Ecosocialism and Ending “Capitalism at Any Price”

In the United States as well as elsewhere in the global North West, Garrett Hardin’s virulent idea that “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all” has abetted an ideology (capitalism) responsible for a global holocaust. Now, there is no life too sacred, no thing too sacrosanct that it might escape the deleterious effects of the global capitalist system and its expanding reach. The whole world ails as nothing is “off limits.” Noam Chomsky treats Hardin’s argument as the epitome of what is known as the “tragedy of the commons.” In exploration of this “tragedy,” Chomsky also invokes economist Mancur Olson, who concludes that, “unless the number of individuals is quite small, or unless there is coercion or some other special device to make individuals act in their common interest, rational, self-interested individuals will not act to achieve their common or group interests.” This greedy, misanthropic rationale holds that unless the commons (and anything else, for that matter) become subject to private ownership, only pitiless state power is enough to save groups from certain doom. Chomsky notes that the plausibility of this philosophy rests on whether or not “rationality” is understood as “a fanatic dedication to the individual maximization of short-term material gain.”

For capitalism to thrive, this definition must hold. Thankfully and logically, though, there are challenges to this unfortunate line of thinking. The late Elinor Ostrom, for one, received the Nobel Prize in economics (2009) for her work, which indicates “the superiority of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes and groundwater basins.” In fact, in Governing the Commons, Ostrom’s work and investigations call into question many of the convictions that policy analysts’ have about solutions to common-pool resource problems via external authority, private property rights, or centralized regulation alone. Ultimately, observations like Ostrom’s are more than just important to consider when endeavoring the necessary change from capitalism to socialism; they are necessary.

Today, ruling financial circles maintain their status and are perfectly content to ignore findings from Ostrom and others. Financial elites merely debate preventing an economic catastrophe sizable enough to threaten the entire global capitalist system that keeps “the right people” rich and powerful. All those who drink the “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all” ideological Kool-Aid are in alignment, and at the very least, they make suitable bedfellows for all who would seek to “save capitalism from itself” rather than work for a socialist revolution. This pathology, however, ignores the disastrous consequences of privatizing everything possible, and it simultaneously ignores the sound and obvious benefits of user-managed approaches to common-pool resource issues. International socialism, for one thing, encompasses such benefits as it takes a sustainable approach. It maintains the perspective that socialism itself, as Nick Beams writes, “is the only viable and realistic answer to the historic crisis of capitalism.”

As such, ecosocialism will likely constitute what Beams recognizes as “the basis of the political program for which the international working class begins to fight.” In radical opposition to capitalism, there must also be a global dimension to the socialist change. Moreover, the US—practically the hub in the wheel of the global capitalist system—is as good a place as any to start the global North West mainstream taking the necessary socialist alternative seriously. A number of activists, students, and even politicians can sense a swelling change in the ether, one that has perhaps long proven socialism to be more than just a worthwhile endeavor. Indeed, for there to be any future worth living, ecosocialism is a necessity.

Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant proffers advice for “rebuilding the left,” which requires, she instructs, “taking socialism seriously.” Sawant, a socialist activist and part-time economics professor to boot, states, “Genuine socialism means planning the entire society and economy on a rational, democratic and sustainable basis—delivering a high standard of living to all while protecting the environment.” As more Americans begin to say yes to socialism, there must be equal concern for ecology. So, ecosocialism proves a pertinent response to a metastasizing and malignant global capitalist system that threatens life, liberty, and the earth. Keenly, Sawant warns, “Any attempt to develop socialist municipal policies will inevitably come up against resource and technological constraints, as well as political attacks from outside the locality.” Socialists can overcome such challenges, she writes, by “drawing strength from the interdependence of working people nationally and internationally.” Again, the global dimension must be present in the American struggle for ecosocialism. Americans must also build outside the nation’s two failed and corrupt parties, which, as Sawant agrees, protect the superwealthy and the capitalist system at any cost.

As a number of socialism’s proponents have identified, there can be no socialism without concomitant concern for ecology. In his article entitled ‘What Is Ecosocialism?’, Joel Kovel writes that “capitalism is destroying humanity through its invasion and destabilization of the natural ground of civilization.” Kovel concludes, “The ecological crisis is the defining issue of our time…the most radical juncture in all of human history, since it puts history itself in the dock and threatens its end.” Indeed, capitalism drives this crisis as it requires an unrelenting economic expansion in order to generate profits that drive the global capitalist economy—and again, at any cost. Kovel agrees that, unless capitalism is dismantled with a “harmonious relationship between society and nature” to supersede it, not only is civilization doomed but also humanity itself. Kovel’s ecosocialist vision entails a socialism “whose ground extends beyond the empowerment of labour to the restoration of the integrity of nature.”

A new ecological mode of production is thus necessary, and it must be created “from the elements of prefigurative activity.” Moreover, “red” and “green” propensities within ecosocialism are “deeply continuous” and do not necessarily warrant separate treatment. Why? Because labor is, as Kovel notes, “the conscious and socially organized transformation of nature…” As such, ecosocialism’s most radical mandate is that restoring nature’s integrity also requires empowering labor. To borrow a quip from Thelonius Monk (when pressured to distinguish classical music from jazz), “Two is one.” Red and green—two is one.

Chomsky’s thought on the commons and the Charter of the Forest further provides evidence for constructing an international change of such radical magnitude as is required of us today. “As we now understand all too well,” Chomsky writes, “it is what is privately owned, not what is held in common, that faces destruction by avarice, bringing the rest of us down with it.” With each passing day this reality becomes more evident, and people are taking to the streets in America to protest the unabated “ecological destruction of the commons…” Additionally, Chomsky broaches the fact that “most of the world’s fossil-fuel reserves must remain in the ground if an environmental disaster for humankind is to be averted, but under the logic of state-supported capitalist institutions, the private owners of those reserves are racing to exploit them to the fullest.”

Indeed, one need only mention the capitalist system’s oil wars, which sustain lifeless consumption and profits, in order to understand how nature itself requires the human adoption of international ecosocialism more than ever. Sadly, the litany of examples that substantiate this claim is without end. The fact that corporations reject and abandon renewable-energy programs based on potentially greater profits through fossil fuels is, as Chomsky agrees, “in accord with the capitalist doctrine of ‘rationality’.” This doctrine, and its so-called “rationality,” is simply far too abortive to warrant existence any longer.

Kovel states that “limiting” growth and making it “eco-friendlier” is not the point of an ecosocialist transformation. “Capitalism as such,” he states, “cannot accept limits on its growth any more than a person can cease to breathe.” Thinking of capitalism as nothing more than an “economic arrangement” with an on-off switch is mistaken. Furthermore, Kovel recognizes that capitalism as “the culmination of millennia of a certain kind of development, one of whose features is to place the economy over everything else and to subsume all aspects of human existence into the money relationship.” Though capital itself seems quite impersonal, Kovel contends that it “inhabits each of us…is in us, as well as around us…is a way of being, and to overcome it, the kinds of development that enter into it must themselves be explored and overcome.” This will not be easy. Chomsky notes that a small portion of “the remaining commons” is federal land, which further solidifies the harsh nature of the capitalist case. Energy lobbies aside, Chomsky recalls how “the amount of crude oil produced from onshore federal lands in 2013 was the highest in over a decade, according to the Interior Department,” and that production has experienced a firm increase under Obama. Clearly, capitalism yet wars against nature and the commons. And, as the popular media complex reports that the maximization of production within the coming year is inevitable, such an increase portends likely catastrophic consequences.

At the heart of the matter rests the fact that humankind must endeavor a social transformation of an extraordinary magnitude, which goes by the name of ecosocialism, and which encompasses a society equipped with such necessary power. Sawant and the like aver that progress for American left can only happen by “building independent working class power.” She notes that 2015 will see “continued struggles against economic inequality, racial and gender oppression, police brutality and climate change.” Confronting these challenges as well as others is part of the transformation. “Our victories,” writes Sawant, “will depend on whether the left champions the interests of working people and the downtrodden—and does so no matter how much this comes into conflict with what is acceptable to the ruling elite or compatible with capitalism.” She states that this, in fact, is the essence of “a socialist approach to politics.” Indubitably, ecosocialism is rife with this essence, holding that the alienation of labor not only makes for the alienation of nature, but that it also is, as Kovel writes, “the rupture point in human history through which the degradation of nature—and, eventually, the ecological crisis—occurs.” So, the ecosocialist society (i.e., an ecologically rational one) must be free, and “bourgeois individualism” and excess must not define freedom any longer. Instead, inclusivity must be ever-developing, and the dimensions must be global in scope.