The egalitarian ethos of the Left is commendable. But its historical conception of manifesting such is problematic. Too many on the Left still have in mind: More.
Socialists and capitalists used to wrangle about productivity. When Krushchev, in 1956, said to the West: “We will bury you!” he meant that the countries adopting socialism would out-produce those clinging to a capitalism that his ideology told him would soon be moribund. Who said so? Marx did.
HOW GREEN, REALLY, WAS KARL MARX?
The Left has scrambled over the last three decades to make a case that Marx had considerable ecological sensibility. It’s quite a stretch. One of his central messages was that egalitarianism via socialist transformation was dependent upon: More.
There’s little in Marx about living lightly. Surely nothing about living locally. He was an advocate of industrial development via concentration and centralization. Influenced by a nineteenth century zeitgeist exuberant about growth and progressive development, he lauded how “in barely a century, capitalism has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together” (Communist Manifesto).
Greens should recognize that the capitalist system has been socially and ecologically pernicious since its inception over five hundred years ago. But Marx viewed it as necessary for establishing the “material basis” for the ultimate transcendence of class-divided society. From Das Kapital:
The means of production can be economized by concentration on a vast scale … The expansion of capitalist production creates the technical means necessary for those immense industrial undertakings which require a previous centralization of capital for their accomplishment … Everywhere the increased scale of industrial establishments is the starting point for a more comprehensive organization of the collective work of many, for a wider development of their material motive forces—for the progressive transformation of isolated processes of production into processes socially combined and scientifically arranged … The world would still be without railways if it had had to wait for individual capital accumulation adequate for the construction of a railway. Centralization accomplished this in the twinkling of an eye, by means of joint-stock companies … The masses of capital fused together overnight by centralization become new and powerful levers in social accumulation.
— Capital, Volume One, chapter twenty-five: “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation”
Even while those “progress-inducing” joint-stock companies were being formed during the nineteenth century, indigens and peasants in the villages and the agro-communes were still living in the age-old cyclical way. Marx interpreted that as stagnation and backwardness. In fact, he said, capitalism was about to rescue them from “the idiocy of rural life.” Get with it, he said. History is a process of progression through higher and higher stages, each characterized by certain “relations of production” (i.e., relations of ownership and control that manifest in different class structures at different times, such as slavery, serfdom, and wage-labor). Each stage eventually constrains development due to contradictions between its system of economic organization and its technological potential.
Notice how, he said, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the rigidities of the feudal system hampered economic growth. Transition to capitalism resulted. In the preface to his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy he wrote: “In broad outlines ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society.” And: “No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed.”
So progressive capitalism just ran out of room for further development. Socialism would “unfetter the productive potential” of our advancing technology—as is historically necessary. Social harmony and justice can’t be achieved without a highly developed “material basis.” Generalized abundance must be the goal. Socialism could and would produce: More.
LIMITS AND BALANCES
But the real “contradictions” involve issues Marx never really fully appreciated, recent efforts to color him green notwithstanding. Many of the things that he valued—growth, industrial development, centralization, concentration—are severely stressing people and the planet. If you point this out as a conundrum at a leftist conference or on a Marxist-oriented online discussion forum—and especially if you advocate degrowth or assert that living more lightly can yield a higher quality of life—accusations of reaction, or even “eco-fascism,” are quick to emerge. “You’re advocating austerity for the multitudes!”
Many leftists won’t countenance any attitude that doesn’t uphold a vision of ultimate material prosperity for those who have been impoverished and disadvantaged due to the historic colonialist legacy of hyper-exploitation, those living in capitalism’s sacrifice zones. “We must not consign them to underdevelopment!” It’s an understandable but problematic vision of billions ascending, based on an egalitarian-modernist standard of material sufficiency. It’s a dubious standard—individualistic, technocratic, and dependent upon a dauntingly complex, highly developed socio-economic infrastructure. The vision is delusional. It’s neither possible nor advisable. For the sake of “the planet”—but also for the sake of the general welfare—humans, altogether, must transition toward living more lightly. Peoples in the core affluent West and those at the systemic periphery actually are facing a similar challenge, that of weaning themselves from dependency upon that unsustainable socio-economic-technological infrastructure.
If the Left thinks it can offer a progressive program centered on globalized redistributive justice, it needs to come to terms with the fact that there’s no “world community” that “we” can apply policy to; “we” can’t spread the wealth to get everyone everywhere above our poverty-line metric. The United States can’t, the Western powers can’t, the “international working class” can’t. Such a bogus vision makes the Left look idealistic in the worst sense of the word.
Peoples in all places and all circumstances will be needing to focus on finding their own path toward lifeways that recognize and are in conformance with limits and balances. This is not an edict; this is an inevitable absolute of ecological reality. If humanity fails to move in that direction the ecological imperative will impose that reality. Where peoples have been impoverished by the horror of the expansionist imperialism of the last five millennia, they’ll have to re-create for themselves local sustainability. Overshoot means overshoot. And it will be a breathtaking phenomenon during the coming decades and centuries as realization sets in regarding the extent of the industrial-era overshoot.
YES, POPULATION REDUCTION IS NECESSARY
Leftists: Stop with the “eco-fascism” accusations. Wake up. The hypermodern megalopolis conurbations are pure insanity—anathema for people, planet, flora, fauna, biosphere. For Gaia. It’s been a characteristic of modernity to equate population growth with progress. It’s been considered an economic tonic. That’s nothing but a sign of how we’ve lost our bearings.
Our species must not live like this. Degrowth means degrowth in all aspects. For most tribal groups in most places at most times population control was a vital priority; and population numbers were essentially stable. Such a social praxis was intuitive and endemic—and communitarian. The value system of the community influenced and encouraged (even enforced) it.
Cyclicality, minimal growth, was a characteristic of the original lifeways. That was lost with the radical transformation to developmentalism five thousand years ago. Sensibility regarding limits and balances waned with the increasing predominance of mass society, states, and empires, with their valuation of expansionism and wealth accumulation. Local community life withered. Over time, communitarian norms, mores, covenants, and strictures were lost. Then the facility and productive powers of industrialism accelerated the problematic civilizational trajectories. “More, bigger, farther, faster” became cultural touchstones. The resultant condition of hypertrophy in all aspects of life should not be surprising. But it surely has now become unsustainable.
As well as sociologically insane, as Erich Fromm asserted.
A QUITE REVAMPED KIND OF SOCIALISM
A Marxist will ask: What’s all so different about eco-socialism? What’s so profound about “layering on a green veneer”? The question indicates a failure to recognize the paradigm shift of our time.
Traditional socialism understood much about injustice. We go to a deeper level when we talk about social insanity. Profound is to restore the sensibility regarding limits and balances. Profound is to embrace degrowth. “From Red to Green” involves a transition to a much different mindset; a cultural revolution; a characterological transformation. Practically: a reining in of industrial over-development; a diminution of the human ecological footprint.
Eco-socialism must tackle the challenge of doing so starting from where we are, within the context of modern mass society, approaching the precipice of collapse. It’s surely the most daunting task humanity has ever faced. And the transition must be done with gradualism, incrementalism, and sensitivity. Revolutions never work out well. Gradually: downscale, decentralize, and democratize; devolve power to communities and bioregional polities. Gradually: foster new lifeways characterized by technological simplification, re-stabilization, re-localization, and renewal of the human relationship to the land.
Humanity can’t “go back” and the messaging of our movement shouldn’t sound that way. What we can do is encourage appreciation for what used to work. Consider the indigenous of the Americas. They started to arrive here about forty thousand years ago. Not every tribe, individually, lived well and within ecological limits, but their ways, generally were sustainable. They could not have flourished if their lives were all so “nasty, brutish, and short”—if they suffered from a sense of continual scarcity and misery—as Hobbes conjectured. There is every evidence, rather, that they lived satisfactorily, with adequate resources, appropriate technology, extensive cultural enrichment; and likely could have continued to do so into the indefinite future. Having their own creative ways of dealing with the challenges of being human, they avoided hyper-growth and disdained power run amok.
David Watson writes: “When the Lakota medicine man Black Elk said ‘we should be as water, which is lower than all things yet stronger than the rocks,’ he wasn’t counseling servility. He was telling us something valuable about strength—not as force, but as endurance—about radiating power rather than possessing or controlling it; about listening to nature instead of fantasizing about mastering it; all evocative of the kind of character change that will be necessary to sustain us.”
CRISIS CANNOT BE AVOIDED, BUT WE CAN MOVE FORWARD
Fostering degrowth gradually (the only way it can be done with sensitivity) means that we won’t get far enough fast enough toward the necessary minimalization of human impact. Therefore crisis is inevitable. So considerable energy will have to be devoted to mitigating the consequences. Samuel Alexander calls for: “transformation by design, not disaster” … but the unfolding reality will exhibit much of both.
To counter despair we can message about the positive perspective of starting to “turn the ship of state” in our time. History will look back on our efforts as pivotal; thus they can be a source of pride. As the old techno-optimism—that of the industrial capitalists, but also of the Marxists— begins to fade, Greens can and should put forward a vision of the future that can resonate as proactive and constructive, i.e. “the salvational greening of society through living more lightly.” Toward a Better Way of Living For All. Not toward a higher stage of history, but toward a higher quality of life.
It will require fostering a greener kind of leftism: Eco-socialism to defang the ruinous capitalist system, yes, but counterculturalists (rather than “the proletariat”) as the primary agency of social change. A Green New Deal at the macro level, yes, but meanwhile, at the micro level, undermining the system in myriad ways—via community land cooperatives, ecovillages, local currencies, municipalization; by building up bioregional economies and decentralized proto-polities.
Much of the paradigm shift will likely be the province of youth. We need a renewal of what, during the Sixties, was called “The Movement.” Committed twenty-somethings could refuse to “take their place” in the system. Their lifework could involve building the new within the shell of the old. Some might establish ecovillage communities and ecovillage urban neighborhoods having a social change orientation, putting themselves forward as modeling “best practices.” Others might form cooperatives to locally provide goods and services. The communities and the cooperatives could become the basis for an alternative economy. Some might run for municipal council on a “Transition Towns” type of program. It would be exciting to see one town after another become a locus of the greening process.
And thus can a transformation movement gain momentum generation by generation. Such was the case with Christianity. But the good news now is that the ideological basis for a Great Turning already exists. If we figure that it dates from the initiation of Earth Day, deep ecology, voluntary simplicity, bioregionalism, and Green politics—almost all-at-once fifty years ago—taking a long-range historical perspective, we can see that it’s actually resonating relatively quickly.
ECOLOGY AND COMMUNITY
Of the Ten Key Values of the Greens, most (democracy, peace, justice, etc.) are pretty standard-faire vis-à-vis traditional progressivism. But three of them— Ecological Wisdom, Decentralization, and Communitarian Economics—constitute the basis for a distinctive political worldview, for the greening of the Left, and for the promulgation of the ecovillage ethos.
Ecovillages could serve as both lifeboats during the Long Emergency and as basecamps for social change. The Global Ecovillage Network (www.ecovillage.org) delineates the following principles:
Nurture diversity and cohesion for thriving communities.
Build trust through transparency and accountability.
Empower collaborative leadership and participatory governance.
Promote health, healing and wellbeing for all.
Enrich life with art and celebration.
Honor indigenous wisdom.
Innovate in order to simplify, otherwise sparingly.
Reconnect to nature and embrace low-impact lifestyles.
Move towards equitable stewardship of land and resources.
Protect the soil through regenerative agriculture.
Clean and replenish sources and cycles of water.
Move towards 100% renewable energy and transport.
Adopt and spread green building technologies.
Work with waste as a valuable resource.
Increase biodiversity and restore ecosystems.
Shift away from globalization toward communitarian economics.
Commit to responsible production, consumption, and trade.
Generate wealth through sharing and collaboration.
Use banking and exchange systems that strengthen communities.
Cultivate a high quality of life based on sufficiency rather than affluenza.
Diversity of implementations is anticipated and desirable. The ecovillage ethos can be applied in various ways to rural communities, suburban townships, and urban neighborhoods.
WHAT TO DO
Social changers, transformationalists, counterculturalists are always wondering: What can I do? What kind of steps can I take? How about: Wherever you live, get together with some like-minded neighbors and craft an ordinance to propose to the city council for adoption. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel—ecovillage overlays and low-impact development ordinances have been passed in numerous municipalities. If you copy the text of one and insert the name of your town you’ll have a draft. Likely there will then be a period where tweaks and compromises with the zoning authorities will be required. Patiently persist. Keep in mind that a project to green your municipality, the place where you live, has no deadline.
Moving society in the direction of living more lightly should be viewed as a process. It’s best if we avoid ultimatism and delusions about “revolution.” A deep transformation will unfold if each generation going forward successfully reduces its overall ecological footprint incrementally.
The restoration of social sanity depends upon people moving toward renewal of eco-communitarian lifeways. In order to stay relevant and truly progressive, the Left needs to embrace this paradigm of What to Do and Where to Go.