Roundtable

Contribution to GTI Roundtable Do Red and Green Mix?

Simon Mair


Capitalist realism is the idea that at the level of our cultural imagination, there is no alternative to capitalism. The term originally named a 1960s German pop-art movement concerned with a growing consumer culture. In his 2009 book, Mark Fisher extended the meaning of the term from art to everything. According to Fisher, capitalist realism is the condition where vast swathes of society are unable to imagine alternatives to capitalist social structures.

I am a product of capitalist realism. I was born in 1990, several months after the Berlin Wall was opened. I do not remember the wall coming down. I have no memories of the “actually existing socialism of the past” that Löwy references. In this way, I am a good proxy for the new wave of “socialists” in the UK. (I will focus on the UK context because I know it best, but there are parallels with other countries—not least the US).

The clearest example of the new socialists are those who joined the UK Labour party when Corbyn was elected. Dismissively named “Corbynistas,” we are simultaneously critiqued by many as being radical fools who want planned economies, and middle-class moderates more interested in cheaper train fares than actual economic change. There are grains of truth in both accusations. We do want genuinely radical change. But it is simply much easier to articulate how we deliver on nationalizing the railways than genuinely democratic ownership of all the means of production.

In a nutshell, this is the manifestation of capitalist realism amongst UK millennials: we don’t want capitalism. But we’re not able to articulate just what it is that we do want.

This is the context in which I approached Löwy’s essay, and in this context I think it is valuable. I am sympathetic to the view from skeptics that we do not have time to dismantle capitalism before catastrophic climate change hits. But I fear that misses the point that we need to motivate people to action. I am not convinced that at this particular political moment (at least in the UK), arguing that fighting climate change must mean propping up an increasingly atomistic and alienating society will spur people to action. What anti-capitalist alternatives like Löwy’s offer is hope: fight climate change by building something better. For those living on a steady diet of capitalist realism, the utopian impulse of anti-capitalist programs can be motivating.

If I have a criticism of Löwy’s essay, it is that it does not go into enough detail on the structures of the new ecosocialist world. If ecosocialism, or any alternative, is to motivate climate action by inspiring us to collective political action, it must compete with the capitalist social structures that my generation have lived with all our lives. To do this, the alternative must be presented with enough detail that we can believe it could be real.

The distribution of goods is a good example of my desire to see more detail. To be honest, I am not particularly interested in defending markets. I remain skeptical of the idea that they offer the best possible way to distribute food, clothing, and shelter. Nor am I convinced that markets really can be separated from inequalities of power and money. (Of course, this could just be because I, unlike others here, have not experienced non-market economies firsthand.) But while I am ready to reject market-dominated production, I struggle to understand exactly how distribution would work in the ecosocialist vision Löwy sets out. I understand the principle of nested democratic decision-making, but I struggle to picture concrete structural forms. In my reading, Löwy doesn’t actually do away with markets altogether, but restricts them and puts them under democratic control. But how?

Similarly, what are the cultural principles that guide production in Löwy’s ecosocialist vision? Löwy argues that he is describing a society with a different cultural basis than capitalism. Specifically, one free from commodity fetishism and the imperative of profit making. I know it is a big ask, but I would really like to know what Löwy would like to see replace these cultural imperatives. Personally, I am taken with the idea of a life-centered economy that we find in feminist-socialist works like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland and, more recently, Kathi Weeks’s The Problem with Work. Here the guiding principles for a socialist economy are based on a cultural ethic of care. Is such an ethic compatible with ecosocialism, or does it imply something else altogether?

To wrap up, I would argue that this kind of leftist theory has a crucial role to play in a Great Transition. Growing numbers of people want something better than capitalism. The kind of work done by Löwy here can help to cultivate social imaginations so that those of us who live under capitalist realism are able to imagine something better. Only then will we build towards it and enact change. Löwy’s essay helped me to push at the boundaries of my own capitalism-constrained imagination. But, because capitalism is so real to us, we need more. And in this vein I ask, very unfairly, for Löwy and others to go further, to put more flesh on the bones of this vision and to help me get to the point where this vision is not just vaguely imaginable, but something that can be a tangible objective of political organization.


Simon Mair
Simon Mair is an ecological economist and lecturer in circular economy at the University of Bradford. His research focuses on building narratives about what a desirable and sustainable society might look like and how to get there.


Cite as Simon Mair, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Do Red and Green Mix?," Great Transition Initiative (December 2018), https://www.greattransition.org/roundtable/ecosocialism-simon-mair.

As an initiative for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.


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