The answer is not Eco-Socialism … It is Eco-Anarchism.
(Published in two parts in Solutions, Part 1, Vol. 11.3, Dec. 2020,
Part 2, Vol. 12.1, Feb. 26, 2021.)
The major premise in the Eco-socialist perspective, i.e., that the global ecological problem cannot be solved in a capitalist economy, is sound. However it is argued here that almost all the other elements in Socialist theory are seriously mistaken. Above all the general Socialist position fails to take into account the very different situation we are in compared with that which prevailed in the past. When no limits to growth were foreseen the primary goal was understandably to take the power to increase material abundance and to redirect industrial capacity to more equitable purposes. But now a sustainable and just world cannot be envisaged unless levels of output, “living standards” and GDP are dramatically reduced, that is, unless there is large scale degrowth to economies that do not grow. This rules out almost all Eco-Socialist proposals regarding goals and means, and requires adoption of an Eco-Anarchist perspective. The difference is far from trivial.
The core Eco-socialist claim is that major problems, especially those involving the environment, cannot be solved unless capitalism is replaced by some kind of Socialism. It will be argued below that this is an overwhelmingly strong claim. But it will then be argued that with respect to the nature of the required alternative society, and with respect to all of the elements within its strategic theory, the general Eco-socialist position is seriously mistaken. By explaining the grounds for these claims a case for a quite different theoretical position will be argued, viz., Eco-Anarchism.
These claims are based on an analysis of the current global situation, which is historically novel and quite unlike that prevailing in the long era during which Socialist analyses and ideals were derived. Given the conditions prevailing from the beginning of the industrial revolution until the latter decades of the Twentieth Century Socialist goals and strategies made sense. Essentially the revolutionary task was conceived in terms of taking control of the industrial system from the capitalist class, releasing its productive power from the contradictions of capitalism, and distributing the product more justly and abundantly to raise the living standards of the working class. The next section shows that this can no longer be the goal. It is important to detail the case at some length as it sets logically inescapable implications for the revolutionary objectives and strategy that are required now.
The situation: 1. We have grossly exceeded the limits to growth.
Global rates of resource consumption and ecological impact are now far beyond levels that that are sustainable or that technical advance could make sustainable, or that could be spread to all people. What needs to be stressed here is the magnitude of the overshoot. (For the detailed numerical case see TSW: The Limits to Growth.) This determines that solutions must be radical in the extreme. The World Wildlife Fund’s “Ecological Footprint” index (WWF, 2018) shows that providing the average Australian with food, settlement area, water and energy takes about 7- 8 ha of productive land. If by 2050 the expected 9+ billion people were to have risen to the present Australian “living standard”, and the planet’s amount of productive land remains the same as it is today the amount available per capita would be 0.8 ha. In other words Australian’s today are using 10 times the amount per capita that would be possible for all to use. Various other measures confirm the grossly unsustainable nature of the present resource and ecological situation. (E.g., Hickel, 2016, Wiedmann, et al., 2014.)
However this has only been an indication of the present grossly unsustainable situation. To this must be added the universal fundamental commitment to ceaseless growth in production, consumption, trade, investment, “living standards”, wealth and GDP. The impossible implications are easily demonstrated. If 9 billion people were to rise to the GDP per capita Australians would have in 2050 given 3% p.a. economic growth, then total world economic output would be approaching 18 times the present amount. Yet the World Wildlife Fund estimates that even now 1.7 planet Earths would now be necessary to meet demand sustainably. That means that raising all expected people to the “living standards” we aspire to by 2050 would require around 30 planet Earths.
It must be stressed that the limits predicament will soon become far more serious than has been indicated by the above numbers, because it does not take into account the fact that many crucial scarcities, problems and costs will become worse at an accelerating rate.
Rejection of the limits case is usually based on the belief that technical advance will deal with the associated problems, enabling continued increase in production and consumption while bringing environmental impacts down to sustainable levels. Virtually all of the many studies of “decoupling” find that growth in output is rarely accompanied by reduction in resource use or impacts. The most thorough review (Parrique et al., 2019) emphasises that there are not good reasons to expect absolute decoupling to be achieved in future, and that in fact the trends are getting worse.
To summarise, the extremely important conclusion to be drawn from the limits to growth case is that the overshoot, the degree of unsustainability is so great that a sustainable society cannot be defined other than in terms of huge degrowth to levels of per capita resource use, production, consumption and GDP that are a small fraction of present rich world or global levels.
The Situation: 2 – The limits to capitalism.
The foregoing account of limits means that the present economic system is a major element in the causal chain, and that a sustainable economy must not just be a steady state economy but one which has undergone degrowth down to a small fraction of present levels of production for sale. The present economy cannot do this. Growth is one of its indispensable, defining characteristics.
In addition, the required economy could not be driven by market forces. Despite its merits this mechanism inevitably generates inequality, injustice, and wealth maximisation. It allocates scarce resources and goods to richer people and nations, simply because they can pay more for them. Similarly it determines that “development” is driven by what will maximize the profits of investors in the global economy, not by the needs of individuals, societies and ecosystems.
The present economy leaves as much as possible to be determined by market forces. However a satisfactory society that operated within severe biophysical limits would have to carefully plan and regulate the use of very scarce resources. Its economy would have to be at least predominantly “socialized”, in some form. When the need for large scale degrowth is combined to the need for a socially controlled economy, it is evident that the required economic system cannot be capitalist.
The required alternative -- The Simpler Way.
The foregoing discussion shows that there is a very strong case that the necessary reductions cannot be achieved unless there is a transition to some kind of Simpler Way. (For the detail see TSW: The Alternative Society.) The case against Eco-Socialism and for Eco-Anarchism derives from an understanding of the characteristics this alternative social form must have. It involves:
1. A profound cultural shift, to simpler lifestyles, involving far less production and consumption per capita, or concern with luxury, affluence, possessions and wealth, and instead to a focus on non-material sources of life satisfaction. In addition the predominant outlook would have to be cooperative not competitive, much more collectivist and less individualistic.
2. Mostly small, highly self-sufficient local economies, largely independent of national or global economies, devoting local resources to meeting local needs, with little intra-state let alone international trade. This means transition from globalized to localized systems.
3. A new form of government, primarily involving people in small communities taking cooperative and participatory control over their own local development, via voluntary committees, working bees and town meetings.
4. A new economy, one that is a small fraction of the size of the present economy, is not driven by profit or market forces, does not grow, and ensures that needs, rights, justice, welfare and ecological sustainability determine the purposes to which limited resources are devoted.
Following is a brief elaboration on some of the elements indicated by the above statement of principles.
Production of most basic goods by many small firms and farms, some cooperatives, some privately owned, within and close to settlements -- much use of intermediate and low technologies especially craft and hand-tool production, mainly for their quality of life benefits -- extensive development of commons providing many free goods especially via “edible landscapes” -- building using earth, enabling all people to have very low-cost modest housing -- voluntary working bees developing and maintaining community facilities -- conversion of existing towns and suburbs into highly self-sufficient communities -- many voluntary committees, e.g., for agriculture, care of aged, care of youth, entertainment and leisure, cultural activities -- few paid officials -- large cashless, free goods and gifting sectors -- little need for transport, enabling bicycle access to nearby work and conversion of most suburban roads to commons -- the need to work for a monetary income only one or two days a week, at a relaxed pace -- thus enabling much involvement in arts and crafts and community activities -- town-owned banks -- local currencies that do not involve interest -- relatively little dependence on corporations, professionals, bureaucracies and high-tech ways – no unemployment; communities organize to use all productive labour and to ensure everyone has a livelihood.
The document TSW: Remaking Settlements (Trainer, 2017) derives detailed tentative estimates supporting the claim that these procedures could cut the energy, dollar and footprint costs typical of a Sydney suburb by more than 90%, while improving all dimensions of the quality of life. Reductions of this magnitude are achieved by the Dancing Rabbit Eco-village in Missouri. (Lockyer, 2017.)
Only in small, and highly integrated communities can per capita resource and ecological costs be dramatically reduced. For instance a study of inputs to village-level egg production (Trainer, Malik and Lenzen, 2018) found that dollar and energy costs are typically around 2% of eggs supplied by the commercial/industrial path, while eliminating its ecological costs and providing other benefits such as pest control, fertilizer, methane and leisure resources.
There would still be an important though much reduced role for some more distant and centralised institutions, such as teaching hospitals, universities, steel works, large and complex factories, wind farms, and railway and telecommunication systems. The elimination of most of the present vast quantity of unnecessary productive effort would enable considerable increases in resources available to flow into arts, education and socially desirable research and development.
Although this vision involves very low per capita consumption rates it does not imply hardship or deprivation. It involves shifting to lifestyles and systems which enable all to pursue mostly non-material sources of purpose and satisfaction. Many living in alternative communities enjoy these conditions despite very low incomes. The reported quality of life in Eco-villages is superior to those of typical rich world societies. (Lockyer, 2017, Grinde, et al. 2017.)
Over the past thirty years a concern to move in this general direction has gathered momentum, most evidently in the Permaculture, Voluntary Simplicity, Downshifting, Localization, Municipalism, Eco-village and Transition Towns movements.
The supreme importance of cultural factors.
What must be stressed here is that communities will not and cannot function in these ways satisfactorily unless their members share a powerful culture based on a distinctive world view involving specific institutions, values, commitments and dispositions. Citizens must be fully aware of the global reasons why their frugal self-governing local economies are crucial, they must willingly and happily take on the responsibility and rewards of running their communities well, they must be keen to cooperate, participate, help and share, and to prioritise the public good. But there is reason to think that it will not be so difficult to maintain these new ways. This is because they are intrinsically rewarding and self-reinforcing. It is nice to share, assist others, contribute to working bees, contemplate a beautiful landscape one has helped to create, etc. The experience of living in the new conditions described will tend to automatically elicit and reinforce the required dispositions.
The goal therefore must be Eco-Anarchism.
Few labels are as ambiguous as Anarchism. The variety being endorsed here is a ”generic” one, focused on themes common to most specific accounts. The argument is that a society of the above alternative form, and the strategy for achieving it, must be Anarchist, not Socialist, and the distinction is far from trivial.
The case begins with the claim is that the basic word view of the Socialist is now outdated and mistaken. For more than two hundred years the emancipatory task was rightly seen to be taking control from the capitalist class in order to enable a more just access to the product the industrial system could provide if freed from the contradictions of capitalism. Today it seems that most Socialists still fail to recognise that there are limits to growth, that we have gone through many of them and that this rules out pursuit of the traditional goal of accelerating the industrial system to provide high material living standards to all.
Most if not all of the prominent Eco-socialist advocates including Kovel, (2007), Albert on “Parecon”, (2003), Lowy (2015), Bellamy-Foster (2008), Sarkar (1993), and Smith (2016), do not deal with the significance of scarcity and simplicity, or the crucial, game-changing fact that the good society cannot be an affluent society. Nor does the account of “Inclusive Democracy”, (1997) put forward by Fotopoulos. Few if any refer to any need for very large scale reductions in GDP and per capita “living standards” or to radically simple lifestyles and systems. The assumption in these accounts is that the defining task is to take power from the capitalist class. It is not realized that a thorough going Socialism which maintained commitment to economic growth and high “living standards” would still accelerate towards ecological collapse.
Nor do these theorists go into the implications for the form a society must take if it is to be satisfactory despite very low resource use and material “living standards”. Major concerns of The Simpler Way project are to show that given the limits to growth the core elements in the required society are beyond dispute, not optional, and to put forward a plausible vision of a possible structure and functioning. Above all the task is to show that the quality of life could be much higher than in consumer-capitalist society, and to show how easily this vision could be realized, if that was a widely accepted goal.
Thus the global scene that has emerged in the last half century means that many essential pillars of the old Socialist world view have to be scrapped. The following passages show that in this context sustainable and just communities must operate according to Anarchist principles.
The need for self-governing, thoroughly participatory communities of equals.
These small scale, complex, integrated and self-governing local communities must be largely autonomous; they cannot be run by higher authorities or a central state. They would have to largely govern themselves via thoroughly participatory processes. External authorities such as state governments cannot create or impose such communities. They can only be built and run by the citizens who live in them. To begin with, in the coming era of intense scarcity states will not have the resources to run every town economy. Only the people who live in a locality understand the conditions, history, geography, social dynamics and needs. They will have to do the thinking, planning, decision making, and implementing via committees, town meetings and working bees. These communities will not function satisfactorily unless people realise that their situation and fate are in their own hands, feel empowered and eager to run their town well, want to identify and solve their own problems, and are proud of the communities they have built. Most importantly, these settlements will not function satisfactorily unless there are very high levels of community and morale. These factors rule out centralized or top-down control, even in the form of representative democracy. This exemplifies the core Anarchist principle of avoiding domination, even in relatively benign forms. (This does not rule out the need for nationally agreed guidelines, laws and limits on what towns can do.)
No Local is the title of Scharzer’s book (2012) and it represents the Eco-Socialist’s typical lack of concern about the viability of big cities, globalization, industrialism, growth and affluence, and centralization. Small scale communities functioning within local economies are also rejected by Phillips (2012) as non-viable, of no revolutionary significance and condemning Third World people to increasing deprivation. However as has been shown above, when the limits are attended to these common Eco-Socialist positions are contradicted. The resource economics and the need for community self-government and “spontaneous” citizen action determine that localization is imperative.
Ownership of the means of production.
A defining principle of Socialism is abolition of private ownership of the means of production. From the perspective of The Simpler Way this is not necessary and not desirable with respect to most of the economy’s productive units, which could remain in the form of small private farms and firms. As noted above, what matters is that the means of production are geared to socially beneficial outcomes, as distinct from being driven by the quest for profit on the part of their owners, and this can be ensured by guidelines within which the private farms and firms must operate, and oversight by committees and town assemblies.
Thus the new local economies might be made up mostly of small privately owned farms, businesses and co-operatives, some operating within a (carefully regulated) remnant market sector but all functioning according to strict limits and guidelines. The main goal would be to preserve the opportunity for people in small businesses and co-operatives to enjoy the freedom to organize their productive contributions in ways they prefer. The Socialist typically fails to give any attention to the importance of this empowerment in the productive arena, ensuring the freedom to arrange and innovate and to vary work rates etc. Indeed the producer is often cast into the very role the revolution is supposed to liberate him from; that is, as a wage earner, alienated from the product, and taking orders from a boss.
Socialists are strongly inclined to target inequality and to see it as a problem of how the product is distributed. However from The Simpler Way perspective the problem more or less disappears, and is not solved via redistribution of wealth.
In a thriving Eco-village the quality of life depends not on one’s personal monetary income, possessions or wealth but almost entirely on the “spiritual” wealth of the community, on the skills in its arts and crafts groups, the diligence of the gardeners, the concerts and the comedians, jugglers, acrobats, musicians etc. they draw on, on the conversation, support, and town morale, on how enjoyable and effective the working bees are, on the richness of provision of structures ,systems and experiences free to all, and on how well the leisure committee organizes outings, speakers, games, adventure tours etc. Thus the individual’s monetary wealth can be totally irrelevant.
Another important equality factor is capacity to produce, as distinct from to consume. This is the old concept of “Distributivism” whereby it is ensured that all have a livelihood, the capacity to earn by making a valued contribution. Thus the community will make sure there is no involuntary unemployment.
Subsidiarity and spontaneity.
These Anarchist principles are evident in the alternative way when much of the physical, biological and social functioning and maintenance is carried out informally and spontaneously. Citizens take action when they see the need and without referring problems to officials or bureaucracies. Hence the common “Nanny State” criticism of Socialism is avoided. These ways are greatly facilitated by the smallness of scale, the collectivist ethos, and the simplicity of technologies and systems. Most people know how to fix most problems, and if not local citizens expert on the issues are nearby.
To summarise regarding goals, the argument has been that in an era of severe resource limits the viable social form cannot be the centralized, industrialised, urbanized, bureaucratized, resource-intensive, globalised and authoritarian form Socialists usually do not question. It has to be the largely autonomous small community (although there can also be small cities), and these must operate primarily according to Anarchist principles of avoidance of domination, participation, responsible and conscientious citizenship, spontaneity, subsidiarity, federations, and a value system focused on cooperation, equity, mutuality, caring, and the public good.
The transition process.
It will now be argued that when it comes to transition strategy as distinct from goals, there is nothing the Eco-Socialists get right. The essential point here is that the goal cannot be given or imposed from above, it can only be achieved via willing initiatives on the part of autonomous citizens who hold a particular world view associated with particular values.
Take state power?
The essential element in Socialist transition thinking is taking state power. However from the perspective of The Simpler Way it is a serious mistake to focus here and now on this objective. It is not just practically ineffective, it involves an elementary logical confusion. The state will eventually be “taken”, but largely as a consequence of the revolution. It will not be a cause of or means to or prerequisite for it. (This following outline of the case is explained in more detail in TSW: Simpler Way Transition Theory.)
Firstly, as has been explained state power cannot make the required new post-affluence society work. It does not matter how much control lies in the hands of the state or its benign bureaucrats or its feared secret police, this would be of no value in getting people to contribute willingly, conscientiously and happily to building the new neighbourhood and town socio-economic systems, or to work out how to run their unique local economy well. A distant state could not know what are the best ways for each little locality with its own idiosyncratic set of values, soil and climatic conditions, history, personalities and problems, and it could not make people want to find and practise those ways. Most importantly, communities can only become capable of running their own affairs satisfactorily if they learn how to do this through a long trial and error process of finding out what works for them. Further the new communities cannot work satisfactorily unless there are strong senses of autonomy, empowerment, responsibility, enjoyment, willingness and pride, that is, unless they are run by positive and conscientious citizens. Taking state power cannot achieve these conditions, and contradicts their nature as it does not locate power and initiative at the grass roots.
The usual Socialist response here is that being in control of the state will enable the new ways to be introduced and facilitated, that is, control of the state will make it possible to work on that shift in mass consciousness. But the logic here is obviously faulty. There are only two ways that the control of the state for Simpler Way purposes could be acquired. The first is via some kind of coup whereby power is seized by a vanguard party which has the intention of implementing The Simpler Way, and then converting or forcing uncomprehending masses to it. This is hardly worth discussion. The second path would be via the election to government of a party which had a Simpler Way platform. But that could not happen unless the cultural revolution for a Simpler Way had previously been won. A Simpler Way party could not be elected to control of the state until after most people had adopted Simpler Way ideas and proposals. But by the time that had happened a great deal of effort would have gone into transforming towns and neighbourhoods. That revolution would be essentially constituted by the cultural change, the spread of acceptance of the radically new vision. Getting to that state of mind would constitute the crucial revolutionary move, and it would enable the big structural changes needed, including taking control of the state (and getting rid of most if not all of it.)
Thus the supreme importance of the cultural factor also for strategy.
This revolution cannot proceed unless there is radical change in world view, ideas, values and dispositions. The crucial factors for success are not primarily to do with power or economics, they are to do with culture. It could be argued that this is where Marx can now be seen to have been most seriously mistaken. He did not see cultural change as a prerequisite, apart from the need for the development of sufficient class consciousness to engage in revolution. As Avineri (1968) points out, in the immediate post take-over period of the revolution Marx expected the masses to have in mind no more than a “crude communism” in which unsatisfactory old attitudes and ideas regarding property, work, income, competition and acquisitiveness would remain. He thought that only in in a later stage would these undesirable dispositions be overcome, via a transformation of mentality or culture on the long and slow path to communism.
There is an obvious head-on contradiction here with the Anarchist Simpler Way view. Kropotkin and Tolstoy realized that culture trumps economics and politics. They, along with Gandhi, saw the ultimate revolutionary goal as largely autonomous citizen-run village communities, and these cannot come into existence or function satisfactorily unless their members have the required vision, values and dispositions. (Marshall. 1992, pp. 372, 417, 615.) Thus in a sense Marx must be stood on his head; the necessary superstructures must stand on a cultural substructure of the right ideas and values.
The general Socialist tradition focuses only on developing class consciousness where the working class has become a “class for itself”, i.e., where it holds ideas and values necessary to support revolution. This is quite different from developing the ideas and values necessary for people to work for and run a simpler way society.
Must there be a long march through capitalism?
A significant strand in Marxist thinking has been the idea that according to the “laws of history” capitalism must mature before it can be overthrown. This is why some Marxists have argued against revolutionary initiatives they see as premature (e.g., Warren, 1980.)
Marx’s major claim to fame was to have discovered the laws whereby change follows a dialectical process culminating in overthrow of over-ripe capitalism and the shift to the synthesis that is a communist society. This seems to mean that the core strategy involves fighting and defeating and getting rid of capitalism.
However The Simpler Way perspective holds open the possibility that we can begin to build the new within the old, as distinct from having to wait for it to mature and be eliminated, it focuses on the development of local autonomy rather than action at the centre. By building aspects of the post-revolutionary society here and now it embraces the Anarchist notion of “Pre-figuring” (see further below.)
Is the capitalist class the problem?
Given the centrality of ideas and values it is evident that attacking the capitalist class might be ill-advised, at this stage. The system remains in place primarily because it is seen to be legitimate; it is accepted by most ordinary people. There’s the problem. Ordinary people have always vastly outnumbered the ruling class and could have politely and non-violently brushed them aside. As Gandhi said of British colonial domination, “If the Indians just spat the British would drown.” The revolutionary-Left has always understood the power of ideology, but perhaps its greatest failure has been that it has done so little about it. From the Simpler Way perspective the revolutionary task is primarily to do with helping people to see that the prevailing system does not function in their interests, that it is leading them to catastrophic planetary break down, and that there is a far better alternative. The main way to help them to see this is to “Prefigure” it.
The role of the working class.
No element in traditional Socialist thinking is more deeply entrenched than that the working class is the agent of change. There are a number of reasons why this article of faith is mistaken now.
Unfortunately the class interests and the outlooks of workers in capitalist society do not align well with The Simpler Way. They are for more jobs and production, better work conditions, bigger pay cheques enabling greater consumption, more trade, a greater role for the state in running things, redistribution of produced wealth and provision of better “welfare” by the state. The working class is strongly in favour of economic growth, higher “living standards”, better pensions and more state expenditure on health and education. “Job creation” is demanded, and this is seen to depend directly on how rapidly business turnover and GDP can be increased. Any suggestion that the solution to our problems has to involve reduced per capita levels of consumption and a shift to simpler lifestyles is immediately seen as condemning those who are poor and struggling to even lower living standards. (E.g. by Phillips, 2014.)
At a deeper level there are problems to do with the situation and the psychology of the worker. Bookchin (1973, p.183, 1977) points out that the industrial worker is intensely disciplined by the factory mode of production to acceptance of authoritarian conditions, the puritan work ethic, doing what he is told and not seeking autonomy or imagining a post-capitalist world. His experience does not include co-operating with others to take charge of his own situation, or to ”own” or feel responsibility regarding social problems.
Perhaps most significant is Bookchin’s claim that the worker is not inclined to utopianism, to thinking in terms of a new and better society. As he also points out, to Marx the industrial worker’s revolutionary role is to revolt against one set of authoritarian rulers, and then submit to the next lot. Like Avineri, he also notes that Marx did not think this issue of world view was important; it could be attended to long after the revolution as the vanguard gradually developed communist consciousness in the masses. However from The Simpler Way perspective the Socialists again have the order of events around the wrong way; the revolution cannot take place unless the required post-revolutionary consciousness has first become widespread at the grass roots level.
This revolution is not just or primarily about liberating the worker from capitalist conditions, it is about liberating all people from the ideology of consumer-capitalist society, and all people not just the working class must be the drivers through their participation in the development of the emerging new local communities. The old left is being confronted here with the ultimate heresies, the possibility that in this revolution both workers and class are not central elements. The era of scarcity is determining that the required revolution will not be brought about by a working class movement. Yet there is of course a mortal conflict of class interests at stake; after all it is about whether or not capitalism and the capitalist class survive.
Hence a major tactical principle now would seem to be, do not confront capitalism.
It is understandable that when faced by an oppressive system it might seem necessary to turn towards it and fight it strenuously. There are situations in which this would clearly seem to be the appropriate response and most if not all previous liberation movements and revolutions have probably been of this kind. However again it can be argued that in the historically unique situation the limits are imposing on us the appropriate strategy is non-confrontational but involves turning away and “ignoring capitalism to death.”
Consumer-capitalist society cannot survive if people do not continue to purchase, consume and throw away at an accelerating rate. The Simpler Way strategy (in the present early Stage 1 of the revolution) is to gradually build the alternative practices and systems which will enable more and more people to move out of the mainstream, to shun consumer society, and to secure more of their material and social needs from the alternative systems and sources emerging within their neighbourhoods and towns.
Central in this is the more or less spontaneous and automatic development of a Needs-Driven-Economy beside the old Profit-Driven-Economy. People will come across to The Simpler Way because as the ecological and economic crises intensify and seriously disrupt supply to their supermarkets they will increasingly realise that this is their best, indeed their only, option.
The radical left is strongly inclined to dismiss this approach focused on building alternatives within the old system as naïve, on the grounds that the rich and powerful do not willingly relinquish their dominant position. Yet this “turning away” strategy is now widespread, for instance among the large scale Andean peasant movements, most notably the Zapatistas and the Via Campesino (Appfel-Marglin, 1998, p. 39. See also Relocalise, 2009, Mies and Shiva, 1993, Benholdt-Thompson and Mies, 1999, Korten, 1999, p. 262, Rude, 1998, p. 53, Quinn 1999, pp. 95, 137, ROAR Magaine, 2019, Symbiosis, 2019. See also Domhoff 2017 on the Catalan Integral Cooperative and Shilton 2019 on Rojava.) It is also growing in the richest countries, evident in the Transition Towns, Eco-village, Localisation and other alternative movements.
The standard Socialist retort here is that you cannot avoid having to fight the oppressive class because even if you manage to become a significant threat it will crush you. But in the coming and unprecedented era of intense scarcity, it is not obvious that it will it be able to do this, primarily because it will be dying. One of Marx’s most important insights was that capitalism has fundamental contradictions built into it and these increasingly drive it towards self-destruction. Given the above account of how far we have exceeded the limits to growth, and of the economy’s inevitable generation of extreme and unprecedented levels of debt, inequality, depression and other crises it is difficult to see how collapse can now be avoided. Many have foreseen such a scenario, including Mason (2003), Korowicz (2012), Morgan (2013), Kunstler (2005), Duncan (2013), Greer (2005) and Collins (2019).
Many expect the onset within one or two decades, and some see the probability of a die-off of billions. However it is conceivable that a slowly tapering oil supply plus major QE financial bail outs will stave it off for several decades. (Randers 2012 thinks until 2070.) However there are many deteriorating ecological and resource trends with accelerating positive feedbacks and compounding and cascading knock-on effects, tightening the limits noose. And the robots are coming, promising to wipe out jobs, wage incomes and effective demand.
The hope must be for a slow Goldilocks depression, not so savage as to rule out any hope of reconstruction but sufficient to jolt people into the realisation that the consumer-capitalist way has to be abandoned.
These considerations support Marx’s expectation was that capitalism would lead to increasing “immiseration” followed by trouble. Even now the evidence is compelling, e.g., in rising levels of household debt, negligible if any wage rises, increasing homelessness, drug abuse and opioid dependence, rates of depression and suicide, falling life expectancies, and discontented masses in many countries. Now we must add to the mix a far more coercive set of factors than Marx imagined, the tightening resource and ecological limits, which Ahmed (2017) shows are direct causes the social breakdown and failing states plaguing the Middle East.
This view of the situation informs
my increasingly fails to provide for people. It automatically shows the importance of cooperatively trying to meet neglected needs using local resources independently of the mathe recommendation not to make fighting against the system a central strategic principle. It looks as if it will soon get rid of itself.
What is to be done?…Pre-figure.
The Simpler Way answer is the Anarchist notion of “Pre-figuring”, i.e., do what we can to build post-revolutionary ways here and now within the existing consumer-capitalist society. (Rai, 1995, p. 99, Pepper, 1996, pp. 36, 305, Bookchin, 1980, p. 263, ROAR Magazine 2019, Symbiosis 2019.)
The point of Pre-figuring can easily be misunderstood. Socialists readily take it to be based on the assumption that the new and good society can be created just by starting to build elements of it here and now, and continuing to do so until the old society has been replaced. But Simpler Way transition theory does not assume this. The point is educational, that is, Pre-figuring is seen as probably the most effective awareness raising activity. As has been explained, this revolution cannot progress unless the new ideas and values come to be predominant, and therefore the crucial task is to work at getting them understood, appreciated and adopted. This can involve a variety of initiatives but few if any are likely to be more effective than the establishment of examples of the required alternatives within existing towns and suburbs. These should be set up primarily as illustrative models, involving community educational activities, showing the kind of arrangements the locality could and should move towards as global conditions deteriorate.
Possibly the most important project in this domain is the development of a local Needs-Driven-Economy. This is the powerful mechanism that will grow in scope as the old Profit-Driven-Economy increasingly fails to provide.
A merit of the Pre-figuring approach is that it minimizes overt conflict let alone violence. It holds open the possibility that alternatives can gradually and quietly gain in strength towards the point where new ideas and values undermine the legitimacy of old ways and structures, which then more or less crumble. Community gardens and town meetings and Needs Driven Economies are small, largely invisible, peaceful, under the radar and difficult to eradicate.
There is another very important point on which the contrast between Socialist and Anarchist strategy is marked. Socialists cannot provide experience of aspects or benefits of the intended society until well after the revolution, let alone use this to attract people to the cause. The Socialist’s efforts to motivate people is largely negative, confined to stirring up discontent with present conditions and promising little more than struggle, at least until the revolution succeeds. But Pre-figuring can provide considerable experience of positive and inspirational experience of aspects of the alternative.
Stage 2 of the revolution.
The development of a local economy cannot get far without relatively few but crucial inputs from the national economy, such as light steel, irrigation poly-pipe, cement, and chicken pen wire. This will generate pressure on states and national economies to move towards revolutionary macroscopic change. The towns will increasingly demand that the priorities of the centre be shifted to focus on providing the towns and regions with those relatively few inputs their survival depends on.
In time this pressure is likely to shift from submitting requests to the state to making demands on it, and then to taking increasing control of it. There will be increasing insistence that frivolous industries must be phased out so that scarce resources can be devoted to meeting fundamental town and regional needs. Meanwhile towns will be driven by necessity to bypass the centre and take initiatives such as setting up their own farms, energy supplies and factories, thus transferring various functions out of the control of the centre. It will be increasingly recognized that the local is the only level where the right decisions for self-sufficient communities can be made. If all goes well these shifts will in time lead to the transfer of functions and power from state-level agencies to the local level, leaving the centre with relatively few tasks, and mainly with the role of facilitating local systems.
This radical restructuring could conceivably be a smooth and peaceful process, driven by a general recognition that scarcity is making local self-governing communities the only viable option and that the national economy has to be greatly reduced and focused on helping the towns to thrive. If this happens then in effect Stage 1 will be recognised as having constituted the revolution, essentially a cultural phenomenon, and the macroscopic structural changes in Stage 2 will be seen as a consequence of the revolution.
Those arrangements that must be organised beyond the town level can best be dealt with via the essential Anarchist principal of “federation”. This involves communities with a stake in a policy formation, such as for management of the river valley they all share, discussing options and sending delegates to conferences which work out what the best ones seem to be. These possibilities are then taken back down to all the towns for further consideration and hopefully agreement in participatory assemblies. If complications are seen further conferences are held, until a solution is agreed.
There would still be a need for considerable bureaucracy at the centre, e.g., to work out what train timetables seem preferable across large regions, but it would be misleading to refer to this as constituting a “state” as the term usually implies authoritarian power. Similarly Anarchist organization would draw on high level technical expertise in formulating options, but again it would not give higher authorities power to impose what they thought was best.
It will be evident that the alternative social organisation sketched above is a fairly straight forward Anarchist vision, and that the means for achieving it are also Anarchist. (Obviously there are varieties of Anarchism that are not being advocated here.)
Consider the components. Settlements enabling a high quality of life for all the world’s people despite very low resource use rates must involve all members in participatory deliberations regarding the design, development and running of their local productive, political and social systems. Their ethos must be non-hierarchical, cooperative and collectivist, seeking to avoid all forms of domination and to prioritise the public good. They must draw on the voluntary good will and energy of conscientious citizens who are eager to contribute generously and to identify and deal with problems informally and spontaneously, and to focus on seeking mutually beneficial arrangements with little if any need for industrial infrastructures and transport networks, bureaucracy, paid officials or politicians. Regional and wider issues can be tackled by the characteristic Anarchist mechanisms of federations and (powerless) delegates bringing recommendations back down to town meetings. The principle of “subsidiarity” is evident in the practice of grass roots politics, the avoidance of hierarchies, and the central role of town assemblies. The very low resource costs that are essential for sustainability are achievable because of the proximity, diversity of functions and integration, the familiarity enabling informal communication and spontaneous action, and the elimination of much transport etc. Many Eco-villages operate according to such Anarchist principles, achieving high levels of sustainability and quality of life.
In addition to goals the above discussion of transition strategy also follows Anarchist principles and thus departs markedly from traditional Socialist assumptions. Especially important are the recognition that in the new conditions set by limits and scarcity nothing of significance can be achieved unless there is profound cultural change leading to commitment on the part of ordinary people to the building of mostly self-governing local systems, in which people can live well on very frugal resource use. Thus attention is diverted from centralized politics, mortal conflict, taking the state etc., to quietly “Pre-figuring” the new here and now within the old.
It should be evident that the difference between Eco-Socialist and Eco-Anarchist approaches to goals and strategy are not trivial. The historically unprecedented conditions we have entered over recent decades, a rapidly accelerating onset of problems caused by having exceeded the limits to growth, determine that the traditional Socialist world view and program are no longer appropriate and that an Anarchist perspective on revolutionary goals and means is now required.
Finally, the foregoing analysis involves to two important and previously unrecognized extensions of Anarchism. It has previously been seen as primarily concerned with social and political issues. Little if any attention has been given to its significance for thinking about desirable economic arrangements, or especially for thinking about ecological sustainability. The argument above has been that the solution to global environmental problems can only be found via Anarchist principles.
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