We begin by way of a conclusion.
The now globally dominant system through which we make our living in nature is capitalism.
But capitalism is in process of self-destruction, now rapidly undermining the natural and social conditions for its own and humanity’s further existence. If we are not to go down with it, we must construct an ecological alternative – democratic, science-based, imaginative and sustainable. In other words, a system of relations between people and with the rest of nature that is more compatible with our continuing existence. Unlike the limited forms of democracy under capitalism, we need a system that engages us all in the political-economic decisions that shape our relations with each other and with nature.
We do not have to look far to find an alternative. Outside of the capitalist market economy, we already engage informally in relationships of reciprocity, continuing those practices that define our species as a social one. The moral alternative to globally dominant capitalism, including its customary and legislative commitment to the right of private wealth accumulation, is a moral, and therefore customary and legislative commitment to sustain and expand the commons, including a healthy natural environment and life-affirming social relationships.
This moral and practical alternative necessarily includes much that capitalism’s supporters have long promised, while ultimately delivering the opposite. To engage human capacity for addressing the existential challenge we now face, we need more than ever to enhance
· Democracy, not oligarchy.
· Scientific inquiry, not dogmatism.
· Imagination, not mindless bureaucracy and conformity.
The resistance to the life affirming aims of enhancing democracy, scientific inquiry and imagination originates in the attachment to and aspiration for the personal wealth only available on a finite planet to a minority. To prevail over these egoistic aspirations, our main tools for achieving an ecological civilization are education, organization and political action that model and institutionalize ecologically sustainable relationships among people and with nature.
In the face of barriers erected by a ruling minority, the people have a moral right and today an urgent responsibility to exercise and support peaceful disobedience to the barriers placed in the way of democracy, science, imagination, education and corresponding political action for a more just and ecologically sustainable society.
Arguments for these conclusions and their elaboration constitute the body of this work. It will be the people themselves, organized in political movements and organizations, who will through their experience, learning and action construct an alternative to a moribund capitalism, if there is to be one. Ours is a contribution to this process, drawing from our own experience and what we have so far been able to learn from associated reading and discussion.
What follows in this preface is a brief introduction to the theoretical framework, research methods and communication standards we have adopted for this series of articles. It is likely that some of these will be unfamiliar if not unconventional to many readers. While each of the authors has prior experience writing both scholarly and journalistic work, we have adopted standards here we believe better suited to the needs of those engaged in political action for a more just, democratic and sustainable society, which today, we hope, will ultimately include everyone.
We offer breadth, rather than depth of analysis. Throughout this effort we refer the reader to some of the more accessible sources of the in-depth presentations of the science upon which we have drawn. We focus here on the forest, even while knowing that practical action also requires knowledge of the relevant details. These latter, however, are specific to the diverse communities in which we live, a reason why bottom-up forms of democracy are essential to achieving an ecologically sustainable global society.
The political challenge
Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979-1990 claimed that “there is no alternative” to a capitalist market economy. She made this argument to buttress her advocacy of neoliberal policies. As noted in her biography, Thatcher’s “political philosophy and economic policies emphasized deregulation (particularly of the financial sector), flexible labor markets, the privatization of state-owned companies and reducing the power and influence of trade unions.” Hers was an articulate statement of the aims of the capitalist class globally. The environmentally and socially destructive results are now horrifically evident.
We began the research and writing that led us to this present argument ten years ago. After a politically tumultuous period since the global economic collapse of 2008, it is easy to forget that as recently as January 2010 there was still very little public doubt within the core capitalist countries about the permanency of capitalism. Not only was capitalism the seeming victor in the Cold War, but there was seemingly no viable alternative social system.
It was easy to believe that capitalism represented the end of history, given that the “socialisms” of the 20th Century had apparently proven unworkable. Certainly, it was easy to agree that dogmatism, bureaucracy, conformity and kleptocracy did not represent the kind of outcome wanted and needed by humanity. But what has capitalism delivered in the meantime, if not its own variants of dogmatism, bureaucracy, conformity and kleptocracy? It has also delivered growing wealth and income inequality within and between countries, a global race to the bottom in wages, working conditions and environmental regulations, the greatest global economic crisis since the Great Depression, and rapidly developing global ecological crisis. As if that were not enough, capitalism once again seeks salvation through a resurgent arms race that again includes further development and deployment of nuclear weapons.
The intellectual challenge
An effort to identify and contribute to the emergence of an alternative was the impetus to our research and writing. We searched from scientific accounts of the origins and development of humankind to the present struggles of the people for a more just, democratic, peaceful and sustainable existence.
We are of course limited to our own direct personal experience and activity, to the shortfall in the number and diversity of those from whom we have learned, and by our inability to do more than sample a wide range of relevant and burgeoning literature and other forms of recorded knowledge and opinion. It helped that one of us (Karen) has focussed in the arts and humanities, including as a teacher, researcher, artist and poet, and that the other (Charles) has similarly been engaged in research and teaching in both the natural and educational sciences and that as partners, we have collaborated in the student, peace, labor, environmental and other social movements of the people for over fifty years.
Evidently, our greatest shortfall in relation to the publication of this series of articles is in the social sciences, which has received the lion’s share of our attention over the past decade and will likely continue to do so in our remaining years.
Among academics and journalists preoccupied with advancing original formulations that merit claims to personal intellectual property, it has become popular to invent and propose alternative social systems, suggesting that the options in that respect might be as diverse as their authors. This is NOT our intention. Anything in this argument that could be claimed as unique to us should on that account be dismissed. In the first place, ALL ideas are socially constructed, evident in the fact that we each must use socially constructed language to communicate our ideas. Intellectual property rights will have no place in any society that claims to be an advance over capitalism, nor will any other claim to private ownership over the Commons, defined here as the shared heritage of humanity.
Moreover, we hold to the wisdom that the new invariably emerges out of the womb of the old, a process in which either the old system replicates itself or, in the case of a moribund system, a new one ultimately replaces it. One task of social science research, in our view, is to identify the new system as it emerges from the old. The empirical evidence by which to judge the results of such social science research is convergence in social theory and practice on the features of the new system, leading to the replacement of the old system by the new one.
We expect to be successful in identifying most, but not likely all the characteristic features of the emergent system. We encourage critical review of each of our arguments. Our aim is no more than to contribute to the process of identification and action towards the replacement of the current, moribund capitalist system. Its successful replacement will be a system which proves itself capable of liberating the latent potential of the people to move past the obstacles created by capitalism to humanity’s continuing existence. There is, of course, no guarantee that capitalism will not be the last human social system on Earth. Time is of the essence.
The principal objective of this contribution to discussion, therefore, is to identify a viable path out of the present existential crisis, a crisis created by the convergence of wealth and income inequality and the destruction of an otherwise supportive natural environment. Such a path necessarily includes a more equitable distribution of resources as part of a more conservative, sustainable relationship with nature. Co-equal objectives are the advance of democracy, education, scientific inquiry and imagination, which we argue constitute the foundation for achieving a healthy human society and a sustainable relationship with nature. Having found a limited role within emergent capitalism, these foundational elements of any society fully committed to the full and free development of the people require vigilant popular development and support in the face of a now moribund, self-destructive capitalism.
The main premise of this series of essays, argued at some length, is that capitalism, once a relatively progressive system, liberating humanity from the constraints of a moribund feudalism, is today the principal cause of growing wealth and income inequality and of human destruction of an otherwise supportive natural environment. As such, capitalism is itself a moribund system, its defenders increasingly engaged in constraining the development of democracy, education, science and imagination.
Historical materialist theory
While we rely almost exclusively on the existing consensus within the scientific community on the state of knowledge in most fields of scientific inquiry, we make an exception in the field of social science, where there is no acknowledged scientific consensus on the fundamental issue of the nature and laws of societal evolution. Here, our theoretical viewpoint must be considered presumptive.
We subscribe to the Marxian theory of evolution of human society, often identified as historical materialism, thereby emphasizing both its scientific content and the methodology it shares with all other fields of scientific inquiry. Materialism in philosophy acknowledges that the subject material under investigation has an empirical existence independent from our ideas, theories and conjectures about it. Like every other scientific theory, historical materialist theory must be judged by its ability to explain the corresponding empirical evidence. We do not examine that evidence in detail in this work. Rather, we presume the validity of historical materialist theory.
Marxian historical materialist theory contends that capitalism did not always exist, but rather came into existence historically recently, probably first during the late middle ages, initially confined to mercantile capitalist trading relationships between a few European city-states, but ultimately extending (by the twentieth century) to an international network of capitalist nation-states, dominated by a few whose reach assumed globally imperial dimensions, such as the imperial reach of the United Kingdom and the United States. Only within the past few decades has this international system reached its present global dimension, in which the global marketplace, including supply chains and corresponding international political structures, are now dominated by a network of the largest transnational capitalist corporations, their directors and chief political and academic representatives (the transnational capitalist class).
According to Marxian historical materialist theory, incompatibility between the “mode” and the “forces” of production drives the struggle for reform or revolution of the social system, the latter corresponding to a qualitative change in the mode of production to enable better utilization of the new technologies and ideas and the creation of corresponding institutions. The change from feudalism to capitalism was an historical precedent for the current struggle within capitalism for socialism.
The transition from one mode of production to another is characterized both by the development of technology and the associated attempts to reform or replace the relations of production with new ones. These changes can be either historically progressive (the use of more advanced technologies and, in the case of the transition from capitalism to socialism, more cooperative relationships of production, and associated ideas and institutions) or regressive, towards the social relationships and hierarchical ideas associated with feudalism and slavery (the principal other examples of once dominant hierarchical social systems). Increasing personal indebtedness (debt slavery) for securing necessities of life (including education, accommodation, communication, transportation, healthcare, potable water, and food) is evidence of this regressive trend.
We also recognize as an enduring, progressive, but currently subordinate mode of production, the communal mode that characterized most of human history from the time of our origins as a species. This is the cooperative mode of production based on voluntary sharing of resources and non-monetary exchanges of goods and services, commonly found today within families and local communities. If there is to be a social system beyond capitalism, it will, in our view, necessarily correspond to a reversal of the trend towards privatization in the ownership and management of resources and tools of production and distribution and an expansion of the commons. Building on the remaining commons, the new system will correspond to the transformation of most social means of production and distribution into communal property under communal management, decentralized to the extent feasible, that is, into a more just, democratic and sustainable relationship between people and with nature.
The most recent developments within the capitalist mode of production include the greater mobility of capital, the spatial extent of its dominance – now global, and the transnational character of the dominant capitalist corporations. Imperialist rent continues to be paid, but in the form of a transfer of wealth from a globally distributed working class to a globally distributed owning and managerial class, mainly and increasingly to the oligarchic billionaires within that class. To be enduring, system change will likewise need to be global.
Contemporary global capitalism and the theory of historical materialism
Capitalism is a dynamic system. As such, its behaviour can be explained and predicted by scientifically discoverable laws. As applicable to capitalism today as they were when Marx articulated them, they nevertheless need to be applied with recognition of the changing historical circumstances and the adaptations that the capitalist ruling class has made to those conditions, especially constraints. These include the spatial dimension over which capitalism operates, the extent of monopolization and financialization of capital, and the removal of nation-state barriers to the mobility of capital while using these barriers to control labor.
For a contemporary account of capitalism in its now global dimensions, we recommend William I. Robinson (Cambridge University Press, 2014 Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity. For an account of Marx’s laws of value, accumulation and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and their application to the 2008 financial crisis, see Michael Roberts (2018, Lulu.com) Marx 200: A Review of Marx’s Economics 200 Years After His Birth and his (2016, Haymarket Books) The Long Depression: How It Happened, Why It Happened, and What Happens Next.
Distinct from the more predominant form of Marxian analysis, however, we neither ignore nor attempt to fully explain capitalist societies by application of Marx’s three laws of capitalism’s behaviour. All social systems are dynamic and interactive, including the continuing existence of communal, slave, feudal and capitalist social relationships. Any attempt to explain and predict the behaviour of a society in which capitalism predominates through the laws governing capitalist behaviour will at best be a first order approximation. While communal, slave and feudal modes of production are no longer dominant over any part of the Earth, they continue to contend within predominantly capitalist societies as subordinated alternatives.
The crisis within contemporary capitalism has fostered the re-emergence of feudal and slave relationships as means by which the ruling capitalist class and its court jesters endeavour to maintain their class privileges even while the basis for capitalism (the surplus produced by industrial wage labour) rapidly declines as a proportion of capital investment with continuing automation (replacing manual labour with automated machines) and the emergent application of so-called artificial intelligence (replacing learned skills and managerial capacity, that is, need for a substantial capitalist managerial class).
On the other side of the coin, despite pro-capitalist efforts to privatize everything, there remains the commons shared by all of humanity. Those looking for a model for a society beyond capitalism need look no further than communal behaviour within families, between friends, and in every community.
Before the onset of more temperate climate conditions characteristic of the Holocene era (the last ten thousand years), non-class societies appear to have prevailed over the inhabited parts of the Earth (that is, for well over 90% of human history). Thankfully, some communally organized societies have survived to the present day, notwithstanding the genocidal behaviour of their class-divided neighbors and invaders. In consequence, the First Nations have much to teach the rest of us about stewardship responsibilities and usufruct rights that portend an ecologically sustainable society beyond capitalism.
Our solar future
While physical laws, notably the second law of thermodynamics, have as a consequence the inevitable devolution and death of all existing forms of the current organization of matter and their replacement by the birth and evolution of new forms, there is nothing inherent in natural processes that dictates such an early demise of life on Earth, including prospectively of human life, as is now associated with the continuing expansion of the capitalist mode of production.
The complex forms of organization of matter that have given rise to human life and human civilization are a product of the energy that continues to bathe our planet from the Sun (a process expected to continue for billions of years more) and the materials that will continue to be present in the Earth’s biosphere for an indefinite future. A premature end to human civilization on Earth could only be the result of our failure to act as agents for the building of a replacement to capitalism, that is to create a new social system, one in better harmony with nature and human existence.
The title of an essay by Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” contains the principal lesson to be learned from past failures to move beyond capitalism. Our revolutionary voice is not male, but gender-neutral, not hegemonic, but collaborative, not competitive, but cooperative, not violent, but demonstrably peaceful, not aggressive, but forcefully diplomatic.
In this work, we identify this effort to find our revolutionary voice with democratic ecosocialism, thereby linking it with those green, social, and democratic movements that envision our future as the extension of what remains of our global commons, the expansion of the global commons at the expense of private property, the growth of the voluntary, non-market exchange of goods and services found within families and local communities at the expense of the capitalist market-place, the practice of democratic decision-making at work and in the community at the expense of management and leadership rights.
Our voice expresses our task, that of replacing the primacy of private profits with the primacy of the health and welfare of people and nature. Our revolutionary voice is to be found in those who prioritize our cooperative relationships and voluntary exchanges of services and goods over participation in the capitalist marketplace.
Methods of research and communication
Our methods of research and communication flow from recognition that knowledge, like language itself, is socially created, not the product nor “intellectual property” of individuals, especially not the property of for-profit corporate media. The method of research adopted in the development of Achieving an Ecological Civilization (the first drafts of which were titled Towards a Green Social Democratic Alternative to Capitalism) is iterative, meaning that each draft is for discussion and further development, by either the initial authors or anyone else who wishes, with each new contributor taking responsibility but not credit for their revisions. That is our intention in any case. Constrained by the dominant practice of for-profit publication, we do need to place obstacles in the way of publication of this work as private for-profit property. The result is a Creative Commonwealth license, modified in practice as may be needed by the intent expressed here.
All significant changes are the work of those who make them. A global democratic ecosocialist alternative to capitalism will necessarily be the work of hundreds of millions. But time is of the essence.
Charles Posa McFadden and Karen Howell McFadden
Fredericton, New Brunswick, CANADA