Can we build a sustainable society?

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There is an assumption that Marx and Engels's vision of communism sees the natural world as an inexhaustible collection of resources. Martin Empson argues that they sought a profound change in how humans relate to nature, flowing from the democratic and collective organisation of labour.

This month will see major worldwide protests demanding action on climate change. As world leaders meet in Paris they have a chance to plan the massive reduction of emissions to keep world temperatures below the 2 degrees threshold. Time is now tight, and the action would need to be quick and drastic.

Yet instead, as the COP21 meeting (the 21st annual Conference of the Parties) begins, it looks likely that world leaders will settle for an agreement that is far short of what is needed, one that would potentially result in a 3.5 degree rise in average temperatures above pre-industrial levels.

Such a rise will not simply lead to a warmer world; it will mean environmental disaster. Such a rise will make runaway climate change more likely and cause major sea-level rises with flooding on a huge scale. Hunger, famine and war will likely follow. Millions of people will face devastation.

In response to this the environmental movement is growing. Protests and meetings are larger and tackling big questions. One example of this is the way that trade unions and campaigners across the world are taking up the idea of “climate jobs” as an alternative to climate chaos and austerity. At the same time there is a growing sense within the climate movement that we have to move beyond tinkering with the existing system. One example of this is the popularity of Naomi Klein’s bestselling book, This Changes Everything. Subtitled “Capitalism Versus the Climate” the book succinctly summarises many environmentalists’ thinking — the problem is the system, rather than technology, population growth or the wrong diet. Klein locates the climate crisis within a systemic critique of capitalism, a critique that fits directly with the experience that many of us have of austerity politics.

Localised

But what is less clear is what a sustainable alternative to capitalism would look like. One frustration I found reading Klein’s book is that her alternative is not actually that different. It is a different capitalism, but it is still capitalism — more localised, more rational. Production is planned through state intervention designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the same time as being more socially just. But it is still capitalism.

Capitalism as a system has at its core competing blocks of capital that strive to maximise their profits through the exploitation of workers. Because this production is based upon the natural world, it has an impact — the environmental degradation of nature through the extraction of resources and the creation of pollution, including emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Klein is right then to condemn this ecologically unsound system, particularly its “extractive industries” that she sees as being at the heart of the problem. But even if we could challenge the system and destroy the fossil fuel industry at the heart of capitalism, we would still leave in place a system based on the exploitation of workers and the competitive accumulation of wealth for the sake of accumulation.

In the aftermath of the COP21 conference there will be intense discussions about the way forward for the environmental movement. Revolutionary socialists must be at the heart of those debates. We want to build a bigger and stronger climate movement, but we also have something to offer — a vision of an alternative to capitalism based on the needs and interests of the vast majority of the population. Demonstrating this means exploring again some of the ideas of Marx and Engels.

At the core of the Marxist critique of capitalism is an understanding of the dialectical relationship between humans and the natural world. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels offered a critique of capitalism, but they also explored the way that communism, the society that they envisaged arising out of the revolutionary destruction of capitalism, would also be an ecologically sustainable world.

Unfortunately, many environmentalists dismiss the idea of socialism as a sustainable alternative to capitalism. Part of the problem is the experience of regimes like the Soviet Union, those in Eastern Europe or countries such as China. The leaders of these countries often used the language of socialism and Marxism, yet the central dynamic of production was geared, not towards the interests of workers and peasants, but towards competition with the West. The environmental record of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc was appalling, and China continues today to have huge problems with pollution.

The problematic relationship between these societies and the natural world is summed up best by two quotes, one from a Soviet economic planner who called for “a profound rearrangement of the entire living world...all living nature will live, thrive and die at none other than the will of man and according to his plans”. More simply Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong demanded that “man must conquer nature”.

So it is no surprise that some on the left of the environmental movement might want to distance themselves from this. In his 2003 book, Heat, activist George Monbiot wrote that “the need to tackle climate change must not become an excuse for central planning”.
But the relationship between society and nature outlined in the thinking of Marx and Engels was far from the crude ideas expressed by Soviet planners, or Mao. Their vision of socialism was one where the use and allocation of resources and the planning of society’s production was done not by a centralised leadership, but by democratic decision-making involving the maximum number of concerned people.

Absurd

In Capital Karl Marx argued for a vision of communism that was what we would now call sustainable:

From the standpoint of a higher economic form of society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one man by another. Even a whole society, a nation, or even all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuaries, and, like boni patres familias [Good Heads of Household], they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.

Marx’s vision of communism arises in part from his critique of capitalism. He argued that capitalism was born “dripping in blood from every pore”, and an essential part of this process was the separation of the majority of the population from their link to the land, “the original source of all wealth”. What makes us human is our ability to labour on nature and change it in our interests. Under capitalism workers have become alienated from the natural world.

This “metabolic rift” is one of the key problems in the relationship between society and the natural world under capitalism. Healing this rift is an essential part of the transition to a more sustainable future. Marx talked about the way that once this separation is established it will continue and develop “until a new and fundamental revolution in the mode of production should again overturn it, and restore the original union in a new historical form”.

What Marx is describing here is a society which heals the fundamental relationship between humans and nature, but not through a return to an older form of society. Instead a new society must be built. This requires the taking of property into social ownership through the process of revolution. Marx called this new form of society communism, a term inaccurately associated with the regimes that were established in the aftermath of Stalin’s victory in the Soviet Union.

Under a genuine communist society, production would become transformed. Under capitalism production is for profit. Manufacturing is based on whether goods can be sold to make money, rather than whether or not they are needed by wider society. In 2009 one of the world’s leading wind turbine manufacturers closed its plant on the Isle of Wight. Hundreds of jobs were lost at a time when the world was crying out for wind turbines to expand renewable energy. This was not because of a downturn of orders, quite the contrary — orders were booming — but because it would be more profitable for the company to manufacture wind turbines in China or the United States.

Glut

This emphasis on production for profit means that capitalism is incredibly wasteful of resources. Products that are profitable are manufactured in vast quantities, until there is a glut on the market and a crisis of over-production occurs. Witness the pictures of tens of thousands of unsold cars in manufactures’ storage areas, each unsaleable car representing wasted raw materials, energy and labour. At the same time the world needs more coaches, buses and trains to expand and improve low carbon transport.

Marx’s vision of production under communism was very different. Writing in the aftermath of the 1871 Paris Commune he said, “United co-operative societies are to regulate national production upon a common plan, thus taking it under their own control and putting an end to the constant anarchy and periodical convulsions which are the fatality of capitalist production.” It is a vision that still sounds radical and farsighted.

This democratically planned production is inherently sustainable because at its heart is the way that ordinary people plan and organise their interaction with the natural world. Freed from the restrictions of capitalism, which insists that workers view their labour through the prism of a world geared towards profit, workers could instead collectively plan their work in the interests of wider society.

A society that also ensured that those same workers had access to proper education would mean that, for the first time, workers could see their part of the production process as part of a wider interaction between society and nature.

When Marx and Engels discussed these questions they often looked at the way that, under capitalism, production had been concentrated into huge, polluting towns separated from the wider countryside. This meant an enormous waste of resources as goods and raw materials were transported around.

Engels noted how a rational society would begin to abolish this separation, and central to this were workers “with an all-round development who understand the scientific basis of industrial production as a whole, and each of whom has had practical experience in a whole series of branches of production from start to finish. This society will bring into being a new productive force which will abundantly compensate for the labour required to transport raw materials and fuel from great distances.”

Some critics of Marx and Engels suggest that one problem with their vision of communism is that it sees the natural world as an inexhaustible collection of resources. But Marx and Engels were materialists who were fascinated by the latest scientific discoveries and technological developments. They understood that the problem was the way that capitalism related to the natural world in an unsustainable way.

One way that Marx examined this was to explore the question of capitalist agriculture. Geared towards the maximisation of profits rather than feeding hungry people, agriculture in Marx’s time was suffering environmental crisis in the form of the degradation of the soil as nutrients were removed from the land but not replaced.

A scientific agriculture was possible through the use of fertilisers to revitalise the land. But the barrier to a rational agriculture was not technological, but social. Farmers who couldn’t afford fertiliser could only continue by further destroying the soil, or going bankrupt. At the same time people went hungry because they couldn’t afford food.

How would a new society come about? Marx and Engels based their understanding on the way that engaged in class struggle workers created their own organisations to help organise their fight. These might start as strike committees, but they had the potential to become organisations that could run society from the bottom up. Marx’s understanding of this particularly developed through seeing and building solidarity with the Paris Commune when workers rose up and created the world’s first, short-lived, workers’ state in the French capital.

Since then revolutionaries have witnessed countless other examples of how workers engaged in struggle begin to take control of their own lives. We see examples in every fight that workers take part in. Strike committees might first organise pickets, but they might go on to challenge for leadership of their dispute, if, for instance, the trade union’s leadership is not fighting the way the workers want.

At the heights of struggle, during revolutions, workers form networks of committees, based on democratically elected delegates from workplaces and communities. These councils are part and parcel of the struggle itself. But in revolutionary times they may take charge of organising food distribution, or the defence of the revolution itself; so they represent the living interests of workers. These revolutionary councils can form the basis for a new way of organising society.

Transform

The alternative to capitalism arises out of the struggle against capitalism. But what is important about this is not just the way that the new society is born, and how it is organised. It is also about how workers transform themselves in the process. As Marx put it:

Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.

This creation of a “communist consciousness” means that workers remake themselves and put themselves back in their rightful place, as a part of nature, labouring and changing the world around them in the collective interest of people and planet, rather than as atomised consumers relating to nature through an alienated labour process.

Marx and Engels did not know about climate change, though they understood that capitalism brought with it environmental crisis. Their vision of a communist society takes on a new importance in the 21st century as we see the growing inability of capitalism to deal with climate.

Martin Empson is the author of Land and Labour: Marxism, Ecology and Human History (Bookmarks, 2014)