An ecosocialist internationalism: socialisation and emancipation in the age of ecological crisis
In his essay, “The Birth of War Ecology”, Pierre Charbonnier acknowledges the emergence of a strategic matrix through which the war mobilization against Russia could be leveraged for the real deployment of climate policies. As such, the war in Ukraine could be the catalyst for a socio-ecological transformation. This argument is consistent with the sudden shift in Europe’s official discourse on the transition. The Commission’s position expressed in its outline of the REPowerEU Plan, published two weeks after the Russian invasion on 8 March, clearly captures the new frame of mind:
The Commission is ready to develop a REPowerEU plan, in cooperation with Member States, by the summer, to support the diversification of energy supplies, accelerate the transition to renewable energy and improve energy efficiency. This would accelerate the phasing out of Russian gas imports and reliance on fossil fuels and provide the best insurance against price shocks in the medium term by fast-forwarding the EU’s green transition, with a special focus on cross-border and regional needs. The need for greater security of supply is adding a new impetus to the objectives of the European Green Deal 1 .
Within this announcement of an accelerated transition towards sufficiency, renewable energies, and an end to hydrocarbons, there is a promise: war can be an ecological opportunity. The European Parliament’s Green party is campaigning on this theme with slogans such as “Isolate Putin, insulate your home”; “More sun, more wind, more peace”. Charbonnier also detects the possibility of a shakeup within the elite. As dependence on fossil fuels becomes a security issue, the range of interests in favorable of the transition widens: “We finally have an argument that will mobilize spheres of influence and investment that until now have been resistant to the energy transition.” By affecting stability, Putin could make business and finance listen to ecological reason.
As a cautionary note, the author lists several potential obstacles to this evolution: geopolitical failure to sever energy ties with Russia, socioeconomic disorganization, illegitimacy of the distribution of effort, lack of a systemic perspective, and internal geopolitical divisions. He also mentions the risk of an inverse evolution of wartime ecology, that of accelerated extraction of hydrocarbons elsewhere than in Russia, thanks to an energy pivot that would only be geographical. But the emergence of a wartime ecology remains a realistic hypothesis in his eyes. Referring to a possible “internal threat that Putin’s regime constitutes for Europe”, Charbonnier positions the importance of wartime ecology far beyond Ukraine: “the creation of a development, cooperation, and civic construction model that incorporates the planetary imperative into the game of geopolitical rivalries depends on Europe’s ability to not fall entirely under the influence of Putin’s totalitarian model”. And to warn us: “behind wartime ecology, ecological patriotism is taking shape”.
The value of this position is that it takes stock of the historical intensity of the present moment. Wars play a role in accelerating change. The Russian revolution was born of the first world war, and the German war economy served as a template for early Soviet planning. The Second World War precipitated the expansion of the welfare state and the deployment of Fordist regulation of the economy. Wars often push the historical moment to its point of incandescence, where social structures change from one state to another. To put it like Althusser, if the contradiction that war embodies is “overdetermined in its principle”, it is also overdetermining. Naturally, according to a war’s intensity and the protagonists’ position within the world-system, the magnitude and spatial distribution of its repercussions vary. But a society never comes through unscathed.
The links between geopolitics and hydrocarbons are longstanding. As Helen Thompson demonstrates in her book Disorder, the presence of energy challenges in power struggles is the rule. Uniquely lacking in adequate hydrocarbon resources, Europe has on several occasions since the 1960s found itself torn between its Atlanticist allegiance and the geographical rationale of its connection to Soviet — and later Russian — territory.
In the current crisis, Thompson also sees the possibility of a step forward for the ecological transition because of “public awareness that the supply of hydrocarbons does not take care of itself”. Indeed, “transitioning away from fossil fuels and toward greener energy, a necessary transformation that requires nothing less than changing the material basis of modern civilization, then they [the public] will have to admit that oil, gas and coal — the energy sources of the past, on which we continue to rely — can’t be taken for granted. “
By becoming more and more openly involved in the conflict, Western powers are not only putting their relationship with Ukraine and Russia at stake, they are also setting out to change themselves. But the question remains: can wartime ecology be effective from the point of view of the advent of a low-carbon economy? And is it consistent with the values of a politics of emancipation?
Questionable ecological effectiveness
Examined closer, things are much more complex. This is firstly because in the immediate future, reducing Russian energy imports means replacing them with substitutes that are generally more polluting: coal, “blue” hydrogen or shale gas from the United States. These adaptations result in irreversible effects that, far from accelerating the transition, risk derailing it. The Engie case illustrates the troubling turn taken in the name of decoupling from Russia. At the beginning of May the company signed a 15-year contract with the American company NextDecade for the annual delivery of 1.75 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas (LNG) derived from shale gas. This agreement had previously been shelved for environmental reasons under pressure from the French government, which holds 23.6% of the energy company’s capital.
American producers are delighted with the shift in the supply of LNG to Europe; they know that this is a lasting change. Increased LNG imports require specially equipped ships and new terminals that require considerable time and expense to build. Embarking on this path means providing guarantees that the transition to cleaner energy will not leave these fossil fuel assets worthless within a decade. As the Sierra Club’s Kelly Sheehandi states, “Allowing for the expansion of new and expanded gas export facilities would lock in decades of reliance on risky, volatile fossil fuels and spell disaster for our climate,” From a climate change perspective, the conclusion is clear: it is better to maintain supplies of Russian natural gas through existing pipelines rather than to create new infrastructure for higher-emission energy sources. For the environment, hydrocarbons have no homeland.
The other problem is prices. The energy crisis was already serious in the autumn, but it has intensified with the rise in prices since the invasion of Ukraine. Here again the effects are mixed. Rising costs are tipping the world economic situation into a new period of recession, heralding a return of the stagflation of the 1970s, driven this time not by the class struggle but by the bargaining power acquired by capital as a result of financialization. Added to this is a food crisis with dramatic consequences for low-income countries, as many agricultural supplies are directly indexed to energy prices. Technically, this new context can appear to be a carbon surtax that should change behavior through incentives.
This is not the case. On the contrary, we are even witnessing dramatic reversals, for example from the administration in the United States: “shale producers, together with their financial backers, should do whatever it takes to increase production, and not dividends” said Amos Hochstein, the White House energy adviser, in a recent interview, stating categorically that “The United States government is not standing in the way of additional oil production, categorically”. Price elasticity is how society and the productive system respond to the price of carbon. Changing this elasticity, making it possible to reduce demand in the face of a price increase, implies providing the means for behavior to adapt to the new conditions. Such a modification of economic structures is part of a prolonged time frame that the price system understands poorly, just as the shock of the war in Ukraine is a poor immediate driver of structural transformation.
Finally, higher prices have a contradictory effect on the aims of weakening Russia. As Janet Yellen points out, “it would have a damaging impact on Europe and other parts of the world, and counterintuitively it could actually have very little negative impact on Russia” In the short term, increased tariffs offset reduced volumes, resulting in relatively stable revenues for Russia and giving the country time to pivot deliveries to other regions.
Let us push this thinking further. What happens when Russia decides to completely stop gas deliveries to European countries? This scenario, which until recently could be dismissed as a paranoid fantasy, seems to be on the verge of becoming reality. Its effects are particularly relevant in understanding the mechanics of a full departure from fossil fuels.
The price system is unable to cope with shortages. At the end of August 2022, electricity and gas were trading at 10 times their recent levels on European markets. Such astronomical increases encourage speculation and unnecessarily enrich energy companies. Most importantly, these increases are impossible for our societies to absorb, both for households and businesses. Barring an unlikely détente with Russia, drastic measures for the administrative allocation of energy are unavoidable in order to limit the disruption of productive relations and to prevent excessive deprivation of the population. As Karsten Neuhoff and Isabella M. Weber explain 2 , when the market breaks down, a political process is inevitable; “clear targets and fair burden-sharing […] must be negotiated” between social actors in order to share the sufficiency effort.
An observation of this kind, applied to the environmental crisis in its various dimensions, is the starting point for an alternative strategic matrix to wartime ecology: ecosocialism. The geopolitical context is likely to produce changes, even revolutionary changes. But the motor of change can only be found in the dynamics of societies themselves, and in the fundamental restructuring of modes of production and consumption. This restructuring is underpinned by conflicts, the class conflict in particular.
Ecosocialism is based on a key idea: modern economies are permeated by different processes of socialization. There are two parameters that must be taken into account in order to understand these processes. The first is where the impulse to socialize comes from. This sometimes comes from those in power. For example, the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913 meant that American capitalists accepted that a political institution would set interest rates 3 . The proliferation of financial crises in the preceding decades is the raison d’être for this socialization of monetary instruments. Other forms of socialization result from struggles led by the working classes. Labor market regulations and social security in France are examples of this.
The second is the question of whether socialization works on the side of production or consumption. The socialization of production refers to all forms of overcoming market fragmentation, even partial ones. In its most extreme version, it leads to the complete planning of the economy. The socialization of consumption refers to all forms of collective consumption. These forms of consumption are also diverse. The consumers’ associations that emerged at the beginning of the 20th century are one form, whose aim is to assist consumers in their choices, to help them establish their “sovereignty”, which is not a true sovereignty. But those in power also socialize supply in order to secure consumption. For example, faced with the explosion of hydrocarbon prices, Mario Draghi recently proposed the creation of a “buyer’s club” to deal with the producing countries 4 . Europeans and Americans could use their “market power” to put downward pressure on prices.
In each case, an economic mechanism or resource is subject to collective deliberation. Structural factors are liable to influence socialization, such as new technologies which facilitate communication and therefore increased management of firms or value chains. Whether stemming from competitive dynamics or from political will, socialization always reveals a qualitative transformation of economic relations. Often it is reflected in an evolution in the forms of ownership and in the development of social ownership. The creation of joint-stock companies in the 19th century is one example, one in which Marx himself saw a mode of socialization that was truly capitalist 5 . Cooperatives are another, which distribute property to workers, socializing “from the bottom”.
Socialization is something other than the embeddedness of markets dear to Karl Polanyi. An embedded market remains a market even if it is highly regulated and made possible through “fictitious” goods. With socialization, calculation in kind becomes more powerful. One deals in real resources, passing behind the veil of money and thus of exchange value. In their Transformation Plan for the French Economy, the Shift Project and its chairman, Jean-Marc Jancovici, propose this definition of calculation in kind:
“The PTEF (Transformation Plan for the French Economy) talks about tons, watts, people, and skills. But it barely mentions money, and never as an input to the problem at hand: faced with this problem, savings and money are not the most serious limiting factors 6 .“
Without realizing it, they pick up on Otto Neurath’s insights, one of the protagonists of the “socialist calculation” debate and a precursor of economic ecology 7 . Armed with the experience of procurement methods during the First World War, Neurath considers — in opposition to von Mises and Hayek — the calculation in kind as a means of reorganizing modern economies on a basis that is finally rational.
The ecological shift involves projecting oneself into the long-term and an increasingly uncertain environment. Yet the precision and intensity of the price signal are weakening with the prolongation and complexity of temporalities. Calculation in kind is the foundation of sufficiency and implies a judicious use of resources, and thus a direct “connection” of economic calculation to them. It leads to the replacement of GDP by a set of non-reducible indicators to pilot economies. With the return of shortages in the wake of the Ukrainian conflict, calculation in kind methods take the form of energy rationing. If there is in fact an overcoming of market coordination, the shift towards an emancipatory ecological transformation requires a different kind of socialization.
Governing baed on needs
Ecosocialism places a dual imperative of social justice and sufficiency on the socialization of the economy. It is a “war of position” against capital, aiming at holding productivism and consumerism in check by socializing production and consumption. On the production side, the construction of mechanisms that allow decisions on production to be made according to their ecological impact can put an end to the environmental devastation caused by the anarchy of investment decisions. This presupposes, in particular, the construction of a public banking division aimed at socializing investment so as to orient it towards the ecological shift 8 .
At the micro level, ecosocialism is self-managing. In the socialist tradition, the emancipation of labor from its capitalist exploitation is a central objective. Ecosocialism adds an ecological argument: the exploitation of man by man is closely linked to the exploitation of nature by man, with reification affecting both relationships 9 . The emancipation of work will therefore favor a less instrumental or productivist relation to the latter. Hence the importance of doing away with big business. However, self-management alone does not solve the problem of coordination for it is on a macro scale that decisions concerning the allocation of material and human resources must be planned.
On the consumption side, a “punitive” ecology prohibiting unsustainable lifestyles associated with the status quo assets of the wealthiest would produce a cascade of cultural effects, and would favor the rooting of consumption in new patterns of preference. Through the influence of social networks, new forms of collective consumption are emerging. This is “social commerce”: certain platforms allow consumers to interact with each other, thus removing them from their atomized condition 10 . They evaluate products, then buy collectively, thereby receiving a favorable price. Sometimes production is based on their opinion, which allows the creation of new links between producers and consumers, previously kept apart by the market. At this stage, the thinking remains consumerist. But something essential is at work here: the rise in power of the “collective consumer”, resulting from the socialization of purchasing.
Socializing production and consumption results in a government based on needs. Capitalist productivism produces first, then creates artificial needs in order to sell the overproduced goods, notably through advertising and obsolescence. Governing by needs consists in deliberating first, then putting the productive system at the service of democratically defined needs. Deliberation takes place as closely as possible to the citizen level. In this respect, scale is crucial. Small groups are the most suitable for expression of needs because it is in connection with ordinary daily practices that this expression makes sense. This can take place at the municipal or company level, or in the context of “deliberative mini-publics”, of which the citizen’s convention on climate change is an example 11 .
But there is often a need to scale up decision-making, as threats to ecosystems require, among other things, a binding legislative framework to prohibit or ration unsustainable consumption choices. Hence the idea that government based on needs is federalism:
“Every federation leads to interventions,” says Carl Schmitt in his definition of federalism. (…) Any genuine federation enforcement action is interference in domestic affairs, which subsumes the fully independent self-determination of the affected state to the federation and which eliminates its enclosed character and external impenetrability, its “impermeability 12 .”
Deliberation regarding needs cannot be entirely “impermeable”: it is subject to “interventions” at the federal level. These interventions will set ecosystemic limits to be respected in the meeting of needs, in relation to scientific knowledge on the subject, and will decide on the allocation of resources. However, in order to gain the support of citizens, these “interventions” will have to be legitimate from the dual point of view of social justice and sufficiency.
An internationalist spirit must guide any thinking about the transition. As the costs of climate disturbance are global, though unevenly distributed, and efforts to contain it are local, humanity finds itself in a prisoner’s dilemma where only a political process of international deliberation can produce a cooperative framework. Making energy a geopolitical weapon leads to intensifying conflict at the very moment when de-escalation is needed to accelerate a change of matrix in places other than rich countries.
To move away from a carbon civilization and avoid any kind of ”free rides” by those who control polluting resources, it is inevitable that we propose a desirable path to regions and countries that are heavily dependent on fossil fuels. This is the world-system counterpoint to the question of how to support populations dependent on high emitting industrial sectors on a national or European scale. Contrary to wartime ecology, the ecosocialist perspective opens up a feasible path to this internationalism of transition.
- European Commission, Communication From The Commission To The European Parliament, The European Council, The Council, The European Economic And Social Committee And The Committee Of The Regions REPowerEU: Joint European Action for more affordable, secure and sustainable energy, s.l., 2022.
- Karsten Neuhoff, Isabella M. Weber, Can Europe Weather Looming Gas Shortages?, Project Syndicate, 2 May 2022.
- See Xavier Werner, “Socialisation, capitalisme et socialisme”, in Le marxisme face au capitalisme contemporain, Paris, Syllepse, 2004.
- James Politi, Amy Kazmin, Derek Brower, Italy’s PM Draghi floats creation of oil consumer ‘cartel’ after Biden talks, Financial Times, 12 May 2022.
- See article “Socialisation” in Georges Labica and Gérard Bensussan (dir.), Dictionnaire critique du marxisme, Paris, PUF, 1982.
- The Shift Project, Climat, crises : Le plan de transformation de l’économie française, Paris, Odile Jacob, 2022, p. 29.
- See for example John O’Neill, “Ecological Economics and the Politics of Knowledge: the Debate between Hayek et Neurath”, in Cambridge Journal of Economics, 28, 3, 2004.
- See Benjamin Lemoine and Bruno Théret, “Il est possible de construire un circuit du trésor européen écologique”, in Gestion & Finances publiques, 4, 2020.
- For a version of this argument, see Jean-Baptiste Vuillerod, Theodor W. Adorno. La domination de la nature, Paris, Amsterdam, 2021.
- See The Economist, “The Future of Shopping”, Special Report,13-19 March 2021.
- See Thierry Pech, Le Parlement des citoyens. La Convention citoyenne pour le climat, Paris, Seul/La République des idées, 2021.
- Carl Schmitt, Théorie de la Constitution, Paris, PUF, 2013 (1928), p. 517-518.
To cite the article
Cédric Durand, Razmig Keucheyan, An ecosocialist internationalism: socialisation and emancipation in the age of ecological crisis, Sep 2022, 55-59.
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