The Socialist Ecotopia

The problems of food safety are well-known. In China the baby formula scandal of 2008 hundreds of infants died or fell seriously ill. There have been several seizures of fake meat by police, the most notorious of which, in September 2013, involved the discovery of more than 20,000 kg of chemically treated pork which had been made to look like beef. Other scares have ranged from so-called ‘gutter oil’ (recycled waste oil used for cooking) through tainted dumplings to soy sauce made from human hair. In the UK, during the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of cattle had to be slaughtered after it emerged that their brains had been affected by being fed diseased animal parts rather than grass. In 2011 there was an E-coli outbreak in Germany from contaminated vegetables. This followed hard on the heels of the discovery of high levels of the toxic chemical dioxin in eggs from some German farms. We could go on about the horse-meat sold as beef scandal. But well-meaning individuals will say these faults can all be rectified by improved government inspection.

Probably a more serious issue than short-term scares is the question of the long-term health effects of eating industrially-produced food over a lifetime. The US obesity epidemic largely caused by over-consumption of unsaturated fats, sugar, fructose syrup and salt, which occur in excessive quantities in American food. According to the American Heart Association, 178.6 million people in the US were overweight or obese in 2013, largely due to bad diet. Rare before the 1940s, Type 2 diabetes has become increasingly common.

The cause is the profit-driven market economic system rather than some imagined moral shortcoming in character. Food is terribly addictive. Our brains are hard-wired for sugar, fat and salt which is supported by carefully crafted advertising specifically aimed at them.

Human beings, no matter how rich or poor, always need a reason to buy something and food marketers have tapped into this, tweaking and tailoring the message slightly for each consumer. People have, however, begun to recognise the hidden costs of factory food production, more antibiotic-resistant disease, low-nutrient food, pesticide-poisoned rivers and lakes, wasteful irrigation methods and destruction of soil fertility. Our current food system is unsustainable.

Current projections forecast that about half of Earth’s plants and animals will go extinct over the next century because of human activities, mostly due to our agricultural methods. “Until the next asteroid slams into Earth, the future of all known life hinges on people, more than on any other force,” said Gretchen Daily, a Professor in Environmental Science at Stanford. “The extinction under way threatens to weaken and even destroy key parts of Earth’s life-support systems, upon which economic prosperity and all other aspects of human well-being depend.” (1)

It is time to challenge the prevailing doom and gloom apocalyptic world view. A hopeful future is both possible. We have all the tools and the knowledge we need to turn things around starting right now. Industrialised farming and high-tech applications, such GMO products, dominate our current food system, and for sure, they may still continue to exist but other models of farming are available.

Of course, many genuine environmentalists will argue that a world of abundance is not possible to sustain, that we are over-populated, that we consume too much, that technology cannot produce what we require but will be actually counter-productive by contributing to the pollution and depletion of natural resources. All sincerely held criticisms but all come from a logic embedded in seeing the world through capitalist eyes and not of a socialist vision of a completely different type of economics.

Most scientists are politically myopic and blinkered about socialism. They may well recognise that a socialist world is not the same as the present capitalist system but decline to put the revolutionary transformation of the profit system on the agenda. The scientific community insist that they should work within today’s parameters of capitalism, and persuade the business leaders and their political retainers to implement far-reaching reforms which will impact upon profit margins. The scientists are setting out to impose on capitalism something that is incompatible with its nature. Such a strategy is exactly the route towards catastrophe!

The Post Scarcity Socialist Solution

Socialists are seeking to establish a “steady-state economy” or “zero-growth” society, a situation where human needs are in balance with the resources needed to satisfy them. The modern world is a society of scarcity, but with a difference. Today’s shortages are unnecessary; today’s scarcity is artificial. More than that: scarcity achieved at the expense of strenuous effort, ingenious organisation and the most sophisticated planning. The world is haunted by a spectre – the spectre of abundance.

Socialism means plenty for all. If the assumption of abundance is not regarded as far-fetched (which, we say it is not) then there is a “better method of ensuring individual consumer choice than voting with money or labour time vouchers, both unnecessary complication and the exchange economy remains intact. The more viable option is free access, “from each according to ability, to each according to need”.

Continuing artificial rationing and restricting access and offering privileged groups extra remuneration as in “to each according to work” is repeating the capitalist mantra of the capitalist work ethic. Why project into socialism capitalism which relies on monetary accounting, whereas socialism relies on calculation in kind. This is one reason why socialism holds a decisive productive advantage over capitalism because of the elimination for the need to tie up vast quantities of resources and labour implicated in a system of monetary/pricing accounting. In socialism calculations will be done directly in physical quantities of real things, in use-values, without any general unit of calculation. Needs will be communicated to productive units as requests for specific useful things, while productive units will communicate their requirements to their suppliers as requests for other useful things

Conventional economics declare that the true state of the world is scarcity – limited supply – versus- boundless demand, denying the potential for a state of abundance can exist. Let us define scarcity and abundance. Our wants are essentially “infinite” and the resources to meet them “limited” is the usual claim. According to this argument, scarcity is an unavoidable fact of life. It applies to any goods where the decision to use a unit of that good entails giving up some other potential use. In other words, whatever one decides to do has an “opportunity cost” — that is the opportunity to do something else which one thereby forgoes; economics is concerned with the allocation of scarce resources.

However, abundance is not a situation where an infinite amount of every good could be produced. Similarly, scarcity is not the situation which exists in the absence of this impossible total or sheer abundance. Abundance is a situation where productive resources are sufficient to produce enough wealth to satisfy human needs, while scarcity is a situation where productive resources are insufficient for this purpose. Abundance is a relationship between supply and demand, where the former exceeds the latter. In socialism a buffer of surplus stock for any particular item, whether a consumer or a producer good, can be produced, to allow for future fluctuations in the demand for that item, and to provide an adequate response time for any necessary adjustments. Thus achieving abundance can be understood as the maintenance of an adequate buffer of stock in the light of extrapolated trends in demand. The relative abundance or scarcity of a good would be indicated by how easy or difficult it was to maintain such an adequate buffer stock in the face of a demand trend (upward, static, or downward). It will thus be possible to choose how to combine different factors for production, and whether to use one rather than another, on the basis of their relative abundance/scarcity. It makes sense from an economic point of view to economise most on those things that are less available and to make greatest use of those things that are abundant. Factors lying in between these two poles can be treated accordingly in relative terms. Effective economisation of resources requires discrimination and selection; you cannot treat every factor equally – that is, as equally scarce – or, if you do, this will result in gross misallocation of resources and economic inefficiency.

If people decide that they (individually and as a society) need to over-consume then socialism cannot possibly work. Under capitalism, there is a very large industry devoted to creating needs. Capitalism requires consumption, whether it improves our lives or not, and drives us to consume up to, and past, our ability to pay for that consumption. In a system of capitalist competition, there is a built-in tendency to stimulate demand to a maximum extent. corporations, for example, need to persuade customers to buy their products or they go out of business. They would not otherwise spend the vast amounts they do spend on advertising. There is also in capitalist society a tendency for individuals to seek to validate their sense of worth through the accumulation of possessions. The prevailing ideas of society are those of its ruling class so then we can understand why, when the wealth of that class so preoccupies the minds of its members, such a notion of status should be so deep-rooted. It is this which helps to underpin the myth of infinite demand. It does not matter how modest one’s real needs may be or how easily they may be met; capitalism’s “consumer culture” leads one to want more than one may materially need since what the individual desires is to enhance his or her status within this hierarchic culture of consumerism and this is dependent upon acquiring more than others have got. But since others desire the same thing, the economic inequality inherent in a system of competitive capitalism must inevitably generate a pervasive sense of relative deprivation. What this amounts to is a kind of institutionalised envy and that will be unsustainable as more peoples are drawn into alienated capitalism.

In socialism, status based upon the material wealth at one’s command would be a meaningless concept. The notion of status based upon the conspicuous consumption of wealth would be devoid of meaning because individuals would stand in equal relation to the means of production and have free access to the resultant goods and services. Why take more than you need when you can freely take what you need? In socialism the only way in which individuals can command the esteem of others is through their contribution to society, and the stronger the movement for socialism grows the more will it subvert the prevailing capitalist ethos, in general, and its anachronistic notion of status, in particular.

The docility of the world population has contributed greatly to keeping intact the increasingly unequal, barbaric and rapacious society that is global capitalism. Because people believe there is no alternative to capitalism, it keeps on existing. Politicians are incompetent to deal with the problem. The real powers of action are with the great majority of people. This will be when we decide to create a society in which we will be free to co-operate and to use all our great reserves of energy and ingenuity for our needs. If the environmental crisis is to be solved, this system must go. What is required is political action – political action aimed at replacing this system by a new and different one. There can be no justification, on any grounds whatsoever, for wanting to retain an exploitative system which puts privileged class interests and profit before the needs of the community, which plunders nature of its resources and destroys the natural systems on which all our lives depend. The well-intentioned climate scientists fails to realise that what those who want a clean and safe environment are up against is a well-entrenched economic and social system based on class privilege and property and governed by the overriding economic law of profits first. The framework within which humans can regulate their relationship with the rest of nature in an ecologically acceptable way has to be a society based on the common ownership and democratic control of productive resources, freed from the tyranny of the economic laws that operate wherever there is production for sale on a market.

Humans are capable of integrating themselves into a stable ecosystem and there is nothing whatsoever that prevents this being possible today on the basis of technology and methods of production, all the more so, that renewable energies exist (wind, solar, tidal, geothermal and whatever) but, for the capitalists, these are a “cost” which penalises them in face of international competition. No agreement to limit the activities of the multinationals in their relentless quest for profits is possible. Measures in favour of the environment come up against the interests of enterprises and their shareholders because by increasing costs they decrease profits. No State is going to implement legislation which would penalise the competitiveness of its national enterprises in the face of foreign competition. States only take into account environmental questions if they can find an agreement at international level which will disadvantage none of them. But that’s the problem, isn’t it?

Competition for the appropriation of world profits is one of the bases of the present system. So it is not “Humans” but the capitalist economic system itself which is responsible for ecological problems and the capitalist class and their representatives, they themselves are subject to the laws of profit and competition.

The scientists striving against the environmental destruction of the world have to start with the struggle for socialism. If they can convince people of the reality of climate change, they must also explain the economic cause and present the only feasible solution.

“Capitalism can no more be ‘persuaded’ to limit growth than a human being can be ‘persuaded’ to stop breathing. Attempts to ‘green’ capitalism, to make it ‘ecological’, are doomed by the very nature of the system as a system of endless growth.” – Murray Bookchin