Contribution to GTI Roundtable Do Red and Green Mix?

Vishwas Satgar

Michael Löwy’s essay on ecosocialism has stimulated an interesting array of critiques from feminists, democrats, eco-capitalists, and more in this exchange. This is an exciting debate and, I would argue, a necessary one to ensure the twenty-first-century return of “socialism” is not grounded in abstract certainties, dogmatic formulas, and intellectual vanguardism. From the African context, particularly South Africa, after two decades of disastrous post-apartheid financialization and unleashing of unbridled markets, we are facing realities that even the World Bank is confounded by in its recent 2018 report. The World Bank suggests that, by any metric, we are one of the most unequal countries in the world. Yet the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) has made these observations since 2014. Their research has shown that the top 10% gets two thirds of South Africa’s income, while half of all South Africans are chronically poor, living in households with a per capita income of R1,149 or less per month.

Beside such hideous inequalities, South Africa has a structurally contracting economy and a carbon intensity per capita surpassing that of China, India, and Brazil. Its democracy has been dramatically weakened by the power that credit rating agencies wield, the grip of monetarist policy that merely privileges globalized interests and systemic levels of corruption, which most political elites have surrendered to, as part of the normalcy of a “market democracy.” Our current drought is the worst in the history of the country and is certainly our first climate shock. Pre-existing inequalities are supplemented by new climate inequalities such as increases in food prices, water privatization, etc. South Africa is a poster nation for a 3-4 degree increase in planetary temperature. Of course, it is not alone alongside other OECD countries, including the US, which has eclipsed Saudi Arabia and Russia in fossil fuel extraction, due to the fracking boom and Trump’s carbon capitalism.

South Africa and its carbon democracy do not have a future with more of the same marketized approach, even in a lightly renovated form, as suggested by economists such as Dani Rodrik. So we are sitting with a National Development Plan (neoliberal, financialized, and marketized), which is meant to guide our development till 2030. This plan includes more exports of primary commodities like minerals and agriculture, reproducing our coal driven minerals-energy complex and a globalized food system while 14 million go hungry every day. Carbon emission scenarios are based on science that is already outdated due to the latest IPCC report, and renewable energy is locked into a ceiling of 20,000 megawatts by 2030 to ensure that the World Bank can recover its loan finance (plus interest) for some of the biggest coal-fired power stations in the world.

South Africa’s National Development Plan is not about democratic planning as envisaged by Löwy. Instead, it is a technocratic ideological device that even fails at class compromise. It speaks to global markets and institutions that merely want to see a disciplined subject, a “good governed” African state that marches in tune with the strictures of the IMF, World Bank, WTO, and the global power structure that manages a globalized capitalism and is not willing to learn lessons from history. Karl Polanyi’s historical sequence, highlighted in The Great Transformation, of marketized capitalism in the late nineteenth century which led to the collapse of the international system and World War I, then again, unleashed with the return to the gold standard and which ultimately led to World War II, does not inform the economics departments or institutions in Europe or the US. After the crash circa 2007-2009, we are returning to more of the same, more dis-embedded markets!

In this context, capitalism has clearly not learned lessons from its past, including the hollowing out of democracy it has engendered, and its current failures. A democracy that privileges the sovereignty of capital over the state and society is not a democracy. It is a market democracy based on the tyranny of the modern corporation. The demos reduced to a political market with limited ideological choices is not a democracy. In this context, is the US taking us into World War III as it tries to reassert its dominance after the recent and ongoing crisis? A naturalized hegemony of capitalism is as dangerous as an unreflective socialism.

Capitalism carries the burden of its horrors, limits, and failures. So does socialism. It does not help the debate to be one-sided on these issues. For socialism, there are two issues in this rich history which ecosocialists cannot run away from and which has been foregrounded in this exchange. Democracy as rule by, with, and for the demos is absolutely necessary. Moreover, markets as embedded, regulated, values-based, and socialized institutions are also absolutely necessary. Radical democracy and markets will have to find a place alongside democratic planning in variegated contexts and through the struggles that are emerging in different societies to prevent the ecocidal extinction of all of us. These institutions cannot be blueprinted, designed, or prescribed, but will emerge as struggles develop to advance democratic systemic reforms to achieve democratic ecosocialisms (plural) in the twenty-first century. Food sovereignty, solidarity economy, climate jobs, socially owned renewable energy, zero waste, and water commoning are just some of the democratic systemic reforms envisaged by current movements at the frontlines of climate justice. They embody radical democracy, socialized markets, and democratic planning as crucial aspects of the logic of these democratic systemic reforms. Moreover, anti-racism and women’s emancipation are central to the imaginary of these decolonizing and transformative alternatives. Many of these democratic systemic reforms feature in a volume I recently edited titled Climate Crisis: Democratic Ecosocialism in South Africa and the World.

Finally, socialism was diverse in the twentieth century—social democracy, Sovietized socialism (and its copies), and revolutionary nationalism (Nyere’s African socialism, Nehruvian socialism in India, etc.). In the Global South in reflecting on our legacies of socialism, we also have to take stock of the paths not taken, which also feed into the constitution of the democratic ecosocialist imagination in the twenty-first century. In this regard, various examples stand out, such as Minqi Li’s critique of China’s socioecological limits and the transformations required. Another example is Gandhi’s critique of Western modernity, commitment to village-based democracy and stewardship of the commons, and his bioethic of living slowly and minimally which did not triumph against Nehru’s productivist and nationalist socialism. Add to this the historical critique by indigenous communities of forced modernization (including productivist socialisms), its dangers, and the need for the validation of indigenous ecologies. Democratic ecosocialism is not merely an intellectual debate; it is central to the practice, struggles, and visions of movements struggling to overcome the eco-fascist logic of carbon capitalism. Moreover, in the twenty-first century, the horizons and imaginary of democratic ecosocialism certainly do not belong exclusively to Marxist ecologists, including myself.

Vishwas Satgar
Vishwas Satgar is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand and editor of the book series Democratic Marxism.

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

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