Towards an anti-capitalist synthesis: what can ecosocialists learn from ecoanarchists?

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

Ecosocialists and ecoanarchists share an anti-capitalist stance, both viewing capitalism as the root of numerous social and environmental problems.

Anarchism has a long history of environmentalism, from early anarchist thinkers such as Peter Kropotkin to the influential Murray Bookchin, who linked the exploitation of nature to the exploitation of human beings, in much the same vein as ecosocialists.

Greek ecoanarchist Takis Fotopoulos in Towards an Inclusive Democracy (1997) maintains that “modern hierarchical society,” which for him includes both the capitalist market economy and “socialist” statism, is highly oriented toward economic growth, which has glaring environmental contradictions.

While I do not agree with Ted Trainer on all issues, nor he with me, his thinking has influenced me in various ways.

Trainer is a scholar and social experimenter whose work ecosocialists should consider seriously. In The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World he explores the following themes about capitalist society in general: it is enormously unsustainable; it has a highly unjust global economy; it fosters over-consumption; it cannot fix itself; it requires massive and radical changes; and the alternative entails a “simpler way”.

Stated in this way, without going into further specifics, these are arguments that are consistent with ecosocialism.

Trainer delineates the following five core principles of The Simpler Way:

• Material living standards on the whole must diminish;

• There is a need for small-scale, highly-sufficient local economies and communities;

• Local communities based on cooperative and participatory principles control their own internal affairs, largely independent of international and global social structures;

• A radically different economic system needs to be developed, one that is socially controlled, oriented toward meeting needs as distinct from maximising profits and not driven by market forces and a growth paradigm; and

• These changes require a radical shift in values and world view, especially away from competition, greed and acquisitiveness, all of which are part and parcel of capitalism.

Trainer’s first principle applies primarily to those relatively affluent people in developed and developing countries. Many people in advanced capitalist societies need to lower their high material living standards, although it is important to emphasise that these are highly variable, ranging from multi-billionaires to relatively affluent working-class people.

However, it clearly does not apply to people who are abjectly poor in developing countries or the indigent poor, the homeless, and Indigenous people in developed countries, many of whom need to undergo “appropriate development” according to Trainer.

Maria Mies and Veronika Bernholdt-Thomsen in The Subsistence Perspective have developed a “subsistence persistence”, that synthesises elements of feminism, ecoanarchism and perhaps even ecosocialism, and bears some resemblance to Trainer’s notion of The Simpler Way.

Some of the main features, from their perspective, include the following:

• Subsistence production has priority over commodity production;

• Socially and materially useful work has priority over wage work;

• Men should do as much unwaged work as women;

• The economy should recognise the limits of nature and must be regional and decentralised;

• Local markets should function to satisfy the subsistence needs of all;

• The notion of the commons should be revitalised to resist the commercialisation and privatisation of nature; and

• Money should be a means of circulating goods rather than accumulating them.

When Mies and Bernholdt-Thomsen introduced their subsistence perspective to the congress on Women and Ecology in Cologne in 1986, which, in their view, made “evident that women in the industrialised countries and middle-class women in the South are not only victims but also beneficiaries of the international exploitative system,” they encountered criticism on a variety of grounds, including that their perspective, allegedly, reinforced traditional women’s roles and was a throw-back to a more rudimentary way of life.

However, Mies and Benhold-Thomsen maintain that their subsistence perspective has been adopted by many women in the developing world who have rejected the modernisation development project, that will inevitably marginalise them as well as many children and men.

In an anthology edited by Australians Anitra Nelson and Frans Timmerman titled Life without Money, various ecosocialists and ecoanarchists revisit the notion that money could be abolished in a moneyless, marketless, wageless, classless and stateless planetary society.

Indeed, some party elites during the early Soviet era seriously discussed the possibility of creating a moneyless economy. This debate re-emerged with the encouragement of Che Guevara in Cuba during the mid-1960s.

However, the need to obtain “hard currency” forced post-revolutionary societies to operate within the parameters of the capitalist world system.

Many ecoanarchists subscribe to certain prefigurative models that are very much compatible with ecosocialism, including decommodification, alternative or post-development frameworks, new forms of labour internationalism and organisation of marginal workers and other subalterns.

The voluntary simplicity movement appears to draw from ecoanarchism. It encourages people in developed capitalist societies to “downshift” from high-income stressful professional jobs to more basic jobs that people find more meaningful and satisfying.

Challenge to consumer society

The movement encourages people to adopt lifestyle choices that challenge the “consumer society” and frees themselves of its social structures — an endeavour that includes relocalising food production, encouraging governments to price carbon dioxide emissions, invest in renewable energy, ending government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and reducing socioeconomic inequality.

The still imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan read Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism prompting him to abandon classical Marxism-Leninism for ecological anarchism.

Kurds in the north-west autonomous region of Syria, known as Rojava, along with Kurds in Turkey, have sought to put Bookchin’s notion of direct democracy and Ocalan’s ideas into practice.

The governance model of Rojava emphasises gender equality in political office and participation and incorporates direct democracy into decision-making.

While various community-based social experiments, such as cooperatives, eco-villages, intentional communities, the simplicity movement and the Transition Town movement all draw from ecoanarchism and seek to sever themselves from the worst aspects of global capitalism, at best they can only be “semi-autonomous” endeavours and, in general, do not have an explicit strategy for transcending it.

Nevertheless, they do illustrate that even within the constraints imposed by global capitalism, people are seeking alternatives, or pre-figurative social experiments, that attempt to create more equitable, democratic and environmentally sustainable practices.

However, a point on which socialists and anarchists have historically differed is the matter of the state — whether it is necessary or not necessary.

Since its advent in Mesopotamia some 6000 years ago, and appearance elsewhere, whether in the form of ancient states, feudal states, capitalist states or post-revolutionary states, the state has been a coercive political apparatus that has had a monopoly on coercive force.

It is thus an entity which anarchists, as well as many other groups — Indigenous peoples, peasants and working-class people — have understandably been suspicious.

From a socialist perspective, a socialist state would be a transitional structure in which the working class and other historically subaltern peoples would govern and guarantee that the capitalist class withers and that eventually the state withers and evolves into a classless society in which there would be the administration of things rather than people.

Despite this difference, I believe that ecosocialists and ecoanarchists have much to learn from each other and can form an unholy alliance of sorts in challenging global capitalism and transitioning to an alternative world system based on social parity, deep democracy, environmental sustainability and a safe climate.

[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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