Part 1 began by asserting that the major premise in the Eco-socialist perspective, i.e., that the global ecological problems cannot be solved in a capitalist economy, is sound. However it is argued in this discussion that almost all the elements in Socialist transition theory are seriously mistaken. This follows from the case given in Part 1 for the general form a sustainable and just society must take. To recapitulate briefly, it must involve levels of output, “living standards” and GDP that are dramatically reduced, within economies that do not grow, and mostly small scale and highly self-sufficient, self-governing cooperative communities in which frugal lifestyles and simpler systems are happily accepted. This “Simpler Way” rules out most Eco-Socialist proposals regarding goals and means, and requires adoption of an Eco-Anarchist perspective. The difference is far from trivial.
Take state power?
Possibly the most important difference between the two perspectives is to do with attitudes to centralisation. The key element in Socialist transition thinking is taking state power. However from the perspective of The Simpler Way it is a serious mistake to focus here and now on this objective. It is not just practically ineffective, it involves an elementary logical confusion. The state will eventually be “taken”, but largely as a consequence of the revolution. It will not be a cause of or means to or prerequisite for the revolutionary change required. (This following outline of the case is explained in more detail in TSW: Simpler Way Transition Theory.1)
Firstly state power cannot make the required post-affluence society work. It does not matter how much control lies in the hands of the state or its benign bureaucrats or its feared secret police, this would be of no value in getting people to contribute willingly, conscientiously and happily to building the new neighbourhood and town socio-economic systems, or to work out how to run their unique local economy well. A distant state could not know what are the best ways for each little locality with its own idiosyncratic set of values, soil and climatic conditions, history, personalities and problems, and it could not make people want to find and practise those ways. Most importantly, communities can only become capable of running their own affairs satisfactorily if they learn how to do this through a long trial and error process of finding out what works for them. Further the new communities cannot work satisfactorily unless there are strong senses of autonomy, empowerment, responsibility, enjoyment, willingness and pride, that is, unless they are run by positive and conscientious citizens. Taking state power cannot achieve these conditions, and the very notion contradicts their nature as it does not locate power and initiative at the grass roots.
The usual Socialist response here is that being in control of the state will enable the new ways to be introduced and facilitated, that is, control by the state will make it possible to work on that shift in mass consciousness. But the logic here is obviously faulty. There are only two ways that the control of the state for Simpler Way purposes could be acquired. The first is via some kind of coup whereby power is seized by a vanguard party which has the intention of implementing The Simpler Way, and then converting or forcing uncomprehending masses to it. This is hardly worth discussion. The second path would be via the election to government of a party which had a Simpler Way platform. But that could not happen unless the cultural revolution for a Simpler Way had previously been won. A Simpler Way party could not be elected to control of the state until after most people had adopted Simpler Way ideas and proposals. But by the time that had happened a great deal of effort would have gone into transforming towns and neighbourhoods. That revolution would be essentially constituted by the cultural change, the spread of acceptance of the radically new vision. Getting to that state of mind would constitute the crucial revolutionary move, and it would enable the big structural changes needed, including taking control of the (small, remnant.) state.
Thus the supreme importance of the cultural factor for strategy.
Because this revolution cannot proceed unless there is radical change in world view, ideas, values and dispositions, the crucial factors for success are not primarily to do with power or economics, they are to do with culture. It could be argued that this is where Marx can now be seen to have been most seriously mistaken. He did not see cultural change as a prerequisite, apart from the need for the development of sufficient class consciousness to engage in revolution. As Avineri1 points out, in the immediate post take-over period of the revolution Marx expected the masses to have in mind no more than a “crude communism” in which unsatisfactory old attitudes and ideas regarding property, work, income, competition and acquisitiveness remained. He thought that only in in a later stage would these undesirable dispositions be overcome, via a transformation of mentality or culture on the long and slow path to communism.
There is an obvious head-on contradiction here between Socialism and the Anarchist Simpler Way perspectives. Kropotkin, Tolstoy and Gandhi realized that culture trumps economics and politics. They saw the ultimate revolutionary goal as largely autonomous citizen-run village communities, and these cannot come into existence or function satisfactorily unless their members have the required vision, values and dispositions.3Thus in a sense Marx must be stood on his head; the necessary superstructures must be based on a cultural substructure of the right ideas and values. Socialists have this, and the order of revolutionary events, around the wrong way.
The general Socialist tradition focuses only on developing class consciousness whereby the working class has become a “class for itself”, i.e., where it holds ideas and values necessary to support revolution. This is quite different from developing the ideas and values necessary for people to work for and run a Simpler Way society.
Must there be a long march through capitalism?
A significant strand in Marxist thinking has been the idea that according to the “laws of history” capitalism must mature before it can be overthrown. This is why some Marxists have argued against revolutionary initiatives they see as premature. 4
Marx’s major claim to fame was to have discovered the laws whereby change follows a dialectical process culminating in overthrow of over-ripe capitalism and the shift to the synthesis that is a communist society. This seems to mean that the core strategy involves fighting and defeating and getting rid of capitalism.
However The Simpler Way perspective holds open the possibility that we can begin to build the new within the old, as distinct from having to wait for it to mature and be eliminated. It focuses on the development of local autonomy rather than action at the centre. Getting rid of capitalism might not need to involve directly fighting against it; maybe we should let its contradictions destroy it, while we build aspects of the post-revolutionary society here and now. That is by, as the Anarchists say, ”Prefiguring”.
Is the capitalist class the problem?
Given the centrality of ideas and values it is evident that attacking the capitalist class is ill-advised, at this stage. The system remains in place primarily because it is seen to be legitimate; it is accepted by most ordinary people. There’s the problem. Ordinary people have always vastly outnumbered the ruling class and could have politely and non-violently brushed them aside. As Gandhi said of British colonial domination, “If the Indians just spat the British would drown.” The revolutionary-Left has always understood the power of ideology, but perhaps its greatest failure has been that it has done so little about it. From the Simpler Way perspective the revolutionary task is primarily to do with helping people to see that the prevailing system does not function in their interests, that it is leading them to catastrophic planetary break down, and that there is a far better alternative. The main way to help them to see this is to “Prefigure” it (below.)
The role of the working class.
No element in traditional Socialist thinking is more deeply entrenched than that the working class is the agent of change. There are a number of reasons why this article of faith is mistaken now.
Unfortunately the class interests and the outlooks of workers in capitalist society do not align well with The Simpler Way. They are for more production and jobs, better work conditions, bigger pay cheques enabling greater consumption, more trade, a greater role for the state in running things, redistribution of produced wealth and provision of better “welfare” by the state. The working class is strongly in favour of economic growth, higher “living standards”, better pensions and more state expenditure on health and education. “Job creation” is demanded, and this is seen to depend directly on how rapidly business turnover and GDP can be increased. Any suggestion that the solution to our problems has to involve reduced per capita levels of consumption and a shift to simpler lifestyles is immediately seen as condemning those who are poor and struggling to even lower living standards. 5
At a deeper level there are problems to do with the situation and the psychology of the worker. Bookchin points out that the industrial worker is intensely disciplined by the factory mode of production to acceptance of authoritarian conditions, the puritan work ethic, doing what he is told and not seeking autonomy or imagining a post-capitalist world.6 7 His experience does not include co-operating with others to take charge of his own situation, or to ”own” or feel responsibility regarding social problems.
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 he 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. Like Avineri he also notes that Marx did not think this issue of world view was important; it could be attended to long after the revolution as the vanguard gradually developed communist consciousness in the masses. However from The Simpler Way perspective the Socialists again have the order of events around the wrong way; the revolution cannot take place unless the required post-revolutionary consciousness has first become widespread at the grass roots level.
This revolution is not just or primarily about liberating the worker from capitalist conditions, it is about liberating all people from the ideology of consumer-capitalist society, and all people not just the working class must be the drivers through their participation in the development of the emerging new local communities. The old left is being confronted here with the ultimate heresies, the possibility that in this revolution both workers and class are not central elements. The era of scarcity is determining that the required revolution will not be brought about by a working class movement. Yet there is of course a mortal conflict of class interests at stake; after all it is about whether or not capitalism and the capitalist class survive.
Hence a major tactical principle now would seem to be, do not confront capitalism.
It is understandable that when faced by an oppressive system it might seem necessary to turn towards it and fight it strenuously. There are situations in which this would clearly seem to be the appropriate response and most if not all previous liberation movements and revolutions have probably been of this kind. However again it can be argued that in the historically unique situation the limits are imposing on us the appropriate strategy is not confrontational but involves turning away and “ignoring capitalism to death.”
Consumer-capitalist society cannot survive if people do not continue to purchase, consume and throw away at an accelerating rate. The Simpler Way strategy (in the present early Stage 1 of the revolution) 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 of their material and social needs from the alternative systems and sources emerging within their neighbourhoods and towns.
Central in this is the more or less spontaneous and automatic development of local Needs-Driven-Economies beside the old Profit-Driven-Economy. People will come across to The Simpler Way because as the ecological and economic crises intensify and seriously disrupt supply to their supermarkets they will increasingly realise that the old system is not going to provide for them and that the simpler local way is their best, indeed their only, option.
One of Marx’s most important insights was that the fundamental contradictions built into capitalism drive it towards self-destruction. The hope must be for a slow Goldilocks depression, not so savage as to rule out any chance of reconstruction but sufficient to jolt people into the realisation that the consumer-capitalist way has to be abandoned.
The Socialist is strongly inclined to dismiss this approach focused on building alternatives within the old system as naïve, on the grounds that the rich and powerful do not willingly relinquish their dominant position. Yet this “turning away” strategy is now widespread, for instance among the large scale Andean peasant movements, most notably the Zapatistas and the Via Campesino.6 78 910 1112 13 14, Dafermos on the Catalan Integral Cooperative15 and Shilton on Rojava.16 It is also growing in the richest countries, evident in the Transition Towns, Eco-village, Localisation, Municpalism and other alternative movements.
Thus trying to get rid of capitalism is not where energy should be focused at present…because it is in the process of getting rid of itself. Far more important is beginning to get its replacement going.
What is to be done?…Pre-figure.
The Simpler Way answer is the Anarchist notion of “Pre-figuring”, i.e., do what we can to build post-revolutionary ways here and now within the existing consumer-capitalist society.17 18 19 20 21
The point of Pre-figuring can easily be misunderstood. Socialists readily take it to be based on the assumption that the new and good society can be created just by starting to build elements of it here and now, and continuing to do so until the old society has been replaced. But Simpler Way transition theory does not assume this. The point is educational, that is, Pre-figuring is seen as probably the most effective awareness raising activity. As has been explained, this revolution cannot progress unless the new ideas and values come to be predominant, and therefore the crucial task is to work at getting them understood, appreciated and adopted. This can involve a variety of initiatives but few if any are likely to be more effective than the establishment of examples of the required alternatives within existing towns and suburbs. Possibly the most important project in this domain is the development of the local Needs-Driven-Economy. This is the powerful mechanism that will grow in scope as the old Profit-Driven-Economy increasingly fails to provide.
A merit of the Pre-figuring approach is that it minimizes overt conflict let alone violence. It holds open the possibility that alternatives can gradually and quietly gain in strength towards the point where new ideas and values undermine the legitimacy of old ways and structures, which then might more or less crumble. Community gardens and town meetings and Needs Driven Economies are small, largely invisible, peaceful, under the radar and difficult to eradicate.
There is another very important point on which the contrast between Socialist and Anarchist strategy is marked. Socialists cannot provide experience of aspects or benefits of the intended society until well after the revolution, let alone use this to attract people to the cause. The Socialist’s effort to motivate people is largely negative, confined to stirring up discontent with present conditions and promising little more than struggle, at least until the revolution succeeds. But Pre-figuring can provide positive and inspirational experience of aspects of the alternative.
Stage 2 of the revolution.
The development of a local economy cannot get far without relatively few but crucial inputs from the national economy, such as light steel, irrigation poly-pipe, cement, and chicken pen wire. This will generate pressure on states and national economies to move towards revolutionary macroscopic change. The towns will increasingly demand that the priorities of the centre be shifted to focus on providing the towns and regions with those relatively few inputs their survival depends on.
In time this pressure is likely to shift from submitting requests to the state to making demands on it, and then to taking increasing control of it. There will be increasing insistence that frivolous industries must be phased out so that scarce resources can be devoted to meeting fundamental town and regional needs. Meanwhile towns will be driven by necessity to bypass the centre and take initiatives such as setting up their own farms, energy supplies and manufacturing, thus transferring various functions out of the control of the centre. It will be increasingly recognized that the local is the only level where the right decisions for self-sufficient communities can be made. If all goes well these shifts will in time lead to the transfer of functions and power from state-level agencies to the local level, leaving the centre with relatively few tasks, and mainly with the role of facilitating local systems.
This radical restructuring could conceivably be a smooth and peaceful process, driven by a general recognition that scarcity is making local self-governing communities the only viable option and that the national economy has to be greatly reduced and focused on helping the towns to thrive. If this happens then in effect Stage 1 will be recognised as having constituted the revolution, essentially a cultural phenomenon, and the macroscopic structural changes in Stage 2 will be seen as consequences of the revolution.
Those arrangements that must be organised beyond the town level can best be dealt with via the essential Anarchist principal of “federation”. This involves communities with a stake in a policy formation, such as for management of the river valley they all share, discussing options and sending delegates to conferences which work out what the best ones seem to be. These possibilities are then taken back down to all the towns for further consideration and eventually agreement in participatory assemblies. If complications are seen further conferences are held, until a mutually beneficial solution is found.
There would still be a need for considerable bureaucracy at the centre, e.g., to work out what train timetables seem preferable across large regions, but it would be misleading to refer to this as constituting a “state” as the term usually implies authoritarian power. Similarly Anarchist organization would draw on high level technical expertise in formulating options, but again it would not give higher authorities power to impose what they thought was best.
It will be evident that the alternative social organisation sketched in Part 1 and above is a fairly straight forward Anarchist vision, and that the means for achieving it are also Anarchist. (Obviously there are varieties of Anarchism that are not being advocated here.)
Consider the components. Settlements enabling a high quality of life for all the world’s people despite very low resource use rates must involve all members in participatory deliberations regarding the design, development and running of their local productive, political and social systems. Their ethos must be non-hierarchical, cooperative and collectivist, seeking to avoid all forms of domination and to prioritise the public good. They must draw on the voluntary good will and energy of conscientious citizens who are eager to cooperate an contribute generously and to identify and deal with problems informally and spontaneously, and to focus on seeking mutually beneficial arrangements with little if any need for industrial infrastructures, transport networks, bureaucracy, paid officials or politicians. Regional and wider issues would be tackled by the characteristic Anarchist mechanisms of federations and (powerless) delegates bringing recommendations back down to town meetings. The principle of “subsidiarity” is evident in the practice of grass roots politics, the avoidance of hierarchies, and the central role of town assemblies. The very low resource costs that are essential for sustainability are achievable because of the proximity, diversity of functions and integration, the familiarity enabling informal communication and spontaneous action, and the elimination of much industry, transport and bureaucracy etc. Eco-villages typically operate according to such Anarchist principles, achieving high levels of sustainability and quality of life.
The foregoing analysis involves to two important and previously unrecognized extensions of Anarchism. In the past it has been seen as primarily concerned with social and political issues. Little if any attention has been given to its significance for thinking about desirable economic arrangements. The argument has been that when the seriousness of the global predicament is understood, inescapable implications for radically new economic arrangements are seen. The basic economic form must be small scale, zero growth, largely collectivist and under participatory social control.
Perhaps of even greater importance is the previously unrecognized ecological significance of Anarchism. An ecologically sustainable and just world cannot be achieved unless ways are found of living well on dramatically reduced per capita resource use rates, and the above argument has been that these ways must follow Anarchist values and practices.
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