Saturday 24 October 2020

Ecosocialism and the Potential for Cultural Change

Ecosocialism is a wide ranging philosophy covering how we interact with our planet and how we interact with each other. The basic premise is that the capitalist system is inherently ruinous to the well-being of our planet’s ecology and all those who live on it, both human and non-human. If we are to solve the ecological crisis then ecosocialism demands an end to the capitalist system. In conventional terms, this is unthinkable, so how can ecosocialists make this proposition be an accepted reality amongst the majority of people around the world? I suggest that it means making a profound shift in cultural values, to bring about this change of thinking. 

The prevailing approach to combating climate change and other ecological problems is to generate more energy from renewable sources and rely on often unproven technological solutions, which have proved to be woefully unsuccessful. The global land and ocean surface temperature of the earth for March 2020 was 1.16°C above the 20th century average and the second highest in the 141-year history of record keeping. 

So, with time running out to reverse global warming and stabilise the situation why has the response been so feeble? 

The answer lies in our economic system, capitalism, with its inherent need to grow, but also in the culture that this economic system has created. The levels of growth since the industrial revolution would not have been possible without the burning of fossil fuels to provide energy, and without this growth the system would have collapsed. Sustaining this growth will require even more energy in the future than we are using today and, I think, renewable sourced energy will never be enough. This is what the ruling class seems to think, too, which is why such inadequate remedies are suggested, such as Carbon Capture and Storage.

The culture that capitalism has created, with ever increasing levels of consumption and the belief that the system will always find a technological solution to any problems that the system throws up, is extremely strong and attempts to think outside of its parameters are rejected as unrealistic pipe dreams. 

This is what Antonio Gramsci, the twentieth century Italian socialist termed Cultural Hegemony, by which capitalist nation states and their ruling class use cultural norms and institutions as a means to hold onto power. Culture in this sense is a belief system of social mores which can be manipulated by the rulers to make the status quo seem to be the cultural norm or natural 

Gramsci supported the call for a Cultural Association in Turin, which was a city where he thought the proletariat was mature enough for it to succeed. Writing in Socialism and Culture he describes culture this way: 

‘It is the organisation, the disciplining of one’s inner self; the mastery of one’s personality; the attainment of a higher awareness, through which we can come to understand our value and place within history, our proper function in life, our rights and duties. But all this cannot happen through spontaneous evolution…’ 

Gramsci believed that cultural norms had to be changed first, before a successful revolution could be launched. He noted that the French Revolution would not have happened in all likelihood if The Enlightenment period had not already taken place.

He argued that there were essentially two stages to bringing about the revolution. He called these stages the war of position and the war of manoeuvre, where the war of position, the first part, is a struggle for intellectual and cultural change. A change to a new culture in favour of the masses, one which will rival the prevailing establishment culture. Then the war of manoeuvre, the struggle for the control of the state, will begin and be supported by most of the people. 

I’ve not come across much direct mention of culture from ecosocialist writers. Joel Kovel in The Enemy of Nature writes of capital’s ‘force field’ which is another way I think of describing hegemony, in similar terms to Gramsci’s writings, but there are a couple of ecosocialist’s who have addressed the cultural problem head on and are worthy of mention. 

David Bollier writing for the Next Project, an ecosocialist initiative in the US, suggests that by restoring commons practices, we can change the prevailing culture. The Next Project site introduction to his piece says: 

‘In the commons-based society that Bollier envisions, economics, governance, politics, and culture are blended, and based on de-commodification, mutualisation, and the organization and control of resources outside of the market.’ 

Bollier quotes Karl Polanyi, the political economists and originator of substantivism, a socialist and cultural approach to economics. In The Great Transformation Polanyi explains that market culture in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries gradually supplanted ‘kinship, custom, religion, morality, and community to become the primary ordering principle of society.' 

Polanyi observed that the change from the pre-modern society to a market society in the nineteenth century was made possible by first changing the economic mentalities of the people at large. The transformation could then be made to the economic orthodoxies that are the norm today. This was the job of the modern state, to push through the cultural change that made markets the principle determinant of people’s lives.  

Commons cooperation, or maybe sharing, in today’s social media language leads to ‘commoning’ which has the potential to: 

‘regenerate people’s social connections with each other and with “nature.” It helps build new aspirations and identities. By giving people significant new opportunities for personal agency that go well beyond the roles of consumer, citizen, and voter, the commons introduces people to new social roles that embody wholesome cultural values and entail both responsibility and entitlement. In a time when market culture is ubiquitous and invasive, commoning cultivates new cultural spaces and nourishes inner, subjective experiences that have far more to do with the human condition and social change than the manipulative branding and disempowering spectacles of market culture.’   

Bollier goes onto suggest that cooperative movements that connect together can create new social spaces and the digital commons has the potential for advancing a new kind of culture. Free software, peer to peer cooperation, Wikipedia and writer’s commons licences are examples of this cultural model. I would say in more extremis, the hackers Anonymous as well things like Wikileaks. 

He concludes his piece this way: 

'The Anonymous Invisible Committee in France has observed that “an insurrection is not like a plague or forest fire—a linear process which spreads from place to place after an initial spark. It takes the shape of music, whose focal points, though dispersed in time and space, succeed in imposing the rhythms of their own vibrations.” That describes the unfolding odyssey of the commons movement, whose rhythms are producing a lot of resonance.' 

Saral Sarkar in his book Eco-socialism or Eco-capitalism, says that we need to invent a new culture, as all other existing or previously existing cultures have proved incapable of dealing with the ecological crisis, and are indeed the cause of the crisis This new culture will need to encompass ecology, equality, peace and the rights of other species to life (and space). Sarkar thinks that this new culture is a prerequisite to the forming of an ecosocialist culture and economy and an ecosocialist government. He notes that the ideals of The Enlightenment and the French Revolution failed to achieve true equality because it sought only equality before the law and so crucially, cultural norms were not changed to embed equality in society at large. 

Sarkar believes that for such a cultural shift to happen, it needs to begin with a change in values. He thinks this is why the radical ecological position of the 1970s, which sought to move away from materialistic culture, was so short lived and in the 1980s took on board industrial prosperity as a way to achieve its programme of ecological and social reconstruction of society. It followed the prevailing culture of accumulation. 

Sarkar describes the new culture, not in terms of art, literature, music, science and philosophy but in terms of values: 

‘…questions such as whether a society has abolished exploitation and oppression, whether it is exploiting other peoples, whether its members are free from hunger, whether the burdens of heavy and unpleasant work are distributed equally, whether patriarchy has vanished, whether the economic and socio-political organisation is such that no hierarchy is necessary for its proper functioning, and above all, whether it is living in harmony with nature.' 

In my lifetime, I have seen many cultural changes in the UK, and further afield. In the UK, things like, capital punishment has been abolished, homosexuality legalised and same sex marriages legalised, equal pay for women (in theory if not quite all practice) and gender and racial discrimination outlawed, although without removing it all together. 

The two biggest global political cultural shifts that I have seen are the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR and its satellites, and the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa. It was pretty much unimaginable that these changes would take place, even a short time before they did. But what all of these cultural changes have in common, is that they were driven by the establishment, in some cases in combination with a cultural change from the general populace, but this was widely accepted by the ruling classes. 

Earlier in the twentieth century, shifts such as the Suffragettes' campaign, managed to succeed in gaining enfranchisement for women, and the formation of the National Health Service and welfare state in the UK after the second world war, were driven from below. Great achievements as these things are, they do not fundamentally change the economic system, and so can be absorbed into the prevailing order, without too much disruption. 

The kind of cultural shifts required to bring about ecosocialism, are highly unlikely to be accepted by the powers that be, because all of the above examples of cultural change, didn’t get in the way of the ruling classes making money. Some capitalists could even see opportunities for making money out of the changes, where before none existed.

Carbon Trading, for example, is a market and uses the logic of the market, to try and solve a problem which has effectively been caused by the market. Where this has been tried, in the European Union (EU) for example, it has not resulted in a reduction of carbon being emitted, but it has made money for emitters of carbon and the traders, so it is perfectly acceptable to the establishment view. 

In recent years politics in the US and UK particularly, but many other countries too, have been deliberately shifted into what have been termed ‘culture wars’ with the UK’s referendum on EU membership and Brexit, and the election of President Trump in the US. These movements, from the political right, have sought to exploit patriotism and nationalism, with an emphasis on xenophobia and racism. The political left has it found hard to combat this cultural shift, and indeed shares some of the blame with the liberal left being identified with the neo-liberal economics of globalisation. 

In my view, ecology, realised through ecosocialism, holds the key to changing cultural norms. Ecosocialism will be international or nothing, of course, but in a reverse of globalised economics, and towards a rational, within ecological limits, system of political economy. International movements like Extinction Rebellion (XR) and the school students climate strikes which have emerged in the last couple of years, offer encouragement of a cultural shift away from the neo-liberal status quo. But sadly seem to fail to grasp that the politicians can’t be convinced to make the necessary changes. 

The Suffragettes, who XR likens itself to, the mainstream of the movement anyway, did not aim to overthrow the forces of capitalist order, as noted above, which is necessary to solve the ecological crisis. The ‘Votes for Women’ aim wasn’t going to stop the capitalists from making money, and so was not so unthinkable. The role of the capitalist state is to protect the established order, and the politicians are often in the pay of the very corporations that have caused the ecological crisis, and so cannot be relied upon to take the necessary action. It will cost them money! 

In the same way XR’s demands of ‘calling a climate emergency’ and ‘setting up people’s assemblies’ on climate change will not in themselves bring about the changes needed, but can they play a part in moving to Gramsci’s first stage of Cultural Hegemony? Raising debate in these assemblies can make the logical connections between our economic system and what it does, in destroying the planet and exploiting the mass of the people on it. 

Similarly, advocates of a Green New Deal, and there are many varieties of this idea, some more radical than others, but can this at least help to move cultural norms in the direction of an ecologically rational system? It is certainly the basis for a ‘just transition’ from the old world to the new, and could carry people with it, who quite rightly are concerned about jobs and having enough money to live on. These things can be stepping stones to ecosocialism, because they have the potential to shift cultural thinking. 

But we have another cultural problem, whether ecosocialists like it not, socialism, is associated in many people’s minds with the authoritarian regimes of the USSR and China, and their satellite states. A self inflicted wound on socialism, which has become another cultural barrier to be overcome, but we might as well acknowledge it first, and demonstrate in whatever ways we can, that this was not real socialism, and is undesirable for any future socialism. 

Younger people are often the drivers of cultural change, or at least more receptive to it. Climate change will affect them more seriously than older people, and we have seen this in the impressive numbers supporting the school climate strikes. It appears that they may be more receptive to socialist ideas too, who will not have known the socialisms of the twentieth century. It appears that the younger generation is a more fertile ground for ecosocialism. 

I wish I knew the answer to how a favourable cultural shift could be achieved, but if an ecosocialist analysis of the ecological crisis is correct, and logic suggests it is, as events unfold, more and more people will begin to think these thoughts. This is the only thing that gives me hope.      


  1. I agree with this critique of the culture that capitalism has created, with ever increasing levels of consumption. As Greens should readily understand, consumer capitalism constantly strives to find new markets for economic growth and profit.
    What baffles me is that the Green Party fails to make the obvious connection between runaway consumerism and gender ideology. Medical interventions for trans-identified people, including children, are the latest in a long line of fraudulent promises that there is a new product that will finally make people happy. The interventions are always expensive and invasive, potentially harmful, and often unnecessary.
    Lifelong, costly hormone treatment and sex-change surgeries on physically healthy individuals are big business for Big Pharma and the medical corps. The sooner the Green Party realised this, the sooner they might reconsider their mantra about how transmen are men and transwomen are women.
    If anyone wants to read more about the link between gender ideology and the dark forces of capitalist growth, look up Jennifer Bilek at

    1. An interesting angle on the trans-gender debate Robbie.