Thursday 24 December 2020

2020 – The Year in Blog Posts


Below are the most popular posts on this blog, as judged by unique page views, by month, for 2020. A difficult year, for sure. The blog is closing now until January. 

Happy Holiday and New Year to all our readers. 


5 Reasons Why You Should Join Green Left

Green Left was formed in 2006 by members of the Green Party of England and Wales, as a grouping for ecosocialist and other anti-capitalist radicals and to raise Green party politics to meet the demands of its radical policies. As well as acting as an outreach body that communicates the party’s radical policies to socialists and other anti-capitalists outside of the party. More 


To Avoid Ecological Disaster Green Politics Must be Ecosocialist

I have recently been reading ‘The Emergence of Ecosocialism,’ a collection of essays written by the now sadly departed Joel Kovel. Edited by Quincy Saul, and published in 2018, the essays have all been published previously, albeit in subscription journals, mainly Capitalism Nature Socialism, which Kovel edited. One of the main themes that runs through much of the collection is for the need for green politics to fully embrace ecosocialism as its central philosophy, if it is to be effective in tackling the ecological crisis. More


The Ecosocialist Solution to Ecological Catastrophe

The ecological crisis is already the most important social and political question of the 21st century, and will become even more so in the coming months and years.The future of the planet, and thus of humanity, will be determined in the coming decades. Calculations by certain scientists as to scenarios for the year 2100 aren’t very useful for two reasons: A) scientific: considering all the retroactive effects impossible to calculate, it is very risky to make projections over a century. B) political: at the end of the century, all of us, our children and grandchildren will be gone, so who cares? More


Open Letter to Communists of The Whole World: Total Class War Is Coming

We are urgently calling for a shift in the strategy of all communists that takes into account the new reality created by the emergency measures imposed by the state on the capitalist accumulation process. Because of this pandemic, the state has been forced to shut down the capitalist accumulation process. Workers are off the job not because of a general strike, but because the state has closed all non-essential businesses. More 


After the Pandemic – No Going Back to Normal?

It might seem a little early to be talking about after the Covid 19 pandemic, since it is still very much with us, but many nations now, including the UK, are starting to lift the mass lock-downs of their people. It varies considerably between nations, with the UK in the slowest lane, but it is happening all the same and thoughts are turning to what the recovery will be like. More 


The affluent are consuming the planet to death – study

A new study published this month in the academic journal Nature Communications argues that, despite all of the talk about using green technology to address man-made environmental problems, the only way for human consumption to become sustainable is if we rein in the affluent. More 


Can the Green Party be Saved from its Leadership Clique?

The party claims to do politics differently but in practice acts pretty much the same as other political parties. It is riven with internal tribalism; allows key decisions to be taken by small groups of well-connected members; prioritises electoral success over radical environmental campaigning; has a dysfunctional, partisan disciplinary system; engages in some questionable employment practices; and has become a platform for those with political or professional career ambitions and/or who want to advance a particular strand of identity politics. More 


Ecosocialism, Global Justice, and Climate Change

In Kovel’s essay which goes by the same title as this post, first published at Capitalism Nature Socialism in 2008, he looks into the possibilities that ecosocialism can bring in an age of climate crisis, wrought by a rampant, planet destroying, capitalism. More 


Britain’s Food Imperialism, Climate Debt, and “Green” White Supremacy

The popular usage of “Anthropocene” to denote our current geological epoch is intended to highlight the negative impact of human activity on the climate, but in suggesting that all of humanity is equally culpable, it obscures the real cause of environmental devastation: the capitalist-imperialist destruction of nature. More


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. More 


Review: The Robbery of Nature – Capitalism and the Ecological Rift

New Year’s Eve 2019: 5,000 people on the beach at Mallacoota, Victoria, watch pitch-black skies turn a deep red as the bushfire approaches. They huddle, powerless against the fury of this climate change-fuelled nightmare. By March 2020, 33 people, one billion animals, 3,094 houses and over 17 million hectares of land had been destroyed in fires across Australia. More 


What is Ecological Marxism (Eco-Marxism)? Explained

Nature and Capitalism are in an enduring conflict as we witness the exploitation of labour and natural resources simultaneously – clearing of forests because of large scale corporatisation and destructiveness disguised as development. Ecological Marxism is a subfield of Sociology which seeks to study the dialectics of nature from a Marxian perspective and challenges the concepts of conservation and sustainable development. This article will focus on the brief history of its development and the possible reasons triggering its academic growth and importance in recent times. More

Wednesday 16 December 2020

Climate Populism & its Limits


Written by Kai Bosworth and first published at Progressive International

While the last ten years of climate justice activism have reinvented (reinvisioned) global environmental politics from the bottom up, it hasn’t been enough to stem the global ecological destruction wrought by capitalism. What can we learn from the successes and failures of this approach?

The World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. The People’s Summit at Rio+20. The People’s Climate March. The People’s Climate Movement. The last decade has seen a renewal of climate justice activism, defined less by urgency than an anti-establishment political rhetoric largely absent from mainstream environmentalisms of the recent past.

Given its emphasis on grassroots people power and an unstinting critique of global elites and corporations, we should view some portions of contemporary climate justice movement as participating in a left-populist genre of political rhetoric and mobilization. This orientation has culminated in transnational movements for a Green New Deal from 2018 to the present.

An optimistic reading of the situation would suggest such movements never been closer to a global political transformation aligned with principles of climate justice: a prioritization of frontline communities, workers, and the poor. A cynic might point out the complete lack of concrete political action corresponding to these supposed shifts in rhetoric and strategy.

Regardless of one’s proclivity, it behooves us to look back and make a sober balance sheet of the last ten years. What have been the consequences of the left-populist orientation of climate justice politics? What strategic lessons can we draw from this movement’s successes and failures?

A Brief History of Climate Populism

Climate populism markedly differs from the technocratic and policy-oriented approaches to climate change of the recent past. Non-profit environmentalist strategy of the 1990s and early 2000s had adapted itself well to the political norms of Third Way neoliberalism. This orientation emphasized building pragmatic alliances across ruling class institutions in order to reach consensus on sustainable development priorities. 

Consider the annual UNFCCC meeting, which brings together “diverse” actors like Bill Gates, Alec Baldwin, and Al Gore along with state leaders and big-ticket NGOs to hash out the details of nonbinding, incrementalist, and largely market-driven agreements.

The emphasis on reaching consensus and adhering to scientific and technical-driven tools and goals meant that politics – understood as antagonistic disagreement – was actively marginalized in the mainstream. A spatial example of this marginalizations could be seen at every annual Council of Parties meeting, where the climate justice movement was confined to a zone outside the official meeting space.

The oppositional climate justice strategy began to change after the disappointing results of the COP15 Copenhagen Accord in 2009, which entailed an exodus from the official international climate towards parallel spaces of coalition building like the 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Cochabamba, Bolivia. 

Tadzio Mueller has argued that even this space was constrained by internal splits within the Latin American populist left concerning extractivism and Indigenous rights. At the time, Mueller also noted that “In the North, from where this article is written, many climate (justice) activists have had to face up to the problem that political frames centered around climate change struggle to generate a mass base.”

Along with other young climate justice organizers in the United States, I too felt an impasse at this time. With the concurrent failure of the 2009 Waxman-Markey bill and increasing signs that the Obama administration did not represent the progressive break many of us had hoped, climate justice activists began to reconsider how they might build such a “mass base.” 

We gave up on policy, instead attempting to build better relationships with and among grassroots communities on the “frontlines” of extraction and climate chaos. These movements were led by Indigenous nations, migrant farmworkers, Black liberationists, coastal fisherpeople, farmers and ranchers, and industrial union workers rather than nonprofits (even environmental justice ones!).

While climate change might be a component of their analyses of coal fired power plants, hydrofracking fields, and tar sands pipelines, more often they emerged from people’s everyday struggles for clean water and air in what Marxist-feminists call the realm of “social reproduction.” 

What made these movements somewhat different from their predecessors in the prior decades of environmental justice struggles was a desire or need to coordinate and share strategies across difference and distance in order to build a “bigger we”. Drawing on the afterlives of the US agrarian populist tradition, the easy-to-access rhetoric of US-American democracy, the language of the global decolonial and Black power movements, and a new “multiracial populism,” the frequent name for that collective was “the people.”

What Counts as a Populist Movement?

Surveying the last five years of liberal commentary might give one the impression that “populism” is a synonym for the anti-democratic political right. This move is itself a strategic attempt to simultaneously equate and discredit all threats to liberal centrism. Traditional leftist critiques of populism (and “the people” as a subject) have also tended to focus on the problem of ethnonationalism. Isn’t “the people” just a codeword for white supremacy counterposed to some racially-coded corrupting foreign outsider?

There’s no sense in denying the existence of right-populist movements and their use of the rhetoric of “the people” in this fashion. Yet more capacious constructions of “the people” are possible. The climate justice movement, for example, tends to take “the people” to be a global subject rather than a national project (though some accept the constraints of the nation-state a bit too readily). The Latin American leftist understanding of “el pueblo” also resists the ethnonationalist reduction, formed as it is by reference to a constituent power of the people that exceeds that of the state.

Nonetheless, the left-populist project of constructing a subject is not without problems. An opposite concern than the ethnonationalist one is that “the people” might be too broad a subject, including almost everyone and making it difficult to distinguish comrades from mere allies, and either from political enemies.

This can certainly be a concern, as when nationalists and green capitalists attempt to influence people’s movements. Populist demands can become too diluted, losing their orientation to a specific political vision (such as ecosocialism) or strategy (such as movement building). Yet even if there are some grey areas and disagreements among the climate justice movement, there are pretty clear bad guys which most of us recognize: fossil fuel corporations, green colonists, perhaps capitalism more generally.

We can see the widespread and quick uptake of the Green New Deal (GND) as an outcome of the success of the populist orientation. Though versions of a GND had floated around the liberal policy world for some time, it wasn’t until savvy youth groups like the Sunrise Movement made a GND part of their platform that the vision rocketed back on the scene. Today, such plans have tended to be less radical than they purport to be – often appearing as a version of “life support Keynesianism.”

Nonetheless, its current popularity among wide swaths of the environmental arena and the left alike represents a massive shift from the limp demands of the earlier cycle of climate politics. As Matthew Miles Goodrich has argued, this represents a shift in which “Perhaps paradoxically, a political approach to fighting climate change has, in a moment of political crisis, become a source of hope.” Crucial to this new politicized approach is the fact that it is borne by a different political subject – the masses, the frontlines, common people – who would presumably not merely demand change from institutionalized others, but actually wield power to accomplish the GND vision.

It’s absolutely crucial that the climate justice movement has transformed from an “an apolitical movement for refusing to engage with the basic mechanisms of power,” to borrow Goodrich’s words again. But that doesn’t help us adjudicate whether the agonistic left-populist political strategy is the best one. And while there are plenty of sympathetic (and many less sympathetic) critiques of the Green New Deal floating around, most have focused on the content of the demand, rather than the subject who would accomplish it.

The Subject of Climate Populism

Demands and subjects are, of course, linked: subjects don’t simply pre-exist their articulation in political movements, but are reshaped by them. Demands create subjects, subjects incomplete and torn in different directions. Liberal demands both rely on and reproduce liberal subjects: free individuals, consumers, private property owners. Socialist or anti-imperialist demands produce socialist or anti-imperialist subjects: subjects seeking solidarity and comradeship in the name of justice.

Environmentalist demands create environmental subjects. Populist demands create subjects oriented to the popular. What, then, are the limits of the vague subject of “the people” created in the new climate justice movement?

First, while climate populism might have rendered the GND “popular” in some manner, it is clear that even for the vast majority of supporters, this popularity is thin. No amount of supportive polling data can stand in for the concrete actions of a mass movement. Consequently, much like the US populism of the 1890s or Jesse Jackson’s 1980s attempts to build a Rainbow Coalition, climate populism today imagines its small actual coalition to portend a much larger coalition than actually exists.

One consequence of thin popularity is that our aspirational rhetoric does not match our experiences. This can create anxiety within the movement and suspicion of self-critique concerning strategy – especially after a premature move from the streets to the ballot box. After failures, instead of self-critique we have confusion: Weren’t we supposed to be popular? If self-critique is displaced on to others, then lessons are not learned. Further, if only thinly popular, any speculative GND is likely to preclude the key details that a justice- or socialist-oriented GND might put at the center.

Unconditional transnational aid via the climate justice fund? Health care and free movement for all? Indigenous veto rights on clean energy projects? Who or what will be on the chopping block first? Consequently, it seems that the subject of climate populism understands politics, but not yet political power. Climate populism creates subjects attached to a fantasy of mass mobilization, but without the actual movement to leverage it.

Second, the orientation towards an imagined “popular mass” can serve as a throttle on more radical and transgressive elements of such movements. I found that the populist orientation of some anti-pipeline organizations led them to actively oppose anarchists and Indigenous adherents of direct-action, who were understood to be threatening to the supposed “family-friendly” popularity that the movement sought. On the interior, the movement is encouraged to orient itself to a lowest-common-denominator subject with an assumed unchangeable set of interests in actually-existing consumption-based society.

This allows space for particularly perverse understandings of climate politics to play out. Imagining and building a radically transformed social world is disallowed, because regular people would never willingly give up the emotional fulfillment of “sneakers, Lego sets, waffle-irons, and yes flat-screen TVs and X-boxes.” Climate populism thus creates subjects who are trying to be popular. This creates similar problems to that of “normie socialism.”

Kate Doyle Griffiths writes that at a cultural level, the injunction towards normalcy belies a lack of confidence and reinforces an unstated orientation towards white EuroAmerican heteronormativity, while at the political level, it suggests “an assertion of electoral politics, and specifically those within the Democratic Party, as the horizon of the socialist movement.” In short, the subject of climate populism allows its imagination to be constrained by what it believes generic normal people are like.

Third and finally, there is a problem connecting to the various geographies of the popular or mass base of climate populism. If this is indeed to be a movement for planetary justice, the material world of the global proletariat must be at the heart of the (class) struggle. However, despite frequent overtures to the Global South and class-based workers’ struggle, too often the populist end of the current climate justice movement often speaks mostly in the name of those masses.

The “darker nations” still appear in the discourse of climate populism as simply the huddled victims of climate chaos, frequently rendered into the figure of the migrant or refugee. So too are visions of a North American GND unevenly shaped based on region, landscape, and history. While critiques of global capitalism and colonialism are increasingly centralized, due in no small part to the transnational leadership of Indigenous nations, in other arenas climate populism has not fared as well. How many of us are certain that a GND means, for example, for open borders, cancellation of global debts, and a transnational anti-militarism and anti-imperialism?

A related problem is the suggestion that the GND would be enacted by a dubious “cross-class” subject. Any alliance with capital, or even the middle class in the US, is unlikely to produce a successful transformation towards climate justice. The subject of climate populism thus imagines itself to be more capacious than it is, because it represents rather than builds itself within the global proletariat.

The best adherents of the GND point towards not an historic or contemporary set of policies associated with the “New Deal,” but instead the mass struggle that forced their passage. The problem isn’t simply that the New Deal had certain unintended racial effects (which we can now correct), but that the Deal was itself a capitulation and capture of the more radical agitation of the moment.

And yet this radical agitation is precisely denounced by denizens of left populism. If mass agitation and struggle is to be in our minds, the subjects we create must be more transformative than “the people” allows; this means holding out space for organizations – councils, cadres, and mutual aid orgs –not frequently associated with popular mobilization.

What is to be done?

This analysis is not a call to return to a position where we “enjoy our marginalization,” which some of the Left is more than happy to do. Instead, it is a matter of being realistic about the power the climate justice movement is currently capable of flexing, and what arenas that power can actually become efficacious. In North America, it seems that the power of the GND coalition is, disappointingly, largely confined to the same spheres as the earlier cycle: nonprofits, self-defined activists, a smattering of directly-affected peoples.

In many ways, the injunction towards social distancing due to the COVID-19 crisis makes political organizing right now more difficult than ever before. However, this interregnum can be useful for re-evaluation of the recent past and preparation for what appears to be a uniquely ripe planetary economic crisis, one that is deeply material rather than merely rhetorical. It is likely that the short and medium term will yield food, fuel, and circulation crises, almost certainly experienced unevenly due to the neocolonial global division of labor.

In a world of deep economic crisis, is the Green New Deal merely an atavism of life support Keynesianism, a zombie grasp for something, anything – a People’s Bailout? – to renew economic growth? Or can a new, popular movement emerge materially from within this moment of crisis?

Friday 11 December 2020

Ecosocialism - A Vital Synthesis

Written by Michael Löwy and first published at The Great Transition Initiative

Abstract: The capitalist system, driven at its core by the maximization of profit, regardless of social and ecological costs, is incompatible with a just and sustainable future. 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. 


Contemporary capitalist civilization is in crisis. The unlimited accumulation of capital, commodification of everything, ruthless exploitation of labor and nature, and attendant brutal competition undermine the bases of a sustainable future, thereby putting the very survival of the human species at risk. The deep, systemic threat we face demands a deep, systemic change: a Great Transition. 

In synthesizing the basic tenets of ecology and the Marxist critique of political economy, ecosocialism offers a radical alternative to an unsustainable status quo. Rejecting a capitalist definition of “progress” based on market growth and quantitative expansion (which, as Marx shows, is a destructive progress), it advocates policies founded on non-monetary criteria, such as social needs, individual well-being, and ecological equilibrium. Ecosocialism proffers a critique of both mainstream “market ecology,” which does not challenge the capitalist system, and “productivist socialism,” which ignores natural limits. 

As people increasingly realize how the economic and ecological crises intertwine, ecosocialism has been gaining adherents. Ecosocialism, as a movement, is relatively new, but some of its basic arguments date back to the writings of Marx and Engels. Now, intellectuals and activists are recovering this legacy and seeking a radical restructuring of the economy according to the principles of democratic ecological planning, putting human and planetary needs first and foremost. 

The “actually existing socialisms” of the twentieth century, with their often environmentally oblivious bureaucracies, do not offer an attractive model for today’s ecosocialists. Rather, we must chart a new path forward, one that links with the myriad movements around the globe that share the conviction that a better world is not only possible, but also necessary. 

Democratic Ecological Planning 

The core of ecosocialism is the concept of democratic ecological planning, wherein the population itself, not “the market” or a Politburo, make the main decisions about the economy. Early in the Great Transition to this new way of life, with its new mode of production and consumption, some sectors of the economy must be suppressed (e.g., the extraction of fossil fuels implicated in the climate crisis) or restructured, while new sectors are developed. 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. 

Ultimately, such a vision is irreconcilable with private control of the means of production and of the planning process. In particular, for investments and technological innovation to serve the common good, decision-making must be taken away from the banks and capitalist enterprises that currently dominate, and put in the public domain. 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, or 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.   

Although conservatives fearmonger about “central planning,” democratic ecological planning ultimately supports more freedom, not less, for several reasons. First, it offers liberation from the reified “economic laws” of the capitalist system that shackle individuals in what Max Weber called an “iron cage.” 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. 

Last, democratic ecological planning represents a whole society’s exercise of its freedom to control the decisions that affect its destiny. If the democratic ideal would not grant political decision-making power to a small elite, why should the same principle not apply to economic decisions? 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] 

Planning would focus on large-scale economic decisions, not the small-scale ones that might affect local restaurants, groceries, small shops, or artisan enterprises. Importantly, such planning is consistent with workers’ self-management of their productive units. The decision, for example, to transform a plant from producing automobiles to producing buses and trams would be taken by society as a whole, but the internal organization and functioning of the enterprise would be democratically managed by its workers. 

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. This nested, democratic decision-making is quite the opposite of what is usually described, often dismissively, as “central planning,” since decisions are not taken by any “center,” but democratically decided by the affected population at the appropriate scale. 

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, or less, with the attendant reduction of production? 

Such democratic planning needs expert input, but its role is educational, to present informed views on alternative outcomes for consideration by popular decision-making processes. What guarantee is there that the people will make ecologically sound decisions? None. Ecosocialism wagers that democratic decisions will become increasingly reasoned and enlightened as culture changes and the grip of commodity fetishism is broken. One cannot imagine such a new society without the population achieving through struggle, self-education, and social experience, 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? 

The Great Transition from capitalist destructive progress to ecosocialism is a historical process, a permanent revolutionary transformation of society, culture, and mindsets. Enacting this transition leads not only to a new mode of production and an egalitarian and democratic society, but also to an alternative mode of life, a new ecosocialist civilization, beyond the reign of money, beyond consumption habits artificially produced by advertising, and beyond the unlimited production of commodities that are useless and/or harmful to the environment.  

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 Growth Question 

The issue of economic growth has divided socialists and environmentalists. Ecosocialism, however, rejects the dualistic frame of growth versus degrowth, development versus anti-development, because both positions share a purely quantitative conception of productive forces. A third position resonates more with the task ahead: the qualitative transformation of development. 

A new development paradigm means putting an end to the egregious waste of resources under capitalism, driven by large-scale production of useless and harmful products. The arms industry is, of course, a dramatic example, but, more generally, the primary purpose of many of the “goods” produced—with their planned obsolescence—is to generate profit for large corporations. 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. 

Obviously, the countries of the Global South, where these needs are very far from being satisfied, must pursue greater classical “development”—railroads, hospitals, sewage systems, and other infrastructure. Still, rather than emulate how affluent countries built their productive systems, these countries can pursue development in far more environmentally friendly ways, including the rapid introduction of renewable energy. 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] 

At the same time, the ecosocialist transformation would end the heinous debt system the Global South now confronts the exploitations of its resources by advanced industrial countries as well as rapidly developing countries like China. Instead, we can envision a strong flow of technical and economic assistance from North to South rooted in a robust sense of solidarity and the recognition that planetary problems require planetary solutions. 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. 

But how do we distinguish authentic from artificial and counterproductive needs? To a considerable degree, the latter are stimulated by the mental manipulation of advertising. In contemporary capitalist societies, the advertising industry has invaded all spheres of life, shaping everything from the food we eat and the clothes we wear to sports, culture, religion, and politics. Promotional advertising has become ubiquitous, insidiously infesting our streets, landscapes, and traditional and digital media, molding habits of conspicuous and compulsive consumption. 

Moreover, the ad industry itself is a source of considerable waste of natural resources and labor time, ultimately paid by the consumer, for a branch of “production” that lies in direct contradiction with real social-ecological needs. While indispensable to the capitalist market economy, the advertising industry would have no place in a society in transition to ecosocialism; it would be replaced by consumer associations that vet and disseminate information on goods and services. 

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. 

A fundamental premise of ecosocialism is that in a society without sharp class divisions and capitalist alienation, “being” will take precedence over “having.” Instead of seeking endless goods, people pursue greater free time, and the personal achievements and meaning it can bring through cultural, athletic, playful, scientific, erotic, artistic, and political activities. There is no evidence that compulsive acquisitiveness stems from intrinsic “human nature,” as conservative rhetoric suggests. 

Rather, it is induced by the commodity fetishism inherent in the capitalist system, by the dominant ideology, and by advertising. Ernest Mandel summarizes this critical point well: “The continual accumulation of more and more goods […] is by no means a universal and even predominant feature of human behavior. The development of talents and inclinations for their own sake; the protection of health and life; care for children; the development of rich social relations […] become major motivations once basic material needs have been satisfied.” [3] 

Of course, even a classless society faces conflict and contradiction. The transition to ecosocialism would confront tensions between the requirements of protecting the environment and meeting social needs; between ecological imperatives and the development of basic infrastructure; between popular consumer habits and the scarcity of resources; between communitarian and cosmopolitan impulses. Struggles among competing desiderata are inevitable. 

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. 

Intellectual Roots 

Although ecosocialism is a fairly recent phenomenon, its intellectual roots can be traced back to Marx and Engels. Because environmental issues were not as salient in the nineteenth century as in our era of incipient ecological catastrophe, these concerns did not play a central role in Marx and Engels’s works. Nevertheless, their writings use arguments and concepts vital to the connection between capitalist dynamics and the destruction of the natural environment, and to the development of a socialist and ecological alternative to the prevailing system. 

Some passages in Marx and Engels (and certainly in the dominant Marxist currents that followed) do embrace an uncritical stance toward the productive forces created by capital, treating the “development of productive forces” as the main factor in human progress. However, Marx was radically opposed to what we now call “productivism”— the capitalist logic by which the accumulation of capital, wealth, and commodities becomes an end in itself. 

The fundamental idea of a socialist economy—in contrast to the bureaucratic caricatures that prevailed in the “socialist” experiments of the twentieth century—is to produce use-values, goods that are necessary for the satisfaction of human needs, well-being, and fulfillment. 

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] 

Beyond the presumed benefit for the environment, a key Marxian contribution to socialist ecological thinking is attributing to capitalism a metabolic rift—i.e., a disruption of the material exchange between human societies and the natural environment. The issue is discussed, inter alia, in a well-known passage of Capital:

Capitalist production […] disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural conditions for the lasting fertility of the soil. […] All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil […]. The more a country […] develops itself on the basis of great industry, the more this process of destruction takes place quickly. Capitalist production […] only develops […] by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker. [6] 

This important passage clarifies Marx’s dialectical vision of the contradictions of “progress” and its destructive consequences for nature under capitalist conditions. The example, of course, is limited to the loss of fertility by the soil. But on this basis, Marx draws the broad insight that capitalist production embodies a tendency to undermine the “eternal natural conditions.” From a similar vantage, Marx reiterates his more familiar argument that the same predatory logic of capitalism exploits and debases workers.

While most contemporary ecosocialists are inspired by Marx’s insights, ecology has become far more central to their analysis and action. During the 1970s and 1980s in Europe and the US, an ecological socialism began to take shape. Manuel Sacristan, a Spanish dissident-Communist philosopher, founded the ecosocialist and feminist journal Mientras Tanto in 1979, introducing the dialectical concept of “destructive-productive forces.” Raymond Williams, a British socialist and founder of modern cultural studies, became one of the first in Europe to call for an “ecologically conscious socialism” and is often credited with coining the term “ecosocialism” itself. 

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] 

In the 1980s, James O’Connor founded the influential journal Capitalism, Nature and Socialism. The journal was inspired by O’Connor’s idea of the “second contradiction of capitalism.” In this formulation, the first contradiction is the Marxist one between the forces and relations of production; the second contradiction lies between the mode of production and the “conditions of production,” especially, the state of the environment. 

A new generation of eco-Marxists appeared in the 2000s, including John Bellamy Foster and others around the journal Monthly Review, who further developed the Marxian concept of metabolic rift between human societies and the environment. In 2001, Joel Kovel and the present author issued “An Ecosocialist Manifesto,” which was further developed by the same authors, together with Ian Angus, in the 2008 Belem Ecosocialist Manifesto, which was signed by hundreds of people from forty countries and distributed at the World Social Forum in 2009. It has since become an important reference for ecosocialists around the world.[8] 

Why Environmentalists Need to Be Socialists 

As these and other authors have shown, capitalism is incompatible with a sustainable future. The capitalist system, an economic growth machine propelled by fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution, is a primary culprit in climate change and the wider ecological crisis on Earth. Its irrational logic of endless expansion and accumulation, waste of resources, ostentatious consumption, planned obsolescence, and pursuit of profit at any cost is driving the planet to the brink of the abyss. 

Does “green capitalism”—the strategy of reducing environmental impact while maintaining dominant economic institutions—offer a solution? The implausibility of such a Policy Reform scenario is seen most vividly in the failure of a quarter-century of international conferences to effectively address climate change.[9] The political forces committed to the capitalist “market economy” that have created the problem cannot be the source of the solution. 

For example, at the 2015 Paris climate conference, many countries resolved to make serious efforts to keep average global temperature increases below 2o C (ideally, they agreed, below 1.5o C). Correspondingly, they volunteered to implement measures to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. 

However, they put no enforcement mechanisms in place nor 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] 

Ultimately, the fatal flaw of green capitalism lies in the conflict between the micro-rationality of the capitalist market, with its short-sighted calculation of profit and loss, and the macro-rationality of collective action for the common good. The blind logic of the market resists a rapid energy transformation away from fossil fuel dependence in intrinsic contradiction of ecological rationality. 

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. 

That challenge requires building what E. P. Thompson termed a “moral economy” founded on non-monetary and extra-economic, social-ecological principles and governed through democratic decision-making processes.[11] 

Far more than incremental reform, what is needed is the emergence of a social and ecological civilization that brings forth a new energy structure and post-consumerist set of values and way of life. Realizing this vision will not be possible without public planning and control over the “means of production,” the physical inputs used to produce economic value, such as facilities, machinery, and infrastructure. 

An ecological politics that works within prevailing institutions and rules of the “market economy” will fall short of meeting the profound environmental challenges before us. Environmentalists who do not recognize how “productivism” flows from the logic of profit are destined to fail—or, worse, to become absorbed by the system. Examples abound. The lack of a coherent anti-capitalist posture led most of the European Green parties—notably, in France, Germany, Italy, and Belgium—to become mere “eco-reformist” partners in the social-liberal management of capitalism by center-left governments. 

Of course, nature did not fare any better under Soviet-style “socialism” than under capitalism. Indeed, that is one of the reasons ecosocialism carries a very different program and vision from the so-called “actually existing socialism” of the past. Since the roots of the ecological problem are systemic, environmentalism needs to challenge the prevailing capitalist system, and that means taking seriously the twenty-first-century synthesis of ecology and socialism—ecosocialism. 

Why Socialists Need to Be Environmentalists 

The survival of civilized society, and perhaps much of life on Planet Earth, is at stake. A socialist theory, or movement, that does not integrate ecology as a central element in its program and strategy is anachronistic and irrelevant. 

Climate change represents the most threatening expression of the planetary ecological crisis, posing a challenge without historical precedent. If global temperatures are allowed to exceed pre-industrial levels by more than 2° C, scientists project increasingly dire consequences, such as a rise in the sea level so large that it would risk submerging most maritime towns, from Dacca in Bangladesh to Amsterdam, Venice or New York. 

Large-scale desertification, disturbance of the hydrological cycle and agricultural output, more frequent and extreme weather events, and species loss all loom. 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? 

Particularly worrisome is the fact that the impacts of climate change are accumulating at a much faster pace than predicted by climate scientists, who—like almost all scientists—tend to be highly cautious. The ink no sooner dries on an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report when increasing climate impacts make it seem too optimistic. Where once the emphasis was on what will happen in the distant future, attention has turned increasingly to what we face now and in the coming years. 

Some socialists acknowledge the need to incorporate ecology, but object to the term “ecosocialism,” arguing that socialism already includes ecology, feminism, antiracism, and other progressive fronts. However, the term ecosocialism, by suggesting a decisive change in socialist ideas, carries important political significance. 

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. 

Twentieth-century socialism, in its dominant tendencies (social democracy and Soviet-style communism), was, at best, inattentive to the human impact on the environment and, at worst, outright dismissive. Governments adopted and adapted the Western capitalist productive apparatus in a headlong effort to “develop,” while largely oblivious of the profound negative costs in the form of environmental degradation. 

The Soviet Union is a perfect example. The first years after the October Revolution saw an ecological current develop, and a number of measures to protect the environment were, in fact, enacted. But by the late 1920s, with the process of Stalinist bureaucratization underway, an environmentally heedless productivism was being imposed in industry and agriculture by totalitarian methods, while ecologists were marginalized or eliminated. The 1986 Chernobyl accident stands as a dramatic emblem of the disastrous long-term consequences. 

Changing who owns property without changing how that property is managed is a dead-end. Socialism must place democratic management and reorganization of the productive system at the heart of the transformation, along with a firm commitment to ecological stewardship. Not socialism or ecology alone, but ecosocialism. 

Ecosocialism and a Great Transition  

The struggle for green socialism in the long term requires fighting for concrete and urgent reforms in the near term. Without illusions about the prospects for a “clean capitalism,” the movement for deep change must try to reduce the risks to people and planet, while buying time to build support for a more fundamental shift. In particular, the battle to force the powers that be to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions remains a key front, along with local efforts to shift toward agroecological methods, cooperative solar energy, and community management of resources. 

Such concrete, immediate struggles are important in and of themselves because partial victories are vital for combatting environmental deterioration and despair about the future. For the longer term, these campaigns can help raise ecological and socialist consciousness and promote activism from below. Both awareness and self-organization are decisive preconditions and foundations for radically transforming the world system. The amplification of thousands of local and partial efforts into an overarching systemic global movement forges the path to a Great Transition: a new society and mode of life. 

This vision infuses the popular idea of a “movement of movements,” which arose out of the global justice movement and the World Social Forums and which for many years has fostered the convergence of social and environmental movements in a common struggle. Ecosocialism is but one current within this larger stream, with no pretense that it is “more important” or “more revolutionary” than others. Such a competitive claim counterproductively breeds polarization when what is needed is unity. 

Rather, ecosocialism aims to contribute to a shared ethos embraced by the various movements for a Great Transition. Ecosocialism sees itself as part of an international movement: since global ecological, economic, and social crises know no borders, the struggle against the systemic forces driving these crises must also be globalized. 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. 

The gathering movement of movements seeks system change, convinced that another world is possible beyond commodification, environmental destruction, exploitation, and oppression. The power of entrenched ruling elites is undeniable, and the forces of radical opposition remain weak. But they are growing, and stand as our hope for halting the catastrophic course of capitalist “growth.” Ecosocialism contributes an important perspective for nurturing understanding and strategy for this movement for a Great Transition. 

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.


[1] Joel Kovel, Enemy of NatureThe End of Capitalism or the End of the World? (New York, Zed Books, 2002), 215.

[2] Via Campesina, a worldwide network of peasant movements, has long argued for this type of agricultural transformation. See

[3] Ernest Mandel, Power and Money: A Marxist Theory of Bureaucracy (London, Verso, 1992), 206.

[4] The opposition between “having” and “being” is often discussed in the Manuscripts of 1844. On free time as the foundation of the socialist “Kingdom of Freedom,” see Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Volume III, Marx-Engels-Werke series, vol. 25 (1884; Berlin: Dietz Verlag Berline, 1981), 828.

[5] Paul Burkett, Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy (Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2009), 329.

[6] Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Volume 1, Marx-Engels-Werke series, vol. 23 (1867; Berlin: Dietz Verlag Berlin, 1981), 528-530.

[7] See, for example, Manuel Sacristan, Pacifismo, Ecología y Política Alternativa (Barcelona: Icaria, 1987); Raymond Williams, Socialism and Ecology (London: Socialist Environment and Resources Association, 1982); André Gorz, Ecology as Politics (Boston, South End Press, 1979); Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle: Man, Nature, and Technology (New York: Random House, 1971).

[8] “An Ecosocialist Manifesto,” 2001,; “Belem Ecosocialist Declaration,” December 16, 2008,

[9] See for an overview of the Policy Reform scenario and other global scenarios.

[10] United Nations Environment Programme, The Emissions Gap Report 2017 (Nairobi: UNEP, 2017). For an overview of the report, see

[11] E. P. Thompson  “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,”

Past & Present,  no. 50 (February 1971): 76-136

[12] See Ariel Salleh’s Ecofeminism as Politics (New York: Zed Books, 1997), or the recent issue of Capitalism, Nature and Socialism (29, no. 1: 2018) on “Ecofeminism against Capitalism,” with essays by Terisa Turner, Ana Isla, and others.

Monday 7 December 2020

In Defence of Universal Basic Income

Written by Anne Gray 

As a member of the Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW) Working Group on Universal Basic Income (UBI), I take issue with Huseyin Kishi’s post on this blog. It seems he fundamentally misunderstands the GPEW’s proposals and the relationship of UBI to free public services:- 

* UBI is not an alternative to free collective public services that Greens defend and expand, like the NHS, social care, education, public transport and free childcare. Both are affordable – it’s a question of fiscal policy and the will to implement it. 

* Kishi’s cost figure of £331bn is hugely exaggerated; it was the GROSS cost, of the GPEW 2016 scheme, not the NET cost which is close to zero after Exchequer savings from abolishing many existing  benefits and tax concessions. Similarly, NET costs of the 2019 scheme were under £1bn. 

* With the addition of the carbon dividend (explained below), the GPEW rates were considerably higher in the 2019 proposal than in the 2016 one Malcolm Torry criticised in the Guardian. But in both years, illustrative calculations for household types comprising over 95% of households showed no losses compared to the Universal Credit (UC) system. Kishi mentions the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s (JRF) argument that poverty would worsen if a UBI was introduced without also keeping means tested benefits. 

What JRF criticised were the schemes Compass rejected in a 2016 report[i] that JRF co-funded. Compass concluded, either keep existing benefits or fund a higher UBI by using  a wealth tax or higher corporation tax – and modelled some alternatives to illustrate that. The GPEW’s 2019 proposal has higher UBIs and lower income tax  than any of Compass’s  schemes. 

It introduces a carbon tax, which funds a ‘carbon dividend’ as part of the UBI, and abolishes some tax concessions the Compass report didn’t. However, in case of unusual needs, the GPEW proposal had about £1bn in a discretionary fund for special cases – perhaps a 12-child family, or a complex household with two Carer’s Allowances. 

* Kishi argues correctly that housing benefit has become a handout for landlords. The Green Party would address this through rent controls. For simplicity, most UBI proposals treat housing cost and disability support – which also needs to be substantially increased – as a separate issue.

The New Economics Foundation argument about UBI versus free public services assumes we cannot afford both. 

Surely we can? 

Drawing on corporate and private wealth to augment public spending is vital to reverse austerity in public services. Fiscal sources need to evolve gradually in the context of moving towards more public ownership, less inequality and a greener economy - probably towards more wealth taxes and land taxes. 

Compass (2016 report, pp 19-20) points out that reversing the 2015/6 cuts in corporation tax and fuel duties would raise around £19.5bn, and that taxes on wealth fell considerably in recent years. Since buildings cannot move overseas, the Green Party advocates a land value tax in the  long-term, to enhance redistribution and public spending. One could add; cancel Trident and cut subsidies on fossil fuels amongst other useful savings. 

Compass suggests replacing means tested benefits gradually, moving from an unconditional  supplement to existing benefits to a larger UBI. With reason, the GPEW says introduction of a UBI needs longer than one Parliament. The March 2019 Compass scheme[ii] envisaged long-term expansion of UBI  based on a ‘national wealth fund’ – income-earning public sector assets plus levies on corporate and private wealth. This would be a useful successor to a carbon tax, which if successful in reducing emissions would yield less over time.

UBI would be massively popular for two reasons: ending the ‘poverty trap’  and its abolition of benefit sanctions and means tests. Freed from the huge ‘marginal tax rates’ caused by benefit withdrawal at 63p of UC for each £1 earned, more people would take work even if casual or insecure.  

Claimants suffer untold stress from means-testing and conditions about work search and job-centre requirements, plus the five week wait for UC, threatening letters demanding repayments if the Department for Work and Pensions gets its sums wrong, and criminalisation of people who don’t report changes of circumstances when earnings vary from week to week.

The JRF critique of  Compass’s ‘full UBI’ proposals - the ones Compass rejected because they increased poverty – argues that the current benefit system achieves better targeting of monies at the most needy. Mainly because abolishing the personal tax allowance – a major funding source for UBI - makes the lowest incomes very sensitive to the new income tax rate. 

The rejected Compass schemes had a 30% standard rate plus national insurance at 12% on all income above the exemption band; GPEW 2019 has 32% ‘all in’ with no extra National Insurance. Compass’s latest (2019) proposal had standard  income tax at 23%, but  only 15% for the first £11,850 earned. The GPEW had instead a tax-free earnings band of at least £1000 at the bottom of the scale, partly to save people with tiny earnings from doing tax returns.

Perfect targeting at the poorest is impossible without high withdrawal rates of benefit on low incomes.[iii] UBI evens out marginal tax/withdrawal rates on income (counting the benefit taper rate for UC as a kind of tax). They fall for people dependent on state support, rise for those whose earnings help finance UBI. That fall in the effective ‘tax’ on the unwaged is crucial to fairer taxation and to ending the poverty trap. 

UBI is ever more needed in the post-pandemic period – to deal with mass unemployment and job insecurity, plus providing part of a fiscal stimulus. Its unconditional  nature is crucial. There are many UBI schemes and many ways to fund them. The JRF’s critique didn’t prevent Compass from initiating a major campaign for UBI to alleviate COVID-engendered poverty.[iv] It’s high time to join it and campaign for better public services as well. 


[i] Universal Basic Income; An idea whose time has come, May 2016,

The GPEW 2016 proposal had much lower income tax than in the ‘full BI’schemes that this Compass report rejected. 

[iii] Kishi confuses this process with a means test taper – Natalie Bennett meant the tax take-back. 


Anne Gray is a member of Haringey Green Party and a supporter of Green Left