Toward cyborg socialism


The first Earth Day was April 22, 1970. It was also Lenin's hundredth birthday. The coincidence was not intentional.

In fact, part of the point of Earth Day was to distance the nascent environmentalist movement from New Left critiques of consumer society, suburban development, and nuclear waste. In an attempt to avoid charges of "watermelon" politics - green on the outside, red on the inside - the message of the early environmental movement, as one Greenpeace slogan explicitly stated, was "I'm not a Red, I'm a Green." As environmentalism went mainstream, green nonprofits grew rich and powerful on corporate donations and adopted conciliatory strategies aimed at greening the world one brand name at a time.

These days, environmentalism can rival the Left's big-tent eclecticism: rugged wilderness fantasies, New Age mysticism, and middle-class romanticism exist side-by-side with indigenous anti-nuclear protests, campaigns against urban smog, back-to-the-land agrarian nostalgia, and entrepreneurial green tech. But lately, militant environmentalism is staging a comeback - as are state crackdowns. And even the most mainstream varieties of environmentalism are inching leftward. Climate change in particular has radicalizing potential, as more and more people are beginning to question the prevailing economic system's destructive effect on the environment. But mainstream environmental groups aren't going to offer a coherent critique of capitalism's ecological consequences or do the work of theorizing alternatives.

It's ridiculous that we still bracket climate change and water supplies as specifically "environmental" issues: the questions at hand are ones of political economy and collective action. That is to say, they are things the Left has plenty to say about. But while leftists are increasingly recognizing the importance of issues once compartmentalized as "environmental," left perspectives on those issues remain undertheorized and too rarely discussed. That needs to change - we can't just keep trotting out Naomi Klein whenever the topic comes up.

The Left needs more voices and sharper critiques that put our analysis of power and justice at the center of environmental discussions, where they should be. We can start by supporting and amplifying the work of environmental justice advocates who have long fought the uneven effects of environmental destruction on working communities - particularly working class people of color and the indigenous - and other marginalized groups. But there's more to do.

Environmental leftism tends to have an anarchist bent: anti-globalization protesters, direct-action-oriented Earth First! activists, animal-rights liberationists, and bike collectives. And because environmental problems are so place-specific, they often prompt solutions in the form of small-scale local action. Yet climate change and other global environmental challenges are systemic issues that require more than just pockets of alternative practice.

Still, if eco-anarchism doesn't tend to scale well, sweeping critiques of the "it's capitalism, stupid" variety aren't very helpful when it comes to the specifics of what exactly to do about it. Socialists, too, often evade questions of how to achieve worldwide economic justice without relying on existing forms of energy production or exacerbating environmental destruction. Even leaving aside the inevitable retort that the Soviet Union was hardly an ecology paradise, old socialist dreams of maximizing production in the pursuit of abundance and equality seem increasingly untenable. What will replace them?

It's not that we need to come up with a series of five-year plans for the environment. The exigencies of the climate crisis mean that we're not going to get the chance to build an ecotopia from scratch. Our situation requires a struggle for non-reformist reforms - projects that buy time and allow societies to adapt to climate change and meet immediate needs, while also setting us on the path to more fundamental transformations. Without a vision and a set of concrete ideas for how to get there, we're liable to end up with the the kind of bright-green centrism that favors both bike lanes and budget cuts, solar-powered drones and microgrid-powered jails - that is, something reminiscent of Germany's Green Party, a once inspiring effort now described by a disillusioned co-founder as "neoliberals on bikes." We've already got plenty of those.

And forget socialism in one country - ecosocialism in one country is even less feasible. The fact that ecological problems don't respect national or institutional borders is often used as an excuse for inaction, leading to the chronic breakdown of global climate negotiations. But that interdependence should be an impetus to reinvigorate the international left - a reminder that sustainability will come only through global solidarity.

At the same time, the consequences of environmental struggles within the US are vital in light of continued American hegemony - not to mention our status as one of the world's leading polluters. The US has not only consistently failed to commit to international treaties and emissions targets; it has also pushed to replace the more stringent responsibilities and substantial funding proposed by developing countries with market mechanisms preferred by business interests and financiers, who see opportunities for cost savings and accumulation in carbon offsets and trading - often with the support of US-based NGOs that have conceded the terms of the debate.

The failure of the American left to engage more substantially on environmental issues at home has real consequences for the expansion of neoliberalism worldwide.

The history of environmentalism is littered with Malthusianism, ecological determinism, biological essentialism, and neocolonial conservationism. Left skepticism of - or perhaps more accurately, indifference to - engagement with ecological politics is certainly understandable. But we're not talking about preserving an idealized concept of pristine, untouched nature - we're talking about the world we choose to make, and the world we'll have to live in.

Green dominates the environmental landscape, from the light greenwash of "sustainable lifestyles" to the dark green of deep ecologists. But environmentalism is also black lung disease in coal-mining towns and toxic brownfields in urban neighborhoods, the iridescent sheen of an oil spill and the translucent white of melting polar ice caps.

And so I cringe a bit at the term ecosocialism - it's too earth-toned. What we need is a cyborg socialism that points not to the primacy of ecology, but to the integration of natural and social, organic and industrial, ecological and technological; that recognizes human transformations of the natural world without simply asserting domination over it.

The Left doesn't need to go green - to save the planet and the people on it, it needs to go red.

Alyssa Battistoni is an editor at Jacobin magazine. Her work has appeared in Salon and Mother Jones, among other venues. This article is reposted with permission from Jacobin.

Photo: Jacob Anikulapo CC 2.0

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  • Previously, there was a kind of “industrial revolution idealism” masquerading as materialism where we viewed communism as simply the production of plenty for all not completely but mostly in material terms. This is a version of something we criticize capitalism for, the illusion that there can be infinite growth in the economy in the middle of a finite world. We need a redefinition of the communist goal which places, as Marx did, all-round human development for all as the central goal, not the provision of more and more material goods as the goal. We need a renewed look at Marxist economics and political economy that takes account of the reality of living in a finite world, without succumbing to simplistic anti-technology approaches.
    Placing full human development at the center means focusing more on the humanistic side of Marx’s analysis. It is about production, but not only about production. It is about how we produce the essentials of life (of developed, advanced human society) but not only about more or the same. It is more about an end to alienation than about endlessly increasing socialist commodity production.
    Our philosophy can help us develop a more nuanced view of solving the challenges that face us. One of the problems in the Soviet Union, I’ve always thought, was that they developed, of necessity, a reflexive reliance on centralization and on economies of scale as the solution for everything. One way it was explained to me used the example of the shoe industry: in the 1930s, there were still millions of shoeless people, so building large factories that could turn out mass quantities of cheap shoes was exactly the correct approach to take. However, by the 1970s, there were no longer shoeless people, and there was a craving for quality and choice, and the command and control systems in place were not nimble enough to adapt, resulting in a black market for shoes from capitalist countries and warehouses full of no longer needed or desired cheap shoes. No doubt, this is a gross oversimplification of the reality, but it does illustrate that times change, challenges change, and our solutions also need to change as circumstances change. For some things, greater centralization is necessary, for others, decentralization is the route to take. Circumstances and challenges change, as does technology. Massive steel mills close, replaced by mini-mills. Part of the shift has to do with capitalist economics and union-busting, but part of this shift happened due to changes in technology and demand. So we should be materialists in the details, recognizing that different problems need different kinds of solutions.
    Technology is not the problem, but some kinds of applied technology are a problem. Increased production is, taken in the abstract, neither an unmitigated good nor unmitigated evil. We can be for more goods for more people without being for endless increases in production being the measure of whether or not we have advanced to a new epoch. We can be for greater development of technology and at the same time point out that technological change without social and economic change is not the answer. We can criticize some uses of technology without becoming Luddites.
    How do we reconcile the fundamentally finite nature of the world with the traditional Marxist economic strategy of collectivizing and maximizing production and then equitably distributing the resulting surplus? We can be for collectivizing production and decision-making, for a much more equitable and social distribution of the resulting surplus, and be for maximizing some kinds of production (food, housing, clothing, health care, for example) without seeing the maximization of all kinds of production of everything as a positive thing. We can be for more production of essential goods, and be against the production of more plastic crap that just ends up clogging the waste stream, against more production of luxury items, and against more agriculture and farming for the world market instead of growing essential foodstuffs for the local population. That approach demands more collective, social decision-making about what is best rather than just what can make the most profit in the shortest time.
    When Virginia Brodine and Barry Commoner argued with Paul Erlich about his contention that population was the problem, they made very good arguments noting that production and profit decisions were at the root of the imbalance between humans and nature. However, this can be taken to the point that we think population, the actual numbers of people, the actual scale of human impact, is not part of the problem. Just as we should never adopt the “Zero Population Growth” mantra of people being the problem, neither should we pretend that the totality of human impact on nature is not an important aspect of the problem. This doesn’t require us to blame people for the problems of the system, but it does mean that population issues need to be one part of the broader solutions we advocate.
    Environmental issues (taken as a whole, not every single aspect of every single issue) are fundamental, they shouldn’t be seen as just another set of issues and organizations we “ought” to do something about. This is about survival in a developed advanced state for humankind, and we must recognize that some very basic aspects of human existence are threatened. It’s hard to strike a balance that doesn’t degenerate into apocalyptic fear-mongering, yet still convey the real dangers to all of humanity.
    Environmental challenges and our growing knowledge about the real, finite world we depend on require a deeper re-evaluation of our ultimate goals and how to reach them.

    Posted by Marc Brodine, 02/13/2014 1:18pm (11 months ago)

  • Thanks and commendations to sister Alyssa Battistoni.
    Her excellent article here gets to the heart of our ecological and environmental problems-relating them to their social consequences and solutions, embedding their resolution in social revolution.
    Our non-dialectical approach to economics, education, imperialism, international socialism(as it factually exist-in Vietnam, China and Cuba-and developmentally in many Latin American and Western European countries, with the pressing needs of India and Pakistan), and organizational approaches which do not inter-relate various struggles, prompt us to tail rather than lead, in the centrality of environmental struggles.
    Humankind's relationship to nature is what Communism is.
    Communism is a historical necessity.
    The world, as we know it, is being unmade and destroyed by today's imperialism.
    Everyone who drinks water, eats vegetables, or consumes meat, or disposes of waste, needs to be mobilized for life, in the vast social struggle "to go red", because we need not only a conscious social movement to sustain what we have now(what a mess), but an advanced social system of socialism, like Cuba's(like Cuba's, not Cuba's because American hegemony and its displacement by social revolution will yield a society totally different, if peacefully compatible with Cuban society).
    W. E. B. Du Bois's prophesy that the CPUSA would help "..restore democracy", has much to do with the fact the Left "..needs to go red." This prophesy, in his famous, historic, 1961 admission letter, leads directly to his call for:

    "1. Public ownership of natural resources and of all capital."

    Many anti-communists and anti-socialists, who would claim to know the history of the United States(divesting from that history its anti-colonialism, its abolitionism, its technological history(with revolutionary foundations and applications from unexpected working class sources), its anti-slavery, its anti-repression, its anti-genocide, its expansion of civil and human rights, its anti-fascism and anti-racism, its socialism and communism, and its militant, working class environmentalism) will leap to opine that ownership of all capital is unworkable and even totalitarian.
    This(and these, this is one of Du Bois's ten points) is an aim, not an absolutism, within the context of a new democracy, which is consistent with abolishing poverty, and controlling communication and transportation in that same democratic context.
    However, this is the direct, simple, unmistakable, revolutionary idea all communists must bring to every movement, especially the environmental/ecological movement, of this day, assuring its necessity to move toward cyborg red.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 02/11/2014 11:18am (11 months ago)

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