I would like to begin today’s talk with a quote from Kevin Anderson. No, not that Kevin Anderson. In discussing impending ecological collapse and the shortcomings of the now dramatically undermined Paris Agreement, climate scientist Kevin Anderson says, “You add up all of the commitments that every country has made, and it’s probably somewhere between 3 and 4 degrees Celsius warming.” “…there is a widespread view that a 4 degrees Celsius future is incompatible with any reasonable characterization of an organized, equitable, and civilized global community.”
To be sure, ecological calamity will not permit an organized, equitable, and civilized global community. Marxist Humanists and others would like to add, “it doesn’t come from one, either.” Anti-capitalism is becoming more mainstream as the (perhaps too easy) slogan, “Infinite growth cannot be sustained on a finite planet”, gains traction even on the centrist fringes of Left wing environmentalism. This is good news. From here, it is crucial that we develop a rigorous and concrete, alternative method of organizing our political economy and a plan for how to get there. Today I will begin with a Marxist-humanist analysis of the ecological crisis. From there I will explore a variety of common solutions and argue that there are theoretical and strategic reasons to pursue more radical alternatives. I will conclude by fleshing out one such solution based on freely associated labor and participatory governance.
Let’s begin with a statement of the problem. The fact that capitalism is causing ecological collapse has enough consensus within our group and has been written about so extensively that it is hardly possible to contribute anything new on the matter. Still, for the purposes of affirming a common footing, several points bear repeating. I do not endeavor to be exhaustive; I seek only to get to the main issues quickly so that solutions can be developed on solid ground.
The problem with capitalism most relevant to the ecological crisis is that it causes a rift in the social metabolism. Joel Kovel explains how this split begins with the dual character of money as use-value and as exchange-value. Because use-value is purely qualitative, physically grounded in the sensuous world, and only realized in use and for subsistence, the growth of use-value is finite. In contrast, exchange-value diminishes all things to an objective quantity, which by definition cleaves them from their particular subjectivity, their being for themselves. Moreover, exchange-value is entirely unhinged from use, its movement limitless and indifferent to natural and human content. Thus, where capitalism is built on exchange-value, we must reorient our economy toward the satisfaction of use-values.
Next, insofar as capitalism results from the alienation of labor, new systems must affirm the conscious, vital activity of labor by remaking production. We should remember Peter Hudis’s 2005 address “Ecology and the Future Society”, and understand that this dual character of money is reflected in the dual character of labor. In this way, the destructive character of capital emerges from abstract, alienated labor. As such, our solution to the ravages of capitalism cannot simply be to redistribute capital; instead, we must destroy the social relation of capital that emerges from the expropriation of people from the means of their own subsistence, that alienates them from their labor, their product, their fellow worker, and their own self. This is where our struggle against capitalism becomes properly humanistic. We are not here calling on a return to nature, but on a return to our own nature to interact as concrete particular actors with the untamed world outside ourselves and in that action transform both ourselves and the world. When our work is at once mental and manual, when we engage in conscious, vital self-activity, we develop our own subjectivity and become subjects.
From here it is crucial that we champion freely associated labor. Because individuals make themselves in relation to their fellows, interactions of labor must not be defined by objective dependence, as they are under capitalism. Nor can they be organized according to any kind of hierarchy, as between vanguard and mass. Mending the relations between human and non-human require the remaking of relations between human and human as non-hierarchal, freely associated labor.
It is crucial that we understand that ecological calamity is not the far-off consequence of capitalism, but is woven into its process. Ecological collapse is alienation on a grand scale. As we struggle to overcome the ongoing ecological crisis, we should consider several key, interrelated points. We must remake labor. It must be freely-associated, consciously undertaken, and non-hierarchical. It must be oriented toward use-value. This kind of labor would be the development of our subjectivity.
I would now like to discuss the existing solutions that have been posited by a variety of political tendencies. Eco-modernism is currently the principle means for dealing with ecological crisis. Eco-modernism essentially consists of technocratic capture of the ecological problematic. It reframes profit and pollution as a positive-sum game designed to maintain business as usual, expressed as a pastiche of confused ethical commitments and half-hearted compromises. Like liberalism, eco-modernism is a deep collusion of state and capital that depoliticizes decision-making, resolves challenges through bureaucratic rule by experts, and deprives common people of our autonomy. It recreates rather than resolves the problems of hierarchical, alienated, value-oriented production and management.
Just as liberal governance keeps intact the capitalist extraction of labor and ushers in the age of fascism by failing to address its core problems, eco-modernism preserves capitalist extraction of nature and brings about eco-fascism. Like fascism, eco-fascism is the “merger of state and corporate power”, aimed at environmental problem definitions and solutions. The moment of eco-fascism is upon us. We see it in the appointment of Rex Tillerson and Scott Pruitt in the Trump Administration. We see it in the COP negotiations that create government mandated ecological sacrifice zones in Puerto Rico, Nigeria, the Maldives. Standing Rock, South Central. But eco-fascism does not simply manifest as ecological destruction through state and capital capture. It is also realized as those powers seize on environmental narratives to further their own racist and xenophobic agendas. The expropriation of indigenous lands in the Americas for the creation of National Parks is one such case. We could even look to Elon Musk’s use of the Vandenberg Airforce Base to develop moon-exodus technology as an instance of eco-fascism.
I would like to argue here that eco-fascism is not fundamentally different from even Leftist versions of eco-authoritarianism that rely on state activism to solve ecological problems. While it is tempting to advocate for state-managed eco-socialism, a commitment to state management fails to confront the problems of social metabolism and alienation. They critique capitalism, but do not develop a critique of hierarchal social relations that undergird both capitalism and the state. Here we find state socialists like Bernie Sanders, but also Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein. In her Leap Manifesto, Klein explicitly calls on “World War II-style mobilization” to address climate change. Her suggestion is especially misguided, as it was World War II-style mobilization that kicked off the “Great Acceleration” of greenhouse gas emissions. World War II marked the beginning of military Keynesianism, the very collusion of state and capital that enabled the U.S. military to become the single greatest carbon polluter in the world today. Swiftly on its heels, the Marshall Plan was instrumental in converting European states into high carbon-consuming societies through greater access to cheap Saudi oil and American consumer goods.
Even if we come at the problem from the Left, using the state to solve environmental problems is built on bad theory because it does not call for a society organized around freely associated labor. It is also bad strategy because it does not allow us to develop and seize on our subjectivity. I next want to explore why that is.
First, it is obvious that implementing state eco-socialism would require a massive hierarchal bureaucracy. The logic underlying such management at a distance is that central powers will be able to dictate better policy over and against local actors. If eco-socialist states are to impose the will of central powers against the wishes of concrete particular actors, we are invoking a scourge of top-down administration and the abandonment of free, participatory forms of work and governance. This does not result in better environmental futures. As is demonstrated by the failure of environmental programs in China, good policy outcomes require local buy-in. This future is a fantasy because such a bureaucratic apparatus is impracticable; it is a hellscape because it lays waste to freely associated labor.
Next, states lack the local knowledge of ecological interactions of people and land that is required for making sound environmental policy. They disregard complex concrete relationships. When 18th century German forests were ecologically simplified to produce lumber, they fell vulnerable to disease. When Maoist China purposefully devastated the sparrow population, their fields became overrun with locusts. Further, states are extremely vulnerable to regulatory capture, and they often wield their power to create sacrifice zones where environmental ruination may continue. At its core, carving up land and making decisions at a distance rends the ecological relationship between people and their land.
Finally, as should come as no surprise, the state eco-socialist government is not even within reach of the world we have. What is our dream, that the state will train its weapons upon Shell? Exxon? At every turn it gives industry more power. When states do enact decent environmental policy, for example the 1987 Montreal Protocol which banned ozone-depleting CFCs, it is typically when those policies do not overly impact business as usual. The state certainly is not willing to stick its neck out to defend the environment.
Again, from this analysis we arrive at the irreducible point that the solution to our ecological crisis must emerge from remaking our economy so that it is one of freely associated labor. We need local knowledge, local buy-in, and real interaction between human and non-human to create sustainable futures. What remains from here is the practical problem as to how to enact that society. I have drawn out this long critique of state eco-socialism to demonstrate that in formulating eco-socialist solutions, we should not waste our time working with the state. It is simply bad strategy, and if we focus our energies elsewhere, we can get better results. I want to argue that in order to create a society of freely associated labor, where we act directly to shape our lives, where we live and work communally, we must create that society now. Here, social ecologist Murray Bookchin offers that we “can tolerate no disjunction between ends and means. Direct action, so integral to the management of a future society, has its parallel in the use of direct action to change society. Communal forms, so integral to the structure of a future society, have their parallel in the use of communal forms – collectives, affinity groups, and the like – to change society” (446-447). I want to argue that we need not wait for broad-based revolution or even the wholesale annihilation of capitalism before creating worlds outside the state, properly ecological worlds. Insurrection is a much more useful strategy – and it means that we can start our break with the oppressive systems of capital and the state now. Further, through this work, we will affirm our ecological subjectivity.
Ecology subjectivity is new to neither Marxist-Humanism nor anarchism. Here it describes the web of interactions among differentiated actors. These bonds of active relation connect worker to worker to environment to self. When Marx describes from the first premise how, through the interaction of worker and nature, emerges their mutual transformation, he is describing an ecological relationship. Likewise, when Kropotkin argues that cooperation and mutual aid are essential to human flourishing, he is describing an ecological relationship. In theory, ecological relationships are constituted by the dialectic of differentiation of particulars and interaction within the totality that result in progressively more evolved and resilient ecosystems. This development of ecological subjectivity is rooted in the Hegelian dialectic and explored in the works of Murray Bookchin and Joel Kovel. From here, we should ask: what would the reassertion of ecological relations look like in practice?
The network of roads reminded me of a claw or tentacles. It illustrated to me the way in which the tentacles of the tar sands reach out and wreak havoc and destruction. Proposed pipelines to American Midwest, Mackenzie Valley, and through the Great Bear Rainforest will bring new threats to these regions while the pipelines fuel new markets and ensure the proposed five fold expansion of the Tar Sands.To begin, I would like to look to the Zapatista movement in Chiapas. Here, we see an interaction between anarchist and indigenous thought manifesting in calls, first and foremost, for decentralized, autonomous control over land by those concrete particular actors. The Zapatistas call for “a world in which many worlds fit”, and as such have created in Chiapas a web of 32 autonomous municipalities. Their movement for autonomy and self-direction is properly ecological because the Zapatistas directly challenge the extractive tendencies of the state and capital by situating power materially with actors who engage in reciprocal relations with the land. Here, labor is freely associated, governance is fully participatory, and interactions with nature are more sustainable.
Paul Goodman and Murray Bookchin long ago predicted the material benefits of this development of ecological subjectivity. Actors, free to differentiate and develop through interaction with the concrete particularity of their own geographies, are prone to experiment and diversify, and create resilient models of governance that are sensitive to what the land gives. The Zapatistas recognized that in order to manage their own affairs and assert autonomy in the face of totalizing systems, they needed to quit the apparatuses of state and capital. We should be encouraged by those who liberate themselves. Many of these groups converged last year in Venezuela for the First Ecosocialist International. Today, there exist countless movements of people exiting formations of state and capital, removing themselves to land they can protect and survive on, and defending it. Eco-anarchists in France are fighting to maintain the Zone à Defendre, established first to protect land from being turned into an airport before developing into a land sovereignty movement. People in Denmark and all over the world are creating Transition Towns around the principles of participatory democracy, autonomy, and degrowth economics. In Kurdistan, social democracy, gender equality, and ecology have become rallying cries.
I have argued that recentering the local and fighting where we stand is crucial if we are to win big victories in small places, and create participatory models of governance that will develop our ecological subjectivity. There are two common critiques of exodus or insurrectionary approaches to change that rely neither on mass movements nor the state. The first is that exodus movements are elitist. It is true that not everyone living in ecological precarity can remake their world locally in the shell of the old. I use the example of the Zapatistas here in part because they demonstrate how exodus movements can serve as inspiration and education to other burgeoning movements. Some of the white, middle-class back-to-the-farm movements in the U.S. 1960s and ‘70s were elitist exodus movements, but not because they tried to establish alternative models of governance and livelihood outside the city walls, but because marginalized communities were not invited or encouraged to share in the movement. When the communes died off, these “communards” set up in the suburbs and voted for Reagan. Here, autonomy is necessary but insufficient to successful movements. Clearly, autonomous zones must work internally to eradicate hierarchy and externally to spread their movement to other areas.
The other criticism emerges from the perceived impossibility of using local solutions to confront global phenomena. The principle anxiety is thus, how do we scale-up? That question, I believe, gets the point entirely wrong and ends up reinscribing hierarchy. Instead, we should be concerned with scaling out. We can engage in solidarity economies like the Kurds, we can share playbooks and tactics like the Transition Towns, we can engage in coalition work like the black liberationist and animal rights groups here in the US. The possibilities for ecological interaction and coordination across vast distances have never been greater. Mass movements might emerge, but they are best when they do not strive toward statehood, but towards democratic confederalism like the Kurds. Radical change has always come from the local, so let’s fight where we have the greatest chance of success. Let’s fight where we stand.
We should care deeply about the development of ecological subjectivity because, right now, it still matters. At this moment, human activity is the principle driver of climate change. But soon those practices of raising cattle, slashing forests, and burning fossil fuels – practices very much under our control as subjects, as agents – will trigger a runaway series of geophysical tipping points. As the permafrost melts, it will release methane and melt ice sheets, all on its own. As ice sheets melt, the darkening waters will absorb more sunlight and oceans will heat, all on their own. As oceans heat, their currents will change, all on their own. Once these barriers are crossed, climate change will be beyond our control. Right now, we are still agents. And our subjectivity still matters. It will not always be so.