Produce less. Distribute it fairly. Create a greener world for all.

Responding to a Planetary Emergency

Radical Democracy: Towards a global ecosocialist alternative   On the agenda globally is the re-emergence of a comprehensive vision of a future beyond capitalism. And just in time, given the emergence of neofascism as potentially the last gasp of a dying capitalist order.       In what follows, we have combined critique of the dangerous path…

Written by

Charles Posa McFadden and Karen Howell McFadden


Originally Published in

Radical Democracy: Towards a global ecosocialist alternative


On the agenda globally is the re-emergence of a comprehensive vision of a future beyond capitalism. And just in time, given the emergence of neofascism as potentially the last gasp of a dying capitalist order.    


In what follows, we have combined critique of the dangerous path along which the pro-capitalists are taking us (austerity for the people, endless wars, profligacy for the rich, and disregard for the rest of nature) with a commitment to those alternative paths that the people in motion are creating. We have also searched the historical literature for the numerous roots of the continuing struggle for democracy and social justice, extending back as far as the liberal opposition to absolutist feudal rule and continuing forward to the Marxian inspired movements for a radically democratic communal society beyond capitalism. We have also tried to learn from the shortcomings and failures of the socialist movements of the twentieth century.      


We have paid close attention to the newer forms of organization and implicit goals of the developing social movements and the new paths being forged by people in struggle in the first quarter of the twenty first century, examples which are inspiring for their courage and promise. In this respect we have paid attention to the continuing struggles of the world’s indigenous peoples and the implicit reminder these struggles contain of the deep history of humankind as a communal species. We have taken care not to narrow our identification of the roots and nature of the current struggles, hence our preference for the use of such broad designations as green social democracy for the goals of the newly emergent movements, emphasizing the convergence that is occurring of the indigenous, environmental, labor, feminist, anti-racist, LGBTQ+ and other democratic and social justice movements. In our view, what is being forged is a movement for radical democracy, but more on that later. 


We begin with the identification of the planetary emergency which is propelling people in all corners of our planetary home to change course, develop and advance alternative policies and programs for our future, a future that is just, democratic and sustainable. 


Dimensions of the planetary emergency


The recognition that we are faced with a planetary emergency in which the life sustaining features of our natural and social environments are at risk is growing, ranging from some who more recently moved beyond the denial stage to the increasing number of people in action to counter these existential threats. Even among the morally retrograde members of the economic elite, some have begun to show a little concern that goes beyond clinging to the hope that they can purchase their own escape from the environmental and social crisis. 


The social dimensions of the crisis evidently include vast wealth and income inequality within and between countries that has grown during the decades of the neoliberal era and which continues to leave a large part of humanity in poverty in spite of continual gains in labor productivity and per capita gross domestic product globally and in most countries. 


The environmental dimensions of the crisis include waste production that exceeds the Earth’s capacity to absorb and recycle it. Among these wastes are greenhouse gases that add to those already accumulated in the Earth’s atmosphere, causing the global average temperature to rise and weather variability to increase, resulting in havoc across the globe, well before the worst effects of the current level of greenhouse gas accumulation are experienced. Other effects include melting of the permafrost, ocean acidification, loss of the Earth’s glacial covering, and seasonal loss of the Arctic Ocean’s ice cover, each ensuring even further increases in the average global temperature and weather variability.  


Equally serious is the threat to the Earth’s supply of clean water and fertile soil, with life threatening consequences. Loss of species diversity and non-renewable mineral resources, together with consumption of renewable resources, such as wood and fish, at rates faster than their renewal are additional long-term threats to human life and possibly civilization itself.


Compounding these dimensions of the planetary emergency is the existence, continuing production and threat of use of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, chemical and biological). The re-emergence of a global peace movement, allied this time to the environmental and social justice movements, is the necessary response, including the determination to end the production, storage and threat of use of these weapons, beginning with the removal and banishment from political and economic power of all who support and profit from militarism and war. 


Socio-economic causes of the planetary emergency require political-economic and corresponding cultural changes 


The main cause of the planetary emergency is the globally dominant capitalist socio-economic system, with its hierarchical structure, monopolistic characteristics, increasing roles for reckless mineral extraction and financial speculation and its evident resistance to moving decisively away from a reliance on fossil fuels.


This system is increasingly burdened and limited by its hierarchical structure and socially destructive cultural attributes, including authoritarian tendencies, a fetish on consumerism, and possessive individualism in the relationships among people and between people and nature. Each of these behavioural tendencies is generated by the treatment of nature and people’s labor as private property, that is, by the fundamental distinguishing characteristic of capitalism as a system.  


The two sides of current economic activity include a capitalist market economy (defined by the use of money as a medium of exchange with usury as a characteristic feature) and the traditional non-market economy (based on social sharing of the remaining commons). The continuing expansion of the capitalist market economy now occurs at the expense of what remains of the traditional non-market economy. Given that the latter is the source of our efforts to make our way in the world through cooperation, the relative advances of the former undermine our capacity to address the environmental and social problems we now confront. No amount of private income and wealth will provide even the wealthiest security against the ravages of climate change and violence. Only cooperative action can do that.


Redefining economics as the sum of the market and non-market economy restores to economics its original Greek meaning (which treats the economy of a society as metaphorically the equivalent of a household economy, that is, which embraces all that we do for ourselves and each other to provide us with a living from nature). Only a science of economics based on this recognition of the totality of economic activity can serve us to address the crises which the deformed view of economics has aided and abetted.  


The economy is a relationship between people and nature; it is a subsystem of the biosphere, that part of the Earth that contains living things, a subsystem nestled within the sum of all of Earth’s ecosystems. The health of the economy is dependent on a healthy environment. Human welfare and the welfare of the environment are inextricable.  


The notion that breathable air, drinkable water and food that is nutritious is only of concern to “environmentalists” and that some other breed of people called “workers” are only interested in earning income to pay for commodities is a false dichotomy, in part the product of a divide and rule strategy by capitalism’s anti-rational defenders. Advocacy of a just, sustainable future expresses the inextricable link between the welfare of people and nature. It is through the unity of the environmental and labor movements that we can have a realistic expectation of steering a course away from the cosmic Black Hole towards which the neo-liberal defenders of capitalist privilege are leading us.  


The necessity and centrality of democracy to address the challenges we face


The alternative to an irrational system of infinite expansion of mere busyness on a finite planet is the forging of a system that functions in harmony with nature. Getting there will require the greatest extension of cooperation and the most imaginative and knowledgeable participation in problem-solving of which we are capable. An unprecedented level of democracy is the necessary condition for inclusion of all the knowledge, ability and latent talent that will be needed if we are to successfully meet the challenges now confronting us. In that sense, democracy is not merely a desirable aim, a banner to attach to a movement or a cause, it is the only means available that can unleash all the forces that are critical to addressing the problems we now confront. No subset of our species can do this. No authoritarian, top-down form of organization is up to this challenge.  A desired end, more democracy, has become the necessary means.


The history of capitalism is replete with movements and even governments committed to building alternative systems. Social democracy, socialism and communism are descriptors that come readily to mind. The defenders of capitalism – especially the representatives of its most privileged elite – spare no effort to remind us of the string of short-comings, failures and outright abuses attached to the political movements that have resisted and countered capitalism. Moving forward requires acknowledgement of the failures and identification of the causes of these failures. Foremost among these causes is the economic and political power of the capitalists and their successful efforts at diverting and misrepresenting their opponents. But we must acknowledge and address the powerful role of capitalism’s example as a model of behaviour – an example that is multiplied by historically recent experience with feudalism and even slavery, including their continuing traces in our current capitalist socio-economic system.   


Most obvious should be the role of dogmatism and authoritarianism. These may begin as methods to hold together class-divided societies, but they persist as behavioural traits that when dominant can create insuperable barriers to movement beyond capitalism.


The other primary cultural heritage from capitalism and prior exploitative societies is the rift in our consciousness and behaviour between ourselves as a species and the rest of nature. An exploitative attitude and habit in relation to nature, when dominant in our behaviour, is also an effective cultural barrier to moving beyond capitalism. This exploitative cultural habit may have contributed to the historically rapid expansion of our species into every corner of the Earth and to the creation of great private wealth, but it has become painfully clear that we will have no future at all unless we successfully forge new attitudes and habits that accommodate our need for a healthy, supportive environment and our need for cooperation to achieve this.


To move beyond the impasse these cultural habits create, account also needs to be taken of one further cultural barrier. Probably a majority of those who currently want a more just, sustainable future identifies its aims with a capitalism that has a more human face than the beast now on offer. This majority includes living generations that experienced periods of time under capitalism during which their conditions and prospects improved. It also includes the increasingly smaller proportion of people who enjoy the kind of privileges that a sustainable path would no longer afford.


For the former, worsening conditions open the door to recognition that capitalism itself, by its very nature, is the main problem, not in the first place personal failings, that the fight for a healthy natural environment and the fight for social justice are two sides of one common struggle against the ravages of capitalism as a system. For this majority, educational activity features learning through engagement in the struggle against the worst features of the system. 


For the latter, those who will necessarily lose privileges that are environmentally unsustainable, we can point out the obvious. No-one will survive an environment insufficiently healthy to support human life. Neither the grandchildren of the wealthy nor those of the poor will survive a lifeless planet. 


Learning through experience will likely be delayed for most of the materially privileged – a likelihood we need to consider. Probably only in the new society can the education of that minority through their new experiences convince them that maximum levels of human well-being are achievable at levels of material comfort that fall well-short of those now enjoyed by the ruling political-economic elites. It will be possible only then to test the logical expectation that ahead of all of us lies a practically unlimited horizon for cultural and social development and attendant happiness and well-being of future generations. In the meantime, however, it is possible to become acquainted with the supportive evidence that this is so from research comparing existing capitalist societies. The work of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2010, Bloomsbury Press) The Spirit Level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger is instructive in that regard. And if time is short, then perusal of the graphs and tables it contains may do.  


In all events, a primary concern here needs to be to reduce the potential for violent resistance from our ruling political-economic elites. Neither human life nor nature can withstand the destruction that these latter have the means to cause. Our primary approach to the most materially privileged must come from our recognition and declaration that we are all bound up in the system that feeds us until we replace it. Our struggle is to replace the system and not those bound up by it, which now includes all of us. In doing so, the materially privileged who selflessly join the struggle for a more just, sustainable future are necessary allies. 


The present as a transitional stage of the struggle for a globally just, democratic and sustainable civilization


So, what name might capture this early twenty first century moment in the struggle, but still give some guidance concerning the aims of the peoples’ movements? In the prior draft versions of our writing, the provisional title, Towards a Green Social Democracy, was adopted as the descriptor of the emergent green and continuing social democratic movements. The separate designations, green and social democratic, are honourably associated with movements that separately address at least one side and increasingly both sides of the socio-environmental crisis we face. Socialist might be an alternative descriptor, but only to the extent that those adopting it demonstrate in practice that their version of socialism excludes the hierarchical practice of placing some sub-set of the people in charge of society, presumably the planners. 


In order to emphasize this qualification, such descriptors as democratic socialism and ecosocialism have been used. Here we emphasize the necessary role of bottom-up decision-making, where the people can lead in both the planning and development of the new system. Only such a system has a chance of being successful in engaging humanity in addressing the socio-environmental problems which hierarchical forms of society have created. 


Such a system can include the sovereignty of local communities, whose participation and representation in projects that involve broader cooperation is made conditional on their informed consent. It can also include either direct democracy or representative democracy in decisions that involve cooperation of a larger population, provided that the representatives are accountable and recallable by the local communities who elect them. 


Operational principles might thus include a preference for local decision-making on matters that can best be undertaken locally, whereas projects that benefit most from wider cooperation can be planned and carried out cooperatively, using direct democratic participation of all those involved in carrying out the plans. When this is not feasible, then accountable representatives, readily recallable by those they represent, is an option, provided that moral, practical and legislated constraints are exercised over the representatives to avoid the re-emergence of class relations (privileges and consequent power of the representatives over those they represent). 


Defining the movement for the achievement of a globally just, sustainable civilization as the common ground for all in the present stage of the struggle might serve to unite both opponents of capitalism and those whose support for capitalism is limited to community and worker cooperatives and small scale family and local enterprises where employees share equitably in the decisions and benefits.


This same designation of the aim of the broader movement (a globally just, democratic and sustainable civilization) will still work when this aim appears to the majority of people as only achievable through the establishment of new economic, social and governmental institutions by constitutional, legislative and regulatory action and supporting cultural change linking education and democratic participation of all in economic, cultural and social development. Broadly speaking, this achievement equates to the genuine, comprehensive social democracy long envisioned by the critics of capitalism and represented today by those committed to a global ecosocialist democracy. 


The aggregate of the institutional and cultural changes needed to address the planetary emergency in which we find ourselves will, in our view, define a new socio-economic system, the heart of an ecologically sustainable global civilization. The achievement of such an ecological civilization will in that sense equate to a revolutionary change. As a constructive alternative to the downward, violent death spiral of contemporary capitalism, such a green social democracy is the antithesis of capitalist violence. It is at the same time a revolutionary movement, that is, one that leads to a fundamentally different socio-economic system with associated cultural characteristics. Such a society does not correspond to a revolutionary event, but rather the achievement of dominance over the propertied classes by the relatively property less. 


The aim is an historic era in which the exploitative social systems of the Holocene geological era (slavery, feudalism and capitalism) are successfully subdued by the people, politically, culturally and economically. This is likely to include a period mirroring that which is now coming to an end, but in which the people will have the upper hand. It will then be up to the victorious peoples’ movements to foreclose upon the re-emergence of the class relations that now threaten the very future existence of humanity.    


The epochal nature of the period we are entering


Karl Marx and Frederick Engels famously declared in the very first sentence of the Communist Manifesto (written in 1847 and first published in 1848) that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”  They could not have been more mistaken, as Engels later acknowledged in a footnote to the 1888 edition, based on archeological and anthropological studies that were being published and made more widely available at that time.  


Today, the deep history of our species is rapidly being documented by the combination of a variety of disciplines and tools of investigation, including paleontology, linguistics, biochemistry (notably DNA analysis), the development of new geological dating methods and the ability to use oral histories of the world’s indigenous peoples in conjunction with the accumulating physical evidence. Accordingly, the history of our species, homo sapiens, is known to trace as far back as possibly 300,000 years, and reliably to at least 160,000 years, with consistent evidence that human society has been characterized during nearly all this history by a communal mode of production (mainly cooperative foraging). 


Only beginning with the Holocene geological era, that is during the latest 10,000 years of human history, is there clear evidence of class division within human societies, where class is defined as differential access to the means and results of human productive activity. Even then, when circumstances have permitted, such as geographic isolation, societies based on communal foraging or communal farming have continued to exist, with some surviving into the present era. Moreover, communal relationships of reciprocity have continued to exist even within class-divided societies, although in a politically subordinate form. No class society could long endure without the continuity of communal relationships within them.


Class division historically arose from either differential access to natural resources or to the tools needed for harvesting and transforming natural resources into useful products. Tools in this sense can also include means of capture, confinement and coercion of some humans by other humans, that is, slavery. Understood in this way, every class system is a form of slavery, beginning with its most direct form, the private ownership or control of some people by other people, patriarchal control over women’s labor and reproductive capacity, and extending to the private ownership of productive land and resources, private ownership of the physical tools needed for production, private ownership of knowledge (for example, in the form of copyrights and patents), private ownership of rental property, and private ownership of the money supply (capital). 


The removal of the cultural blinders that obscure these exploitative social relationships is the essential cultural condition for moving beyond capitalism. This removal will also be a marker for the epochal transition from slavery to human freedom, corresponding to the full restoration of the commons.  


Those readers interested in considering these matters in greater depth are encouraged to consult: Chris Harman (1994), Engels and the origins of human society (in which Harman fills some of the gap between Frederick Engels’ account of the origins of human society and more contemporary research); Chris Harman (2008, Verso) A People’s History of the World (which not only includes an  Introduction and Part One: The rise of class societies which are particularly relevant and accessible on the issues of origins, but which is also a worthy addition to the library of anyone looking for an intelligible overview of world history addressed from a global, rather than the more usual Eurocentric perspective); its sections on Archeology, Deep history, Prehistory, Neanderthal extinction, Paleoanthropology, and Historical linguistics); Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail (Eds., 2011, U. California Press) Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present (a work which  brings together specialist contributions from the various lines of research that combine to address the mysteries of Deep History, among which we especially recommend Chapter 4, Energy and Ecosystems by Mary C. Stiner and Gillian Feeley-Harnik); and last but not least, Richard Borshay Lee (2004), Power and property in twenty-first century foragers: A critical examination,; Stephanie Coontz & Peta Henderson (Eds, 1986, Verso) Women’s Work, Men’s Property: The Origins of Gender & Class


While comparisons are inevitable with past periods of revolutionary change in socio-economic system, the changes that are now emergent in the character of the struggle to address the problems created by capitalism mark the beginning of the end of the succession of socio-economic systems characterized by conflicting economic classes (whether slave, feudal or capitalist or some modification or combination of these). These changes already include experiments in horizontal and bottom-up democracy and collaborative forms of educational, scientific, communicative and economic activity, in each of which knowledge and imagination play a decisive role. The current epoch, if it witnesses the continuation of this process to its logical conclusion, will ultimately signify the rejoining of all of humanity with the long period of our species’ development as a communal one, including continuity for some and restoration by most of the indigenous characteristics of communal decision-making, cooperation and sharing.  


This change will restore to their former prominence communal non-market relationships among people and a stewardship relationship of people with nature. Accordingly, this change will necessarily include a period of restoration of the human rights of all the world’s oppressed indigenous peoples and the unification of the vast majority of the world’s people in opposition to rule by an ever-narrowing circle of political-economic elites. Also characteristic of this period is likely to be the growing social isolation of the court jesters and social parasites who endeavour to borrow some of the elite’s economic and political power by voluntarily serving to maintain it.


But we need more than a modest change in our conceptualization of human history. Communal relationships turn out to be the historical norm. The relatively brief period of class-divided human history, usually told from the perspective of the exploiting classes, is the aberration, not the norm. In this recognition humanity can find the way out of its current existential crisis. Contemporary capitalism has indeed paved the way to its own demise by doing what is in its nature, concentrating economic and formal political power in the hands of an ever-diminishing part of the global population. An alliance of those exploited as an economic class with those oppressed by the denial of their human rights, two overlapping categories, would include the overwhelming majority of humanity. At no time in history has the ruling elite been more vulnerable to moral isolation from the rest of humanity. In this reality lies the key to achievement by the majority of a revolutionary transformation, returning humanity onto its communal journey.


Charles Posa McFadden and Karen Howell McFadden

Fredericton, New Brunswick, CANADA