The Ecological Crisis, Socialism, and a New Society

The Ecological Crisis Illustration


In addressing the sources of our present ecological and social problems, perhaps the most fundamental message that social ecology advances is that the very idea of dominating nature stems from the domination of human by human. The primary implication of this most basic message is a call for a politics and even an economics that offer a democratic alternative to the nation-state and the market society.

I would like to offer a broad sketch of these issues to lay the groundwork for the changes necessary in moving toward a free and ecological society.

The Social Roots of the Ecological Crisis

First, the most fundamental route to a resolution of our ecological problems is social in character. That is to say, if we are faced with the prospect of outright ecological catastrophe, toward which so many knowledgeable people and institutions claim we are headed today, it is because the historical domination of human by human has been extended outward from society into the natural world. Until domination as such is removed from social life and replaced by a truly egalitarian and sharing society, powerful ideological, technological, and systemic forces will be used by the existing society to degrade the environment, indeed the entire biosphere. Hence, more than ever today, it is imperative that we develop the consciousness and the movement to remove domination from society, indeed from our everyday lives—in relationships between the young and the elderly, between women and men, in educational institutions and workplaces, and in our attitude toward the natural world. To permit the poison of domination—and a domineering sensibility—to persist is, at this time, to ignore the most basic roots of our ecological as well as social problems—problems whose sources can be traced back to the very roots of our civilization.

Second, and more specifically, the modern market society that we call capitalism, and its alter ego, “state socialism,” have brought all the historic problems of domination to a head. The consequences of this “grow or die” market economy must inexorably lead to the destruction of the natural basis for complex life-forms, including humanity. It is, however, all too common these days to single out either population growth or technology—or both—to blame for the ecological dislocations that beset us. But we cannot single out either of these as “causes” of problems whose most deep-seated roots actually lie in the market economy. Attempts to focus on these alleged “causes” are scandalously deceptive and shift our focus from the social issues we must resolve.

In the American experience, people only a generation or two removed from my own generation slashed their way through the vast forests of the West, nearly exterminated millions of bison, plowed fertile grasslands, and laid waste to a large part of the continent—all using only hand axes, simple plows, horse-drawn vehicles, and simple hand tools. It required no technological revolution to create the present devastation of what had once been a vast and fecund region capable, with rational management, of sustaining both human and non-human life. What brought so much ruin to the land was not the technological implements that those earlier generations of Americans used but the insane drive of entrepreneurs to succeed in the bitter struggle of the marketplace, to expand and devour the riches of their competitors lest they be devoured in turn by their rivals. In my own lifetime, millions of small American farmers were driven from their homes not only by natural disasters but by giant agricultural corporations that turned so much of the landscape into a huge industrial system for cultivating food.

Not only has a society based on endless wasteful growth devastated entire regions, indeed a continent, with only simple technology; the ecological crisis it has produced is systemic—and not a matter of misinformation, spiritual insensitivity, or lack of moral integrity. The present social illness lies not only in the outlook that pervades the present society; it lies above all in the very structure and law of life in the system itself, in its imperative, which no entrepreneur or corporation can ignore without facing destruction: growth, more growth, and still more growth. Blaming technology for the ecological crisis serves, however unintentionally, to blind us to the ways technology could in fact play a creative role in a rational, ecological society. In such a society, the intelligent use of sophisticated technology would be direly needed to restore the vast ecological damage that has already been inflicted on the biosphere, much of which will not repair itself without creative human intervention.

Along with technology, population is commonly singled out for blame as an alleged “cause” of the ecological crisis. But population is by no means the overwhelming threat that some disciples of Malthus in today’s ecology movements would have us believe. People do not reproduce like the fruit flies that are so often cited as examples of mindless reproductive growth. They are products of culture as well as of biological nature. Given decent living standards, reasonably educated families often have fewer children in order to improve the quality of their lives. Given education, moreover, and a consciousness of gender oppression, women no longer allow themselves to be reduced to mere reproductive factories. Instead, they stake out claims as humans with all the rights to meaningful and creative lives. Ironically, technology has played a major role in eliminating the domestic drudgery that for centuries culturally stupefied women and reduced them to mere servants of men and men’s desire to have children—preferably sons, to be sure. In any case, even if population were to decline for some unspecified reason, the large corporations would try to make people buy more and still more in order to render economic expansion possible. Failing to attain a large enough domestic consumers’ market in which to expand, corporate minds would turn to international markets—or to that the most lucrative of markets, the military.

Finally, well-meaning people who regard New Age moralism, psychotherapeutic approaches, or personal lifestyle changes as the key to resolving the present ecological crisis are destined to be tragically disappointed. No matter how much this society paints itself green or orates the need for an ecological outlook, the way society literally breathes cannot be undone unless it undergoes profound structural changes: namely by replacing competition with cooperation, and profit seeking with relationships based on sharing and mutual concern. Given the present market economy, a corporation or entrepreneur who tried to produce goods in accordance with even a minimally decent ecological outlook would rapidly be devoured by a rival in a marketplace whose selective process of competition rewards the most villainous at the expense of the most virtuous. After all, “business is business,” as the maxim has it. And business allows no room for people who are restrained by conscience or moral qualms, as the many scandals in the “business community” attest. Attempting to win over the “business community” to an ecological sensibility, let alone to ecologically beneficial practices, would be like asking predatory sharks to live on grass or “persuading” lions to lovingly lie down beside lambs.

The fact is that we are confronted by a thoroughly irrational social system, not simply by predatory individuals who can be won over to ecological ideas by moral arguments, psychotherapy, or even the challenges of a troubled public to their products and behavior. It is less that these entrepreneurs control the present system of savage competition and endless growth than that the system of savage competition and growth controls them. The stagnation of New Age ideology today in the United States attests to its tragic failure to “improve” a social system that must be completely replaced if we are to resolve the ecological crisis. One can only commend the individuals who by virtue of their consumption habits, recycling activities, and appeals for a new sensibility undertake public activities to stop ecological degradation. Each surely does his or her part. But it will require a much greater effort—an organized, clearly conscious, and forward-looking political movement—to meet the basic challenges posed by our aggressively anti-ecological society.

Class, Hierarchies, and Politics

Yes, we as individuals should change our lifestyles as much as possible, but it is the utmost shortsightedness to believe that that is all or even primarily what we have to do. We need to restructure the entire society, even as we engage in lifestyle changes and single-issue struggles against pollution, nuclear power plants, the excessive use of fossil fuels, the destruction of soil, and so forth. We must have a coherent analysis of the deep-seated hierarchical relationships and systems of domination, as well as of class relationships and economic exploitation, that degrade people as well as the environment. Here, we must move beyond the insights provided by the Marxists, syndicalists, and even many liberal economists, who for years reduced most social antagonisms and problems to class analysis. Class struggle and economic exploitation still exist, and the classical—and still perceptive—class analysis reveals iniquities about the present social order that are intolerable.

But the Marxian and liberal belief that capitalism has played a “revolutionary” role in destroying traditional communities, and that technological advances seeking to “conquer” nature are a precondition for freedom, rings terribly hollow today, when many of these very advances are being used to make the most formidable weapons and means of surveillance the world has ever seen. Nor could the Marxian socialists of my day, 60 years ago, have anticipated how successfully capitalism would use its technological prowess to co-opt the working class and even diminish its numbers in relation to the rest of the population.

Yes, class struggles still exist—but they occur further and further below the threshold of class war. Workers, as I can attest from my own experience as a foundryman and autoworker for General Motors, do not regard themselves as mindless adjuncts to machines, or as factory dwellers, or as “instruments of history,” as Marxists might put it. They regard themselves as living human beings: as fathers and mothers, as sons and daughters, as people with dreams and visions, as members of communities—not only of trade unions. Living in towns and cities, their eminently human aspirations go well beyond their “historic role” as class agents of “history.” They suffer from the pollution of their communities as well as from their factories, and they are as concerned about the welfare of their children, companions, neighbors, and communities, as they are about their jobs and wage scales.

The overly economistic focus of traditional socialism and syndicalism has in recent years caused these movements to lag behind emerging ecological issues and visions—as they lagged, I may add, behind feminist concerns, cultural issues, and urban issues, all of which often cut across class lines to include middle-class people, intellectuals, small proprietors, and even some bourgeois. Their failure to confront hierarchy—not only class and domination, not only economic exploitation—has often alienated women from socialism and syndicalism to the extent that they awakened to the age-old reality that they have been oppressed irrespective of their class status. Similarly, broad community concerns like pollution afflict people as such, whatever the class to which they belong. Disasters like the meltdown of the Chernobyl reactor in the Ukraine justly panicked everyone who was exposed to radiation from the plant, not simply workers and peasants.

Indeed, even if we were to achieve a classless society free of economic exploitation, would we readily achieve a rational society? Would women, young people, the infirm, the elderly, people of color, various oppressed ethnic groups—the list is, in fact, enormous—be free of domination? The answer is a categorical no—a fact to which women can certainly attest, even within the socialist and syndicalist movements themselves. Without eliminating the ancient hierarchical and domineering structures from which classes and the state actually emerged, we would have made only a part of the changes needed to achieve a rational society. There would still be a historical intoxicant in a socialist or syndicalist society—hierarchy—that would continually erode its highest ideals, namely the achievement of a truly free and ecological society.

The Myth of a “Minimal State”

Perhaps the most disquieting feature of many radical groups today, particularly socialists who may accept the foregoing observation, is their commitment to at least a minimal state that would coordinate and administer a classless and egalitarian society—a non-hierarchical one, no less! One hears this argument from André Gorz and many others, who, presumably because of the many “complexities” of modern society, cannot conceive of the administration of economic affairs without some kind of coercive mechanism, albeit one with a “human face.”

This logistical and in some cases frankly authoritarian view of the human condition (as expressed in the writings of Arne Næss, the father of “deep ecology”) reminds one of a dog chasing its tail. Simply because the “tail” is there—a metaphor for economic “complexity” or market systems of distribution—does not mean that the metaphorical dog must chase it in circles that lead nowhere. The “tail” we have to worry about can be rationally simplified by reducing or eliminating commercial bureaucracies and the needless reliance on goods from abroad that can be produced by recycling at home, and by increasing the use of local resources that are now ignored because they are not “competitively” priced: in short, reducing the vast paraphernalia of goods and services that may be indispensable to profit making and competition, but not to the rational distribution of goods in a cooperative society. The painful reality is that most excuses in radical theory for preserving a “minimal state” stem from the myopic visions of eco-socialists like Gorz, who can accept the present system of production and distribution as it is to one degree or another—not as it should be in a moral economy. So conceived, production and distribution seem more formidable—together with their bureaucratic machinery, irrational division of labor, and “global” nature—than they actually need to be. It would take no great wisdom or array of computers to show with even a grain of imagination how the present “global” system of production can be simplified and still provide a decent standard of living for everyone. Indeed, it took only some five years or so to rebuild a ruined Germany after World War Two, far longer than it will require thinking people today to remove the statist and bureaucratic apparatus for administering the global distribution of goods and resources.

What is even more disquieting is the naive belief that a “minimal state” could indeed remain “minimal.” If history—in fact, the events of the past few years—has shown anything, it is that the state, far from being only an instrument of a ruling elite, becomes an organism in its own right that grows as unrelentingly as a cancer. Anarchism, in this respect, has exhibited a prescience that discloses the terrible weakness of the traditional socialist commitment to a state—proletarian, social democratic, or “minimal.” To create a state is to institutionalize power in the form of a machine that exists apart from the people. It is to professionalize rule and policy-making, to create a distinct interest (be it of bureaucrats, deputies, commissars, legislators, the military, the police, ad nauseam) that, however weak, or however well-intentioned it may be at first, eventually takes on a corruptive power of its own. When over the course of history have states—however “minimal”—ever dissolved themselves or constrained their growth into massive malignancies? When have they ever remained “minimal”?

The recent deterioration of the German Greens—the so-called “non-party party” that, after its acquisition of a place in the Bundestag, has now become a crude political machine—is dramatic evidence that parliamentary power corrupts with a vengeance. The idealists who helped found the organization and sought to use the Bundestag merely as a “platform” for their radical message have by now either left in disgust or have themselves become rather unsavory examples of wanton political careerism. One would have to be either utterly naive or simply blind to the lessons of history to ignore the fact that the state, “minimal” or not, absorbs and ultimately digests even the most well-meaning critics once they enter it. It is not that statists use the state to abolish it or “minimalize” its effects; it is, rather, the state that corrupts even the most idealistic anti-statists who flirt with it.

Finally, the most disturbing feature of statism—even “minimal statism”—is that it completely undermines a politics based on confederalism. One of the most unfortunate features of traditional socialist history, Marxian and otherwise, is that it emerged in an era of nation-state building. The Jacobin model of a centralized revolutionary state was accepted almost uncritically by nineteenth-century socialists and became an integral part of the revolutionary tradition—a tradition, I may add, that mistakenly associated itself with the nationalistic emphasis of the French Revolution, as seen in the “Marseillaise” and its adulation of la patrie. Marx’s view that the French Revolution was basically to be a model for formulating a revolutionary strategy—he mistakenly claimed that in its Jacobin form it was the most “classical” of the “bourgeois” revolutions—had disastrous effects upon the revolutionary tradition. Lenin adopted this vision so completely that the Bolsheviks were rightly considered the “Jacobins” of the Russian socialist movement, and, of course, Stalin used techniques such as purges, show trials, and brute force with lethal effects for the socialist project as a whole.

Beyond Statism and Privatism

The notion that human freedom can be achieved, much less perpetuated, through a state of any kind is monstrously oxymoronic—a contradiction in terms. Attempts to justify the existence of a cancerous phenomenon like the state, and the use of statist measures or “statecraft,” exclude a radically different form of social management, namely confederalism. For centuries, in fact, democratic forms of confederalism—in which municipalities were coordinated by mandated and recallable deputies who were always under public scrutiny—have competed with statist forms and constituted a challenging alternative to centralization, bureaucratization, and the professionalization of power in the hands of elite bodies. Let me emphasize that confederalism should not be confused with federalism, which is simply the coordination of nation-states in a network of agreements that preserve the prerogatives of policy-making with little if any citizen involvement. Federalism is simply the state writ large, indeed the further centralization of already centralized states, as in the United States’ federal republic, the European Community, or the recently formed Commonwealth of Independent States—all collections of huge continental superstates that remove even further whatever control the people have over nation-states.

A confederalist alternative would be based on a network of policy-making popular assemblies with recallable deputies to local and regional confederal councils—councils whose sole function, I must emphasize, would be to adjudicate differences and undertake strictly administrative tasks. One could scarcely advance such a prospect by making use of a state formation of any kind, however “minimal.” Indeed, to juggle statist and confederal perspectives in a verbal game by distinguishing “minimal” from “maximal” is to utterly confuse the basis for a new politics structured around a participatory democracy. Among Greens in the United States there have already been tendencies that absurdly call for “decentralization” and “grassroots democracy” while seeking to run candidates for state and national offices—that is, for statist institutions, one of whose essential functions is to confine, restrict, and essentially suppress local democratic institutions and initiatives. Indeed, as I have repeatedly emphasized, when radical ecologists and libertarian socialists of all kinds engage in libertarian municipalist politics and run for municipal public office, they are not merely seeking to remake cities, towns, and villages on the basis of fully democratic confederal networks; they are running against the state and parliamentary offices. Hence, to call for a “minimal state,” even as a coordinative institution, as André Gorz and others have done, is to obscure and countervail any effort to replace the nation-state with a confederation of municipalities.

It is to the credit of anarchism that it firmly rejects the traditional socialist orientation toward state power and recognizes the corruptive role of participating in parliamentary elections. What is regrettable is that this rejection, so clearly corroborated by the corruption of statist socialists, Greens, and members of other professed radical movements, was not sufficiently nuanced to distinguish activity on the municipal level as the basis of politics in the Hellenic sense: that is to say, to distinguish electoral activity on the local level from electoral activity on the provincial and national levels, which I have argued really constitutes statecraft. The libertarian politics of social ecology, by contrast, consistently seeks to revive or recreate the political sphere, in flat opposition to the state; it attempts to create a dual power to challenge the nation-state and replace it with a confederation of democratized municipalities. Libertarian municipalism may indeed begin in a limited way in civic wards, here and there, as well as in small cities and towns, but its aim is nothing less than the total remaking of society along rational, non-hierarchical and ecological lines.

It would not be presumptuous to claim that social ecology, whatever its other values or failings, represents a coherent interpretation of the enormous ecological and social problems we face today. Its philosophy, social theory, and political practice form a vital alternative to the ideological stagnation and tragic failure of the present socialist, syndicalist, and radical projects that were so much in vogue even as recently as the 1960s. As to “alternatives” that offer us New Age or mystical ecological solutions, what could be more naive than to believe that a society whose very metabolism is based on growth, production for its own sake, hierarchy, classes, domination, and exploitation could be changed simply by moral suasion, individual action, and a childish primitivism that essentially views technology as a curse and focuses variously on demographic growth and personal modes of consumption as primary issues? We must get to the heart of the crisis we face and develop a popular politics that will eschew statism at one extreme and New Age privatism at the other. If this goal is dismissed as “merely” utopian, I am obliged to question what many radicals today would call “realism.”


Editorial Comment

This essay was originally published as “The Ecological Crisis, Socialism, and the Need to Remake Society,” in Society and Nature 2, no. 3 (1994).