Economics in a Social-Ecological Society

01.06.2011

In the midst of our struggles for a better world, social ecologists have frequently engaged in critical dialogue with other strands of radical thought about just what kind of world we’re struggling for. Such dialogues often address the question of how people in a liberated future will organize their material relationships with one another and with the natural world. What would economics look like in an ecological society? How might free communities arrange their livelihood?

Exploring questions such as these requires us to exercise an important faculty of dialectical philosophy: the capacity to think speculatively. Envisioning a future beyond capitalism and the state means thinking past the world around us and putting ourselves inside of a different world, a world structured in a very different way, a world that has developed some of the social and ecological potentials that we see around us, in distorted form, today. It means trying to see the world not merely as it is, but as it ought to be.

Social ecologists have put forward a number of concrete proposals over the years for a municipalized economy and a moral economy. These proposals point toward what Bookchin calls “the recovery of the productive process itself as an ecological mediation of humanity with nature.” What these practical proposals have in common is an underlying conception of how complex economies could be run differently, without markets or classes or bureaucracy, along egalitarian and participatory lines. Social ecologists argue that the economic mechanisms of a free society, whether for production, distribution, or reproduction, should have four basic characteristics: they should be conscious, transparent, alterable, and integrated.

Conscious: We want economic mechanisms to be deliberately chosen and deliberately structured, so that they fulfill the purposes that we collectively give to them, rather than the economic structures forcing us to fulfill their purposes. Transparent: We want every member of society to be able to grasp how society’s economic mechanisms function. Alterable: We want to be able to change our economic structures according to ecological and social needs. And last, we want economic mechanisms to be comprehensively integrated with all other aspects of communal self-management.

What might these values look like in practice? How could this ensemble of speculative postulates actually be implemented? What follows is a brief attempt to sketch a reconstructive vision of economics in a social-ecological society.

The World Social Ecologists Envision

The world we envision is one of adventure and possibility, of radically new relationships and potential forms of social and individual life that are difficult to imagine, much less describe, from the perspective of the present. Most of what will happen in a social-ecological future, whether at an environmental level, a personal level, or a communal level, will be spontaneous and creative—and these are things we can neither plan nor propose nor predict. Nevertheless, such spontaneous and creative unfolding of potentials will require both an institutional framework and an ethical vision if they are to become more than mere dreams. Thus we must turn our attention to the social structures that might make free nature and a free society more likely.

Social ecologists work toward a society structured around freedom, cooperation, and ecological and social diversity. Our vision of a better world draws on a wealth of practical experiments and utopian hopes raised throughout history by emancipatory movements from below. At the center of our vision of free communities is direct democracy. Direct democracy means people managing their own lives, consciously and collectively, for the good of the communities they are part of. Instead of handing over decision-making power to experts, professionals, representatives, or bureaucrats, social ecology foresees all people participating directly in the self-management of their communal affairs.

Because we oppose institutionalized forms of domination and hierarchy, social ecologists reject the state as such. Instead of positing a separate body that stands apart from society and makes decisions on its behalf, we envision a network of community assemblies as the basic decision-making body and as the primary venue for practicing direct democracy. These assemblies include all the residents of a local area (in cities at the neighborhood level and in rural areas at the township level), who meet at regular intervals to discuss and decide on the issues before them: political as well as economic decisions, indeed any social decision that significantly affects the life of the community as a whole.

The popular assembly includes everybody who is willing to participate in it and provides a democratic forum for all community members to engage one another on an equal basis and actively shape social life. Ongoing interactions of this kind encourage a sense of shared responsibility and interdependence, as well as offering a public space for resolving disputes and disagreements in a rational and non-coercive way. Recognizing that people have differing interests, aspirations, and convictions, the neighborhood assembly and its accompanying civic ethos present an opportunity for reconciling particular and general objectives. Direct democracy, in this view, involves a commitment to the wellbeing of one’s neighbors.

Communal wellbeing, in turn, implies an active respect and appreciation for the natural context within which local communities exist. No social order can guarantee that the ecosystems and habitats that host our various settlements will thrive, but social ecologists believe that communities built around free association and mutual aid are much better suited to fostering environmental diversity and sustainability than those built around authoritarian systems of power. In societies that have overcome domination and hierarchy, ecological flourishing and human flourishing can complement and reinforce one another.

The ethical outlook that embodies these potentials is as important as the practical methods themselves. Social ecologists want to create social forms that promote freedom and solidarity by building these values into the very fabric of social relations and public institutions. Thus, our emphasis on face-to-face assemblies open to all is meant to encourage, not preclude, the creation of other libertarian and cooperative social forms. An enormous variety of spontaneous associations, living arrangements, workplaces, family structures, and so forth all have an important place in our vision of a free world. The only forms that are excluded are ones based on exploitation and oppression.

Social ecology’s model of direct democracy can therefore be realized in a number of different ways depending on the needs, desires, and experiences of those who are inspired by it. This is especially true of economic processes, and the scenario outlined here is only one possible interpretation of the economic aspects of a social-ecological society. The fundamental shared perspective is that of a moral economy, in which the material conditions of our existence are reintegrated into a broader ethical and institutional framework. A moral economy means making decisions about production and consumption part of the civic life of the whole community.

Communal Self-Management in Practice

In this scenario, workers’ councils play a crucial role in the day-to-day administration of production, while local assemblies have the final say in major economic decisions. All members of a given community participate in formulating economic policy, which is discussed, debated, and decided upon within the popular assembly. Social ecology foresees an extensive physical decentralization of production, so that workers at a particular enterprise will typically live in the same municipality where they work. We also foresee a continual voluntary rotation of jobs, tasks, and responsibilities and a radical redefinition of what ‘work’ means. Through the conscious transformation of labor into a free social activity that combines physical and intellectual skills, we envision the productive process as a fulfillment of personal and communal needs, articulated to their ecological context. Along with the rejection of bosses, profits, wages, and exchange value, we seek to overcome capitalism’s reduction of human beings to instruments of production and consumption. Social ecology’s assembly model encourages people to approach economic decisions not merely as workers and consumers, but as community members committed to an inclusive goal of social and ecological wellbeing. 

While the broad outlines of communal production are established at the assembly level, they are implemented in practice by smaller collective bodies which also operate on an egalitarian, participatory, and democratic basis. Cooperative households and collective workplaces form an integral part of this process. Decisions that have regional impact are worked out by confederations of local assemblies, so that everybody affected by a decision can participate in making it. Specific tasks can be delegated to specialized committees, but substantive issues of public concern are subject to the discretion of each popular assembly. Direct democracy encourages the formation and contestation of competing views and arguments, so that for any given decision there will be several distinct options available, each of them crafted by the people who will carry them out. Assembly members consider these various proposals and debate their merits and implications; they are discussed, revised and amended as necessary. When no clear consensus emerges, a vote or series of votes can be held to determine which options have the most support.

Social ecology’s vision of a moral economy centers on libertarian communism, in which the fruits of common labor are freely available to all. This principle of “from each according to ability and to each according to need,” which distinguishes our perspective from many other anti-capitalist programs, is fleshed out by a civic ethic in which concern for the common welfare shapes individual choices. In the absence of markets, private property, class divisions, commodity production, exploitation of labor, and accumulation of capital, libertarian communism can become the distributive mechanism for social wealth and the economic counterpart to the transparent and humanly scaled political structures that social ecology proposes.

In such an arrangement, the interaction between smaller committees and working groups and the full assembly becomes crucially important to maintaining the democratic and participatory nature of this deliberative process. Preparing coherent proposals for presentation to the assembly will require both specialized work and scrupulous information gathering, as well as analysis and interpretation. Because these activities can subtly influence the eventual outcome of any decision, the responsibility for carrying them out should be a rotating task entrusted to a temporary commission chosen at random from the members of the assembly.

Confederal Economic Democracy

When the assembly has considered and debated and fine-tuned the various proposals before it and has agreed on an overall outline for the local economy, community members continue to refine and realize this outline while implementing it in their workplaces, residences, and elsewhere. If obstacles or disagreements arise that cannot be resolved at the immediate level of a single enterprise, institution, or household, they can be brought back to the full assembly for discussion and resolution. If some aspects of an agreed-upon policy are not fulfilled for whatever reason, this will quickly become apparent to community members, who can then alter or adapt the policy accordingly. While most of economic life will be carried out within smaller collectivities, in direct cooperation with co-workers, housemates, associates and neighbors, overarching matters of public economic direction will be worked out within the assembly of the entire community. When necessary, city-wide or regional issues will be addressed at the confederal level, with final decisions remaining in the hands of each local assembly.

The reason for this emphasis on assembly sovereignty is two-fold. First, the local assembly is the most accessible forum for practicing direct democracy and guarding against the re-emergence of power differentials and new forms of hierarchy. Since the assembly includes all members of the community on equal terms and operates through direct participation rather than representation, it offers the best opportunity for extending collective self-management to all spheres of social life. Second, the local assembly makes it possible for people to decide on their economic and political affairs in a comprehensive and coherent manner, through face-to-face discussion with the people they live with, play with, and work with. The popular assembly encourages a holistic approach to public matters, one that recognizes the myriad interconnections among economic, social, and ecological concerns.

Much of this vision will only be practicable in conjunction with a radical overhaul of the technological infrastructure, something which social ecologists support on environmental as well as democratic grounds. We foresee most production taking place locally, with specialized functions socialized and conceptual and manual labor integrated. Still, there will be some important social goods that cannot or should not be completely decentralized; advanced research institutes, for example, will serve large regions even though they will be hosted by one municipality. Thus confederation, which offsets parochialism and insularity, plays an essential role within social ecology’s political vision.

While the primary focus of this scenario is on local communities generating economic policies tailored to their own social and ecological circumstances, social ecologists reject the notions of local self-sufficiency and economic autarchy as values in themselves; we consider these things desirable if and when they contribute to social participation and ecologically nuanced democratic decision making. We foresee a confederation of assemblies in consistent dialogue with one another via confederal bodies made up of recallable and mandated delegates from each constituent assembly. These bodies are established as outgrowths of the directly democratic local communities, not as substitutes for them. Since economic relations, in particular, often involve cooperation with distant communities, confederation offers a mutually compatible framework for sharing resources, skills, and knowledge.

A confederal network of popular assemblies offers a practical way for all people to consciously direct their lives together and to pursue common goals as part of a project of social freedom. Bringing together solidarity and autonomy, we can recreate politics, the art of communal self-management, as the highest form of direct action. In such a world, economics as we know it today will no longer exist. When work becomes creative activity, when production becomes the harmonization of human and ecological potentials, when economics becomes collective self-determination and the conscious unfolding of social, natural, and ethical possibilities as yet unimagined, then we will have achieved a liberated society, and the ideas outlined here will take on concrete form as lived realities and direct experiences.

Editorial Comment

Published in Harbinger Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring 2003)