A LIMITS TO GROWTH CRITIQUE OF THE RADICAL LEFT:
THE NEED TO EMBRACE THE SIMPLER WAY.
Ted Trainer 14.11.12
After decades of neoliberal triumph the dysfunctional nature of the global socio-economic system has become glaringly evident to large numbers of people and levels of discontent are rising. To a considerable extent this validates the general radical left critique of capitalism, especially regarding the inevitable tendency of its inherent contradictions to generate more and more serious and ultimately insoluble crises. However thinking within this perspective has been primarily concerned with issues to do with class, exploitation, justice, inequality, power, elites and alienation, as distinct from issues to do with resources and environmental impacts and therefore with ecological sustainability. In recent years the latter factors tend to have been added to the critique, but more or less as secondary factors, as additional problems capitalism generates, and as problems that will more or less automatically disappear when the system is scrapped.
The following argument is that ecological considerations show the general traditional radical left analysis to be in need of major reformulation, especially with respect to a) its understanding of the global situation, b) the nature of the alternative, post-capitalist society to be worked for, and c) the transitional/revolutionary process and the best strategy to pursue. It will be argued that “The Simpler Way” perspective provides the most effective base for dealing with these themes. This case draws on the detail in my The Transition to a Sustainable and Just Society, 2010.
The basic “limits to growth” perspective.
The crucial beginning point for this critique is the claim that the radical left, along with almost all others, fails to grasp the nature and significance of the global sustainability crisis. Because the magnitude and seriousness of the predicament are not grasped adequately thinking about solutions and alternatives, and the transition to them, is fundamentally mistaken. The basic point to be made below is that a satisfactory analysis of the situation shows that a sustainable and just society cannot be industrialised, globalised, driven by growth or the market, run by the state, or involve affluent lifestyles. It is necessary to begin by briefly outlining a few of the major lines of argument within the limits to growth analysis of the global situation, to show although these themes are widely understood superficially, their profound significance is not acknowledged.
Over some fifty years a weighty “limits to growth” case has accumulated, but even in green circles there tends to be insufficient appreciation of its strength and implications. Rich world per capita levels of resource consumption and ecological impact, along with the global aggregates, are far now beyond levels that that are sustainable or that could be made sustainable. When the magnitude and nature of the problem is grasped it is evident that the problems cannot be solved without historically unprecedented structural and cultural change, on a scale and at a pace that few would regard as possible to achieve. Consider the following few lines of analysis.
Scarcities are already evident regarding food in general, fish, water, many industrial minerals and petroleum, with estimates of peak coal occurring within a few decades. Yet only about one fifth of the world’s people have rich world consumption rates and six times as many will soon be aspiring to them. Rich world per capita resource consumption rates are around 15 times those of the poorest half of the world’s people so extraction rates can be expected to accelerate dramatically. The Chinese are reported to be opening one new coal-fired power station each week. If 9 billion were to use petroleum at the rate that Americans do then annual production would have to be times its present volume.
The “footprint” index sums up the magnitude of the overshoot. To provide the average Australian with food, settlement area, water and energy now requires about 8 ha of productive land. (WWF, 20.) If by 2050 9 billion people were to have risen to the present Australian “living standard”, and the planet’s amount of productive land remains the same as it is today, an invalid assumption, the amount available per capita would be .8 ha. In other words Australian’s today are using 10 times the amount that will be possible for all to use. If the commitment to the taken for granted rate of increase in “living standards” is added to the picture, then according to WWF figures by 2050 we would need more than 20 planet earths to sustain the associated resource demands.
The global “carbon budget” approach to the greenhouse problem presented by Meinshausen et al. (2008) is now widely accepted. They show that if we are to remain below a ”safe” 2 degree temperature rise then emissions must taper from 2008 levels to zero by 2050. In 2010 they rose 4.6%.
It is commonly assumed that climate problems can be solved by a combination of carbon capture and storage, and transition to renewable energy sources. There is a strong case that these cannot solve the problem. CCS is applicable only to stationary sources such as power stations, and cannot remove more than about 85% of carbon emissions. Trainer (2012a) offers a detailed numerical case that energy and climate problems cannot be solved by transition to renewable energy. The problems of intermittency involved in the use of solar and wind sources would require an unaffordable amount of redundant plant. This is the major element in the case that “technical fixes” cannot enable anything like continued pursuit of affluence and growth for all. (A general case against the tech-fix faith is given in .)
The forgoing notes only indicate the grossly unsustainable nature of the present situation. To this must be added the consequences of the fundamental commitment within consumer-capitalist societies, i.e., to ceaseless growth in production, consumption, “living standards”, trade, investment and GDP. If a world population of 9 billion people were to rise to the GDP per capita Australians would have in 2050 given 3% p.a growth in our present “living standards”, then total world economic output would be approaching 20 times its present volume.
These and other figures from within the limits to growth case are well known but their significance is not generally recognised. The main point is to do with the magnitude of the problems. The overshoot is far too great to be dealt with within or by a society committed to affluence or growth, whether capitalist or “socialist”. A sustainable society cannot be defined other than in terms of levels of resource consumption, production, consumption and GDP that are a small fraction of present rich world or global levels, and that do not increase over time. The above figures indicate that the fraction is likely to be in the region of one-tenth of present Australian per capita levels.
The radical left has been about as unwilling to think in these terms as the neo-liberals or the mainstream (or the greens in fact; almost all green parties and agencies fail to question affluence and growth, knowing that if they do their voters and subscribers will desert them; see Moseley 20 and Smith 20 for documentation of the failure.) It will be explained below that the limits to growth analysis requires many traditional core left assumptions about the revolution to be jettisoned.
A grossly unjust global economy.
The second of the two major strands within the general limits critique focuses on the injustice of the global economy and the imperial nature of consumer-capitalist society. The global economy allocates most of the world’s resources to the rich, including Third World elites and consumers who patronise rich world supermarkets. This is an automatic and inevitable consequence of the fact that the global economy is a market economy. When profit maximisation is allowed to be the major determinant of development there can be no other outcome than that the rich few take most of the scarce resources, simply by being able to pay more for them, and that industries that supply to the rich world’s consuming classes will be developed. Thus conventional development is best regarded as a form of legitimised plunder. Nor can there be surprise that the triumph of neo-liberalism, especially in freeing the finance industry to speculate at will, has seen the economy generate obscene levels of inequality along with alarming levels of debt.
The radical left is well aware that global problems cannot be solved until the present economy is scrapped, but it will be argued it is mistaken in its understanding of the kind of alternative that is needed, typically focusing on action by a post-capitalist state to organise just redistribution but still within an industrialised, centralised, technology-driven and affluent society. This is especially evident in thinking about Third World “development’ where the radical left typically assumes a conventional capitalist development model, (...but one in which the capital is not privately owned; see below.) It will be explained that in the coming era of intense resource scarcity an entirely different solution must be embraced, one in which all will in fact be very poor in conventional consumption and GDP terms, but very rich in quality of life terms.
Summing up the basic limits critique.
It is, to put it mildly, extremely implausible that technical advance could make it possible for these problems to be solved within an energy-intensive, heavily industrialised, globalised etc. society enabling all people to rise to rich world “living standards”. The multiples noted indicate that a sustainable and just world cannot be achieved unless aggregate resource use, ecological impacts and economic output not only stabilise, but go down to a small fraction of their present levels.
Marx’s account of capitalism is indispensable for understanding the limits problem. Its defining dynamic centres on the drive to accumulate and to commodify, and therefore the system is unavoidably committed to limitless growth. However the study of Marx does not focus our attention on the fact that we have now run into the limits, or on the need to shift to far less materially affluent ways than we have now, or on the implications that goal has for transition thinking and action.
The required alternative society and its economy; The Simpler Way
The foregoing sustainability and justice critique shows that present rich world per capita resource consumption rates must be more or less cut by 50 – 90%. This cannot be done unless there is a transition to some kind of Simpler Way. (Detailed in Trainer, 2010, 2012a.) This must involve:
Simpler lifestyles, far less production and consumption, or concern with luxury, affluence, possessions and wealth, and much more concern with non-material sources of life satisfaction, mostly those spontaneously available within the new communities. A person’s wealth, welfare and security would be a function of public sources not individual savings or property.
Mostly small, highly self-sufficient local economies, largely independent of the global economy, devoting local resources to meeting local needs, with little regional let alone international trade. As petroleum becomes scarce and materials become expensive there will be no choice about this.
More cooperative and participatory ways, enabling people in small communities to take control of their own development, to include and provide for all. In the coming era of scarcity it will be obvious that communities must cooperate to ensure that collective needs are met. This will involve local commons, committees working bees, and town assemblies and referenda making the important decisions about local development and administration. Thus most governing will have to be carried out by citizens via highly participatory arrangements, partly because expensive centralised states will not be sustainable but mainly because only the people who live in and have to maintain local economies are in a position to make and carry out the right decisions. The viability of the new systems will depend largely on the level of conscientiousness, community solidarity, empowerment and control, and experienced satisfaction. These crucial “spiritual” qualities can only thrive in small, cooperative and largely self-governing communities in control of their own fate.
Mostly village-level government, via participatory mechanisms. The kind of economy just described involves all citizens in their own self-government. Most decisions will be made via informal discussion, committees, referenda and town meetings, and implemented via committees and working bees. Relatively little will be left for centralised state or national governments to do, although their roles will be important, e.g., in coordinating national rail systems, locating steel mills and heavier industry, maintaining communication systems. Ideally states would have no autonomous power but would derive all authority from the town assemblies through classically anarchist principles of delegation and federation.
The remarkable achievements of the Spanish anarchist collectives during the civil war (Dolgoff, Trainer, 2011) provides an inspiring example for the required form of town and regional citizen self government. For three years in the 1930s ordinary citizens took control of the economies in which 8 million were living, including running factories, railways, banks, hospitals, universities, water supply, flourmills, research institutions and the city of Barcelona, via voluntary committees and without paid bureaucrats or politicians. They implemented major reforms in labour, equity, social justice, sexism and other domains. They printed their own money and abolished school fees. Regional federations looked after the weaker towns in their areas, transferring resources to those on poorer soils. Unemployed people were paid a full wage. Free housing was made available. Difficult and unpleasant work was rotated among workers. The basic governing mechanisms were voluntary committees and assemblies. This brief inspiring period in human history should be taken as establishing the viability of the approach to government that The Simpler Way requires.
A new economy, one that is not driven by profit or market forces, has no growth at all, produces much less than the present economy, and focuses on needs, rights, justice, welfare and ecological sustainability. It might have many private firms and markets, but there must be basic (participatory, democratic, open and local) social control over what is developed, what is produced, and how it is distributed. Most economic activity will be local, using local resources, controlled by ordinary citizens, and geared to maximising the quality of life of all in the region. Top concerns must be to ensure that all are provided for, especially via access to a livelihood enabling a valuable and respected contribution to be made, that none are unemployed, poor or excluded, that individual, collective and ecological needs are prioritised. In the transition period the goal must be gradual development of this “Economy B” increasingly focused on increasing collectivist capacity to meet more needs, within/beneath the old mainstream Economy A.
Mondragon provides a plausible example of desirable approaches to cooperative town banking, business incubators, and solutions to investment, initiative and enterprise issues. In my view it will be desirable to leave most of the economy in the form of private enterprise, i.e., small firms and farms owned and run by private individuals, families and cooperatives, because this is most likely to maximise the satisfaction people derive from productive activity. Needless to say there would have to be sensitive social control, guidelines and limits, and enterprises would have to be focused on enabling autonomous livelihoods from making a constant valued contribution to the community, with no interest in accumulating or growth.
Some very different values. Obviously The Simpler Way could not function unless the predominant outlook involved values and ideas that were cooperative not competitive, collectivist and less individualistic, and concerned with frugality and self-sufficiency rather than acquisitiveness and consuming. In a viable zero growth economy there could be no concern with accumulation of wealth since that would quickly lead to breakdown as the strongest accumulated most of the zero-sum amount of production or property. Similarly no attention could be given to economic competition. High priority would have to be given to equity and the situation of the least advantaged, or again cohesion would quickly suffer. The basic orientation would have to be concern with giving and nurturing and with the public good.
Perhaps most important of all, there would have to be a concern to take collective control of the town’s fate, a determination to identify and eliminate problems, to establish good procedures, security, abundance, a rich cultural life, and a high quality of life for all, to develop and run an admirable and noble town. Whereas at present people accept as normal being governed from a distance, the settlements of The Simpler Way require citizens determined to govern themselves, to take responsibility for and delight in ensuring the welfare of their town.
Clearly this domain of ideas, world views, values and commitments sets the greatest problems for transition theory and practice and is focal in the discussion of strategy below. It was the crucial element enabling the achievements of the Spanish anarchist collectives, and they were acutely aware of this, attending to the development of the required personality traits.
The contradiction between the core elements in the consumer-capitalist orientation and those in The Simpler Way is depressingly huge and defines the fundamental battleground for this revolution. However the difficulties could be overestimated; the conditions within The Simpler Way require and reward good values and these are self-reinforcing and have synergistic effects. Capitalist society requires and rewards undesirable values whose feedbacks accelerate social disintegration.
Some other specific features within this vision are, -- many small firms and farms (some cooperatives, some privately owned) within and close to settlements, -- much use of intermediate and low technologies especially craft and hand-tool production, -- extensive development of commons providing many free goods especially “edible landscapes”, -- building using earth, enabling all people to have a low-cost house, -- voluntary working bees developing and maintaining community facilities, -- conversion of existing towns and suburbs into highly self-sufficient communities -- many committees, e.g., for agriculture, care of aged, care of youth, entertainment and leisure, cultural activities -- government via town assemblies -- large cashless, free goods and gifting sectors -- little need for transport enabling bicycle access to work and conversion of most urban roads to commons -- the need to work for a monetary income only one or two days a week at a relaxed pace -- thus allowing intensive involvement in arts and crafts and community activities -- a local currency that does not involve interest -- relatively low dependence on corporations, professionals and bureaucrats -- relatively little dependence on high-tech ways and much craft and hand tool production (mostly for their quality of life benefits.)
The situation would provide strong incentives to cooperate, help others, be concerned about the public good, take social responsibility, support community events and contribute to working bees. The economic focus would shift from getting to giving, knowing that when one gives generously one is likely to receive abundantly. Whereas consumer society typically involves less than zero-sum interactions, in The Simpler Way synergism is the norm; goodness generates further goodness. To give, care and contribute brings out in others appreciation and a desire to reciprocate. Thus the “spiritual” benefits of The Simpler Way become evident; it would enable liberation from the burdens of consumer society and open the way to a high quality of life for all despite, indeed because of, very low material “living standards”.
There would still be an important role for more distant and centralised institutions, such as teaching hospitals, universities, steel works, railway systems and wind farms. There need be no reduction in the level of highly sophisticated scientific and professional expertise, such as within research institutes, universities and hospitals, although far fewer would be needed in most areas, notably law, IT and communications. Many whole industries will be no longer needed, such as advertising. Investment in socially beneficial high-tech R and D could easily be greater than at present, when some of the resources presently being wasted in frivolous ventures are transferred to it. Light industry would be located in the regions surrounding towns, small farms and factories, mostly producing goods for the region but providing some exports to “pay for” imports from other regions and national sources such as steel works. It would make sense for (limited) trade to take place, between regions, states and nations, but relatively little, if only because of energy scarcity. The remnant “state” would have to ensure all regions had a share of the industries needed to produce for the national distribution of items such as steel.
It is difficult to convey the potential deriving from a combination of greatly reduced material lifestyle demand, intensive development of local self sufficiency and the abundance that can come from simple low-tech ways. The most impressive of the (scarce) evidence comes from within the general Permaculture, Eco-village and Transition Towns literature. The document “How cheaply we could live well?” (Trainer, 2012c) derives tentative figures supporting the claim that current rich world energy, dollar and footprint costs could be cut by more than 90%, while improving all dimensions of the quality of life.
It must be noted that there will always be important items which local communities cannot provide for themselves, and thus the desirability of some degree of trade. Ideally small towns would be within regional economies producing items such as fridges and radios. Nations would only import small quantities of items they could not effectively produce for themselves.
The integrated, inter-dependent nature of The Simpler Way needs to be stressed. For instance the kind of economy involved cannot exist without a particular geography of localisation, nor can it function effectively without grass roots participatory political institutions, community property and processes such as working bees, and none of these can exist without a culture centred on frugality, cooperation, nurturing, giving, responsibility and concern for the public good.
Specific aspects of the foregoing account might turn out to be mistaken but if the limits to growth predicament is more or less as severe as has been argued above, it is difficult to imagine how a sustainable, just and satisfying alternative society could be defined other than in terms of mostly small largely self-sufficient and self-governing communities running local economies that are not driven by market forces and that have no economic growth, and in terms of a culture that is focused on other than individualistic, competitive and acquisitive goals. The core defining concept has to be material simplicity in systems, institutions and above all lifestyles, although this would enable increased cultural complexity, diversity and quality.
The magnitude of the required revolution could easily be overlooked; the argument has been that sustainability and justice require greater economic, geographical, political and cultural change than has probably occurred in at least five hundred years. This is not optional. The resource and ecological limits of the planet will force us to decimate current rich world per capita levels of production and consumption, wether we like it or not. The choice is only whether we will make the enormous adjustments sensibly and smoothly or allow nature to impose them via die-off. It is quite possible, indeed likely, that this vision is unachievable given the condition in which the capitalist era has left us. That is not central here; what matters is that the depletion of resources has brought us to a point in our history where an unprecedented leap must be made if we are to avoid descent into another dark age or worse.
Implications for Third World “development”.
A common response to the Simpler Way vision
from people on the left is that
“de-development” within rich countries would condemn the world’s poorest billions to even worse conditions. Sadly this reveals the unwitting acceptance of conventional development theory, along with the mistaken “uni-dimensional” conception of development. In Chapter 5 of Trainer 2010 the largely unrecognised distinction between capitalist development and Appropriate Development is discussed. Unfortunately Marx took for granted the capitalist conception of development. He, like almost all Western development theorists and practitioners before or since, saw development as movement down a uni-dimensional path to industrial-affluent society, driven by the increasing capacity to invest capital, produce, and purchase goods. The advent of socialism as most Marxists conceive it today would continue the process, but with the capital in society’s control not in private hands, and with better distribution of the product. Most importantly they think development can’t occur without the investment of capital, and that what is developed can only be determined by those in control of capital. The “subsistence” characteristic of cultures unaccustomed to the Western way of cities, bureaucracies, centralisation, factories etc. is seen as primitive and to be eliminated. The notion of Appropriate Development flatly contradicts these assumptions.
The limits to growth perspective reveals much of Marx’s taken-for-granted goal to have been mistaken, making it clear that the good society cannot now be defined in terms of affluent or industrialised society, and that frugality, subsistence, and localism are essential. Moreover self-sufficiency becomes focal at the national, regional, village and household levels, and dependence on external inputs is avoided as much as possible. Appropriate Development is primarily do-it-yourself development. Above all it recognises that most basic necessities required for a high quality of life for all can be provided with little or no financial capital. The tragedy of conventional development is that billions suffer poverty while they are surrounded by the sufficient and usually abundant soils, forests, rainfall, and labour and skills that could meet most and often all need for good food, housing, water supply, sanitation, clothing, basic education and health care, leisure and cultural activities, via local cooperatives and craft industries using low and intermediate technologies. Often all that is needed is not inputs but simply organisation, let alone capital inputs.
Conventional development theory decrees that development cannot take place until someone with capital thinks he can make more profit investing in your region than anywhere else in the world and sets up a factory to export cosmetics to rich world supermarkets, generating a minute trickle down benefit and export earnings ... which must then be used to import necessities and pay for development. Because capital is assumed to be the lynch pin massive loans must also be taken on, which typically quickly result in crippling interest demands, debt slavery, the fire-sale of assets to foreign banks and corporations, and an economy firmly geared to serving rich world interests. After many decades this approach will indeed have lifted some and at times many to better “living standards”...in the few countries that won the competition for export markets and foreign investment, while a billion in the Fourth World sink further into squalor.
A few have attempted to draw attention to the alternative, notably Schumacker, (1999), Samana, (1988), Mies and Shiva (1993), and perhaps most remarkably of all Ghandi. About one hundred years ago he saw that there could never be enough resources for the Third World to develop to be like rich countries and he argued that the goal of development should be highly self-sufficient and cooperative villages based largely on simple and traditional technologies. Unfortunately Nehru took India down the conventional path to industrialisation, centralisation and now globalisation, grotesque inequality and injustice.
The left is well aware that the normal functioning of market forces within the global economy gears local productive capacity to the enrichment of distant elites, and IMF and World Bank conditionality expressly prohibits its application to local needs...and when all else fails military force is likely to be used to keep in place, or install, regimes willing to rule in our interests. (See Trainer, 2009.) But the left’s concern has mostly been that these processes thwart Third world success in the global economy, whereas The Simpler Way rejects not only the assumption development has to involve competing in the global economy, but also the conventional, capital-intensive concept of development typically assumed by the left.
Thus The Simpler Way has to be the development goal for poor as well as rich countries, if only because the universally taken-for-granted goal of conventional development, rising to rich world GDP and “living standards”, is shown by the limits analysis to be totally impossible and a recipe for global catastrophic breakdown. It follows that the most important precondition for Appropriate development is consciousness, the realisations that conventional development theory and practice constitute only one conception among many possibilities, that the limits to growth mean that it cannot work for all, that it is an approach which does little or nothing for most people while it allocates their resources to the enrichment of the rich few...and that there is an alternative. Billions of people suffer miserable conditions primarily because this is not understood.
Thus the implications of “De-growth”.
The recent emergence of the De-growth movement has been extremely encouraging but the literature often gives the impression that the significance of abandoning growth has not been fully grasped. Sometimes it seems that growth is recognised as a serious mistake but one that can be cut away leaving us to go on more or less as before, as if we decided to remove the air conditioning unit from the house. Growth however is not another thing our society has, this is a growth-society. Growth is integral to its core structures and processes and it can’t be got rid of without totally remaking society.
To start with, if there can be no growth then there can be no interest expected, paid or received. If there is no growth then there must be a fixed amount of producing and consuming going on all the time, so it cannot be possible for anyone to lend money and at the end of the year get back more than was lent (...without soon having transferred all money to the lenders.)
There goes almost of the finance industry. Banks would have to be little more than places where savings were kept. Investment decisions would have to be about maintaining and/or reallocating a constant stock of plant, or building different factories as the old ones wear out, and most of these decisions would be made collectively in terms of community needs. Retirement incomes could not come as returns on investments.
The problem of equity would have to be solved. In a growth society it can be ignored because everyone can be persuaded that the rising tide lifts all boats and you will get rich eventually. If it becomes understood that the tide is never going to rise again then the distribution of the set amount of wealth becomes problematic and unless acceptable solutions are found there is soon likely to be trouble.
Similarly (economic) competition has to cease. The trouble with competition is that someone wins, and again if there is only a constant volume of spoils there can be no social stability if some are allowed to beat others to a greater share.
That in turn means there can be no place for the market, because the market system by definition involves striving to maximise, to come away with more value than one entered the market place.
At this point it hardly needs to be added that capitalism is incompatible with de-growth. Capitalism is about accumulation, i.e., investing in order to have more to invest next year, in a never ending spiral. Capital could be privately owned in a zero-growth economy but its owners could only draw a constant “rent”, and again this would not be likely to be tolerated for long where there is only a fixed amount of producing required and thus no scope for new entrepreneurs to set up new/additional ventures and join the “capitalist” class (...which would actually be a rentier class, not an a class accumulating to increase investment.)
Would not productivity gains make it possible for increasing value and thus profit to be derived from a constant amount of material inputs? This effect would occur but it would be limited and would probably diminish over time. Warr and Ayres () show that productivity gains have been mostly due to increasing inputs of resources and especially energy, as distinct from technical wizardry, and that this source is likely to not only dry up, but to reverse as energy problems intensify. Thus the scope for accumulation would be greatly reduced, because a) the volume of production would not be increasing, b) technical advance independent of energy use would not be generating much additional value or profit, and c) GDP would be a small fraction of the present level. In such conditions, even if a capitalist process could still be identified it would be of minute proportions and could not be the driver of a viable society...and in time would have to be curbed as it would be leading towards complete ownership and control of the fixed quantity of factories and production.
Most problematic of all, in a zero-growth society there can be no concern with gain, with getting richer, with acquisition of wealth or property. Again this is because it is a zero-sum game. Thus there would have to be a totally new motivation for work, innovation, investment, research, and risk (although a sensible society would strive to minimise risk and where it remains to share it collectively, e.g., via community investment funding.) The economic motive would have to be not getting but giving, that is people would have to be happy to work and contribute in order to help others and their community thrive, knowing that they will benefit from the “gifts” of others. (This does not mean there can be no role for money, as an accounting tool.)
Clearly these implications also mean that in a de-growth society there could be no interest in affluent lifestyles, and again the literature tends not to show that this is understood, let alone the fact that rich world “living standards” will have to be a small fraction of their present level.
The unavoidable result of putting these conditions together is a “socialism” of some kind, i.e., the social determination of production, distribution, investment, resource use, etc. If these functions cannot be left to free competition within a market, because in a zero-sum situation this would quickly lead to explosive inequities, then they would have to be carried out via rational collective planning and organisation.
Growth is therefore not something that can scrapped while present society goes on as before. De-growth has to be seen as part of a multi-dimensional transition to The Simpler Way. The need is for much more than merely a transition to a zero-growth economy. In addition the need is for intensive localism, collectivism, participatory democracy, control of community economies by communities, thus the elimination of centralised power, and acceptance of much lower material living standards than rich countries have today.
IMPLICATIONS FOR TRANSITION THEORY AND PRACTICE.
It the foregoing analysis of the situation and the required alternative society is valid, then profound implications for transition thinking follow. Indeed if it is the case that only dramatic change to some kind of Simpler Way has to be the goal then most previous mainstream and left thinking about the way to achieve a satisfactory society is of little or no use to us. It will be argued that this is especially true of Marxist thinking and current “socialist” strategy. Most value is to be found in anarchist thought on the transition problem (although the end goal might well be regarded as a socialist society.)
The revolution is bigger than you thought.
The argument has been that sustainability and justice cannot be achieved unless many of the basic structures within consumer-capitalist society are scrapped and replaced. The task is therefore far bigger than most on the left have imagined. Many have assumed that all that is required is a change of leadership but then the same old goals of raising living standards and the GDP can be pursued via the same old centralised, industrialised, globalised and representative democracy means. However we are faced with having to achieve a multidimensional transition from most of the basic elements that have driven Western culture for hundreds of years. The economic and political changes are daunting enough but the most difficult changes will be to do with ideas and values. For instance the universally taken for granted idea of progress that has dominated since the Enlightenment has to be entirely rethought to accommodate the notion of limits.
The revolution cannot be top down.
The revolution cannot be about replacing the ruling class running consumer society with a working class or its representatives. The transition can only be imagined, worked for and achieved and maintained by the efforts of virtually all ordinary citizens. Leaders, benign or otherwise cannot build autonomous flourishing village economies or get them to thrive, let alone impose them. It has to be a bottom-up revolution.
Again the communities of The Simpler Way can only come into existence through a relatively slow process of “evolution” in which component parts mutually adjust and each community finds the best ways for itself via trial and error. What suits one suburb might not suit the next. Communities will have to learn their way to the arrangements that work well for them. Above all the transformation in consciousness required can only develop slowly as the failure of present systems sinks in and the often subtle and intangible benefits of a Simpler Way reveal themselves.
The good society cannot be an affluent-industrial society.
It can be argued that the limits to growth analysis shows that capitalism is not the fundamental problem confronting the planet. Clearly a sustainable and acceptable world order cannot be achieved while capitalist economy remains, but we must do much more than transcend capitalism. If we eliminated capitalism and implemented “socialism” everywhere but remained committed to affluent living standards and ceaseless increase in the volume of production and consumption, then we would inevitably still have just about the same range of global problems we have now. The rich world would have to go on grabbing most of the scarce resources because there aren’t enough for all to be as rich as we are, and more and more Third World productive capacity would have to be geared to rich world consumption. More environmental damage would accumulate, regardless of how effectively a socialist economy eliminated waste, corruption, advertising and inefficiency. Obviously a good, post-capitalist, society cannot be an affluent, industrialised or consumer society.
Marx was wrong in assuming that a good society is not possible before the productive forces reach high levels of development. Many “primitive” societies and presently functioning alternative communities show that only very low material living standards and levels of industrialisation and technology are necessary for a high quality of life. The Kalahari bushmen do not begin to “work” until they are about 23 years old and then, like many tribes-people, they work only about 19 hours a week. They have a satisfying life and many reach an old age. Along ago Sahlins (1972) reported on how rich “primitive” tribes were, lacking almost nothing they needed for a good life. Benholdt-Thomsen and Mies (1990) discuss the virtues of the “subsistence” way evident in peasant life and they strongly reject conventional development. Monetary wealth is not only largely irrelevant in the societies they discuss, but it damages the social relations within a “moral” economy that ensure security and welfare for all. (Hyde makes the point in The Gift, 1979.)
Many homesteaders and members of Eco-villages live idyllic lives in peasant ways, using little more than hand tools and natural materials such as earth, wood and leather, and being secure within cooperative social arrangements. I know these things at first hand from the bush-homestead way I live. Apart from a very few items such as medicines, my lifestyle would be easily achieved without sophisticated technology, international trade or mass production. Most of any modern technology I use, such as corrugated iron, seeds, shoes, cement, paint, hand tools, 12 volt electricity and radios, could have been produced with pre-1950s technology. (See How Cheaply We Could Live Well; Trainer 2012.)
The good life and the good society depend primarily on values and expectations, on having purpose and worthwhile work, on the richness of community and culture, and on the collective capacity to organise sensibly. They do not depend much on material goods, income, modern technology or the GDP. The world and indeed most Third World countries are far beyond the GDP per capita and the levels of technical sophistication necessary for a good society. So “socialism” does not require a high level of “development of the productive forces.”
An unavoidable, painful long march through capitalism?
Devotees of Marx’s “laws of history” are strongly inclined to believe that capitalism has to mature before its contradictions will bring about self-destruction and then satisfactory development can begin. For instance Warren (1980) argued this and various gurus and organizations have refused to support revolutionary movements on the grounds that their societies were not far enough down the path to capitalism.
The argument in Chapter 12 of Trainer 2010 is that we do not have to wait for capitalism to self-destruct or be destroyed. Not only can we get on with Appropriate development here and now (although in some situations this is made very difficult), it is the only way the revolution can be advanced. (This is the main argument below re transition strategy.)
It is remarkable that late in his life Marx came to entertain the possibility of a quicker and more direct route to post-capitalist society, a route which does not involve first defeating capitalism in mortal combat. He toyed with the possibility that the Russians might build socialism on the existing model of the Mir, the traditional peasant collective village, without having to fight capitalism head-on and defeat it. (See Shannin,1995, Bideleux,1985 and Kitching,1989.)
The “Mode of Production”.
Central in the Marxist account it is the focus on the mode of production. The fundamental fault in capitalism is seen in the fact that it is a productive system in which a small class owns capital while most people make up the large class which must sell its labour to capitalists, and the working class is exploited because it does not receive the full value it creates in the capitalist’s factories. To a Marxist progress is to do with the transition to “a more advanced mode of production.”
It is not that the limits to growth perspective shows this analysis to be mistaken or unimportant. However attending to the mode of production does not focus attention on what is now the most important problem, which could be labelled the mode of consumption. Marxist theory does not question this factor. Again let us assume that we abandoned the capitalist mode of production and put production entirely under social control. As has been explained, this in itself could make little or no difference to the global ecological predicament if the rich countries remained determined to consume as they do now. They would have to go on taking most of the resources, thereby depriving the Third World and generating unsustainable resource and ecological consequences. Again fundamental change to an ecologically sustainable world order is not possible without dramatic change to the more advanced mode of consumption that The Simpler Way represents.
Of course much of the detail above regarding the new communities is in fact to do with a new mode of production, but not one that is more technically complex, productive or sophisticated than that characteristic of capitalist society. It is in many respects a more “primitive” technology, involving crafts, hand tools and labour-intensive gardening, and closer to the ways of the peasant than those of the industrial worker. (However the “relations of production” would not be primitive, but would be close to those Marx envisaged, i.e., there would be democratically control of the means of production and no class domination.) We could put it this way; the Marxist threat to capitalism is the strike, i.e., the threat to withhold labour, but The Simpler Way raises a far more dreadful threat; the threat to withhold our shopping.
The role of force and power.
It is assumed by Marxists that fundamental system change will inevitably involve force, the exercise of power, and overt, intense and violent conflict, on the grounds that the ruling class will not voluntarily step aside and it will have to be pushed. However from The Simpler Way perspective force and power have little relevance. This is not a matter of moral or aesthetic preference. The point is that given the situation we are in and the goals of our movement, force and power are of no value. They are not means that can help us to build the new system, or get rid of the old one.
Consider again the logic of the situation. We cannot have thriving local economies unless people in general willingly adopt the new ways and make them work because they understand why such arrangements are necessary, and more importantly, because they find those ways of living satisfying. The Simpler Way cannot work without a motivation whereby people in general find strong intrinsic values and rewards in living simply, cooperatively and self-sufficiently and living in the knowledge that only by following The Simpler Way can we enable a satisfactory life for all other people. Force, power and confrontation can make no contribution to achieving this goal. It is not possible to force people to eagerly, conscientiously and happily build and run their own frugal household economies and local cooperative economies. Either they will want to do what’s needed primarily for the satisfaction this yields or it won’t be done. Therefore the essential revolutionary task is to help people in their towns and neighbourhoods come to the necessary vision and willingness, along with the necessary skills.
It makes no sense to think about getting rid of the old system as a step that can be taken prior to or separately from building the new one this revolution is about. It makes no sense for a vanguard party to get rid of capitalism and run everything for a few years until people have become capable of running everything themselves. This rejection of power is argued by some of the best known anarchists of the past, including Tolstoy and Kropotkin. If you had given them state power on a plate they would have turned away knowing that it is of no use. It can’t be used to create autonomous citizens who will govern their own villages well. They urged revolutionaries simply to get on with the task of developing within their communities the awareness that would enable and motivate self-government. If people will not rise to the opportunity to take control of their own affairs this means there is a lot of consciousness-raising work still to be done. So it would be a waste of time trying to take control of the state from the ruling class because that can make no contribution to raising the crucial grass roots awareness. And when the job has been well-enough done there will be no need to confront or fight; people will just vote with their feet and ignore the old ways and build and practise the new ones. Again the task is to create the psychological and social conditions whereby communities can and wish to govern themselves, and force and power cannot help us do that.
This issue has probably been the major historical difference between socialists and anarchists. The former tend to regard the latter as naive and mistaken regarding the capacity of people in general to make the revolution, and believe a vanguard party will have to force it through and then try to develop the attitudes that will enable a good society. Again this might have made sense when the goal was simply taking control of industrialised centralised society from the capitalist class, but when the goal has to be (mostly) autonomous local communities run by aware, conscientious citizens it cannot be the means to that end.
Take state power?
It follows that the essential socialist goal needs to be rethought. To Marxists it is crucial to seize and use state power, both as a short term post-revolutionary goal and as a crucial means whereby the revolution is to be conducted. But from the perspective of The Simpler Way it is a serious mistake to see taking state power as a revolutionary strategy. It is not just ill-advised, it is a logical mistake.
Firstly, as has been explained state power cannot make the new villages work. It does not matter how much control lies in the hands of the state or its secret police, this would be of no value whatsoever in getting people to contribute willingly, conscientiously and happily to the new neighbourhood and town socio-economic systems, or to work out how to run our unique local economy well. A distant state simply cannot work out what are the best ways for each little locality with its own idiosyncratic set of values, conditions and problems, and it cannot make us want to find and practise those ways. It cannot impose or even give the necessary dispositions, arrangements and skills. These can only be developed, learned discovered through town trial and error experience.
The point can be made in terms of the irrelevance of top-down “leadership” noted above. As Fotopoulos says Marxists typically believe the required changes can be got through while only a few have the right consciousness. (2001, p. 454.) Again this may be so where the change is in effect a coup, a change in the top management of the same old industrialised, authoritarian, centralised system, but in our case the required changes cannot occur unless people in general understand and opt for them, meaning that they cannot be carried out or pushed through by a vanguard leadership.
“But...” the socialist is likely to protest, “...being in control of the state will enable the new ways to be facilitated.” This is where the logical mistake becomes most apparent. It would not be remotely possible for us to have a state facilitating The Simpler Way unless most people had voted it in on a Simpler Way platform – and that could not happen unless the revolution for a simpler way had previously been on! Given the nature of this revolution as explained above, we cannot possibly get control of the state until after the revolution has succeeded.
The same contradiction faces Green parties. It would be logically impossible for radically green policies, such as a zero growth economy, to be got through parliament unless most people in society agreed with them...and if they did then the revolution would have been more or less achieved long before the parliamentary vote...meaning that the real revolutionary work to be done is getting public opinion to that level of awareness.
To repeat, this is the major point of difference within transition strategy between Socialists and anarchists. If you see that the goal has to be autonomous citizens running frugal, self-sufficient local economies, then seeking to take state power is both a practical and logical mistake; it could not be done unless the new thinking had first become widespread and to achieve that would be to achieve the revolution. Radical change in the nature and function of the state can only be one more consequence of the revolution; it cannot logically occur until the revolution is more or less over.
The role of the working class.
The left has a fundamental faith in the importance and the role of the working class. To Marxists it is axiomatic that change will come through the revolutionary action that class will take. As Wood says, “...the working class, strategically situated at the heart of capitalism, is still the only social force with the capacity to transform it.” (Wood, 1998, p. 33.)
Unfortunately the traditional class interests of “workers” do not align well with The Simpler Way. They are about bigger pay cheques enabling greater consumption, more jobs and production, more trade, a greater role for the state in running things, redistribution of wealth and provision of better “welfare” by the state. In general the working class is strongly in favour of economic growth. Higher “living standards”, better pensions and expenditure on health education, and especially more jobs, are seen to depend directly on how rapidly business turnover and GDP can be increased. Unions, socialist organisations and working class people in general are hostile to any suggestion that there is a problem of affluence, industrialisation or over-development, given that most of them struggle financially. Scarcities and deprivation will be resolved once expropriation by the capitalist class ends. They are especially unsympathetic to any suggestion that the solution has to involve reduced per capita levels of consumption and a shift to simpler lifestyles. This is immediately seen as condemning those who are struggling to even lower living standards.
At a more profound level there are problems to do with the situation and the psychology of the worker. Bookchin (1973) points out that the industrial worker is intensely disciplined by the factory mode of production to acceptance of authoritarian conditions, to doing what he is told and of not seeking autonomy or imagining a post-industrial world. His experience does not include co-operating with others to take charge of his own situation, plan, organise, and run things. Illich discusses the conditioned lack of autonomy and responsibility, the readiness to leave things to corporations, governments and experts. The worker is a specialist, without the multi-skilled “jack of all trades” orientation that the peasant or homesteader must have. The small farmer or businessman and the homesteader must be autonomous and responsible, planning, fixing, adjusting, monitoring, thinking about the system all the time. Workers tend not to have in the self-sufficient outlook of the homesteader or to be very interested in collectively running their own organisations. They tend to be more interested in a good wage enabling a good car, shopping at a good supermarket, and looking at a good plasma TV.
Perhaps most significant is Bookchin’s claim that the worker is not inclined to utopianism, to thinking in terms of a new and better society. As Bookchin also points out, to Marx the industrial worker’s revolutionary role is to revolt against one set of authoritarian rulers, and then submit to the next lot. He also notes that Marx didn’t think this problem of “personality” was important; it could be attended to long after the revolution as the vanguard gradually developed communist consciousness in the masses. From The Simpler Way perspective the revolution cannot take place unless the required post-revolutionary consciousness had first been developed. For decades before their revolution The anarchists in Spain had worked hard on this task of developing what they called the “integral personality” and their success in the 1930s was largely due to the pre-existence of the necessary grass roots level initiative, vision, responsibility and autonomy.
There are of course many examples of worker cooperatives which show that the necessary dispositions can be formed, but the argument here is that the typical worker’s situation and outlook is not an ideal beginning point for this revolution. To add insult to injury, the required traits are to a considerable degree those of the peasant, not the worker. The viability of communities in the coming era of scarcity will depend largely on the jack-of-all-trade and fix-it skills of the generalist practical handy-man, the small businessman or farmer and peasant-homesteader, not on the specialist skills of the worker or professional. This too is evident in the case of the Spanish revolution where the rural co-operatives thrived more impressively than those in the urban industrial regions, because of the strong collectivist traditions and the skills and dispositions peasant life produce.
More importantly, a) this revolution is not just or primarily about liberating the worker from capitalist conditions, it is about liberating all people from consumer society, and b) all people not just the working class must be the drivers through their participation in the development of the emerging new local systems. We are confronting the old left with the ultimate heresy here, the possible irrelevance of class in this revolution. It will not be a working class movement. There is of course a mortal conflict of class interests at stake in this revolution, after all it is about whether or not capitalism and the capitalist class survive. But the revolutionary process will not be about overt conflict nor about conflict in which classes confront each other, let alone a conflict in which the working class leads. (These points will be discussed further below.)
Another cherished assumption largely unquestioned by the Left is that after rule by the capitalist class ceases workers will run things. But what about retired people, artists, children and disabled people -- why can’t they do some ruling too? Again the foregoing discussion seems to help us settle the issue. In The Simpler Way the basic political forms and processes must be intensely inclusive and participatory, involving all people in town self-government, formal and informal committees, referenda and public discussions. Otherwise the town will not work satisfactorily. It will therefore make no sense to exclude any group from full participation or to privilege any one group such as workers. Marx did not reinforce the desirability of rule by citizens, and it is not so surprising that Marxism has come to be so strongly identified with rule by authoritarian elites (although in the long run he envisaged no need for top down power.)
These themes connect with the low regard Marx had for peasant society. His theory of development was quite conventional and more or less the same as “modernisation” theory in our era. He saw development as the replacement of primitive/tribal and peasant ways by capitalist ways. The peasantry must become an industrialised proletariat before revolution is possible. In Bookchin’s terms, to Marx, “Indeed the sooner the village decayed the better.” (1994.) Thus many Marxists have refused to support liberation movements on the grounds that they do not conform to the orthodox theory whereby capitalism has to mature through the industrialisation stage to the point where revolution can occur. As previously noted Warren (1980) argued that capitalist development in the Third World is desirable because it moves un-developed countries closer to the point where revolution becomes possible. This doctrine has helped to keep billions in misery for decades, ruling out any thought of trying to move directly and immediately to Appropriate development. It does not align very well with the fact that the major revolutions have all occurred in peasant societies and none have occurred in industrialised societies or been led by the working class.
Socialise the means of production?
Marxists insist that the means of production must be transferred to public control. This might be a good idea in some circumstances, such as those that prevailed in Spain in the 1930s where cooperative control seems to have greatly improved the performance of factories and farms and the conditions of those who worked in them. But in the coming conditions it is not likely to be necessary or desirable for most productive capacity to be publicly owned. Certainly it will make no sense for enterprises that have to be large, such as steel works, to remain privately owned and controlled. These should be run as they were in Spain, as public services controlled by participatory democratic means. But in an economy that will be made up mostly of small family enterprises, farms, firms and co-ops there is no need for these means of production to be owned by society. The need is only to make sure they serve society rather than seek to maximise profit in the market, etc.
It can be very enjoyable to run one’s own ”enterprise”, whether it be a household economy or a farm or small business. There would obviously be no sense in society telling you how to run your own vegetable garden, and if it did this it would seriously jeopardise your productivity, as well as your gardening enjoyment. The Simpler Way is about releasing and encouraging enthusiasm, energy, good will and contributions, and these goals are significantly served by making sure people are as free as possible to do their own thing. All that matters is that they keep within the (easy-going) guidelines, e.g., gear activity to meeting local needs, do not exploit labour or attempt to dominate the market. (The Spanish Anarchists allowed people to operate private family businesses and farms outside their collectives, and treated them well, at times giving them access to benefits, loans and surpluses on equal terms with members, but they set guidelines.) In a satisfactory society there would be powerful psychological forces leading owners of private small firms and farms to behave in socially positive ways.
Means must be consistent with the ends.
To followers of Gandhi and many others it is a matter of principle that means should not involve practices that clash with those that will characterise the society being worked for. Unfortunately there are many situations in which people have no choice but to adopt means which contradict the ends they are intended to achieve. Often in repressive situations there seems to be little choice but to use violence in an attempt to get rid of murderous regimes as the first step towards establishing a non-violent society.
However, in getting to The Simpler Way there is no option but to adopt means which are consistent with ends. Consider centralisation. The Marxist view of the revolutionary process, and of immediately post-revolutionary society, assumes highly centralised systems where top-down control is essential. However The Simpler Way involves mostly small scale decentralised productive and organisational systems, under the control of local people. These can only be established by decentralised practices. It is not that we opt for the decentralised principle when we might not have, or opt for cooperative, non-authoritarian and non-violent means when their opposites could have been employed. There is no choice here. The transition will be a process of learning by practice, e.g., how to cooperatively run meetings, look after our old people, eliminate unemployment, make sure enough bread is produced around here, and it is impossible to learn via authoritarian means how to do things in non-authoritarian ways. The strategy must involve finding and practising right now the ways that will characterise post-revolutionary society, therefore any notion of behaving in authoritarian, centralised or violent ways as means to the ultimate goal is logically and empirically nonsensical.
A major tactical principle; Do not confront capitalism!
It is understandable that when confronted by a monster out to dominate us the temptation is to turn to face it and fight it strenuously. This describes just about all previous liberatory movements and revolutions, and there are situations in which it can’t be avoided.
We are now seeing the emergence of a very different approach, a non-confrontational strategy. It involves turning away from the monster and doing our own thing. What we are going to do is in effect to ignore capitalism to death.
Capitalism cannot survive if people do not continue to purchase, consume and throw away at an accelerating rate. Our aim is to gradually build the alternative practices and systems which will enable more and more people to move out of the mainstream, to shun consumer society, and to secure more and more of their material and social needs from the alternative systems and sources emerging within their neighbourhoods and towns. This revolution is without doubt about the death of capitalism yet it could be a peaceful and non-violent revolution, whereby new local, small scale and participatory systems slowly develop within and replace the old systems.
Note that this is not a crude “voluntarism’ whereby it is assumed that the masses will spontaneously become disgusted with consumerism and start to downshift. The main reason why people will come across to The Simpler Way, if they do, will be because they will realise that they will starve if they don’t.
At first sight this orientation strikes most people on the radical left as comically implausible. “The rich and powerful never willingly give up their privileges and when threatened fight ruthlessly. Capitalism cannot be got rid of without extreme conflict.” But consider the following.
Appfel-Marglin describes the large scale Andean peasant movement as a grass roots non-confrontational phenomenon of direct alternative (re)building. There is a "…withdrawing from and creating alternatives to the dominant system, rather than challenging it directly." (1998, p. 39.) These groups do not seek recognition of their territory by the state; that would be to acknowledge that the state had authority. He notes that they regard themselves not as anti-citizens, but as non-citizens. The Relocalise site (2009) says, “As the industrial system spins towards exhaustion … people at the base are not revolting in order to take the power that the elite have but are revolting to take power over their own lives.” The Zapatistas in Mexico seem to provide a paradigm example. They are not out to defeat the Mexican state, take power from it and then build a new society. They are simply building their own society, although from time to time they have to fight to defend what they are building.
Vandana Shiva and Maria Mies point to possibly thousands of villages in Asia and Latin America taking much the same approach. Korten holds open the hope that we can "starve capitalism to death" (1999, p. 262.) Rude says, "The goal is no longer to overthrow world capitalism in an anti-capitalist revolution as in the traditional Marxist model, as much as it is to leave capitalism behind by slowly creating a new post-capitalist culture and economy in capitalism's place…" (1998, p. 53.) Quinn says, “To overthrow hierarchy is pointless; we just want to leave it behind.” (1999, p. 95.) Buckminister Fuller put it this way, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” (Quoted by Quinn, 1999, p. 137.)
The standard Marxist retort here is of course that you must fight the monster because if you begin to become a significant threat it will crush you. But in the coming and unprecedented era of intense scarcity, will it be able to? We have now entered an era in which forces undermining the legitimacy of consumer capitalist society are gaining strength. Legitimacy is fed by comfort and complacency. Consumer capitalist society is safe as long as it keeps the supermarket shelves stocked and holds the lack of cohesion and the unemployment and injustice to ignorable levels. But scarcity is going to shatter all that. There have already been increased rumblings in the most comfortable countries about the failure of the system to deliver quality of life and cohesion and about the obscene inequality. The 2008 financial crisis was a blow to the taken for granted infallible correctness of free markets. But these effects will be nothing compared with what’s coming. Wait until we slam into the “2030 Spike”, the coincidence of huge and insoluble shortages of oil, water, food, land, phosphorous and several basic minerals…accompanied by rising population, greenhouse effects and accelerating social breakdown. We are likely to see collapses in the supply systems stocking the supermarket shelves within the next 20 years.
This multifaceted global catastrophe will impact heavily on the power of the super-rich to run things at all, let alone run them in their own interests. The system will have little capacity to deal with these events. It will therefore be in no position to stop people voting with their feet. It cannot run big governments, secret police forces or armies without lots of oil. It cannot surveil and intervene in every town and neighbourhood to stop us planting carrots and oganising our co-ops. Never before will revolutionaries have had such an opportunity, such a vacuum to walk into.
Throughout the previous two hundred years revolutionaries have been up against increasingly powerful industrial, bureaucratic and military systems, capable of turning guns against dissenters. But our enemy will have great difficulty finding the resources to organise anything at all and will confront a foe that is everywhere, with enormous capacity to do its own local thing and ignore bamboozled authorities and elites. Time is therefore on our side. Before long circumstances will jolt people into the realisation that consumer-capitalist society will not provide for them. Our task is to get the alternative ways up and running well enough in the time that’s available so that people will be able to see that there are attractive alternatives, and come across to join us. The worry is that the coming crises for consumer-capitalist society will develop too quickly and be too severe for a more or less orderly transition. If the breakdowns are too disruptive our situation could quickly descend into chaos.
From a more philosophical and historical perspective it can be seen that sometimes profoundly radical change occurs without overt conflict. Sometimes it is more like the fading out of a once-dominant paradigm, to be replaced by a newly popular one. This is in fact the norm at the level of big paradigm change in science (on Kuhn see Barker, 2006), and in many cultural realms such as art, pop music, style, manners and fashion. A particular view or theory or form is dominant for a time, but then people more or less lose interest in it and move to another one. In science a dominant paradigm is rarely if ever dropped because it has been shown to be wrong. It will not be that the Psychoanalytic approach to psychology will some day disprove or defeat the Behaviourist one, or the other way around. What will happen, if anything, is that over time most psychologists will come to prefer one or the other, or a third position. If one “wins out in the long run” it will not be as the result of a process well described as overt struggle whereby one vanquishes the other. It will be a matter of the waxing and waning of support.
Some of the biggest revolutionary changes of the twentieth century seem to have occurred in this way, most notably the collapses of the Soviet Union, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. These seem to have been characterised not by set-piece, head to head, violent confrontations in which one side was driven off the field, but mostly by people “voting with their feet” and ceasing to support, after a long period of growing disenchantment and increasing awareness of the desirability of other ways. These revolutionary changes seem to be much better described as collapses due to increasing internal failure to perform or to sheer disenchantment, rather than as defeats in mortal combat with superior opposing powers. In the end the vast military, bureaucratic and economic power of the ruling establishments counted for nothing in the face of a withdrawal of support, a loss of legitimacy.
On transition, the anarchists show the way.
The argument has in effect been for a basically anarchist approach to transition. The coming of the era of scarcity has invalidated most of the ideas and campaigns to do with social change that have been on the agenda for centuries. The sustainable and just society must be materially simple, highly self-sufficient and self-governing, and it has to be built by ordinary people as they learn their way to the local systems which suit them and they can run to provide well for all. In conditions where per capita resource consumption of non-renewable resources must be a small fraction of those in rich countries today no other general model can enable viable communities with a high quality of life. These communities cannot be imposed or given, they can only come into existence through a slow process in which people grope to the necessary consciousness and skills and systems (drawing on the accumulating wisdom of a global movement.) That process must be intensely participatory, involving all in the thinking, researching, deciding, trial and error, reviewing and adjusting. The key to the revolution is therefore the development of the necessary ideas, values, visions and commitments. The immediate question is therefore how might we best endeavour to do that.
Marxists generally see the building of the good society as something that can’t be commenced for a long time, because first we have to get rid of the old one, then deal with the wreckage, and then survive a lengthy and dangerous period of rule by the vanguard party. Eventually mass consciousness will reach the level at which the state can fade away. The anarchists however argue that we can and must begin the building now, before the old system has gone. They say we must “prefigure” the new, build those aspects of it that we can now, within the old society, with a view to attracting others and elaborating our construction until it fully replaces the old. Bakunin said the revolutionary must “...try to build the structures of the future society within the present society”. (Rai, 1995, p. 99.) Pepper says, “...the way to create a desired society is to start living it out -- thinking it and doing it --here and now in the society you want to replace.” (Pepper,1996, pp. 36, 305.) Bookchin advocates building instances of the new society now. (1980, p. 263.)
It should be apparent from the above discussion that believers in The Simpler Way are enthusiastic advocates of prefiguring. They do not think it is necessary to get rid of the old before it will be possible to start building the new. The point to be stressed here is that the concern is not primarily to increase the amount of post-revolutionary ways that we have in place. The building here and now is the best, indeed almost the only way to develop the awareness of the new vision and values. It is important for us to engage in the building in order to be in the best position to spread the new ideas. The building here and now is the supremely important revolutionary strategy. The next section elaborates on this point.
The significance of the Permaculture, “down-shifting”, Voluntary Simplicity, Eco-village and Transition Towns movements?
All these overlapping movements involve important aspects of The Simpler Way vision, yet most if not all fall far short of what is required and will probably make no significant difference if they remain on their present paths. This is because they do not challenge consumer-capitalist society. They are for various practices and values alternative to those of the mainstream, but these are easily accommodated and constitute no threat.
These and related movements such as the “slow food” and “men’s shed” movements, are strongly for things like community, co-operation, localism, sustainable agriculture, simpler ways and non-material satisfactions. They are therefore for some of the required ways and their considerable and growing followings constitute a very encouraging move in the right direction on which to build. What they are not for at this point in time is the elimination of growth, or the market system, or affluence...or capitalism. Nor do they show concern for local communities to take the control of their own economies out of the hands of the state and the corporations and banks. Unless they eventually go on to embrace these “level two” radical, system-changing goals they will remain as largely irrelevant “counter-cultural” minorities within capitalist society. At best we will end up with a capitalist society containing a lot of community gardens etc. (The critique is detailed in Trainer, 2010b.)
Nevertheless joining these movements is what we should do, in order to attempt over time to increase the participants’ understanding that we need to move up to the level two goals if we are going to solve the big problems. This does not mean getting them to abandon their original goals, it means continuing to work for them but now as elements contributing to the over-arching goal of radical system change. (This case is detailed in Chapters 12 and 13 of Trainer, 2010a.)
What then is to be done?
To paraphrase LaTouche, the limits to growth are giving the left its last chance. In my view the neo-liberal triumph has routed the left, driving its remnants mostly into incomprehensible, pretentious babbling to itself (for paradigms see for example Hardt and Negri, Bischler and ) which cannot possibly make any significant difference to the world. By far the most promising frontier now for anyone who wishes to replace consumer-capitalist society is the challenge to that society being set by resource and ecological limits. Large and increasing numbers are seriously concerned about these issues and embryonic movements towards the required more local, self sufficient and communal ways are underway. The most effective strategy for people on the radical left is to join these movements with a view to helping them to see that they must eventually come to focus on the huge system changing goals.
Unfortunately the left is not well situated to take on this work. It is more at home producing academically respectable analyses, when what we most need are the skills and the dispositions that enable practical contributions at the level of community gardens, workshops and co-ops etc., and that enable clear and simple persuasive arguments to be put in informal, one-to one discussions. This revolution cannot proceed unless and until large numbers of ordinary people see the need to replace affluence and capitalist control with frugality, localism and participatory control. Despite its clear understanding of the centrality of ideology the left has failed to focus on the task of building public awareness of need to transcend capitalism. My argument has been that the best arenas in which to work at this task are to be found on the ground within the Transition Towns and related movements. This will at best be slow and unspectacular work with little indication of effectiveness for a long time. (Possible strategies are discussed in Trainer, 2012d.)
Unfortunately at present the left is a long way from the theoretical perspective argued above, and therefore from the implications for transition strategy and activism derived from it. It urgently needs to come to terms with the centrality of scarcity and the consequent need for transition to some kind of Simpler Way.
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