The Eco-Socialist Challenge

by Arthur Mitzman

Based on its analysis of capitalism, socialist theory purported to provide perspectives for proletarian revolution, or at the very least for the democratic deconstruction of the bourgeois order. But the theorists of revolution were ultimately confronted with the barbarities of Stalinism and Maoism, and the apostles of non-violent political transformation, with the bureaucratic conformity of the welfare state. Today, all these unworthy offspring of a century of struggle have been buried by the planetary triumph of consumer capitalism. The present unjust social order may be of limited longevity, subject as it is to the caprices of credit crunches, housing crashes, bitter protectionism, peak oil, weather violence, the Chinese cashing in their treasury bonds and intractable resistance from its periphery. Effective struggle against this order, however, requires a critical examination of past mistakes and a new intellectual vision if ever greater disasters are to be prevented. Such an examination and such a new vision, based on the eco-socialist imperative of de-growth, are the subjects of this essay.

Bankrupt Theory, Failed Practice, New Struggles

It is more than two centuries since English artisans and peasants were imprisoned in the "dark Satanic mills" of Arkwright's invention, 159 years since the Communist Manifesto threatened capitalism with proletarian upheaval, 118 years since the founding of the Marxist Second International. It is 90 years since the Bolsheviks thought they were leading a Socialist revolution in the world's largest country, and 62 since victorious Chinese Communists intended the same in the world's most populous state.

Today, the Russian and Chinese Revolutions have been undone, replaced by free-market capitalism. The industrial proletariat of the West has largely disappeared, its work either performed by computerized automatons or, where cheap labour is preferable, outsourced to Asia or South America. Former manufacturing workers--and to an increasing degree, downsized white collar workers--deliver mail, take temporary service jobs, drive cabs, clean, renovate and paint the houses of the wealthy and tend their gardens. Lobotomized by the media and without much economic security, but enjoying the flood of cheap goods flowing from the sweatshops of Asia, they are the loyal subjects of consumer capitalism.

Practical struggles continue, but they are defensive, and for the most part of a different nature than those evoked by the poetry of Blake and the dialectical passion of Marx.

Men and women across the planet reject the ever greater extremes of wealth and poverty imposed by neo-liberal globalization. In the Third World, movements of landless peasants seize the untilled terrain of large landholders, villagers fight against dams that, at their expense, will facilitate corporate industrial control of land use, workers struggle against 19th century levels of immiseration, indigenous peoples everywhere seek recognition of their rights and nationalist movements resist control of natural resources by foreign corporations. In the developed world, citizens struggle against outsourcing, unfettered competition, deregulation, privatization of public services and the destruction of what remains of welfare state protections.

People everywhere oppose war and the domination of the planet's resource-rich but impoverished regions by the geopolitical imperialism of the United States and its European allies. They struggle equally against racial and religious hatreds, homophobia and patriarchal sexual morality.

Most importantly they struggle against the global devastation brought about by the prodigal energy wastage and the pollution of land, water and air mandated by consumer capitalism. Ecological activism on all continents against the pillaging and befouling of the planet by uncontrolled industrialization cuts to the essential problems of mature capitalism: its one-sided concern with dominating and manipulating nature, including human nature; its blindness to any time dimension but the present; its obsession with growth, its unleashing of individual greed at the expense of social cohesion and of the welfare of most of humankind, its disregard for the necessary limits to human activity.

The global destruction caused by this mind-set is clearest in the consumer-capitalist policies contributing to the on-going warming of the earth's atmosphere.

• Favoring of a profit-making private automotive and aeronautic industry over public transport systems requires ever-more carbon-based fuel and fuels ever-more terrible wars to secure it.

• Much of Greece's forests burned in the summer of 2007, probably to create lucrative real estate (and lucrative CO2-proliferating flights) for the tourist industry. In Brazil, the rain forests--our planets lungs--are being burned to make way for "bio-fuel" production to keep the cars moving when oil runs out.

• China--and the planet--is choking in the pollution caused by its incredible industrial "progress"; its noxious smog reaches as far as the North American continent and the World Health Organization and the World Bank agree that in China alone the death toll from these industrial poisons has reached 750,000 a year. 1

• The results of all this: CO2 levels and global temperatures rise dangerously, Arctic ice disappears as glaciers melt to the sea, accelerating the process of warming with its accompanying meteorological disasters of ever more destructive hurricanes and floods. These have already been responsible for the devastation of urban centers (New Orleans!), the deaths of thousands and the homelessness of hundreds of thousands. A recent Christian Aid report has even predicted that global warming will provoke plagues, floods, famines and wars that could kill 185 million people in Africa alone before the end of this century.2 The looming environmental disaster of global warming, as well as the social injustice of increasing inequality are the results of capitalism's inherent arrogance toward nature and lop-sided individualism.

This broadening of the issues and forms of struggle occurs in the absence of the proletarian revolution predicted by Marxists. Capitalism has not collapsed; traditional Socialism has. Marxist theory failed utterly to anticipate the success of capitalism in fending off or converting its antagonists, a failure inherent in the assumptions of Marx and of the movements his theory encouraged.

Thus while the problems posed by the global extension of capitalism threaten the future of humankind, traditional Socialist theory is no more useful to today's struggles than medieval scholasticism. If it is to give coherence and a larger purpose to contemporary movements, the theory of Socialism must be transformed.

What went wrong?

The Failure of Socialism

To begin with, although in principle Socialist ideologists have always been internationalists, viewing the scope of capitalist exploitation as planetary, in practice, they conceptualized a socialist society in the existing areas of relatively full capitalist development: Europe and North America. Within those areas, socialist movements and parties developed within nation-states (or nation-state hybrids like the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires). Such movements and parties were so immersed in national politics that their framework for analyzing social movements and for applying socialist theory if a party came to power usually did not transcend state boundaries. Bakunin, the irreconcilable opponent of Marx in the First International, even accused him and his followers of being German nationalists.

While, before 1914 at any rate, the Second International strove to coordinate national struggles, most socialists gave rather little thought to the complexity of the relationship between nationalism and internationalism.1 Orthodox Marxists assumed that a combination of capitalist breakdown and spreading proletarian struggle would first spark revolution in the most advanced capitalist system (most Socialists were banking on Germany) and then spread to the rest. But in practice, Socialist parties, whatever their leaders' theoretical commitments, had everywhere embraced some form of revisionism; they seized on the possibilities of parliamentary victories to overcome capitalism without violent revolution and focused on party-building and vote-getting within nation-states.4 What both theoreticians and their parties failed to realize was that the rational assumptions of socialism were being undermined by the enthusiastic adherence of uprooted masses in the more powerful states to geopolitical nationalism--the crackpot realism of a century ago--and that this adherence nullified the theoretical opposition of Socialist Parties to the outbreak of war.

From 1914 to 1918, the sanguinary insanity of European fratricide belied the rational expectations of both liberals and socialists. That the resultant megadeaths, degradation and state breakdown produced Revolution in Russia, the least, rather than the most advanced capitalist state, shocked European and American Marxists. Between 1917 and 1919, even the left-Marxists who seized power on the back of a peasant and worker revolt in Russia, looked in vain to Germany for the next, and decisive act in the ongoing revolutionary drama. But in Germany, the Social Democratic Party, revisionist to the core, joined forces with military remnants of the old regime to crush revolts of soldiers and workers wherever they appeared.

What Most Marxists, including the Bolsheviks, failed to realize was that Lenin and his party were not leading a proletarian revolution; they were simply picking up the pieces of a failed feudal imperial state, bankrupted and bled dry by a war it had not the resources to fight. The social basis of the Russian Revolution was not the proletariat but the peasantry, which was everywhere deserting the Czar's beaten armies, seizing land from feudal overlords and reestablishing peasant communes. Based on a rural uprising similar to that which uprooted aristocratic rule in France--but without a bourgeoisie capable of exercising hegemony--the Russian Revolution quickly evolved into a planned state capitalism under Stalinist totalitarian rule. After a brief episode of freedom, the peasantry was coerced into collective farms to provide the basis for rapid industrialization. Without popular support and unable to compete militarily with the American superpower, the Soviet Empire crumbled two decades ago, letting go of its satellites and accepting free-market capitalism.

The Chinese Communists also came to power on the back of a peasant revolt against a disintegrating feudal system. After disastrous experiments involving total political and economic control, they accepted, for the sake of economic growth and global power, a mixed system of state and market capitalism. As in Russia, the demographic motor of China's economic takeoff has been the mechanization of agriculture and the massive movement of landless or impoverished peasants to industrial slums.5

The illusions of Socialist theory: taming of the proletariat, misunderstanding of nationalism, insensitivity to non-western cultures, acceptance of liberal productivist values

The failure or total absence of proletarian revolution in advanced capitalist countries points to a fundamental weakness in the--predominantly Marxist--Socialist theories. The notion that, given the intellectual guidance of selfless idealists, a propertyless proletariat would inevitably revolt and create a socialist democracy ignored both the social psychology of oppressed strata and the preconditions for revolution.

In the first place, as Robert Michels pointed out, the mass organizations of party and trade unions under conditions of legality bred oligarchy and the proliferation of a self-interested bureaucracy that made most Socialist Parties unfit to lead a revolution even if the existing order collapsed. Michels' theory explained the victory of revisionism, in practice if not in theory, in every country where socialist organizations were permitted legal existence. Only in countries where legality and parliamentary participation were denied them, as in Russia or China, did Socialist organizations retain revolutionary commitment.6

In the second place, and supplementing Michels' "iron law of oligarchy", even the simplest kinds of worker resistance--strikes and trade union organization for better wages and working conditions--brought rewards that made workers willing to forego revolutionary perspectives: job security, union recognition and a modest share of the material welfare that the industrial proletariat was creating. Facing redundancy through computerization or outsourcing, tamed workers in contemporary consumer society have now largely surrendered their acquired job security, unions and guaranteed wages and pensions in exchange for the glittering baubles of the electronics, automotive and tourist industries.

In the third place, the force of nationalism as a mode of collective identity superior to class consciousness was rarely understood by socialist theorists. The rise of European fascism after World War I was thus misunderstood by the parties of the left as a cover for monopoly capitalism. Its roots in the baffled nationalist consciousness of traditional strata that were rapidly decomposing because of the spread of capitalist production were not properly perceived.

In most Western countries, to the degree that capitalist development bankrupted the pre-industrial popular strata (before 1848 the shock troops of social revolution7) they turned reactionary, fearing both large enterprises and the industrial proletariat. Their only refuge against both was xenophobic nationalism, a creed also attractive to the conservative bourgeoisie. Since Jews were prominent in both department store ownership and the Socialist movement, anti-semitism could easily replace social radicalism. While some in the artisan/farmer groups continued to maintain socialist ideals, most of them, and practically all the shopkeepers, came increasingly under the sway of the patriarchal and militarist bourgeois conservatism that engaged in competition for Empire. Ubiquitous fear in the pre-industrial strata of the buoyant popular culture, of foreigners, Jews and feminists and of the new industrial working class, signified the closing off of popular as well as bourgeois mentalities to everything that differed from its own values and prejudices.

In any case, the areas outside the capitalist states were often neglected by socialist ideologists or, at best, given the imperial expansion of European merchant capitalism to Africa, Asia and the Americans from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, and especially the competition for colonies of the decades before 1914, viewed in terms of theories of imperialism and anti-imperialist struggle. Anthropological insight into the character and values of the panoply of non-western societies was largely absent.

Considering that third world struggles are essential to curbing the totalitarian expansion of neo-liberal capitalism, and that such struggles often occur in a village or tribal setting, socialist theorists would do well to acquire an anthropological sensitivity to the immense variety of local cultures. Approaches like those of Marcel Mauss, of Alain Caille's Mouvement Anti-Utilitaire en Sciences Sociales, whose initials signal its affinity to Mauss's ideas, or of the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber are important steps toward such sensitivity.8

The most serious limitation to traditional theory was its unthinking acceptance of liberal values of productivity and of the domination and exploitation of nature. Productivity and commodity fetishism has led, with few exceptions, to an absence of reflection on the quality of life. Despite promising beginnings in the French utopian socialists and the young Marx, and notwithstanding occasional talk of establishing a balance between country and city, Socialism's "scientific" approach to the domination of nature entailed a lack of consideration for the reciprocal relationship between humankind and the natural world. Such contamination with liberal values has left most Socialist movements utterly unprepared to cope with the current ecological crisis. Unfortunately, while such values have been subject to intense and intelligent critique by the Frankfurt School and the social ecology tendency, neither grouping has had the kind of impact on practical struggles that Marxism had before the Second World War.9 Infusion of such critiques into today's movements is an urgent necessity.

Given the multi-sourced failure of Marxist revolution after World War I, and the servitude of most Communist Parties to the foreign policy needs of Stalinist state socialism, traditional Social Democracy has been for many generations reduced to being a reformist fig leaf for capitalist liberalism in most European countries. With few exceptions Social Democrats in power have not even attempted to alter the shape of the capitalist economy. When they did so, it was either because the Keynesian theory popular among liberals in mid-century legitimated the welfare state and nationalization of key industries--England and Sweden after 1945--or because an alliance with a still numerous Communist Party was necessary to climb into power--France in 1981. But Europe's post-war welfare states succumbed to Thatcherian neo-liberalism after a few decades of moderate success, and Mitterand was forced to reverse his nationalization policy by capital flight after only a year. Social Democrats in power today show their loyalty to the new world order by privatizing, deregulating, reducing taxes and cutting welfare benefits more diligently than Liberals and Conservatives.

The contemporary emptiness of Social Democratic theory and practice is illustrated by the recourse of Socialists to "multicultural" commitments--human rights, feminism and support for gays and lesbians, support for immigrants--while cooperating flawlessly in the interment of the welfare state and the destruction of the planetary future by neo-liberal capitalism.

Meanwhile, there is urgent need for a new vision of the good society to give purpose and force to the myriad planetary struggles against injustice, war and environmental decay.

Nationalism and Internationalism

Nationalism has to be understood as a phenomenon whose significance varies with place, time, and social-political context. In the West, it was before 1848 primarily a progressive focus for rebellion against feudal monarchies and imperialist states. It became a malignant force when the new bourgeois order used it to tie the masses to militarist and imperialist policies. Elsewhere in the world, nationalism has often been indispensable in the struggle for liberation from Western colonialism, but in many parts of Asia, Latin America and Africa, the new nationalist leaders either became despotic (Iraq, Cuba, Zimbabwe) or became the agents of neocolonialist exploitation (the Philippines, Indonesia, many Latin American countries).

In post-1945 Europe, after nationalism, allied with the power of national capital, had led to the killings of tens of millions and the destruction of much of European civilization, the political and economic leadership (initially just that of France and Germany) decided that henceforth economic policy, and to an increasing degree, social and political policy, would be made jointly by the major governments of the continent. The institutions of the resultant European Union (successor to the European Economic Community) now provide the basis for most of the national legislation governing the lives of Europeans.

But the neo-liberal economic policies of the EU, integrated into those of the World Trade Organization, have made the EU a carbon copy of the American hegemon, more its ally than its competitor. These policies have become so onerous for ordinary working people that many have turned to parties of the extreme right or left that were hostile to the European construction. In the absence of any other perspective, even some Socialists have adopted a neo-nationalist rhetoric. And in fact, given the current power of multinational corporations, a healthy dose of economic nationalism to protect public services threatened by privatization (as well as to defend banking systems subject to the predatory manipulations of organized bands of international investors) may be coherent with practical struggles to limit the power of global capitalism.

Notwithstanding the utility of populist nationalism in organizing resistance to global neo-liberalism (Chavez in Venezuela, for example, or a party like the Socialistische Partij in The Netherlands), nationalist ideology remains a dead end for Socialism. Apart from the danger to world peace of old-fashioned nationalism, in general only the very largest nation-states--China, for example, and the United States--are powerful enough to withstand the pressures of international capital, and these tend to dominate all smaller states in their purview.

Admittedly, nation-states, particularly if they represent local popular needs in supra-national institutions like the EU can be important forces in resisting neo-liberal globalization. But traditional national frameworks without such links are in principle flawed, particularly in the light of the ecological imperatives of this century. Chavez, while cleverly spreading the profits from his oil-based economy to the poor in advanced countries as well as his own (e.g., his genial offer to halve the cost of public transportation for London's impoverished), is still jockeying for power in a doomed global industrial order. The Chinese may be restoring multi-polarity within globalization, but their mad race to establish a modern consumer capitalism is creating some of the worst environmental and social conditions in history.10

To present a coherent alternative both to traditional nation-states and to the current international organization of economic and political life, socialist theory needs to develop alternative models that take account of the various levels of collective and cultural identity--local, national, regional and international and the need for democratic participation in all of them. Ideas like those of Murray Bookchin and other eco-socialists on the importance of situating as much democratic power as possible in local, ecologically sound and largely self-sufficient communities need to be integrated into the mainstream of socialist theory, as the basis for social experiments wherever Socialists have the power to initiate them.

In the here and now, socialist theory has to develop a strategy for extricating humankind from its existing forms of political subservience, in which both uncritical nationalism (Polish populists) and knee-jerk internationalism (West European Social Democrats) may lead to de facto acceptance of neo-liberal or neo-conservative American hegemony, whether in economic straight jackets like the WTO or in military ones like NATO. Socialists should support the social radicalization of regional alliances such as the European Union and Mercosur--insistence on democratization of their governance and acceptance of basic principles of social and ecological justice--as a first, indispensable step to liberation from that hegemony.


Given that capitalism has neither collapsed nor goaded the proletariat to revolt by impoverishment, does it still have discernible structural weaknesses? What may loosen the control over global mentalities of today's neo-liberal form of free-market capitalism and what is likely to be the agency for social transformation?

To begin with, despite its anti-state rhetoric, American capitalism has long relied on massive state subsidization of essential industries. Apart from the obvious example of agricultural subsidies, much of American heavy industry is dependent on the military budget to keep it afloat. The persistence of the military industrial complex since World War II was symbiotic with the continuation of American geopolitical imperialism. Given the downfall of the Communist enemy, the 2001 Al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington--a "blowback" effect of earlier U.S. geopolitical intervention in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Irak--were providential for the spread of a neoconservative "clash-of-civilizations" ideology. Based on this ideology, endless wars were justified whose real goal was to secure oil for consumer capitalism and bottomless budgets for Pentagon subsidization of war industries.11 {The cost of these wars--and thus the incremental subsidy to the U.S. war economy, over and above the "normal" military budget--was estimated in October 2007 at 2,400 billion dollars over a ten year period. (added October 26, 2007)}

Nonetheless, the now obvious mendacity of the arguments that persuaded many Americans and Europeans to endorse the U.S. led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, intractable resistance to the presence of Western armies in those countries long after they had been conquered militarily, plus a growing realization that Islamic "terrorism" against Western civilians has been largely a reaction to long-standing U.S. and European military and economic intervention in the Middle East, have drastically weakened the ruling war party in the United States. In Europe, the same factors led to the replacement of pro-war regimes by anti-war ones in Italy and Spain and to a notable cooling of pro-war enthusiasm in England and The Netherlands. Meanwhile, the transparent fraudulence of Western-inspired IMF policies in the non-Western world has vastly reduced U.S. influence, most notably in its Latin American fiefdoms, where Venezuela and Bolivia are now controlled by the populist left, Nicaragua is again Sandanista, and Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Ecuador and Argentina have all elected left-wing governments of varying shades of red.12

Capitalist economies are, in the second half of 2007, increasingly showing weakness, with the cutting edge of corporate avarice, the hedge funds, being blunted by a series of major bankruptcies.13 This brings us to the question of agency: if the industrial proletariat is not a force for social revolution, what is?

To begin with, even in the seemingly prosperous West, the febrility of the economy and the evident social damage wrought by the neo-liberal deconstruction of Europe's welfare states are leading in many EU countries to demands from most shades of the political spectrum for a resuscitation of the role of the state in regulating economic and social life and especially in setting limits to the neo-liberal doctrines promulgated for two decades by the European Commission.

Clearly, however, for a major overturn of the growth cult, more is needed. The stimulus is the danger to the planetary future of global warming. For agency, reliance on the oppressed of the earth, such as the industrial proletariat (now removed to Asia), will be insufficient. Other agencies are, however, beginning to appear. Capitalism, in continually revolutionizing the forces of production, is also preparing the way for its obsolescence as a way of life, both in its creation of computerized machinery that makes most alienated labor superfluous and in its need for highly educated technicians to create and service that machinery. Awareness of the need for fundamental change appears in the split consciousness of many from the west's educated strata who presently enjoy the benefits of consumer capitalism but are increasingly conscious of its dangers.

Such educated strata are today--like the bourgeoisie of the early modern period who financed the feudal lords and princes of Europe--largely the servants of the prevailing system, but their education provides them with analytic tools and a cultural outlook that give them a potential for revolt similar to that of the tiers état that brought down the French monarchy. Moreover, it is precisely the highly trained, computer-savvy youth who are capable of establishing, via Internet sites and blogs, serious alternatives to the lobotomizing of the public by corporate control of the media.

Together with the oppressed and impoverished of the Third World, it is these strata that will have to take on the central challenges of the twenty-first century: the struggle to preserve a livable environment for future generations and the creation of democratic alternatives to the worship of growth.

The Centrality of the Struggle for the Environment

Environmental issues are central to the struggle against the present social order, not only because they touch the core of the current asocial insanity, but because they are by definition common to all the peoples of the earth, overriding outdated notions of national sovereignty. In fact, they constitute the prime justification for international and even supranational governance through institutions like the United Nations and the European Union.

Contemporary neo-liberal capitalism's weakest point is its destruction of the environment indispensable to future human existence, a destruction strikingly evident in global warming and the rapid increase in severe weather conditions. Some major corporate enterprises have already perceived this danger and support measures aimed at sharply reducing CO2 emissions and curbing other forms of industrial pollution. Proposals for environmental reform, however, without whole-sale deconstruction of the social order created by consumer capitalism and its productive apparatus will necessarily fail.14 Capitalism can and must be attacked for this and socialist theory must provide an alternative to the cult of growth.

Growth is, for capitalism, as essential as forward motion for bicycle riding. Without growth, the system collapses. Given the tendency toward declining profit rates, only a constant expansion of investment possibilities keeps an advanced capitalist system, such as that prevalent in Europe and North America, from imploding. Such expansion, though long inhibited after World War II, was given new life by the fall of the Soviet system and the subsequent conversion of the Chinese and Vietnamese Communist regimes to free market capitalism. Moreover, through the colonization of the popular mind by corporate advertising, the ideal of growth inspires each individual in consumer society to want ever more commodities.

The elaboration of practical alternatives to consumer society is therefore indispensable for the struggle against global warming, a struggle central to all others.

The Ecological Imperative and the Need for Limits

In accordance with the ecological imperative, alternatives to consumer capitalism should consider ideas of consumptive limits, the political economy that emphasizes local governance and production, and the theory of "de-growth".15

In the broadest sense, such alternatives can be linked to philosophies emphasizing the need for balance, for understanding of otherness, and for an ironic view of absolutes. Montesquieu's trias of legislative, judicial and executive forces, an early rebuke to political absolutism, is an example of the philosophy of balance. The anthropological understanding of the variety of human culture from Levy-Strauss to Bakhtin undercuts the notion that any one set of cultural or economic values (such as the Anglo-Saxon model underlying neo-liberalism) has universal applicability. The irony and skepticism of the philosophical debunkers of traditional religious and cultural values, from Spinoza to Voltaire and Diderot to Heine and Nietzsche supports the ideas of those who--even from a conservative standpoint, like John Gray16--decry the totalitarian presuppositions of contemporary free-market capitalism and the religion of growth.

Nonetheless, there are some general distinctions that may give coherence to social struggles in advanced capitalist societies as well as the Third World: on the one hand, distinctions between needs and wants and on the other distinctions concerning the nature and value of work.

Distinction between human needs and individual wants

There is a fundamental distinction to be made between general human needs and individual wants. General needs include air, water, food, housing, medicine, energy supplies and public transportation. Such needs, common to the human species, should be made available to all at minimal or no cost and held in common. They should never be subject to unjust private ownership and market distribution. Democratic control and distribution of these essential goods to everyone are indispensable to the achievement of socialism.

Individual wants, reflecting questions of individual satisfaction and taste, may be left to private or cooperative production and distribution. Particular societies, at a local, regional or national level, may also decide that production of other goods than those based on general human needs should be collectively managed, or they may decide to open such production to private enterprise, or consign all production and distribution in these areas to local exchange systems.

Work as curse and as blessing

Work has to be understood as central to human existence, with multiple meanings.

Apart from being homo sapiens' way of dealing with hunger and cold, it can express human aggression, redirecting it from the killing or enslavement of captured enemies to economic domination of other humans and of the natural world. But it can also express humankind's creative impulses, leading both to labour-saving inventions and to works of beauty.

It can be soul-killing, where it is involuntary, repetitive and exhausting, whether in subsistence agriculture or in sweatshops or the factory assembly line. It can be altruistic, the framework for new potentialities of cooperation, where subsistence is not problematic and goods are produced at a level that stimulates ingenuity and aesthetic creativity.

Therefore, the labour theory of value needs to be extended from an economic to an anthropological level. Apart from showing that wage labour is invariably compensated at less than its economic value, which is evident, we need to elaborate a theory on the value of different kinds of labour to the labourer. This discussion should take into consideration at the very least the manuscripts of the young Marx, Fourierist utopianism, and Hannah Arendt's distinctions between labour and work.17

Accordingly, we should hypothesize, in the area of economic production, a two tier system based on the desired distribution between (minimized) alienated labour in mass production, distribution and service systems and relatively unalienated labour in artisan trades, shopkeeping, professions like medicine and teaching and some (though not all) agricultural pursuits. By the extensive application of computerization and automation, alienated labour in mass production of essential goods, in transportation and street cleaning should be reduced as far as possible and distributed, for a limited portion of everyone's working life (perhaps 10 or 20%), evenly among the entire population, as now happens for jury duty or, in case of armed conflicts, for the military draft.

Work that need not be done in such large enterprises, such as agricultural pursuits, artisan trades, most service and retail enterprises and the free professions, can occur in small-scale units under relatively satisfying labour conditions. It should be left to the subsidiary government of a particular region or locality whether such work and services would be directly bartered in neighborhoods, subject to the contemporary system of fees and wages in a mercantile economy, or carried on through some hybrid system of local exchange. All possibilities would be left open here, subject to the three conditions that no enterprise would number more than a given number of people (to be established by public debate), that the income difference between the highest and lowest paid individuals would not exceed a reasonable ratio (for example, five or ten to one), and that ecologically harmful production would not be permitted.


Given these distinctions concerning needs and wants, and the types of work, the precautionary principle in ecological matters should limit production and distribution everywhere to the collective global footprint of humankind in order to halt the ongoing pillaging of planetary resources and the pollution of air, earth and water.

In particular, drastic diminution of greenhouse gasses in the coming decade is indispensable to stopping a potentially fatal planetary warming. To accomplish this, socialists in NGOs as well as in national and interstate governing bodies should draft and publicize policies of "de-growth". Apart from prioritizing public over private transportation and subsidizing the most rapid possible transition to non-polluting energy usage, society should regulate and where necessary prevent, the production, distribution, consumption and advertising of ecologically dangerous products, such as foods and manufactured goods produced on distant continents, fast, powerful and excessively pollutant private automobiles, and aerial tourism.18

Accordingly, we need to apply the environmental imperative in our judgments both of populist nationalism and of left-protectionist opt-outs from the social destructiveness of globalization. Consumer society is as dangerous for the ecological future in a hypothetically "protected" industrial welfare state as in a fully globalized neo-liberal world economy.

Global Governance and Local Cultures

Based on this ideal, one should conceptualize a global social order which, while based on bottom-up social movements and integrated locally and regionally to the cultural traditions of existing human communities, can function in accordance with the following conditions:

• The ecological imperative that imposes limits on consumption and on productive techniques

• The technological breakthroughs in automation and computerization that enable a vast diminution of the amount of alienated labour necessary for the reproduction of human existence

• The balancing of alienated and unalienated labour in parallel realms of production.


Although historical materialism remains a useful analytic instrument, the changed conditions of the 21st century require a drastic reorientation of socialist theory in several directions. A central focus on environmental issues is one. An anthropological concern for the variety of human experience is another. A third reorientation is the elaboration of a new theory of labour and work. This would permit a more subtle analysis of the destructive work ethic of corporate capitalism and a differentiated appreciation of the potential meanings of work in a socialist society. Such an appreciation should incorporate the myriad non-Marxist sources illuminating the character of human work.

Finally, in the context of the oncoming environmental catastrophes and the possible collapse of the global economic order, revived socialist theory should focus on the media and the techniques required to organize and to prepare mentalities for urgently needed radical change. Corporate control of publishing and television needs to be countered both within the system--by smart and well-funded advertising on issues like global warming--and, on its margins, by using all options available in the new Internet media.


1. "As China Roars, Pollution Reaches Deadly Extremes", The New York Times, August 26, 2007

2. The Climate of Poverty. Facts, Fears and Hopes. A Christian Aid Report, May 15, 2006

3. The exceptions were largely Austrians like Karl Renner and Otto Bauer who, given the multi-national state structure of Austria-Hungary, could hardly avoid the problem. Karl Renner: Die Nation: Mythos und Wirklichkeit. Manuskript aus dem Nachlass. Hg. v. Jacques Hannak.Wien, Koeln, Stuttgart, Zuerich: Europa 1964; Guenther Sandner "Austromarxismus und Multikulturalismus Karl Renner und Otto Bauer zur nationalen Frage im Habsburgerstaat" Kakanien 2002

4. Carl Schorske, German Social Democracy, the Great Schism, 1905-1917, (1955)

5. For an astute comparison of the rise of Chinese industrial capitalism with 19th century European models, Richard Walker & Daniel Buck, "The Chinese Road" ,New Left Review #46 July/August 2007 pp 39-68. More generally on the domestic Chinese situation today: Susan L. Shirk, China, Fragile Superpower (2007) pp. 1-104. On the role of the peasantry in the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions: Barrington Moore, Jr, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (1966) and Theda Skocpol; States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China (1979)

6. Robert Michels, Political parties (1949)

7. Craig Calhoun, The Question of Class Struggle. Social Foundations of Popular Radicalism during the Industrial Revolution (1982); E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963)

8. David Graeber, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value (2001), Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (2004)

9. Nor have the variously insightful post-Marxist critiques by Jay, Jameson, Negri/Hardt Zizic, Laclau, etc. On the Frankfurt School, the most accessible studies are Martin Jay's The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institue of Social Research, 1923-1950 (1973), and Seyal Benhabib, Critique, Norma and Utopia. A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory (1986). William Leiss, The Domination of Nature (1972) is partly based on the Frankfurt School ideas of Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse. Key works in the theory of social ecology (or eco-socialism) are Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom. The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy (1982, 1991); Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature. The End of Capitalism or the End of the World (2002); Martin O'Connor, ed., Is Capitalism Sustainable? Political Economy and the Politics of Ecology (1994).

10. On social conditions in industrial China: Shirk, op.cit. 30-34, 52-64. On environmental conditions: Peter Aldhouse, "Energy: China's Burning Ambition", Nature #435, June 30, 2005

11. Among the many fine books that have recently made these points, I have found most impressive those of Chalmers Johnson, particularly his Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic (2004).

12. Alejandro Reuss, "Anti-neoliberal backlash: Leaving the World Bank and IMF behind", NACLA Report on the Americas, July/August 2007, Vol. 40, no.4; D.L. Raby, Democracy and Revolution, Latin American and Socialism Today (2006); Nadia Martinez, "Democracy Rising. Grass-Roots Movements Change the Face of Power", Yes! Magazine, Summer 2007

13. For an insightful article on the IMF, the hedge funds and the danger of financial meltdown: Gabriel Kolko, "Weapons of Mass Financial Destruction", Monde Diplomatique (English edition), October 2006

14. Measures to curb CO2 emissions supported by the neo-liberal establishment prioritize carbon trading mechanisms, nuclear energy and creation of oil substitutes without a carbon base. The first is demonstrably ineffective. (For highly critical appraisals by two members of the European Parliament [who support carbon trading only because nothing better seems presently feasible]: "Can trade save us from climate change", European Voice, January 18, 2007. For a rejection of "the claim that carbon trading will halt the climate crisis", see the Durban declaration on carbon trading, signed by most major environmental NGOs on October 10, 2004, and Development Dialogue, no.48, September 2006: Carbon Trading: A Critical Conversation on Climate Change, Privatisation and Power). The other two "solutions" are environmentally and socially dangerous (Paul Josephson, "The Mirage of Nuclear Power", Los Angeles Times, July 30, 2007; Stephanie Nebehay, "Biofuels could lead to mass hunger deaths", Reuters, June 14, 2007; Baelle Dupont, "La bataille des biocarburants", Le Monde, May 14, 2007; Isabella Kenfield, "Breeding Rural Poverty and Environmental Degradation: Brazil's Ethanol Plan", CounterPunch, March 8, 2007). All three leave untouched the central premise of capitalist activity: the beneficence of economic growth. But the menace to ecological balance posed by global warming can only be countered by drastic reductions in energy use, the motor of growth--some scientific reports say 90% by 2030. Without major reductions in consumption and reversal of growth in the developed world, such reductions are unthinkable.

15. See the recently started French review Entropia Revue d'etude theorique et politique de la decroissance, edited by Serge Latouche, Jean-Claude Besson-Girard and Jean-Paul Besset.

16. John Gray, Black Mass (2007)

17. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (2nd ed. 1998)

18. For an excellent guide to how this may be done: George Monbiot, Heat. How to Stop the Planet Burning (2006)