Eco-socialism vs. Eco-anarchism: Exploring “The Simpler Way”

Ted Trainer

This is the first of two articles outlining “The Simpler Way” perspective on the global predicament and the way out of it. Many analysts now see that consumer-capitalism must be replaced, and most alternative thinking in this context is within a socialist framework.  However, the analysis of the current global situation on which “The Simpler Way” perspective is based indicates that the solution to our problem, and the way to it, must be based on anarchist principles; and, the difference is profound. The major premise in the Eco-socialist perspective, i.e. the global ecological problem cannot be solved in a capitalist economy, is sound. However, it will be argued that almost all the other elements in Socialist theory are seriously mistaken. Above all, the general Socialist position fails to take into account the very different situation we are in compared with that which prevailed in the past. When no limits to growth were foreseen the primary goal was understandably to take the power to increase material abundance and to redirect industrial capacity to more equitable purposes. But, now a sustainable and just world cannot be envisaged unless levels of output, “living standards” and GDP are dramatically reduced, that is, unless there is large scale degrowth. This rules out almost all Eco-Socialist proposals regarding goals and means, and requires adoption of an Eco-Anarchist perspective. The difference is far from trivial.

Given the conditions prevailing from the beginning of the industrial revolution until the latter decades of the 20th century the revolutionary task was essentially conceived in terms of taking control of the industrial system from the capitalist class, releasing its productive power from the contradictions of capitalism, and distributing the product more justly and abundantly to raise the living standards of the working class. But, this can no longer be the goal.

Consumer-capitalism has pushed the planetary systems to the brink of collapse. Pic. Ashish Kothari

Global rates of resource consumption and ecological impact are now far beyond levels that are sustainable, or that technical advance could make sustainable, or that could be spread to all people. What needs to be stressed here is the magnitude of the overshoot. For instance, the World Wildlife Fund’s “Footprint” measure indicates that the amount of productive land required to meet the demand of the average Australian is around 7 ha (1). So, if the 9–10 billion people likely by 2050 rose to Australian “living standards” we would need perhaps 70 billion ha … but there are only 12 billion ha of it on the planet. And, all sources of natural resources we use are dwindling and our commitment to economic growth is increasing per capita demand all the time. These considerations indicate that Australians today are using around 10 times the per capita amounts that would be possible for all to use in 2050. (See the detailed numerical case at TSW: The Limits to Growth.)

The tech-fix optimist usually claims that we can go on pursuing economic growth and higher “living standards” while decoupling resource demand from GDP. A vast amount of studies now show that this is not happening, and not at all likely to happen. Growth in the amount of producing and consuming going on in society means increase in resource and ecological impacts. This is the fundamental cause of most of the big global problems now threatening our survival. The solution can only be found in terms of dramatic reduction in demand, i.e., in huge degrowth. This means the present economic system is a major element in the causal chain, and that a sustainable economy must not just be a steady state economy but one, which has undergone degrowth down to a small fraction of present levels of production for sale. The present capitalist economy cannot do this because growth is one of its indispensable, defining characteristics. In addition, market forces and profit could not drive the required economy. This mechanism inevitably generates inequality, injustice, and wealth maximization. It allocates scarce resources and goods to richer people and nations, simply because they can pay more for them. It is clear that the required economic system cannot be capitalist.

The required alternative – “The Simpler Way”

The necessary reductions cannot be achieved unless there is a transition to some kind of a Simpler Way. Its general form will be outlined in some detail in the second article in this two part series.  Its core elements must be,

1.  A profound cultural shift, to simpler lifestyles, a focus on non-material sources of life satisfaction and a much more collectivist and less individualistic outlook.

2.  Mostly small, highly self-sufficient local economies, largely independent of national or global economies, devoting local resources to meeting local needs, with little intra-state let alone international trade.

3.  Most government by people in small communities taking cooperative and participatory control over their own local development, via voluntary committees, working bees and town meetings.

4.  A new economy, one that is a small fraction of the size of the present economy, is not driven by profit or market forces, does not grow, and ensures that needs, rights, justice, welfare and ecological sustainability determine the purposes to which limited resources are devoted.

Only in small, and highly integrated communities can per capita resource and ecological costs be dramatically reduced. For instance our study of inputs to village-level egg production (Trainer, Malik and Lenzen, 2018) (2) found that in these operations dollar and energy costs are typically around 2% of eggs supplied by the commercial/industrial path, while eliminating its ecological costs and providing other benefits such as pest control, fertilizer, methane and leisure resources.

It must be emphasized that this vision does not mean abandoning modern high technology, medicine, R and D, universities etc.  There will be plenty of resources for such things when we shift to lifestyles and systems that meet needs well but eliminate superfluous production. For example, frugal Ecovillages typically accumulate sufficient surpluses to devote to sophisticated technical and other studies, and larger systems can also do so, easily. These communities will not and can not function in these ways, satisfactorily, unless their members willingly and happily take on the responsibility and rewards of running their communities well, are eager to cooperate, participate, help and share, to prioritize the public good, and are content with frugal lifestyles.

The goal therefore must be Eco-anarchism

The preceding discussion points out that a society of the above alternative form, and the strategy for achieving it, must be Anarchist, not Socialist, and the distinction is profound. Few labels are as ambiguous as Anarchism; the variety advocated here will be evident below.

The “Limits To Growth” perspective shows that the basic world-view of the Socialist is now outdated and mistaken. Today, it seems that most Socialists still fail to recognize that there are limits to growth, that we have gone past many of those limits, and that this rules out the pursuit of the traditional goal of accelerating the industrial system to provide high material living standards to all. It is not realized that a thorough going Socialism, which maintained commitment to economic growth and high “living standards” would still accelerate us towards ecological collapse.

Could autonomous communities governing themselves through participatory democracy pave the way for a sustainable future?

These small-scale, complex, integrated and self-governing local communities must be largely autonomous; higher authorities or a central state cannot run them. They would have to largely govern themselves via thoroughly participatory processes. External authorities such as state governments cannot create or impose such communities. They can only be built and run by the citizens who live in them. Only they understand the conditions, history, geography, social dynamics and needs. They will have to do the thinking, planning, decision making, and implementing via committees, town meetings and working bees. Much of the functioning and maintenance must be carried out informally and spontaneously. Citizens must take action when they see the need and without referring problems to officials or bureaucracies. This is the Anarchist principle of spontaneity.

The transition process

The Eco-socialist perspective is particularly weak when it comes to transition strategy as distinct from goals. The essential point here is that the goal cannot be implemented from above, it can only be achieved via willing initiatives on the part of autonomous citizens who are strongly committed to the new ideas and values. The critical element in Socialist transition thinking is taking state power. However, from the perspective of The Simpler Way it is a serious mistake to focus here and now on this objective. It is not just practically ineffective; it also involves an elementary logical confusion. The state will eventually be “taken”, but largely as a consequence of the revolution. It will not be a cause of or means to or prerequisite for it.

Firstly, as has been explained, state power cannot make the required new post-affluence society work.  It does not matter how much control lies in the hands of the state or its benign bureaucrats or its feared secret police, this would be of no value in getting people to contribute willingly, conscientiously and happily to building the new neighborhood and town socio-economic systems, or to work out how to run their unique local economy well.  A distant state could not know what are the best ways for each little locality with its own idiosyncratic set of values, soil and climatic conditions, history, personalities and problems, and it could not make people want to find and practice those ways. Most importantly, communities can only become capable of running their own affairs satisfactorily if they learn how to do this through a long trial and error process of finding out what works for them. Further, the new communities cannot work satisfactorily unless there are strong senses of autonomy, empowerment, responsibility, enjoyment, willingness and pride, i.e., unless they are run by positive and conscientious citizens. Taking state power cannot achieve these conditions, and contradicts their nature as it does not locate power and initiative at the grass roots.

The usual Socialist response here is that being in control of the state will enable the new ways to be introduced and facilitated, i.e., control of the state will make it possible to work on that shift in mass consciousness.  But, the logic here is obviously wrong. The Socialist might say we just need to elect a party which had a Simpler Way platform. But, that could not happen unless the cultural revolution for a Simpler Way had previously been won.  A Simpler Way party could not be elected to control of the state until after most people had adopted Simpler Way ideas and proposals. But, by the time that had happened a great deal of effort would have gone into transforming towns and neighborhoods. That revolution would be essentially constituted by the cultural change, the spread of acceptance of the radically new vision. Getting to that state of mind would be the crucial revolutionary move, and it would enable the big structural changes needed, including taking control of the state (and getting rid of most if not all of it). Thus, the cultural factor is of crucial importance for strategy. This revolution cannot proceed unless there is radical change in world view, ideas, values and dispositions. The crucial factors for success are not primarily to do with power or economics, they are to do with culture.

It is obvious that there is a head-on contradiction here between the Socialist and the Anarchist Simpler Way of thinking about strategy. Kropotkin and Tolstoy realized that culture trumps economics and politics. They, along with Gandhi, saw the ultimate revolutionary goal as largely autonomous citizen-run village communities, and these cannot come into existence or function satisfactorily unless their members have the required vision, values and dispositions. (Marshall. 1992, pp. 372, 417, 615) (3). Thus, in a sense, Marx must be stood on his head; the necessary economic and political superstructures must stand on a cultural substructure of the right ideas and values.

Is the capitalist class the problem? Given the centrality of ideas and values it is evident that attacking the capitalist class might be ill-advised, at this stage. The system remains in place primarily because it is seen to be legitimate; it is accepted by most ordinary people. There’s the problem. Ordinary people have always vastly outnumbered the ruling class and could have politely and non-violently brushed them aside. From the Simpler Way perspective the revolutionary task is primarily to do with helping people to see that the prevailing system does not function in their interests, that it is leading them to catastrophic planetary break down, and that there is a far better alternative. The second article in this two-part series offers brief thoughts on this task.

The Simpler Way eschews societal conflict, focusing instead on building lasting sustainable alternatives.

Given the above account of how far we have exceeded the limits to growth, and of the economy’s inevitable generation of extreme and unprecedented levels of debt, inequality, depression and other crises, it is difficult to see how collapse can now be avoided. Many have foreseen such a scenario, some expecting the onset within one or two decades, and some seeing the probability of a die-off of billions. The hope must be for a slow Goldilocks depression, not so savage as to rule out any hope of reconstruction but sufficient to jolt people into the realization that the consumer-capitalist way has to be abandoned.

Pre-figuring “The Simpler Way”

What is to be done? The task for us is to try to increase the numbers who will strive to build Simpler Ways during and after the coming time of great troubles. The core strategy is the Anarchist notion of “Pre-figuring”, i.e., do what we can to build post-revolutionary ways here and now within the existing consumer-capitalist society.

The point of Pre-figuring can easily be misunderstood. Socialists readily take it to be based on the assumption that the new and good society can be created just by starting to build elements of it here and now, and continuing to do so until the old society has been replaced. But, The Simpler Way transition theory does not assume this. The point is educational, i.e. Pre-figuring is seen as probably the most effective awareness raising activity.

There is another very important point on which the contrast between Socialist and Anarchist strategy is marked. Socialists cannot provide experience of aspects or benefits of the intended society until well after the revolution, let alone use this to attract people to the cause. The Socialist’s efforts to motivate people is largely negative, confined to stimulating discontent with present conditions and promising little more than struggle, at least until the revolution succeeds. But, Pre-figuring can provide considerable experience of positive and inspirational experience of aspects of the alternative. 

Conclusion

The alternative social organization sketched above is a fairly straightforward Anarchist vision, and the means for achieving it are also Anarchist. The difference between Eco-Socialist and Eco-Anarchist approaches to goals and strategy are not trivial. The historically unprecedented conditions we have entered over recent decades, a rapidly accelerating onset of problems caused by having exceeded the limits to growth, determine that the traditional Socialist world view and program are no longer appropriate and that an Anarchist perspective on revolutionary goals and means is now required.

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Ted Trainer is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, University of New South Wales. He has taught and written about sustainability and justice issues for many years. He is also developing Pigface Point, an alternative lifestyle educational site near Sydney, and a website for use by critical global educators, which can be viewed at: http://thesimplerway.info/

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The RED website is a platform for sharing information and ideas pertaining to experiments and explorations taking place on the larger subject of “alternatives” all over the world.  The views shared in this article are those of the author.

The full version of this discussion was published in two parts in Solutions, Part 1, Vol. 11.3, Dec. 2020, Part 2, Vol. 12.1, Feb. 26, 2021.) https://thesolutionsjournal.com/2020/09/01/the-answer-is-not-eco-socialism-it-is-eco-anarchism/

Reference:

  1. World Wildlife Fund. The Living Planet Report, World Wildlife Fund and London Zoological Society. (2018).
  2. https://ideas.repec.org/a/spr/bioerq/v4y2019i3d10.1007_s41247-019-0057-8.html
  3. Marshal, P., (1992), Demanding the Impossible: The History of Anarchism. London, Harper Collins.

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