A Post-Consumer, Post-Capitalist Society: Saral Sarkar’s Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism?

Published online 8 April 2007.

This is a review of Saral Sarkar’s Eco-socialism or Eco-capitalism couched as a response to the exaggerated promises of the eco-capitalists.  Sarkar has taken on the exaggerated promises of all who would suggest that the world can be turned into a Disneyland of consumer fun, and proposed instead a Spartan world economy where basic needs are met while ecological realities are taken seriously.

Appetizer: A Pomona College Meeting

Yesterday at Pomona College in Claremont there was a “Day of Action on Global Warming.”  There were a series of entertainments, but I only arrived at Pomona in time for the last of these – a panel on “how Claremont could be more sustainable” with three speakers.

The first, a professor from Pomona, emphasized that the problem of sustainability was global and that it would require global action.  The second, a man who had worked with UCSD, mentioned a variety of things including using government to regulate business, and alternative energy.  The third was a man who worked with the City of Claremont, who discussed bike paths and eco-friendly buildings and “getting off of the grid”.

The question I asked them was one of radical economic transformation.  “I recognize, in saying what I’m going to say, that it is very early in the debate about this subject, so what I’m going to suggest is intended to open discussion, rather than suggest that there are easy, immediate, and definitive answers to what I’m asking.  What I’m asking is, how far have any of the panelists here thought about radical economic transformation as a solution to global warming problems?”

I continued.  “The mass media want us to believe that the global warming problem will be solved by alternative energy.  What they don’t discuss is that alternative energy will not stop our civilization from using every last drop of usable crude oil this planet has.”  I further continued: “The only way, then, to stop the acceleration of the greenhouse effect, will be if we don’t use the oil.  But the current, capitalist system will just make oil cheaper if we refrain from using it.  So only a radical economic transformation would do anything about this problem; a transformation,” I added, “that would allow everyone to live lightly on the land.  Thus my question: how far have any of the panelists here thought about radical economic transformation as a solution to global warming problems?”

The Pomona College professor sympathized with my sentiment but said he wasn’t an economist; the man from UCSD suggested a global carbon tax; the man from the City suggested that it was a good topic.

My first understanding of the matter of global carbon taxes is that a low carbon tax would just raise the price of oil in the places where it was imposed, and a high carbon tax would probably create a black market, a market of tax-free oil production and tax-free oil consumption occurring “off the books.”  In fact, I told this gentleman of my concerns.  Nevertheless, I considered, the Pomona College meeting had as a whole brought to public attention a wide variety of partial, small-scale alternatives to the creation of more environmental problems, and that that was a good thing in itself.

However, one can see, from the weight of solutions proposed on DKos, in ecologically-minded college forums, and elsewhere, that the next big environmentalist trend is going to be “eco-capitalism.”  By “eco-capitalism” I mean the predominant form of environmental action insofar as it appeals mainly to business to “greenify” its environmental practices, while at the same time continuing to do what it does.  “Eco-capitalism,” by this broad definition, has its own discourse: the discourse of “sustainable development.”  The idea behind such a concept is that “development” is sustainable indefinitely as long as its planning elites think cursorily about “sustainability.”  Josee Johnston, in an essay titled “Who Cares About The Commons?” (Capitalism Nature Socialism, December 2003, pp. 1-42), points out the problematic aspects of such a concept:

What the case of a “sustainable” mining industry reveals is how the sustainability discourse works to maintain and legitimize an overall system goal of economic growth – once a few minor adjustments are made for the most noxious “externalities” like untreated sulfur dioxide emissions… By factoring in a degree of environmental concerns, the discourse resists the more radical suggestion that infinite growth is not possible, or that there are serious biospheric limits constraining economic growth.  According to the hegemonic interpretation of sustainability, all is possible.  Dryzek describes how sustainable development “involves a rhetoric of reassurance.  We can have it all: economic growth, environmental conservation, social justice; and not just for the moment, but for perpetuity.  (11)

Johnston is quoting John Dryzek’s The Politics of the Earth, which will doubtless be a subject for a future diary.  My point is this: in making our environmental strategies business strategies, we lose something of environmentalism when we approach unsustainable industries (for instance mining, to use Johnston’s example) and demand sustainability from them, because what we will get in return is a veneer of “sustainability” which will allow said industries to make “going green” into a public relations farce.

As I put it in my question to the above cited panel, the radical economic transformation which would really address a problem such as global warming would allow everyone to live lightly on the land.  We will need an economic concept, then, that will suggest what exactly needs to be brought into being.  This might be found in Saral Sarkar’s book Eco-socialism or Eco-Capitalism?  Written in 1999, Eco-socialism or Eco-Capitalism is a text to combat the exaggerated promises, both of capitalism and of Soviet “socialism,” that have characterized our industrializing planetary society.  The bulk of this diary, then, will be a review of this book, which is recommended for all who love to argue the merits of eco-capitalism, regardless of political or philosophical stance.

Main Course: Book Review

Sarkar’s main contribution to the concept of “ecosocialism,” visited previously in my diary on Joel Kovel, is that of a critique of consumerism.  Sarkar’s proposed future society, “eco-socialism,” would have to be a post-consumer society, a society in which we were no longer consumers, as well as being a post-capitalist society.

Sarkar, perhaps the less famous of a married couple (his wife is the German ecologist/ author Maria Mies), lays out his central position right away rather than having the readers guess:

I reject eco-capitalism, not only because it cannot function, but also and mainly because of the values capitalism represents: exploitation, brutal competition, worship of mammon, profit and greed as motive.  And I am for socialism mainly because of the values it represents: equality, co-operation, solidarity.  Freedom and democracy are compatible with these values, although they did not exist in the “socialist” regimes we have experienced up to now, but they are not compatible with the values of capitalism, especially not with inequality in wealth in power.  (5)

So the plot of Eco-socialism or Eco-capitalism? contains little suspense.  The outline of the book is as follows: the first chapter is the introduction, in which Sarkar lays out his fundamental beliefs as discussed above.  Then, Sarkar spends two chapters criticizing the Soviet Union.  In defining “eco-socialism,” Sarkar felt obliged to distinguish, at length, his ideal of socialism from the Soviet ideal.  USSR “socialism” failed, in Sarkar’s eyes, because the ideals of socialism were in the end replaced by the ideals of capitalism:

…the greatest failure of “socialism,” a failure with deep and most serious historical consequences, lay in the area of ideology. Seventy-three years after the October Revolution in the USSR and 40 years after the installation of “socialist” regimes in Eastern Europe, the people there demanded bourgeois freedoms and more prosperity, and expected them from capitalism, instead of demanding liberty, equality and fraternity and expecting them from socialism.  (24)

The problem, then, is that the Soviets used the ideals of socialism to create a society of consumers.  Sarkar’s criticism of this order is moralistic: borrowing a concept used famously by Che Guevara, he argues that the Soviets failed to develop the “new man” who would follow a strictly communist ethics (6).  Instead, the Soviets created a society of consumers, which for Sarkar explains how their society was seamlessly integrated into capitalism after 1991.  Some of the details of this integration are quite interesting when seen through Sarkar’s eyes.  For instance, Sarkar notes that the USSR’s famed importation of wheat from Western capitalist countries in the late 1970s reflected not the inferiority of socialism per se, nor an impending bout of starvation in Russia, but rather Soviet society’s increased demand for meat and milk (31).  This increased Soviet consumer demand, unrestrained by environmentalism or other objections to the egoistic moral order over the life of the USSR, resulted in increased environmental devastation.

The next chapter, Chapter 4, is about the “natural resource base of an economy,” in which the problem of an economy dependent upon economic growth in the form of ever-increasing throughput is examined.  Sarkar focuses upon possible future difficulties in obtaining abundant cheap energy in the future.  In this discussion, Sarkar claims that the sales representatives of “alternative energy” have exaggerated their claims about the energy-efficiency of the sources they promote.  Sarkar gets very deeply into facts and figures here.  The point of Chapter 4 appears to be as follows: both capitalism and “socialism” followed a logic common to industrialized consumer societies.  This logic requires an increasing social throughput as consumers demand more.  At the end of Chapter 4, he declares his goal; he wants to see a “sustainable society” based on five “concrete goals”:

the economy must be made sustainable; acute poverty must be overcome/ prevented; all able-bodied people must be meaningfully employed; social security must be guaranteed for those who are too old, too young, or too ill to work; social and political equality must be guaranteed and economic inequality reduced to a tolerable level. (138)

Since the achievement of a sustainable world economy is such a daunting task, Sarkar argues, we should first ask whether the bare necessities of such an economy are possible.

Chapter 5 is where Sarkar tries to show that eco-capitalism will not work indefinitely.  Effective regulation of all environmental problems would be bad for the business bottom line and too expensive for government (141), and capitalism is really more inefficient than its promoters argue (147-148).  But, most importantly, eco-capitalism promises us economic growth, environmental conservation, and social justice (as mentioned above).  If eco-capitalism is to accomplish everything on its wish-list, it must make fantastic promises as regards either 1) the ability of new technologies to improve efficiency or 2) the ability of capitalism to take resources from the environment without damaging it.  Of the first, Sarkar says:

…as Fred Luks shows, if resource consumption in industrial societies has to go down in the next 50 years by a factor of ten and, at the same time, economic growth is to continue at the rate of 2 percent per annum, then resource productivity must rise by a factor of 27 (Luks 1997).  Is that a realistic hope? (151)

Of the second:

Pearce et al. write that environmental quality frequently improves economic growth by improving the health of the workforce, creating jobs in recreation, tourism, and so on (Pearce et al. 1989, 21).  That is true in the short term.  But the long term problem of limits to resources remains.  Good health in the workforce is a value in itself.  But if it is to improve economic growth, then it must work with resources, most of which, at least in industrial economies, are non-renewable.  (151)

So perhaps eco-capitalism must give up on one or more of its fantastic promises.  How about economic growth?  In investigating the growth-free, “steady state capitalism” of the theories of Herman Daly, Saral Sarkar argues that real-life capitalism follows the model of “creative destruction” originally suggested by Schumpeter, and that “steady state capitalism” would be experienced by the capitalists as a highly destructive economic crisis.  This is hardly a prescription capitalists are going to endorse.

The last chapter outlines the contours of the “eco-socialism” that Sarkar recommends.  Sarkar is not talking about “market socialism” – “market socialism,” he argues, has all the defects of capitalism that he criticized in his chapter on eco-capitalism.  He is not talking about “eco-Marxism” – eco-Marxism, for him, does not require economic contraction, whereas he does.  Sarkar wants to see an eco-socialism that that requires that “the industrial economies must contract, with the aim of reaching a steady state,” that “the retreat must be planned and orderly… planning would have to be comprehensive,” that there be some kind of population control, and that “moral growth, a moral economy and society, are necessary to achieve sustainability.” (202)

Indeed, this is a more austere version of “eco-socialism” than those which are typically promised by socialists.  Sarkar quotes Walter Benjamin approvingly:

Marx says revolutions are the locomotive of world history.  But perhaps it is entirely different.  Revolutions are perhaps the attempt of humanity traveling in a train to pull the emergency brake.  (227)

For Sarkar, this would have to be a revolution not just of the proletariat but of all classes of society that wanted to see human civilization survive.  People in such an eco-socialist society would have to “develop their needs” within the parameters of a society that did not permit of economic growth.

Dessert: Philosophical Conclusion

Eco-socialism, or ecosocialism, is not original to Saral Sarkar of course.  There are a number of authors who have been down this path; the late Walt Sheasby composed a good list of them on amazon.com.  Sarkar’s innovation in this regard, then, is to have considered consumerism as a problem to be solved rather than to have focused merely upon capitalism as an economic system based on “greed” (which he indeed does).

One can see, however, that we are a long way from the future time when the consumers of the First World will consider Sarkar’s “eco-socialism” as a legitimate, possible future.  The global capitalist economy still thrives, even if its underlying foundations become shakier by the year; in that light, the fantastic promises of the capitalist system’s defenders, buttressed no doubt by the fantastic promises of advertising, still hold sway over the First World’s minds.  Sarkar’s talent is to see through all of these fantastic promises, whether they be made by socialists or capitalists, and to suggest an austere future which fits his Spartan expectations of what an indefinitely sustainable global economy might look like.

An upgrade, or revision, of this book is necessary and will be forthcoming at some point, hopefully soon.  Its arguments are too cogent for all that it is eight years old.

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