Saving the World From Capitalism by Taking Power

As the links between capitalism and ecological crisis become more and more evident, the political philosophy of ecosocialism has been gaining support. Left-wing environmentalists have no shortage of ideas: now they need a strategy that can achieve the necessary power.

A firefighter tries to put out the wildfire on August 19, 2020 in San Mateo, California. (Liu Guanguan / China News Service via Getty Images)

In 2001, two Marxist academics, Joel Kovel and Michael Löwy, published An Ecosocialist Manifesto. They had become frustrated with many of their comrades in the West who apparently had nothing to say about the prospect of climate and ecological catastrophe. They believed that “the left in general had too little interest in the ecological issue,” and hoped that this manifesto might bring their “socialist comrades to the ecological struggle.”

“Ecosocialism is not yet a spectre, nor is it grounded in any concrete party or movement,” they wrote. “It is only a line of reasoning, based on a reading of the present crisis and the necessary conditions for overcoming it.”

This manifesto, like so many that came before it, was in conscious dialogue with The Communist Manifesto. However, unlike Marx and Engels, the authors lacked a movement with which to associate their ideas. Kovel and Löwy were left to wonder: “Can the spectre be brought into being?”

An Ecosocialist Manifesto only appeared in a few radical publications with a limited readership. Over the years, however, scholars and activists have revisited it while attempting to understand and chronicle the emerging history of ecosocialism.

The world has changed a lot in the last two decades. Many more people have died as a result of ecological destruction; many more species have been rendered extinct. The climate crisis has intensified, and people in the Global North are beginning to realize what people in the Global South have been saying for centuries: it is time to fight back.

The Age of Breakdown

This is the context in which Mathew Lawrence and Laurie Laybourn-Langton have published their new book, Planet on Fire: A Manifesto for the Age of Environmental Breakdown. The book speaks to the movements that have emerged in the last five years — from “striking schoolchildren to Green New Dealers” — and aims to steer them toward a more coherent ecosocialist politics. “This book is intended as a guide,” write Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton, “for understanding how we got here and exploring some of the ideas for where we go next.”

Over the years, proponents of “ecosocialism” have coalesced around a loose set of core beliefs. Generally speaking, an ecosocialist is someone who believes that capitalism must be dismantled in order to address the ecological crises we face. This means redefining the relationship between human beings and the natural world. It also means building a sustainable and democratic future, built on the principles of justice, freedom, and solidarity — or, as the authors put it, “a future of collective flourishing.”

Throughout history, left-wing environmentalists have been at the forefront of campaigns to democratize society, transform the economy, and protect the environment. From Gerrard Winstanley to William Morris, they have sought to reimagine our fractured, failing world. They have fought to expand the commons, increase leisure time, and reimagine our relationship with capital.

This book is a brilliant attempt to cohere these ideas, consolidate such thinking, and connect the vital work that is already being done today. “It is a project already underway,” write the authors, and “each day, the list grows even longer.”

Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton have written what they call a “Manifesto for the Age of Environmental Breakdown.” However, despite the somewhat audacious title, there is an obvious humility to their work. They are clearly conscious of the people and the movements that have come before them and do not seek to claim these ideas as their own.

The authors are aware of their own limitations and admit that their focus is on the UK and the United States, “the countries we know best.” They argue that we must now “build on recent periods of advance, learn from missteps and defeats, and prepare the ground for a popular front capable of renewing economic and political hope.”

From Ideas to Action

The climate crisis, they say, is a question of power. We already have the ideas and the resources for transformative change: “The challenge is mobilizing the power and energy to match the scale of the emergency.” Ecosocialism is the obvious answer — but what do Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton mean when they invoke that term?

They initially define “ecosocialism” as “the collective effort to democratize our economic and political institutions, repurposing them towards social wellbeing and individual flourishing, rooted in an abundant and thriving natural world.” If you do not like the word ecosocialism, they say later in the book, “then use something else.” This is not a manifesto that is particularly concerned with political theory.

Both Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton work for think tanks — Common Wealth and the Institute for Public Policy Research, respectively — and it shows. The book is stuffed with policy suggestions. It provides the reader with a wide-ranging and well-evidenced vision of radical systemic change. It is accessible yet nuanced, detailed but expansive.

Occasionally, however, this approach can limit the scope of their project. Until the final chapter, there is little consideration of political theory or revolutionary strategy. The authors identify power as the problem but do not focus on the question of how we win such power. Although they say repeatedly that “a vision is not enough,” this is a book about vision. It is a “plan for life to flourish,” but how we achieve that plan is not too clear.

This is, perhaps, an unfair critique. A book cannot achieve every purpose, and the authors are trying to do something else here. Appearing on The Owen Jones Show, Mathew Lawrence repeated their central claim: “The problem is not that we don’t have the ideas; it is how we build the political coalitions that can overcome powerful entrenched interests.”

This manifesto is an attempt to address the first half of that claim. It aims to show that we have ideas in abundance, so that we can then more easily discuss how to put them into effect. It is a riposte to the people who say: “So, what would you do then?”

One, Two, Many Green New Deals

Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton articulate a compelling vision of the future which is “anchored in democracy, justice, and mutual solidarity.” They seek to “dismantle hierarchies of wealth, class, gender, race and power in society, replacing them with democratic relationships and powerful collectives.” The ideas they put forward include measures to democratize finance, invest in public services, scale alternative models of ownership, support community wealth building, expand the commons, and reimagine the company. They support specific policies to tackle food poverty, rewild cities, reduce car use, and reimagine work.

This vision builds on the Green New Deal and goes several steps further. As the authors say in the introduction, “we need one, two, many Green New Deals.” Although Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton never mention party politics explicitly, the shadow of the last British general election looms large. It is impossible to read Planet on Fire without thinking about the Labour Party manifesto in 2019. This transformative document put “a green industrial revolution” at the heart of its policy offer; the two texts include many of the same policies.

If critics thought Jeremy Corbyn promised too much, just wait until they read this book. There is no shortage of good ideas — nor good manifestos to draw on. In fact, in one sense, Planet on Fire is a manifesto of manifestos: a catalog of good ideas, building on the ecosocialist tradition and looking, hopefully, toward a fairer, more sustainable future.

The past, however, is also important. The authors say on two occasions that the “rallying cry” of the new era should be “public luxury for all.” Other terms are used interchangeably: “Collective flourishing” and “communal luxury.” The vision of communal luxury builds on the work of contemporary thinkers, while also gesturing toward the idea of communal luxury that first emerged during the Paris Commune of 1871.

As Kristin Ross has shown, the Parisian revolutionaries were attempting to build a society that prioritized human happiness over the accumulation of private capital; creativity was an essential part of the revolution. Artists who supported the Commune composed their own manifesto, arguing that art should be integrated into public life rather than treated as a private commodity. They wanted to reimagine work and leisure and looked forward to the “birth of communal luxury.”

Planet on Fire thus recalls some of the manifestos that have come before it. Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton want environmentally abundant leisure spaces to be given priority; just like the revolutionaries of the Paris Commune, they argue for universal basic services and a shorter working week. They rewrite their definition of ecosocialism as a “goal that demands another type of economy,” promoting “communal luxury in societies of everyday beauty.”

Utopian Realism

The authors insist that this vision of “sustainable abundance” should not be considered utopian. In 2013, the French Parti de Gauche made a similar claim in its own ecosocialist manifesto — a visionary document that was, of course, ahead of its time. “Ecosocialism is not a utopia with which reality should comply,” the manifesto contended; on the contrary, it is a “reasoned human answer” to the problems of our age.

This is an understandable response, since critics often accuse ecosocialists of being impractical or naïve. However, as John Storey has pointed out, our ideas of what should be considered “realistic” or “utopian” are inherently subjective and politicized:

Reality is an organized consensus constructed around the needs of a relatively small group of people. When it is claimed that radical utopianism is unrealistic, it is against such constructions of reality it is contesting, rather than against some absolute reality.

In other words, we need to have more trust in our visions and more faith in utopia. There is nothing impractical about ecosocialism, and the utopian impulse is not always unrealistic. The sociologist Ruth Levitas, who has written extensively about utopian thinking, argues that “the essential element in utopia is not hope, but desire — the desire for a better way of being.” Reading Planet on Fire is an exercise in utopian desire, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of admitting that.

The utopian imagination is necessary in order to develop genuine alternatives to capitalism. It unlocks the desire for another world and opens up new possibilities. Fredric Jameson once wrote that “utopia as a form is not the representation of radical alternatives; it is rather simply the imperative to imagine them.” Imagination is at the heart of this vision — Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton announce, at the end of their book, that “recovering the future will require supreme imagination.”

Marx famously refused to write “recipes for the cook-shops of the future.” But this does not mean that visions of the future do not appear anywhere in his work. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels attempt to imagine the future under communism: “In a communist society there are no painters but only people who engage in painting among other activities.” That sounds suspiciously like the revolutionary artists of the Paris Commune. In the Grundrisse, Marx argues that communism will result in the expansion of “free time — which is both leisure and time for higher activity.”

Many of the ideas in Planet on Fire are, at their root, truly utopian. Take Gerrard Winstanley, the seventeenth-century English radical who argued that “the earth was made to be a common treasury of livelihood for all, without respect of persons, and was not made to be bought and sold.” Without such utopian ideas, ecosocialism would not exist today. It is important to remember that.

The First Step

This is what makes Planet on Fire such a captivating book. It is crammed full of bold, ambitious ideas that might once have seemed impractical but now seem eminently reasonable. Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton are interested in ideas, and they allow the ideas to take center stage. That in itself is a sign of how far we have come.

Twenty years ago, when Joel Kovel and Michael Löwy wrote An Ecosocialist Manifesto, they could only muster a couple of thousand words. Back then, they were still trying to convince people to care. Today, the Left does not need convincing, and we can fill entire books with our ideas. The specter of ecosocialism has finally been conjured into being.

The ideology, however, is not really that different. Both manifestos invoke the same familiar phrases: “Crisis,” “catastrophe,” “ecosocialism or ecobarbarism.” Both reject capitalism and frame the ecological crisis in a similar manner, and both reference the same famous quote from Antonio Gramsci: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

The ecosocialist utopia is thus presented as the “new world” that is yet to be born, but the authors are clear that this is only the start of the journey. This is not a book about a theoretical future. Planet on Fire is a “manifesto for the age of environmental breakdown”; it is a manifesto for now, “in this interregnum.”

In 1999, Saral Sarkar wrote a book titled Eco-socialism or Eco-Capitalism? which set out to achieve a similar objective. Sarkar argued that it was difficult to imagine an ecosocialist future: “It is also not urgent for us. For us, the transition period is more important.” For Sarkar, there was a significant difference between ecosocialism in the transition period and the final model of an ecosocialist society: at first, a strong state would be necessary to ensure a planned and orderly retreat, after which the state could be gradually democratized and, where appropriate, dismantled.

Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton do not offer such explicit theories of transition, but one gets the impression that for them democracy is not a by-product of transition but an integral part of the process. Channeling the great environmentalist Murray Bookchin, their focus is on a deepening of democracy: “By creating tangible material benefits and nurturing new forms of democratic engagement, a twenty-first-century commons can prefigure wider systems change.”

In the final chapter, Lawrence and Laybourn-Langton offer a few initial thoughts on ecosocialist strategy, arguing that we need both a top-down and a bottom-up strategy. This is the least convincing part of the book. At one point, they compare a future ecosocialist transformation to the process of neoliberalization under Margaret Thatcher. They are trying to give us an understanding of scale, but the example feels unconvincing.

For a new strategy to emerge, they insist, we need five core components: an alternative vision of the future, a constructive antagonism with capital, a clear sense of coalition, a demonstrable proof of the alternative, and a clear strategy of prioritization. Planet on Fire is the first step of that five-step plan. It is an essential vision of the future which I hope will have a huge impact on contemporary socialism.

The challenge ahead is immense. As the authors note in the very first chapter: “There are few, possibly no, historical examples of societies successfully undertaking such fundamental, transformative action in so little time.”

The road ahead is dangerous and uncertain. So let us take this manifesto forward and all the manifestos that have come before it. Let us learn from resistance movements in the Global South and be humble in our response; many of these ideas have been around for centuries and build on ancient knowledge held by indigenous communities.

For as long as human beings have walked the Earth, these ideas have existed. We now need to begin the very urgent task of organizing, mobilizing, and winning power. We have the manifesto — it is about time we talked about strategy.