Thoughts towards a synthesis between ecosocialism and ecoanarchism

November 19, 2020
Climate action rally in Parramatta in January. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Hans Baer’s third piece has given a generous elaboration of the basic ecoanarchist case, referring to many theorists and practical initiatives that reinforce my argument about the virtues and appropriateness of a basic anarchist perspective.

However, I had expected him to point to its weaknesses. He didn’t, so I had better do that.

First, however, his initial point should be emphasised: we both have no doubt that capitalist society must be replaced by some kind of socialist society if the many alarming global problems now threatening our very survival are to be solved.

Obviously there are many forms of socialism and some are far from desirable. The anarchism I have argued for is a form of socialism, but its defining characteristic is the determination to avoid domination, hierarchy, authoritarianism, centralisation and top-down power.

This indicates a major criticism of it. which even democratic socialists would make; surely given the fallibility and perversity of humans, we cannot avoid having central power and coercion to enforce socially desirable procedures.

As with so many similar issues, much depends on the kind of society being assumed.

It is difficult to imagine how the kind we have now, involving immensely complicated global interdependence, energy and capital intensive systems, huge trade networks, 1 million people in the air at any one moment and characterised by fierce struggles over access to opportunities and wealth, could function unless run by agencies with great power to force compliance.

But the alternative I have argued for is far less complex and difficult to run, and with institutions and dispositions highly conducive to autonomous and spontaneous cooperation and win-win seeking.


As Kropotkin saw, natural ecosystems do not need top-down management. Within a thriving social ecology, negotiation seeking mutually beneficial arrangements works most things out.

This makes it more plausible that in the much simpler society I have sketched there would be little or no need for top-down power, let alone for the use of force, even the force of law, to get people to do the right thing.

The motivation to cooperate and care would be intrinsic and powerful, synergistic and self-reinforcing. It would be enjoyable to contribute to working bees and help others thrive. You would realise that your own welfare is due primarily not to your individual wealth or power but to how robust, resilient and culturally rich your town is.

Similarly, the simplicity of systems undermines the argument that representative government and huge bureaucracies are necessary. In small communities with simple systems, infrastructures, banks and industries, decisions and maintenance can be via participatory town meetings, voluntary committees and working bees. 

So, many of the factors leading socialists to assume the need for central agencies and the need for them to have power would not be characteristic of the alternative society I have argued for.

The biggest challenge to the version of anarchism I have outlined is to do with the deeply entrenched obsession with affluence, property, wealth, acquisitiveness.

Many would say that we are totally unrealistic in expecting to get almost 8 billion rampant consumers to adopt voluntary simplicity. (Only about 2 billion of them do much consuming now, but the rest want to.)

Our first point here is that if we cannot get them off the consumer obsession then there is no possibility of getting to a sustainable and just society, so we have no choice but to keep trying.

Of course, the obsession is largely due to the efforts of capitalism to reinforce it ($500 billion a year is spent on advertising alone), and it has eliminated many alternatives to sources of life satisfaction that have to be purchased.

There are two forces that will assist us in this quest.

The first is that the coming mega-collapse (triggered by the demise of the US tight oil  or fracking industry and the mother-of-all debt crashes) which will jolt them into realising that their best, indeed, only option is to develop as many local sources of goods and services as is possible.

The second is that, as our heroic prefigurers develop more illustrations of alternative ways, more people will come to appreciate the quality of life benefits, especially in community support, cooperation and care, the development of rich local leisure resources and the sense of empowerment and solidarity.

Another important point socialists make against we simpletons is that we underestimate the capacity of the capitalist class to crush alternatives that threaten it, either through its gigantic ideological power or its readiness to have the police and military put down dissent.

We have two responses. First, the increasing scarcity of resources ahead, especially liquid fuels, along with increasing demands on state expenditure as problems escalate, will reduce the capacity of states to deal with the many problems being caused by the breakdown of the system. The rich United States and the poor Middle East, alike failing states, are illustrating this.

Secondly, we are a more or less invisible spreading virus. The state can turn out the cops to clear a riot, but it will be far more difficult for it to stop a myriad of community co-ops quietly boycotting their supermarkets to produce their own carrots.


We urgently need effort going into looking for ways of uniting, integrating and synthesising the wide range of oppositional movements that exist.

It would best be done by trying to persuade movements to frame their concerns in terms of key socialist and anarchist themes. Most, if not all, are struggling to remedy damage being inflicted by capitalism, but unfortunately most of them mistakenly proceed as if reforms within it will suffice.

The first task might be to encourage the many good green, social justice, Third World NGO people to constantly add to their public messages that the problems they are working on are generated by the capitalist system and cannot be solved until it has been replaced. If they are uneasy about this, we need to try to win them over.

In other words, the first step towards a powerful synthesis must be to move towards widespread endorsement among social movements of the basic socialist vision; getting control out of the hands of the tiny capitalist class and under some form of social control.

Obviously, this must be accompanied by clear explanation that the form can and should be thoroughly democratic, and as non-bureaucratic as possible — think citizen’s juries.

At present, I see little effort going into outreach projects of this kind.

But our biggest problem regarding a synthesis between ecosocialism and ecoanarchism will be getting movements to frame their campaigns in terms of the ultimate need for degrowth, localism and simplicity.

At present that would be to contradict the dominant conceptions of progress and the good life.

But it is a general message that can easily be tacked on, briefly introduced, within specific save-this-forest-now campaigns. This effort should always refer to material, sites, videos, that show how attractive the alternative ways could be, as well as explaining that simpler ways are the only long term solution to all the big problems.

[This is the third exchange between Hans Baer and Ted Trainer on the ideas of ecosocialism and ecoanarchism. The first exchange can be found here and here and the second here and here.]

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