Ecosocialism and the Potential for Cultural Change

Ecosocialism is a wide-ranging philosophy covering how we interact with our planet and with each other. The basic premise is that the capitalist system is inherently ruinous to the well-being of our planet’s ecology and all those who live on it, both human and non-human. I will note here that the global land and ocean surface temperature of the earth for March 2020 was 1.16°C above the 20th century average and the second highest in the 141-year history of record-keeping. 

If we are to solve the ecological crisis, ecosocialism demands an end to the capitalist system.

In conventional terms this is unthinkable. So how can ecosocialists make this proposition become an accepted reality amongst the majority of people around the world? I suggest that it means making a profound shift in cultural values. 

The prevailing approach to combating climate change and other ecological problems is this: We’ll simply generate more energy from renewable sources and rely on dubious technological solutions, which have proved to be woefully unsuccessful or pathetically inadequate—or both. So, with time running out to reverse global warming and stabilize the situation, why has the political and public response been so feeble? 

The answer lies in in our economic system, capitalism, with its inherent need to continually grow, but also in the culture that this economic system has created. The levels of growth since the industrial revolution would not have been possible without the burning of fossil fuels, and this growth kept the system from collapsing. Sustaining such growth in future would require even more energy than we are using today.

Further, I think renewably-sourced energy could never be enough to maintain such growth. This is what the ruling class seems to think, too, which is why inadequate remedies such as Carbon Capture and Storage are floated as possible solutions.

The “culture” that capitalism has created, with ever-increasing levels of consumption and the belief that the system will always find a technological solution to any system-introduced, is extremely strong. Attempts to think outside of its parameters are regularly rejected as unrealistic pipe dreams. 

Cultural Norms Must Change Before Systems Will

This is what Antonio Gramsci, the 20th-century Italian socialist, called “cultural hegemony,” by which capitalist nation states and their ruling class use cultural norms and institutions as a means to hold onto power. Culture in this sense is a belief system of social mores which can be manipulated by the rulers to make the status quo seem to be the cultural norm or natural.  

Gramsci supported the call for a cultural association in Turin, a city where he thought the proletariat was mature enough for it to succeed. In his essay “Socialism and Culture,”  he described culture this way: 

It is the organization, the disciplining of one’s inner self; the mastery of one’s personality; the attainment of a higher awareness, through which we can come to understand our value and place within history, our proper function in life, our rights and duties. But all this cannot happen through spontaneous evolution… 

Gramsci believed that cultural norms had to be changed first, before a successful revolution could be launched. He noted that the French Revolution would not have happened in all likelihood if the Enlightenment period had not already taken place.

He argued that there were essentially two stages to bringing about the revolution. He called these stages the “war of position” and the “war of maneuver.”

The war of position is a struggle for intellectual and cultural change—a transition to a new culture in favor of the masses, one that rivals the prevailing, establishment culture.

Then the war of maneuver, the struggle for the control of the state, begins, supported by most of the people. 

I’ve not come across much direct mention of culture from ecosocialist writers. Joel Kovel in The Enemy of Nature writes of capital’s “force field,” which is another way, I think, of describing hegemony, in similar terms to Gramsci’s writings. There are a couple of ecosocialists who have addressed the cultural problem head on and are worthy of mention. 

Reviving the Idea of the Commons

David Bollier, writing for the Next Project, a US ecosocialist initiative, suggests that by restoring commons practices—in which land and other resources are jointly owned—we can change the prevailing culture. The Next Project site introduction to his piece says: 

In the commons-based society that Bollier envisions, economics, governance, politics, and culture are blended, and based on de-commodification, mutualization, and the organization and control of resources outside of the market. 

Bollier quotes Karl Polanyi, the political economist and originator of substantivism, a socialist and cultural approach to economics. In The Great Transformation Polanyi explains that market culture in the 17th to 19th centuries gradually supplanted “kinship, custom, religion, morality, and community to become the primary ordering principle of society.” 

Polanyi observed that the change from the pre-modern society to a market society in the 19th century was made possible by first changing the economic mentalities of the people at large. The transformation could then be made to the economic orthodoxies that are the norm today. This was the job of the modern state, to push through the cultural change that made markets the principle determinant of people’s lives.  

Commons cooperation, or maybe sharing, in today’s social media language leads to “commoning,” which has the potential to: 

regenerate people’s social connections with each other and with “nature.” It helps build new aspirations and identities. By giving people significant new opportunities for personal agency that go well beyond the roles of consumer, citizen, and voter, the commons introduces people to new social roles that embody wholesome cultural values and entail both responsibility and entitlement. In a time when market culture is ubiquitous and invasive, commoning cultivates new cultural spaces and nourishes inner, subjective experiences that have far more to do with the human condition and social change than the manipulative branding and disempowering spectacles of market culture.   

Bollier goes onto suggest that cooperative movements that connect together can create new social spaces, and that the digital commons has the potential for advancing a new kind of culture. Free software (shareware), peer-to-peer cooperation, Wikipedia, and writers’ commons licenses are examples of this cultural model. More extreme examples include the hackers Anonymous as well things like Wikileaks. 

Bollier concludes his piece this way: 

The Anonymous Invisible Committee in France has observed that “an insurrection is not like a plague or forest fire—a linear process which spreads from place to place after an initial spark. It takes the shape of music, whose focal points, though dispersed in time and space, succeed in imposing the rhythms of their own vibrations.” That describes the unfolding odyssey of the commons movement, whose rhythms are producing a lot of resonance. 

Completely Reconceptualizing “Culture”

In his book Eco-socialism or Eco-capitalism Saral Sarkar says that we need to invent a new culture. He argues that all other existing or previously existing cultures have proved incapable of dealing with the ecological crisis, and are indeed the cause of the crisis.

This new culture will need to encompass ecology, equality, peace, and the rights of other species to life (and space). Sarkar thinks that this new culture is a prerequisite to the forming of an ecosocialist culture and economy and an ecosocialist government. He argues convincingly that the ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution failed to achieve true equality because they sought only equality before the law. Thus, crucially, cultural norms were not changed to embed equality in society at large. 

Sarkar believes that for such a cultural shift to happen, a change in values must come first. He thinks this is why the radical ecological position of the 1970s, which sought to move away from materialistic culture, was so short-lived. He points that “culture” in the  1980s took on board industrial prosperity as a way to achieve its program of ecological and social reconstruction of society. That followed the prevailing culture of accumulation

Sarkar describes a new culture not in terms of art, literature, music, science, and philosophy—but in terms of values

…questions such as whether a society has abolished exploitation and oppression, whether it is exploiting other peoples, whether its members are free from hunger, whether the burdens of heavy and unpleasant work are distributed equally, whether patriarchy has vanished, whether the economic and sociopolitical organization is such that no hierarchy is necessary for its proper functioning, and above all, whether it is living in harmony with nature

Recent Winning Struggles Maintained the System

In my lifetime, I have seen many cultural changes in the UK and farther afield. In the UK, for example, things such as: the abolishment of capital punishment, legalization of homosexuality and same-sex marriages; equal pay for women; and the outlawing of gender and racial discrimination (in theory if not quite 100% in practice). 

The two biggest global political cultural shifts that I have witnessed are the fall of the Berlin Wall and the accompanying collapse of the USSR and its satellites, and the fall of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Even a short time before they took place, it had been pretty much unimaginable that they would.

What all of these cultural changes have in common is that they were driven by the establishment, in some cases in combination with a cultural change from the general populace. But they were widely accepted by the ruling classes. 

Earlier in the 20th century came successful shifts driven from below. The Suffragettes’ campaign managed to succeed in gaining enfranchisement for women, and the National Health Service and welfare state were formed in the UK after the second world war. Great achievements as these were, they did not fundamentally change the economic system, and so could be absorbed into the prevailing order without too much disruption. 

The kind of cultural shifts required to bring about ecosocialism are highly unlikely to be accepted by the powers that be, because all of the above examples of cultural change didn’t get in the way of the ruling classes making money. Some capitalists could even see opportunities for making money out of the changes, where before none had existed.

“Carbon trading,” for example, is a market-driven tactic. It uses the logic of the market to try and solve a problem that was caused by the market. Where this has been tried, in the European Union for example, it did not result in a reduction of carbon being emitted. But it has made money for both emitters of carbon and the traders in carbon, so it is perfectly acceptable to the establishment view. 

In recent years politics in the US and UK particularly, but many other countries too, have been deliberately shifted into what have been termed “culture wars,” notably with the UK’s referendum on EU membership and Brexit, and the election of President Trump in the US.

These movements, from the political right, have sought to exploit patriotism and nationalism, with an emphasis on xenophobia and racism. The political left has it found hard to combat this cultural shift, and indeed shares some of the blame with the liberal left being identified with the neoliberal economics of globalization. 

Ecosocialism or Bust

In my view, ecology, realized through ecosocialism, holds the key to changing cultural norms. Ecosocialism will be international or nothing, of course, but in a reverse of globalized economics, and towards a rational system of political economy that respects and observes ecological limits.

International movements like Extinction Rebellion (XR) and students’ climate strikes that have emerged in the last few years encourage a cultural shift away from the neoliberal status quo. But sadly, the young people leading these movements seem to fail to grasp that politicians can’t be convinced to make the necessary changes. 

Because the capitalist state serves the established order, and politicians are often in the pay of the very corporations that have caused the ecological crisis, they cannot be relied upon. It is a mistake for left social movements to think they can.

Suffragettes, to whom XR likens itself, did not aim to overthrow the forces of capitalist order, which as we know today is necessary if we are to solve the ecological crisis. The “Votes for Women” goal wasn’t going to stop the capitalists from making money, and so was not unthinkable in the political climate of the day.

In the same way, XR’s demands of “calling a climate emergency” and “setting up peoples’ assemblies” on climate change will not in themselves bring about the changes needed.

But can they play a part of in moving to Gramsci’s first stage of cultural hegemony? Raising debate in peoples’ assemblies should make the logical connections between the current global economic system and what it does in destroying the planet and exploiting the mass of the people on it. 

Similarly, might advocates of a Green New Deal (and there are many varieties of this idea, some more radical than others) but can this at least help to move cultural norms in the direction of an ecologically rational system? A GND can certainly be the basis for a “just transition” from the old world to the new. It could carry people with it, because millions of us are, quite rightly, worried about jobs and having enough money to live on.

Such things can be stepping stones to ecosocialism, because they have the potential to shift cultural thinking. 

The Significance of Semantics

But we have another cultural problem, and it’s essentially one of words.

Whether ecosocialists like it not, socialism is associated in many people’s minds with the authoritarian regimes of the USSR and China and their satellite states. Those schemes struck self-inflicted wounds on socialism, creating another cultural barrier to be overcome. Thus we might as well acknowledge this first, and demonstrate in whatever ways we can that those failed systems were not real socialism in practice, and are undesirable for any future efforts toward socialism. 

Younger people are often the drivers of cultural change, or at least more receptive to it. Climate change will affect them more seriously than older people, as we have seen in the impressive numbers of youth supporting school climate strikes worldwide.

It appears that they may be more receptive to socialist ideas too, as they will not have known the mostly failed socialisms of the 20th century. I’d wager that the younger generations offer more fertile ground for ecosocialism to take root. 

I wish I knew the answer to how a favorable cultural shift could be achieved quickly. But if an ecosocialist analysis of the ecological crisis is correct, and logic suggests it is, more and more people will begin to think and, more importantly, act, along these lines. This is the only thing that gives me hope.      

Mike Shaughnessy is an ecosocialist activist and member of the Green Party of England and Wales. He is the London coordinator of Green Left, the ecosocialist grouping within the party, and the editor of the London Green Left Blog. Twitter @MikeShaugh


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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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