‘Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe’ reviewed by Jasper Finkeldey

Reviewed by Jasper Finkeldey

About the reviewer

Jasper Finkeldey is a PhD researcher from the University of Essex focusing on the social and …


After the latest Paris summit on climate change the UN delegates came home with a success story. Policy makers have praised the agreement for its ‘historic’ achievement and as a ‘victory’ won on behalf of ‘all of the planet’. Indeed all countries involved have agreed on a resolution that is supposed to tackle galloping climate change. The resolution reads surprisingly straight forwardly considering that literally every country represented in Paris became part of the deal. Participants stress the ‘urgent need’ to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and voice their willingness keeping the increase of global temperature below 1.5°C to 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels. However, putting the pledged emissions of voluntary individual commitments of these countries together, scientists calculated that global warming will easily surpass 3°C. These contradictory signals from Paris lead one to believe that ‘business-as-usual’ might unfortunately be what we will get in the future. After all, dirty economies face no penalties if they keep on polluting the way they do. Will companies in service of shareholder value thus realistically refrain from drilling oil or burning coal?

Michael Löwy helps us to make sense of the undercurrents of the glossy climate-saviour statements and to look for viable alternatives. Löwy contends that the current profit-driven economy will necessarily fry the planet beyond the point that guarantees sustainable living conditions. For the Brazilian scholar-activist based in Paris a sustainable future without overthrowing capitalism amounts to squaring circles. He regards capitalism as inherently hostile with regards to nature. Löwy presents a short, potent collection of articles in which he aims to stimulate theoretical debate on eco-social alternatives to capitalism. He also provides some insight to current national and indigenous struggles around the sustainable livelihoods in his home continent Latin America.

In his first chapter, Löwy advances ecosocialism as the only viable alternative to disaster capitalism. Löwy is convinced that capitalism necessarily goes hand in hand with “boundless accumulation” that will consume all of nature’s resources (7). However, he does not spare his leftist allies from criticism as he thinks that both Marxists and ecologists have to change their strategies in order not to be complicit in the current predicament. He criticizes Marxists’ production fetish and ecologists’ absence of a systematic critique of capital. But what does Löwy propose?

In a Marxist fashion Löwy calls for the re-appropriation and control of the means of production by workers. This is to transform unsustainable polluting practices and to establish an eco-social hegemony. Ecosocialists should aim at the production of use-values as opposed to the compulsive pursuit of exchange-values under capitalism. Goods under ecosocialist production should satisfy human real human needs in a way that does not harm the planets’ ecosystem. ‘Being’ under the new paradigm should reign over ‘having’. The ecosocialism Löwy has in mind is however very much unlike Central European experiments involving social democratic and green parties. In the eyes of the author these alliances are at best cosmetic in remedying the most brutal forms of social and environmental degradation caused by capitalism. Therefore Löwy proposes not to put too much hope in these kind of “red-green” alliances, but to “join the battle for immediate reforms” (11). Löwy calls for a fight to introduce eco-taxes, advocates the expansion of public transport and calls for a rebellion against the marketization of emissions through carbon trading. All these reformist battles Löwy deems vital to save the planet from the worst destructions.

The question arises how to arrive at an ecosocialist future? Löwy suggests in chapter two that ecosocialism can only be achieved by democratic means. Bureaucratic soviet-style socialism supposedly failed, as it did not come up with a new form of production. Löwy remembers that the Chernobyl catastrophe bears witness to how fateful socialists’ failure to look for more sustainable energy sources was.

Alternatives should be imagined by means of ‘global democratic planning’ (27). Löwy believes that only non-hierarchical forms of planning on local and transnational level can bring the necessary change. This is one of the less convincing arguments of the book. What if decentralized workers’ preferences conflict with the ecosocialist vision Löwy presents? Löwy is relying on the ‘hope’ that ‘in an ecosocialist society, the factory workers themselves will have enough ecological consciousness to avoid making decisions that are dangerous to the environment’ (27). I think that ‘hope’ is not enough. For if ecosocialist forces are to be able to gain substantive global influence one day, they need to ensure their vision translates into action. Without asking for more authoritarian forms of socialism, I do think that a fair amount of central planning is unavoidable. Neoliberal policies are very successful strictly because they are inscribed into law that enforces disaster capitalism’s survival (e.g., by protecting private property, granting limited liability to companies, or enforcing austerity on social welfare). Ecosocial beliefs would need to be similarly enforceable, otherwise they would likely be ignored. Even in times in which ecosocialism will be on top of the global agenda it will be beneficial for some groups of people to engage in unsustainable practices. These groups will eventually find allies for projects that will antagonize the ecosocialist vision. Non-hierarchical grassroots movements will not be enough to stop them.

The problem Löwy faces has to do with a partial reading of Gramsci. The latter’s use of hegemony relies on two pillars: persuasion and coercion. While Löwy aptly discusses the pressing need for a more sustainable future, he does not talk about mechanisms – legal or other – to, yes, enforce ecosocialists’ hegemony. Löwy like many others on the left remains very suspicious of hierarchies. However, as leading Marxist scholars like David Harvey put forward: horizontal forms of politics face their limits when it comes to global problems such as climate change. Ecosocialism would need to bring down multinational oil and gas conglomerates. Obviously local struggles of social movements will be key in that battle, but by far not enough. Ecosocialists in top executive positions would need to stand in the way of multinationals.

Chapter three is entitled ‘Ecology and Advertisement’. Löwy outlines the way in which ecosocialism favours production for real human needs as opposed to the false needs and compulsive consumption propagated under capitalism. Convincingly he identifies the advertisement industry as the central means advocating the ‘display, waste, commodity fetishism’ (43) orchestrating consumption. This chapter is a passionate tirade against advertisement’s harassment of our everyday life. For Löwy a meaningful life offers ‘cultural, athletic, erotic, political, artistic, and playful activities’ (44), rather than endless accumulation of goods encouraged by the marketing industry. Löwy provides two reasons why he identifies advertisement as the adversary the good life. Firstly, Löwy puts forward that advertisement creates enormous amounts of waste. Money spent on billboards, ads in magazines or neon lights could be spent on social welfare and the creation of green jobs. Secondly, Löwy calls for a radical rethink concerning the quality of consumption. His idea is not so much to force people to consume less and live an ascetic life, but rather to examine what is actually consumed. Löwy is proposing to choose ‘more culture, education, health, or home improvement rather than buying new gadgets, new decreasingly useful commodities’ (50). He proposes to push for mass transit, sustainable energy and pedestrianism. The author identifies the advertisement industry as a ‘lubricant’ for excessive consumerism responsible for frying the climate.

There is however another contradiction at the heart of a transformation towards ecosocialism that will not be rectified by a ban on advertisement. A more sustainable urban life in the long-term will require more pollution in the short-term. Isolating houses, building more rail tracks, and fabricating solar panels on a mass scale will come at the cost of high levels of emissions. In consequence, renewables will consume far more virgin metals and minerals than currently mined in collieries around the world. Wind turbines and solar energy rely on the extraction of minerals such as copper, steel and aluminium that need to be mined ever deeper beneath the surface. A radical renewable transition would replace fossil-fuel addiction with unprecedented global extraction which would destroy vast livelihoods. This potential green paradox points towards the idea that consumption has to be reduced in quality as Löwy is well aware, as well as in quantity. Otherwise Löwy falls in the same Marxist trap of ‘productivism’ he himself criticizes so fiercely. There is strong evidence that ‘downshifting’ has to be part of the transformation towards a more sustainable future.

Chapters four and five deal with indigenous populations that are fighting crucial climate battles on the frontline against profit-hungry corporations. Löwy tells the story of Chico Mendes, an Amazonas born ‘hero of the Brazilian people’ (54). As a rubber-tapper Mendes organized fellow workers to resist deforestation by bulldozers of big companies in the Amazonas starting in the 1970s. Mendes, who later joined the Workers’ Party (PT) of president-to-come Lula, was crucial in uniting for an alliance against the destruction of the forest. Löwy praises the visionary capacities of Mendes who was able to draw a lot of attention to the cause of land as inherently linked to ecology. A contract killer of landowners assassinated Mendes in 1988. His Forest Peoples Alliance, however, still fights battles to save the Amazonas forest from destruction. It is not only the everyday battle of indigenous peoples with multinational corporations and neoliberal governments, but also their distinctive way of life, that embodies a more sustainable living with nature, as Löwy points out.

Löwy himself is an active participant in an ecosocialist movement that tries to connect the dots between indigenous peoples, ecologists and Marxists worldwide. The appendix in which he provides several declarations of alternative climate summits and World Social forums bears witness to the active role Löwy takes in realizing much needed radical change. Market solutions and unenforceable pledges endorsed by the last UN-climate summit in Paris will not stop the ecocide. Löwy puts the choice very succinctly: Ecosocialism or barbarism. 

21 January 2016

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