Contribution to GTI Roundtable Do Red and Green Mix?

Fred Magdoff

There are two possibilities, according to an old joke from Eastern Europe. This certainly applies to Löwy’s lucid essay and the comments made so far. Either the system of capitalism—based on producing commodities in order to sell for a profit, compelling competition, propelling perpetual growth (and needing it to avoid recessions and depressions), needing and promoting extreme consumerism, and lacking a built-in mechanism to minimize or avoid social and ecological consequences of production—can somehow be reformed in such a way as to provide equitable access to what is needed for a good life (buen vivir), in which all have the opportunity to reach their full human potential, while regenerating and maintaining environmental health…OR it can’t.

In a book I co-authored with Chris Williams, Creating an Ecological Society: Toward a Revolutionary Transformation, we make the case that it is the way capitalism normally functions that is either the root cause or an aggravator of the critical social and ecological problems we face. The overwhelming economic and political power concentrated in “actually existing capitalism” (as Joseph Stiglitz put it, “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%”) is so great as to make it impossible to bring about the major needed changes to the system without challenging its very existence. And as Joan Robinson wrote in words perhaps truer today than when she wrote them in the 1930s, “Any government which had both the power and the will to remedy the major defects of the capitalist system would have the will and the power to abolish it altogether.”1

It is not an issue of “fossil fuel” or “neoliberal” capitalism, but rather capitalism itself, of which these facets are but symptoms of a certain developmental stage. This does not mean that we shouldn’t be fighting for urgently needed reforms as part of the struggle for a new society, as Löwy points out.

A system under social control (socialism or ecosocialism), instead of one with decisions made by owners of private property, alone cannot guarantee an equitable and ecologically sound outcome. However, it offers the only possibility for this to happen because it affords an opportunity to take social and ecological consequences into consideration (to make rational decisions) when deciding what to produce, how to produce, where to produce, and how much to produce. Moreover, the people making the decisions, workers and people living in communities surrounding workplaces, will have to live with the results of their decisions. In capitalist society, there is no concept as “enough” for the wealthy, but goods and services are rationed for moderate to low-income people. Clearly, there will need to be limits on consumption and modest ways of living (less stuff than a “middle class” consumerist, though rich socially and culturally), but these can be based on societal decisions for all to live with.

For those who want to see a short discussion of what went wrong in post-capitalist societies (“actually existing socialism”), you might find value in the article “Approaching Socialism” (written with my father, Harry Magdoff), in which there is a section titled “Learning from the Failures of Post-Revolutionary Societies.” I would also suggest the same article for those concerned with planning as an issue. Once there is a significant social purpose and goal for the economy, there is no alternative to planning. In fact, the US had a highly successful central plan for production and distribution during the Second World War. With production for the purpose of satisfying the basic needs of the entire population in ecologically sound ways, planning—carried out locally, regionally, and multi-regionally—becomes an essential aspect.

Those who doubt that a Great Transformation to a new society based on substantive equality that incorporates ecological principles and practices will happen in time to avert the impending catastrophe may well be right. But the alternative will not be pretty.

1. Joan Robinson, “Review of R.F. Harrod, The Trade Cycle,” Economic Journal 46, no. 184 (December 1936): 691–693.

Fred Magdoff
Fred Magdoff is Emeritus Professor at the University of Vermont and co-author of What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism.

Cite as Fred Magdoff, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Do Red and Green Mix?," Great Transition Initiative (December 2018),

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