It’s no longer socialists alone who are placing capitalism at the center of an understanding of anthropogenic climate change. There’s a growing consensus among natural and social scientists that “business as usual” in the “present socio-economic system” (in the careful language preferred in natural scientific literature) is incompatible with the flourishing of some seven plus billion humans in our shared global ecological niche. Just as economic history has borne out quite a bit of the Marxian picture of the world, ecology too is demonstrating that the Old Moor was right that there was no natural boundary to capitalism’s insatiable need for “inputs.” But unfortunately, for socialists, this doesn’t make it a time for (excessive) self-congratulation and even less for ‘reverent exegesis’ of Marxist and other socialist classics. Rather, as our understanding of material conditions shift so fundamentally, so too must the ways in which we understand socialism itself.
There is almost no aspect of socialist analysis and politics untouched by anthropogenic climate change. Even something as foundational as the time on which we imagine our politics but also as we understand it in history – is fundamentally transformed. At the most basic level, in human geographer Andreas Malm’s pithy summary: “the experiences of the last two centuries indicate that socialism is an excruciatingly difficult condition to achieve; any proposal to build it on a world-scale before 2020 and then start cutting emissions would be not only laughable but reckless.” Written in 2016, one could easily add five years or more to this timescale and come to the same conclusion. Simultaneously, on a technical basis alone, a change of 1.5-2.0°C is quite possible even if extraordinarily difficult. As the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report put it, “all [mitigation] pathways begin now and involve rapid and unprecedented societal transformation.” But as I have argued elsewhere, this temporal shift is not simply about urgency. Among other things, it is also about reframing our understandings of history, of causality, and even how we feel about the present moment.
First, climate crisis – which is already occurring – is not “the apocalypse.” While we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction event in the Earth’s history, we are not talking about the end of the human species and far less all life on Earth. We are talking about an extremely large number of people dying, even more living in increasingly dire, desperate circumstances, and the permanent destabilization and destruction of a global human ecological niche that would make living otherwise possible.
Second, much “green” discourse (socialist included) tends to talk about sacrificing “short-term” gain for “long-term” planning. This is a fundamental misunderstanding. It is not that, for example, climate simply disproportionately impacts both the domestically and internationally worst off. Existing inequality and dispossession – to choose just two phenomena – are drivers of climate change. While capitalism has become increasingly central to understanding anthropogenic climate change, for so many the economic and political power of capital still tends to fall away from the picture. Just like carbon-emissions, inequality is not really an “externality” to the system; it is a fundamental fuel. The economic composition of profitability and the political power of capital are internal to any real climate politics.
The phone on which (possibly) you are reading this article is dependent on cobalt found primarily in mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Cobalt is a rare earth metal in high-demand. The labor in such mines is, almost without exception, slave labor, child labor, or both. Capitalism as we know it is dependent on the political subordination of the DRC and the slave labor to keep the price of that cobalt artificially low. The cobalt from such mines will likely be turned into phone batteries in manufacturing centers in places like Shenzhen, China. Although actually improving in some ways, globally speaking, such “cheap” labor is also required to maintain the profitability of that phone. The vast-majority (well over four-fifths) of the carbon-emissions associated with cellphones are in their production. Thus, in flawed accounting of carbon-emissions based on national boundaries even if those phones are headed for use to the US or Norway or Germany or Japan, emissions are tallied on the ‘national account’ of China. Meanwhile, the end-use of that phone dramatically increases the conditions of specific forms of “hyperwork” in the Global North (and in pockets in the Global South), in all manner of new, “more efficient,” and “more productive” (i.e. maintaining profits) labor practices across a host of traditionally blue- and white-collar sectors. The very design of those phones – forced obsolescence within approximately two years – requires not only an increase in extraction but is too a source of profitability. We must keep burning through more and more biosphere and the human systems inside it, for the increasingly difficult maintenance of profitability.
The point of this example is not to moralize about technologies or to promote guilt about cellphones. Rather, what we see here are the many ways in which the profits that drive climate change are predicated on a stunning array of existing inequalities and inequities. Twenty-first century capitalism extracts value from social disintegration, from displacement, and from aspects of political systems. Alongside the labor and resources that go into it, this system is underwritten by regimes of racialization, colonization, and gendering. Addressing the wants, needs, and desires for the vast majority of existing people on the planet is fundamental for trying to adapt to climate change and mitigate its worst effects, not some opportunistic add-on. Twenty-first century capitalism is best understood as a kind of “extractive circuit” crisscrossing the world through supply chains and finance. At every “node” along such a circuit “inputs” – ecological, social, political, individual – are extracted and “exhausted.” Capitalism as we know it is incapable of climate mitigation and adaptation because to do so would be to act against its own fundamental incentives and imperatives.
Paradoxically, this is not great news for many socialists. From some who dream of a new win-win return to the post-war compromise, to others who imagine taking hold of an already or even largely perfected capitalist machinery and merely changing hands in ownership, or to others who think the greatest threat from climate change is that capitalists will – against the historical evidence of the past century or so – use it an excuse to establish some kind of sovereign world state for the management of some kind of “green super-capitalism,” troubles abound. If any of these were the case, ecosocialists should relish capitalist solutions; just one more bit of technical wizardry for the ancien régime to work out while we slog away at the expropriation. But what we are discovering is that the machine that capital has built – the extractive circuit – is dependent on chewing through the ecological, social, and political fabric at increasingly astonishing speeds.
Beyond the simple time constraint discussed above, for socialists there is the additional challenge that “Full Socialism” would not automatically be an ecologically sustainable system. There can be a real danger of a kind of “climate Lysenkoism” on the Left, in which theoretical goals overshadow what we are learning on a daily basis from the broad range of climate sciences. We are not biding our time to fight for the “full socialist” future, nor does “smashing the state” promise much. Direct action will be vital but it will not alone “get the goods.” These new conditions present us with a truly different and differently revolutionary project in the present.
From Proletariat to Exhausted: Twenty-first Century Gravediggers
The particular politics of this moment don’t map neatly onto a traditional understanding of “the proletariat.” This includes historical realities that many have never fully internalized – “the working class” as originally construed never, anywhere (except perhaps Belgium for a brief blip in the early twentieth century) constituted a majority within any state boundary or globally speaking. Almost all socialist movements that sought to take power involved welding together unlikely mass coalitions. There have been extraordinary theoretical achievements – for example, by socialist feminists and theorists of racial capitalism – expanding the notion of what constitutes “class” in Marxist and other socialist theories. These have been vital for reconstituting the ways in which we fundamentally understand capitalism (and indeed much of this ecological analysis would not be possible without such intervention as it points to non-formal inputs, from unwaged labor to a variety of ecological and other sites of extraction.) In a different direction, one could argue that all persons dependent upon markets for their daily lives – a key feature of capitalism – have been “proletarianized.” But this would be a strange formulation, a “united humanity” lacking any of the specific features – a direct experience in the production of surplus value, a strategic “choke point” in capitalist production – that for Marx underwrote the revolutionary potential of the proletariat.
Marx famously argued that capitalism produced its own “grave-diggers.” But a Marxian definition of the proletariat no longer captures what is supposed to make the social position of “the working class” so vital vis-à-vis a specific experience in the production process or by its technical capability as the site in production that could potentially grind the capitalist machine to a halt. A particularly apt example when discussing climate change would be the shift Tim Mitchell notes from coal-centered energy production, which was physically dependent on the labor-power of coal-miners in the early twentieth century from Britain to Baku, to oil-centric production in which labor, reflecting the new, diffuse, transnational, technologically and geologically different foundations of the energy system, is “unable to exercise novel forms of political power.”
It is not only the case of energy systems. Unlike the global political economy of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, the shift to systems of production organized through supply chains and a system of investment organized by “macrofinancial” capital have constituted a qualitative shift in how global capital functions and in its relationship to labor. In a world dominated by supply chain production and finance, it becomes easier for capital to avoid traditional labor action. Such a shift was already perceived in the 1980s by socialist thinkers like Andre Gorz, merely compounding already existing limitations of labor-centric understandings of political subjects as detailed in works like Adam Przeworski’s classic Capitalism and Social Democracy. In light of this fundamentally different terrain, like Frantz Fanon, I wish to “stretch” or reconstitute an understanding of class or the political subject in ways that reflect the fundamental changes that the ecological presents.
What I have been calling the extractive circuit is a lattice across ecological, economic, social, political, and individual realms. Each “node” on this circuit is a specific site for value extraction, crisis, and overall system exhaustion. Such a circuit connects seemingly disparate peoples and locations. However, these nodes are also sites for potential subject production. Exhaustion should not be understood as a one-to-one relation between literal energy and human labor-power among other sites of contemporary value extraction. Exhaustion might be experienced in direct, human terms as fatigue. But it can also mean the way in which individuals feel the exhaustion of their communities, social and political systems, and direct ecological impact (think here of people already facing “deadly heat,” or whose communities have been upended by everything from rising ocean levels, to coral bleaching, to various environmental “externalities” like those associated with shale-gas hydraulic fracking.) While this is a feeling produced by material conditions, it is inchoate. It does not produce any particular politics automatically, even while it is already visible in disparate and increasing discontent, politicizations, and mobilizations in any number of directions. As with Marx’s understanding of the proletariat, this carries what can be termed a general interest. Such an interest is what I call an “anti-exhaustion agenda.”
I do not wish to be misunderstood. The fight for unionization and a newly radicalized, as-broad-as-possible labor front is vital. Labor is a key component for such a formation but it is not the only component or constituency. It may not always be the leading component. Even the situational power of labor – its power through organization to create choke points in production or, closer to today, logistics, social life, international commerce, and especially vis-à-vis state legitimation (see for example, the political orientation and efficacy of the recent teachers’ strikes or of flight attendants in the recent government shutdown) – is still important. But part of what makes this strike wave so powerful – especially in the context of the United States – is that the strikes are directed at state actors; they threaten political legitimacy, not necessarily economic and social functioning. As with the relationship between twenty-first century capital and labor, these mark a similar shift between capital and states. Even as we witness a hopeful set of radicalized labor actions across as unlikely a terrain as the United States, we must acknowledge that many of the specific characteristics that lent so much potential power to labor in industrial capitalism in the nineteenth and parts of the twentieth century do not map onto the twenty-first.
My contention is that a vast constituency exists for “the exhausted” that far exceeds traditional notions of class. Anti-exhaustion agendas have, in this moment, broader and more intense appeal than more recognizable full socialist outcomes. “The exhausted” is a more accurate depiction of the “class” formation organized in relation to the totality of the extractive circuit. It is as constituted by affective response as by social position alone. The potential power of this subject can be articulated within official civil society (unions, NGOs, and the like), in parallel community and alternative structures, and, indeed, through states. But just as there is nothing automatic about the formation of “the proletariat” into a conscious “class-for-itself,” “the exhausted” too must be organized. No plausible theory of the working class (or indeed any political formation) could be based on pure experience. “Common grievances” must coalesce into formal organization and, through class antagonism, become a political class. I have sketched this in more theoretical detail elsewhere, but it is in the translation of shared “grievance” and through the process of political struggle with “an enemy” that a unified political class is possible. Such grievances are also inchoate. Many of the organizing challenges implicit should be readily familiar to socialists.
Here I want to emphasize that (a) “the exhausted” is premised on externally knowable material conditions, and is not purely a creature of “the political;” its politics may have tremendous disruptive power towards existing political discourse but they are predicated on physical reality outside of mere discursive strategy; (b) while I have no particular commitment to “the exhausted” as a name, it represents a real and knowable “general interest” in what I have termed an “anti-exhaustion agenda” that could be rephrased as the necessary conditions for human flourishing in the Anthropocene; (c) the orientation towards democracy here is not only formal but substantial, to achieve specific goals; (d) the organization of affects focuses on unifying around grievances and a political program, rather than a libidinal investment in a charismatic leader; (e) “the exhausted” – while internally pluralistic – is externally agonistic. It seeks to defeat an enemy, not simply win-the-day; (f) while it would undoubtedly take many forms across different societies, “the exhausted” formation or class cannot remain organizationally fragmentary, ad hoc, or “fluid;” it must coalesce to be able to achieve the kind of power necessary for the truly extraordinary and quite possible conditions of human flourishing in the Anthropocene.
There is no dialectical recovery from a failure to achieve the possible degrees of successful mitigation and adaptation. A real climate politics is predicated on material reality, not idealizations of transcendental fantasies of states and even of capitalism itself.
An Anti-Exhaustion Agenda: From Green NEP to “Communist” Kerala to Green Proletkult
Without proscribing a one-size-fits-all program, there are broad outlines one can learn from synthesizing various natural and social scientific accounts while also thinking politically. Although my argument largely implies state-implementation, a vast array of partnerships between social and state institutions and organizations are possible. Indeed, a broader cultural movement far beyond orientation to states is necessary to achieve even the goals laid out here.
It’s beyond the scope of this essay to make the case of how much the relationship between “states” and “capitalism” have changed. Here, I will stipulate a few propositions: (a) many theories often treat an early capitalist model of “the state” as a quasi-trans-historical object with a deep inability to deal with the panoply of states and non-states one finds in the contemporary world, let alone new global governance infrastructures; (b) many such discussions often turn on reverent exegesis of sources rather than further material analysis based on historical and other data; (c) even when historical events are analyzed they most frequently focus on European history; (d) capital has, correctly I think, viewed democratization in the “metropole” and decolonization in the “periphery” as fundamental threats to the ability of capital to rule. It has invested tremendous resources in creating institutions of global governance to prevent popular sovereign political interference in intra- and transnational economic life; (e) while it would be a mistake to treat this as if capital has become purely “detached,” existing in some kind of digital “ether” or that the imperial structures of the twentieth century no longer have meaning, the supra-sovereign nature of twenty-first century capital and the increasingly direct force of its rule have made many state structures more “permeable” than at perhaps any previous time.
I am not making the case for a purely or chiefly state-based approach. The question is rather what are the best possible organizations, developments, and arrangements of social forces and states that can implement planned, coordinated “rapid unprecedented social transformation.” States will be part a vital part of such an arrangement. The case of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala, India from approximately 1960-2000 illustrates a set of unexplored possibilities, particularly within the context of climate change. Mass social mobilization and direct democratic practices, the encouragement of autonomous social power entwined with a “vertical” organization through a party, and the combined force of both to achieve political power through the state led to a Communist-managed capitalism with social outcomes unmatched in India and parallel with those of many advanced capitalist countries, with per capita income and GDP among the lowest in the world. Far from perfect but a deeply radical, modernist culture – that is, until it was roiled by India’s turn to neoliberalism and then Modi’s neo-fascism, not to mention recent ecological disasters.
I cannot give both the achievements and shortcomings of this case a full-treatment here, but it shows possibilities often ignored in Global North conversations. The Keralan model involved an intensity (and multiplicity) beyond what is often even dreamed of in the most autonomist, “horizontalist,” or civil society focused forms of socialist politics. As Michelle Williams, Patrick Heller, and Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze have argued, among others, it also demonstrated how such practices could be encouraged by a formal, vertical, radical party in ways that were co-constitutive and translated into state power that curtailed – if it did not obliterate – capital. Combining peasant movements for land reform, disparate social movements organized through direct democratic participation on the village-level , a militant labor movement, autonomous cultural and educational collectives, and engagement with the state by the CPI(M), it showed what taking a rather unorthodox and expansive view of differently organized and articulated social classes could achieve, and just how much social outcomes normally associated only with tremendous accumulation and affluence can be accomplished through well-coordinated public action. So many of these variables are often considered mutually exclusive in heated and abstract debates about socialist organizing. This is just one model, but one that demonstrates rather different radical possibilities that exist than within debates limited to the histories of European social democracy, the Bolsheviks, or the American labor movement.
Just as this is just one case to be learned from, and far from the only, there is also no single “anti-exhaustion agenda.” Particular emphases and parameters would necessarily shift across geographies, peoples, and conditions. But such an agenda of pretty generally applicable measures is vital. It is parameters which help us think through any socialist approach to climate politics; it is a kind of realistic assessment as set against the increasing absurdity of trying to achieve climate mitigation and adaptation goals within capitalism as we know it. But as importantly, in its contours are a vision of radical transformation not simply for “survival” but for flourishing, that is presently held back by the very system whose exhaustion such an agenda is aimed to undo:
1. Decarbonization: Not only of the energy sector but of the whole of economic life. Although I have been at pains to emphasize how much we should not treat carbon as the only question of climate change, it is a strongly preeminent one. Carbon – and the profits it generates – run throughout the entire global economy both intra- and internationally. This faces not technical problems primarily but political ones. This is impossible to achieve at this point through cap-and-trade, modest carbon taxes, and other similar “market signal” approaches. Direct state coercion – bans on extraction, extraordinary regulation, etc. – are essentially the only plausible approaches. Any transition to renewable energy must be rapid, planned, and concomitant with restriction on extraction. As mentioned above, this is impossible to achieve or even measure on national levels. Carbon leakage is like capital flight (and the two are likely to walk hand in hand): it will go somewhere. Thus, within discussions of decarbonization, we must also be talking about everything from changing IP laws to direct transfer of technology and wealth to facilitate the quick spread and adoption of renewable technologies for the vast number of people and states in the Global South that can and will develop over the next two decades.
2. Decommodified Basic Social Goods: Healthcare, housing, and even energy needs are simply more easily, more efficiently, and more sustainably handled through social and formally decommodified provision. There is tremendous evidence from ecological economics that existing market-based approaches to such goods are, ironically for some, deeply costly, cumbersome, inefficient, and above all unsustainable. Some of that literature simultaneously marks other public goods – for example education or even democracy itself – as “too costly.” It is here that a synthesis of approaches is helpful. We know from other heterodox approaches – and from the historical experiences of places like Kerala (circa 1960-2000), Cuba in the immediate post-Soviet period, or Costa Rica – that some of these “high quality of life” goods are in fact remarkably cheap to produce and maintain. These basic sectors – including transportation – must simply be moved into public hands (which need not mean state-only).
3. Agricultural Reform: Current agricultural practices, particularly in the United States, are unsustainable. Serious discussions of climate politics must implement agroecological reforms as well as prevent, for a host of explicitly ecological as well as relatedly internal economic and political reasons, the further displacement and dispossession of existing, already sustainable agricultural communities across the world. As long acknowledged in many literatures, issues not simply of “world hunger” but of a qualitatively better life for farmers and food for populations are not matters of increasing production but rather of poor distribution. Current profit-oriented agricultural production, and in particular the petro-farming associated with American food systems, are incompatible with a sustainable global ecological niche.
4. Labor Power, “Anti-Work,” and “Temporal Luxury”: These first two terms are rarely joined in many contemporary debates, but I would argue that these are intrinsic parts of an anti-exhaustion agenda. Part of the vision for decommodified social goods and social services beyond it – whether we are talking job guarantees, basic income, or other programs – must be designed to increase the power of labor vis-à-vis capital and to decrease the amount of profit extractable from individuals. This involves making sure than any such program challenges what the economist Michael Kalecki once called the power of “the sack” (i.e. getting fired.) The political necessity of this should already be clear by now but it is also an economic-ecological necessity. Some green debates on the left get trapped between a vision of a world of plenty or a world of “meaningful work.” These are not mutually exclusive. A more sustainable world with greater labor power is a world where for the vast majority of people per capita labor hours have decreased. Programs must be designed to defang capital and prevent it from intensifying extraction where it has not yet been restricted. Unwaged work, particularly care work and the work of social reproduction more broadly, must become economically central and better distributed. At the same time, we must come to understand that the current speed of capital and of our society serves only capital and its extractive needs. It is unsustainable. Part of what will make a global niche sustainable is for it to be slower. Slower travel, less work, the end of just-in-time production, what I like to call “temporal luxury” – are not only ecologically vital, they are far more enticing than visions of a truly globalized, wealthy, top income decile American lifestyle, including within the United States itself.
5. Growth Agnosticism: I borrow this term from the economist Kate Raworth, known for proposing a balance between human needs and planetary boundaries.. Debates like those currently held between “degrowth” and some advocates who think a “Green New Deal” means a return to high growth rates often talk past each other because of the obsessive focus on “growth.” Rather, we need to be talking about what we mean by “growth” which is not some good-in-itself. What we usually mean are things like better quality of life, positive social outcomes, material foundations for individual freedoms, etc. So much of what is predicated on highly extractive economic practices to constitute a “good life” is achievable at radically lower levels of wealth. Socialists should own the caricature: we’re not here to “grow” “the economy.” We’re pushing for a better life and more than happy to redistribute wealth to do it. There are relatively few human beings on Earth who care about growth per se. In terms of the technical side of these debates, just in terms of CO2 alone, a planned transition to renewable energy will reduce emissions faster than many alternative, non-catastrophic degrowth strategies. However, many ecological economists are correct to note that with existing technology (and even imaginably short-term new technologies) disconnecting economic growth from carbon-emissions seems impossible. The energy form of Jevons Paradox (increasing efficiency in the production of a resource incentivizing increased demand for it) seems to be largely true. Even in geographies producing enough renewable energy to theoretically lead to sustainability, this often just leads to increased energy consumption (because of its lowered cost) and overall energy production in carbon-based sectors.
Overall ultra-wealthy societies like the United States must, in some sense, “degrow” but while a streak of anti-human asceticism runs through a great deal of the degrowth literature, the truth is – paradoxically and unlike the immediate postwar period – decreasing “American” wealth (i.e. redistributing not only locally but internationally) will have a net benefit to most people in the United States. Our current flourishing is not held back by a lack of wealth; it is held back by the need to maintain profitability. On the other hand, transitioning to the kinds of systems described in points 1-3 will produce probably a large – if temporary – growth spurt. Thus, even in a short treatment like this, “growth agnosticism” is apt. It also must be said that it is both just but also simply a social fact that many Global South states will, formally, “grow” i.e. accumulate capital. The need to decarbonize quickly and to share technology and shift wealth as discussed in point 1 is vital but so is the need to accommodate that quite a lot of that build-up even if it is simultaneously decarbonizing will be net increases in emissions. The Global North must “make space” for the Global South. We can learn a lot from the historical experience of places like Kerala, Cuba, or Costa Rica about the possibilities of doing so much with extremely little. But this does not mean such places will (or should) deny themselves the benefits of real capital accumulation.
6. Internationalism and Global Governance: As already gestured at in points 5 and 1, an actual green politics must eventually become an international project. It is even more irrational to think of having ecological sustainability in one state than socialism in one state. Some aspects of this, like building networks and connections with similar-minded movements, should be common sense to socialists. If in state power, it should mean privileging trade and other relationships with left powers. But some of the greatest cognitive dissonance is likely to happen in this area as well. Part of breaking the power of capital and asserting some form of popular sovereignty also requires that Global South states actually be able to exercise sovereignty, or at least to the degree of the Global North.
This means coming to terms with: (a) the fact that it is in our collective interest for Global South states to truly be able to exercise sovereignty, including sometimes in ways that some people in Global North states find morally objectionable (this does not undo your moral objection, it merely distinguishes it from a political one. Quite a lot of what the United States and northern Europe does is morally objectionable; I think our Global South comrades are actually remarkably polite about it considering.); (b) working with existing state formations that many socialists will find morally objectionable. Again, think of the temporal conditions. It is very likely that a state like the United States will still exist – and thus part of the story here is figuring out how to work in, around, through and also change that state to facilitate this kind of agenda. It is also likely that other major existing states will continue to exist, even if they too will likely face myriad internal struggles; (c) similarly, even as we are talking about reasserting popular sovereignty we must also be talking about institutions of global governance. Should socialists gather the necessary power in their respective communities, states, regions, etc. much of the existing machinery of global governance will have to be repurposed for ecological-economic needs as well, not simply “smashed.”
A global human ecological niche commodious for the flourishing of seven or more billion humans will require tremendous coordination. In addition to imagining reshaped or repurposed WTOs or IMFs charged with ecological-economic needs in mind (monitoring resource cost and distribution, facilitating the kind of technological and wealth exchange in point 1 and so on), above all these institutions would be tasked with quite the reverse of what they do now. The fundamental underlying principle would be not to use the institutional and legal structure to facilitate markets – particularly capital markets – but rather to place markets and capital under democratic, popular sovereign control. It is not a world without trade but one in which trade is geared towards social outcome. While some global infrastructure is likely not salvageable, the idea of doing away with existing supply chains or building endless, redundant new parallel infrastructures across the world is simply not commensurate (and also not clearly even desirable) with a sustainable niche. Even so, though, we must think such institutions alongside a necessarily renewed commitment to sovereignty. There is no real politics that is without risk. But at the same there is far more evidence that it’s us, Global North actors, who are far riskier than our comrades in the Global South.
What I have briefly described in rather hasty, almost technocratic terms should not be misunderstood as revolutionary austerity, a grayer ecological realism to replace our already grey capitalist realism. Instead, in the full scope of such an agenda is a rather utopian promise: a release for the vast majority of people on earth, including those in wealthy Global North states, from the ever-increasing exhaustion of the extractive circuit of capitalism-as-we-know-it, a world of greater individual, social, and political security, greater freedom for migratory flows and greater guidance over capital ones, greater temporal freedom, greater if different material freedoms, and greater human flourishing. Planetary boundaries are real; but scarcity is, in many senses, still an ideologically enforced fiction.
To some, such a sketch may seem pejoratively utopian. I will simply note that these parameters describe some of what climate science tells us is needed, combined with what we know about the functioning of capitalism and political power. I have tried to work from what actually exists in the world towards a real possibility, a “concrete utopia.” I think such a program has a mass appeal that goes far beyond what any of our existing platforms offer. I think the elements here are better suited to this moment than continually trying to bang nineteenth century pegs into twenty-first century holes. It is a project for socialists who are willing to take seriously the ways in which the literal grounds of history have shifted.
The desire for the future is often the lament of living postmodernism, capitalist realism, or just the accelerating daily exhaustion of the vast majority of people on this planet, of the endless recycling of the structures and even styles that have defined capitalist modernity under the hegemonic certainty that “there is no alternative” or the endless personal and structural “adjustment” to the conditions of one’s own exhaustion. The recession of temporal horizons is an opening up of political ones, not least the path to new political imagination. Even some who are trying to grasp these possibilities still mistake the aspiration to modernism with the material fantasies of some “future” as imagined by capitalist modernity. Capitalism as we know it, as we experience and feel it, is unrealistic. Its fantasy life – far from overabundant, decadent, or free – is stunted, pathetic, and limited. People are exhausted by this life. Socialists must offer a radical alternative.
To return to perhaps more familiar terms, what I have sketched here is a Green New Economic Policy. The appeal of the anti-exhaustion agenda lies not only in the relief and freedom I just noted; it lies in the truly (if not traditionally) revolutionary potentials for new dreamworlds to thrive within it. Such a “concrete utopia” presents not one single answer but an enticing panoply of real possibilities for the present. It’s not fake “ecomodernism” vs. romantic asceticism. It’s a thousand Green Proletkults. We are not simply talking about a raft of policy proposals and political strategies. Such policies and strategies must be enacted and expressed within and through a radical understanding of the latent possibilities already present in our catastrophically organized present. Fantastic visions with maybe Mughal cooling systems. Local knowledges linked and spread. Neither technological optimism nor pessimism, but a different modernism: rethinking how we can share, employ, and enjoy a vast array of technologies retooled and redesigned for the desires of a sustainable niche. It is the desire for the future realized in creating a truly different world built from the materials and dreams, ecological and cultural, of the world we actually live in.