Marx is famous for standing Hegel on his head, arguing that ideas and culture are not the fundamental causes of a society’s form as Hegel claimed, but that it is the productive situation which determines a society’s superstructure of ideas and values. Sorry socialist comrades but he was wrong about that. And it’s important for thinking about revolutionary strategy.

He was right in saying that if production is carried out by peasants working on land owned by a few lords then society’s many other characteristics will be feudal, including ideas about rights and distribution and the legitimacy of arrangements. And in a society where production is carried out by workers in factories owned by capitalists then similarly the prevailing ideas and values will be found to be of a particular variety, one that reinforces and legitimises the ideas, values and practices in of the capital-owning class. As he saw, the ruling ideas in a society are those of the ruling class.

But this does not get to the bottom of things; it tells only a part of the causal story. It poses the next question, why is the productive situation the way it is and why does it remain that way, even when it is typically manifestly unsatisfactory? Why do the peasants in the lord’s fields and the workers in the capitalist’s factories put up with their situation? The answer is cultural; it is to do with the ideas and values that are held in those societies and if you want to see revolution this is the realm you need to attend to.

Marxists of many sorts have long been aware of the importance of “class consciousness” and “ideology”, but I want to argue that the typical socialist perspective on this general issue is seriously unsatisfactory and that this now renders their revolutionary efforts naïve and futile. Their concern to get rid of capitalism is essential of course, but their strategy is mistaken.

For about a hundred years the standard socialist perspective on strategy made sense, but the advent of the global sustainability crisis has invalidated it. The task was to take control of the productive machinery off the capital-owning class and run it for the benefit of the workers, releasing the forces of production to increase output, distributing the product fairly and raising the material “living standards” of the people. Well isn’t that still the right goal? No it is not.

This is because the global situation has changed dramatically since Marx’s time. We are now confronted by the fact that we have far exceeded levels of sustainable resource use and environmental impact. Most socialists and almost everybody else fail to understand that the goal now has to be degrowth, that is reducing production, consumption, GDP, trade, investment,” living standards” and GDP. And even within the degrowth camp most people do not realise just how enormous the degrowth must be. Rich world levels of per capita production and consumption would have to be reduced by something like 90% before we reached levels that all people could share. (For the arithmetic see the published case or TSW.Limit.)

This has enormously profound implications for rethinking the nature of a sustainable and just society, and for the best strategy to achieve it. It rules out almost all thinking on these issues by environmental and justice movements, because most of these do not realise the magnitude of the degrowth required, nor that capitalism has to be scrapped, let alone that some of the fundamental Enlightenment principles that have driven the world for two hundred years also have to be scrapped. “Progress” and “development” and the good life have to be defined in ways that contradict the old assumptions.

Most of those in Marx’s camp take it for granted that the good post-capitalist society will be heavily industrialised, centralised, urbanised, globalised, tech-driven, affluent, and run by the state (which these days is usually assumed to be democratically elected.) But it can’t be any of these; none of these elements can be characteristic of a sustainable and just society.

Here’s why.

Firstly it is necessary to deal with the common “tech-fix” faith, the belief that greater efficiency and technical advance will enable the resource and environmental impacts to be brought down to sustainable levels, without any need to reduce ”living standards” or the GDP. There are now a number of heavy studies, some with hundreds of references, finding that despite constant effort to “decouple” economic growth from resource and environmental impacts, this is not being done and it is highly unlikely to ever be done. They find that if GDP increases resource use and environmental damage increases. (See for instance, Haberle et al.)

This leaves only one option; transition to some kind of Simpler Way. This must involve:

  • Most people living in small, highly self-sufficient local communities, 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.
  • Much simpler systems, infrastructures, procedures etc. Local economies eliminate most need for transport, heavy industry, global trade networks, cities, sewers, big dams, power stations and bureaucracies.
  • Mostly local economies not driven by profit or market forces or growth but focused on meeting needs, rights, justice, welfare and ecological sustainability, and ensuring that all are provided for, for instance eliminating unemployment and providing all with a valued livelihood.
  • People in these small communities taking cooperative and participatory control over their own local economies and development, via voluntary committees, working bees and town meetings.
  • Caring, cohesive communities, prioritizing the welfare of their ecological and social systems and the quality of life of all citizens.
  • People who understand the need for these ways and values and who strongly desire to adopt and practice them. This means valuing cooperation and collectivism rather than individualistic competition. Above all it means willingly choosing and valuing frugality and turning away from material wealth, luxury, possessions and affluence to focus on non-material sources of life satisfaction.
  • These far simpler lifestyles and systems do not mean reduction in high tech socially-useful research or medicine etc., and most small farms and firms could be privately owned.

Why such an emphatic claim that only this general social form can enable a sustainable and just world? The answer is that only these ways can get the resource and ecological impacts right down. This is shown by our study comparing egg supply via the normal supermarket path with that from backyards and local poultry cooperatives. The dollar and energy costs of the supermarket egg were found to be in the order of 50 to 200 times those of the latter.

This huge difference is due to the smallness of scale, the proximity of functions within communities, the integration within communities and the spontaneous and informal social interactions enabling management of systems. The supermarket egg has a vast and complex global input supply chain involving fishing fleets, agribusiness, shipping and trucking transport, warehousing, chemicals, infrastructures, supermarkets, storage, packaging, marketing, finance and advertising and insurance industries, waste removal and dumping, computers, a commuting workforce, OH&S provisions, and highly trained technicians. It also involves damage to ecosystems, especially via carbon emissions and agribusiness effects including the non-return of nutrients to soils.

However eggs supplied via integrated village cooperatives can avoid almost all of these costs, while enabling immediate use of all “wastes” and reaping collateral benefits. Recycling of kitchen and garden scraps along with free ranging can meet almost all poultry nutrient needs. Poultry and other animal manures, including human, can be directly fed into compost heaps, digesters producing methane for cooking, algae and fish ponds, thereby completely eliminating the need for inputs to village food production from the fertilizer industry. No transport need be involved. Care and maintenance of systems can be largely informal, via rosters and spontaneous discussion and action. In addition cooperative care of animals adds to amenity and leisure resources and facilitates community bonding.

In Small Farm Future Smage calculates that Britain’s present population could be fed by only 10% of the workforce on small local farms. Add the output of backyards, coops and commons. My Remaking Settlements study found that an outer Sydney suburb might be able to feed itself given the above kind of restructuring. If each adult gave only three hours a week to working bees that suburb would have around 10,000 person hours a week going into planting, harvesting and all the other village maintenance activities. No diesel-powered council can provide anything like that level of service to your neighbourhood.

These conditions can have similarly large cost reduction effects in many domains, including dwelling construction, clothing and furniture supply, welfare and educational and other services, and especially in provision for leisure, entertainment and education.

The point here is that communities proceeding in these ways can only do so if they are run by informed, caring, responsible citizens with strong familiarity and bonds strengthened over long period, and with the right world view, values, goals and dispositions. The ethos must be highly cooperative and collectivist, the welfare of the town must be the top priority, people must enjoy being good conscientious and caring citizens delighted to turn up to town meetings and working bees and concerts, keenly interested in discussing their systems and how to maintain and improve them, and above all happy to live very frugally because that is necessary to save the planet and because it is enjoyable.

Governments cannot do any of this. They could facilitate it, if they chose to, but they cannot understand the conditions in thousands of varied communities, they cannot possibly make the decisions that will best suit your town with its unique history, conditions and people, and above all they cannot create the crucial attitudes and values that drive thriving communities. Central governments are simply powerless here. The people in the communities are the only ones who can understand their situation, figure out what needs to be done, generate the high level of agreement that must be achieved if things are going to work, make the decisions, and implement them. In the coming time of troubles governments will not have the resources to do much let alone monitor and control any of this, or send in the police to deal with deviation from their national plan. (That does not mean there would be no national guidelines or laws.)

Culture therefore trumps everything. To repeat, the only form enabling a sustainable and just society must be some kind of simpler way. It cannot possibly come into existence unless most people understand this and willingly and happily adopt it. This cannot happen unless there is an astronomically huge transition away from presently dominant ideas and values. That, comrade, sets your revolutionary goal and means. We can get nowhere unless and until people in general see things this way.

This revolution is therefore unique and far more complex and difficult than any before it. In all the others the task was (theoretically simply) to get rid of the ruling class, take control of the system, and run it in the interests of all. Marxists especially have been out to take the factories off the capital-owning class, thereby eliminating the contradictions holding back production, and to then turn up the throttles to raise the material “living standards” of the people. But now we can see that is a recipe for planetary suicide. If the world turned socialist tomorrow but remained committed to affluence and growth the present trajectory to ruin would accelerate.

This means socialists must give up on some of their most common defining assumptions and commitments, including globalisation, industrialisation, urbanism, predominantly high tech ways and high “living standards” for all. Historically, socialists have been notoriously keen about “productivism”, and have maintained Marx’s view that the peasant and his ways need “modernising.” (For a perspective in “development” contradicting the conventional view see Trainer, 2021.)

Increasing numbers now realise that massive degrowth is necessary, but almost no one, even within the degrowth camp, has the slightest idea of how to do it. The literature does little more than call for the adoption of (admirable) new policies, such as a basic minimum income, reduced advertising, and cancelation of debt. (See Kallis, 2015.) But such proposals throw no light on how on earth to achieved them. The stunning magnitude of the “degrowth conundrum” is not recognised. How do you take millions out of producing coal and cruise ships…to do what? They can’t just be transferred to more acceptable jobs, because the point of degrowth is to reduce the amount of producing and consuming going on. What are you going to do about the towns that will have nothing to do when the mines close? Above all what are you going to do about the capitalist class and the screen jockeys who manage their investments when you are out to dramatically eliminate investment opportunities? They are not likely to happily go along with your degrowth agenda when it involves their liquidation.

In this context it makes no sense to frame revolutionary strategy in terms of “taking state power”. Yes someday in the distant future the small remnant “state” apparatus will have been brought under our control, but right now forget about it. Get on with what needs to be done, which is obviously working to change the dominant world view, towards widespread understanding of the need to eventually shift to much simpler lifestyles and systems. Get on with the cultural problem.

“But…”, the Eco-socialist says at this point, “..if we had state power we could facilitate that change in consciousness, help people to see the need for localism etc..” Consider the monumental logical confusion in this response. No government with the required policy platform, one focused on transition to simpler systems and lifestyles and decimating the GDP, and phasing out most industry etc., could get elected…unless people in general had long before adopted the associated extremely new and radical world view … in which case they would have been developing local economies and living frugally and cooperatively long before an Eco-Socialist party could get elected to state power.

In any case even if we got state power, through an election or a violent coup, that would not enable us to get the required changes made. Although the Bolsheviks could indeed achieve their revolution by taking the state, their situation and task was totally different to ours, and much easier. All they had to do was seize power and run the same old apparatus from the top. They did not need to change the prevailing culture, beyond getting the masses to support/accept their rule. Avineri (1968) details this lack of concern Marxists had with the consciousness of the masses, seeing change in that as something that could be worked on long after power was taken, in the transition from “socialism” to “communism.” Bookchin also saw this lack and the way the post-revolutionary working class would retain the old ideas and values such as acceptance of bosses, work discipline, competitive individualism, focus on wages and working conditions, and not expecting to be involved in running things. He saw that the masses were only expected to help tip out one set of bosses and accept orders from the new lot.

So even if our vanguard party could pull off a coup and take the state, we would be in no position to get millions of conscientious citizens to run their local communities via simper lifestyles and systems. The real revolution will be the change from consumer culture that will have to precede the changes in power and economic systems.

Socialists have been remarkably unsatisfactory in their attention to culture. They have long understood the importance of ideology, hegemony and class consciousness, but they have not focused on this realm as the main field of battle. Where are the studies analysing the dominant ideology today, working out why it is so powerful and how it might best be undermined? Where is the publishing industry churning out tried and tested texts explaining why capitalism needs to be dumped? It is as if none of this hard work needs to be taken up; just get state power and we can fix everything.

Marx and socialists in general are right about the overriding task, which is to get rid of capitalism. But when it comes to the required replacement and the strategy for its achievement, it is the Anarchists who have the right answers. The above outline of the situation and The Simpler Way shows this. Those resource-saving communities can only be run via highly participatory collectivist arrangements among equals for developing and working their local systems. They will not work if they are governed by superior authorities. The supreme Anarchist principle is rejection of centralised top down rule, elected or otherwise. They are for us governing ourselves. This is political maturity. For maybe 12,000 years humans have allowed themselves to be ruled; it’s about time we grew up and accepted responsibility for working out our own mutually beneficial arrangements.

Note other Anarchist principles. Anarchists insist on ”subsidiarity”, not having an issue settled at a higher level when it can be handled at a lower level. They believe informal discussion between people can work out mutually beneficial arrangements, without the need for politicians and bureaucracies. They realise that often citizens can spontaneously identify problems and take the necessary action without appealing to officials. They handle wider issues by forming federations and sending delegates to regional conferences to sort out the best options, which are taken backdown to the town assemblies for all to vote on. Some centralised agencies can be required, such as for national communications, railway and legal systems, but again these can and should be under the control of the local level.

These procedures are obviously more feasible within small communities. Inspiring examples have been established by the Anarchists during the Spanish civil war, and recently by the Catalans and the Kurds.

Another challenge for socialists to consider is the issue of private property. Most have been firmly committed to eliminating private ownership of the means of production. However from the Simpler Way perspective this is not necessary and not desirable. What socialists rightly fear is the way capitalist ownership and control leads to production of what is most profitable to those owners, and this means production mostly of what richer people want to buy and development of economies that neglect needs. These outcomes can be avoided if most productive agencies take the form of small firms and cooperatives driven by basically collectivist values, that is by a new culture, overseen by the town’s citizens. The owners of little family firms, shops, and farms should be able to see these as ways of making an appreciated contribution to their community, earning a low, stable and secure income, while enjoying the freedom to make and grow things in the way they enjoy, in properties they own and can organise as they wish. They would know that their sensible communities would never tolerate unemployment, would help struggling enterprises to restructure, and would not allow anyone to take over lots of firms and become a tycoon. But socialists are right about big enterprises; things like steel works and railways should be publicly owned and run.

Back to the issue of revolutionary strategy. Again the Anarchists get it right, again because this revolution is like no other before it, and because the key to it is cultural revolution … indeed cultural change of such a magnitude that the prospects for achieving it are not at all promising. But there is no alternative to working for it.

What is to be done? Basically the answer is … talk. We cannot get anywhere unless and until some kind of simpler way perspective comes to be widely held and valued. That means our top priority must be trying to get more people to understand the need for transition to it. So the task for each of us is to find ways to contribute to that end, and while some of us can write and teach about the crucial issues, all of us can talk. So it is important to raise the issues informally whenever possible.

But most important is getting involved in alternative practices, most obviously community gardens and co-ops. This is probably the most effective way of working on the task socialists neglect, i.e., introducing people to the new ideas, values and ways by providing living examples of the way things could be. Many within the eco-village and Transition Towns movements are doing this. (For powerful examples see the Catalan Cooperative Movement and Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage.) This is what the anarchists call ”prefiguring”, creating here and now elements of the new systems we are working to implement.

Socialists usually scathingly reject this strategy on the grounds that it not only fails to threaten capitalism, it siphons off discontent and reduces direct resistance. But this again reveals failure to grasp the cultural issue. The best way to help people to shift to the alternative vision is likely to be to provide living examples of aspects of it. The assumption is not that all we have to do is to go on adding bits of the alternative vision until someday we will have replaced present society. It is that establishing these examples is a powerful educational device, helping to build the commitment needed to eventually get structural changes through.

Perhaps the best way to see the foregoing argument is as pointing to ways socialist and anarchist perspectives can be combined. Hopefully socialists will dwell on the limits to growth and the implications for transition to localism and simpler lifestyles and systems, and above all on the priority that must be put on the cultural problem. We anarchists need to think more about how best to manage those functions that will remain to be dealt with by some kind of centralised “state” to deal with, while retaining power at the local level. (In my more detailed discussion of Simpler Way transition theory I argue that when small integrated, collective, self-sufficient communities become the norm there will not be that much left for centralised agencies to do.)

I also argue in that discussion that for several reasons existing societies are not capable of making the transition to the above alternative way via deliberate rational discussion and decision making. We cannot avoid descent into a mega global collapse from which there might be no return. The hope has to be for a Goldilocks depression, not so bad as to prevent any possibility of reconstruction, but salvage enough to jolt us to adopt some kind of simpler way. Our task here and now is to increase the numbers who merge from the rubble with the right ideas and values.

Kallis, G., (2015), “Yes, We Can Prosper Without Growth: 10 Policy Proposals for the New Left”, Common Dreams, 28 Jan.

Photo: Uformelt i DK ecovillage Denmark – Dyssekilde ecovillage økolandsby
 26 April 2017, 10:31:08 Author Øyvind Holmstad