An ecoanarchist revolutionary strategy

Climate rally in Sydney in February. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

It is with respect to means, or transition strategy, that ecosocialism and my version of ecoanarchism differ most. This is because the kind of society that I argue must replace capitalism differs markedly from that which socialists commonly envisage.

My previous piece sketched the argument that, in view of the grossly unsustainable state of industrial-affluent-consumer-capitalist society, the revolutionary goal must be a basic social form focused on small scale, highly self-sufficient and self-governing, collectivist and zero-growth communities. They have to be driven by need not profit, and have to abandon a culture focused on individualism, competition and acquisitiveness.

There is no other way of achieving the necessary huge reductions in per capita resource and environmental impacts.

It is now clear that technical advance and “decoupling” resource demand from gross domestic product (GDP) cannot do it. The most important and difficult element here is the cultural change that would be required, and this sets ecoanarchism on a quite different strategic path to the standard ecosocialist path.

The state

The essential element in socialism is typically endorsement of centralised state control. It is assumed that the major structures, processes and decisions are to be resolved at, and administered by, the state. Therefore, strategic thinking focuses on taking state power.

But in my previous discussion of goals, I argued that this cannot be the situation in the new kind of communities required. They can only be run well by the people who live in them, via thoroughly participatory town assemblies, committees and working bees.

Only the people in the town understand its problems, conditions, soils, history and capacities. Only they can assess what the town wants and how well arrangements are working out. And to develop satisfactory procedures, they must be involved in a long period of trial and error learning.

Above all the new communities cannot thrive unless they have created an atmosphere of strong empowerment, mutuality and collectivism, positive interdependence, social cohesion, willing responsibility, public spirit and town pride.

Centralised bureaucracies could not do any of this or establish the necessary dispositions and viable procedures, even if we were not heading into an era when state resources will be severely diminished.

The crucial factor here is not economic or political; it is cultural.

Cultural change

At present almost everyone in Australia would instantly reject the kind of society I have outlined. It will not be accepted unless and until there is profound change in the ideas and values people hold. Centralised states, vanguard parties or secret police cannot create, give or violently impose the required culture.

This dramatically recasts the transition strategy problem. How can we best try to bring about that enormous change in mentality? What should be immediately obvious is that the traditional socialist strategy — the focus on taking state power — is not the answer. We will indeed eventually take control of the (by then much diminished and not so important) state, but only in the distant future and long after the real revolution, the cultural revolution, has been achieved.

The usual socialist response here is that being in control of the state would enable the new ways to be introduced and facilitated; that is, control by 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 achieved! If/when it had, changing structures would be a relatively easy consequence of the real revolution. So there’s your focal task here and now, that is, establishing the required worldview, not trying to take state power.

Peter Kropotkin, Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi realized that culture trumps economics and politics. They saw the ultimate revolutionary goal as largely autonomous citizen-run village communities, and these cannot come into existence or function satisfactorily unless their members come to have the required vision, values and dispositions.

Standing Marx on his head

Thus, in a sense, Marx must be stood on his head; the necessary superstructures must be based on a cultural substructure of the right ideas and values. Especially given the current sustainability crisis, the change in ideas and values required for a good society cannot be left until well after the seizure of state power (Marx assumed they could be.) Socialists have the order of revolutionary events around the wrong way.

Important here is the strong case for believing that capitalism is well down the path to self-destruction. The coming disintegration will make it clear that the system will no longer provide for us, and that people will (have to) come across to the emerging local collectivism.

Thus, there is a head-on contradiction here regarding basic strategy. In past revolutions the solution was theoretically simple; take power from the ruling class and then turn up the throttles in the factories to provide more abundance for all.

But now that cannot be the solution. It must be to establish a society with a far smaller gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, without growth, affluence, centralisation, globalisation and, above all, a society driven by radically new ideas, values and dispositions.

Getting this utterly foreign culture sufficiently established is the primary revolutionary task. If and when that’s done, getting rid of what’s left of capitalism will probably be easy and non-violent.

Socialist transition efforts typically go into calling for state-level policy change, such as nationalising key industries, but they do not involve shifting to far simpler localized lifestyles and systems. More importantly, they do not recognize that nothing of much significance can be achieved unless we first bring about widespread and profound change in ideas and values.

Prefiguring

What then is to be done? It is to, as anarchists say, prefigure — that is, to focus scarce energies on building aspects of the required alternative here and now.

Socialists usually misunderstand the point of this. It is not based on the assumption that if we just go on adding a community garden here and a poultry co-op there, in time we will have replaced the existing system.

The point of prefiguring is educational: it is to develop illustrative examples of aspects of the new society, and to use these as bases for undermining capitalist ideology. The best way to undermine it is not to fight it head on, but to get people to see: a) that it will not provide for us; and b) how good the ecoanarchist alternative to it could be.

There is now rapidly increasing adoption of this “turning away” and “ignoring capitalism to death” perspective, that is evident among the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Rojavan Kurds, the Transition Towns movement, the global ecovillage network and the 200-million strong campesino movement.

Possibly the most impressive is the Catalan Integral Cooperative, which now involves thousands in building alternative systems, emphatically rejecting having anything to do with the market or the state.

If these initiatives spread they will begin to pressure the existing state apparatus to focus on enabling the towns and suburbs to thrive and will, in time, increasingly push the state aside and transfer more functions into the anarchist political sphere in which federations, delegates and conferences work out proposals to be taken back down to the participatory town assemblies for decision. This would be a process of gradually taking state power.

[This is the second of three short articles by Ted Trainer and Hans Baer on transitions away from the problems generated by capitalism.]