A plan to save the future
An increasing flow of books is being published on the necessity of establishing a real socialist society, moneyless, wageless, leaderless and planetary. This would be a society with free access to all goods and services based on voluntary cooperation and the principle of from each according to ability and to each according to need. Many of these books have been reviewed and evaluated in the Socialist Standard. But now going qualitatively further than all the others, we have a new one proposing a detailed plan of how a world non-market society could operate in practical and organisational terms. Half-Earth Socialism: A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change and Pandemics by Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass, Verso, 2022 (see review XX in this issue) is founded on profound knowledge of and reflection on the scientific and technological problems that such a society would need to deal with and overcome. As such, it constitutes a thrillingly imaginative leap into the fundamentals of a world organised for the common good of humanity and the natural environment.
It adopts a novel structure framed by two ‘what if?’ chapters. The first of these is entitled ‘Looking Backwards: 2047’ (à la Edward Bellamy) and describes the ‘dystopian future’ with ‘environmental collapse and feudal levels of inequality’ seen as inevitable if the present system of society, based on the market and ‘price signals’, is allowed to continue. The second of these chapters, entitled ‘News from 2047’ (à la William Morris’), offers a kind of -day-to-day outline of what a future society ‘without money or a market’ could be like and how it could operate once humanity collectively decides to take steps to reverse the decline of the biosphere, to ‘simultaneously create a just society’, and ‘to provide the basis for socialism in our lifetime’. In this the authors consciously eschew Marx’s warning against writing ‘recipes for the cookshops of the future’. In fact they attempt to do just that, to describe what they call ‘a total alternative to capitalism’, ie, how ‘economic co-ordination’ would function in socialism, ‘a society where the economy is consciously and democratically controlled’ – a definition of socialism that we would fully accept. The book offers, as the authors put it, ‘everything from a plan for resource allocation to an outline of what life will feel like’.
In between these two chapters the authors do a number of other key things. Firstly, they examine some of the major ideas and schemes put forward over the centuries in which capitalism has existed and grown to understand that system and bring it under control. They look at a range of ‘competing philosophies of nature and social and economic developments’: for example Malthus, with his dread of the still commonly held idea of ‘overpopulation’, described here as ‘dangerously exaggerated’; Hegel, with his ‘humanization of nature’ theory; Mises and Hayek who saw the market as the only feasible way to organise an advanced society and as a self-organising system which humans interfere with at their peril; and Marx and Neurath, both of whom see capital as ‘blindly steering the ship of fools towards ecological disaster’ and destroying ‘the world it cannot see’. This part of their analysis leads to the conclusion that what is needed is an end to what they call ‘the capitalization of nature’ and ‘a new relationship between humanity and nature’. Failing this, they see humanity facing a future of ‘ever greater inequality, disease, climatic disaster, and ecological impoverishment’.
They then go on to examine various current solutions on offer, mainly those ‘green’ ones that are presented as ways of stemming the degradation of the environment (eg, geoengineering, carbon capture and storage, nuclear power, biofuels). They reject these as feasible remedies in their own right, since their advocates tend to envision their use only within the context of the market and its production and distribution of goods and services as commodities. As the authors put it: ‘Mainstream environmentalists approach the environment crisis as a set of discrete technical problems, addressable through piecemeal reform, while leaving the capitalist foundation of society untouched’. The authors are particularly hostile to animal husbandry, referred to as ‘the Earth-eating livestock industry’, taking up as it does ’40 per cent of earth’s inhabitable land’ and creating ‘massive mammalian extinction’. Their solution, which they start to outline here, is to practise ‘natural geoengineering’, drawing down carbon and allowing rewilded ecosystems to occupy half the earth’ (hence the book’s title), and so restore biodiversity and create ‘a fully renewable energy system’. They are also advocates of veganism, considering it capable of satisfying ‘the requirement of feeding everyone with the smallest environmental impact’. All of this, however, they see as impossible under the capitalist system, which by its nature produces goods and services for profit.
Is socialist planning possible?
It is in the following chapter, entitled ‘Planning Half-Earth’, that the proposed solution they have already outlined is fleshed out. Details are given concerning how the earth’s resources can be used in a rational and sustainable way under world-wide arrangements that eschew money, the market and exchange and instead use ‘another kind of global model’ based on ‘integrated assessment models’ (IAMs) and ‘linear programming’. These methods, they tell us, already exist but their real potential can come nowhere near to being properly realised within the market system. Referring to their proposals as ‘scientific utopianism’, after the term coined by early 20th century theorist, Otto Neurath, they claim that such a model needs no universal equivalent such as money but can function effectively via in natura’ (ie, ‘in kind’) world-wide planning. This, they contend, can consistently and in an ongoing way ‘combine multiple goals’, pulling together all the necessary information regarding resources, skills and needs to ensure that production and distribution meet all the reasonable democratically agreed requirements of a cooperative planetary population. In this way humanity can ‘provide a good life for our abundant species and still protect the environment’. This is eminently possible, they go on, given that ‘the data density of the contemporary world, paired with the algorithms climate scientists have designed to handle it, greatly expands planning capacities’. Having explained all this in impressive detail, they do then advise that the precise set-up they advocate for a socialist society should at this stage be considered ‘a thought experiment’, but nevertheless one which will ‘allow us to imagine what socialism might look like in practice’.
There is no doubt, however, that this recipe they dare to write for the cookshop of their future is a highly encouraging one, providing much in the way of effective counter-argument to objections that a society without monetary accounting could not be organised efficiently or that it would quickly degenerate into shortage and social chaos. The insights they provide in the ‘Limits of Planning’ section of their ‘Planning Half-Earth’ chapter, and in the day-in-a-life type ‘News from 2047’ chapter, also give helpful and fascinating food for thought about how ongoing democratic choice could take place within a socialist society among a population free to express that choice.
Setting up socialism
All this adds up to a meticulously researched and documented work, which will, in its broad lines at least, convince any fair-minded reader both of the urgent need for a different kind of society and also of a viable way in which it could be organised if workers throughout the world were to take action to establish it. This would be a kind of society organised without money and without the ‘embedded form of coercion’ that is forced employment. Yet, while the book is also effective in debunking, as the authors put it, ‘the delusions of the political centre and Left’, what it is somewhat short on is much to do with the mechanism of precisely how the society they advocate can come about. Yes, socialism will have to be planned in advance, as the authors make clear, but, as the Socialist Party argues, that can only seriously begin once the majority have begun to espouse the concept and can only work if the plans are fully developed before the change takes place. The authors seem to think that it can be sort of half-planned in advance, but that it will take some time after it has been established for it to be fully operative. Yet, once the necessary spreading of consciousness of the need for socialism has been achieved and plans for it have been made, there seems no reason why a democratic, moneyless, marketless society will not be able to be voted in via democratic political action (ie, the ballot box), and then be set up and be operative virtually immediately. The political control needed to coordinate the change will already be there. Yes, some tweaks, some forms of trial and error, some ongoing revisions are bound to be necessary, but none of this will prevent the basic structures of socialism from operating fully both for the benefit of humanity and of the environment. And, who knows, perhaps it will even be along the lines of the ‘integrated assessment models’ and ‘linear assessment’ envisioned by the authors?
Their main objection to socialism being established in this way via the ballot box seems to be that the capitalist class will not allow it. To support this they paraphrase (rather than quote directly) Engels’ 1886 introduction to the first English translation of Volume I of Marx’s Capital as ‘if a dedicated socialist party were to ever win [elections], the ruling class would unleash a “pro-slavery rebellion” against a “peaceful and legal revolution”’. Yet the main evidence they adduce that this would happen, ie, the toppling of the Allende government in Chile in 1973, is hardly relevant, since that regime was in no way socialist in the sense that they (or) we advocate the idea. And, in fact, Marx’s views on this were far more nuanced than the authors suggest and do not exclude a peaceful, democratic takeover by a majority via the ballot box. In addition, they also seem to show a certain naivety in being prepared to recognise recent or current oppressive state-capitalist regimes (eg, Soviet Union, Maoist China, Cuba) as somehow being attempts at socialism or on the way to it, when any connection of these regimes to socialism is purely rhetorical. Their unfortunate blind spot in this area even leads to them referring to Trotsky and Stalin as ‘20th century socialists’ and the ANC in South Africa as a party of ‘modern, internationalist socialism’.
Humanity and nature
But these are relatively minor points of contention for us in an important book that packs an enormous amount of knowledge and reflection into little more than 200 pages. It advocates basically what the Socialist Party advocates: a wholly democratic society of meaningful work which frees all humans from the threat of poverty and where the government of people is replaced by the administration of things. It also deals convincingly with the ‘motivation’ argument (part of the frequently heard ‘human nature’ objection), characterising socialism as a society in which ‘motivation’ will be provided by ‘positive incentives’ such as ‘social obligation, personal satisfaction, pride’. And, finally, with its strong focus on the ongoing degradation and possible collapse of the natural environment, it emphasises the need for what it calls ‘a new relationship between humanity and nature’ and looks forward, as we do, to ‘the prospect of a unified humanity … with an economy built around, care, health and unalienated labour’.