Why the world needs eco-socialism

A just transition means rejecting the failed electoralist strategies of social democracy and instead building a radical movement of movements.
Max Ajl
Just As Well Series

Climate change affects everyone, but it does not affect everyone the same way. It hammers a capitalist world rampant with inequality and exploitation. This is the case because capitalism neither exploits nor develops evenly. Some nation-states are centers for accumulating wealth and development. Some nation-states are peripheries, and are underdeveloped.

Development and underdevelopment are two sides of the same process: accumulation on a world scale. Climate change, in turn, is a human-made process, a product and accelerator of uneven accumulation. Because it is human-made, some states (as well as some within those states) are more responsible than others. And the very poorest simply bear no culpability at all. Yet those least culpable – Bangladesh, Yemen, Haiti – are those which will suffer most in a warming world. Drought, typhoon, and flooding have and will burst across the South with far more ferocity and frequency than across the North. Climate injustice is a thus part of the story of uneven capitalist accumulation.

Climate change is the child of fossil-fueled capitalist industrialization. While in principle industrialization is a distinct process from capitalism and imperialism, in history it has moved hand-in-hand with them – each whirl in a destructive spiral. Industrialization, especially, provides the engines of war, and contributes to making life easier for many, especially but not only in the North, allowing it to freely devastate the ecologies and states of the South.

Where does that leave us? We need global eco-socialism. Such a system would be marked by global developmental convergence: just about everyone and in particular every state would have roughly equivalent access to development (or, the good life). Such a system would necessarily be modern, with complex exchanges of goods. It would be industrial, but a controlled industrialization, because industrialization is a tool. It is a means not an end.

And it would be ecological: it would in general not produce waste beyond human-natural capacity to remediate. And it would work towards the restoration of the ecology. 

Where does that leave us? Here is where accumulation on a world scale comes in. It reminds us that different nations have distinct class structures, implying different political burdens, differentiated responsibilities, and different paths towards world developmental convergence.

Southern countries need political space to carry out independent development, including independent and sovereign industrialization — without northern interference — based on their own balances and values, probably through regional economic unions, and with a strong emphasis on the agrarian question. Such thinking has taproots in figures and formations like Simón Bolívar, Hugo Chávez, strains of pan-Africanism, and pan-Arab radical movements and parties.

National agrarian systems need land-to-the-tiller agrarian reform, cooperativisation where possible, and help from industry via the technical upgrading of agriculture. Ecologically sustainable forms of pastoralism and integrated livestock on farms would be important, too, as hundreds of millions if not billions of people rely on them for securing some part of their needs. Agro-ecology, or the application of scientific procedures to understand the logic of and attempt to assist “traditional” agriculture, and more broadly, sustainable land management are important too. Through these policies, the South could better protect its ecology, enhance biodiversity outcomes through a sensitive blurring of hardened spatial boundaries between human and non-human nature and the countryside, and mobilize a surplus from agriculture for domestic industrialization and infrastructural investment.

Similar goals are important for North. There, some sectors, like industrialized petrochemical farming and ranching and confined feeding operations, alongside the petroleum industry, would need to be eliminated – or “degrow.” Other sectors, like agro-ecological agriculture and processing of wood from sustainable forestry, would need to grow. And we need massive investment, far above WWII levels, to shift US industrial plants to the production of insulation, renewables for South and North, and infrastructure like mass transit systems to replace the massive waste of private transport.

How we get there

We cannot think about economic and technological architecture without thinking about politics: internationalism in support of national self-determination and national liberation for the South. Strong mobilization against sanctions on Iran and Zimbabwe and Syria, and against the US war on Yemen, are inseparable from the climate question. They are the precondition for its just resolution.

Reparations, on terms dictated by the South and defended by Northern comrades, are part of this process. “The financial mechanism must respect the sovereign control of each country to determine the definition, design, implementation of policy and programmatic approaches to climate change,” as stated in the Cochabamba People’s Agreement working group. It must total six percent of northern GNP per year — around $3.2 trillion. And it must work alongside a totally renovated notion of technology transfer based on building up sovereign technological capacity, especially preventing “intellectual property” from being used towards private or imperial state profits.

How to get there? Political strategies diverge wildly. A popular narrative has been that electoral insurgencies, within or without the historical social-democratic or slightly-more-working class parties, is capable of delivering the kind of massive infrastructure spending capable of averting climate change. Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, SYRIZA – each has either been immolated by capital or surrendered in its face. In their wake, the electoral route to eco-socialism rests, supposedly, on a future Congressional majority pushing it through, by the hands of US figures like Jamal Bowman and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In fact, this is a recipe for disaster. No social movement or political party has ever implemented its full program when in office, and the electoral route to social democracy in the North seems plausible on a time span sometime after the planet has turned to Venus and Yemen is a graveyard. Moreover, the 1945-1970 “Golden Age” or labor-capital social pact occurred only against the capitalist democracies’ fear of the domestic popularity of communism. The capitalist parties gave bread and butter to some (though not Black people) domestically and guns abroad, incinerating social democratic, radical nationalist, or Communist parties in an arc of terror from southern Latin America to the Arab region to Africa to Indonesia.

What is the alternative? A radical movement of movements, what Paris Yeros has called a “New Bandung”, capable of weaving together radicalized states, anti-capitalist social movements, and independent anti-imperialist parties and movements in the North within a new common front that can offer accountable, strength, succor, and which can act as a mooring point for northern radicals seeking to break from the gravity of imperialist social democracy. Whether this is indeed possible is the question of our day.

Max Ajl is an associated researcher with the Tunisian Observatory for Food Sovereignty and the Environment and a postdoctoral fellow with the Rural Sociology Group at Wageningen University. He has written for Monthly Review, Jacobin and Viewpoint. He has contributed to a number of journals, including the Journal of Peasant Studies, Review of African Political Economy and Globalizations, and is an associate editor at Agrarian South & Journal of Labor and Society. He's also the author of A People's Green New Deal, out with Pluto Press.

Max Ajl
Just As Well Series

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