Seeking to jumpstart the dialogue between ecosocialism and ecoanarchism

November 27, 2022
Capitalism by Dave Riley
'Capitalism' by Dave Riley. Image: Ratbag Media

Capitalism: Why We Should Scrap It
By Ted Trainer
Self-published e-book
170 pp, 610 kb
Free to download.

Long-time Australian ecoanarchist Ted Trainer’s, most recent book, Capitalism: Why We Should Scrap It, is a self-published e-book.

Trainer’s principal target audience is “ordinary people”, particularly students. Compared to many books delineating the flaws of the capitalist system, his book in written clearly and lucidly.

For socialists as well as anarchists, chapters 1‒9 are essentially familiar material, delineating the multiple flaws of capitalism, globally and more specifically in the United States and Australia.

Trainer argues that it is “generating most if not all of our major global problems and accelerating us towards catastrophic breakdown”, including resource depletion, environmental destruction, extreme inequality, wars over access to resources and markets, the deterioration of social cohesion, and denial of most people in “low-income countries” from getting their fair share of world’s resources. He argues that the overriding fault of a capitalist economy is its commitment to perpetual economic growth. Trainer correctly argues that capitalism contributes to an unequal distribution of benefits, unemployment, housing shortages, and “undesirable cultural effects”.

Trainer appears to blend Marxian perspectives — based on Karl Marx’s theory of the relationship to the means of production — and Weberian perspectives — based on Max Weber’s analysis of status groupings — to delineate classes in capitalist society: the capital-owning class; the middle classes consisting of business owners, managers, bureaucrats, academics, teachers, and tradespeople; the working class; and the lumpen-proletariat consisting of the excluded, the unemployed, the homeless, etc.

Unfortunately, Trainer includes only a short chapter titled “Capitalist ‘Development’ of the Third World”, making his treatment of capitalism rather First-World oriented. While he recognises that the global South (as it is commonly known these days) serves as a resource flow site for countries of the global North, his analysis could have been much more nuanced if he had drawn on the work of Marxian-oriented world system theory.

This theory views the capitalist world system as a system of unequal economic exchange, in which the core — the advanced capitalist countries — exploits both the semi-periphery — middle-income countries such as China — and the periphery — the very low-income countries, many situated in sub-Saharan Africa.

The semi-periphery is exploited by the core but in turn exploits the periphery — exhibited for instance by China’s economic penetration into sub-Saharan Africa.

Needless to say, peoples of the global South, who have contributed the least to anthropogenic climate change, are the ones who are being the most adversely impacted by it.

Trainer devotes chapter 9 to classical economic theory, which he correctly terms “capitalist theory”, noting that it takes gross domestic product as the supreme measure of prosperity, accepts the growth paradigm, views the market as the basic exchange mechanism, and assumes that humans are naturally self-interested competitors seeking to maximise gain.

While I agree with him in making the argument that there is a need to study political economy rather than economics per se, Trainer fails to note that much political economy theory draws heavily on Marxian-oriented scholarship.

In chapter 10, “The Alternative: The New Economy We Need”, Trainer argues that anarchism, rather than socialism or communism, constitutes the authentic alternative to capitalism. It is a system based on a Simpler Way; local self-sufficiency; and a governance system emphasising participatory democracy — given that most people would have a lot of time to volunteer to perform public activities and most issues would be decided at the local level. He implicitly recognises some need for a watered-down state, noting that “there would be some tasks left for state and national governments involving professional experts and administrators, such as coordinating national steel and railway industries, and especially working out how to distribute industries to enable all towns to earn some income by exporting to other towns”.

Trainer argues that a Simpler Way requires that people shift from competition to cooperation, from individualism to collectivism, and from acquisitiveness to a frugal lifestyle based on gaining life satisfaction from non-material pursuits, a shift he admits will be difficult to achieve given deeply ingrained behavioural patterns resulting from living in a capitalist world.

A Simpler Way means relying heavily on very simple technologies, largely local supply chains, with “lots of food growing all the time”. However, Trainer fails to describe how the latter will be possible in many parts of the world as climate change adversely impacts food production either in the form of droughts or torrential rains, a phenomenon which has been occurring in many parts of the world, including Australia.

For Trainer, other features of an anarchistic society include public ownership of big enterprises, such as the banks, and a Local Exchange Trading System (LETS) entailing an alternative money system. Following Modern Monetary Theory, he argues that a “country’s government can create money, spend it into circulation to pay for some public works, or just give it to various people, thereby enabling more economic activity and reducing unemployment”.

In terms of public ownership of big enterprises, Trainer could have mentioned mining, thus allowing the government (or state) to leave coal in the ground, thus fostering a shift to renewable energy production. However, he argues that “most farms and firms could and ... should be privately owned”.

Trainer distances himself from socialism, arguing that “most socialists have accepted the desirability of limitless growth”. While this may have been true in the past, it does not characterise most ecosocialists who are committed to some form of net zero-growth global economy, which would require degrowth on the part of much of the global North and the more affluent sectors of the global South, with room for growth or development for the most impoverished sectors of both. While Trainer and I wrote a series of articles on a dialogue between ecosocialism and ecoanarchism in Green Left in late 2020, nowhere in his book does he mention ecosocialism, preferring to refer to various self-proclaimed socialist “Ecomodernists”.

In his final chapter, “How Could We Make the Transition?”, Trainer argues that while socialism seeks to eradicate capitalism either through revolutionary or reformist strategies, “Simpler Way strategic thinking holds open the possibility that we might have to make little or no effort to do this”. Given, in his view, that capitalism is “well into its death throes”, attempting to bring about collapse of capitalism through electoral or other means is a futile exercise. Instead, a program of anarchistic prefiguration entails building an alternative system within the bowels of the old system. This is something that counter-cultural communalists in the 1960s and 1970s attempted to do in parts of North America and Australia, with little success.

While admitting that the capitalist class will make concerted efforts to maintains its power, Trainer maintains that the “coming mega-depression will get of most if not all capitalists”. Maybe so, but the accelerating socio-ecological crisis we are witnessing could result in some form of global eco-fascism in the short term. This is why, given this possible scenario, it is essential for anti-systemic social movements, including ones in the labour, environmental, climate justice, women’s, peasant and Indigenous rights movements, Black Lives Matter, and last but not least socialist movements, to join forces.

In contrast to Trainer who appears to have written off socialism in any form in at least his recent book, I advocate a more ecumenical approach in which ecosocialists engage in a robust dialogue with other alternative voices, including ecoanarchists, ecofeminists, degrowth advocates, and First Nations peoples.

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