Labor Theory of King of the Hill

– Claire Blechman

Who is Hank Hill? You don’t have to ask; he’ll tell you, with pride: Assistant Manager, Strickland Propane. He sells propane and propane accessories. Lady propane has been good to him.

Has there ever been a better example of the perfect worker than Hank Rutherford Hill? Excessively competent, inexplicably dedicated, and willing to go to great lengths to protect the system that exploits him for his labor, Hank is a capitalist’s dream.

King of the Hill (KOTH) is not a politically radical show. Even in the episode featuring the 2000 election (S05E01), in which Hank has a crisis of faith as to whether he can vote for W. Bush, and Luanne flirts with communism, the explicit message is a basic “vote: it’s your civic duty.” Although the show ran from 1997–2010, neither 9/11 nor the Obama administration happened here, and Arlen remained in simpler, Clintonian times. KOTH is not politically radical, but it is a show about the working class, and no show about the working class can avoid conflicts that arise from the deplorable conditions for workers in this country. Over the course of 13 seasons, KOTH portrays many labor actions: strikes, stoppages, scabbing, protests, and even corporate sabotage. The overt message of these episodes is never revolutionary, but a TV show doesn’t have to have revolutionary character to hold great lessons for those of us seeking to raise class consciousness. Hank’s relationship to his hedonistic boss, Buck Strickland, is rich material for uncovering and understanding the dynamics between the working class and the capitalists that run our businesses (and our lives).

When we say Hank is a capitalist’s dream, the specific capitalist living that dream is Buck Strickland, owner of Strickland Propane. Buck “discovered” Hank Hill when he was a young high school graduate selling Jordache at Jeans West. He correctly recognized Hank as his “golden goose,” and brought him into the “Strickland family,” to sell propane and propane accessories. Because of this, Hank looks to Buck as a mentor and a surrogate father figure. Buck, on the other hand, exploits Hank for all the surplus value he can squeeze out of him over the next 15 years.

All capitalist bosses exploit their workers and extract value from their labor to make their profits, but Buck takes this parasitic relationship to extremes. It is a running joke that Buck contributes nothing to the business, steals from the safe and the coffee fund, and skips town the second he might have to take any responsibility (sometimes literally bailing out the window). In the episode where Buck gets banned from his favorite strip club (Jugstore Cowboys), Hank tries to convince him to come back to work at Strickland Propane, but Buck makes his position clear:

BUCK: I hate work, Hank! It’s so god-awful boring. How you don’t kill yourself is beyond me. (S10E12)

No matter how big a mess Buck makes—philandering, gambling, even colluding on an illegal price fixing cartel—Hank is always there to clean it up. On top of Hank’s regular work managing the entire business, Buck has Hank bail him out of jail on multiple occasions, complete his community service for him, and otherwise do all his dirty work. All of this he demands of Hank without so much as a “please,” and certainly never a raise. On more than one occasion Buck loses Hank at the poker table, gambling him away like so many chips. Hank’s labor power is a commodity that his employer controls, and that Buck trades in to pay his debts.

Despite Buck’s exploitation and even outright abuse, Hank is pathologically loyal to the company that defines him. It takes a series of significant betrayals for Hank to question that loyalty.

Hospitalized with the first of many “infarctions,” Buck passes over his most effective and loyal worker (Hank) to put the toady B-school graduate Lloyd Vickers in charge of the business (S02E12). Hank, by contrast, is assigned to feed Strickland’s hounds, and while at Buck’s mansion, he finds out that the man he idolizes doesn’t even cook on a gas stove.

HANK: How could you, sir? …you’ve always said that propane is God’s gas. It’s a higher calling.

BUCK: Aww hell Hank, it’s just a business! It’s about makin’ as much money as you can while you can. (S02E12)

Buck has no illusions that there is anything noble about running a business, and no compunctions about throwing his best worker under the bus in the hopes of earning higher profits (a decision he will regret in this one instance, but only briefly). Hank is loyal to his boss, but this is a tragic, misplaced loyalty that is never reciprocated. It’s a form of dramatic irony that we in the audience know Buck is a terrible boss, even if Hank will not admit it. This is a relatable characterization of Hank. It is often easier to recognize poor treatment of others rather than confront our own exploitation.

Buck puts Vickers in charge because he thinks his “fancy business school degree” might earn him more money (10 cents a gallon in fact). Hank would never consider Peak Demand Pricing because that’s “sticking it to people when they need us most” (S02E12), but to a capitalist like Vickers, the market demands they extract as much profit as they can—from both the employees and the customers. Buck agrees to put the tattler boxes in the trucks (to track drivers’ routes and cut down on unscheduled stops) for the same reason. This is the last straw for Hank.

HANK: Mister Strickland, I never thought I’d say this but…I’m not coming in tomorrow

BUCK: You quittin’, or are you taking a personal day?

HANK: You heard me! (S02E12)

For the first (and arguably last) time, Hank has finally seen through the layers of bullshit Buck uses to placate him into accepting all of this poor treatment. He goes to the lake to reflect on what it all means, but Hank is not a man who is equipped to emerge from his retreat with new philosophy of life. Because he doesn’t know how to relate to the world other than through his identity as a worker, what he ends up doing is searching for some more “authentic” work to structure his life around. He settles on being the manager of a “Mom and Pop” general store.

HANK: Peggy! Pack up the car, I’ve figured it all out. It’s not about tattler boxes or who’s in charge. It’s about service with a smile and makin’ people happy. […] Everything I thought I’d find in propane, it isn’t there. It’s in the general store, where they put people before pennies. (S02E12)

The problem is there is no aspect of the capitalist system that puts “people before pennies.” It is, as Buck said, “about making as much money as you can, while you can.” We know that Hank’s sentimental vision of the general store is also a lie. After Hank leaves the store that inspired his epiphany, “Ma” berates “Pa”:

PA: Twenty’s close enough. we don’t care about a buck here or there. People before pennies I always say

HANK: Well thank you friend; you’re good people

[HANK leaves]

MA: We don’t care about a buck here or there? Now I know why they call you Pa. Because you’re PA-thetic

PA: And I know why they call you Ma! Because you’re always riding MAH ASS. (S02E12)

“People before pennies” is a line Hank can embrace in his search for meaning in his work. But it’s a complete illusion. You cannot run a business this way, and you definitely can’t run it the way Hank envisions running his general store:

HANK: A fella’s got no money, he can’t pay his bill? Well that’s good enough for us. And then that fella will tell another fella, and before you know it we’ll have customers lined up around the block. (S02E12)

Meanwhile, back at Strickland, the drivers have all quit, Buck has fired Vickers (after unleashing a torrent of creatively TV-appropriate swearing), and customers have left dozens of messages on Hank’s voicemail asking when their propane will be delivered. Without the drivers’ labor, Strickland can’t run his business. Without Hank and his leadership, Strickland had no hope of keeping the drivers on the job.

This “Snow Job” episode (S02E12) is an outlier, in that Hank pushes back against Buck’s exploitation. Normally, Buck can count on Hank, and more passively the rest of his staff, to acquiesce to his meetings in the men’s room, his stealing from the safe to go to the strip club, his affair with employee Debbie Grund, and all the humiliating schemes he makes them work through.

Buck at one point holds the entire staff of Strickland Propane hostage at the office overnight to indulge him in playing board games, and tortures them by making anyone who voices any protest wear a wet blanket (S10E12). If a private individual did this to a random group of strangers he would be a criminal, but because a boss is doing it to his workers, Hank and the rest of the employees at Strickland Propane are acculturated to accept Buck’s egregious demands.

JOE JACK: I won’t wear the blanket again, honey. I swear I won’t.

HANK: I hate it, too, but you can’t argue with Mr. Strickland. Not when business is up. (S10E12)

Under capitalism, a lot of abuse is totally excusable (or even unassailable) so long as “business is up.” In order to keep business on the up, capitalists have to keep making increasing demands on their workers.

The only question is how much their can increase those demands, and for how long, before the workers revolt. Joe Jack might have followed through on his desire to “throw a blanket over his [Buck’s] head and do what feels right,” had Hank not intervened (S10E12).

Not all bosses are alike, and by lack of skill or circumstances, not all of them succeed at striking the delicate balance between labor exploiting and loyalty inspiring. Hank’s neighbor, Kahn Souphanousinphone, usually a white collar “systems analyst,” gets to try his hand at being the boss in “The Year of Washing Dangerously” episode (S10E09). It does not go well.

When Buck farms out Hank as day labor to Kahn’s car wash scheme1, Kahn (a petit-bourgeoisie striver to the core) abuses and humiliates Hank beyond his limits. What’s more, he exploits the customers, jacking up the prices and cheating them on spray time. As we learned from the Snow Job episode (S02E12), if there’s one thing Hank can’t abide, it’s screwing over customers. Kahn then accuses Hank of stealing:

KAHN: You trying to steal from me? Empty your pockets!
HANK: I’m not going to empty my pockets.

KAHN: Something to hide, huh?
HANK: Kahn, get away from me.

KAHN: Ah! A quarter! I knew it. Thief!
HANK: That is my personal quarter. I brought it from home. (S10E09)

For Hank, this is an embarrassing and intolerable questioning of his integrity. For the rest of us, we can see the absurdity of a boss like Kahn accusing a man like Hank Hill of “stealing” a measly quarter. Kahn thinks as the owner he is entitled to every quarter he can wring out of Hank and Scrubby’s, but that’s the capitalism talking. We know that Labor is entitled to all it creates.

When Hank inevitably quits, Buck takes Kahn aside and, exasperated, explains the scheme to him. Buck, like all successful capitalists, knows from where his wealth derives in this system. “I got my own little success secret,” he says. “A business thrives on customer relations and back-breaking hard work. And that’s the guy that gives it to you. Hank is the golden goose.” (S10E09)

Kahn’s failure here was not that he exploited Hank, or even that he exploited him too much. In context, the work Buck makes Hank do, and the humiliations he makes him suffer, are manifold. Buck regularly makes his employees take meetings in the restroom while he sits on the toilet. He makes Hank skip date night with his wife to go kill the Emus on his failed Emu farm, because they were no longer profitable. Most egregiously, Buck tries to frame Hank for murder (S04E14).

For 15 years Hank puts up with Buck’s bullshit, only flirting with quitting in the most egregious of circumstances and never following through, but he only lasts two days with Kahn. Why does Hank know his worth and the power of withholding his labor in this case, but not in any other?

The difference between Kahn’s clumsy petit-bourgeois exploitation and Buck’s professional capitalist version is that Kahn rubbed it in. He couldn’t help but laugh in Hank’s face and proclaim him a monkey. Insecure with his position as a member of the managerial class, Kahn reasserts his dominance over Hank at every opportunity. Buck, by contrast, named Hank employee of the month for 14 years running, and constantly reminds his staff that Strickland Propane is a “family”2. This helps maintain the illusion that the boss has a vested interest in his workers as people instead of just as commodities from which he can extract more and more labor, and thus more and more profit.

There’s an intersectional component to this too, that Kahn is a Laotian immigrant and Buck is a white man. It’s clear that, as a character trait, Kahn Soupanusinphone strives to achieve the bourgeois lifestyle he perceives as the American dream—personified in Ted Wasonasong (country club membership, giant house with a pool in a gated community, consumer luxury goods). He’s taken in by the get rich quick schemes of Asian telemarketer Doctor Money, but Kahn will never achieve the promise of the American bourgeoisie. Try as he might, he will never be admitted to the club—neither Nine Rivers Country Club nor the capitalist class3.

Hank, meanwhile, doesn’t see anything wrong with a social order in which he is the property of a white man like Buck Strickland, but cannot abide his neighbor Kahn in the same position.

HANK: I left Jeans West to work for one of the most admired men in Arlen business: Buck Strickland. Not a lazy idiot who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing. (S10E09)

Throughout the series, it’s implied that Buck was once a formidable businessman, but considering we rarely see Buck do anything even approaching business acumen (with the notable exception of hiring Hank),it’s more likely that’s a myth that Hank tells to justify his current cognitive dissonance. “Lazy idiot” describes Buck perhaps even better than it does Kahn but Hank steadfastly ignores any such comparisons.

“I know the secret to success: hard work,” Hank lectures Kahn (S10E09). This is at once trite received knowledge and extreme naivete.

Hank fetishizes hard work for its own sake, an attitude that he certainly did not get from either of his parents. He tries to impart this lesson to his son Bobby on many occasions, but the depth of his work ethic is so ludicrous it always comes off as a joke. For example, when Bobby becomes the towel manager of the football team and is assigned to clean every jockstrap after a game, Hank says:

HANK: Looks like you’ve got some hard work ahead of you. Enjoy it because you’ve earned it. (S07E06)

Like Hank, many people in the real world come to the conclusion that hard work is the answer to every problem. This is deliberately instilled in us through a lifetime of capitalist ideology that permeates every aspect of our existence. The promise goes like this: work hard, and you will succeed. The corollary is if you don’t succeed, you’re not working hard enough.

Of course the Bucks of the world want the Hanks to work harder, in all circumstances. The more labor Hank puts in—to the car wash or to the propane dealership—the more profit the boss can extract from his labor.

One of the reasons that Hank remains loyal to his boss despite it all is that, far from feeling exploited when he has to go the extra mile, Hank takes pride in the fact that he works hard. But for what? The reward for all this hard work can’t be more money, or less work (both of which cut into the boss’s profit), so it becomes either a bromide like “satisfaction in a job well done,” or a passive sense of superiority over those who have less capacity or willingness to work. There is no better motivator than a strong moral compass, even if it points you in the wrong direction.

It’s a running gag over the ten seasons of King of the Hill that Hank doesn’t take any time off, and doesn’t know what to do with himself when he is forced to take a break from work. Work is not just a paycheck to Hank, it’s his identity. Even in situations that have nothing to do with work, he introduces himself as “Hank Hill, Assistant Manager, Strickland Propane.”

Hank’s identity as a worker is sewn up so tight that when he injures his back so badly that he can’t even stand up straight, the idea of taking worker’s comp is anathema to him (S08E20).

DOCTOR: Just have your office send over your workers’ compensation forms and I’ll sign off on them

HANK: Workers’ comp? Do I look like a hobo to you? No sir, I’m not going on welfare. (S08E20)

Even when Buck gives him the go-ahead to take time off, Hank’s work ethic supersedes his misplaced loyalty in his boss.

BUCK: Slow down old top! If you go on workers’ comp I can have Joe Jack’s cousin fill in for you for half the pay. And still have some left to buy my new lady some studio time.

HANK: Mister Strickland, as long as I’m breathing, I’m going to do my job. (S08E20)

Hank’s productive power is formidable, and capitalist ideology has taught him that he had better maintain that quality (and thus his value), or else what use is he? To admit that he can’t work, or needs accommodation, even for a 100% legitimate reason, is a blow to his self-concept.

When he is assigned to feed Strickland’s hounds in the Snow Job episode, Hank faces one more humiliation, from the new boss Vickers.

HANK: He had the nerve to give me flex time! That’s what they give pregnant women and other disableds. (S02E12)

Under capitalism, those whose productive power is diminished beyond what is useful for a capitalist to extract from their labor are considered “disabled”. That pregnant women are included in this inferior group is no accident—even though the labor they are doing is the most productive of the entire human race. The gender politics of work in KOTH are too vast to get into here, but suffice to say, Hank rails at the idea of being thought of as womanly in any way in part because his concept of masculinity is to be a worker with enormous capacity.

Hank can toil as hard as he wants, for as long as he wants without end (“Breaks are for guys on disability” Bobby parrots in S08E08), but in the end he’ll be right back where he started, and all he will have achieved is making the capitalist who owns his labor power richer.

If hard work guaranteed success, Hank would be manager of Strickland Propane, instead of assistant manager. Without the interference and sabotage from Buck, Hank could run Strickland Propane in his sleep. He could decide he has had enough of working for a boss like Buck, go out on his own (like M. F. Thatherton did)4, and run every other propane concern out of town5. The only advantage Buck has in this situation is that he owns the means of production. But under capitalism, that is the crucial advantage, and the difference between the bosses and the working class, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

“The place runs itself,” Buck says of the restaurant he owns (Sugarfoot’s). “The help makes the barbeque, I make the money” (S04E13). This is a particularly succinct statement of how wage labor works under capitalism. All of Buck’s wealth is created by the hard work of his employees, Hank especially.

Considering all this—that Buck brings nothing to the table, and is open about how he opportunistically extracts wealth from his workers and customers alike while trying to avoid any semblance of actual work—it might seem puzzling that Hank doesn’t push back, given his strong conviction in the morality of hard work. Instead, Hank actively works to prop up Buck’s authority, in increasingly hilarious ways. Whether he’s being Buck’s character witness or breaking the drivers’ strike, Hank consistently insulates his boss from the consequences of his actions.

You don’t have to be the beneficiary of the capitalist system to work to uphold it. Many people who do not directly benefit from capitalism are the most loyal enablers of the system. Some because they believe (like Kahn) that the capitalists will someday admit them to their club. Some because they imagine they are in a zero-sum game, pitted against their fellow workers for scraps. Hank does it because he has constructed an identity around work, and because he desperately wants Buck to be his surrogate father (in the next installment we’ll cover how capitalists exploit the family dynamic to maintain control over workers, and how Hank is particularly susceptible to this as the product of an abusive home).

In the same episode where Buck humiliates Hank by assigning him to feed his hounds, Hank bails Buck out of hot water yet again. The drivers’ strike threatens to put Arlen out of propane during the cold snap, and Buck out of business. The drivers know their power, in part because they have class C licenses to transport hazardous materials, but also because, as we find out earlier in the episode, they have a union. They want the tattler boxes out of their trucks, so they withhold the most valuable thing they can give to Strickland: their labor.

This is a sound strategy, but like all labor actions, they were vulnerable to scabs and class traitors. Hank breaks the drivers’ strike by hooking up the bobtails to tow trucks, so that they can deliver propane without needing the labor of drivers with class-C licenses. He does this even though he agrees with the workers’ demands, and knows this problem is entirely the work of his nemesis Lloyd Vickers (S02E12).

Towing the bobtails is presented as a can-do solution to a crisis which gets the people of Arlen their propane in a rare snowy cold snap, but the real solution would be to remove the tattler boxes and invite the licensed drivers to come back to work. By caving on his stand against Buck’s harsh treatment (and worse, by scabbing against his fellow workers) Hank loses any chance he had to make gains for a better workplace. He is only setting himself up for another 15 years of wage slavery and exploitation.

The bobtail incident is not the only time Hank scabs while workers are on strike. In the episode “A Fire-fighting We Will Go” (S03E10), Hank and the gang knowingly cross a picket line in order to live out their childhood fantasy of being volunteer firefighters. They are not paid for this labor, but no one seems to care so long as they can drive around in the fire truck and posture about their new “occupation.”

The episode itself is critical of Hank’s choice to cross the picket line, reminding us of the paid workers that they are displacing, and making it extremely clear that their scab labor is disastrously incompetent. They burn down the entire firehouse, in fact. But none of this matters to Hank.

HANK: They’re striking? Well sir, fires don’t go on strike, I tell you hwat (S03E10).

When there’s work to be done, Hank is there to do it. He feels no remorse for any of his scabbing. Hank works hard, uncritically, because he has been indoctrinated not to think about who his hard work is serving—or hurting. For many people, capitalism is an uncritical good, and for Hank it is inextricably linked to being an American (nationalism is another way ideology solidifies the ruling class’s power over workers’ labor).

HANK: This is wrong, Mister Strickland. You’re the greatest American I know. If anyone can fix this, you can. (S12E11)

Hank is an extremely loyal person: to his country, to his friends and family, and to his boss. He cares deeply about his customers, and (foolishly) about the propane business that he has built his identity around. But he doesn’t have the sense of solidarity with other workers that is so crucial for building the labor movement. Without class consciousness, Hank will always put the interests of capitalists above his fellow workers. He will work like a dog to maintain the status quo that he knows and loves, because Hank is above all a man who plays by the rules. In America, the rule is capitalism over all.

At the end bumper of S05E01, the 2000 election episode, Hank and Bobby break the fourth wall and make a public service announcement that viewers should register to vote. “You’ll be eligible to win these valuable prizes,” Hank says: “Freedom. Civic Pride. And a brand-new President.”

If Hank had a smidgen of class consciousness, he might consider “freedom” the freedom to tell his drunk, debaucherous boss Buck Strickland where to shove it. He might finally recognize the ways Buck exploits him and extracts value from his labor beyond any returns Hank could ever imagine. He might even recognize his own power to join in solidarity with his fellow workers.

Hank Hill will never do any of these things. Not just because he’s a TV character, but because he is the consummate worker. Unlike Kahn, who futilely seeks to join the bourgeoisie, Hank is content to work hard every day at the propanerie, never rock the boat, and remain Assistant Manager forever.

The Case for Ecosocialism: Polluting Plutocracy vs. Prosperity

Gracie Brett

A near total consensus has been reached amongst scientists: climate change threatens life on Earth, and it is caused by human actions (FitzRoy & Papyrakis, 2010). Essentially, the release of greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere traps heat, thus warming the planet. The implications of this are myriad and devastating. Sea levels will rise, swallowing most major cities across the globe — creating mass population displacement. Extreme weather events will become more frequent, taking lives, and requiring expensive relief and rebuilding. While the coasts will suffer from stronger storms, the interior areas of the globe will likely endure incessant droughts, threatening water supply and agriculture. Widespread starvation and thirst will ensue. Obviously, the climate crisis can no longer be ignored. But, how will humans avert this planetary catastrophe and their own extinction?

Scholars, scientists and policymakers have debated this question for decades. A fascinating proposition to address this crisis has emerged out of neoliberal thought: green capitalism. Green capitalism is the idea that the market is the best means to combat climate change. Some “green” market solutions include cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, green consumption, and the development of clean technologies by benevolent billionaires in the private sector — just to name a few. Free market liberals assert that these schemes can preserve the environment while perpetuating the capitalist system (Pearson, 2010). Yet, I contend that capitalism, even when regulated and manipulated by market schemes, is wholly incompatible with planetary health. I argue that socialism is the only form of political economy that can maintain democracy and ecological stability simultaneously.

Why Capitalism Will Not Work

Historically, industrial capitalism has been causally linked with earth-warming carbon emissions (fig. 1). As the capitalist system has expanded, emissions have risen. This is not a controversial point: the more fundamental disagreement is if capitalism is predisposed to environmental destruction, or if this linkage can be decoupled. Ecosocialists disagree with the latter by declaring capitalism the principal driver of ecological collapse.

GB_ecosoc_Fig1

Figure 1

An integral reason Ecosocialists maintain this argument is capitalism’s requisite for infinite economic growth. Capitalism, by definition, seeks profit. For capitalists to accumulate more profits, they must keep capital circulating. They can do so by reducing reinvestment into labor and the environment. The incessant need for capitalism to circulate capital and expand has been described as “an accelerating treadmill” that must consume increased labor and resources to survive (Robbins et al., 2014). Yet, the resources of Earth are finite; humans cannot exploit and expand indefinitely. Eventually, growth must cease.

In the book What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, the authors explain, “No-growth capitalism is an oxymoron: when accumulation ceases, the system is in a state of crisis.” Previously, any time growth has stagnated, devastating economic implications followed — as observed in Japan currently, and the United States during the Great Depression. The conception that capitalism can exist without growth is historically contradictory.

Green capitalists counter this critique, arguing that capitalism could exist without growth theoretically — functioning as a capitalist steady state economy as outlined by the Solow Growth model (fig. 2). There are a litany of unrealistic assumptions the model makes: no government, no international trade, no technological change, and an unchanging labor force. Yet, the most problematic assumption the model makes is that capitalist firms can be satisfied and operate with the same profit returns each year.

GB_ecosoc_fig2

Figure 2

The zero-growth idea is wholly incongruent with the nature of capitalism. Firms accumulate capital so they can invest and create more capital. The Solow Growth model reflects an exchange process in which a commodity C is traded for money M to purchase another commodity, expressed as C-M-C. In this equation, M is simply a means to acquire a commodity. But, I argue that this is a fallacious representation of the economy. A more accurate formula is, as outlined by Marx and Keynes, is M-C-M, in which money is invested to produce a commodity to yield more money (Bellamy Foster & Magdoff, 2011).

Capitalist businesses function using the M-C-M model: goods and services are primarily produced for profit, not need. Although neoclassic, mainstream economists insist that markets operate within simple supply-and-demand linear models,  in reality, the economy is more complex. Demand does not solely dictate supply. For example, drugs for male baldness receive more funding than diseases like Malaria. Although malaria is a fatal disease (those infected need medicine to survive), it is not as profitable as producing hair growth drugs, thus attracts less capital. Capitalists invest in what is profitable rather than what is needed or demanded by the public. In the case of malaria drug funding, capitalist billionaire Bill Gates conceded, “our priorities are tilted by marketplace imperatives” highlighting the “flaw in the pure capitalistic approach.”

A similar “flaw” manifests in the housing market. In the United States alone, there over half a million homeless people, while there are an estimated 5.8 million vacant homes. Numerically, there are enough homes to shelter every citizen; but this does not happen because it is not profitable. Rather than invest in sorely needed affordable housing, developers build lucrative luxury real estate. Housing markets have financialized, functioning as a tool for the wealthy elite to grow their capital. Luxury condos and apartments in American cities are purchased not for living, but for speculative profiteering. All the while, low and middle-income needs are neglected, resulting in an affordable housing and homeless crisis. The drug and housing markets demonstrate that capitalist firms produce in order to accumulate more money, rather than providing a commodity: representing M-C-M, not the neoclassical C-M-C assumption. Thus, the crux of the Solow Growth model is unrealistic.

Capitalism necessitates growth for another reason — debt. The capitalist economy, “is in debt, dependent on future growth, owed by future producers and consumers; the current income of capitalists and workers is drawn on a generational IOU; the entire system must keep growing or it will collapse” (Blackwater, 2014). Banks and bond holders lend because they anticipate the loan will be fulfilled with interest, thus rendering a profit. For the borrowing firm to fulfill its obligation, it must expand. For example, when a start-up company secures a loan, they use the funds to produce goods and services that otherwise did not exist; to repay the loan, the start-up must begin production. As capitalism financializes, debt-induced growth becomes more relevant. The entire stock market is driven by the promise of future profitability: one purchases stock with the singular motive of receiving a higher return at a later date. For a firm to fulfill such expectations, it must expand production.

Further, some growth advocates assert that economic growth can be decoupled from greenhouse gas emissions and environmental ruin. There has been relative decoupling in Western nations like the United States, but not absolute (fig. 3). Moreover, decoupling in the Global North is often a product of outsourcing; in the cases of Japan and Germany, resource-intensive production occurs abroad, then imported for consumption; this is also spreading to the East, as evident in China’s Belt & Road Initiative. The United Nations’ report on decoupling concedes, “The conceptual framework for decoupling and understanding of the instrumentalities for achieving it are still in an infant stage.”

GB_ecosoc_fig 3

Figure 3. 

Additionally, the decoupling of growth and emissions faces another hurdle, known as Jevons Paradox. The paradox maintains that as energy efficiency increases, effectively making energy cheaper, consumption will increase. This can negate “more than 100% of the [energy] savings achieved by the original innovation.” The absolute decoupling of emissions from economic growth proves to be impossible.

Society cannot simply replace fossil fuels with renewable energies and continue business as usual. Despite technological advancements, most evidence indicates that renewable energy cannot support the American level of consumption. The ecological footprint that is considered sustainable is 1.67 global hectares per person ;the average American’s ecological footprint is about 2.7 meaning it would require about 4 earths if everyone lived like the United States population. This is a baffling level of consumption, and continuing this path is impossible and unsustainable. Further, as the nations of the Global South develop their economies, their ecological footprints will grow, putting greater pressure on the planet. It would be unfair and immoral to force the Global South to cease development in order to preserve the Global North’s extraordinary consumption and growth.

Not to mention, renewable energy technology still imposes significant burdens on the environment. To construct a wind turbine, immense amounts of steel (and coal in the production process), copper, plastic, and concrete is required. Alexander Dunlap writes in End the “Green” Delusions: Industrial-scale Renewable Energy is Fossil Fuel+

“The construction and placement of wind turbines requires the creation of roads that clear trees and animal habitats and compact soil. They also require the creation of wind turbine foundations that range, depending on the site, between 7-14 meters (32-45 ft.) deep and about 16-21 meters (52-68 ft.) in diameter. The foundations require the filling of ground water with solidifying chemicals before filling them with steel reinforced concrete. Then, during operation, leaking oil seeps into the ground where animals graze and into water wells where people drink. And this leaves aside the effects of concrete production, as well as the violence involved in building wind or other renewable energy systems on Indigenous territory. On top of all this, each wind turbine only has roughly a 30-40 year lifespan before it needs to be decommissioned and, hopefully, recycled, which is currently done at an unsatisfactory rate over all.” 

Renewable technology and efficiency cannot continue at such a dramatic and continuous rate eternally. There are practical limits in technological advancement, as illustrated in the transportation sector. The United States’ is extremely dependent on oil, as 41 percent of end energy use is transportation, while only 5 percent of transportation is powered by non-oil sources. Electrifying the vehicle fleet is a proposed solution to decarbonize transportation; electric vehicles can be powered by renewable energy. This solution is wholly unsuited for heavy road vehicles, ships and aircraft. Liquid fuels cannot simply be substituted by electrification, as larger forms of transport would require batteries too large to be practical. There are some alternatives to electrification, but none are sufficient to satisfy current and expanding transportation needs. For instance, sails and kites can greatly reduce fuel use on ships, but with notable limits. Sail and kite power would significantly reduce ship speed, while requiring boats to have to wait for the right currents, tides and winds.

Biofuels could be swapped for gasoline in heavy vehicles and airplanes, but again, there are restraints. Considerable amounts of energy must be used to produce biofuels; in the United States growing, harvesting, transporting and distilling ethanol is extremely energy intensive. It requires about 70 percent more energy to produce ethanol than the energy ethanol contains. Further, an immense amount of land is needed to grow enough biofuels for air travel. To meet present-day aviation needs, 1.11 million square kilometers of land must be dedicated to raising biofuel crops, or about 2.5% of current agricultural land. This is unattainable, and would only become more difficult as the aviation industry grows. The environmental impacts, costs and scalability of biofuels imposes serious limitations on future mobility.

Thus, if transportation cannot be maintained or expanded in a renewable future, what happens? Stated plainly, society will be less mobile. Industries reliant on transportation and machinery will be circumscribed; global trade will decrease, tourism will slow, and industrial agriculture output will lessen. Gross domestic  products of nations across the globe will stall, as these sectors drive economic growth.

Such obstacles are not intended to eschew the renewable transition — that transition is indisputably necessary. In highlighting the limitations of the renewable world, I illustrate the inability to completely decouple energy use and economic growth. Clearly, present consumption in the United States cannot be preserved in a renewable economy. If America’s (and generally the Global North’s) consumption is already extraordinary, then expansion is obviously impractical.

The Ecosocialist Project

As described, capitalism requires infinite growth and exploitation of resources. Because this is unsustainable, I argue that the future must be socialist. The current political economy must be overhauled and replaced with a system that prioritizes the planet over profit. Critics highlight the history of previous socialist projects, asserting that socialism was attempted before and failed. For instance, the Soviet Union and Mao-era China are notorious for its environmental destruction. The USSR experienced heavy pollution, declining freshwater supplies, while China deforested large swaths of pine forests. Not to mention, there were egregious human rights violations and acts of violence committed by the authoritarian governments. The difference between these regimes and a future socialist society is clear:  socialism, in its true form, has never existed.   Self-proclaimed socialist states such as the USSR and China can be considered state capitalist, in which the state seizes the means of production and replaces the capitalist. Effectively, little changes, and the state makes a profit off of workers instead of private businesspeople.

This prompts the question: what is real socialism, and why is it an integral component of combating the climate crisis? Essentially, socialism is a political system where the economy is democratized. This means that workers, rather than capitalist, own the means of production. This is otherwise understood as worker cooperatives in which workers vote for their leaders within a company, rather than the current (and certainly undemocratic) system where boards decide business decisions void of worker input. Most of the time, a CEO’s interests are diametrically opposed to that of the common worker. This is because the capitalist seeks the highest profit possible; as little else matters in the capitalist system, like labor and the environment.

In the socialist workplace, the profit motive is removed — a firm must only remain solvent. Wealth is distributed more equitably among all workers, as opposed to mass profiteering by CEOs and other high-ranking executives in the capitalist system. Currently in the United States, CEO pay is 361 times greater than the average worker. This egregious wealth inequality leads to a lack of empathy and moral decision-making. Several studies indicate that wealth leads to decreased compassion and empathy. Thus, a privileged elite like a corporate Board of Trustees is less likely to make empathetic and morally just decisions than a worker cooperative where wealth is distributed. This is illustrated in the cases of Volkswagen’s emission fraud scandal, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and Love Canal. How could such a nefarious fraud and environmental destruction continue on a fairly regular basis? I argue that the extreme wealth accumulation of the capitalist system encourages immoral and callous decision making. A cooperative, socialist workplace that operates equitably and democratically must replace capitalist firms to avoid further ecological disaster.

Consequently, Ecosocialists are not advocating for an authoritarian central bureaucracy that imposes carbon rationing. In fact, communists maintain that this system could operate without state intervention entirely: as communism is the abolition of both private property and the state (Mann & Wainwright, 2018). This vision contradicts the socialism as practiced in previous “socialist” regimes that consist of authoritarian rationing by the state rather than decentralized economic democracy. The climate crisis, socialists argue, is not to be addressed with rations per se, but with an overhaul of the political economy that would not be motivated by profit. Below, I outline how profit is produced, as described by Marx (Burkett, 2014):

GB_ecosoc_fig 4

As observed, the highest profit is extracted by investing as little as possible into labor and resources. Thus, the capitalist system is built upon imposing environmental externalities onto society like pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Even if a firm decided to invest enough money to replenish the environment properly (such as cleaning up pollution, replanting deforested trees, and replacing fossil power with renewable sources) labor must be exploited to maintain profit. This is what I call “green barbarism,” a society that preserves the environment, but maintains extreme inequality — for example, a company produces solar panels with sweatshop labor. Socialists argue that capital should be removed from this equation to adequately compensate labor and resources.

Although many environmentalists recognize that the capitalist system is incompatible with the preservation of Earth, they claim it is quixotic to advocate for socialism. More moderate, mainstream environmentalists are sympathetic, yet ultimately critical of the Ecosocialist vision. In his review of This Changes Everything, environmental scholar Daniel Fiorino remarks, “A global anti-capitalist revolution does not appear to be in the offing,” justifying a more incremental approach to climate action. Yet — I question such centrist rationale.

Throughout history, the privileged and professional classes have failed to foresee political change. One of the latest examples is the election of President Donald Trump. For most pundits, pollsters, and political professionals — Trump’s victory came as a complete surprise. The vast majority of polls predicted a victory for Hillary Clinton; at some points in the campaign, pollsters asserted that there was a single-digit likelihood that Trump would win the presidency. In the mainstream political and media realms, there was a consensus that Trump would lose the election, including President Obama, George Clooney and the Simpsons TV show. Previously, few could imagine a modern president that brags about sexual assault, vilifies the press as “the enemy of the people,” and heaps lavish praise on dictators. President Trump incessantly contradicts the norms established by the ruling elite, yet they continue to be surprised by his supporters’ loyalty and the dearth of political backlash. Similarly, many denounced Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid in 2016 because he identifies as a socialist. Sanders’ rise and legitimate challenge to Secretary Clinton’s pursuit of the democratic nomination surprised elites.

These recent cases demonstrate that political “truths” held by scholars and elites are often out of touch with the working-class zeitgeist. Those within the political and academic establishment may hold that a complete overhaul of the political system is out of the question Yet, history indicates otherwise. Previously, extreme wealth inequality has only been lessened by catastrophes like plagues, wars, and revolutions. Deepening inequality cannot expand endlessly, and it appears that the United States is nearing the limits of inequity. Inequality is often measured by the Gini coefficient: scoring total egalitarian societies as 0 and completely unequal ones as 1. Currently, the United States scores at a jarring .81. There is no precedent for resolving such ingrained inequalities without a dramatic event like a revolution. In these hyper inequitable times, a socialist revolution and upheaval of capitalism is not far-fetched. In fact, it may be a more probable outcome than limitless continuation of current economic barbarism.

Building a Different (Socialist) World

As Marx predicted in his crisis theory, it is inevitable that global capitalism will eventually collapse. There are two possible causes of collapse. One is the ecological annihilation to fuel the incessant growth requisite of capitalism: meaning the end of a livable planet and the human race that exists in it. The second option for collapse, which I advocate for, is a socialist revolution to force the end of capitalism.

Without a doubt, Ecosocialists have significant work ahead to realize a revolution. Policies and actions pursued should combat climate change, while also politicizing, radicalizing, and building working-class power. For example, advocating for free and expanded public transportation achieves both of these goals. Improved public transportation would slash greenhouse gases, while simultaneously improving quality of life for those at the bottom who cannot afford cars. Similarly, low-carbon affordable public housing achieves the same goals. Both of these initiatives could be part of a “Green New Deal,” like the plan proposed by Congresswoman-elect and Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. An ecosocialist Green New Deal would radically restructure the U.S. economy away from carbon, create jobs, and expand the welfare state.

These policies seem unimaginable and unattainable in the neoliberal era. Thus, many market liberals argue that environmentalists must compromise their ultimate goals, instead favoring incremental approaches to curb warming, like cap-and-trade and venture capitalism. But this approach is precarious. Such market approaches only entrench the present economic system — allowing capitalism to perpetuate itself by expanding into spaces like carbon markets. For instance, the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) was created in 2005 to comply with Kyoto Protocol standards. Since the program’s implementation, though, there has been little change in emissions. In 2006, the price of carbon plummeted, allowing for polluters to make windfall profits (FitzRoy & Papyrakis, 2010). This initiative did the opposite of its original intention: awarded polluters. Even if the price of carbon was increased by governments, companies that stockpiled cheap credits after the market bust can continue business as usual. It would take many more years before these polluters feel the tightening of cap-and-trade, and begin developing cleaner technologies. But, we have no time to waste.

I argue that market schemes like cap-and-trade do not provide the radical shift away from fossil fuels required to avert a global crisis. In fact, carbon markets give large polluters an easy out to perpetuate the status quo, rather than forcing them to invest in carbon-free technology. Emitters can purchase cheap offset credits from others, often in the Global South, rather than create a green infrastructure in the heavy-polluting Global North. For example, China’s newly built hydroelectric plants sell their extra carbon credits on the international market; essentially providing the Global North with a stable, inexpensive way to continue polluting. These hydroelectric plants were planned before the installment of ETS; therefore, no environmental gains are made, and massive amounts of money is wasted. Furthermore, although hydroelectric energy is not carbon-intensive, it still has devastating effects on local environments, like deforesting massive swaths of land to then flood.

Green New Deal policies prompt citizens to question the neoliberal austerity they have become accustomed to, and expect the state to provide more. Americans (and increasingly, citizens of other nations in the global north) have accepted deteriorating public services at the behest of deficit hawks. Private enclosure, individualism, and atomization has been prioritized over public commons. Ecosocialists challenge this narrative by prioritizing public spending, whether it be for increased taxes on the rich, or the total rejection of deficit politics by use of Modern Monetary Theory. Ecosocialist policies that expand the commons of transit, housing, and public space embolden citizens to pursue a politics of collectivism that sows the seeds for uprising against the status quo. 

 These actions illuminate a brighter vision for the future, sowing the seeds for uprising. Violence is not requisite for this revolution; mass, nonviolent strikes could be more effective than armed conflict. A critical mass of workers withholding their labor can bring the entire capitalist system to a grinding halt. If workers in the food production system went on strike, grocery stores would be barren. Airline workers could stop all air travel. Teachers could cease education: as they recently did in West Virginia, consequently having their demands fulfilled. There are myriad possibilities.

In conclusion, Ecosocialists argue that capitalism is simply unsustainable. This economic paradigm produced the climate crisis by exploiting Earth for profit; as it burns fossil fuels that warm the planet, fails to absorb destructive externalities, fights environmental regulations, and encourages overconsumption and limitless growth. Capitalism must be abandoned in favor of a system that prioritizes society and the Earth over profit. Ecosocialism means expanding democracy into the economy, rather than enlarging the state or turning to eco-authoritarianism.

The alternative to the unequal and ecologically poisonous system of capitalism is compelling. Ecosocialism is an economic system that serves all, favoring people over profit. Naomi Klein writes in This Changes Everything,

“Because, underneath all of this is the real truth we have been avoiding: climate change isn’t an ‘issue’ to add to the list of things to worry about, next to health care and taxes. It is a civilizational wake-up call. A powerful message spoken — in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions telling us that we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing this planet. Telling us that we need to evolve.”

A beautiful and thriving planet without war, famine, and oppression is achievable. Although critics may claim this vision is quixotic, I argue that the only barrier to reaching an egalitarian, ecological democracy is political imagination. Environmental justice advocate Ashish Kothari urges for society to “dare to dream another future” by imagining a utopian vision for the future, returning to the present, and then creating a plan to get there. Environmentalists must create a climate action plan that clears a path for political-economic revolution. Another world is not only possible, but now necessary.

Bibliography

Bellamy Foster, J. & Magdoff, F. (2011). What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press.

Blackwater, B. (2012). Why do capitalist economies need to grow? Greenhouse Think Tank. Retrieved from https://www.greenhousethinktank.org/uploads/4/8/3/2/48324387/why_capitalist_economies_need_to_grow_-_for_green_house_-_10_10_14.pdf.

Burkett, P. (2014). Marx and Nature. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books. 

 

DiLorenzo, T. (1992, Mar 1). Why Socialism Causes Pollution. Foundation for Economic Education. Retrieved from https://fee.org/articles/why-socialism-causes-pollution/.

Fiorino, D. (2016). Can We Change Everything? The Politics and Economics of Climate Change. Public Admin Rev, 76: 970-974. doi:10.1111/puar.12668

Fitzroy, F. & Papyrakis, E. (2010). An Introduction to Climate Change Economics and Policy. London, England: Earthscan.

Helm, D. (2012). The Carbon Crunch. London: Yale University Press.

Henry Ford Quotations. Retrieved from https://www.thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-resources/popular-topics/henry-ford-quotes/.

Klein, N. (2014). This Changes Everything. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Pannekoek, A. (1936). State Capitalism and Dictatorship. International Council Correspondence, 3:1. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/archive/pannekoe/1936/dictatorship.htm.

Pearse, R. (2014). Climate capitalism and its discontents. Global Environmental Politics, 14(1), 130–135. doi:10.1162/GLEP_r_00217

Pearson, C. S. (2011). Economics and the Challenge of Global Warming. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Robbins, J. & Moore, S. (2010). Environment and Society. West Sussex, England: Wiley-Blackwell.

Rull, J. The Solow Growth Model [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from https://www.sas.upenn.edu/~vr0j/econ10205/lectures/grow5_solow.pdf.

United Nations Environment Programme [UNEP]. (2011) Decoupling Natural Resource Use and Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth. Retrieved from http://www.ourenergypolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/decoupling.pdf.

 

The Coming Capitalist Crisis and the Tasks for Socialists

by Ben M

As we pass the 10th anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent descent of the world economy into the Great Recession, the horizon is once again darkening for capitalism. While economic forecasts often resort to little more than reading tea leaves, e.g.- the regular predictions of a “double dip” recession during the early 2010s that never materialized, the warning signs of new and potentially greater recession are getting harder to ignore.

The last few months have seen noticeably volatile stock markets (oftentimes set off by a Trump tweet) as well as the total collapse of the cryptocurrency market (set off by the fact it was always a bubble and only fools thought they could cash out in time). But the economy isn’t the financial and stock markets- they are just the turbulent foam on top of deeper shifts in the world economy; rather something longer term has started to errode the capitalist class’ confidence in their own ascendancy.

First is the paradoxical fear of growth. The economy has technically been growing continuously since June 2009 (though you might not have noticed), which is an unusually long time without what capitalist economists like to call “self correction”, i.e. the capitalist cycle of boom and bust,  kicking in. During that time over 85% of that growth went to the fabled 1%, something you may have noticed. This has created a highly “efficient” and massively topheavy economy of low wage workers working harder than ever to make things they can’t afford for an uppercrust of capitalists with more money than they know what to do with. The rich can only buy so much, and with most of Americans sinking more and more of their paychecks into just paying off loans and for the essentials, there is a rising fear of what would happen when a glut in consumer goods occur. The extent of how far overproduction has oriented itself for the needs of the rich can be seen in the absurd scenario of the explosion in construction of empty luxury condos, helping to fuel the housing crisis.

On the macro side, the China vs Trump trade war, combined with the massive payout to corporate America through Trump’s tax cuts, was meant to fuel some form of nationalistic re-industrialization. Instead of this MAGA pipe dream, something very different has emerged. Major capitalist enterprises has re-invested their tax cut windfall not into expanded domestic production, but rather buying back their own stock, hitting records not seen since right before the last recession in 2007. At the same time General Motors (GM) has announced the closure of three plants and the layoff of 5,600 industrial workers, to help create the “lean” overly automated and disposable workforce for the future. Combined, these look like companies battering down the hatches for the economic storms to come.

While these problems alone could potentially set off a recession, changes to the US financial sector could have a bigger impact. The last decade of economic growth for the rich has been financed in part by dirt cheap loans at super-low interest rates set by the US Federal Reserve. Essentially this means the Fed has been printing money for a decade to keep the cost of the loans that keep the economy rolling low, but that is soon to change. With the Fed expected to raise interest rates to something more close to reality, the overly leveraged financial markets are freaking out that the days of easy money are gone. At the same time the International Monetary Fund is saying that they don’t have the resources on hand to meet a financial crisis when it hits.

Short term Treasury bond rates are closing in on the long term rates, meaning long term outlook isn’t looking good from the financial markets’ perspective, a typical early sign of a recession. Demand for raw materials is holding steady for now, though we are starting to see a flurry of bankruptcies in principal industries impacted by Trump’s trade war, an apparent slowdown in some manufacturing sectors, and lower homebuilder confidence. It is still difficult to perceive through the noise to the deeper trends, but once we start to see slacking demand for the raw materials and capital equipment needed to expand production, then we will know we are in trouble.

So what does this all mean? To help situate us and begin to see through the fog of often contradictory economic data, we can start with the classic theory of capitalist crisis first outlined by Marx and Engels as early as the Communist Manifesto,

Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells… It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of overproduction. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.

What Marx and Engels are talking about here is capitalism’s inherent drive to over expand, to overproduce. Individual capitalist companies are in fierce competition to take over greater segments of their market or else risk falling by the wayside. Since there is no coordination between them, and their outlook is purely short term, there is constant habit of “supply to overstrip demand” to use the mainstream economics speak. Capitalism isn’t producing for human demand necessarily, they are producing to achieve profits. So there is a deep irrationality to production, seen for instance in the explosion of luxury condo construction that house no one because the housing costs are too high.

Simultaneously, there is a drive within capitalism to forever reinvest in production in such a way that undermines capitalism’s ability to realize the profits it is after to begin with. To stay competitive, capitalist enterprises since the early days of the industrial revolution have had a strong incentive to find ways to replace more and more workers with automated machinery to help lower costs (see GM’s recent announcement to layoff thousands of workers while still aiming to meet similar if not high production quotas). The structural problems hit when you start laying off and underpaying the working class to such an extent they can’t buy your products anymore. This drive to ever automate and an ever increasing pool of precarious workers with bullshit jobs was first called out by Marx when he said capitalism, “dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer … it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his [sic] hands his means of subsistence, … to make him [sic] superfluous. [T]his antagonism vents its rage in the creation of that monstrosity, an industrial reserve army, kept in misery in order to be always at the disposal of capital; in the incessant human sacrifices from among the working-class, in the most reckless squandering of labour-power and in the devastation caused by a social anarchy which turns every economic progress into a social calamity.

These factors of overproduction for a consuming workforce that have been edged out of their sources of a livelihood inevitably and recurrenly explode into a full economic crisis. As the late Marxist economist and historian Chris Harmen said, “Thus what makes sense for an individual capitalist—investment in new technology—plants the seeds of crisis for the system as a whole. Eventually the competitive drive of capitalists to keep ahead of other capitalists results in a massive scale of new investment which cannot be sustained by the rate of profit. If some capitalists are to make an adequate profit it can only be at the expense of other capitalists who are driven out of business. The drive to accumulate leads inevitably to crisis. And the greater the scale of past accumulation, the deeper the crises will be.1

Growth itself, paradoxically, then becomes the biggest threat to capitalism’s continued expansion.

Attempts to mediate these structural tendencies of capitalist growth through the financial market – using it as something of an emergency cushion – have mostly made had the effect to kick the can down the road. As Marxist economist Ernest Mandel details, the production cycle does interact and impact the financial markets, but often the two are autonomous. “Marx visualised the business cycle as intimately intertwined with a credit cycle, which can acquire a relative autonomy in relation to what occurs in production properly speaking. An (over) expansion of credit can enable the capitalist system to sell temporarily more goods that the sum of real incomes created in current production plus past savings could buy. Likewise, credit (over) expansion can enable them to invest temporarily more capital than really accumulated surplus-value … would have enabled them to invest … But all this is only true temporarily. In the longer run, debts must be paid.” Sooner or later the costs of capitalist over-expansion and overproductions come home to roost.

Looking at more historical examples, we see how and when each ‘boom’ is in a way creating the conditions for the next ‘bust’, that each recession is in part the creation of capitalism’s inability to fully “fix” the prior recession. The Great Recession came from world capitalism’s shift to the US housing market after the dotcom bubble and the wider financialization of capitalism as a means to address the stagflation of the 1970s. Too many eggs in one overproduced basket of the housing market, and a too highly leveraged financial market led to a spectacular bust. The 70s recession originated from the failure of Keynesian economics to overcome declining rates of profit in a period when the US was facing increased international competition. Keynesian demand side economics was adopted as a way to pull world capitalism out of the Great Depression of the 1930s but it would take a World War and the construction of a permanent arms economy to pull that off. And so on and so on.

The coming crisis in capitalism likely will have its origins in how the Great Recession was temporarily overcome by the capitalist class. The strategy the capitalist class pursued after 2007 largely followed the, “[t]raditional methods for the restoration of profits,” identified by Marxist economist Joel Geier at the time, of, “cheapening the elements of capital (plant and equipment, raw materials) and labor costs; using the reserve army of the unemployed to raise the rate of exploitation on the job; destroying inefficient capitals; and the healthier capitals buying up their distressed rivals on the cheap.” In other words, in order to return profit rates the capitalist class oversaw the total amelioration of the world working class through austerity to lower labor costs, combined with the massive influx of pure additive cash liquidity by capitalist governments to grease the wheels of corporate centralization. The temporary overcoming of what can be called the “Neoliberal Recession” of 2007 required the single greatest transfer of wealth from the working class to the capitalist class in human history. The current economy is a castle built on sand.

So when is the recession going to hit? No idea, and anyone who says otherwise is probably a charlatan. It could be 3 weeks, 6 months or 4 years before these contradictions start to hit. Many economists are talking about 2020, but that just speculation. The final economic trigger could be anything, but will likely be something ridiculous and petty in one of capitalism’s weak links, cause that’s just the times we live in. We don’t know when it will hit, but we know, due to the fact that capitalism is crisis-prone by its own profit motive fueled nature of perpetual growth, that it eventually will. By then we need to be ready.

We can already predict what Trump’s response will be – the wholesale destruction of what remains of the social safety net and a jingoistic campaign of divide and rule like nothing we have ever seen in the US (and that’s saying something). While it’s too easy to fall into hyperbole, we have already seen this monster erect kiddy concentration camps and deploy armed forces to the border to gas mothers and babies. Now imagine what he is capable of with a mandate from his fanatical base for a “final solution” to the sudden economic woes. Even if the crash happens after the new Democrat controlled House takes office, the logic of what Naomi Klein called the “shock doctrine”, combined with the history of the Democrats’ legendary spinelessness, indicates they will likely go along with the worst of what Trump comes up. “Bipartisanship” in the face of this crisis and this president will mean Democrats’ complicity in ethnic cleansing.

But it is the energy this will give to the fascist alt-right which is the most immediate threat. These killers who have shown their true intentions from Pittsburgh to Charlottesville will jump immediately on the opportunity to spread their nativist poison. We must prepare to confront the right at all cost. We can’t sit passively and hope people will naturally take anti-capitalist conclusions from the coming crisis. The right is perfecting its methods of taking the disenchantment of downwardly mobile pople and turning it towards fascism. But the same crisis that empowers the counter-revolutionary right can empower the revolutionary left. It all matters who is the best organized and the most bold. We must think of ourselves as actors, not just reactors to the titanic forces of world capitalism.

We will need to seize the initiative and capture the narrative of the coming crash. Protests, rallies, pickets, and organizing then is our first responsibility. Blog posts, videos, media spots, “memes” that articulare a anti-capitalist message are our next. There is an answer and alternative to more years of amelioration, austerity, unemployment, and low wages. The rich don’t have to get away with it this time. We can build a new world without borders, unemployment, debt, pollution, or crisis, and it is called socialism. And we can be ready this time to win it.

Now we have a left that has learned much in 10 years of post recession political struggle. Occupy taught us the importance of organization. The Obama wars taught us the value of anti-imperialism even in time of liberal warmongering. Black Lives Matter showed us a shining vision of uncompromising politics of human dignity that could seize the streets. #MeToo made clear that we either make our spaces accessible, safe, and intersectional, or we are little better than our enemies. And the strike waves of teachers from Chicago to West Virginia has proven again that workers have the power to bring this rotten system to heel.

For all of its room for improvement, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is in the best position to synthesize the past lessons, take advantage of the coming crisis, and go on the anti-capitalist offensive. It membership may be learning largely by building a mass socialist movement by the seat of our fucking pants, with a shoestring budget and prayer, but it is happening here. Our elected members are front and center, our protests are in your face, our message is spreading, and we are already shifting the “politics of the possible.” It is heady and confusing times, but by some strange decree of fate, whatever comes next in the American working class struggle will likely have its foci in part in the Democratic Socialists of America.

It is the job of every socialist to invest their time in analyzing the current political-economic climate and to figure out how to intervene in it. To that end there are number of steps the DSA and our local chapters need to prepare for the coming crisis built around the old Industrial Workers of the World tinirity: Educate, Agitate, Organize.

First we must deepen our political education. Comrades need to understand how capitalism works and how it doesn’t, why economic crises happen, and prepare to articulate this knowledge to a mass audience. With this knowledge we need to be thinking about how to prepare our agitational media. We need to be able to rapidly deploy our anti-capitalist  narrative through all means, from our elected members in Congress to our members holding placards at rallies, in order to counter and smash the fash right’s.

This, then, becomes a basis for our organizing. We need to take this time to deepen our relationship with local activists, our community neighbors, fellow socialists and progressives, all to prepare for a united left wing offensive. We must center and expand our labor organizing and immigrant solidarity work as our blood and air. In doing so we must be ready to flex our muscles and our direct action and protest organizing abilities. With 55,000 members, but only a fraction regularly engaged, member mobilization is critical. Chapters should be exploring all means to better activate their membership and get people out to protests, strike solidarity, ICE blockade actions, etc. Please forgive the pun, but real politics happens in the streets not the tweets.

And above all else, we must be adaptable, flexible, and our eyes fixed firmly to the political situation. As can be seen in France, things can rapidly accelerate in times of political and economic crisis. Shifting political winds can give opportunity or risk, and the ability for an organization to turn on a dime with tactics and strategies as the occasion dictates is no easy task. A lot will come down to local chapters and individual comrades making the right call on the fly as things progress. Preparing ourselves for the potential struggles ahead could help to make the difference.

 

Fundamentals of Ecosocialism

by Becca M, Chris H, Michelle Y & Nafis H

On Ecosocialism

On Wednesday, August 22nd, about 50 people gathered at the Cambridge Public Library to hear four members of Boston DSA speak on an introduction to ecosocialism.This article is a recap of the concepts discussed at the panel and discusses the central tenets of ecosocialism, and ongoing ecosocialist struggles within DSA nationwide.

Basics of capitalism, socialism, and ecosocialism

Marx described society as divided into two classes – the bourgeoisie who own and control the means of production and the proletariat (worker) who sell their labor in exchange for wages (source). The wages paid to workers are always less than the value of the labor provided to ensure capitalist accumulation on behalf of the owner. While today, many of us cannot imagine a society without capitalism, this system of economic and social organization hasn’t been around for most of human history.

Capitalism was, in part, pioneered by the Spanish and Portuguese through their genocidal colonization of the Canary and Madeira Islands in 1400s. Madeira was uninhabited, but the Canary Islands were home to the Guanches people who were either killed or enslaved by the colonizers. These islands initially served as sources for timber that would be sent to European mainland; in late 1400s, African slaves were brought to Madeira for sugarcane farming. Madeira quickly became the leading sugar producer for Europe, peaking at 2,500 tons in 1506. However, by 1530, output had dropped by 90% due to the depletion of the island’s natural resources (wood, soil), indicating the boom-and-bust nature of capitalism. Madeira served as one of the earliest examples of capitalist exploitation, and this model would be repeated by colonial powers in the New World (source).

madeira capitalism
Courtesy: https://daily.jstor.org/madeira-the-island-that-helped-invent-capitalism/

So how do we fight modern day capitalism that is driving us towards extinction? According to Michael Lowy, one of the leading proponents of the school of thought, ecosocialism is defined as “a current of ecological thought and action that appropriates the fundamental gains of Marxism while shaking off its productivist dross. For ecosocialists, the market’s profit logic, and the logic of bureaucratic authoritarianism within the late departed “actually existing socialism”, are incompatible with the need to safeguard the natural environment.” (source)

Simply put, ecosocialism envisions a transformed society that is in harmony with nature, and the development of practices that can attain it. Such practices are also aimed at dismantling socially and ecologically destructive systems such as fossil-fuel based economy, racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and ableism among others. An ecosocialist strategy recognizes that “a future reconciled with nature and the essence of humanity requires a radical change of perspective, a radical democratic change in certain means of production and consumption which puts in the central position of life the people’s basic needs, which should be determined democratically and in accordance to the biophysical limits of the planet.” (source).  

Examples of ongoing ecosocialist struggles

From North Dakota to Puerto Rico to Palestine, communities are rising up in ecosocialist struggles to protect their environment.For example, Standing Rock was a indigenous-led resistance against the construction of the $3.7 billion Dakota Access Pipeline, whose planned route was half a mile from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Standing Rock was more broadly a movement to oppose neo-colonialism and extractivism on stolen land that lasted from April 2016 until February 2017. Coordinated efforts between Energy Transfer Partners, the North Dakotan government, local police, private security forces suppressed the movement, including the usage of militarized “counterterrorism” tactics (source). Since the movement began, there have been over 50 anti-protest bills introduced across the country, including ones painting/tampering with infrastructure facilities as domestic terrorism, introduced by Republicans and Dems alike. The fight against new fossil fuel infrastructure continues in the US, Canada, and abroad including fights against the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana which is part of the greater DAPL system.

Puerto Rico is a case study in disaster capitalism post-Hurricane Maria, which ravaged the island in September 2017. The government has treated the post-hurricane context not as an environmental crisis, but as a way of accelerating certain austerity measures, like the privatization of practically all public services (e.g. water distribution, public utilities, education). Additionally, the government has been courting capital investors and entrepreneurs through low taxes. Note that most of Puerto Rico is still in a deep electric power crisis as recovery has been drawn out after the hurricane. In terms of pushback against disaster capitalism, PR residents and unions have been staging protests/work stoppages against austerity. For instance, the UTIER is a radical union operating the electric power authority. They are fighting against reduced pay, safety regulations, etc. and have consistently denounced the ongoing privatization, while calling for public control over energy and water utilities. There are also several anti-capitalist organizations and coalitions based in PR working to fight disaster capitalism (source).

Water in Palestine is almost entirely controlled by Israel, per the (supposedly temporary) Oslo Agreement of 1993, which stipulated that 80% of water from a joint Israeli-Palestinian mountain aquifer would be allotted for Israeli use, and 20% for Palestinian use. However, in reality water usage by Palestinians is closer to 10% due to problems with water infrastructure. The agreement also stated that Palestine can purchase an allotted amount of water from Israel – so water is not a shared resource, but a commodity and a means of control (source). Additionally, the water crisis is exacerbated by Israeli bombings of power plants, which have destroyed (among other things) water treatment capabilities. Israeli authorities often block construction of water infrastructure and sometimes even demolish existing infrastructure. As a result, much of the water that is available to begin with is polluted (source).

There are many more ongoing ecosocialist struggles than there was time to discuss, but it’s clear how environmental issues are extremely political, and used as weapons of oppression and of upholding capitalist interests. The relation between capitalism and imperialism is perhaps best encapsulated by The Belém Declaration, announced at the Ecosocialist conference in Brazil in 2009.

Environmental Ideologies

There exists a few different schools of environmental thought that include liberal environmentalism, ecomodernism, ecofascism, and degrowth as a means to ecosocialism. Understanding these schools of thought help contextualize the above ongoing struggles.

Liberal environmentalism

Liberal environmental organizations include groups like the Sierra Club, 350, or Audubon and World Wildlife Fund. They typically focus on campaigns with fairly narrow scopes that can be pursued by pressuring officials or passing legislation, with recent examples in Massachusetts that include campaigns to convince Governor Baker (R) to pass carbon pricing legislation, to pass a bill that would protect bees, or to ban the use of plastic straws. The movement to ban plastic straws, which some consider to have originated after a 2015 video showing a straw lodged in a sea turtle’s nose and has recently been championed by Starbucks, is a perfect example of this orientation. Banning plastic straws affects individual’s consumption habits and experts ranked straws 13th out of 20 plastic items in terms of danger to marine life (Wilcox et al, 2016). For comparison, fishing gear was ranked the most dangerous and comprises about 46% of the of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Lebreton et al 2017). This singular focus on a winnable campaign around banning one consumer item has also ignored protest from people with disabilities who frequently have no good alternatives to single use straws and are already marginalized by our society.

In addition to typically favoring market driven and legislative approaches to problems, liberal environmentalists also have the perspective that humans are separate from nature, and pursue species and land conservation that isolates one from the other. In reality, indigenous people who use or manage a quarter of the Earth’s surface are more twice as likely to keep lands “natural” compared to other lands [sources – summary and Garnett et al, 2018]. When enacted as policy, this separation of humans from nature can cause displacement when land that is being used is turned into a conservation area if land tenure had not been established or if access to land is considered part of the commons. Enforcement of these conservation zones may require “special bodies of armed men” or other punitive measures. For example, park rangers shot and killed a man from the Batwa tribe in eastern Congo who had been looking for medicinal plants. The Batwa tribe had used this land for generations but had lost rights when a German-funded national park was put in place for species conservation.

Ecomodernism

John Bellamy Foster, in his review of the Jacobin climate change issue, wrote the following; “What is remarkable about the contributions to Jacobin‘s special issue on the environment and related works by its writers and editors is how removed they are from genuine socialism—if this involves a revolution in social and ecological relations, aimed at the creation of a world of substantive equality and environmental sustainability. What we get instead is a mechanistic, techno-utopian “solution” to the climate problem that ignores the social relations of science and technology, along with human needs and the wider environment. Unlike ecological Marxism and radical ecology generally, this vision of a state-directed, technocratic, redistributive market economy, reinforced by planetary geoengineering, does not fundamentally challenge the commodity system.”

ecomodernism
Source:http://www.ecomodernism.org/

Ecomodernism is the theory that our climate and environmental problems may be solved with little to no changes to our behavior because we will invent technological solutions (e.g nuclear, carbon capture and storage, afforestation, geoengineering, etc.), or what climate scientist and IPCC author Kevin Anderson calls a “shameful litany of technocratic fraud”. These technological solutions are purported to “decouple” GDP and carbon emissions, or more generally, GDP and environmental impact. As the Indigenous Environmental Network report on these methods describes, carbon offsetting, “clean development”, and cap and trade are market mechanisms that have not worked yet and often cause harm under capitalism with market forces.

Ecofascism

Back in 1798, in “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus theorized that exponential population growth with a fixed growth of the food supply would result in catastrophe unless preventative measures were taken. These preventative measures include methods of birth control or suppression, which as you can probably guess usually ends up with race, gender, and class based oppression. Karl Marx was a critic of Malthus, calling him a “lackey of the bourgeoisie” who blamed workers for capitalist excess.

The belief lived on as society became dedicated to the idea into the late 1800s to early 1900s, partly thanks to the rise of eugenics and racism against non-white people. The discovery of the Haber-Bosch process that produces synthetic nitrate used in both bombs and fertilizers, and the resulting “Green Revolution” that industrialized our agriculture, cast doubts on the theory of linear food growth. Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, “The Population Bomb” revived the idea of population control. Written at the recommendation of the director of the Sierra Club at the time, Ehrlich connects population with environmental impact . He also advocated for forced population control and was one of the influences behind forced sterilization programs. Otherwise, the legacy of Malthus’ concern over population is commonly manifested in “eco-nationalists” or “eco-fascists” who are very concerned with birth rates, immigration, open borders, reparations, or emissions reductions. We should all know this originates from xenophobia and white supremacy, and as socialists that see the connectedness of struggles against oppression and the threat of fascism, we should be in the forefront of countering these eliminationist ideologies [example].

ehrlich book

Ecofascism is even prevalent in liberal discourse. The United States, which remains “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world”, considers climate change to be a “threat multiplier”. Under Obama, the Department of Defense released a report that said climate change will, aggravate existing problems — such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions — that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries. In other words, climate change will make it harder to uphold American imperialism that enables our unethical consumption.

Ecosocialism through degrowth

Is the earth’s balance, for which no-growth – or even degrowth – of material production is a necessary condition, compatible with the survival of the capitalist system?’” – André Gorz (1972)

In advanced capitalist economies there is a strong correlation between increases in GDP and carbon emissions. Decoupling is the idea that GDP can grow without increased CO2 emissions because of things like increased efficiency. However we can’t just count on efficiency gains, because as the Jevons Paradox [reference] suggests we might simply use more energy/resources as efficiency increases. For first world countries, degrowth means the intentional downsizing of our economy by limiting energy, material, and labor inputs, and by shutting down socially unnecessary or harmful industries. Degrowth means a shift away from growth as a strategy of developing or organizing society.

In her article “Living, Not Just Surviving”, Alyssa Battistoni argues for reorganizing society to promote traditionally feminized type of labor, which also happen to be low carbon intensity, including care, education, and creative work. Much of this work is currently non-compensated or made invisible by gender relations. This means that degrowth in an ecosocialist, feminist society also needs to recognize and re-work gender relations. The vision of a society practicing degrowth is actually richer, with more time to do what you want to be doing (cooking, art, music, dance, seeing family, hiking, etc). For socialists in the imperial core, degrowth is an important component and first step toward climate reparations. For the Global South, degrowth means being allowed to choose their path. Right now global markets forces control their choices to a large extent. Examples like “Buen Vivir” from Andean indigenous culture (Aymara & Quechua) reject development through growth, and envision a fulfilling and radically democratic way of living.

Liberal environmentalism, ecomodernism and eco-fascism all fail to realize the solution to climate catastrophe cannot be individual change alone. Only through system change will we address the root cause of climate change.

How does the DSA practice ecosocialism?

The DSA has several ongoing ecosocialist projects across the country, particularly around divestment, public banking, and energy justice. Divestment and reinvestment campaigns aim to get rid of fossil fuel sponsorships, stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are morally ambiguous from state/union pension funds, university funds and religious institutions that use these funds to generate income to keep operations running. In New York, for example, Mayor Di Blasio announced in January 2018 a plan to divest $189 billion worth of retirement funds from fossil fuel corporations within five years, and to sue oil companies. This only happened with intense pressure from environmental groups, and it remains uncertain what the funds will be re-invested into. NYC DSA climate justice group was a coalition partner on work to divest from Wells Fargo and defund DAPL.

mazaskatalks
Graphic showing major financial investors in three key pipelines in North America (courtesy: mazaskatalks.org)

A public bank is a financial institution owned by the government, funded with taxpayer money, and is directly accountable to elected officials and civil servants. They offer a transparent alternative to private banks, lower debt costs to city and state governments. There is currently only 1 in the US, the Bank of North Dakota; the bank loaned the state $6 million for law enforcement at DAPL protest site. Public banks are not a radical idea, they are a large part of the financial sector of developed nations like Germany and Switzerland. In Massachusetts, the BDSA Ecosocialist working group did some research around a public banking bill but ultimately decided against endorsing/putting energy and resources towards moving it forward because the bank can fund capital projects including new police stations and there are few transparency measures to keep the bank accountable to the public instead of industry.

#NationalizeGrid

ProvDSA NG
Image Courtesy: Providence DSA

More than 90% of Rhode Island is served by National Grid, which serves 3.3 million people for electricity, and 3.4 million for gas (source). The state’s public utility commission (PUC) is the only regulating body that keeps it in check. The PUC is made up of three appointed commissioners and serve to set the terms of debate around utility rates, tariffs, tolls, and charges, as well as the power to approve or reject proposed rate increases and infrastructure projects (source). Essentially, the PUC functions to ensure the profits of National Grid and give green lights to their projects.

Providence DSA started a chapter-wide campaign in 2017 to fight back against National Grid’s atrocious business practices. Providence DSA partnered with George Wiley Center on the campaign, given that the Center has been working on utility justice for over 30 years. Providence DSA and the George Wiley Center began doing research on the RI energy market and started organizing people from low-income communities to show up at town hall meetings hosted by the Public Utility Commission (PUC) to protest against National Grid’s rate raises and meter installment plan. Over the past year, the campaign has developed the following short term strategies: address the shut-off crisis due to smart meters by writing petitions to the PUC, joining the Wiley Center’s effort to reinstate Percentage Income Payment Plan, and engaging in militant and disruptive lobbying tactics at the PUC hearings against National Grid’s utility-rate hikes.To achieve this, Providence DSA canvassed South Providence about rate increase and upcoming public hearings to increase participation in the energy system. As a result of these efforts National Grid’s proposed rate increase was reduced by 75% and National Grid will be subjected to closer oversight of their grid modernization efforts (source). National Grid was also compelled to adopt a more robust low-income customer discount (source).

The longer term goal of energy justice work is to decarbonize, democratize and decommodify the energy grid and its generation sources. This would result in a statewide, publicly owned, decentralized, and democratically controlled utility. There is growing interest in energy justice work throughout DSA. Boston DSA’s ecosocialism working group has proposed a similar campaign as a chapter priority, and has been researching the landscape for several months. It is an especially poignant time for a campaign of this style in Massachusetts since members of two United Steel Workers unions’ local chapters have been locked out by National Grid for over three months and the recover from the Merrimack Valley gas disasters is ongoing. San Francisco DSA is currently working against a potential bailout of Pacific Gas and Electric after their inadequacy started the Camp wildfire.

To conclude, it is important to recognize that the struggle for ecosocialism must operate in solidarity with the struggle for indigenous sovereignty, anti-imperialism, and workers’ rights.

DSA_ecosoc

Degrowth: Building People Power to Oppose Capitalism and the Climate Crisis

by Karry M

There is a widespread problem in capitalist nations within the Global North, of conflating GDP with “standard of living”, and equating possessions and access to technology with personal well-being. Economic growth, in practice, means growth for the few privileged individuals and growing inequality for the rest. It is an obvious moral obligation to mitigate the destruction wrought by growth-induced climate change for vulnerable communities and future generations. We must rethink the modern meaning of the words “needs” and “well-being” in order to imagine a revolutionary post-growth future.

Examples of unnecessary waste caused by the growth obsession are all too common in our daily lives: consider phones that must be replaced every couple of years, single-use coffee cups, endless empty luxury apts, Amazon one-day delivery, and rush hour traffic. Cities, in particular, are centers of growth. With the rise of globalization, the carbon footprint of our collective consumption has grown exponentially, as consumer goods and the raw materials used to create them are shipped around the world. This necessitates a cultural shift as well as an economic and political shift. It challenges our deeply-entrenched Western ideals of individualism, property, and economic prosperity, which we name “success”. It is predicated on resisting the neoliberal “TINA” (there is no alternative) paradigm.

Decoupling, the eco-modernist idea that economic innovation can overcome the rapidly growing carbon footprint of economic growth, has no basis in truth. It is becoming more and more obvious that resources are finite, and that a few individuals and corporations consume FAR more than they need at the expense of the many. As the environmental justice movement has taught us, indigenous and traditionally marginalized communities are known to suffer the worst effects of this unchecked growth. Truly sustainable development under capitalism is a myth, availability of resources simply can’t keep up with cycle of unending growth and competition demanded by capitalism. Consumption will inevitably overtake any energy resources provided by “clean” green energy technologies, which are not even completely clean and green because they require huge swaths of land to create enough energy to meet current demands, and rely on manufacture, maintenance, transportation, that in turn require mining and fossil fuel consumption. In order to scale up production of wind, solar, and other renewable sources of energy to levels necessary for continued growth, space required for the necessary infrastructure will eventually force displacement of people and may require destruction of forests, which act as carbon sinks. Forests, which mitigate climate change through natural processes that require little to no human intervention, should be preserved and expanded if at all possible. Another possible factor in the energy savings calculation is Jevon’s paradox, which postulates that increases in energy efficiency will drive down cost, and thus increase use in a proportional manner, resulting in no net change in energy expenditure. As of yet, there are no climate change mitigation technologies that can save us from the damage that growth has already created. Solar geoengineering, for example, may seem appealing to some as a potential inexpensive solution, but its merits are unproven, and experts warn that implementation may cause an increase of droughts, flooding, and dangerous natural disasters in areas that are already hardest hit by climate change.

Degrowth, which stands in contrast to ecomodernist solutions to climate change, is an international academic and activist movement. It is also a rapidly growing branch of discourse emerging in popular ecological academic circles around 2001 (though it was first defined by French intellectual André Gorz in 1972) which aims to create a society that consumes less, so that there is more to share with those who already have less, while simultaneously decreasing total consumption. This may be accomplished at a large scale, through government and corporate controls, as well as on small community and individual scales. The Latin American concept of Buen Vivir or Sumak Kawsay, an idea that incorporates indigenous traditions of living cooperatively, with respect for the surrounding land, has informed the degrowth movement. There have been a number of degrowth conferences in Europe since 2008, and the movement is starting to spread to the U.S. Degrowth emphasizes “well-being” as defined by more equal human-to-human and human-to environment relationships. The degrowth movement can be seen as an ally to the environmental justice movement. Dismissed by some as utopian, because it requires such a dramatic shift of so many established systems in our society, degrowth requires rethinking “needs” as they currently are defined, and realizing which of these are not needs, but desires incubated by the capitalist culture of growth; “Degrowth is a deliberately subversive slogan1.

Degrowth puts forth the radical idea that we should have more free time, time best spent appreciating and caring for one another, and our natural surroundings, rather than constantly working, driving, or consuming energy as a means of entertainment. Many of us on the left already realize that true happiness may be more easily achieved by decreasing work time, and instead of using all of it to pursue individual pleasures, using a portion to act for the mutual benefit of ourselves and others around us. These are the very foundations of the ideas of solidarity and comradeship. Think about things we do and enjoy that require little to no consumption—playing outdoors with children and animals, backyard gardening, hiking trips, reading groups, playing board games, listening to live music, and creating art. In an ideally degrown economy, we would have more time to participate in these activities because we would need to work fewer hours to meet the consumer needs of others. Degrowth is a voluntary, democratic, equitable set of ideas and practices that will build mutually supportive local communities in order to turn economic growth on its head.

Simply delineating the vision of a degrowth economy is often enough to get other left-leaning ecologically-minded individuals on board, hoping, plotting, and scheming with us. There is no universal consensus on how to achieve these goals, but degrowthers are a democratic bunch, and welcome the sharing of new ideas. In fact, sharing is the main point of degrowth. Advocates of degrowth believe in pooling our resources and sharing them as a community, instead of focusing on individual accumulation and ownership of property. This type of sharing, rather than competing for necessities, could be imagined to have a positive impact on mental health, as the oppressive pressure to endlessly perform and produce would be lifted. A deeper appreciation for our natural resources could develop while getting our hands dirty, through gardening, hiking, building, and expanding the do-it-yourself movement. Learning the skills to create the things we need causes us to respect their value and use them wisely.

There have been various theories about how best to get the degrowth movement off the ground. To begin, there have been proposed changes in the workplace, including universal basic income and/or maximum income, and a jobs guarantee with reduction in each individual’s work hours to help ensure jobs for more people. Some have suggested that job growth be more focused on public services such as education, public transit, libraries, and healthcare. The military and prison industrial complexes, which use almost unimaginable amounts of money and resources that many of us would deem unnecessary, could be slowly phased out. Global corporations, and the advertising industry, may also be scaled down and eventually abolished. We may replace private banks with public banking, and use funds raised by these banks to meet public needs. This could be paired with a widespread debt jubilee to eliminate the interest-as-growth dynamic.

An important step toward strengthening local communities is the reestablishment of the commons, a traditional structure of collective stewardship of resources outside the purview of the state or the capitalist economy. In a commons, resources are managed in a manner that ensures that everyone gets what they need, and no one person takes more than their fair share. The process of establishing a commons is essentially the opposite of privatization or commodification. For example, common goods such as water, seeds, and land could be shared by a community. The commons could then eventually replace industrial farms, creating agricultural spaces that use resource management techniques mimicking self-sustaining natural systems, such as those used by indigenous peoples. Public ownership of resources may make it possible to create local self-reliant communities that render growth even more unnecessary. Building local communities, which function through social connections to ensure the well-being of all members, is much more important than building local economies.

Empowerment of degrowth communities may also include the expansion of public housing, and community child-care associations. Local economic structures may include more worker-owned co-ops that utilize profit-sharing with their worker-owners. Time banks, in which community members trade their skills with others who are in need of those skills without using capital, are another potential facet of a degrown economy.

Less popular, but probably necessary, are individual actions include decreasing the use of cars, which would become easier as most jobs become localized. Another individual degrowth choice would be switching to a less carbon-intensive, more plant-based diet. Degrowthers would likely also encourage use of second-hand clothing and shoe repair. People would not be asked to give up consumer goods altogether, but we would place emphasis on creating goods made to last, and caring for them. These individual actions alone, however, are simply unable to create a significant economic shift of the type we need to combat climate change and loss of biodiversity; they must be paired with community- and large-scale actions.

As we can see, the degrowth transition could combine a number of bottom-up and top-down strategies. Recruitment of advocates and willing participants would be much easier to achieve if anti-capitalist and ecosocialist ideas become widely popular and gain traction. But even among leftists, we must concede that this is not the fully-automated luxury space communism we were promised. A major goal of degrowth is establishing a general sense of well-being and empowerment created by the ability of communities to function autonomously outside of traditional capitalist economic structures. Degrowth must become a large scale movement against the dominant capitalist agenda in order to achieve success. We have the power to seize this momentum, to rethink our collective lifestyles and values now, and avoid being forced to change by ecological collapse.

Successful models of degrowth require complex thinking far outside the proverbial box, which can be very challenging for those who have been taught that such ideas are utopian and unrealistic. If we are utopian, we are also pessimists when addressing the ideas of green growth and technological climate change mitigation, and realists when it comes to the scale of changes needed to achieve our aims. The planning stages of a degrowth transition require input from experts in environmental science, and political science, as well as economists, and anthropologists. Degrowth advocates realize that is is more essential than ever for the intersection of these fields of study to be understood and accepted by experts and lay people, and for everyone to comprehend what is at stake in order to make the truly democratic large-scale changes that are necessary for the transition. Optimally implemented, degrowth will result in true equality, sustainability and prosperity.

For more on Degrowth, check out this zine