The Future Will Be Ecosocialist – Because Without Ecosocialism There Will Be No Future

November 27, 2011

~by Joel Kovel~

Socialism was originally seen as victory in a struggle for justice. The proletarians, concluded the Communist Manifesto, “have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKING MEN[sic] OF ALL COUNTRIES UNITE!”

All this remains true. Working women and men continue to suffer exploitation, in the workplace and throughout a society ruled by capitalism’s money-power. Structural unemployment, along with increasing divisions of wealth and poverty, the curse of indebtedness and the militarism of the capitalist state–all this, and more, continues to afflict the people. Now as in 1848, workers need a revolutionary socialist transformation. They need to unite, and to again quote the Manifesto, achieve “an association in which the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all.”

But the world we have to win is profoundly changed from the world of 1848. It is a world not simply to be won, but also to be saved from a terrible affliction. A day of reckoning has arrived far beyond anything humanity has ever experienced, though it has been building for centuries, indeed, from the beginnings of humanity’s time on earth. For we are the animal who became human by producing. Production is about the transforming of nature—the real physical world that is our legacy and matrix—into the objects we use for our lives. Transforming nature means changing nature; and changes may be harmful as well as beneficial as they build up over historical time. Today, the harm wrought by human production has reached intolerable proportions. Our generation has inherited a world both transformed and deformed, to a degree that raises the question of whether humanity can continue to produce the means of its own survival. We see this taking shape in the menaces of climate change, massive species extinctions, pollution on a scale never before encountered, and more—all signs that humanity has so de-stabilized nature and our relation to it as to raise the real question of whether Homo sapiens, a species that has triumphed over nature to build the mighty civilization that now rules over the earth, has also prepared the ground for its own extinction.

The ecological crisis and capital accumulation

De-stabilization of the natural foundation of society is the supreme question for our age, and because collective survival is at stake, the greatest challenge ever faced by humanity. Because it involves relationships between ourselves and nature, and because the study of relationships between living creatures and their natural environment is named ecology, we can say that what we are going through is an ecological crisis. But whether its meaning is properly understood is another story. Unhappily, despite a vast amount of scientific investigation into the individual disasters that manifest the ecological crisis, there is very little awareness of its causes and real character, or even that it is an ecological crisis, between humanity as part of nature and nature itself. Instead, the dominant opinion, from all points of the political compass from left to right, sees this crisis under the heading of “environmentalism,” which is to say, as something between ourselves and the external things of nature.

Environmental problems appear as a great set of discrete troubles, itemized like a huge shopping list. The movement that attempts to deal with “the environment” also becomes listed among other worthy causes, like jobs, health care, and the rights of sexual minorities. Environmental problems are accordingly dealt with by regulations, legislation, and policy changes under the watchful eye of a host of NGOs dealing with one aspect of the disruption in nature or another. These petition large bureaucracies like the UN carbon regulation system or the EPA. Typically environmentalism seeks technical fixes or personal lifestyle changes, such as recycling and buying “green” products.

There is nothing wrong with environmentalism, except that it completely ignores the root of the ecological crisis by focusing on external symptoms and not the underlying disease. This is as effective in mending the ecological crisis as treating cancer with aspirin for the pain and baths for the discomfort. In other words, the prevailing approach fails to recognize that what is happening is the sign of a profound disorder. Environmentalism cannot ask what can be wrong with a society that so ravages the earth, but simply attempts to tidy up the mess in a piecemeal and fundamentally doomed fashion. Of course, each and every ecological threat must be vigorously met on its own terms. But we need to see the whole of things as well. We cannot put nature on a list, even at the head of a list. Nature is the entirety of the universe. We are a part of nature, and our society reflects whether we are at home in nature or estranged from it. Failure to understand this on the deepest level and to make necessary changes in our relationship to nature puts everything at risk, including, most poignantly, the lives of our children and grandchildren and all future generations.

If the choices embedded in our society lead to ruin and death, then the obligation is to remake society from the ground up in the service of life. And if this be read as a demand for revolution, so be it! But a revolution of what kind?

Look at the society that rules the earth and its guiding inner dynamic, the production of capital. However capitalism may be dressed up as the society of democracy, free markets, or progress, its first and foremost priority is economic Growth, the eternal expansion of the economic product across society, converted into monetary units. The best word for this compulsion is accumulation. The accumulation of capital is the supreme value of capitalists, and all elements of capitalist society—from control over resources, to labor relations, to fiscal and tax policy, to culture and propaganda, to the workings of academia, to war and imperialism, and to be sure, policy towards the natural world–converge to gratify this hunger. Any diminution or even slowing of the rate of accumulation, is perceived as a deep threat provoking the most ruthless, violent, countermeasures to restore order. As Marx vividly wrote in Capital: “Accumulate! Accumulate! That is Moses and the Prophets.” In other words, he saw a religious impulse at work—Satanic in form, no doubt—driving the capitalist system to convert the entire earth, its oceans and atmosphere, everything under the sun, into commodities, to be sold on the market, the profits converted to capital.

Here we arrive at the obvious, straightforward, yet profound explanation of the ecological crisis and its life-threatening character. For though the universe itself may be infinite and have no boundaries, the corner of the universe inhabited by life is quite finite and thoroughly bounded: that, after all, is what ecology as a scientific study is about. So it follows that a system built on un-boundedness and endless growth is going to destroy the ecosystems upon which it depends for energy and other resources, and is also going to destroy the human ecosystems, or societies, that have emerged from nature to inhabit the earth. That this brutally obvious truth is not widely accepted is partly the result of how hard it is to face up to a harsh reality, but chiefly the result of the titanic effort waged by capitalist ideology to deny its responsibility for the ruin of planet earth.

Seen in this light, capitalism is truly pathological; it may well be called a kind of metastasizing cancer: a disease that demands radical treatment, which in this context, means revolutionary change. And since socialism is—or should be–the movement toward the supersession of capitalism, the fact that the present ecological crisis is basically driven by the accumulation of capital puts socialism in a radically different position from that to which we have become accustomed. In this light we see the need to radicalize socialism and turn it to ecological ends alongside, indeed, as part of, the provision of justice to working people.

This means, however, that socialism itself must be transformed and produced anew. It can no longer be the reformist social democracy that has betrayed its promise by seeking to perfect instead of going beyond capitalism. Socialism today must be invigorated by the awareness that its goal is a post-capitalist society serving the well-being of humanity and nature alike. Most critically, because accumulation is the mainspring of capitalist society, the new socialism must respect the notion of limits and see production itself in ecological terms. The test of a post-capitalist society is whether it can move from the generalized production of commodities to the production of flourishing, integral ecosystems. In doing so, socialism will become ecosocialism.

First ecosocialist lessons

Nobody is under the illusion that we are anywhere near these goals. But that does not mean that we lack a mapping of the route toward ecosocialism. Let me give an outline of this, and conclude this brief communication with a sense of how these can be applied to a case of the greatest urgency: overcoming the menace of climate change.

  • ecosocialism is still socialism. What was stated at the beginning of this article remains. The basic principle of ecosocialism is that of socialism itself: freely associated labor. It is safe to say that application of this is the key to everything else. For ecosocialism, the restoration of nature does not begin with manipulating the external environment, but with the liberation of human beings and faith that women and men in full possession of their powers will use the appropriate technology and make the correct decisions as to how to organize their social relations and self governance in such a way that the integrity of nature is restored and preserved. The principle applies equally to the caring for nature and the provision of a good life for humanity. A common root is the fact that to the degree we are in possession of our creative powers, so also do we move beyond the addictive and false way of being indoctrinated into us from cradle to grave by capitalism and its ideology of consumerism. We break loose from the capitalist rat-race, of trying to fill our inner emptiness with commodities, a motif absolutely necessary to the reproduction of the ecological crisis. Instead, we recognize ourselves as natural creatures, and recognize nature itself, thus positioning ourselves for nature’s restoration. This also applies to the so-called “population problem,” since freely associated human beings, women in particular, will have no trouble at all in regulating their numbers. In sum, we would say that ecosocialism is that form of society animated by freely associated labor and guided by an ethic of ecological integrity such as free human beings would freely choose.
  • we free ourselves in collective struggle, the meaning of which for ecosocialism is primarily “Commoning.” Commons refers to the original communism of “First Peoples”; and also to the absence of patriarchy and class society among them. The word denotes collectively owned units of production. From the other side, the rise of class society and patriarchy, all the way to the appearance of capitalism and right through to the present day, is a matter of “enclosing” the Commons, which includes separating people from control over their productive activity, thereby alienating them from nature and their own powers. Commoning can be as basic as making a community garden or day-care center. And it extends all the way to building intentional communities, organized democratically, and by extension, to a global society. We see ecosocialism from a twofold aspect, in terms of communities of resistance to capital and the capitalist state, and as communities of production outside of capitalist hierarchical relations between the owners of the means of production and the “wage slaves” who feed the capital-monster. Traditional labor organizing can come under this heading, insofar as it does not reproduce bureaucratic hierarchies; or, from another standpoint, to the degree that it builds authentic “unions” and “solidarity,” both terms drawn from the language of ecology as well as the history of class struggle.

    The wave of “occupations” washing over the United States as this is being written is very much an example of Commoning along ecosocialist lines, however scattered and reformist many of their immediate demands may seem in this early stage of development. Though the term itself is not applied, the structure is ecosocialist , arising out of the fundamental human drive toward collective control over a Commonly held space, both in terms of resistance—as by disrupting the established governmental and corporate ways; and production—as in providing the means of one’s own subsistence while doing so.
  • time and space are to be reclaimed through ecosocialist prefiguration. Keeping this term in mind is essential in navigating the great distance between where we are and what we need to become. Seizing a kind of Commons next to Wall Street is both symbolic of immediate demands for economic justice and prefigurative of liberated zones of ecosocialist production through freely associated labor. Our sustainable and worthwhile future will be a network of Commonal zones, beginning small but spreading and connecting across the artificial boundaries set up by class society and capital. Thus ecosocialism is transnational, global in scope, and above all, visionary; and each local moment of Commoning will contain the germ of this imagining. Prefiguration means the emerging of the vision necessary to imagine a world beyond the death-dealing society of capital. We need to see the coming-to-be of the new society in the scattered campgrounds of occupied zones within the capitalist order. Without vision, the people perish, as the saying goes. And with vision—and organizing to match—a new and better world can be won.

Postscript: An ecosocialism beyond climate change.

Nothing stands more for the horrors induced by capital-driven ecological crisis than the specter of climate change. There is no space here for detailing this menace, which, while not identical with the ecological crisis as a whole, suffices to sum up its deadly mechanisms and is full of lessons for how these are to be surmounted. Let me put the matter with extreme brevity to draw out some essentials and the important lessons to be derived from them.

We stand on a kind of crumbling precipice whose “geology” is given by growing atmospheric CO2 loaded by our capitalist-industrial, accumulation-compelled system. The precipice is both a matter of harm already done, and, if successful action is not taken, far worse harm to come from positive feedback loops that will effectively exceed human capacity to contain them, dooming us, perhaps by the end of the century, perhaps sooner, to downfall via catastrophic climate events, rising seas, and associated nightmares like famine and pandemic diseases.

Two configurations are now assembling to do battle over the fate of this future. One is that of capital and the capitalist state: the ancien regime. It is addicted to growth, rapacious for resources, and seeks to finagle its way out of the crisis by an utterly bankrupt system of commodifying nature and trading pollution credits; that is, it seeks more paths of accumulation while continuing its resource extraction, and the future be damned.

The other is ecosocialist in concept and prefigurative in structure. It sets forth from multiple points of resistance, notably combining North and South by bringing together a coalition of ecosocialists, radical climate activists and specialists in renewable energy; these are increasingly working with indigenous folk whose lives are directly threatened by enclosures and ever-more violent methods of hydrocarbon extraction from places as varied as the Gulf of Mexico (deep offshore drilling), Northern Alberta (tar sands extraction), the Niger Delta and Peruvian Ecuadorian rainforests (rapacious oil-drilling), West Virginia (mountaintop removal for coal), and rural New York and Pennsylvania (hydrofracking for natural gas). The list is quite partial, but the scope is global and inherently ecosocialist, by involving Commoning, global resistance, and prefigurative efforts to think the unthinkable: a world actually beyond hydrocarbon-based industrialization, that is, one where the future is really envisioned and the visionary is made real as a mode of production liberated from the compulsion to accumulate and loyal to the ecocentric respect for limit.

The best science tells us that this is the only path of survivability. But the best science cannot be implemented within existing capitalism. It will take freely associated labor, motivated by an ecocentric ethic and organized on a vast scale, to effect these changes—in terms of resistance to the given carbon system and forcing through its alternative; and also in terms of actually building the alternative, a kind of Solar/Wind-based energy economy, including the effort to actually bring down the level of atmospheric CO2 from 395ppm to 345ppm.

Unthinkable, right? Wrong: it is only unthinkable to minds chained to the ruinous and suicidal capital system. Quite possible though fantastically challenging, otherwise—especially if we consider that such a path, once free from bondage to accumulation, will be able to solve the problems of structural unemployment that haunt capitalist society. Imagine the creative possibilities inherent in an ecosocialist energy pathway. Then think, and choose whether to stay with the present system, or to step forth into a renewed world.