[Marxism] Theses on Saving the Planet – “The Promise of Ecosocialism”

ehrbar at marx.economics.utah.edu ehrbar at marx.economics.utah.edu
Mon Aug 22 23:39:19 MDT 2016

Richard Smith's blog posting


has many of the same ideas and demands as the non-socialist movement
critical of economic growth.  Nevertheless, Smith dismisses these
growth-critical movements because they try to stop growth without
transcending the capitalist system.  Smith thinks that this cannot work,
because the capitalist economy must grow.

I would like to defend the degrowth movement with this email.
De-growthers are not delusional or naive about capitalism but, on the
contrary, given our time constraints and the present balance of power
between capitalists and workers, I think it is the correct tactic to
call for an end of growth right now, before the end of capitalism is
even on the agenda.  There is no contradiction in this because profits
can be made even in a shrinking or stationary economy, and I think the
capitalist system can limp along even without growth.  It takes class
struggles to force the capitalists to follow a non-growth path, and to
protect the workers in the declining industries etc., but the
capitalists will be on the defensive anyway because everyone knows that
unregulated capitalism, "business as usual," destroys the environment in
order to produce mostly unnecessary junk.  I think it will depend on the
course of these class struggles whether capitalism itself will be
abolished at some point, or whether capitalism survives but is castrated
so much by regulation etc that it is capitalism only in form, but in
essence it is some non-optimal kind of ecosocialism.

I have used here the word "class struggle" and it is useful
to compare it with the classical Marxian class struggles.

In the classical Marxian class struggles, workers have no objections the
industrial labor-saving production methods developed by the capitalists
for the sake of exploiting them.  But they want to take control over
production, so that the wealth created by industrial methods benefits
the producers, not the nonproducers who have usurped control over the
means of production.

Today we know something we did not know in the 19th and most of the 20th
centuries: that the industrial production methods developed by the
capitalists, which are extremely labor-saving nowadays, are not
producing as much wealth as the earlier class struggles assumed.
Industrial production methods are very costly because they use up too
many nonrenewable resources and create so much waste that the planet
becomes unlivable.  This changes the class struggles radically;
it is no longer how to distribute wealth, but how to adjust to the
fact that we are not as wealthy as we thought.

The class struggles as I envision them in the highly industrialized
countries should not only have the aim to regulate production which is
harmful for the planet.  This is not enough.  Class struggles should
also aim to reduce the volume of the capitalists' globalized industrial
production system (which cannot be entirely abolished because it is
needed for computers and solar panels, health care, transportation
systems, etc) to only a small portion of the average working day.  This
is the class struggle which the degrowth movement etc are leading right
now.  This is a fierce fight, because the capitalists claim that
industrial production is so indispensable that it cannot be reduced.  In
order to demand spending less money on highways and more money on mass
transit, a vanguard is needed who switch from their cars to mass transit
even if mass transit is still small and inconvenient.  If the consumers
buy all the gasoline they can get at the gas stations, then the
activists who demand less fracking etc are not credible.  On the other
hand, we also have trump cards in this class struggle.  If capitalists
claim that certain regulation is not possible because it bankrupts
certain firms, then the state can either take over these firms, or allow
them to go bankrupt but guarantee that the workers will get retraining
etc.  There is still lots to do within the capitalist system.

If the working class in the rich countries manage to free themselves
from excess consumption and to place a lid on the industrial sector,
then I am optimistic.  This will take a lot of legitimacy away from the
capitalist system.  Less consumption of industrially produced stuff
means free time, but this free time cannot be used for leisure and
consumption, but will be needed for home production and cooperative
non-industrial production (organic gardening and bicycle repairs), and
sharing and repairs etc in order to keep the industrial sector small,
and arts, education, sport, and human relationships instead of
consumption of things.  This self-determination and self-sufficiency in
some of the most basic production branches such as food and energy
(solar panels) shows that capitalism is not the only way to organize
production.  Then the class struggles in the industrial sector will no
longer be so central, and they will no longer only be the traditional
fight between capitalist and workers about who gets how many hours of
the working day, but also about production methods which do the least
possible damage to the environment.  In the poorer countries,
industrialization will play a bigger role for a longer time, and the
classical Marxian class struggles will remain relevant for a longer

If the working class is unable to exercise voluntary self-constraint,
then it will not be possible to sideline the capitalists by decreasing
the industrial sector itself: then we will need industrial methods and
policing of the individuals for nuclear power, nonconventional fossil
fuels, carbon capture and sequestration, geoengineering and the repair
of ecological damages.  I think productivity will inexorably decline
because in addition to satisfying human needs the production system also
has to keep the planet in a state that is livable for humans, which is
unlikely to succeed if consumption itself is not reduced.  All this
makes me pessimistic about successful class struggles for the working

Going back to my optimistic scenario, the state is necessary to enforce
the planetary limits of production and consumption and human population,
and also for green development aid.  The state is no longer mainly an
instrument of class oppression, but the state's measurement and
enforcement of natural limits benefits all.  Therefore instead of the
state withering away the goal must be to fight against corruption and to
have a socialization and education that the limits which the state has
to guard over will be heeded voluntarily by everyone.

If this makes sense, then this means for ecosocialist propaganda:

Urging for voluntary self-restraint in consumption is not anti-working
class but is a core element of today's class struggles in the rich

We must also explain that environmental problems are so all-encompassing
that the state is necessary to coordinate the solutions.

Ecosocialists must reject nuclear power, Carbon capture and storage, and
geo-engineering as solutions, because they tie us to industrial
production with its many negative side effects.  I agree with Smith that
rationing is much better than cap and trade or carbon taxes, but I see
this as a tactical question.  Rationing requires an infrastructure many
countries do not have.

If we only look at the results, we invite despair: the chances are slim
that the masses will agree to voluntary reductions in consumption
quickly enough, and nobody knows how far consumption has to be reduced.
Therefore we should emphasize the process itself, not the result.  If
the future of our children is jeopardized because of our
overconsumption, then it is the obvious and right thing to reduce
consumption.  Even if we cannot hinder others from destroying
everybody's future, this does not relieve us from our duty to reduce as
much as possible our own contribution to this destruction.

It is patronizing and underestimates the masses if we think they
are not able to tolerate the truth about climate change.  If they don't
understand the severity of the situation, they won't understand why a
reduction in consumption and population control are necessary.

Having said this, it is not necessary to blurt everything out at once or
in the wrong order:

It is not necessary for Ecosocialists to make most people suspicious by
saying we need socialism first before we can save the environment,
as long as there are still many things that can be done within the
capitalist system.

It is also not necessary for Ecosocialists to alienate most people by
emphasizing population control.  Population control is one method of
reducing consumption.  We have to convince people first that it is
necessary to reduce consumption.  When people understand this, and if
they then still have too many babies, then it is time to discuss
population control.

Thank you for reading this far!

Hans G Ehrbar

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