Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Ecosocialism and the Role of the State



After posting Ecosocialism or Barbarism – 11 Theses by Bruno Kern on this blog, I had an interesting discussion with a couple of London Green Left people which covered quite a few ideas on how we get to ecosocialism and some aspects of what ecosocialism would look like in a future, post capitalist world. Here I will float some thoughts about the role of the state in an ecosocialist society. 

There are several different strains of ecosocialism but most envisage a much reduced role for the state, certainly the egalitarianistic variety to which I belong does. Although the only governments that have been influenced by ecosocialist thinking, actually existing ecosocialism if you like, mainly in South America, show no sign of wanting to even wither away the state. The state in these instances has been used to fight off the global corporations who cause so much eco-destruction whilst exploiting the people, and are so rich and powerful that it needs the state to lead the resistance to them.

Of course we are not in a post capitalist situation now, so these states are understandably doing what needs to be done to try and carve out some space for ecosocialism to develop, but the whole concept of the state is also deeply embedded in our view of life, so it is not so easy to imagine the world without the nation state. In my view though, the state is ultimately a barrier to ecosocialism.

One of the main reasons why ecosocialists want to dismantle the state, ‘as soon as possible’ in Joel Kovel’s words is in many ways a reaction to first epoch socialism, in the twentieth century, and by this we mean the USSR and China and their satellites. In these nations, the state became a brutal tyrant, which suppressed democracy and committed atrocious crimes against their peoples and ecology. We appreciate that the external threat from surrounding capitalist states fuelled this behaviour, but ultimately twentieth century socialism sowed the seeds of its own downfall, by adopting such an anti-democratic and remote form of statist government.

Ecosocialism promotes democratic decisions being taken at the lowest possible levels, so advocate things like citizen’s councils or assemblies, or other forms of participatory direct democracy, not dissimilar to the kind of organisation practised at the Occupy encampments in many parts of the world a few years ago.  All ownership would be collective and the land and sea would be commons.

The problem with the state, of any political type, is that it holds too much power and tends to evolve along elitist lines, becoming more remote and self-serving whatever the original good intentions were. To break this tendency, democracy needs to be spread locally, regionally and in some cases nationally and internationally. Things like railways, for example, would need national oversight, and (reduced) trade internationally, but many if not all matters can be devolved to local levels. We need not go into the mechanics much here but one thought is that elections to councils should be held annually and people should not serve continually on these bodies, but it is easy to devise rules around this.


When we start to think of the huge changes that are necessary, urgent even, and how far we are now away from any of this, I think it is common sense to realise that we will have to live with the state for a while yet. We can prefigure our politics to some extent, but we will also have to work with the state system for now.

You could call it damage limitation, but I prefer to see this as part of a transformative process. Supporting renewable energy over fossil fuel and nuclear, energy conservation, organic farming, climate change action and working in the social movements for example, anything that reduces the disastrous impact on our ecology and pushes the corporate forces out of our lives. And yes, engaging in the democratic processes, such that they are, to win support for our policies and to get our ideas more widely listened to. To move the popular discourse a little in our direction.

But our ecosocialist analysis compels us to also aim to replace the capitalist state, by peaceable means of course, and in the first instance it will probably have to be replaced by an ecosocialist state to make a start on the work of massive change.  This should only be a temporary stage though, to put in place the transition to the people’s councils that will eventually replace the state government entirely.

Many things will need to be worked through, and for a time a central plan and direction, I think, will be necessary. The need to overhaul the productive system in favour of use value is probably the most the critical, because everything else flows from there in terms of what and how we produce. By shifting to this form of production, we can design a system which is ecocentric in nature.  In my view it would be more difficult to do this in a fractured way, at least at first, so the state would be needed to start the process.

Finally, this is what Joel Kovel and Michael Lowy say, and say it much better than me, in the first ecosocialist manifesto:

Ecosocialism retains the emancipatory goals of first-epoch socialism, and rejects both the attenuated, reformist aims of social democracy and the productivist structures of the bureaucratic variations of socialism. It insists, rather, upon redefining both the path and the goal of socialist production in an ecological framework. It does so specifically in respect to the ‘limits on growth’ essential for the sustainability of society. These are embraced, not however, in the sense of imposing scarcity, hardship and repression. The goal, rather, is a transformation of needs, and a profound shift toward the qualitative dimension and away from the quantitative. From the standpoint of commodity production, this translates into a valorization of use-values over exchange-values, a project of far-reaching significance grounded in immediate economic activity.

Far reaching indeed, but central if we are to create a sustainable political economy.

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