By Aaron Vansintjan
Let us dream big. But without considering the limits to the shit we consume and generate, our heads will stay in the clouds.
Editors’ note: This is the first in a series of ENTITLE blog articles that critically engage with the ongoing discussions about “eco-modernist socialism” and “communist futurism”, projected in Jacobin magazine’s climate change issue ‘Earth, Wind, and Fire.’ Our series continues the debate with critical insights that question the foundations of these proposals. In particular, whether they imply a substantive transformation of current capitalist socio-ecological regimes, or their continuation and even expansion. The series will also feature contributions by Stefania Barca and Emanuele Leonardi.
Why languish in despair? After decades of neoliberal cutbacks and in the face of climate disaster, something new is appearing on the horizon: the willingness to think big. With the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, the Left has caught on to a wave of hope and humor, rejecting self-flaggelation and hand-wringing to sincerely embrace positive visions of the future. There’s a new kind of socialist futurism in the air, best encapsulated by memes like ‘Acid Corbynism’ and ‘Fully-Automated Luxury Communism’.
What unites such visions of the future is that they do not seek to reject modernity, as is often done on the left. Rather, they fully embrace its possibilities. Many adherents view themselves as properly Marxist. As the Communist Manifesto points out, while capitalism continuously tears us apart, it also creates an awesome global infrastructure and culture that offers the conditions of its own destruction.
Because of this stance, the new communist futurism often doesn’t have a very kind opinion of environmentalism. For example, in books like No Local, Acid Communism, Inventing the Future, and Austerity Ecology, Luddism, back-to-the-land movements, and localism are dismissed as primitivist romanticism that cannot help us go beyond capitalism. Let’s not be afraid of technology and global markets, these futurists say, let’s use them to their full potential to liberate humanity from drudgery.
Unfortunately, this position tends to put the new communist futurists very close to the ecomodernists. Taking Bruno Latour’s admonition to ‘love your monsters’ a bit too seriously, the ecomodernist manifesto says that we should fully embrace the Anthropocene and Man’s capacity for transforming the Earth. It’s indicative that Latour himself has rejected the ecomodernists, suggesting that the Anthropocene is not a moment to extend the grip of our control over Earth, but to consider that Earth will not obey Man’s commands.
Most recently, ecomodernist socialism was on full display in Jacobin’s climate change issue ‘Earth, Wind, and Fire.’ Since its release, there have been two responses by prominent eco-Marxists. Ian Angus wrote an off-the-cuff memo on the issue, taking aim at ecomodernism. More recently, John Bellamy Foster wrote a lengthy critique, scolding these young ecomoderns for their unapologetic techno-fetishism.
I do think that what Jacobin attempted in this issue was necessary. That a socialist magazine was willing to actually engage with these issues rather than, as has been the norm so far, bluntly ignoring them, is a good thing. Further, Foster paints a very wide brush. Pieces by Alyssa Battistoni, Thea Riofrancos, and Daniel Aldana Cohen in the same issue manage to avoid many of the pitfalls of ecomodernism.
Given this, I’m not interested in critiquing, line-by-line, Jacobin’s take on climate change. I’m actually in favor of the new wave of visionary thinking. But my main point is that our visions for the future need to be more shitty. Literally. Shit can be easy to ignore, it becomes effluent and is then put out of sight. If I had more space, I would’ve liked to describe several ecological precepts that deal with the shit of this world: the rebound effect, EROEI, entropy, cost-shifting, and social metabolism. When taken together, these principles, missing in the communist futurist vocabulary, indicate that there are limits to the economy’s material and energetic throughput (i.e., shit)— a problem not solved by replacing one energy source with another or ‘decoupling’ growth from environmental impact. But here I stick to discussing what I believe is most essential to any ecologically sound utopian future: the politicization of limits.
I would concede that, in North America, a degrowth platform may be political suicide. Calls for less can be interpreted as eco-austerity; in some way, this is a valid position, because we really do need to put forward some big ideas instead of just demanding that people tighten their belts in the face of monolithic environmental scarcity. However, why ‘modest’ growth is needed, and what is meant by growth, is never explained. Neither is there any support for the claim that we need an increase in energy use—there is only heavy and uncritical reliance on the (very disputed) work of Mark Jacobson et al. The claim that any proposal for doing less amounts to eco-austerity is also confusing, because austerity is always demanded for the sake of more growth, not less. As Jason Hickel recently pointed out, this argument never really holds up, because despite times of austerity and increased inequality, consumers have become less happy but consume ever more stuff. So it’s important to be very clear about what kinds of growth we’re talking about, rather than just dismiss degrowth outright.
Indeed, we could ask why communist futurists are very willing to advocate for a shorter workweek (a worthy cause) when they are reticent to propose any kind of material or energetic reduction. Why can we deconstruct the protestant work ethic, when economic growth is untouchable? This is especially troubling because, while the protestant work ethic is at least as old as… erm, protestantism, the concept of economic growth only came into circulation starting in the 1950s. As Timothy Mitchell and Gareth Dale (interviewed in the Jacobin issue) have explored extensively, growthism is an ideology, rooted in post-War anti-communism and used to leverage capitalist interests against socialist demands. It seems that the communist futurists are very selective about what kinds of ideology they’d like to dispense with, and what kinds they uncritically embrace.
What this conflict points to, I think, is that communist futurism often nudges up against some internal contradictions. The main ‘big idea’ is that we need ‘big ideas’; this leads its proponents to reflexively reject the possibility that having less may be visionary, too. Putting it simply, communist futurists just don’t think that a critique of the growth ideology sells. Just like the sunshine, there should be no limits to the future communist utopia.
How can this utopia be achieved? The answer, clearly put forward by Leigh Phillips in his book Austerity Ecology, is that a centrally planned, big infrastructure, democratic, and communist economy is more rational than capitalism, and therefore has the capacity to grow infinitely. So the maxim of ecomodernist communism amounts to: ‘As long as infinite growth is rational, it is good.’
The idea that we can always do better makes sense. But why does ‘better’ mean growth at, say, 5-7% per annum? If pressed, communist futurists would be forced to concede that, on this planet, an infinite compound rate of growth of material and energetic throughput is simply not possible. We want the amount of trees and solar panels to grow, but growing them infinitely is absurd, and hellish. Refusing to admit this basic fact, as Phillips does in his book, is a mistake.
But the mistake goes further. The demand for limitless growth is incompatible with the very notion of rational politics. In Plato’s Republic, the tyrant sees no limit to his own appetites, while the philosopher king knows to rule with moderation. For Aristotle, self-limitation, decision-making at a human scale, is the basic prerequisite for politics, and therefore for a rational democracy. In a society of infinite appetites, rule by the people is impossible; unlimited wants require unsustainable expansion and conquest. Communist futurists may be surprised that a politics of sufficiency is actually quite appealing across the political spectrum—it speaks to most people’s basic moral understanding of the good life.
Capitalism privatizes profit and socializes costs. In other words: eat the world and take a dump on the poor. If socialism were to be any different, it would need to socialize costs and profits: eat to meet your needs, and deal with your shit. So it’s not just a matter of creating more surplus to pay for all the costs. Rather, it should involve a political debate about what kind costs we are willing to pay, and what kind of costs we won’t. This necessarily requires a limiting principle, a point where we, as a society, say: this is a line we will not cross, regardless of the profits.
This, and not doomsday eco-austerity, is the real basis of ecological thought, and should be the foundation of any utopian proposal. The communist futurists like to caricature environmentalists as conservative romantics rejecting technology and modernity. But if they don’t consider any limits, then they’ve really got their heads in the clouds. They’re so high up there; they seem to have forgotten that they, too, have an anus. Ecologists know that a society that cannot limit its own generation of surplus is a society unable to deal with its shit. It is an irrational society. So we should invert the ecomodernist communist maxim: ‘As long as there is infinite growth, there will be no rationality.’
Shit is a necessary and good thing. It enriches the soil. It’s easy to imagine that people don’t like to deal with shit, and so, prudishly, we try not to talk about it. But on the contrary, as many people know in their gut, a good life means dealing with your shit. Building an eco-utopia means acknowledging that yes, there are real limits, and it is imperative that we center them in the political debate. This doesn’t mean we should stop proposing big ideas, nor does it mean resorting to Malthusian catastrophism. It just means politicizing the limits that, within capitalism, have been left to the private sphere. If these new communist futurists are serious about building a desirable vision for the future, I would encourage them to get a bit more familiar with shit. To really get their hands in there. They might be surprised how politically fertile it really is.
Aaron Vansintjan is a PhD candidate at the University of London, Birkbeck, co-supervised by Isabelle Anguelovski at the Barcelona Laboratory for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability.