By John Clark
"The way up and the way down are one and the same." – Heraclitus
"If I knew the Way, I would take you to the Oikos." – The Grateful Dead (slightly paraphrased)
Ted Trainer’s recent two-part article on ecoanarchism, ecosocialism and “the Simpler Way” raises many crucial issues about contemporary ecopolitics and the path toward planetary survival and flourishing in the age of global ecological crisis and mass extinction. Many of his ideas seem appealing to me, as a communitarian anarchist and radical decentralist, and indeed inspiring. Others seem to me, as a libertarian socialist and dialectical social ecologist, to be sometimes naïve and sometimes misguided. I will begin with a few comments on the idea of “ecoanarchism versus ecosocialism,” then discuss some areas of general agreement with Trainer’s position, and, finally, conclude with some of the problems that I see in his outlook. All of these ideas are offered in the spirit of trying to find the way, and of trying to follow it.
Full disclosure: for over 25 years I have collaborated with Capitalism Nature Socialism, “a journal of ecosocialism.” For over 30 years, Joel Kovel, coauthor of “The Ecosocialist Manifesto” was one of my closest allies and collaborators. And despite my skepticism about electoral politics, I have for decades worked on the left of the Green Party of the U.S., which has officially adopted an ecosocialist position. Thus, it is rather shocking to me to see ecosocialism portrayed rather starkly as the opposition to ecoanarchism within contemporary ecopolitics.
Strangely, for a defender of anarchism, Trainer doesn’t take into account the well-known fact that many ecoanarchists (like other anarchists) consider their position to be a form of libertarian socialism, and that they thus see it as a form of ecosocialism. Furthermore, other ecosocialists, who may not identify themselves specifically as anarchists, hold radically decentralist, anti-authoritarian, and communitarian views that are very close to those of ecoanarchists. This is the case for many who are inspired by the Zapatistas and other movements grounded in indigenous values. And finally, it should be obvious that even if some “general” socialist position inherited from the past “fails to take into account the very different situation we are in compared with that which prevailed in the past,” this simply doesn’t imply that contemporary ecosocialism fails to do so.
There is a similar problem with Trainer’s contention that socialists’ “efforts to motivate people is largely negative, confined to stimulating discontent with present conditions and promising little more than struggle, at least until the revolution succeeds.” This simply does not describe most ecosocialists. Nor does it even depict today’s mainstream socialism accurately. In many countries, nominal socialism has increasingly become a form of social democratic reformism that focuses not on revolutionary struggle but on what works within the existing political systems, which usually means modest welfare-state programs and compromise with the status quo. Here also, Trainer seems to be fixated on the model of the Leninist sectarianisms of the past, rather than either the “socialism” or the ecosocialism of the present.
Simple is Beautiful
I find much to agree with in the compelling image that Trainer projects of the ecocommunities of the future. He describes them as “mostly small, highly self-sufficient local economies, largely independent of national or global economies.” Unlike the competitive, ego-centered societies of today, obsessed with accumulation and consumption, these communities would “focus on non-material sources of life satisfaction” and have “a much more collectivist and less individualistic outlook.” I would be inclined to describe such an outlook as more “communalized” and “personalistic.”
I would imagine that in view of his emphasis on non-material goods, Trainer would agree that, while being relatively independent economically, these communities would be more highly interdependent in many (particularly “non-material”) ways, in areas such as mutual aid, solidarity, and the expression of common sociality. The degree to which the admittedly crucial goal of being “highly self-sufficient” materially can be realized would presumably be an experimental question, in which the need for larger intercommunal cooperation would be balanced with the need for ecological frugality and communal autonomy.
Trainer is certainly right in his view that “cooperative and participatory control” in such an ecocommunity is fundamental, and that the “coregoverning institutions” should be along the classical anarchistic lines of “voluntary committees, town meetings, direct votes on issues, and especially informal public discussion in everyday situations.” He also makes good points concerning forms of decentralized, democratic, ecologically sound production that also are a fundamental precondition for an ecological society.
I strongly agree with Trainer’s view that “the most effective way to get people to see the sense and the merits of the new ways is to establish as many examples of them as possible here and now.” This was the strategy proposed by the great communitarian anarchist Gustav Landauer (author of an important book called For Socialism, by the way), who taught that the most powerful force for revolution would be the kind of “positive envy” that will be aroused when the oppressed, exploited, and alienated masses see a multitude of liberated communities living the good life in common. In the heroic period of the (very anarchistic) Sarvodaya Movement in India, there was the aspiration to create a model community of practice (called an ashram), in effect, a liberated ecovillage, in every village and neighborhood in India for exactly this reason.
The great failing of ecoanarchism and kindred movements for liberation has been the lack of a concerted and intensively focused effort to create such strong and integral communities of liberation, solidarity, awakening and care everywhere, and to do so at every level, from the affinity group, to the base community, to the ecovillage, to the liberated town, city and region. We must have, as the philosopher (and libertarian socialist) Martin Buber said, “communities of communities of communities.” In his classic political work, Buber called these communities “paths [the way] to utopia.” Such a path should be the central vocation in the lives of all who are committed to the basic values and vision of communitarian anarchism, but which has so far has been more of a hobby at best, and, at worst, a mere object of ideological faith, detached from practical reality.
Is such a way best called “the simpler way?” Yes and no, since it is a way, and a way of life, that is both simpler in some ways and more complex in others. We seek certain kinds of material and organizational simplicity so that we can become more personally, socially and culturally complex. Furthermore, the problematic of simplifying things in certain ways poses extremely complex issues of confronting our historical legacies of domination, with all its material, social and psychological implications. It presents us with a complex project of determinate negation, of creating a liberated future not by simply diverging from the past, but by coming to grips with the inevitable traces of that legacy in ourselves, our communities, and our world.
Laozi taught that for followers of the Way there were Three Treasures, and that one of these was simplicity. But it was only one of three, so it might be better to “simply” call the Way “the Way” and then try to determine when we should follow it through simplicity and when we should do so through complexity.
Concerning Communities and States
I will now turn to some of the serious problems that I see in Trainer’s article. One concerns issues of trans-communal justice and solidarity. The problem with a very generic decentralism or localism such as the one he presents is that it neglects the problem of the unequal distribution between communities of the means of flourishing (so-called “resources’).’ This problem has recently been confronted very directly by the Zapatista communities, and has long been a concern of libertarian, egalitarian, solidaristic revolutionaries. It is just not realistic to assume that communities will become so self-sufficient that such inequalities can be dismissed as either insignificant or easily dealt with in practice. For this reason, much thought must be given to questions of coordination, distribution, collective decision-making beyond the local communities, and, most generally, the nature of institutions of mutual aid at various levels of society.
Issues also arise concerning Trainer’s views about the future of the state. He says that “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 it.” It is not clear what (non-causal?) role the state will have, if any, before it is “taken,” or even after. However, in any case, this raises the question of the possible role of a transitional state in various historical situations. I support what I see as the anarchistic position seldom if ever discussed by anarchists, but expressed in Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program when he proposes “converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it.’” Such a condition of “complete subordination” is the only one in which an existing state could be transformed into an effective temporary and transitional one” (a condition not fulfilled by previous actually-existing and putatively revolutionary states). Contrary to Trainer’s stipulation concerning the non-causality, such a state would still have a significant causal function, no matter how much it is subordinated to the revolutionary movement or the revolutionized social body.
Perhaps surprisingly, in his discussion of the state, Trainer also says that he supports the continuation of what he calls “some functions for state and national governments,” and in support of this presents some very plausible examples of areas in which coordination is necessary beyond the level of localities. I agree with him about such necessity (and probably think that the sphere of such necessity is much greater than he thinks). However, I would question whether state and national governments should be the correct institutions to carry out such coordination, rather than regional federations that are created at various regional levels and that are responsible to the local communities. It is possible that this is something like what Trainer has in mind despite his traditional statist terminology.
Concerning Social Determination
The next point gets into some very basic theoretical issues with huge practical implications. I think it is a theoretical and practical mistake to hold simply (as Trainer states it) that “culture trumps economics and politics.” We need a deeper and more complex view of the dialectic between these three inseparable realms (and others). To begin with, our mode of producing and reproducing our material existence (from gift economies to the market economy, from handcrafts to robotics) and our mode of decision-making and exercising power (from village councils to corporate board rooms, from consulting ancestors to consulting AI), are themselves central spheres of culture. Any idea of base and superstructure in such areas must be questioned as reductionist and inadequately dialectical, particularly when it is applied to the most fundamental spheres of social determination. This is not to say that we might not find that certain spheres have a greater or lesser force of determination under specific historical conditions.
My own view is that it is most useful to analyze social determination and possible social transformation in terms of the dialectic between certain overarching spheres of determination, which include the spheres of social institutionality, social ideology, social imaginary, social ethos, and social materiality. The nature of this dialectic will be very specific in relation to the social historical particularities of the society and community, including for example, their place in relation to the core and periphery of the global capitalist-state system.
Any adequate analysis would have to analyze in great detail the dialectic of domination and liberation in relation to the person, to primary groups, to successively wider levels of community and association, and to the entire biosphere or Earth community.
Concerning Capitalism and Revolution
The next point is somewhat less abstract. Perhaps the most perplexing point in the article is Trainer’s view that, on the one hand, “given the centrality of ideas and values it is evident that attacking the capitalist class might be ill-advised, at this stage,” while on the other hand, “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.” It seems to follow from the need to educate people about the heinous role of capitalist class and the need to prevent that class from producing global ecological collapse that the hegemony of that class must be attacked on every level in every way that can successfully promote these two inseparable goals.
I also see as questionable the idea that in the long run “much of the economy might remain as a (carefully monitored) form of private enterprise carried on by small firms, households and cooperatives.” A basic question is whether the capitalist-wage labor (or owner-employee) relationship is a beneficial one, a detrimental or a neutral one. Anarchists, eco- or otherwise, have overwhelmingly seen it as a detrimental one, and held that for it to dominate most or even “much” of any economy would necessarily be dangerous and destructive. On the other hand, the second form of “enterprise” mentioned, the household (or domestic) economy, has meant many different things over history and to different cultures and some forms have been compatible with a cooperative economy. The third form of “enterprise” mentioned, cooperatives, is obviously the foundation of a cooperative economy; however, cooperatives are usually (and reasonably) thought of not as a form of “private enterprise” but as an alternative to it.
Finally, an important issue that is not really addressed clearly in the article is the role of violence and non-violence in revolutionary change. Obviously, the deepest changes in the person and community cannot be carried out through violence, but in some historical situations communal self-defense by force is a necessary condition for many of these deeper non-violent and anti-violent changes to have any sphere in which to develop. The relation between evolution and revolution and between non-violence and violence is a fundamental issue for any theory of radical social transformation. It is notable that the present-day cases in which the greatest advances toward eco-communitarianism have been achieved (Chiapas and Rojava, in my view) these achievements have only been possible through communal self-defense.
I will conclude by going back to the Heraclitus fragment cited at the beginning. “The way up and the way down are one and the same.” Perhaps the way back down to Earth from hierarchical systems of domination, ecoanarchism, and the way up from alienation and division to planetary sociality, ecosocialism, are one and the same. (1)
John Clark is a communitarian anarchist educator, writer and activist in New Orleans, where his family has lived for the past 300 years. He is Director of La Terre Institute for Community and Ecology, and Professor Emeritus at Loyola University, where he was formerly Curtin Distinguished Professor, Professor of Philosophy, and a member of the Environment Program. His most recent book is Between Earth and Empire: From the Necrocene to the Beloved Community. A new revised edition of his book The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism is forthcoming, and he is at work on a book on Dialectical Social Ecology. He is a member of the Education and Research Workers’ Union of the Industrial Workers of the World.
1. Though it’s possible that the best word for both is “ecocommunism”— but that might open up a whole compost pile of worms.
This article originally appeared in Radical Ecological Democracy.