – to the free development of the existing productive forces.
Instead, we suggest that socialists take inspiration from Marx’s remarks on the Paris Commune: workers cannot take possession of the capitalist state apparatus and simply make it serve their purposes. They have to “break it” and replace it by a radically different, democratic and non-statist form of political power.
The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to the productive apparatus: by its nature, its structure, it is not neutral but is at the service of capital accumulation and the unlimited expansion of the market. It is in contradiction to the needs of environmental protection and the health of the population. One must therefore “revolutionise” it, in a process of radical transformation. This may mean discontinuing certain branches of production, for instance, nuclear plants, certain mass/industrial fishing methods (responsible for the extermination of several marine species), the destructive logging of tropical forests, etc. (the list is very long). In any case, the productive forces, and not only the relations of production, have to be profoundly transformed – to begin with, by a revolution in the energy-system, the replacement of the present sources essentially fossil fuels – responsible for the pollution and poisoning of environment, by renewable ones: water, wind, sun. Many of modernity’s the scientific and technological achievements are of course precious, but the whole productive system must be transformed, and this can be done only by ecosocialist methods, i.e. through democratic planning of the economy which takes into account the preservation of the ecological equilibrium.
The issue of energy is decisive for this process of civilisational change. Fossil fuels (oil, coal) are responsible for much of the planet’s pollution, as well as for the disastrous climate change; nuclear energy is a false alternative, not only because of the danger of new Chernobyls, but also because no one knows what to do with the thousands of tons of radioactive waste – toxic for hundreds, thousands and in some case millions of years – and the gigantic masses of contaminated obsolete plants. Solar energy, which never captured the imagination of capitalist societies, not being “profitable” or “competitive”, would become the object of intensive research and development, and play a key role in the building of an alternative energy system.
Entire sectors of the productive system need to be suppressed or restructured; new ones have to be developed, under the necessary condition of full employment for the whole labour force, with equitable salaries and work conditions. This condition is essential, not only because it is a requirement of social justice, but in order to assure workers’ support for the process of structural transformation of the productive forces. This process is impossible without public control over the means of production, and planning, i.e. public decisions on investment and technological change, which must be taken away from the banks and capitalist enterprises in order to serve society’s common good.
Socialist planning is based on democratic and pluralist debate, at all levels where decisions are to be taken: different propositions are submitted to the concerned people, in the form of parties, platforms, or any other political movements, and delegates are accordingly elected. However, representative democracy must be completed – and corrected – by direct democracy, where people directly decide – at the local, national and, later, global level – between major options within questions such as: Should public transportation be free? Should the owners of private cars pay special taxes to subsidise public transportation? Should solar energy be subsidised in order to compete with fossil energy? Should the work week be reduced to 30, 25 or less hours, even if this means a decrease of production? The democratic nature of planning does not contradict the deployment of experts; however, their role is not to decide, but to present their views – often different, if not contradictory – to those of the population, which can then adopt the best solution.
What guarantee is there that people will make the correct ecological decisions, even at the expense of giving up some of their consumption habits? There is no such “guarantee”, other than the wager on the rationality of democratic decisions, once the power of commodity fetishism is broken. Of course, errors will be committed in these popular decisions, but who believes that the experts do not themselves also commit errors? One cannot imagine the establishment of such a new society without the majority of the population having achieved, by their struggles, their self-education, and having accumulated their social experience and a high level of socialist/ecological consciousness, and this makes it reasonable to suppose that errors – including decisions which are inconsistent with environmental needs – will be corrected. In any case, are not the proposed alternatives – the blind market or an ecological dictatorship of “experts” – much more dangerous than the democratic process, with all its contradictions?
The passage from capitalist “destructive progress” to socialism is an historical process, a permanent revolutionary transformation of society, culture and mentalities. This transition would lead 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 civilisation, 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. It is important to emphasise that such a process cannot begin without a revolutionary transformation of social and political structures and the active support, on the part of the vast majority, of an ecosocialist programme. The development of socialist consciousness and ecological awareness is a process in which the decisive factor is people’s own collective experience of struggle, from local and partial confrontations to the radical change of society.
Some ecologists believe that the only alternative to productivism is to stop growth altogether, or to replace it by negative growth – what the French call décroissance – and drastically reduce the population’s excessively high level of consumption by cutting in half the expenditure of energy, by giving up individual homes, central heating, washing machines, etc. Since these and similar measures of draconian austerity could well be unpopular, some play with the idea of a sort of “ecological dictatorship”.
Against such pessimistic views, socialist optimists believe that technical progress and the use of renewable sources of energy will permit an unlimited growth and abundance, so that each can receive “according to his needs”.
It seems to me that these two schools share a purely quantitative conception of – positive or negative – “growth”, that is, of the development of productive forces. There is a third position, which seems to me more appropriate: a qualitative transformation of development. This means putting an end to the monstrous waste of resources by capitalism, based on the large-scale production of useless and/or harmful products: the armaments industry is a good example, but a great part of the “goods” produced in capitalism – with their built in obsolescence – have no other purpose but to generate profit for the large corporations. The issue is not “excessive consumption” in the abstract, but the prevalent type of consumption, based as it is on conspicuous appropriation, massive waste, mercantile alienation, obsessive accumulation of goods, and the compulsive acquisition of pseudo-novelties imposed by “fashion”. A new society would orient production toward the satisfaction of authentic needs, beginning with those which could be described as “biblical” – water, food, clothing, housing – but including also the basic services: health, education, transport, culture.
Obviously, the countries of the South, where these needs are very far from being satisfied, will need a much higher level of “development” – building railroads, hospitals, sewage systems, and other infrastructures – than the advanced industrial countries need. But there is no reasonwhy this cannot be accomplished with a productive system that is environment- friendly and based on renewable energies. These countries will need to grow great amounts of food to nourish their hungry population, but this can be much better achieved – as the peasant movements organised world-wide in the Via Campesina network have been arguing for years – by a peasant biological agriculture based on family-units, cooperatives or collective farms, rather than by the destructive and anti-social methods of industrialised agro-business, based on the intensive use of pesticides, chemicals and GMOs. Instead of the present monstrous debt-system, and the imperialist exploitations of the resources of the South by the industrial/capitalist countries, there would be a flow of technical and economic help from the North to the South, which would not require – as some Puritan and ascetic ecologists seem to believe – that the population in Europe or North America “reduce their standard of living”: they will only get rid of the obsessive consumption, induced by the capitalist system, of useless commodities that do not correspond to any real need.
How can we distinguish the authentic from artificial, false and makeshift needs? The latter are induced by mental manipulation, i.e. advertisement. The advertising system has invaded all spheres of human life in modern capitalist societies: not only nourishment and clothing, but sports, culture, religion and politics are shaped according to its rules. It has invaded our streets, mail boxes, TV-screens, newspapers, and landscapes, in a permanent, aggressive and insidious way, and it decisively contributes to habits of conspicuous and compulsive consumption. Moreover, it wastes an astronomic amount of oil, electricity, labour time, paper, chemicals, and other raw materials – all paid by the consumers – in a branch of “production” which is not only useless, from a human viewpoint, but stands in direct contradiction to real social needs. While advertisement is an indispensable dimension of the capitalist market economy, it would have no place in a society in transition to socialism, where it would be replaced by information on goods and services provided by consumer associations. The criteria for distinguishing an authentic from an artificial need, is its persistence after the suppression of advertisement (Coca Cola!). Of course, during some years, old habits of consumption would persist, and nobody has the right to tell people what their needs are. The change in the patterns of consumption is a historical process, as well as an educational challenge.
Some commodities, such as the individual car, raise more complex problems. Private cars are a public nuisance, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of people annually on a world scale, polluting the air in large towns – with dire consequences for the health of children and older people – and significantly contributing to climate change. However, they correspond to a real need: transporting people to their work, home or leisure. Local experience in some European towns with ecologically- minded administrations, show that it is possible – with the support of the majority of the population – to progressively limit the share of individual automobiles in circulation to the advantage of buses and trams. In a process of transition to ecosocialism, where public transportation – above or underground – would be vastly extended and free of charge for the users, and where pedestrians and bicycle-riders would have protected lanes, the private car would have a much smaller role than in bourgeois society, where it has become a fetish commodity – promoted by insistent and aggressive advertisement – a prestige symbol, a sign of identity – in the US, a driver’s license is the recognised ID – and the centre of personal, social or erotic life. It will be much easier, in the transition to a new society, drastically to reduce the transportation of goods by trucks – responsible for terrible accidents and high levels of pollution – replacing it by the train, or by what the French call ferroutage (trucks transported in trains from one town to the other). Only the absurd logic of capitalist “competitivity” explains the dangerous growth of the trucksystem.
Yes, the pessimists will answer, but individuals are moved by infinite aspirations and desires that have to be controlled, checked, contained and if necessary repressed, and this may need some limitations on democracy. However, ecosocialism is based on a wager, which was already Marx’s: the predominance, in a society without classes and liberated of capitalist alienation, of “being” over “having”, i.e. of free time for personal accomplishment through cultural, sports, play, scientific, erotic, artistic and political activities, rather than the desire for an infinite possession of products. Compulsive acquisitiveness is induced by the commodity fetishism inherent in the capitalist system, by the dominant ideology and by advertisement: nothing proves that it is part of an “eternal human nature”, as the reactionary discourse would have us believe. As Ernest Mandel emphasised: “The continual accumulation of more and more goods (with declining “marginal utility”) is by no means a universal and even predominant feature of human behaviour. 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 (…) all these become major motivations once basic material needs have been satisfied”.4
This does not mean that conflicts will not arise, particularly during the transitional process, between the requirements of environmental protection and social needs, between ecological imperatives and the need to develop basic infra-structure, particularly in the poor countries, between popular consumer habits and the scarcity of resources. A classless society is not a society without contradictions and conflicts! These are inevitable: it will be the task of democratic planning, in an ecosocialist perspective, liberated from the imperatives of capital and profit-making, to solve them by pluralist and open discussion, leading to decision-making by society itself. Such a grass-roots and participatory democracy is the only way, not to avoid errors, but to permit the self-correction, by the social collectivity, of its own mistakes.
Is this utopia? In its etymological sense – “something that exists nowhere” – certainly. But are not utopias, i.e. visions of an alternative future, wish-images of a different society, a necessary feature of any movement that wants to challenge the established order?
The socialist and ecological utopia is only an objective possibility, not the inevitable result of the contradictions of capitalism, or of the “iron laws of history”. One cannot predict the future, except in conditional terms: in the absence of an ecosocialist transformation, of a radical change in the civilisational paradigm, the logic of capitalism will lead the planet to dramatic ecological disasters, threatening the health and the life of billions of human beings, and perhaps even the survival of our species.
To dream, and to struggle for a green socialism, or, according to some, a solar communism, does not mean not fighting for concrete and urgent reforms. Without any illusions regarding a “clean capitalism”, one must try to win time, and to impose, on the powers that be, some elementary changes: the banning of the HCFCs that are destroying the ozone layer, a general moratorium on genetically modified organisms, a drastic reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases, the development of public transportation, the taxation of polluting cars, the progressive replacement of trucks by trains, tough regulation of the fishing industry, as well as of the use of pesticides and chemicals in agro-industrial production. These, and similar issues, are at the heart of the agenda of the global justice movement, and of the World Social Forums, a decisive new development which has permitted, since Seattle in 1999, the convergence of social and environmental movements in a common struggle against the system.
These urgent eco-social demands can lead to a process of radicalisation, on condition that one does not accept limiting one’s aims according to the requirements of the capitalist market or of “competitivity”. Each small victory, each partial advance, can immediately lead to a higher demand, to a more radical aim.
Such struggles around concrete issues are important, not only because partial victories are welcome in themselves, but also because they contribute to raise ecological and socialist consciousness, and because they promote activity and self-organisation from below: both are decisive and necessary pre-conditions for a radical, i.e. revolutionary, transformation of the world.
There is no cause for optimism: the entrenched ruling elites of the system are incredibly powerful, and the forces of radical opposition are still small. But they are the only hope for halting the catastrophic course of capitalist “growth”.
1 John Bellamy Foster, “The Ecology of Destruction”, Monthly Review, vol. 58, nº 9, February 2007, p. 7.
2 John Bellamy Foster uses the concept of “ecological revolution”, but he argues that “a global ecological revolution worthy of the name can only occur as part of a larger social – and I would insist, socialist – revolution. Such a revolution (…) would demand, as Marx insisted, that the associated producers rationally regulate the human metabolic relation with nature. (…) It must take its inspiration from William Morris, one of the most original and ecological followers of Karl Marx, from Gandhi, and from other radical, revolutionary and materialist figures, including Marx himself, stretching as far back as Epicurus”. (“Organizing Ecological Revolution”, Monthly Review, 57.5, October 2005, pp. 9-10). .
3 See John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology. Materialism and Nature, New York, Monthly Review Press, 2000
4 Ernest Mandel, Power and Money. A Marxist Theory of Bureaucracy, London, Verso, 1992, p. 206.
Michael Löwy is a philosopher who has written on Marxism, Latin American social movements, Jewish history and ecosocialism.