Capitalism, as a globalizing political economic system committed to profit making and continual economic growth, has created a treadmill of production and consumption that is heavily dependent upon fossil fuels and has resulted in greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change. While capitalism has produced numerous impressive technological innovations, some beneficial and others destructive, which are very unevenly distributed, it is a system fraught with numerous contradictions, including: growing social disparities within most nation-states, authoritarian and militarist practices, depletion of natural resources, environmental degradation, including global warming and associated climatic changes, species extinction, and population growth as a by-product of poverty.
Even more so than in earlier stages of capitalism, transnational corporations and their associated bodies, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization, make or break governments and politicians around the world, although the extent to which this is true varies from country to country. Numerous observers have viewed the collapse of Communist regimes in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as an indication that capitalism constitutes the end of history and that socialism was a bankrupt experiment that led to totalitarianism, forced collectivization, gulags, ruthless political purges, and inefficient centralized planned economies.
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What these commentators often overlook is that efforts to create socialist-oriented societies occurred in, by and large, economically underdeveloped countries. Revolutions involve sudden and radical social transformations and are often associated with varying levels of violence, as was the case with the American, French, Bolshevik, Chinese, and Cuban revolutions. The efforts of Lenin, Trotsky, and other Bolsheviks to develop the beginnings of the process that they hoped would result in socialism occurred under extremely adverse conditions, including constant external threat.
Although the Bolsheviks, particularly under the dictatorial leadership of Stalin, managed to transform the Soviet Union into an industrial powerhouse by the s, a variety of external forces, such as World War II and the Cold War, and internal forces, such as a centralized command economy and a political system of one-party rule, prevented the development of socialist democracy.
With some modifications, the model of bureaucratic centralism was adopted by various other post-revolutionary societies after World War II , starting with China in The contradictory nature of Leninist regimes imploded first in Eastern Europe in , particularly highlighted by the opening of the Berlin Wall, and in the Soviet Union in In the case of China, its Communist leaders embraced capitalist structures as a means of rapid development to the point that some scholars argue that it now constitutes a state capitalist society, entailing tremendous social inequalities and environmental devastation.
The collapse of Communist regimes created a crisis for many leftists throughout the world. Many progressives had hoped that somehow these societies, which were characterized in a variety of ways, would undergo changes that would transform them into democratic and ecologically-sensitive socialist societies. Due to the shortcomings of efforts to create socialism in the twentieth century, the notion of socialism has been discredited in many quarters. This has prompted various progressive scholars and social activists who wish to preserve the ideals of socialism, such as collective ownership, social equality, and representative and participatory democracy, to refer to their visions of a better world in terms such as radical democracy, global democracy, and Earth democracy.
Nevertheless, it is important for progressive people to come to terms with the historical discrepancies between the ideals of socialism and the realities of what passed for it. This is so they can reconstruct a viable global socialist system, with manifestations at regional and local levels, that is highly democratic rather than authoritarian, that ensures that all people have access to basic resources, and that is at the same time environmentally sustainable.
It is my assertion that what I term post-revolutionary societies or what some term actually-existing socialist societies, exhibited, and in some cases still display, positive features. They also demonstrated, or still show, notable negative features. Unfortunately, all too many of the negative features have been tragic and horrific, to the point that they have discredited the notions of socialism and communism in the minds of many people. Authentic socialism remains very much a vision, one which various individuals and groups seek to frame in new guises. Numerous Marxian scholars have asserted that socialism is inherently more democratic than capitalist societies could ever be and, thus, democracy is an inherent component of socialism.
According to Ralph Miliband in Socialism for a Sceptical Age , three core propositions define socialism: 1 democracy, 2 egalitarianism, and 3 socialization or public ownership of a predominant part of the economy. Miliband envisions three distinct economic sectors:. In The Idea of Communism , Tariq Ali argues that twenty-first century socialism should include political pluralism, freedom of speech, access to the media, the right to form trade unions, and cultural liberty.
In the past, Marxian political economy has tended to give, at best, passing consideration to environmental factors, but historically there have been exceptions to this tendency. Over the past three decades or so, various leftists have become more sensitive to the environmental travesties that have occurred not only in developed and developing capitalist societies but also in post-revolutionary societies.
Eco-socialism seeks to come to grips with the growth paradigm inherent in capitalism and to which post-revolutionary societies in the past subscribed and still do today; a case in point is China. Foster, in The Ecological Revolution, asserts revolutionary change entails both political-economic and environmental considerations. Ariel Salleh, an Australian sociologist, has served as a long-time proponent of socialist eco-feminism and Indian eco-feminist Vandana Shiva asserts, in Earth Democracy, that all beings, human and nonhuman, have a natural right to sustenance, and that a just society is based on a living commons and economic democracy.
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The concept of democratic eco-socialism constitutes a merger of the earlier existing concepts of democratic socialism and eco-socialism. It is imperative that progressives reinvent the notion of socialism by recognizing that we live on a planet with limited resources that must be more or less equitably distributed to provide everyone with enough, but not too much.
As delineated in Medical Anthropology and the World , a textbook that I co-authored with Merrill Singer and Ida Susser, democratic eco-socialism entails the following principles:. Democratic eco-socialism rejects a statist, growth-oriented, productivist ethic and recognizes that humans live on an ecologically fragile planet with limited resources that must be sustained and renewed as much as possible for future generations. The vision of democratic eco-socialism closely resembles what world systems theorists Terry Boswell and Christopher Chase-Dunn in The Spiral of Capitalism and Socialism term global democracy , a concept that entails the following components:.
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Democratic eco-socialism constitutes what sociologist Erik Olin Wright in Envisioning Real Utopias terms a real utopia , a utopian vision that is achievable but only through much theorizing and social experimentation. As global capitalism continues to find itself in economic and ecological crisis as it lurches into the twenty-first century, humanity faces the challenge of how to shift from an ongoing trajectory of human and planetary destruction. As the existing capitalist world system continues to self-destruct due to its socially unjust and environmentally unsustainable practices, democratic eco-socialism provides a radical vision to mobilize people around the world to struggle for the next system.
Anti-systemic movements are a crucial component of moving humanity to an alternative world system, but the process is a tedious and convoluted one with no guarantees, especially in light of the disparate nature of these movements. Reforms, despite the best of intentions, are often problematic in that they may serve to stabilize capitalism, as has repeatedly been the case around the world.
Between the poles of reformist reform and complete structural transformation, Gorz identifies a category of applied work that he labels non-reformist reform. Here he refers to efforts aimed at making permanent changes in the social alignment of power. In reality, the distinction between these two types of reforms is sometimes hard to distinguish. But one distinction might be whether they are initiated by the powers-that-be or whether they are initiated by the working class, various other subaltern groups, or anti-systemic social movements.
The transition toward a democratic eco-socialist world system is not guaranteed and will require a tedious, even convoluted path that anti-systemic movements will have to play a central role in creating. Marx viewed blueprints as a distraction from the political tasks that needed to be undertaken in the present moment and, indeed, pressing issues are paramount. But history tells us that there always will be immediate struggles that must be addressed. I often find that when people ask me what it would take to make a transition to a democratic eco-socialist world system, they are seeking some basic guidelines on how to move forward beyond merely bumbling along haphazardly a step at a time.
While not seeking to create a blueprint per se for creating an alternative world system, which will be manifested in different ways in the many societies around the world, in this essay I delineate the following system-challenging reforms to facilitate a transition from the present existing capitalist world system to a democratic eco-socialist world system:. These transitional steps constitute loose guidelines for shifting human societies or countries toward democratic eco-socialism and a safe climate.
But it is important to note that both of these phenomena will entail a global effort, including the creation of a progressive global climate governance regime. My litany of proposed transitional reforms is a modest effort to contribute to an ongoing dialogue and debate as to how to move forward from the present impasse in which the world finds itself today.
The application of my suggested transitional reforms will have to be adapted by many countries, both developed and developing, around the world. Furthermore, my suggested transitional reforms are not exhaustive of possible changes necessary for creating an alternative world system. The shift to a democratic eco-socialist world will require a revolution of some sort that will have to be played out in various ways depending upon the national context. Obviously the capitalist class and its political allies around the world will be resistant to such a revolution.
The larger question is whether a democratic eco-socialist-oriented revolution can be achieved largely through peaceful measures or whether it will entail violence, or perhaps a mixture of both, depending upon the country. Needless to say, there is no easy answer to this question. Nevertheless, while Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels indeed envisaged an armed overthrow of capitalism in some situations, they also gave attention to achieving reforms within the bowels of capitalist societies and viewed such efforts as vehicles for making a peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism.
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For example, nationalization of the means of production would be difficult to achieve without a leftist political party in power. Until the election of Syriza in Greece in early , the possibility of new left parties coming to power appeared remote. However, as events have already revealed, the Syriza government faces formidable struggle in seeking to achieve its various demands as a member of the European Union. But given the gravity of both the global economic and ecological crisis, including climate change, one should not rule out the possibility of political tipping points, just as climate scientists speak of tipping points that have set off a number of irreversible climatic events.
In the case of my adopted country of Australia, I envision a new left party as consisting of disaffected Australian Labor Party-types, many Greens, members of various socialist groups, as well as independent socialists and anarchists. At some critical point, new left parties could theoretically merge into a global left party, a notion that exists mostly in science fiction such as in W. An emissions tax can serve as a progressive climate change mitigation strategy given the seriousness of the ecological crisis. It is imperative that humanity figure out ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quickly to keep the planet in a relatively safe climatic state.
Much ink has been spilled on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including weighing up the pros and cons of emissions taxes and trading schemes. Unfortunately, existing trading schemes, including those in the U. The emission allowance prices under the E. Emissions Trading Scheme have fluctuated wildly, from a high of thirty Euros in April to three cents at the end of , to thirty Euros during , then down to 6. Conversely, a carefully crafted emissions tax has the potential to serve as a transitional reform.
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James Hansen, a retired NASA climate scientist, has called for a steep carbon tax at the site of production as a strategy for quickly reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Ultimately, the record on the few existing emissions tax schemes found in various countries has been modest or mixed in terms of curtailing emissions or promoting a shift to renewable energy sources.
Emissions taxes are, at best, only a short-term solution, and a market mechanism at that, and would perhaps not be necessary if energy production were publicly owned rather than privately owned, which is generally the case today around much of the world. Public ownership of utilities and mining could aid a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. What is needed are governments that exist not to prop up corporate endeavors but to seek to achieve social parity and environmental sustainability.
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In an era of increasing privatization of social and health services, and even military activities and prisons, raising the spectre of public ownership, nationalization, or socialization of the means of production is taboo in conventional economic and political circles. Privatization is often justified in terms of economic efficiency.
While state or government enterprises or services can be terribly inefficient for complex reasons, this does not necessarily have to be the case. There are numerous examples of publicly owned enterprises that operate relatively efficiently. Public ownership could consist of a number of social arrangements, including state ownership, worker-owned enterprises, and cooperatives. It is important to note that public ownership or nationalization of the means of production does not in and of itself constitute socialism, despite the fact that people have often assumed that it does.
For example, after World War II , the British state nationalized heavy industry that had been in decline for over fifty years, but retained previous owners in managerial positions. Australia historically exhibited extensive public ownership of various productive forces, not only utilities but also banks, manufacturing operations, communication networks, airlines such as Qantas Airlines, and transportation systems. Nevertheless, nationalization or socialization of private wealth would constitute an essential step toward the creation of a democratic eco-socialist society.
This step would reduce the power of the corporate class and wealthy individuals to influence elections around the world through the support of selected candidates via campaign contributions, favorable media coverage, and even bribery. Derek Wall in The Rise of the Green Left maintains that eco-socialism is founded on the principle of common property rights. The drive in many countries to privatize electricity production, communications, health care, and an array of services also needs to be resisted.
While some redistribution of wealth has been achieved under capitalism at various historical junctures and particularly in developed societies with strong labor unions and left-of-center governments, social inequality is an inevitable dimension of the capitalist world system. Ultimately, a shift toward greater social equality or parity will require transcending global capitalism and moving toward a democratic eco-socialist world system.
Socialists have, over the years, engaged in intense debates about what sort of wage differentials should exist under socialism. Frank Stilwell in Changing Track argues that a ratio of the highest to lowest incomes would be a tolerable standard for a socialist society. Needless to say, as long as rich people and corporations exist, progressive taxation that does not allow for tax loopholes constitutes an important mechanism for redistributing wealth.