In the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need bold and imaginative thinking — it is time to embrace the utopianism that is implicit to the Marxist tradition.
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging our carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
— Arundhati Roy
Socialism is one of the great visions of a society in the modern era. Born in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the early days of industrialization, socialism is about achieving freedom and equality in real, practical terms. Socialism envisions a society based on cooperation, which meets the needs of all of its members. It recognizes that everyday practices, especially work, need to be democratically organized and freed from necessity in order for people to find fulfilment in social existence. Emancipation — the liberation of social life from structural constraints — is the task that sustains socialist aspirations.
How does the wisdom of socialism, both in its Marxian and ecological forms, apply to our own time — the time of COVID-19 and climate emergency?
COVID-19, a deadly virus wreaking havoc across borders and continents, has put the capitalist world under a magnifying glass. It has amplified structural deficiencies and inequalities and showed us how systematic efforts to maximize wealth have undermined the health of society as a whole. Under the reign of neoliberalism, this has led to neglect of the resilience of health care systems as well as a steady shrinking of the entire public sector. With its seismic impact, COVID-19 underscores the need for socialist transformation.
At the same time, there is the planetary and existential issue of climate emergency. A recent United Nations report states that “despite a brief dip in the global carbon dioxide emission as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the planet is still heading for a global temperature in excess of 3 degrees Celsius this century.” It has thus become clear that only a radical transformation can save humanity and the planet from the ruin. Changes within the capitalist system will not suffice. Instead, a transition to socialism is necessary as it is socialism which can establish the conditions in which both human and non-human life can not only survive, but also thrive.
A convergence between Marxian socialism and ecosocialism can help us envision a remedy to the deep troubles of our time. In this essay, I take utopia as that convergence. As articulated by the maverick philosopher, Ernst Bloch, the Marxist tradition is implicitly utopian. In this “warm stream” of the Marxist tradition, utopia provides orientation and explores the realm of the possible. It is first and foremost a catalyst for social change. It propels agency in the form of forward-looking thought, critique and engagement with the status quo. In the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, what is called for is bold and imaginative thinking. In order to live up to this task, ecosocialism should embrace utopianism.
The Scientific Socialism of Marx and Engels
The Marxian critique of capitalism remains unsurpassed and is more relevant 150 years after its invention than it should be. In Capital, Marx argues that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction and undertakes an extensive investigation of these contradictions. By turning labor into a commodity, capitalism erodes the difference between things and human beings. Capitalism creates unprecedented wealth but degrades the proletariat. Along with his collaborator Engels, Marx also sought to contribute to the formation of a working-class consciousness. Their theory is decidedly partisan to bringing about social change.
In contrast, earlier utopian socialists such as Charles Fourier, Robert Owen and Henri de Saint-Simon were idealists. They believed that society can be changed by appealing to all classes on the basis of reason and justice. They did not appeal directly to the working class, in part because they feared inciting unrest. But for Marx and Engels, political struggle was the only viable way.
In order to avoid the charge of being seen as daydreamers who were merely building “castles in the air,” Marx and Engels were keen to label their socialism “scientific.” According to Engels, one of the key theoretical innovations that turned Marx’s socialism from utopian to scientific is his materialist conception of history or “historical materialism.” Historical materialism postulates that different realms of society are interconnected and determined by the economic structure. The possibilities of social transformation depend on the material conditions of each epoch.
Yet Marxian socialism also has its own a utopian character. This consists chiefly in the transcendence of alienation through a classless socialist society. In such a state of freedom, human beings can develop and flourish as fully-actualized individuals. A socialist society would be both free and equal, built on a bedrock of meaningful labor. In sum, Marx’s utopia, encapsulates human freedom as a precondition for creativity and cooperation in a society where economic antagonisms have ceased to exist.
The “Warm Stream” of Marxist Thought
In the 20th century, German utopian philosopher, Ernst Bloch (1885-1977), re-theorized Marxism to add a spiritual, forward-looking dimension in the form of utopia. Bloch contended that Marxism ought to go beyond the mere analysis of capitalism — dubbed “cold stream” — and speak of a better world: the “warm stream.” Bloch’s three-volume magnum opus, The Principle of Hope (1986), frames utopia as an integral part of autonomous and creative human being-in-the-world. To be human means to construct utopias against the status quo.
As the book’s title suggests, the subjective disposition of hope is essential for Blochian utopia. Hope transcends the drudgery of our everyday lives. Liberating us from resignation to the status quo, hope requires people to throw themselves actively into what is becoming. Human beings exist in history but can also make their own history. Fusing hope and critique, utopia functions as a catalyst for human aspirations in the name of a liberated humanity.
Instead of giving rise to utopias, hope may of course take the form of “building castles in the sky.” But even in these self-deceptive acts, for Bloch it is the longing for a better world that shines through. In a highly idiosyncratic style making ample use of biblical language and drawing on in-depth knowledge of the German Idealist philosophy, he writes: “in all these utopias, these voyages to Cytherea, there came to expression the expectant tendency that permeates all human history.”
For Bloch the work of Marx constitutes a milestone in the utopian aspirations of humanity. Marxist socialism provides a theory with which utopia can be turned into a reality — achieved practically and collectively for the first time. Furthermore, a Marxist utopia is grounded in economic and political theory. Societal struggles coalesce around the project of post-capitalism. In other words, Bloch develops the program of Marxism in the form of human freedom and a classless, socialist society. As Bloch himself writes:
This road is and remains that of socialism, it is the practice of concrete utopia. Everything that is non-illusory, real-possible about the hope image leads to Marx, works — as always, in different ways, rationed according to the situation — as part of socialist changing of the world. The architecture of hope thus really becomes one on to man, who had previously only seen as a dream and as high, all too high pre-appearance, and one on to the new earth.
Bloch only disagrees with Marx and Engels concerning the nature of utopianism. In his estimation, they were correct to criticize abstract utopianism as mere wishful thinking, but they also made a mistake in equating all utopianism with abstract utopianism.
Bloch is adamant that concrete utopianism is part and parcel of emancipatory consciousness, which complements Marx’s theory of economic contradictions. A concrete utopia is the “what for?” of the inherent vision of social struggles. Bloch’s philosophy continues to be relevant as it illuminates the potential of a world yet to be realized.
Ecosocialism developed mostly starting from the 1970s as an attempt to reconcile human society with nature, thereby healing the wounds inflicted by capitalism. Influential exponents of ecosocialism include Raymond Williams, Rudolf Bahro and Andre Gorz. According to ecosocialism, nature has inherent value and human society coexists with the natural world, rather than outside it.
Much like earlier utopias, ecosocialism contains a spiritual dimension. The non-material interaction of humans with nature is seen as an integral part of human being-in-the-world. Ecosocialism does not posit that humans are a “surplus” on this planet or guilty of hubris, greed, aggression or other savageries. There is no unchangeable genetic inheritance or inherent corruption like original sin.
While it would be an exaggeration to state that ecosocialism is unequivocally utopian, some of its most influential representatives have taken a positive stance towards utopia. For example, ecosocialist thinker Michael Löwy is in agreement with the understanding of utopia as a catalyst for social change:
Utopia is indispensable to social change, provided that it is based on contradictions found in reality and on real social movements. This is true of ecosocialism, which proposes a strategic alliance between “reds” and “greens” — not in the narrow sense used by politicians applied to social democratic and green parties, but in the broader sense between the labor movement and the ecological movement — and the movement of solidarity with the oppressed and exploited of the South.
For such a red-green an alliance, forging a new equilibrium between the Global North and South is a significant challenge. The injustice suffered by the Global South is a direct result of neocolonial resource extraction and exploitative relations of production. Due to the impact of climate change on the Global South and the disintegration of the working class in the North, the solidarity between workers across the North and South is increasingly important.
What is necessary is a reparative agenda that places the responsibility on historic emitters in the Global North, who have to contribute their fair share to planetary sustainability. This includes measures such as striving for zero carbon by 2030, scaling up climate financing, opening borders, rethinking land access and providing clean technology to countries that need it. Only then is global change possible.
Socialism in the Depth of the Pandemic
COVID-19 has caused great damage to human social life across the globe, giving concrete and tangible meaning to Ernst Bloch´s otherwise speculative notion of “darkness of the lived moment” (Dunkel des Gelebten Augenblicks) in the form of anguish and isolation. With social distancing and quarantine, what is palpably missing is a “we,” even the limited human contact of everyday sociability under capitalism.
Consequently, “the social question” — concerning the organization of social life — has emerged anew. If returning to pre-COVID-19 normalcy is the sole aim, then much of the world likely faces a decade of malaise due to austerity-driven recovery, the specter of nationalism, and — for those without wealth and privilege — diminished life opportunities. Instead of temporary crisis measures, what is needed is post-capitalist ecosocialism. But what would that look like?
Firstly, hostility towards socialism as a radical alternative needs to be sufficiently addressed and overcome. Challenging as that task is, in recent years, younger generations in countries like Spain, France, England and the USA have been warming to the idea of socialism. For many disillusioned with capitalism, Podemos in Spain, the socialism of Jean-Luc Melenchon, the UK Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders’s passionate plea for democratic socialism in the US have undoubtedly touched a nerve. Thanks to these valiant efforts, “capitalist realism” is no longer insurmountable.
Secondly, 21st-century socialism needs to hold fast to another idea that characterized 19th-century socialists: work should not be done at the cost of one’s health or well-being. COVID-19 may not discriminate, but we do. Hence, the virus has had a disproportionate impact on the less privileged. Frontline workers of the care economy such as medical workers, food workers and social service workers whose contributions were celebrated through last year’s state of emergency, were at the same time some of the most endangered people in society.
And although capitalism is increasingly digitalized, it continues to deny workers dignity and self-realization. The flexibility demanded of workers by the so-called “gig” economy has transferred risks and insecurity onto those workers and their families. The lack of control over one’s employment also leads to alienation.
This alienation is arguably best captured in Amazon, one of the biggest winners in the pandemic who employ workers in low-paid and precarious positions across the globe. Amazon utilizes “digital Taylorism,” which entails the small-scale and standardized division of labor, digital surveillance of labor, and direct control of employees in their work. Digital Taylorism gives rise to atomization and excessive performative pressure, widespread dissatisfaction and, where possible, dissent. Utopia needs to be about a different kind of work.
Thirdly, the socialism of the 21st century has to be ecological. Because society and environment are dialectical, social emancipation necessarily entails a non-exploitative relation to the planet. The following are a set of key ecosocialist demands:
- Rejection of the debt system and neoliberal “structural adjustment.” Imposed on Global South countries by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, this system has dramatic social and ecological consequences including massive unemployment, dismantling of social protections, and destruction of natural resources. Rejecting this system thus entails massive global increase in welfare activities to secure food, water, health, education and suitable physical and social infrastructure, especially in developing countries.
- Global deployment of renewable energy technologies, public transportation systems, carbon neutral production systems and alternative products as fast as possible by redirecting global surpluses and by openly sharing knowledge and technology. This may reduce the speed and severity of onset of future climate change.
- Curbing global production of mining-based materials and energy like iron and steel, cement, thermal coal, oil and aluminum, both for reasons of climate change and to prevent further destruction of land. Reviving life in the oceans by curbing the use of oceans and seas for material dumping (be it solid or liquid or radioactive) by any entity whether state or private, including armed forces.
- Public regulation and democratic planning in investment and technological change as well as the application of social, political and ecological criteria to the price and production of goods. No public financing of technology for private profit.
Taken together, these demands constitute a real and concrete utopia — a radical but possible transformation. The impact of such a transformation would be — analogously to 19th century utopian socialist aspirations — a re-integration of the economy into the ecological and the social world. The seeming contradiction between the ideal and the attainable is the generative tension inherent to concrete utopias. Such a utopia is only limited only by the natural world itself.
Eager to grasp the historical moment, socialists have been attentive to the crises of capitalism, socialism’s perennial nemesis. With a looming ecological and social crisis, the moment, at least in theory, is propitious for socialism. But what are the current prospects of humanistic and democratic socialism?
Susan Watkins´s words about dissent and social struggles across the globe at the dawn of the new decade in New Left Review are instructive here:
Alongside France, the US has become a world leader in social tumult. In early March , it was widely believed that lockdown would put an end to protest. Instead, the ferment has intensified. […] The question in prospect is not so much the disappearance of populism, but rather what new political forms these often inchoate protests may take in the 2020s.
Inchoate as the protests may often be, their demand for popular social and economic justice is a common thread. This thread is at odds with the capitalist status quo and its regime of heavy-handed policing and labor commodification. If not stopped in their tracks or reconciled with capital, these demands — and the struggles which accompany them — will give human social life a new and more just, ecological and socialist direction.
Ecosocialism is thus increasingly a necessary way forward amidst and in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is an attainable utopia which represents a hospitable world beyond the world of capitalism we have known so far.
Martin Aidnik is an Estonian sociologist and postdoctoral fellow at Nottingham University, UK. His scholarly interests include social theory and European studies.