A Compelling (If Unconvincing) Proposal for Sustainability



You may have seen—and, like this reviewer, rolled your eyes at—certain canvas grocery bags proclaiming I AM NOT A PLASTIC BAG. Look at me! they announce on behalf of their owners. I’m making a minor lifestyle change with an infinitesimal impact on the environment.

That may not be a plastic bag, responds leftist writer Michael Lowy in Ecosocialism, but you’re still participating in a capitalist economy that pursues growth for growth’s sake, thereby depleting and polluting the environment.

Lowy proposes replacing capitalism with the economic system of the title. Along Marxist lines, he rejects calls to reform, temper, or clean up capitalism, as he finds fault in the type, not degree, of consumption it demands: “The issue is not ‘excessive consumption’ in the abstract, but the prevalent type of consumption, based as it is on conspicuous consumption, mercantile alienation, obsessive consumption of goods, and the compulsive acquisition of pseudo-novelties imposed by ‘fashion.’”

An Ecosocialist society, in contrast, would gear production toward basic needs, “beginning with those which could be described as ‘biblical’—water, food, clothing, housing—but including also basic services such as health, education, transportation, and culture.”

These logistical changes would accompany a cultural shift toward, as Lowy puts it, “being” rather than “having.” Freed from the pressure to consume, he writes, the people will shift their focus from chasing the latest iPhone to “[e]ssential creative, nonproductive, and reproductive human activities, such as householding, child-rearing, care, child and adult education, and the arts.”

(Lowy’s prose is dry at best and dense at worst, but the author repeats his points throughout these articles, so a concept that’s understood only vaguely upon the reader’s first encounter should be clear by the third.)

This production would be under democratic control. Rather than giving decision-making power to corporations or unaccountable officials, the people of an Ecosocialist society would vote on what to produce and how to distribute it.

The standard—and, if the murder of millions means anything, sensible—response to such ideas is, but what about the Soviet Union? This time will be different, Lowy assures us, as control will be in the hands of the people rather than a politburo. “The failure of the USSR,” he writes, “illustrates the limits and contradictions of bureaucratic planning, which is inevitably inefficient and arbitrary; it cannot be used as an argument against democratic planning.”

Really? Ecosocialism is full of such moments in which assumptions are hastily justified and ideas are quickly proposed, leaving the reader to ponder their real-world applicability. Here are two more examples:

After the transition to a postcapitalist society, after the means of production will have been “seized from banks and other corporations and made a function of the public good,” citizens will come together to democratically decide the whats, hows and whos of production. Really? What is there to keep power from sliding back into the hands of the most charismatic, powerful, or otherwise privileged groups?

“[W]hile advertising did not exist in the countries whose bureaucratically planned economies vanished after the Berlin Wall fell, there was a mendacious political propaganda that was no less inhuman and repressive. That too must be avoided in any transition to a postcapitalist society.” Yes, but how can that be avoided? How can you have a revolution without propaganda? Who decides what propaganda is “inhuman and repressive”?

A humane Ecosocialism seems possible at the level of a commune, or in the indigenous societies Lowy cites as models, but it seems much less feasible on the global scale he ultimately envisions. (“Ecosocialism will be international and universal,” he writes, “or it will be nothing.”)

As you may have noticed, this reviewer is a liberal. He is alarmed at the rape of the natural world, and the widening chasm between the rich and poor, but he is comfortable enough that the messy business of revolution is more frightening to him than, say, the destruction of faraway tribal lands by agribusiness. Such distance is a shameful luxury, but it also serves as an inoculation against utopianism, against hopes of change for change’s sake.

Lowy acknowledges the obstacles, known and unknown, that lie between the current state of the world and Ecosocialism, and the uncertainties of its realization. It’s a utopian’s job to propose an alternative, not to work out the details. He asks, “are not utopias (that is, visions of an alternate future) wish-images of a different society, a necessary feature of any movement that wants to challenge the established order?”

Yes, they are. When all reality has to offer us is inequality and environmental degradation, we need utopias. Ecosocialism may not tell us exactly where we need to go, but it tells us, screaming and unapologetic, that we are headed in the wrong direction.

Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe. By Michael Lowy. Published in April by Haymarket Books. 120 pages. $15.00


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