Utopia, not futurism: Why doing the impossible is the most rational thing we can do

Murray Bookchin at the Toward Tomorrow Fair, mid-1970s. All photos by Lionel Delevingne.

by Murray Bookchin

On August 24, 1978, Murray Bookchin gave a lecture at the Toward Tomorrow Fair in Amherst, Massachusetts. Also speaking at that year’s gathering were several prominent thinkers, including R. Buckminster Fuller and Ralph Nader. In his speech, Bookchin argues against the ideology of futurism and for ecological utopianism. In the Q&A session, he points out that he is not against technology itself, he is against technocracy, and he also describes, in detail, his political vision for the future.

The speech is surprisingly relevant in today’s context: it’s as if he predicted the rise of fascist ideology and lifeboat ethics in the 21st century, and it feels like a direct rebuttal of Elon Musk-esque technocratic futurism on both the right and the left.

Because his speech is so applicable today, we decided to republish it here, making it accessible to a wider audience. It has been transcribed and edited lightly for flow, brevity, and grammar, and we have divided it into sub-sections for ease of reading. The text is published with the permission of The Bookchin Trust.

This morning at eleven o’clock, I tried to explain to you why I was not an environmentalist, but rather was an ecologist. And I tried to give you some idea, at least from my point of view, what ecology meant, as distinguished from environmentalism. The point that I tried to make most fundamentally is that environmentalism tries to patch things up, applies band-aids, cosmetics, to the environment. It sort of takes hold of nature, strokes it, and says, ‘Produce!’ It tries to use soil, pour chemicals into it and if only they weren’t poisonous everything would be great. Whereas ecology believes in a genuine harmonization of humanity with nature. And that harmonization of humanity with nature depends fundamentally on the harmonization of human beings with each other. The attitude that we’ve had towards nature has always depended on the attitude we’ve had towards each other. Let’s not kid ourselves, there is no such thing as a ‘pure nature.’ 

The simple fact now is that I’m not only not an environmentalist, I’ve got some hot news—I’m not a futurist. I’m not a futurist at all. I’m a utopian. I want to see this word revived. I want to see us use it. I want to see us think utopian. Not think futurism. And it’s these questions that I’d like to talk about, if I may.

Murray Bookchin at the Toward Tomorrow Fair, 1977.

What is futurism?

What is futurism? Futurism is the present as it exists today, projected, one hundred years from now. That’s what futurism is. If you have a population of X billions of people, how are you going to have food, how are you going to do this… nothing has changed. All they do is they make everything either bigger, or they change the size—you’ll live in thirty story buildings, you’ll live in sixty-story buildings. Frank Lloyd Wright was going to build an office building that was one mile high. That was futurism.

The simple fact is, I just don’t believe that we have to extend the present into the future. We have to change the present so that the future looks very, very different from what it is today. This is a terribly important notion to convey. So a lot of people are walking around today who sound very idealistic. And what do they want to do? They want multinational corporations to become multi-cosmic corporations [laughter from the audience]—literally! 

They want to bring them up in space, they want to colonize the Moon, they can’t wait to go to Jupiter, much less Mars. They’re all very busy, they’re coming around, they even have long hair and they even have beards, and they come around and they say ‘Oh, I can’t wait to get into my first space shuttle!’—that is the future.

This is regarded as ecology and it’s not ecology. It’s futurism! It’s what Exxon wants to do. It’s what Chase Manhattan wants to do. It’s what all the corporations want to do. But it is not utopia, it is pure futurism. It is the present extended into the future.

A mass society, and how do we keep in touch with each other? We don’t even have to look at each other. We’ll look at television screens. I’ll press a button, I’ll see you on the television screen, you’ll be on Mars, for all I know, and we’ll have a wonderful conversation with each other, and we’ll say ‘Gee whiz! We’ve got an alternate technology!’ The point is it isn’t a liberatory technology. I may know people in the future for years and years—play chess games with them, have interesting intellectual conversations with them—and never touch them once. If that is what the future is going to look like, I’m glad I’m fifty-seven years old and don’t have that much to go. I don’t want it. [laughter from audience] I am very serious. 

The anti-nuclear movement.

Now I’d like to touch a few nerves. I don’t believe that the Earth is a spaceship.1 I’m asking you to think about what it means to think of the Earth as a spaceship. It does not have valves. It does not have all kinds of radar equipment to guide it. It is not moved by rockets. It hasn’t got any plumbing. We may have plumbing. But it is not ‘a spaceship’. It’s an organic, living thing, to a very great extent, at least on its surface, built of inorganic material. It is in the process of growth and it is in the process of development. It is not ‘a spaceship’.

We’re beginning to develop a language which has nothing whatever in common with ecology. It has a lot to do with electronics. We talk of input. ‘Give me your input. Plug in!’ [laughter] Well, I don’t ‘plug in’, I discuss [applause]. Machines ‘plug in’. Radar is the language that produced it and the military is the language that produced the words ‘plug in’.

‘Give me your input’. That is not what I want. I don’t want your output, I want you. I want to hear your words. I want to hear your language. I’m not engaged in ‘feedback’ with you [laughter], I’m engaged in a dialogue, a discussion. It isn’t your ‘feedback’ I want, I want your opinion. I want to know what you think. I don’t want to have a circuit plugged into me where I can get your ‘feedback’ and you can get my ‘input’. [laughter]

Please, I’m making a plea here, and if you think I’m talking about language, I think you would be wrong. I’m not talking about language, I’m talking about sensibility. A plant does not have ‘input’ or ‘output’. It does something for which electronics has absolutely no language—it grows! It grows! [applause]. And let me tell you another thing, it not only grows, it does more than change; it develops. We have a big problem with all these words which reflect a way in which we think, and that’s what bothers me.

This is the sensibility of futurism. It is the language of futurism, in which people themselves are molecularized and then atomized and then finally reduced to subatomic particles, and what we really have in the way of an ecosystem is not growth, and not development, what we have is—plumbing. We run kilocalories through the ecosystem. And we turn on valves here and we turn off valves there. 

Now, this may be useful, I don’t deny that. We should know how energy moves through an ecosystem. But that alone is not an ecosystem. We’re beginning to learn that plants have a life of their own and interact with each other. That there are subtle mechanisms which we cannot really understand. They can’t be reduced to energy, they can’t be reduced to kilocalories, we have to look at them from a different point of view. We have to view them as life, as distinguished from the non-living, and even that distinction is not so sharp and clear as many people think. 

Most futurists start out with the idea, ‘you got a shopping mall, what do you do then?’ Well, the first question to be asked is, ‘why the hell do you have a shopping mall?’

So this is the language of futurism, and the language of electronics, which reflects a very distinct sensibility, that bothers me very, very, much. It is not utopian—and I’ll get to that afterwards—it is the language of manipulation. It is the language of mass society. Most futurists start out with the idea, ‘you got a shopping mall, what do you do then?’ Well, the first question to be asked is, ‘why the hell do you have a shopping mall?’ [laughter] That is the real question that has to be asked. Not ‘what if’ you have a shopping mall, then what do you do.

Out there in the great vast distance, which people feel we should colonize, moving out into spacecraft, or somehow relate to the distant universe and listen to the stars, but we haven’t even begun to listen to our own feelings. We haven’t even begun to listen to our own locality. This planet is going down in ruin, and people are talking about means of projecting space platforms out there, talking of a global village,2 when we don’t have villages anywhere on this planet to begin with. We don’t have them. We don’t have any villages, we don’t have any communities, we live in a state of atomization, and we expect to electronically communicate with each other through global villages. This bothers me because it may be good physics, it may be good mechanics, it may be good dynamics, it may be good anything you wish, but it is not ecology. It is not ecology.

What is ecology?

The most fundamental mistake begins with the idea that things change. Now, you know, to change may mean something or may mean nothing. If I step away here and walk three feet away, I have ‘undergone change’. I’ve moved three feet away, but I haven’t done a damn thing so far as I’m concerned, or so far as you are concerned. It is not ‘change’ that I’m concerned about. What I’m concerned about is development, growth. I don’t mean growth in the business sense, I mean growth of human potentiality, I mean growth of human spirit. I mean growth of human contact. That is ecological. To develop is what is really ecological. To change can mean anything. The question is, what is the end toward which you want to develop? What is the goal you’re trying to realize, and then, afterward, whether or not you have developed to that goal. So mere input and output and feedback, mere motion means nothing—the real problem is discussion and dialogue, recognition of personality, growth and development, which is what biology is concerned with. It is not concerned merely with change.

Lastly, it must be made very clear that if you believe that the Earth is a spaceship, then you believe that the world is a watch. You and Sir Isaac Newton agree perfectly, the world is a clock, just as a spaceship is a lot of plumbing with a lot of rockets, with a lot of dials, with a lot of pilots, and all the rest of that stuff. And if you believe in addition that the beauty, today, of change is that you can move all over the place in a helicopter, which will pick up your geodesic dome,3 or use some type of electronic communications to relate to somebody who is three thousand miles away, whom you may never see, then we are not changing, in the developmental sense, anything at all, we’re making things worse, and worse all the time. And that is a matter, also, of very great concern to me.

Ecology—social ecology—must begin with a love of place. There must be home. Oikos—home—ecology—the study of the household. If we do not have a household—and that household is not an organic, rich community—if we do not know the land we live on, if we do not understand its soil, if we do not understand the people we live with, if we cannot relate to them, then at that particular point we are really in a spaceship. We are really out in a void. 

Ecology must begin with a very deep understanding of the interaction between people, and the interaction between people and the immediate ecosystem in which we live. Where you come from, what you love, what is the land that you love. I don’t mean the country or the state, I’m talking about the land that you may occupy. It may even be a village, it may be a city, it may be a farmstead. 

But first and foremost, without those roots that place you in nature, and in a specific form of nature, it is a deception to talk about cosmic oneness, it is a deception to talk about spaceships, it is a deception even to talk about ecosystems without having this sense of unity with your immediate locale, with your soil, with your community, with your home. Without that community and without that sense of home, without that sense of the organic—of the organic and the developmental rather than the mere inorganic and ‘change’ in which you merely change place—you are changing nothing, the problems are merely amplified or diminished, but they remain the same problems. 

What isn’t ecology?

It is for this reason that futurism today plays an increasingly very very reactionary role, because it works with the prejudice that what you have is given. You have to assume what exists today, and you extrapolate into the future, and you play a numbers game. And then you go around and you logistically manipulate here and there, and implicit in all of this is the idea that you are things to be manipulated. There are all kinds of technicians who are going to decide through their knowledge of electronics, through their ‘know-how’, through their ‘feedback’ and their ‘input’, where you go, what you should do: and this is becoming a very serious problem today, particularly when it is mistaken for ecology, based on the organic, on the growing, on the development as an individual, as a community and as a place.

You then finally reach the most sinister numbers game of all: who should live and who should die. The ‘population game’. The terrifying lifeboat ethic, in which now in the name of ecology, today views are being proposed that are almost indistinguishable from German fascism.

There are those who are made to drown, they happen to live in India. Conveniently, they happen to have black or dark skin, and you can identify them. And then there are those who occupy another lifeboat, that lifeboat is called North America. And in that lifeboat, you have to conserve what you have, you see? 

You have to be prepared to develop an ethic, you have to be prepared to develop the stamina to see people die. Of course you’ll regret it, but scarce resources and growing population, what can you do? You’re out there on the ocean, the ship is sinking, so instead of trying to find out what was wrong with the ship that makes it sink, and instead of trying to build a ship that will make it possible for all of us to share the world, you get into a lifeboat, just like you get into a spaceship, and at that particular point, the world be damned. And that is a very sinister ideology. 

I speak as one who comes from the thirties, and remembers, very dramatically, that there was the demographic ecology, if you like, in Germany, no different from some of the demographic ecology I have been witnessing today.4 Remember well that the implications of some of these conceptions are extremely totalitarian, extremely un-ecological, extremely inorganic, and tend, if anything, to promote a totalitarian vision of the future in which there is no human scale, in which there is no human control.

Another thing that troubles me very deeply is the enormous extent to which social ecology or ecological problems are reduced simply to technological problems. That is ridiculous. It’s absurd. The factory is a place where people are controlled, whether they build solar collectors or not. It makes no difference. [Applause] The same relationships will exist there as under any other circumstances of domination exist. If ‘household’ means that women take care of the dishes, and men go out and do the manly work such as make war and clean up the planet, and reduce the population, where have we gone? Nothing has changed. What will a ‘spaceship’ on earth look like? What will it be? Who will be the general to give the orders, who will be the navigator to decide which way the ‘spaceship’ goes?

Please bear in mind what the implications of these things are. If people live in cities that are one mile high, how the hell can you get to know each other? How can you have a feeling for the land in which you live, when the landscape that you see goes up to a horizon twenty, thirty, forty miles away? On top of the World Trade Center, I have no feeling for New York. If I were just an ordinary, simple product of the United States Airforce, and I were ordered from the World Trade Center, way up there, to bomb Manhattan, looking down upon it, I would see nothing. I would press the button and it would be meaningless. Up would go the great bomb, the great flash, the great cloud. It wouldn’t have any meaning to me. Down on the ground, when I look up at the Empire State Building or the World Trade Center, I feel oppressed. I feel that I have been reduced to a lowly ant. I begin to feel the demand for an environment that I can control. That I can begin to understand. But when I see plants growing around me, when I see life existing around me—human life, animal life of all its different forms, flora—then I can relate. This is my land.

Think human

What we have to do is not only ‘think small’, we have to think human.5 Small is not enough. What is human is what counts, not just what is small. What is beautiful are people, what is beautiful is the ecosystems and their integrity in which we live. What is beautiful is the soil which we share with the rest of the world of life. And particularly that special bit of soil in which we feel we have some degree of stewardship. It is not only what is small that is beautiful, it is what is ecological that is beautiful, what is human that is beautiful. 

What is important is not only that a technology is appropriate. As I have said before: the Atomic Energy Commission is absolutely convinced that nuclear power plants are appropriate technology—to the Atomic Energy Commission. The B1 bombers are very appropriate technology—to the Air Force. 

What I am concerned with is, again, what is liberatory, what is ecological. We have to bring these value-charged words, and we have to bring these value-charged concepts into our thinking, or else we will become mere physicists, dealing with dead matter and dealing with people as though they are mere objects to be manipulated, in spaceships, or to be connected through various forms of electronic devices, or subject to world games, or finally, set adrift on a raft or a lifeboat in which they kick off anyone who threatens to eat their biscuits or threatens to drink their distilled water—and that becomes ecofascism. That becomes ecofascism, and it horrifies me to think that anything ecological—even that word ‘eco’—could be attached to fascism.

First and foremost, we must go back to the utopian tradition, in the richest sense of the word. Not to the electronic tradition, not to the tradition of NASA, not to the tradition of Sir Isaac Newton, in which the whole world was a machine or a watch. 

You can travel all over the country and learn nothing, because you’re carrying something that’s very important with you, that will decide whether you learn or not, and that is: yourself. Move to California tomorrow, and if you’ve still got the same psychological and spiritual and intellectual problems, you’ll be sweating it out in San Francisco no differently than you do in Amherst or New York. That is the important thing—to recover yourself, to begin to create a community. And what kind of community imagination can begin to create. 

What does it mean to be utopian?

‘Imagination to power’, as the French students said. ‘Be practical, do the impossible’, because if you don’t do the impossible, as I’ve cried out over and over again, we’re going to wind up with the unthinkable—and that will be the destruction of the planet itself. So to do the impossible is the most rational and practical thing we can do. And that impossible is both in our own conviction and in our shared conviction with our brothers and sisters, to begin to try to create, or work toward a very distinct notion of what constitutes a finally truly liberated as well as ecological society. A utopian notion, not a futuristic notion. 

It finally means this: that we have to begin to develop ecological communities. Not just an ecological society—ecological communities, made up of comparatively small numbers of groups, and beautiful communities spaced apart from each other so that you could almost walk to them, not merely have to get into a car and travel sixty or seventy miles to reach them. It means that we have to reopen the land and reuse it again to create organic garden beds, and learn how to develop a new agriculture in which we’ll all participate in the horticulture. 

If you don’t do the impossible, we’re going to wind up with the unthinkable—and that will be the destruction of the planet itself.

We have to look into communities that we can take into a single view, as Aristotle said more than 2200 years ago—and we have yet to learn a great deal from the Greeks, despite all their shortcomings as slave-owners and as patriarchs—a community that we can take into a single view, so that we can know each other. Not a community in which we know each other not by virtue of sitting around and talking over the telephone, or listening to some honcho talk over a microphone, or listening to some bigger honcho talk over a television screen. It has to be done by sitting around in communities, in those town meetings, and in those structures which we have here in the United States as part of the legacy, at least—the best legacy of the United States—and start thinking utopian in the fullest sense of the word.

We have also to develop our own technologies. We can’t let other people simply build them for us. They can’t be transported from God knows where to us. We have to know how to fix our faucets, and create our own collectives. We have to become richly diversified human beings. We have to be capable of doing many different things. We have to be farmer-citizens and citizen-farmers. We have to recover the ideal that even a Ben Franklin—who by no means can be regarded, in my opinion anyway, as anything slightly more than a philistine—believed in the 18th century: you can both print and read, and when you printed, you read what you printed. That’s what we have to bring to ourselves. We have to think not in terms, merely, of change; we have to think in terms of growth. We have to use the language of ecology so that we can touch each other with the magic of words and communicate with each other, with the magic and the richness of concepts, not of catchphrases that are really snappy [snaps fingers]—’input’, ‘output’.’Dialogue’ is longer, but it has a beautiful ring to it. Dia logos, speech between two, talking between two. Logos—logic, reasoning out creatively, dialectically, and growing through conversation, and growing through communication. This is what I mean by utopia. We have to go back to Fourier, who said that measure of a society’s oppression could be determined by the way it treats its women. It was not Marx who said that, it was Charles Fourier…. We have to go back to the rich tradition of the New England town meeting, and all that was healthy in it and recover that and learn a new type of confederalism.

Today, the real movements of the future insofar as they are utopian in their outlook—insofar as they are trying to create not an extension of the present, but trying to create something that is truly new, that alone can rescue life, human spirit, as well as the ecology of this planet—must be built around a new, rich communication, not between leader and led—but between student and teacher, so that every student can eventually become a teacher, and not a dictator, a governor, a controller and a manipulator. 

And above all, we have to think organically. We have to think organically—not electronically. We have to think in terms of life and biology, not in terms of watches and physics. We have to think in terms of what is human, not what is merely small or big, because that alone will be beautiful. Any society that seeks to create utopia will not only be a society that is free, it also has to be a society that is beautiful. There can no longer be any separation—any more than between mind and body—between art and the development of a free society. We must become artists now, not only ecologists, utopians. Not futurists, not environmentalists. 

[applause]

Murray Bookchin was asked two relevant questions from the audience, which were inaudible in the recording. The first questioner asked if he was against technology. 

Murray Bookchin: No, that is not at all true. I see a very great use for technology. What I’m talking about is a technocracy. What I’m talking about is rule by technicians. What I’m talking about is the use of various types of technological devices that are inhuman to people and inhuman in their scale, and cannot be controlled by people. The beauty of an ecological technology—an ecotechnology, or a liberatory technology, or an alternative technology—is that people can understand it if they are willing to try to devote some degree of effort to doing so. It’s simplicity, wherever possible, it’s small-scale, wherever possible. That’s what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about going back to the paleolithic, I’m not talking about going back into caves. We cannot go back to that and I don’t think we want to go back to that. 

In the next question from the audience, Bookchin is asked to, very concretely, describe his political vision. There is laughter after the question. 

I’m going to be really hard rocks about this and get down to it and not just tell you that I’m giving you some vague philosophical principles. I would like to see communities, food cooperatives, affinity groups, all these types of structures—town meetings developed all over the United States. I’d like to see neighborhood organizations, non-hierarchical in their form, developed all over the United States, from New York City to San Francisco, from rural Vermont to urban California. When these particular organizations develop rapidly and confederate, at first regionally, and hopefully, nationally, and perhaps even internationally—because we are no longer talking about the United States alone, we’re even talking about what’s going on in the Soviet Union to a very great extent—I hope they will then, through one way or another, by example and through education win the majority of people to this sensibility. And having done this, demand that society be changed, and then afterward we’ll have to face whatever we have to face. The only alternative we have after that, if we don’t do that, will be as follows: we will be organized into bureaucracies, bureaucracies in the name of progress, as well as bureaucracies in the name of reaction, as well as bureaucracies in the name of the status quo. And if we’re organized in the form of these bureaucracies, whether we use solar power or nerve gas, it makes no difference, we’re going to wind up, ultimately, with the same thing. In fact, the idea that solar power or wind power or methane is today being used instead of fossil fuels, will merely become an excuse for maintaining the same multinational, corporate, and hierarchical system that we have today. 

So I propose that those types of organizations, and those types of social forms, be developed all over the country, and increasingly hopefully affect the majority of opinion, to a point where the American people, in one way or another, make their voices heard, because they are the overwhelming majority, and say they want to change the society. And if America turns over, the whole world will change, in my personal opinion. Because this happens to be the center, literally the keystone of what I would call the whole capitalistic system that today envelops the world, whether it be China, Cuba and Russia, or whether it be the United States, Canada and Western Europe. That is, very concretely, what I propose. 

Daydreams are dangerous. They are pieces of imagination, they are bits of poetry. They are the balloons that fly up in history.

I’d like to make this very clear, the American people first will begin to change unconsciously, before they change consciously. You’ll go around to them and you’ll say, what do you think of work? And they’ll say it’s noble. You’ll ask them what do you think of property? And they’ll say it’s sacred. And you’ll ask them, what do they think of motherhood, they’ll say it’s grand, it’s godly. What do you think of religion and they’ll say they belong to it and they are completely devoted to it. You’ll ask them, what do they think of America, and they’ll say, either love it or leave it.  You’ll say, what do you think of the flag and they’ll say it’s glorious, Old Glory.

But then one day something is going to happen. One day, the unconscious, the expectation, the dream, the imagination, the hope that you go to bed with as you sink into the twilight hours of sleep, or the early morning when you daydream, just after the alarm clock has gone off and you’ve shut it down—those expectations and dreams that lie buried in the unconscious mind of millions upon millions of American people are going to break right into consciousness. And when they break right into consciousness, heaven help this society. [audience cheers] I’m very serious. 

That is the strange catalysis, the strange process of education; everyone today is schizophrenic, we’re all leading double lives, and we know it. And not only are we leading double lives, those ordinary—so-called ‘ordinary’—people out there are also leading double lives. And one day, that double life is going to become one life. Maybe it’ll be for the worse. But maybe it’ll be for the better. At that particular point, maybe something like May, June 1968 in Paris will start. All over the place, all kinds of flags will go up that don’t look like the flag we’re accustomed to seeing. [laughter from audience] Maybe black or red, I don’t know. At that particular point, millions of people will stop working, and they’ll start discussing.

Then you’ll have that terrifying situation called mob rule. But that will happen, and that’s what happened here in 1776, they believed in the King, right up until July 1776. In the meantime, they were having doubts. They didn’t even know they didn’t like the monarchy. But one day they woke up and said, the hell with King George. And they ran ahead, and they wrote the Declaration of Independence, and it was read to the troops. At that particular point, the Union Jack went down and the Stars and Stripes went up. This is the way people actually change. People change unconsciously before they change consciously. They begin to float dreams—daydreams are dangerous. Daydreams are pieces of imagination, they are bits of poetry. They are the balloons that fly up in history. 

Transcribed and edited by Constanze Huther.

Murray Bookchin was a political theorist, philosopher, and activist. He developed the philosophy of social ecology and the political theory of libertarian municipalism, or communalism, which has influenced the growing ‘municipalist’ movement around the world. He was the co-founder of the Institute for Social Ecology, which is still active today. Bookchin died in 2006. The full audio version of this speech is available from the University of Massachusetts Special Collections and University Archives here.  

This text is ©2019 and published with the permission of The Bookchin Trust. For permission requests contact: bookchindebbie@gmail.com.

All photos are by Lionel Delevingne, taken between 1975-1978, reprinted with permission from the Lionel Delevingne Photograph Collection at UMass Amherst. Thank you to Eleanor Finley for obtaining the scans.

Redwashing capital

by Rob Wallace

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Aaron Bastani, author of Fully Automated Luxury Communism, called refusals to adapt capitalist technologies under anti-capitalism’s banner a failure of imagination:

Ours is an age of crisis. We inhabit a world of low growth, low productivity and low wages, of climate breakdown and the collapse of democratic politics. A world where billions, mostly in the global south, live in poverty. A world defined by inequality.

But the most pressing crisis of all, arguably, is an absence of collective imagination. It is as if humanity has been afflicted by a psychological complex, in which we believe the present world is stronger than our capacity to remake it—as if it were not our ancestors who created what stands before us now. As if the very essence of humanity, if there is such a thing, is not to constantly build new worlds.

If we can move beyond such a failure, we will be able to see something wonderful. The plummeting cost of information and advances in technology are providing the ground for a collective future of freedom and luxury for all.

There is much to unpack here, part and parcel of a futurism more social democratic than communist already critically reviewed here, here, and here.

Are democratic politics even possible under capitalism, as Bastani off-handedly presumes? Is high growth an appropriate economic marker even out of capitalist hands? And what of the apparent disconnect here between all the new toys Bastani stans and that poverty in the global South?

I’ll be confining my objections here to the analytical core of Bastani’s thesis, before briefly turning to what a science (and tech) for the people, tied to a truly transformative shift in human relations, is already looking like instead.

On its face, the thesis is simple enough. Karl Marx, Bastani argues, was a capitalist. He even wrote a book about it. It’s a line for which the internet fed billionaire Elon Musk through a digital woodchipper. Herman Melville was a white whale, one wag riposted.

Here, Bastani spins the reversal with a more erudite flair, claiming Marx’s affinities for capitalism were more utilitarian. Communism depends on capitalism, much as children depend on their parents. There must first be a means of production to seize, after all. The deduction capsizes the standard interpretation that Marx pursued his studies as a critique—right there in the subtitle of his major work—by which we might break from capitalism.

That doesn’t mean socializing capitalism is by definition the only option forward. Now that would be a failure of imagination.

It follows, Bastani continues, that a techno-optimism around the best of what capitalism produces is the only communist future possible. It’s a veritable truism that any new future will begin with where history to this point has left us off. To various degrees, all of us are presently slated inside capitalism’s historical moment. But, against Bastani, that doesn’t mean socializing capitalism is by definition the only option forward. Now that would be a failure of imagination.

It’s a notion that also opens a path to capitalizing socialism, exactly as Marx himself warned. Such strategy assumes capitalist power bends to good ideas and not, with enough cash and violence, the other way around. “In Amerika,” to reappropriate the prototypical Cold War sendup, “capital socializes you.”

Cyborg Marx vs Ecological Marx

In a follow-up on the Verso blog, Bastani paints Marx an out-and-out tech-utopian, ignoring the documented ecological Marx and more critical interpretations of the Grundrisse’s “Fragment on Machines” on which Bastani bases his argument:

An aspect of Marx’s thinking which remains underemphasised is how he recognised capitalism’s tendency to progressively replace labouranimal and human, physical and cognitivewith machines. In a system replete with contradictions, it was this one in particular which rendered it a force of potential liberation.

Media philosopher McKenzie Wark, for one, is sympathetically dismissive of this middle Marx:

Read as low theory, rather than philosophy, Marx’s 1858 “Fragment on Machines” turns out to be interesting but of its time. He is bamboozled by this new machine system form of tech. He describes it, in mystified form as “a moving power that moves itself”. Actually it isn’t. A whole dimension is missing here: the forces of production are also energy systems. Entirely absent from this text is the simple fact that industrialization had run through all the forests of Northern Europe and then switched to coal, which was in turn more or less exhausted by our time. This is connected, as we shall see, to Marx’s failure to think through the metaphor of metabolism in this text.

By way of human ecologist Andreas Malm and environmental sociologist John Bellamy Foster, Wark argues that Bastani-like celebrations of communist cyberocracy, in which machines reduce labour time in favor of people’s leisure, omit a critical element. They miss our relationship with the environment, the other key component of human appropriation. “Notice,” Wark continues,

how energy finally appears here, but only the energy of human labor. [Marx] has not [yet] grasped the extent to which the replacement of human energy with fossil-fuel energy is very central to how capitalism unfolded.

A mature Marx concurred, placing the correction front and centre. Indeed, in terms that read as if directed at Bastani point-by-point, he begins the Critique of the Gotha Program by explicitly denouncing such an omission as a part of the bourgeois program:

“Labor is the source of all wealth and all culture.”

Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. The above phrase is to be found in all children’s primers and is correct insofar as it is implied that labor is performed with the appurtenant subjects and instruments. But a socialist program cannot allow such bourgeois phrases to pass over in silence the conditions that lone give them meaning. And insofar as man from the beginning behaves toward nature, the primary source of all instruments and subjects of labor, as an owner, treats her as belonging to him, his labor becomes the source of use values, therefore also of wealth.

The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor. He can only work with their permission, hence live only with their permission.

Much else is missing. Bastani’s steampunk portraiture—Marx’s telescopic eye short-circuiting his own beard afire—sidelines the ways capitalist tech, and the limited problems its owners choose to solve, penetrate our social relations at their foundations. The modes of production Bastani celebrates in capitalism co-produce the relations of production—capital dominating the proletariat—to which he says he objects.

In agriculture, for instance, the gene editing Bastani champions isn’t really about solving problems presented in an albeit historicized natural economy still dependent on the sun, seasons, and organisms’ life cycles. These problems are dealt with in direct terms today by those agroecologies worldwide that haven’t been smashed by capitalist land grabs. The latest and greatest in genetic engineering aren’t needed where traditional breeding programs are perfectly capable even under rapid climate change. Proprietary GMOs are more about looping farmers into a ratchet of production that both subjects them to labour discipline and helps garnish the near-entirety of farm revenue.

Indeed—funny enough given Bastani’s tech fetish—capital is perfectly happy trashing research and development if its monopolies in economy and State power succeed in depressing competition and externalizing such costs of production to labour, consumer, government, and nature. In other words, the efficiencies for which capital incessantly searches, squeezing out every iota of surplus value, often have little to do with commodity production directly.

New tech can even get in the way of profit. Solar energy is only the most obvious example. But the drag is everywhere. Alongside reducing the number of breeding lines across plant and animal species, agribusiness consolidation reduces the numbers of geneticists working in the sector. Homogenization divorced from the biologies and behaviors of livestock extends to the science pursued.

Tech’s environmental hoaxes

By these trajectories, Big Ag, emblematic of other industries, corners itself into some darkly hilarious traps of its own making.

In the face of African swine fever, presently the world’s largest-ever livestock disease outbreak, the hog sector is pursuing suddenly fashionable facial recognition software to keep track of sick pigs (without changing the husbandry that sickens them). Despite efforts on the part of the sector to blame backyard producers, the outbreak is progressing hand-in-hoof with sharp increases in the numbers of total and per-farm head, declines in hog diversity, explosive growth in international exports shipping millions of head country-to-country, and a system design disallowing hybrid hogs who survive from breeding on-site and passing on their immunity. The incapacity to respond to African swine fever and other deadly diseases is built into the economic model before a single hog gets sick.  

In other words, the sources of liberation technology Bastani upholds in actuality embody the very alienation to which Marx objected, divorcing both nature and humanity from possible solutions as problems arise. I’m not the first to point this out. Rut Elliot Blomqvist directly addressed this gap in Bastani’s argument last year. But power, as apparently playacted by the ecomodernist Left, is found in refusing to respond to such counternarratives with anything other than tweeted insult.

There are other interactions between our two sources of wealth—labour and the environment—that belie tech’s easy payoff. The environment can destroy labour and machines; earthquakes, for instance, to choose what was up until fracking the least socialized “natural” disaster outside a meteor strike. Of course, choosing to build a nuclear facility on a major fault is entirely money over matter run amok.

By the second contradiction of capitalism, labour and tech, in the other direction, can destroy the environments upon which they depend. Much of colonialism involves spatial fixes by which this damage is externalized onto the Indigenous, up until imperial might or the resources themselves or both run out. The cycle of accumulation then retracts into internal colonization as capital cashes out, as in the case of fracking in the U.S. Unless the resulting damage just offers the next window of investment, as, for instance, with oil and sand opening up in a melting Arctic.

Should the chain of relative opportunities conclude in abandoning the planet, dead Mars, as even well-intended techno-optimism has cheered, somehow represents a happy ending and not a recursion spun off into space. A Hard Times headline summarized an analogous trap in all its dialectical tragicomedy: “Desperate Attempt to Escape Mosh Pit Looks Exactly Like Moshing.”

As Marxism has long observed, even under the neoclassical model, tech repeatedly drives itself into a ditch. Innovations score quick profits until the new fixed capital spreads, competition intensifies, and economic crises precipitate, to be alleviated, or, better put, reconstituted by exports, monopoly, and war.

And by out-and-out murderous fraud. As we learned earlier this year, why deliver a fully functioning plane when you can upsell basic safety features? With Big Pharma in a productivity crisis, and the number of new drug classes in secular collapse, Sackler-owned Purdue Pharma pursued a “Project Tango” by which it sold cures to the opioid addictions that company reps, “turbocharging sales,” pushed doctors to prescribe in the first place. The company, turning rent-seeking from land to body, aimed to make itself an “end-to-end pain provider.”

In promising fully automated communism, left technologism quietly factors out our present pace in tech evolution from the market cycles underlying it.

Another round of innovation isn’t necessarily about use value, as tech-optimists focus on, but on resetting such market grifts. As the payoff is the endpoint that matters, many an innovation is only tangentially related to what the commodity is used for by the consumer. In promising fully automated communism, left technologism quietly factors out our present pace in tech evolution from the market cycles underlying it. But planned obsolesce and other such sleights-of-hand shouldn’t be folded in as virtues in any vision of modern communism.

It isn’t just the resulting despoliation of land and sea that shows environmental conservation is antithetical to the rules of this game. Against the hype of green capitalism, more efficient production, say, growing more food per hectare, doesn’t save the environment. By the Jevons paradox, such successes only spread out, taking the lead eating through the “saved” resource. Along the way, as more of the resource is destroyed, what’s left of what once was part of our shared commons suddenly accrues value it never had. Under Lauderdale’s paradox, a decaying resource base isn’t grounds for good corporate governance but serves as the basis for a fight for the leftovers, as in the case of the multinational rush for the last of the world’s “virgin” farmland in Africa.

As if right off the pages of the National Review, left accelerationists square this circle by dismissing environmentalism as neo-Malthusian catastrophism. There are no ecological precipices, they claim. A boundless nature automatically cleans up after humanity’s expropriation. Water, for one, doesn’t disappear, Jacobin accelerationist and Verso author Leigh Phillips posted on a recent Facebook thread, it just transforms into another form something else in the food chain can use. It’s a Žižekian gambit, the philosopher’s lateral lisp ablazing: DEY VILL BE MORE ECOSOCIALISH DAN DA ECOSOCIALISH DEMSHELVE. With a neoclassical faith in Earth’s regenerative powers that outstrips the biosphere itself.

Back on this planet, on the other hand, with an uneven relational geography of per capita freshwater use largely driven by global North agriculture and industrial production alienated from the very ecological processes appealed to here, many a region’s quantifiable, and, yes, limited supply of potable water is crashing out.

History isn’t deterministic

The ecomodernist missteps track back to inception.   

Marx hypothesized capital originated in a similar if era-specific game of socioenvironmental whack-a-mole. To return to the very Grundrisse to which accelerationists appeal and, as excerpted here, in the earlier German Ideology he wrote with Engels, Marx traced capitalism’s genesis as a spiraling dialectic of population, machine, expropriation, and geography:

The labour which from the first presupposed a machine, even of the crudest sort, soon showed itself the most capable of development. Weaving, earlier carried on in the country by the peasants as a secondary occupation to procure their clothing, was the first labour to receive an impetus and a further development through the extension of commerce. Weaving was the first and remained the principal manufacture. The rising demand for clothing materials, consequent on the growth of population, the growing accumulation and mobilisation of natural capital through accelerated circulation, the demand for luxuries called forth by the latter and favoured generally by the gradual extension of commerce, gave weaving a quantitative and qualitative stimulus, which wrenched it out of the form of production hitherto existing.

Alongside the peasants weaving for their own use, who continued with this sort of work, there emerged a new class of weavers in the towns, whose fabrics were destined for the whole home market and usually for foreign markets too. Weaving, an occupation demanding in most cases little skill and soon splitting up into countless branches, by its whole nature resisted the trammels of the gild. Weaving was therefore carried on mostly in villages and market-centres without gild organisation, which gradually became towns, indeed the most flourishing towns.

That is, by its very own combos of due cause and historical chance, feudalism arrived upon the circumstances that prefigured capital. In a dizzying dance, the effects of one feudal process turned into the causes of another, to and fro.

So contrary to tales left and right of capitalism’s genesis, capital never sprang from Adam Smith’s or Milton Friedman’s (or Dr. Dre’s) head fully formed. The transition in the prevalent mode of production, as Marx and Engels tie it off here, emerged woven out of conditionally translated factors:

With gild-free manufacture, property relations also quickly changed. The first advance beyond natural, estate-capital was provided by the rise of merchants whose capital was from the beginning moveable, capital in the modern sense as far as one can speak of it, given the circumstances of those times. The second advance came with manufacture, which again made mobile a mass of natural capital, and altogether increased the mass of movable capital as against that of natural capital. At the same time, manufacture became a refuge of [free labour] peasants from the gilds which excluded them or paid them badly, just as earlier the gild-towns had served as a refuge for the peasants from the oppressive landed nobility.

Feudalism could very well have ended a different way. If we leap-frog forward into what we presume will be the far side of the age of capitalism, we should expect a similar storyboard, with cause and effect and happenstance pinballing back and forth. Facile determinism was, and will never be, the order of the day. Stochastic outcomes burble out from between social systems’ historical constraints.

Liberation, then, isn’t just a matter of seizing physical factories, as if the objects they produce, the ring of all rings, my precious, are revolution in a package. It’s fascinating the extent to which some liberals grasp this point better than our leftish techno-determinists. In encapsulating the grim scientific projections for climate change in his recent book, a David Wallace-Wells still bewitched with “our” present lifestyle hedged that

these twelve threats described in these twelve chapters yield a portrait of the future only as best as it can be painted in the present. What actually lies ahead may prove even grimmer, though the reverse, of course, is also possible. The map of our new world will be drawn in part by natural processes that remain mysterious, but more definitively by human hands. At what point will the climate change grow undeniable, un-compartmentalizable? How much damage will have already been selfishly done? How quickly will we act to save ourselves and preserve as much of the way of life we know today as possible?

For the sake of clarity, I’ve treated each of the threats from climate change—sea-level rise, food scarcity, economic stagnation—as discrete threats, which they are not. Some may prove offsetting, some mutually reinforcing, and others merely adjacent. But together they form a latticework of climate crisis, beneath which at least some humans, and probably many billions, will live.

The urban legend that Marx saw the most industrially advanced countries as necessarily the communist vanguard was dead wrong.

One can see why historian Eric Hobsbawm, bashing the arguments of Jacobin publisher Bhaskar Sunkara’s socialist manifesto before it was fashionable, insisted, as much as a matter of method as fact, that the urban legend that Marx saw the most industrially advanced countries as necessarily the communist vanguard was dead wrong. In fact, Hobsbawm continued, for better or worse, Marx and Engels placed early bets on a revolutionary (and decidedly agrarian) Russia:

No misinterpretation of Marx is more grotesque than the one that suggests that he expected a revolution exclusively from the advanced industrial countries of the West…

Engels records their hopes of a Russian revolution in the late 1870s and in 1894 specifically looks forward to the possibility of “the Russian revolution giving the signal for the workers’ revolution in the West, so that both supplement each other.”

Such a series of retroactive reversals—an ecological Marx, the gap between tech and problem-solving, and the possibility that communisms can emerge on the periphery out of a different combinatorial of production—is hard to assimilate if you’ve founded your political program upon radicalizing commodity fetishism at capital’s centre.

Turning outer space into Flint

The particulars are as goofy as they are galling.

If, as it appears in his Times piece, Bastani thinks food is only about basic nutrition or good taste (however important these both are), then he has bought exactly into an agribusiness productivism that making lots of (marketable) food is the task at hand.

No wonder lab meat and other examples of cellular agriculture ring his bell. Never mind food fully engulfed by industrial processing represents the next generation in expropriation. No peasant in the Amazon helping cultivate regenerative agroecologies need apply under Amazon’s (or Uber’s) business plan for drone-striking edible petri dishes to your shipping container’s door. Never mind such pellets are being produced by the very venture capital that helped bring about the environmental crises in the first place. It’s as if tech frisson alone is enough of a rationale to keep capital in power and objections to cease fire.

Food sovereignty, in contrast, extends beyond such vulgar food security to a people’s right to control their land and labour in the course of producing culturally appropriate food they—they!—wish to grow and eat, if under the constraints of regional planning and wider gyres of global circulation.

Bastani’s wanton oversimplifications extend to health and energy. In an age of poisoned water in Flint, Michigan and the opioid epidemics spreading across farming communities around the world, he calls for tech-led interventions into health that are grounded in commoditization-friendly preformationisms about human biology. Health and disease are inside you from the start. One just needs a pill or genetic intervention to cure you. But in reality, such reductionist medicine works for only some diseases and is conspicuous in its dearth of notions of shared public health outside pharmaceutical market shares.

Backing an anti-Marxist ecology, Bastani pegs our energy demands to mining asteroids. Marx’s “Theft of Wood” in outer space. At what cost to Earth will it take to get us up there? Who will control the mines across The Expanse? Does this political economist’s effort to think through the likely political economy to emerge out of such a program extend beyond the cheery engineering porn many such Left proponents can’t seem to understand as it is?

Philosopher Alain Badiou is scathing of such a cheap politics, in this case so literal in its actualization:

Blind worship of “novelty” and contempt for established truths. This comes straight out of the commercial cult of the “novelty” of products and out of a persistent belief that something is being “started” that has already happened many times before. It simultaneously prevents people from learning from the past, from understanding how structural repetitions work, and from not falling for fake “modernities.”

A Left actually working in the natural sciences is arriving at different conclusions, sketching out the horrific details of emerging capital-led tech.

Over a series of technical monographs (here, here, and here), mathematical epidemiologist Rodrick Wallace uses information theory and control theory to show efforts at developing artificial intelligence for driverless cars or electric grids are grounded upon badly supported models of human consciousness. The resulting fast-tracked experiments in silicon cognition, conducted on public roads with little regulatory supervision, are lining up as high-stakes demonstrations of what Wallace has described as machine psychopathology:

The asymptotic limit theorems of control and information theories make it possible to explore the dynamics of collapse likely to afflict large-scale systems of autonomous ground vehicles that communicate with each other and with an embedding intelligent roadway. Any vehicle/road system is inherently unstable in the control theory sense as a consequence of the basic irregularities of the traffic stream, the road network, and their interactions, placing it in the realm of the Data Rate Theorem that mandates a minimum necessary rate of control information for stability. It appears that large-scale [vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure] systems will experience correspondingly large-scale failures analogous to the vast, propagating fronts of power network blackouts, and possibly less benign but more subtle patterns of individual vehicle, platoon, and mesoscale dysfunction.

The moral calculus of the resulting accidents—who will driverless cars choose to kill—is giving even sociopaths such as Henry Kissinger the kind of pause that escapes our future-so-bright Left.

The information and tech revolutions Bastani presents as a cheap exit out of our present mess are proving costly even on days in which operations work perfectly.

The information and tech revolutions Bastani presents as a cheap exit out of our present mess are proving costly beyond such failures, even, much like infamous Bitcoin, on days in which operations work perfectly. Technology Review reports:

In a new paper, researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, performed a life cycle assessment for training several common large AI models. They found that the process can emit more than 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent—nearly five times the lifetime emissions of the average American car (and that includes manufacture of the car itself).

The fully automated communist equivalent, sharing similar presumptions, much as Stalin and Cargill on industrialized agriculture or the convergent political ergonomics behind Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, would likely differ little in its catastrophic outcomes save perhaps who exactly picks up the tab.

In parallel to the misplaced magical thinking that disappears such inconveniences, the ecomodernist program is fitted with a political tin ear as if a single EarPod (the other lost at a boozy IPO launch). “Let’s leave Earth!” enthuses one of its planks.

Now there’s a rallying cry for the proletariat who are to be left behind. Space exploration extending beyond telescopy and into colonization represents the kind of innovation in accumulation that until now has given only more power to the Jeff Bezoses of the world. Or the Adam Dunkels, in the social democratic version. Through the guarded gate of a gravity well and with every canister of food, water, and air necessarily manufactured—and, as in Flint’s water, turned into a fictitious commodity—the powerful, already remote-programming on-the-spot firings, would be better able to control the people Bastani claims he aims to liberate.

Socializing sciences for the people

Even on their own terms, these phantasmagorias suck. Are other futures possible?

Ecosocialism and ecocommunism aim to transform society “away from socially and ecologically destructive systems.” Our capacity to socially reproduce ourselves as a species requires we integrate production, conservation, and human liberation—across labour, race, indigeneity, and gender, among other axes.

Against ecomodernist smears, alternatives in ecosocialism (here, here, and here, for a starter kit) aren’t organized around prelapsarian fantasies of returning to a mode of production that existed nowhere save in the minds of its critics. They are not, as left business observer Doug Henwood and other accelerationists repeatedly troll, neo-primitivisms championing eating twigs, living in huts, and reducing the human population by 90%.

“[Accelerationism’s] main shortcoming,” anarchist social theorist Kevin Carson rolls his eyes,

is a failure to understand the significance of the technologies it sees as the basis for the post-capitalist system. Although Accelerationism celebrates advances in cybernetic technology and network communications as the building blocks of post-scarcity communism, it is tone deaf when it comes to the specific nature of the promise offered by these technologies, and actually runs directly counter to them. This failure includes a lazy conflation of localism and horizontalism with primitivism and backwardness (to the point of treating ‘neo-primitivist localism’ as a single phrase), and a lionization of verticality, centralism and planning.

Dark ecologist Timothy Morton engages this position at its source:

[The] Severing [between the reality of a human-centric world and the real of ecological symbiosis across species] has produced physical as well as psychic effects, scars of the rip between reality and the real. One thinks of the Platonic dichotomy of body and soul: the chariot and the charioteer, the chariot whose horses are always trying to pull away in another direction. The phenomenology of First Peoples points in this direction, but left thought hasn’t been looking that way, fearful of primitivism, a concept that inhibits thinking outside agrilogistic parameters [of an industrial ecology without nature].

Agroecologies and other community-led models mind this gap, organizing their ethoses around nature’s intrinsic fecundity while regularly adapting to the latest that soil and other regenerative sciences have to offer when made available. Along the way, these ‘back road’ methods refuse to divorce modes and relations of production as a matter of first principle. Nor do they just hand over their land and labour to assuage the brand loyalties upon which the Henwoods of the world glom as if in existential terror. 

In something of an afterthought in the best annihilation of the ecomodernist program I’ve read this year, development sociologist Max Ajlexplains how new tech can indeed be used, but from the start must be folded into a recursively negotiated model of how we are to socially reproduce ourselves as a society:

A second potential course of action is devoting as much research as possible into lessening the difficulty of the [agriculture] labour involved, through—of course!—technology. In both [what is now capital’s] core and periphery, how much farming will be mechanized and, more importantly, which tasks should not be mechanized remain open questions. So, too, is the meaning of mechanization, and what kinds of tools can spare labour without excess energy-intensive extraction. How much we can replace hard labour with constant attention through human presence and careful intervention in natural cycles is another open question.

In describing a novel municipal food program in Brazil that central planning, without a single robot deployed, scaled up to feeding hundreds of thousands from forest-adjacent farm to city table, political agroecologist Jahi Chappell suggested our social institutions can be as unworldly an advance as any handheld gadget:

The truth is that the future will be based not on the promises of whiz-bang technology, but on the more mundane features of the decisions our societies make about what we will do, how we will do it, and who will get to decide. That is, our future fates are based on our institutions. “Institutions,” as a technical term, refers to the rules prevalent in a society. They are essentially about how we run our lives individually and collectively, and the many conscious, and unconscious, mechanics underneath the surface. Our ancestors would likely be just as shocked at these institutional foundations of our current societies as they would be at the tools and technology that support them. Institutions, in this way, are as much the stuff of sci-fi fantasy as bleeding-edge plant breeding techniques and the Dick Tracy wrist-radio/watches some of us now wear on our wrists. 

It’s as if, as environmental humanities scholar Anthony Galluzzo posted recently, humanity, not tech is—ha—the engine of history. Again, it’ll be people, not science alone, environmental scientist Erle Ellis wrote in another Times op-ed, who’ll save us from ecological collapse.

Tech bros win-winning the world away

So what to make of this fringe of Marxian tech bros with outsized access Chappell and Galluzzo dubbed the Jetsonian Left, beyond its recapitulating industry’s penchant for finding due cause in objects, rather than in an ecosocial scope capital can’t easily flip into commodities?

Given the generic corporate marketing in what presents itself as anti-capitalist doctrine, one of the few explanations that lines up the albeit scattered dots is that Bastani and his fellow Prometheans see something they like of themselves in their bourgeois enemies. It may explain in part why Bastani, hog-tying himself this way, got his ass whipped on TV by a doddering foursome of system apologists.

And capital, so skilled at such flattery, is happy to oblige. By historian Joseph Fracchia’s account, Marx saw materialism outside merely the “stuff” of the world. Capital also deploys innovations in the social and the semiotic—through many of Chappell’s institutions it’s captured—to help organize production and the greater cultural environment in its favor.

The resulting dynamics now playing out are textbook. Reformists, observed historian Doug Greene on Facebook, are demanding revolutionaries skip what was the centennial of an outdated communist revolution. Also, they continue, “‘We should adapt the exciting ideas of [long-dead social democrat] Karl Kautsky!‘”

When the spectre of revolution re-emerges—percolating today from the Yellow Vests to Sudan and it seems increasingly underneath elsewhere—there’s always room for Leftists who propose more of the establishment as the radical path forward. It’s a road their capitalist allies and even out-and-out employers—Galluzzo points out Jacobin author Leigh Phillips works for the nuclear industry—would never let them anywhere near commandeering. 

With capitalists scared sleepless by revolution, redwashing has re-emerged.

In other words, there’s always a future, even a communist futurism, for useful idiots too smart to fail. With capitalists scared sleepless by revolution, redwashing has re-emerged. While the term has been used to denote corporate donations to Indigenous causes or redbaiting progressives, in the face of growing public abjection, the capitalist class now appears searching for the shelter of left paraphernalia beyond selling back revolt.   

And the customer-centric talent that capital seeks, showing up as if incarnating an epochal process, is now offering to scale up these win-win deliverables. Just six months ago, his Fully Automated manuscript already in press at Verso, Bastani tweeted:

I’m a big fan of capitalism from 1800-1980. It’s just now that record is facing serious, sustained, and arguably secular challenges.

Just now, mind you. After Native American genocide, Black slavery, Victorian holocausts, child labour, the Great Depression and Nazi Germany, Vietnam and fifty years of other proxy wars, and environmental ruination across the global South. “Challenges,” he calls them, as if on spec, pitching some Silicon Valley moneybags. Because, yeah, those guys, biohacking their computer selves to liver failure or dying in line at the Mount Everest gift shop, should arbitrate the world’s next steps.

The automation pursued out of such base appeals may be increasing in extent and luxury, but there’s little communist about it. People and the planet deserve far better.

Rob Wallace is an evolutionary biologist and public health phylogeographer. He is author of Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science and, most recently, co-author of Clear-Cutting Disease Control: Capital-Led Deforestation, Public Health Austerity, and Vector-Borne Infection

September readings

Source: Shareable

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

Over the past month we saw an uptick in conversations on degrowth in both mainstream and leftist media in the aftermath of two degrowth conferences in Sweden and Mexico and in connection to a “post-growth” conference in the EU Parliament in Belgium. We’ve also been reading about resistance, community building, and struggle for autonomy and control of land in cities and rural areas around the world—and about criminalization of this resistance. And as usual there are articles about environmental and climate injustice, socialism and the limits of “green” technologies, and new political organizing practices.

Uneven Earth updates

We’re excited to announce our new call for submissions for futuristic imaginaries! We are looking for science fiction, science fiction-inspired thoughts, and critical analyses of sci-fi, this time with a focus on pieces that engage with place-based histories and geographies.

The shock doctrine of the left | Link | New book by Graham Jones is part map, part story, part escape manual

How the world breaks | Link | Stan and Paul Cox describe the destructive force of nature in the context of climate change

How radical municipalism can go beyond the local | Link | Fighting for more affordable, accessible places to live means fighting for a less carbon-intensive future

Top 5 articles to read

Save us the smugness over 2018’s heatwaves, environmentalists. In this historically precarious moment, we need something more fundamental than climate strategies built on shame and castigation. But, note that there is no evidence that environmentalists are at all smug.

‘For me, this is paradise’: life in the Spanish city that banned cars

Rise of agri-cartel: Control of land drives human rights violations, environmental destruction

Where are the Indigenous children who never came home?

Disaster collectivism: How communities rise together to respond to crises

News you might’ve missed

Harvard’s foreign farmland investment mess. An article in Bloomberg highlights a new report by GRAIN on Harvard’s investment in land grabbing.

Modi’s McCarthyist attack on left-leaning intellectuals threatens India’s democracy

There’s been a worrying trend of criminalizing earth defenders around the world:

‘Treating protest as terrorism’: US plans crackdown on Keystone XL activists

Criminalization and violence increasingly used to silence indigenous protest, according to UN report

Fracking protesters’ ‘absurdly harsh’ jail sentences spark calls for judicial review backed by hundreds of scientists

After five years of living in trees, a protest community is being evicted. The German police is evicting activists who are occupying the 12,000 year old Hambach Forest to block the expansion of lignite coal mining. (The yearly Ende Gelände mass action of civil disobedience against the open-pit mine is coming up this month, on 25th-29th October.)

Declaration: No to abuse against women in industrial oil palm plantations  

New politics

Learning to fight in a warming world. Andreas Malm spoke at the Code Rode action camp against a gas pipeline in the Netherlands, addressing crucial questions for anti-fossil fuel organizing: Who are the political subjects in this struggle? How can people be mobilized? Should we think of the climate justice movement as a vanguard? Which methods and strategies should we use? What are the roles of non-violent and violent resistance?

Building food utopias: Amplifying voices, dismantling power

No justice without love: why activism must be more generous. I want to be a member of a thriving and diverse social movement, not a cult or a religion.

Resisting Development: The politics of the zad and NoTav

A story of the creation of the first commune in Kobane, and the struggle against authoritarianism within.

From Rojava to the Mapuche struggle: The Kurdish revolutionary seed spreads in Latin America

Seizing the means of reproduction. Unrecognized, often unpaid, and yet utterly necessary, reproductive labor is everywhere in our lives. Can it form the basis for a renewed radical politics?

Co-ops might not transform people, but the act of cooperation often does.

An interview with the Internationalist Committee of the Rojava revolution

The emerging idea of “radical well-being”. An interview with Ashish Kothari by Paul Robbins.

Radical municipalism

The radical solution to homelessness: no-strings homes

What should a 21st century socialist housing policy look like?

The city as a battleground. If cities are becoming amusement parks for tourists, a vehicle to earn money, what space is left for its citizens?

Radical democracy vs. retro social democracy: a discussion with Jeremy Gilbert

The labor movement once built thousands of low-cost co-op apartments for working class New Yorkers. It could do so again.

Internationalism and the New Municipalism

Bologna again takes center stage resisting fascism

First we take Jackson: the new American municipalism

The common ground trust: a route out of the housing crisis

Revitalizing struggling corridors in a post-industrial city

The persistence of settler colonialism within “the urban”. As long as the urban agenda is so tangled in the mess of capitalism, how can urban practitioners work to free the ever expanding and increasingly complicated field of urban studies from its colonial shackles? Is it even possible to think about the urban without colonialism?

Where we’re at: analysis

Five principles of a socialist climate politics. Overall it is quite surprising how well the challenge of climate change overlaps with some classical principles of socialism.

The Rise of the Robot: Dispelling the myth. The ‘march of the robots’ idea relies tacitly on the assumption that the limits to growth are negotiable, or indeed non-existent. It buys into the idea that there can be a complete – or at least near complete – decoupling of production from carbon emissions.

Ten years on, the crisis of global capitalism never really ended

Dirty rare metals: Digging deeper into the energy transition. “Western industries have deliberately offshored the production of rare metals and its associated pollution, only to bring these metals back onshore once cleansed of all impurities to incorporate them into intangible ‘green’ technologies.”

Farmers in Guatemala are destroying dams to fight ‘dirty’ renewable energy

The real problem with free trade. As trade has become freer, inequality has worsened. One major reason for this is that current global trade rules have enabled a few large firms to capture an ever-larger share of value-added, at a massive cost to economies, workers, and the environment.

A special issue in Meditations Journal on the link between the economy and energy

The environmentalism of the poor in the USA. A review of the book Environmental Justice in Postwar America: A Documentary Reader.

Half-Earth: A biodiversity ‘solution’ that solves nothing. A response to E. O. Wilson’s half-baked half-Earth.

Gender egalitarianism made us human: A response to David Graeber & David Wengrow’s ‘How to change the course of human history’

The growth debate

Following from the success of the two International Degrowth Conferences in Mexico and Sweden in August, scientists and politicians gathered at the EU Parliament in Brussels this month to discuss the need to move to a “post-growth” economy. Degrowth has always been a term meant in great part to provoke conversation. And that it did: what followed was a month careful commentary, knee-jerk responses, and thoughtful criticism.

The EU needs a stability and wellbeing pact, not more growth. 238 academics call on the European Union and its member states to plan for a post-growth future in which human and ecological wellbeing is prioritized over GDP. Sign the petition based on this letter: Europe, it’s time to end the growth dependency.

Degrowth considered: A review of Giorgos Kallis’ book, In defense of degrowth

Why growth can’t be green. New data proves you can support capitalism or the environment—but it’s hard to do both. An article by Jason Hickel in Foreign Policy.

Saving the planet doesn’t mean killing economic growth. A response to the criticism of growth by Noah Smith, a columnist at Bloomberg.

Soothing Noah Smith’s fears about a post-growth world. A response to Noah Smith’s piece by Jason Hickel. “The whole thing is based on either awkward confusion or intentional sleight of hand.” For a similar analysis, see our 2015 article, Let’s define Degrowth before we dismiss it.

The degrowth movement challenges the conventional wisdom on economic health

Beyond growth. Imagining an economy based in environmental reality: an article featured in Long Reads.

The new ecological situationists: On the revolutionary aesthetics of climate justice and degrowth

Degrowth vs. a Green New Deal. An article in The New Left Review by Robert Pollin criticizing the degrowth position, and proposing an alternative. Is the ecological salvation of the human species at hand? A response to Pollin’s piece from an ecological economist. And New deals, old bottles: Chris Smaje responds to Pollin’s piece.

While economic growth continues we’ll never kick our fossil fuels habit. George Monbiot calls for degrowth.

The Singularity in the 1790s. A retrospective and enlightening analysis of the science fiction-tinged debate between William Godwin and Thomas Malthus.

Addressing climate change’s unequal impacts

Nature-based disaster risk reduction

Puerto Rican ‘anarchistic organizers’ took power into their own hands after Hurricane Maria

The unequal distribution of catastrophe in North Carolina

That undeveloped Land Could Be Protecting Your City from the Next Flood

Carbon removal is not enough to save climate

Climate action means changing technological systems – and also social and economic systems

Plastics, waste, and technology

Maria-Luiza Pedrotti is illuminating the unseen worlds of plastic-eating bacteria that teem in massive ocean garbage patches.

The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction

Forget about banning plastic straws! The problem is much bigger. A feature on the artist and scientist Max Liboiron.

The air-conditioning debate isn’t really about air-conditioning

Just think about it…

Pay your cleaner what you earn, or clean up yourself

Scientific publishing is a rip-off. We fund the research – it should be free

Humans are destroying animals’ ancestral knowledge. Bighorn sheep and moose learn to migrate from one another. When they die, that generational know-how is not easily replaced.

The agrarian origins of capitalism. This 1998 essay by Ellen Meiksins Wood is still worth a read (or re-read).

Searching for words in Indian Country. A non-Native journalist encounters a tribal-managed forest and an indigenous garden. “I had no idea how to use the English language to describe what I was seeing.”

Dead metaphors, dying symbols and the linguistic tipping point. An interview with Rob Nixon, author of Slow Violence.

W. E. B. Du Bois and the American Environment

Forget the highways: America’s social infrastructure is falling apart, and it’s hurting democracy.

Resources

A factsheet on global plastic pollution

A timeline of gentrification in the US

A blueprint for universal childhood

The best books on Moral Economy

An economy for the people, by the people. A report by the New Economics Foundation.

The anatomy of an AI system. The Amazon Echo as an anatomical map of human labor, data and planetary resources.

A YouTube channel with accessible, informational videos on political ecology and economy

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July readings

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We’ll try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

For the summer months, we’re doing something a bit different. On top of sharing the usual editors’ picks, we’ve invited two scholars to contribute some of the best readings and resources in their respective fields. For July, political ecologist Salvatore De Rosa is joining us. Check out his list below, and scroll a bit further to find other worthwhile articles selected by us Uneven Earth editors! Oh, and follow our brand new Instagram account.

Salvatore’s links

I was asked by Uneven Earth to put together a list of my favorite readings in recent years, during which I deep-dove in Political Ecology and related fields and animated, with the fantastic ENTITLE Collective, a blog of collaborative writing around scholarly and academic takes and issues in Political Ecology.

Admittedly, this list does not follow a structure or predetermined path, rather reflecting my idiosyncrasies, the mutating focus of my interests and the associative links nurtured by a broadly defined interest in human-environment relations and in the eco-political performances of grassroots environmental activism.

Tentacular thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene

Let’s start with heavy thoughtful artillery. There’s a lot of talk on the Anthropocene lately, but few original and genuinely critical takes on the issue. Amazing exception, this piece of Donna Haraway that opens up the Anthropocene narrative and goes forward in thinking its implications towards politically enabling, culturally decentering and vertiginously uplifting connections.

David Rumsey map collection

Are you in search of maps to study, revisit, deconstruct or add to your presentation on spatial imaginaries? Nothing better than the David Rumsey map collection: thousands of maps from all ages, freely downloadable in hi-res.

The next wave of extremists will be green

Leaked documents reveal counterterrorism tactics used at Standing Rock to “defeat pipeline insurgencies”

A theme that has always interested me is the relation between grassroots environmental activism and repressive and delegitimizing techniques implemented by governments against it around the world. To get a sense of how environmental mobilizations from below are increasingly considered a ‘serious’ issue by state, and often a ‘threat’ to national interests, the above readings can surely help.

Climate depression is for real. Just ask a scientist

If you were wondering why a feeling of looming desperation settled in your thoughts when you have just been reading the news, the answer may be that you suffer from climate depression.

Age of grief

Proposing a similar diagnosis but from an entirely different standpoint, the anarcho-primitivist philosopher John Zerzan invites us to “face the loss”.

Here’s to unsuicide: An interview with Richard Powers

To recover and to fight back, maybe it is time to turn upside down some deep seated assumptions about nature. Maybe it is time to recognize that the gap between humans and all other living things is made and remade by our drive of dominion and destruction. Wise words can be heard on this from Richard Powers.

End the “green” delusions: Industrial-scale renewable energy is fossil fuel+

Did you think top-down, large scale renewable energies infrastructures, like windmills, will solve the world’s hunger for energy without hurting ecosystems? Think again…

Friday essay: recovering a narrative of place – stories in the time of climate change

For a bit of meaning and hope, here is a reading on how we should work on recovering narratively community and place, to have the “feet firmly on the ground while reaching for the stars”.

Why “Warning to Humanity” gets the socio-ecological crisis (and its solutions) wrong

Finally, one reading from our ENTITLE Blog, that criticizes the mainstream scientific diagnoses and solutions to the environmental crises spread by articles like the “warning to humanity”, and invites to join the fight right on the frontlines of ecological friction points!

Enjoy!

Uneven Earth updates

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July | Link | “She enjoys the way they fill the space with artificial flight; an awkward posture that makes their death seem comical.”

News you might’ve missed

Crops are dying. Forests are burning. This summer’s heat wave has fueled natural disasters around the world. Here’s a list of them.

Rising temperatures linked to increased suicide rates

The first ever feminist school in Uganda was held this year by The Rural Women’s Movement

A new report shows how the world’s 35 largest meat and dairy companies will increase their emissions and derail global efforts to prevent dangerous climate change.

As Indigenous peoples wait decades for land titles, companies are acquiring their territories

Investing in Indigenous communities is most efficient way to protect forests, report finds

Deadliest year on record for environmental land defenders: A report by Global Witness. Also covered in The Intercept here.

2,500 scientists warn against the border wall’s huge environmental cost

New politics

A “happy” world requires institutional change

Meet the anarchists making their own medicine. The Four Thieves Vinegar Collective is a network of tech-fueled anarchists taking on Big Pharma with DIY medicines.

Standing Rock medic bus is now a traveling decolonized pharmacy

Women’s fight to feed the world. Women Who Dig takes a global look at food, feminism and the struggle to make a future.

The teenagers fighting for climate justice

Here’s why we’re planting trees in northern Syria. This land was liberated from Bashar Al-Assad and Isis. Now we need help to keep it alive.

How to build a culture of good health. “If we wish to take full responsibility for health in our society, we must not only be vigilant guardians of our personal well-being, we must also work to change structures, institutions, and ideologies that keep us mired in a toxic culture.”

Out from emergency. Today’s crises call on humanity to act collectively, but this possibility seems more and more remote. How do we break the cycle? A dialogue between Katrina Forrester and Jedediah Purdy.

Radical municipalism

Seattle flirts with ‘municipal socialism’. The $15 minimum wage was just the beginning. Now Seattle is trying to build a whole safety net for workers—and triggering a war with its biggest companies.

Degrowth and Christiania – I saw how Copenhagen’s collective living experiment can work

Iceland’s slow-burning digital democratic revolution.

How community land trusts create affordable housing

Visions of a new economy from Detroit: A conversation with Malik Yakini. “That whole idea of private ownership of land, which in large part is how wealth is generated in capitalism, is problematic. The question of access to land is critical… The other flaw—which can exist in socialism, also—is the idea that the earth is a commodity, and what we need is more production, more extraction. I think a new way of looking at our relationship to the earth is required.”

Everything we’ve heard about global urbanization turns out to be wrong

Most public engagement is worse than worthless

‘Climate gentrification’ will deepen urban inequality, and Coastal cities are already suffering from “climate gentrification”.

Seattle and the Socialist: The battle raging between Amazon and the far left

A world class divide: Seattle vs. Vancouver on the housing crisis

A nationwide campaign to take back cities from the corporations that rule them

Barcelona’s experiment in radical democracy

Municipalism: The next political revolution?

Where we’re at: analysis

Losing Earth: the decade we almost stopped climate change. And an important response by Naomi Klein: Capitalism killed our climate momentum, not “human nature”.

Systems seduction: The aesthetics of decentralisation. “We don’t need totalizing visions but a proliferation of daydreams: lateral, experimental and situated within the localities of lived experience.”

Wildfires in Greece—the price of austerity

Science denialism is dangerous. But so is science imperialism. Calls for strict science-based decision making on complex issues like GMOs and geoengineering can shortchange consideration of ethics and social impacts.

The limits of green energy under capitalism

What are human rights good for?

Nature defends itself. Review of The Progress of This Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World by Andreas Malm.

The cashless society is a con – and big finance is behind it. Banks are closing ATMs and branches in an attempt to ‘nudge’ users towards digital services – and it’s all for their own benefit

Karl Polanyi and the formation of this generation’s new Left. As the democratic Left spirals ever downwards, the worrying forces of populism and neoliberalism seem to be emerging from the ashes. Could the visionary thinking of economic historian Karl Polanyi provide a feasible fix in the 21st Century? An open‐ended approach might be just the ticket to rescue global politics from a far right explosion – and it’s not rocket science…

Growth for the sake of growth. “Growth for the sake of growth” remains the credo of governments and international institutions, Federico Demaria finds. The time is ripe, he argues, not only for a scientific degrowth research agenda, but also for a political one.

Just think about it…

We can’t do it ourselves. How effective is individual action when it is systemic social change that is needed?

Is the global era of massive infrastructure projects coming to an end?

How to survive America’s kill list. “This is how America’s post-9/11 move toward authoritarianism has been executed: without massacres or palace coups, but noiselessly, on paper, through years of metronome insertions of bloodless terms in place of once-vibrant Democratic concepts.”

Intellectual extractivism: The dispossession of Maya weaving

What is metabolic rift? The ecosocialist idea you’ve never heard of and might need.

Think everyone died young in ancient societies? Think again

Conflict reigns over the history and origins of money. Thousands of years ago, money was a means of debt payment, archaeologists and anthropologists say.

In praise of doing nothing

The medium chill: a philosophy that asks the important questions. “We’re going to have to scale down our material expectations and get off the aspirational treadmill. So how can we do that? How can we make it okay to prioritize social connections over money and choice hoarding?”

Participatory budgeting increases voter likelihood 7%

Cesspools, sewage, and social murder. A riveting history of early environmentalism in 19th-Century London.

Steven Pinker’s ideas are fatally flawed. These eight graphs show why.

The free speech panic: how the right concocted a crisis

How tech’s richest plan to save themselves after the apocalypse

The case for building $1,500 parks. A new study shows that access to “greened” vacant lots reduced feelings of worthlessness and depression, especially in low-resource neighborhoods.

Resources

The best books on Radical Environmentalism

After 30 years, Science for the People has relaunched!

Science for the People engages in research, activism, and science communications for the betterment of society, ecological improvement, environmental protection, and to serve human needs. Members of Science for the People consist of STEM workers, educators, and activists who are socially and ethically focused, and believe that science should be a positive force for humanity and the planet.

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Let’s define Degrowth before we dismiss it

Diverse commentators such as Samuel Farber, Paul Krugman, and Leigh Phillips are arguing that economic growth is necessary to protect existing, and future well-being.
Diverse leftist commentators such as Samuel Farber, Paul Krugman, and Leigh Phillips are arguing that economic growth is necessary to protect existing and future well-being. But rarely do they define what they mean by economic growth.

by Aaron Vansintjan

Recently there’s been a wave of arguments defending economic growth from a leftist perspective. People are increasingly reacting to the rise of ‘degrowth’: a diverse movement calling for, among other things, scaling back the total material and energy use of the global economy.

One particularly vigorous example is the work of Leigh Phillips, where he accuses degrowthers—who he claims have become “hegemonic” (file under: things I wish were true but aren’t)—of undermining classic leftist pursuits such as progress, well-being, and strengthening of social services. Similar arguments could be seen in a recent article that appeared in Jacobin Magazine, in which growth was posited as necessary for progress. And Keynesian economists like Paul Krugman have come out against degrowth, claiming that economic growth is actually necessary to address climate change, and lumping degrowthers together with the Koch Brothers, as they both seem to seek to dismantle the state.

When two sides of an argument have a totally different definition of the concept that’s being debated, and if one side even refuses to define it, constructive discussions tend to turn into uncompromising squabbles.

Many of their points have been valid and necessary—serving to complicate the simplistic ‘are-you-for-capitalism-or-a-Luddite?’ narrative. Preaching the benefits of technology and criticizing the current economic system are not mutually exclusive. But there are some recurring problems with these arguments that I want to highlight.

In this article, I argue that definitions of growth are either unclear or constantly shifting depending on the argument. The result is that authors often misunderstand and do not engage adequately with critiques of growth. When two sides of an argument have a totally different definition of the concept that’s being debated, and if one side even refuses to define it, constructive discussions tend to turn into uncompromising squabbles. In an effort to clear up some misunderstandings, I briefly explain what I see as some of the values of the degrowth position. 

Growth is everything and nothing: long live growth!

Perhaps the most emblematic—and unfortunate—leftist (or leftish) challenge to degrowth came from Paul Krugman, all the way back in October 2014.

This was a significant occasion. For the most part, mainstream economics ignores ecological economicsa “rogue” field that harbors many of the growth dissenters. But with this article, Krugman brought the challenge out into the open. In his words, the criticism of growth is “a marginal position even on the left, but it’s widespread enough to call out nonetheless.”

Weirdly, Krugman spent most of the article explaining how shipping companies reduced their energy expenditure in 2008 by slowing down their ships. Using this example, his defense of ‘economic growth’ waffled between two very different arguments: that an increase in efficiency can lead to less energy being consumed, and that, theoretically, it is possible to increase the total economic transactions while decreasing total energy use.

With respect to efficiency, Krugman waded into a discussion in which he seems to be out of his depth—other ships have sailed these waters for a long time now. From 19th-century English economists concerned with the decline of available coal to scientists investigating the impact of washing machines, people have long wrestled with problems like the one he raised: how an improvement in efficiency might nevertheless lead to a total increase in energy use. So from the perspective of ecological economics—which has sought to understand how the human economy is embedded within the physical environment—it’s not that hard to sink Krugman’s flimsy argument that an increase in efficiency necessarily increases economic growth while decreasing total energy consumption.

Krugman waded into a discussion in which he seems to be out of his depth—other ships have sailed these waters for a long time now.

What’s curious though about his article is that he not once defined economic growth. This definition remained latent—one can only assume that, whenever he used the term economic growth, he meant the increase in the annual monetary value of economic transactions over time, calculated using the GDP. The article could’ve been a chance for him to show exactly why economic growth is desirable. Instead, he spent most of the article fumbling to find some example that shows that economic growth can theoretically be decoupled from oil consumption.

Granted, if that was the only goal of his article, it would’ve been a good point: a rise in GDP is not the same as a rise in energy use, economic transactions could still take place in a low-carbon economy. The problem is that his argument claimed to go beyond this—seeking to contradict the degrowth claim that, until now, economic growth has been strongly coupled with increasing material and energy use. But his evidence remained purely theoretical, and therefore failed to settle the debate.

This tendency isn’t unique to neoclassical Keynesians—I’ve seen Marxists who’ve suffered from the same inability to explain what, exactly, they mean by economic growth, thereby misunderstanding the call for degrowth.

In Jacobin Magazine, Samuel Farber argues that notions of progress are actually essential for any leftist project. Improvements in technology, infrastructure, and material well-being are crucial for addressing inequality and injustice globally. Fair enough. But then he also explicitly criticizes the degrowth stance:

Many progressive activists today are skeptical of material growth, for ecological reasons and a concern with consumerism. But this often confuses consumption for its own sake and as a status symbol with the legitimate popular desire to live a better material life, and wasteful and ecologically damaging economic growth with economic growth as such.

So here, like Krugman, Farber argues that economic growth is not the same as what he calls ‘material growth.’ And like Krugman, he argues that economic growth is not, in itself, environmentally destructive. But what, then, is economic growth to him? He notes in the following paragraph:

Environmental policies that would make a real difference would require large-scale investments, and thus selective economic growth. This would be the case, for example, with the reorganization of the individualized and wasteful system of surface and air transportation into a collective and rational plan…

It seems that for Farber, defending economic growth is necessary to fight for progressive changes to well-being. What is not clear is exactly why this should be called economic growth. From his examples, there is no quantitative growth—unless you start counting the growth of things like trams and hospitals.

Interestingly, like Farber, many degrowthers might also argue for “more of the Good Things”—for example, increasing health care services, supporting care labor, creating infrastructure for public transportation, and incentivizing renewable energy—but they wouldn’t call them economic growth. Instead, they might prefer to use terms like ‘flourishing’ or ‘sufficiency’ or just ‘more of that good stuff’. They wouldn’t assume that it is total economic growth that allows the good stuff to come into being. Instead, more of the good stuff requires redirecting economic activity to better suit the needs of society—for which the primary ingredient is democratic deliberation, not increased production (social metabolism), larger money supply, or an increase in the transactions taking place in the market economy (GDP growth).

It seems that for Farber, defending economic growth is necessary to fight for progressive changes to well-being. What is not clear is exactly why this should be called economic growth. From his examples, there is no quantitative growth—unless you start counting the growth of things like trams and hospitals.

So there are two problems: the misidentification of what degrowthers are calling for, and a poor definition of economic growth as such. Farber seems to think that degrowthers are claiming that preventing (or reversing) environmental destruction necessitates “less Good Things”. As a result, his argument against degrowth, and for growth, amounts to a bait-and-switch between two definitions of growth: growth of Good Stuff and growth of total economic activity. This failure to define his terms then allows him to mischaracterize the claims of the degrowth movement.

This tactic is heightened to an extreme degree in Leigh Phillips’ recent anti-degrowth polemic, Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-porn Addicts: A defence of growth, progress, industry and stuff. While reading his book I not once got an exact definition of what he meant by economic growth. Growth seemed to include a whole host of things, such as: growth = progress, growth = innovation, growth = increase in well-being, growth = increase in money supply, growth = increase in resource use. He tended to use these interchangeably.

In one instance, Phillips acknowledges this directly:

Of course, one might argue that I’m being far too loose with the terms growth, progress, and invention, which begin to blur here. But then, as well they should, as perhaps what it means to be human is to invent, to progress to grow. To constantly strive for an improvement in our condition. To overcome all barriers in our way.

As far as I could figure out, the logical reasoning here goes as follows:

Degrowthers argue that infinitely and exponentially increasing economic growth is bad for humans and the planet. But economic growth leads to Good Things as well. Therefore, degrowthers are against Good Things.

Phillips denies degrowthers the ability to realize the most basic fact: more good = good, more bad = bad. And if growth is simply Everything That Is Good In The World, it becomes a hard thing to argue against: we’ve reached a conversational impasse.

The problems with muddling the definition of growth come to the fore when Phillips tries to argue, in contrast to Naomi Klein’s recent book, that degrowth and anti-austerity are incompatible: “Austerity and ‘degrowth’ are mathematically and socially identical. They are the same thing.” To show this, he uses the example of the economic decline following a time of rapid growth immediately after the Second World War—which involved “high productivity, high wages, full employment, expanding social benefits…”. In contrast, he argues that after the 1970s, according to “whichever metrics we use”, there was a decline in prosperity for all Americans.

 Phillips denies degrowthers the ability to realize the most basic fact: more good = good, more bad = bad. And if growth is simply Everything That Is Good In The World, it becomes a hard thing to argue against: we’ve reached a conversational impasse. 

The implication is that economic growth is directly related to material and social well-being, and “degrowing” would limit that kind of progress. Actually, during this time, well-being decreased just as consumption and economic growth sky-rocketed—a fact which he conveniently doesn’t mention. To avoid this fact, he usefully switches from defining economic growth as increase in productivity and material use, to defining economic growth as decrease in inequality. But different kinds of things can grow or degrow at different rates—a decrease in consumption is not the same as a decrease in well-being. In fact, since the 1970s, the US has only increased its per capita material use, not decreased it. Austerity does not inherently lead to a decrease in total consumption, nor does a decrease in well-being inherently require a decrease in material consumption.

His argument reminds me of a recent New York Times article about degrowth. As fellow degrowth scholar Francois Schneider pointed out in an email, in this article, degrowth was defined simply as a reduction of income. Not only does this misinterpret what, exactly, needs to degrow (hint: not well-being), it also feeds into the tendency—symptomatic of the neoliberal era—to reduce all kinds of well-being to monetary indicators.

Phillips continuously makes the same error: conflating income with wealth, material production with material well-being. While this is standard practice in development circles—used to justify land-grabbing, exploitative industry, and privatizations—you would expect different discursive tactics from a staunch anti-capitalist austerity-basher. Part of the degrowth framework has been specifically to argue that well-being and income have been conflated for far too long, with very negative consequences (such as the wholesale destruction of indigenous livelihoods for the sake of development).

Finally, when trying to counter the degrowth position, you’re also going to have to deal with the now well-known catchphrase that “infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet”. To do this, Phillips calls upon a pretty quirky theoretical model:

Think of a single rubber ball. Like the Earth, it is bounded in the sense that very clearly there is an edge to the ball and there is only so much of it. It doesn’t go on forever. It is not boundless. And there is only one of them. But it is infinitely divisible in the sense that you can cut it in half, then cut that half in half again, then cut that quarter in half, then that eight in half, and so on. In principle, with this imaginary ball, you can keep cutting it up for as long as you like, infinitely extracting from this finite object.

Phillips counters the necessity to degrow with a variation of Zeno’s paradox, hoping to show that, theoretically, infinite growth is possible on a finite planet, as long as it decreases at a negative exponential rate. Basically, in a finite world, you can keep on growing infinitely as long as you grow less and less, all the way to infinity. But this also involves acknowledging that positive exponential growth (e.g. a 3-5% growth rate) is physically impossible. Funnily enough, in trying to prove the possibility of infinite growth on a finite planet, he trapped himself in an argument that looks very similar to that of the degrowthers.

Phillips argues that, since it’s possible to conceive of a socialist system where economic growth leads to a low-carbon economy, economic growth is inherently a Good Thing. It’s reminiscent of another classic sophist argument: since it’s possible to conceive of God, He therefore must exist. 

Similarly, later in the book, he concedes that we do need to move toward a low-carbon economy and that, within capitalism, this is impossible. But, rather than conceding that economic growth within capitalism is undesirable, he argues that, since it’s possible to conceive of a socialist system where economic growth leads to a low-carbon economy, economic growth (largely defined in capitalist terms, even as he rejects GDP elsewhere) is inherently a Good Thing. It’s reminiscent of another classic sophist argument: since it’s possible to conceive of God, He therefore must exist. 

So what needs to degrow?

Let’s be clear, even if defenders of economic growth rarely are. Historically, economic growth (defined as total increase in measured economic transactions, or GDP) has risen along with social metabolism: the total consumption of materials and energy of an economy. Increased material-energy throughput is what makes climate change and environmental destruction happen, and engenders environmental conflicts around the world. Therefore we have to downscale our total material-energy throughput to address environmental and social injustice. Most available evidence points to the fact that decreasing total economic activity is the best way to do this, while still being able to provide adequate social safety nets.

Critics of degrowth spend most of their time trying to convince readers that decoupling economic growth from “the Bad Things” is theoretically possible, even as they rarely define what they mean by economic growth.

Degrowth, then, is about challenging the idea that infinite and positive exponential growth in monetary transactions (GDP) is the main tool for achieving well-being, today and for future generations. Further, degrowth is about acknowledging that exponential GDP growth has been, and will likely be for the foreseeable future, linked with rising material and energy throughput, and that this increase in total consumption has disastrous effects on the earth and its people. This comes along with a critique of GDP: many argue that it is a terrible indicator for well-being in the first place. It also comes along with criticizing the neoliberal demand to increase economic growth at all costs, even if this means subjugating an entire population to decades of debt (more on this in another piece).

There are many definitions of degrowth out there, but a commonly cited one is “an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions”. Under most definitions, degrowth is about maximizing well-being while minimizing energy and resource consumption (particularly in the rich nations) which may be mutually beneficial, and can address climate change to boot.

So degrowth is not about decreasing the Good Things. Nor is its main thrust that decrease in total consumption is the only thing that must be done. And all degrowthers I know would happily concede Phillips’ point that a change in the mode of production—involving a critique of capitalism, better use of technology, and better democratic planning—is necessary to avoid environmental and social Bad Things.

But they would disagree that the prerequisite for more Good Things is increasing total economic activity. In fact, the ideology of economic growth actually waylaid struggles for better welfare, helping to shut down the political action necessary to provide more Good Things.

Now, it is theoretically possible to decouple exponential economic growth (be it positive or negative) from exponentially increasing metabolic rates, even if no such thing has, as far as is known, been successfully implemented. Arguments for decoupling, including those in Phillips’ book, fail to take into account the embedded material and energy consumption of economies that have, so far, ‘dematerialized’ while GDP has gone up.

Krugman’s proposal for how to decouple remains in the neoclassical camp: toggling consumer preferences—demand, and regulating undesirable economic activity—supply, while continuing to increase economic activity on the whole. Farber and Phillips’ approaches are in the Marxist camp: radically shift the mode of production to rationally plan an economy, limiting the Bads and upping the Goods, while (presumably) continuing to increase economic activity on the whole.

To make their case, these authors have conjured up magical scenarios involving a slow ship economy and a post-capitalist socialist world order. Neither economies exist today. To really support their points, they would need to point to extensive research and probably some robust models, rather than possible worlds.

Take the case of Austerity Ecology: Phillips argues that socialist economic growth has the potential to save us, even as he does not draw on any examples of situations where this has occurred. It’s a cheap argumentative trick to defend economic growth today just on the basis that it could theoretically work under socialism.

So if they really wanted to defend economic growth as it exists today, this would be where the conversation would need to go: determining whether, and how, economic growth could keep going without exponentially increasing material and energy use. Bonus points: showing exactly why economic growth—defined as the exponential increase in monetary transactions at 3-5% per year—is desirable in itself.

But it is exactly at these points that the defenders of growth remain obscure. Rarely do they explicitly concede that, in fact, current rates of economic growth have been historically tied to increasing environmental degradation. Rather, they spend most of their time trying to convince readers that decoupling economic growth from “the Bad Things” is theoretically possible, even as they don’t define what they mean by economic growth.

And yet this approach actually suggests that they are already on the defensive: they are trying to save economic growth from the accusation that it inevitably leads to more “bad stuff”. Without proper evidence, and by shifting the definition of growth constantly to suit the needs of their arguments, the positions of growth-defenders start looking more like denial than reasoned debate.

In contrast, degrowth starts from the reality of the current economy. In this economic system, decoupling is very difficult, if not impossible. Therefore, because climate change is now and a global socialist economic order is not yet in sight, a realistic short-term strategy is to limit exponential growth in metabolic rates, most easily achieved by limiting exponential economic growth. This should be paired by a long-term shift to a more equitable, democratic economic system. Then, theoretically, a new economic system could be constructed where equitable economic growth does not lead to more fossil fuel consumption.

Whether we should focus on creating a global socialist system instead of shifting to a low-impact economy is debatable, but perhaps, just to be on the safe side, we could give both a try.

Thanks to Sam Bliss, Ky Brooks, Adrian Turcato, and Giorgos Kallis for their comments and feedback.

Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food politics, and urban development. He is an editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, degrowth, and long bicycle rides.

Mustachianism, environmentalism, me, and us

The washing machine, like all consumer goods, is a structural issue: blaming consumers alone won't help, we have to tackle the structures that hold them up. Source: Michel Szulc Krzyzanowski
Blaming consumers alone won’t help, consumption goods (like washing machines) are held up by much larger structures. Photo credit: michel szulc krzyzanowski, www.szulc.info

by Simon Vansintjan

Two years ago a friend tweeted this article from the Mr. Money Mustache backlog. The author preaches a gospel that struck me as true – if you’re privileged, and you’re in a lucky position to have a steady income, and you can be comfortable in that knowledge, than through frugality, research, and understanding, you can reach financial independence fairly easily. When that happens, you can focus on the things that you think are really important.

The overall message: you too can curb your consumerism and finally be free of the system and the shackles.

I’ve been a fan of Mr. Money Mustache and I appreciate how he’s teaching people to game the system. It’s a philosophy of stripped-down needs, making do with what you have, and enjoying what is available to you. It’s stoicism as an antidote to the consumer rat-race we’re in.

When MMM enthusiastically talks about “the natural conclusion” of everyone becoming Mustachian – a breakdown of a system that relies and runs on consumerism – I happily cheer him on. Ultimately his focus on monetary wealth is only to get free of concerns from that monetary wealth – to pursue other, less financial, riches.

Yet it falls short. Mr. Money Mustache takes the same route many environmental activists and privacy proponents take – one that ultimately puts the blame and burden on us, the people, to individually break free from a culture and mindset that is destroying the world. While the heavy polluting is done by industry, the message is that we should drive our cars less. When the meat and food industry is proving to be unhealthy for the people, we have to become vegetarian and eat less meat. When companies are selling our data, it’s on us to make sure we’re using encrypted channels. When the industry is misogynist, it’s because women aren’t trying hard enough. When the economy was shaky after 9/11, Bush asked people to spend more money to get it going again.

The idea? “Consumers” have created a demand for something and are at fault if it goes wrong. This is blatantly untrue – much of the  demand only exists because of the structure of our industry and because ads are incredibly effective.

Let me diverge on that point for a moment by looking at two products with “great consumer demand”.

The washing machine was first thought up in the 1750s, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that electric washing machines were actually viable. By 1903, ads and newspapers were already heavily discussing the use of washing machines, but it wasn’t until just before World War Two that a significant part of the US population had access to a personal washing machine. Why did it take almost 200 years for the washing machine to become a household staple? Because this so-called high-demand consumer product relied on an infrastructure of detergent use, gender and racial liberalization, consumer prepping through ads, and the development of factories and plants to cheaply produce such products on a large-enough scale that people would actually buy them. The invention of the washing machine was a great thing, but the idea that it was a consumer-driven take-up is false.[1]

The combustion engine was invented in 1886, but the story of the car really starts in the late 1700s. Throughout this period the car industry came across an irritating stumbling-block: inner-city roads belonged to pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages, there was no separation of sidewalk and road, and there were no inter-city roads to drive on for cars. For cars to take off and be useful, the industry had to lobby governments to build roads and push against public dislike of cars (see the Locomotive Act of 1865). It wasn’t until this infrastructure was built and cars had existed within the public consciousness for over a century that they really started to take off[2], and become something beyond just a status symbol. Consumer driven? Hardly.

Whether it’s the car, the washing machine, smart phones[3], or social networks, our willingness to consume a product or live a certain way is the work of millions of dollars in ad campaigns, positive newspaper reviews and stories, and government lobbying.

When the environmentalists, the mustachians, and the privacy campaigners[4] ask you to change your lifestyles – they’re still saying that you’re to blame if you don’t. You’re either a sucker (if you’re not Mustachian), you’re destroying the world (if you’re not an Environmentalist), or you’re giving up your privacy (if you don’t believe in an IndieWeb), etc. etc. etc.

My challenge to all of these people? I’ve checked all of those boxes, I’m not the only one, and yet here we are. We’re still tumbling towards environmental and privacy disasters driven by consumerism. Getting people to focus on changing their habits is great – but is the result that we’re being distracted from bigger problems? That our conversations are being pointed away from where they should be focused?

Individuals are much more powerful together than on their own. This is common sense, and easy to prove:

  • An individual that campaigns for and supports free and open source software development is more powerful than one who encrypts all of their data.
  • An individual that makes an effort to hire marginalized people into their company is more powerful than the one who takes a couple of days out to teach online.
  • An individual that joins their neighborhood to help the less privileged around them get to school is more powerful than the one who sets up an extensive library for their kids.
  • An individual that encourages their police officers to participate in community events for the areas they’re patrolling is more powerful than the one who teaches themselves about social justice.
  • An individual that helps turn industrial cow farms into wind turbines is more powerful than one who turns vegetarian.
  • An individual that politically pursues the construction of bike lanes is more powerful than one that bikes to work every day.

We’re much stronger as a group than as individuals. And this is true about environmentalism, the own-your-own-data-indie web, and Mustachianisms. By dividing our focus into individual efforts, we will never be able to challenge the structure imposed on us by the people who have the money to pummel us with ads and faux-journalism.

More than a change in our habits, we need a structural one.

Simon Vansintjan works as a user experience designer and developer on various open source projects – currently focusing on OpenFarm. He lives in Hanoi, Vietnam.


1. For an in-depth look at this, read The dynamics of willingness to consume ↩

2. A seriously good podcast about The Modern Moloch ↩

3. Smart phones were around for a long time before Apple “optimized” the experience, and even then, the first generation iPhone relied heavily on ads and Apple fans to become popular in the mainstream. Functionally it wasn’t until the second generation iPhone that it started to take off. Nevermind the military funded infrastructure that built the “internet” as we know it today.↩

4. The Indie Foundation. (https://ind.ie/foundation/) ↩