All life on this planet is at a crossroads. Science, as well as our everyday experience, tells us so. The mass disappearance of bees, rising food prices, a lack of healthy jobs, and the privatization and decreasing access to clean, drinkable water are just a few examples of the related and deep crises we’re facing. If many things don’t fundamentally shift in the next 50 years, then we’ll be facing some of the biggest challenges we’ve seen in our history as a human species.
This piece will not be a laundry list of what’s happening in our world today. Again, each and everyone of us lives it everyday. If you are interested in understanding more about what’s happening, specifically about the crises with climate, energy, toxics, water, and food and what it means for us, particularly working class and oppressed communities today, please check out: www.movementgeneration.org.
What needs to shift and what might things look like for life on this planet under a different economic, political and social system, under 21st century socialism? We humbly offer some thoughts, after the fortune of engaging with a range of visionaries and revolutionaries around humanity’s potential and necessity to live in a fully re-imagined way in our relationships to each other and to all life on earth.
Under 21st century socialism, our structures, our institutions, our economies, our communities, and our families will develop out of a fundamental understanding of interdependence and relationship. Why? Because in this new system, where the “bottom line” does not reign supreme, where people and all life on the planet come before profits, we will understand that in order to survive and thrive we have to live within our limits as a species and understand the consequence of living as a part of a whole.
The Commons and Reparations
A first step in the development of capitalism involved destroying our connections to the land, first in Europe with the enclosure of common lands, then globally through the destruction of indigenous peoples’ cultures and colonial exploitation. This resulted in the subdivision of almost the entire earth into plots of “private property,” and the privileging of “private property rights” over personal property within the commons, with the central component being private property, which can be exploited, speculated on, and sold off with little or no regulation by society.
Many past societies understood in “the commons” a concept of living within environmental limits. A post-capitalist society would return to a concept of “the commons” as central. Human society must live within a commons of air, land, and water, which we all need to survive, and which cannot be parceled out into private property. “Private property” as a legal concept would become subsumed under the older legal concept of “personal property,” that which we can use personally.
A related aspect of the commons is the concept of reparations. Reparations are certain actions taken by an institution, such as a state to redress the violations of colonialism, slavery and other gross human rights violations.
The millions of people, under capitalism, who have been displaced and dispossessed from the land that they once lived on and in relationship to will be given reparations. This includes migrants who are forced to come to the US in order to find work and support their families back home, people of the African diaspora, and indigenous peoples. Under socialism, these communities, through a commitment to self-determination for historically oppressed people, will be given the opportunity, through reparations, to reconnect in a way determined appropriate by those communities—such as growing food, herbs, and medicinal plants, and rebuilding spiritual practices in connection to place.
Related to the destruction of common lands was the destruction of a material value system. What once was based on “use-value” (the value we give to something for its usefulness, or even the value we might give something for its psychological or “spiritual” value) under capitalism became a system based entirely on “exchange value,” the monetary value placed on things. The most crass expression of this is the “debate” within certain environmental circles around placing a monetary value on the air we breathe, so that it can be “traded” with pollution credits.
This transition to a conception of exchange-value as the end-all of work gave rise to a wage system that alienated us humans not only from work, but from our land-base. Alienation is felt as psychologically and spiritually draining, but is in fact a physical description of the situation where we are no longer responsible for our work and for our lives, with all elements of “value” being reduced to dollars (how much we make, what we can buy, etc.). A post-capitalist society would develop a culture (and a value-system) that privileges “use-value,” and particularly psychological and spiritual dimensions, over the accumulation of things, and to a concept of well-being over the capitalist concept of “quality of life” which is equated to owning things. A post-capitalist society would reimagine work as meaningful activities, where each could find meaning in the work they do, and take responsibility for the impact of that work on others and the planet.
Science and Technology
Linked to the rise of capitalism was the rise of reductionist science (reducing systems to simple component parts that could be understood and exploited), and the industrial technological paradigm which this scientific outlook made possible. In Dialectical and Reductionist Biology, Steven Rose writes, “The history of Western societies obliterating other cultures and knowledges supported the pretense that the reductive mode of knowledge was the only form of knowledge, and the only way of doing science. It is very easy to see how oppressive ideologies and technologies result from such an approach, but it is important to remember that the problem with reductionism is not just that it has been put to bad uses, but that it has become bad science.”
Notwithstanding the industrial disasters of many 20th Century “socialist” countries, Marx’s dialectical method pointed to an understanding that nothing could be understood outside of its context, including the social context of the one developing (or paying for) the science. In Reflections in Honor of the 20th anniversary of Levins and Lewontin’s the Dialectical Biologist, Brett Clark and Richard York write, “A materialist dialectic recognizes that humans and nature exist in a coevolutionary relationship. Human beings are conditioned by their historical, structural environment; yet they are also able to affect that environment and their own relationship to it through conscious human intervention.”
Similarly, Living Systems Theory offers a scientific view of the world, as writer and activist Joanna Macy writes, “Instead of looking for basic building blocks, these life scientists took a new tack: they began to look at wholes instead of parts, at processes instead of substances. They discovered that these wholes–be they cells, bodies, ecosystems, or even the planet itself–are not just a heap of disjunct parts, but are dynamically organized and intricately balanced “systems,” interdependent in every movement, every function, every exchange of energy and information. They saw that each element is part of a vaster pattern, a pattern that connects and evolves by discernible principles.”
A post-capitalist society would question all reductionist science as limited in scope, understanding scientific advances not only in their parts, but in their relation to a whole as well. Technologies and industries would not be measured by their “efficiency” or their profitability, but by their ability to better human welfare and by their potential impacts on society and on the planet. A post-capitalist society would not be a return to exclusive hand-labor or the atrocious health of the days of feudalism, but would choose wisely among technologies, and would advance in slow incremental steps, thinking always of the impact on generations ahead.
Deep participatory democracy and protagonism
At the heart of this is the question of democracy—true democracy, or what some call protagonism within socialism. Without true democracy, we will not achieve a balanced relationship with the systems of the world, with ecology and with each other. Those who live downstream—they will be as involved in decision making as those upstream. If it’s truly democratic, then those who grow food and are impacted by the industrial, capitalist approach to agriculture (which includes, but is not limited to, pesticides and poor working conditions), will be making decisions about how that food is grown, harvested, and distributed. Thus, our self-interest in preserving and regenerating healthy soil, living and working in a way that does not compromise our health as a workers, or the health of our children, will be central in making decisions about how food is grown.
And can we imagine for a minute that in our decision-making processes, we think about how other beings and species work into that decision making? Again, we are thinking about the bees, who are dying in the millions. Scientists are unfolding a complicated set of explanations for the circumstances leading to a possible extinction of the most important pollinators of the food chain. One key cause of the bee’s disappearance is pesticides and toxins that have been the cornerstone of modern industrial agriculture.
We have used the term post-capitalist societies on purpose, as there are many who do not identify as socialists who see some of all of the above components as part of a future ecologically-minded society. But in fact these all point to a kind of society where individual decisions and actions can only be understood in their social and ecological context. Neither an individualist ideology, or an economy based on the individual profit-maximizing decisions of capitalists, could be possible in the above scenarios. And so this would, by definition, be a kind of socialism, a deeply democratic and ecological socialism.
Capitalism is very adaptable and has created niches for those who think in terms of the commons, or meaningful work, or participatory democracy, to create space for themselves and to develop a way of thinking that promotes the idea that simply by creating alternate spaces, others will be drawn to this, and change will happen almost automatically. Others look at the ecological crisis, and see within it the seeds of a self-imploding collapse of the capitalist order. This coming collapse may result in a better world, but not necessarily – as those with more privilege and power will regroup and in the crisis amidst collapse promote fascist tendencies to protect their own interests. Some within the capitalist class are taking ecological crisis seriously (typically represented in the political rhetoric by liberals within the democratic party), and are beginning to take some steps, like carbon caps and emissions trading. These are false solutions, which are still based in reductionist science, and which make life worse for millions of people rather than dealing with the root problems.
Achieving a society based on a transformation in cultural values and in the economy, to make the commons, meaningful work, and holistic science central foundations, will not happen by itself, by small groups of utopian thinkers and practitioners, or by the self-created implosion of capitalism as it exists today. One reason to uphold the banner of socialism as we look to transform and recreate society, institutions and relationships, is that it implies a collective effort towards that transformation, a revolutionary socialism that is fighting for all of humanity and our humble place on this planet.