Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific (Winter 2019) Responses

Matt Huber has written article of which I fully share the conclusions: we need a “more radical and democratic vision of organizing production to integrate ecological knowledge and principles.” However, I was disappointed to read that he has misrepresented my own work in several places. This was especially troubling because I believe that the question of ecosocialism requires honestly debating the relationship between limits and possibility, rather than sticking to simple caricatures that those discussing limits are “dystopian” while only a proper socialist is “scientific.”

First, Huber quotes my article, “Accelerationism… and degrowth? Strange bedfellows for today’s left (full version here). In this article, I tried to offer a “a report: a conversation between the two proposals”. For a bit of fun, I recounted an activist event where participants were asked to come up with a future that they believe in. I satirized it a bit, saying that the “environment” group wanted “a decentralized society where resources were managed by bio-region—a participatory, low-tech, low-consumption economy, where everyone has to do some farming and some cleaning up, and where the city is perfectly integrated with the country. I’m pretty sure I heard sniggers as our utopia was read out loud.”

I contrasted this to what the people who brainstormed about what “work” would like in the future: “[They] envisioned a future with machines that would do everything for us—requiring big factories, where all labor (if there was any) was rewarded equally, where no one had to do anything they didn’t like, in which high-tech computer systems controlled the economy. Basically the ‘fully-automated luxury communist’ dream.”

But, I wasn’t content with easy caricatures, and wrote an article where I sought to really understand, rephrase, and weigh the two ways of thinking. Given my sincere effort to engage in honest critique, I was upset that Huber took the former quote, and then used it to say that “degrowth theorists imagine” this vision of the future. This is an uncharitable, and clearly incorrect, reading of my text—as well as a caricature of the degrowth position. Granted, there are those in the who are aligned with this vision—but from actual surveys, we know that it is a very diverse group of people, with widely varying beliefs about what the future should look like. Unfortunately, because Huber does not actually cite any degrowth literature, or go through the trouble of explaining it sincerely in his piece, readers will be left with only this incorrect caricature.

Huber later says, “Much of this thought recoils at any hint of industrial technology (or what they pejoratively call a ‘techno-fix’) or ‘eco-modernism.’” The “techno-fix” article is mine, though I’ve also written several other pieces warning about socialist ecomodernism. Any reader will think, “ah, here’s an article that ‘recoils’ at any mention of innovation or technology.” But, I invite you to read it. The piece is a response to an article in Jacobin, which offers air conditioning, powered by nuclear energy, as the key solution to the uptick in heat waves we’ll be seeing with climate change.

My main point in the article was not that “air conditioners are bad,” and neither is any technology implemented at scale, for that matter. It was that the actual science on the topic isn’t satisfied with them as the only solution. Further, I also sought to describe, from a socialist perspective, how these different tools can be fought for by the working class through everyday struggle. In other words, dialectic, material, and scientific socialism. I called the solution presented in the Jacobin article a “techno-fix,” not because it proposed a technology, but because it lacks a proposal grounded in working class struggle – technology without politics.

This is the part that gets me: Huber claims that ecosocialism must be grounded in material realities of the working class, and yet he derides me for arguing the very same thing. Is the implication that anyone presenting a political, ecological, critique of any technology is prima facie anti-modern, and therefore unscientific? I don’t write this to be nit-picky. Good critique demands of us to really try to understand the other’s writing, rephrase it, and respond to it fairly. Poor critique, on the other hand, seeks to misrepresent and mock, to beat down the other. I would hope that the pages of Socialist Forum focus on good critique and positive, collegial, and constructive debate in the future. That’s the basic requirement to practice dialectics.

But I also think it goes beyond the question of good scholarship. We are today faced with an enormous task: to bring forward a kind of politics that is at once liberatory and ecological. The very definition of democratic politics involves the recognition, and debate, of social and ecological limits—just as it requires putting forward a visionary, desirable future. If we want to go forward, we need to, at the very least among comrades, go beyond quick and easy insults of “collapse-porn addicts,” “neo-luddites,” “eco-primitivists,”  or “Prometheans.”

Aaron Vansintjan, Montreal, QC, Canada

[editors’ note: for another critical response to Matt Huber’s article, see “Degrowth is Utopian, and That’s a Good Thing” by Giorgos Kallis at Uneven Earth.] 

Matt Huber responds to Aaron Vansintjan: 

…[F]rom [utopian socialism] nothing could come but a kind of eclectic, average Socialism, which, as a matter of fact, has up to the present time dominated the minds of most of the socialist workers in France and England. Hence, a mish-mash allowing of the most manifold shades of opinion: a mish-mash of such critical statements, economic theories, pictures of future society by the founders of different sects, as excite a minimum of opposition; a mish-mash which is the more easily brewed the more definite sharp edges of the individual constituents are rubbed down in the stream of debate, like rounded pebbles in a brook. To make a science of Socialism, it had first to be placed upon a real basis. – Friedrich Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific

Here Engels is engaging in the polemical critique central to his (and Marx’s) political style. To avoid a mish-mash of “average socialism,” Engels sets out to sharpen the edges between scientific and utopian socialism. The stakes are high because these utopian ideas still dominated socialism in 1880 (one could argue that Marx and Engels’s ideas did not really take hold until after Marx’s death in 1883). The goal of polemics is not necessarily to generate what Aaron Vansintjan calls for: “positive, collegial, and constructive debate” (of course, I do think this should exist. It’s also not particularly “fair” that Vansintjan asserts we need to go beyond “insults” I never said in his last sentence).

My strategic goal was similar in my piece: sharpen the differences between a scientific vision of socialism and much of the “common sense” of environmental politics (including much ecosocialism). This common sense has led to a “mish-mash” of opinion with a “minimum of opposition”:  ideas labelled as ecomodernism and techno-fixes are bad, and small-scale agriculture and less consumption are good.

If Vansintjan were really concerned with debate he would have engaged with the main arguments. Instead, he’s focused on the introduction where I give brief examples of what I consider “fanciful” (unscientific) visions of the future. Even more narrowly, he’s concerned with where I cite his work (and his response is largely an elaboration of his own work).

I should first respond to Vansintjan’s claim that I engaged in an, “…uncharitable, and clearly incorrect, reading of my text—as well as a caricature of the degrowth position.”  In retrospect, I wish I just named Vansintjan rather than labeling him a “degrowth theorist.” My goal in this brief example was not to characterize “the” degrowth position, let alone provide a critique of degrowth politics (though I do see Vansintjan as an intellectual leader in degrowth and the piece has it in the title).

The key issue is the quote Vansintjan insists I misread. Again, my goal was to show fanciful visions of the future. This is Vansintjan’s own description of the event: “…activists from around London were invited to brainstorm what a leftist utopia could look like… We were first asked to place post-its with ideas for ‘futures’ particular to each theme.” Vansintjan reports he joined the “environment” group and they came up with the vision I quote directly. Now, Vansintjan says his portrayal of this vision was “satire.” Unfortunately I did not get the satire and simply thought it was a representation of what the group thought. It seemed to me (and still does) a fair example of how much environmental thought has unrealistic visions of possible futures.

I do want to respond to one substantive thing he says: “The very definition of democratic politics involves the recognition, and debate, of social and ecological limits.”  This is something Vansintjan constantly says in other writings. While true in a general sense, I think the relentless focus on limits is a problem. It is no accident that The Limits to Growth (1972) was published at precisely the same moment neoliberals were calling for austerity, deunionization, and wage restraint. For decades, the working class has experienced nothing but limits in the daily struggle to afford the basics of survival. Strategically, it’s a losing proposition to attempt to rebuild the defeated left (let alone socialism) by shouting we need to talk about limits. Capitalism is a system of profound abundance amidst grinding limits for the majority.

Ecosocialism must align itself with a more traditional socialist politics not of limits and less, but of more. To be clear: I don’t just mean more material stuff (although some – like the 40 million Americans suffering from hunger – need exactly that). I mean more time, more community and human relationships, more nonhuman life, and, yes, for some, more stuff like health care and housing. A politics of limits appeals to one demographic: the educated professional classes who feel excessive and suffer deep anxiety over their consumption and complicity in climate breakdown. But, this is a minority of population (Kim Moody, for example, estimates the professional class as 22% of the U.S. workforce). We won’t win on the basis of appealing to their anxiety. A scientific ecosocialism can only be won through a mass movement that offers material improvements to the lives of the vast majority.