Ecosocialism offers a radical alternative that puts social and ecological well-being first. Attuned to the links between the exploitation of labor and the exploitation of the environment, ecosocialism stands against both reformist “market ecology” and “productivist socialism.”
By embracing a new model of robustly democratic planning, society can take control of the means of production and its own destiny. Shorter work hours and a focus on authentic needs over consumerism can facilitate the elevation of “being” over “having,” and the achievement of a deeper sense of freedom for all.
To realize this vision, however, environmentalists and socialists will need to recognize their common struggle and how that connects with the broader “movement of movements” seeking a Great Transition.
Ecosocialism puts forth a critique of both mainstream “market ecology,” which does not challenge the capitalist system, and “productivist socialism,” which ignores natural limits.
Economic transformation must be accompanied by active pursuit of full employment with equal conditions of work and wages. This egalitarian vision is essential both for building a just society and for engaging the support of the working class for the structural transformation of the productive forces.
Then, society itself, and neither a small oligarchy of property owners nor an elite of techno-bureaucrats, will democratically decide which productive lines are to be privileged, and how resources are to be invested in education, health, and culture. Major decisions on investment priorities—such as terminating all coal-fired facilities or directing agricultural subsidies to organic production—would be taken by direct popular vote. Other, less important decisions would be taken by elected bodies, on the relevant national, regional, or local scale.
Prices of goods would not be left to the “laws of supply and demand,” but would, instead, reflect social and political priorities, with the use of taxes and subsidies to incentivize social goods and disincentivize social ills. Ideally, as the ecosocialist transition moves forward, more products and services critical for meeting fundamental human needs would be freely distributed, according to the will of the citizens.
Second, ecosocialism heralds a substantial increase in free time. Planning and the reduction of labor time are the two decisive steps towards what Marx called “the kingdom of freedom.” A significant increase of free time is, in fact, a condition for the participation of working people in the democratic discussion and management of economy and of society.
Under capitalism, use-value—the worth of a product or service to well-being—exists only in the service of exchange-value, or value on the market. Thus, many products in contemporary society are socially useless, or designed for rapid turnover (“planned obsolescence”). By contrast, in a planned ecosocialist economy, use-value would be the only criteria for the production of goods and services, with far-reaching economic, social, and ecological consequences.1
There has been much discussion about the “centralized” or “decentralized” character of planning, but most important is democratic control at all levels—local, regional, national, continental, or international. For example, planetary ecological issues such as global warming must be dealt with on a global scale, and thereby require some form of global democratic planning.
Democratic and pluralist debate would occur at all levels. Through parties, platforms, or other political movements, varied propositions would be submitted to the people, and delegates would be elected accordingly. However, representative democracy must be complemented—and corrected—by Internet-enabled direct democracy, through which people choose—at the local, national, and, later, global level—among major social and ecological options.
Should public transportation be free? Should the owners of private cars pay special taxes to subsidize public transportation? Should solar energy be subsidized in order to compete with fossil energy? Should the work week be reduced to 30 hours, 25 hours, or less, with the attendant reduction of production?
One cannot imagine such a new society without the achievement, through struggle, self-education, and social experience, of a high level of socialist and ecological consciousness. In any case, are not the alternatives—the blind market or an ecological dictatorship of “experts”—much more dangerous?
Such a transformative process depends on the active support of the vast majority of the population for an ecosocialist program. The decisive factor in development of socialist consciousness and ecological awareness is the collective experience of struggle, from local and partial confrontations to the radical change of global society as a whole.
The issue is not excessive consumption in the abstract, but the prevalent type of consumption, based as it is on massive waste and the conspicuous and compulsive pursuit of novelties promoted by “fashion.” A new society would orient production towards the satisfaction of authentic needs, including water, food, clothing, housing, and such basic services as health, education, transport, and culture.
While many poorer countries will need to expand agricultural production to nourish hungry, growing populations, the ecosocialist solution is to promote agroecology methods rooted in family units, cooperatives, or larger-scale collective farms—not the destructive industrialized agribusiness methods involving intensive inputs of pesticides, chemicals, and GMOs.2
This need not entail that people in affluent countries “reduce their standard of living”—only that they shun the obsessive consumption, induced by the capitalist system, of useless commodities that do not meet real needs or contribute to human well-being and flourishing.
While these changes are already happening to some extent, old habits would likely persist for some years, and nobody has the right to dictate peoples’ desires. Altering patterns of consumption is an ongoing educational challenge within a historical process of cultural change.
Hence, weighing and balancing such interests must become the task of a democratic planning process, liberated from the imperatives of capital and profit-making, to come up with solutions through transparent, plural, and open public discourse. Such participatory democracy at all levels does not mean that there will not be mistakes, but it allows for the self-correction by the members of the social collectivity of its own mistakes.
The central feature of technical progress for Marx was not the indefinite growth of products (“having”) but the reduction of socially necessary labor and concomitant increase of free time (“being”).4 Marx's emphasis on communist self-development, on free time for artistic, erotic, or intellectual activities—in contrast to the capitalist obsession with the consumption of more and more material goods—implies a decisive reduction of pressure on the natural environment.5
André Gorz, a French philosopher and journalist, argued that political ecology must contain a critique of economic thought and called for an ecological and humanist transformation of work. Barry Commoner, an American biologist, argued that the capitalist system and its technology—and not population growth—was responsible for the destruction of the environment, which led him to the conclusion that “some sort of socialism” was the realistic alternative.7
However, they put no enforcement mechanisms in place nor any consequences for noncompliance, hence no guarantee that any country will keep its word. The US, the world’s second-highest emitter of carbon emissions, is now run by a climate denier who pulled the US out of the agreement. Even if all countries did meet their commitments, the global temperature would rise by 3o C or more, with great risk of dire, irreversible climate change.10
The point is not to indict “bad” ecocidal capitalists, as opposed to “good” green capitalists; the fault lies in a system rooted in ruthless competition and a race for short-term profit that destroys nature’s balance. The environmental challenge—to build an alternative system that reflects the common good in its institutional DNA—becomes inextricably linked to the socialist challenge.
We’re already at 1° C. At what temperature increase—5, 6, or 7° C—will we reach a tipping point beyond which the planet cannot support civilized life or even becomes uninhabitable?
First, it reflects a new understanding of capitalism as a system based not only on exploitation but also on destruction—the massive destruction of the conditions for life on the planet. Second, ecosocialism extends the meaning of socialist transformation beyond a change in ownership to a civilizational transformation of the productive apparatus, the patterns of consumption, and the whole way of life. Third, the new term underscores the critical view it embraces of the twentieth-century experiments in the name of socialism.
Many significant intersections are surfacing between ecosocialism and other movements, including efforts to link eco-feminism and ecosocialism as convergent and complementary.12 The climate justice movement brings antiracism and ecosocialism together in the struggle against the destruction of the living conditions of communities suffering discrimination.
In indigenous movements, some leaders are ecosocialists, while, in turn, many ecosocialists sees the indigenous way of life, grounded in communitarian solidarity and respect for Mother Nature, as an inspiration for the ecosocialist perspective. Similarly, ecosocialism finds voice within peasant, trade-union, degrowth, and other movements.
Walter Benjamin defined revolutions not as the locomotive of history, à la Marx, but as humanity’s reaching for the emergency brake before the train falls into the abyss. Never have we needed more to reach as one for that lever and lay new track to a different destination. The idea and practice of ecosocialism can help guide this world-historic project.