Author's Response to GTI Roundtable Do Red and Green Mix?

Michael Löwy

Let me begin by thanking Paul Raskin for inviting me to participate in this important dialogue on the Great Transition. I am pleased that my paper on ecosocialism provoked such a lively discussion. Of course, there were many criticisms and polemics, but this will help me to clarify, revise, or reassess my arguments. As Paul Raskin has emphasized elsewhere, the aim of the GT is a post-capitalist civilization. This distinguishes us from the array of well-wishing environmentalists (and/or social-democrats) that still believe that a reasonable solution for the ecological crisis is possible in the framework of the capitalist system (designated by the usual euphemism “market economy”).

I am pleased that Herman Daly, who is not only a distinguished scholar but also a very influential environmentalist, decided to participate in this dialogue. I entirely subscribe to his critique of “growthism” and his call for limiting resource and energy consumption. He describes such “growthism” as a system that is “consuming the life support capacity of the ecosystem for the benefit of a small minority of the present generation, while shifting the real but uncounted costs on to the poor, future generations, and other species.” This is what we are up against.

Most commenters agree on the need for a substantial degrowth in production and consumption. However, there are problems with the concept of degrowth which have to be discussed.

For one, degrowth is a necessary but insufficient term to describe the needed changes. A qualitative distinction between different sorts of activities is essential. As an ecosocialist, I believe that some branches of “production” or services should not “degrow” but be suppressed as soon as possible: coal-fired facilities, coal-mines, oil extraction, weapons production, the advertisement industry, glyphosate pesticides, etc. And we need to suppress in-built obsolescence, which concerns most of the products in capitalist markets. The production and consumption of a number of goods should be significantly reduced ("degrow"): private cars, trucks, air conditioning, meat consumption, etc. And others should grow, such as renewable energies and organic agriculture, which should grow until they practically replace fossil energies and agro-industry. Essential services such as education, health, and culture should grow as well. The concept of “degrowth” does not take into account these decisive differences.

In his comment, Daly speaks of “growthist capitalism.” Does this mean that there can exist a “non-growthist” capitalism? There is no clear answer in his comments. He speaks of a "green economy," where the basic goods are allocated by the market according to “supply and demand” and where the “profit motive” remains a legitimate driver of economic behavior. This looks suspiciously similar to capitalism. In any case, Daly does not mention postcapitalism as basic presupposition of the Great Transition.

Instead, Daly spends much of his comments criticizing the so-called “really existing socialisms.” Well, I agree with most of his critical remarks. In fact, in my view (and that of many Marxists), these societies were not really “socialist,” but, at best, (failed) attempts of transition from capitalism to socialism. But pointing to the disasters of the USSR to delegitimize any socialist proposal is a Cold War throwback. Such a line of argumentation has lost much of its power recently, particularly in the United States, as a new generation of young people seems to be actively interested in democratic socialist proposals.

I agree with Daly that we need a combination of planning and markets, but the way both are combined in a “green capitalist” and in an ecosocialist economy is quite different. Vishwas Satgar, for example, has some very useful comments on how to combine regulated markets and planning in ecosocialism. Democratic planning of course has nothing to do with the choice between wooden or brass screws (another old argument from the 50s against the idea of planning). As John Bellamy Foster and other ecosocialists point out, it concerns the main issues in production and consumption. For instance, the decision to subsidize organic fruits and vegetables instead of industrial chemical agriculture is a political one, and it would be part of the process of democratic planning. The minutiae of their distribution via markets or other mechanisms? Less so.

I entirely agree with those who underscored the value of eco-localism, ecovillages, etc. Does this mean we should ignore the nation-state? As John Bellamy Foster argues, it is a mistake to remain only on a regional or local level “while the Trumps, Bolsonaros, and Exxon-Mobils are taking over the world.” I have much sympathy for the idea of a non-state political organization, but it cannot remain only at a local level: one must combine action and organization at the local, regional, national, continental, and global levels.

In his discussion of moving beyond the state, Alex Khasnabish refers to Murray Bookchin. In my view, Bookchin’s social ecology is very near to ecosocialism, first of all by its outspoken anticapitalist orientation. My main objection to his socialist municipalism is that it seems grounded in the idea that local communities could be self-contained, or even autarkic. The fascinating Kurdish experience in Northern Syria, based on Bookchin’s ideas and mentioned in the debate, has a more realistic practice, combining local assemblies with a strong democratic political coordination: elected representatives at a Democratic Syrian Council, and a common government for the whole region.

Let me now come to one of the main objections to my paper: that we have no time, that climate change is so urgent (in a few years, it will be too late to stop disastrous global warming) that we cannot wait for ecosocialism. Well, I did not really propose that we “wait”! In my paper, I emphasized that the struggle for green socialism in the long term requires buying time and fighting for concrete and urgent reforms in the near term. The fact that “sustainable capitalism” is as possible as a vegetarian crocodile does not mean that we should not fight for immediate and urgent change.

One of the forms this short-term change can take is a “Green New Deal,” as recently popularized by New York Congresswoman-Elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In some renditions, this would entail the early nationalization of the energy industry in every nation, coupled with their decentralization and with community management and ownership of clean energy. Great! But I see this as a clearly anticapitalist measure, which goes against the most fundamental principles of the system.

Any measure which limits the destruction of nature, even if on a limited, local scale—such as stopping the Keystone XL pipeline—is vital. But I see these measures as a process, leading to growing antisystemic opposition, not as the effort to create a stable “sustainable capitalism.”

Several participants (Simon Mair, Mary Mellor, Ashish Kothari) criticized me for lacking details, for not providing a more concrete description of how ecosocialism works and how we get there. For one, I had a limited number of words. But, more importantly, my ecosocialist proposal does not aim at a detailed blueprint, a readymade system, because flexibility and openness are needed, and, frankly, I do not have the answer to all questions.

As Bellamy Foster noted, there are many proposals to “go beyond” and deepen the analysis. Let me mention a few:

Indigenous struggles: Indigenous communities, for instance in the Americas, from Canada to Patagonia, are on the forefront of the struggle against capitalist destruction of the environment, against the razing of forests and poisoning of waters. They are at the moment the socio-ecological vanguard of humanity, and their fight in defense of the Amazonian forest is of utmost importance for the future of climate in the planet. It should be added that women are often the most active component of these traditional communities, from which we have much to learn. As the well-known Peruvian indigenous leader Hugo Blanco used to say, “We have been practicing ecosocialism for the last 5 centuries.”

Class struggle: Of course, this is essential for a true system change. But it cannot be reduced, as it is often done, to the struggle between industry workers and factory owners. For a social-ecological transition, a broad anticapitalist coalition is needed, including workers (male and female), unemployed people, homemakers, farmers, indigenous communities, racial minorities, students, artists, youth, and poor people in general, against the entrenched fossil oligarchy.

Care, discussed, for example, by Mary Mellor and Simon Mair: I believe that a culture of care ethics, both in human relations, and towards our Mother Earth, is perhaps the most important contribution of ecofeminism to the ecosocialist project.

Michael Löwy
Michael Löwy is a French-Brazilian Marxist sociologist and philosopher. He serves as Emeritus Research Director at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris and is the co-author, with Joel Kovel, of An Ecosocialist Manifesto (2001). His published works include On Changing the World: Essays in Political Philosophy from Karl Marx to Walter Benjamin and Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to the Capitalist Ecological Catastrophe.

Cite as Michael Löwy, author's response to GTI Roundtable "Do Red and Green Mix?," Great Transition Initiative (December 2018),

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