A Destructive System
Confined to the logic of commodity exchange, all reformist attempts to mitigate or adapt to ongoing environmental changes such as global warming, ocean acidification, land degradation, freshwater depletion, and loss of biological diversity, are doomed to failure. If biogeochemical indicators could scream, they would. For if it is the commodification of everything that is the real problem of our time – empirical support for this claim has been accumulating over the last two hundred years – market-based mitigation and market-based adaptation are extremely dangerous games to play. The logic is simple: a crisis cannot be solved by the same social system that created the crisis. In other words, sustainability strategies and measures are deceptive, counterproductive, and threaten our survival, unless they address the root cause of the planetary crisis: the capitalist system.
No matter how many times a lie is repeated, it is still not true. The inconvenient truth is that capitalism is incompatible with sustainable human development. Terms such as “ecological modernization” and “green capitalism” are abound, but the failure of the system is an historical fact. Or, to put it another way, what is it that makes capitalism the preferred social system, considering its lack of substantive equality and ecological sustainability? The long history of capitalist expropriation and exploitation is well-documented and includes, but is not limited to, the use of slave and child labor in production; extraction and burning of coal and other fossil fuels; soil erosion, deforestation, and habitat destruction associated with large-scale monocultural agriculture; systematic coercion and surveillance of workers; and the extensive, both fragmenting and monopolizing, automobilization of society. And it does not stop there. Today, we know that capital accumulation has nothing to do with social and ecological responsibility. Today, we can rightly claim that all efforts to eternalize the present are efforts to preserve the established order whatever the consequences. The long history of propaganda and censorship is revealing: it tells us that those who control the means of production and consumption detest alternative conceptions of society, indeed, always fight radical social changes. Authentic experiences of capitalist crimes are not allowed to become new historical openings, and must either be suppressed or reframed, making everything from mobile phones to the petroleum industry seem like naturally occurring things, devoid of any traces of exploitation, expropriation, or waste production. Regardless of whether the truth is distorted, attacked, or met with deadly silence or indifference, our conclusion remains the same: these efforts to control our social reality are contradictory, always possible to prevent and counter. What we can learn from history is that, whatever their origin or justification, social changes are neither inevitable nor inescapable.
The constantly evolving reification of ever more disruptive capitalist relations is normalizing the expropriative and exploitative, but this process alone does not prevent us from challenging the combined efforts to defend the dominant social system. The highly institutionalized legitimation of market-solutions only makes it more urgent to reveal how commodity relations are replacing genuine human relations, more necessary to understand the logic that makes the irrational seem rational. Advertising and other forms of corporate propaganda have become common practice, while state policies have become openly corporatist. However, what really matters is not hidden from us: society is deeply unequal, racist, and sexist; the ecological rifts between humanity and the rest of nature are widening. Viewed against the background of rapidly changing conditions for life on Earth, it is not an overstatement to say that we are heading in the wrong direction. On the contrary, there is reason to fear that the mid-twentieth century push into the Anthropocene – a new geological epoch defined by human impact and characterized by the crossing of planetary boundaries – will have far-reaching and dire consequences. Hence it is crucial to acknowledge that the loss of planetary integrity also is the loss of human integrity, the inevitable disintegration of the complex relations that keep us alive. The increasingly devastating expropriation of nature and the continued exploitation of human and non-human beings, by all accounts, a robbery of our common future, must therefore come to an end, immediately stop. The fact that the established order is militantly defended by a denialist, ultra-rich, and powerful elite, does not make it more desirable – should not deter us from starting a revolution. The future is in the making, and no one, not even the children and grandchildren of the capitalists, can thrive without clean water and well-functioning ecosystems. It is time to learn from history and time to realize what we depend upon for our existence. The truth is that we can leave the highway of mass extinction.
We are not born subservient followers, passive spectators of history lacking the ability to challenge the power structures of capitalism, be they military or financial, overt or covert. It is self-deceptive, therefore, to think of ourselves as borrowers, consumers, employees, competitors, nationals, or any other category that serves to distract, disempower, or divide us. It is worth repeating that a radical reorientation of human aspirations must do away with all power-preserving categories, socially and ecologically devastating historical constructions such as private property and wage labor. We are not bound to follow any dictate of the supposedly free market, nor do we have to adapt to unsustainable living and working conditions. We do not have to accept the unacceptable or give up our right to resist, because our lives are not for sale; our future is not a commodity. It takes courage and a certain kind of experience to act differently, but if we act as if capital had lost its influence on us, it is more likely that our actions will create the necessary conditions for our own emancipation.
What is necessary is a new normality, new values, and a fundamental shift in power, a society freed from plutocrats, party politics, and military interventions. Removed from the governing of society, financial institutions would not be allowed to dictate our lives. Trapped within paywalls, corporate media would not be allowed to influence our sense of urgency and possibility. In a democracy built on substantive equality, no one is tracking our movements, collecting and selling user data, let alone hijacking our brains for the purpose of profit. Armed forces are not used to undermine the right of citizens to assemble. Corrupt politicians are not in a position to legislate. The list can be made longer. Capitalism has lost much of its popular legitimacy, but this does not mean that our struggle against state and corporate power has become less relevant, nor does it signal the end of history. The complete failure of capitalism to build a better world, rather marks the beginning of a long socioecological revolution. The lesson to be learned is that power comes from below, from each of us.
We already know that accumulation of capital and concentration of power go hand in hand with human humiliation and planetary degradation. The converse is also true: social trust and an even distribution of – empowering – power are keys to a better world. Although not without its own challenges, the necessary transformation of society can only be radically democratic and radically creative, which literally means more power to change and more control over our lives. Ideally, democracy would go from being representative and intermittent to becoming direct and practiced on a daily basis, deeply concerned with the common good, countering all forms of oppression and violence. What and how we create together would be framed by new rules of social interaction, providing us with non-alienating alternatives to both wage labor and monopoly markets. What must emerge is a social order that is incompatible with institutionalized inequality and has power to cut the ideological roots of planetary unsustainability.
Spaces of Solidarity
Despite a deepening planetary crisis and gloomy prospects for humanity under the rule of capital, it is still possible to reverse the negative trends. Hence there is no reason to stop imagining another social order, free of oppression and full of paths to follow. Or, to put it in other terms, as more and more people are pulled or pushed to urban areas, it becomes increasingly important to explore the patterns, processes, and possibilities of these densely populated areas. The city as a catalyst for social change is nothing new, but the scale has changed considerably during the last decades; mega-cities and urban sprawl have rapidly become global phenomena. It is now apparent, more clearly than ever, that cities must become sites of popular power and collective creativity, that we think of them, whatever scale we consider, as socially and technologically interconnected spaces of solidarity, imagination, and collaboration. For if we are to change the world for the better, we need cities and other human settlements that unite us, give voice to the oppressed and excluded, and allow us to transform ourselves and our common habitat in a sustainable direction. This is a long and winding path, and we have just begun to walk together.
Our goal is not only to occupy space. As united citizens striving for another society, we must bring democracy and creativity back to the human scale, away from the alienating anonymity of multiple-lane highways and global supply chains, away from military bases and financial centers. No matter who we are or where we live, whether we are fleeing a war or risk being incarcerated for being poor: the formation of popular assemblies and institutions that protect our right to associate, our right to shape our common future, always begins in the neighborhood; a participatory society can only be built from below, from the ground up.
As revolutionaries, we must strive for a planetary solidarity rooted in mutually beneficial practices and long-term responsibility, strategies that challange existing boundaries of solidarity. The question, then, is how neighborhoods of all shapes and sizes, firmly rooted in a solidarity that transcends the artificial barriers between urban and rural areas, goes beyond local and regional scales, and includes other species, can contribute to a more equal and sustainable society. How do we replace value chains with solidarity chains? How do we facilitate a citizen-led transformation of social and ecological relations?
It is difficult to imagine a sustainable society without literate, responsible, self-critical people, difficult to imagine sustainable neighborhood transformation without conscious social interactions; we are social beings, and as such both critical and communicative, curious and collaborative, born to share our lives with others. With public health and public education under attack, and mainstream media controlled by a few large corporations, it becomes a matter of survival to be in charge of our social reality, in short, to create, connect, and protect independent, nonproprietary alternatives. Given that they are based on the principle of equality, these alternatives can aptly be termed social commons. They are not necessarily local, but centered around human needs in contrast to the prevailing systems of domination and subordination that tend to be profit-centered and controlled by the few. By all accounts, this implies a radical change of focus, moving our conscious actions in a new direction, putting the health of people and the planet before profit.
If these commons are to become widely adopted, they must become real alternatives for all people, substituting Earth-destroying institutions with Earth-restoring ones, and replacing money as we know it, that is, as a measure of abstract value and as a means of exchange. The ongoing subordination of the entire planet to capital makes this a most urgent issue, impossible to avoid even in the short term. We cannot break free from currency markets and global value-chains, unless we take control of the mediation of social relations, begin to adopt more egalitarian and spatially rooted forms of human interaction. Indeed, with the rapid conceptualization and development of distributed and decentralized social systems that assume equal or near-equal power, we are already in the process of redefining the meaning of value and exchangeability, already undermining the centrality of money as a means of mediation of human relations. Put differently, if we are to end the monopolization and concentration of power, these commons have to be designed and governed in a way that does not allow the few to destroy for the many, including future generations. The exploration of this new social reality is in an early phase, so it makes sense to experiment with a variety of alternative, non-exclusive forms. Still, neighborhood-integrated social systems decoupled from capitalist processes must have certain properties that make it possible to agree upon and contribute to their further development, be reasonably easy to adapt to a variety of local and regional conditions, and, consequently, build on social trust.
The creation of alternative neighborhood communities is as much about reshaping democracy and materializing new social systems as it is about the historical-geographical process of forming decommodified ecological commons, a long-term sustainable relation to nature. Despite being perceived and treated as a free gift to capitalists or the private property of individuals, or, more telling, as if it was unnecessary for our survival, nature has never been an externality, something separate from us. The commodification of nature has turned out to be a dead end for humanity, but it is still a profitable one. It is still legal to pollute the atmosphere and the oceans, to use biocides that are harmful to soil and water organisms, and to keep animals in captivity – all for the sake of profit. Past ignorance is a tragic historical fact, not a good excuse for present or future ignorance. On the contrary, if it is our relation to nature that ultimately defines what humanity is and can become, delimiting what kind of society we can create, we can do a lot better. Our creative potential is limited, however, not by the chains of wage labor or any other social restriction imposed on us from above. Our capacity to imagine is one of the things that make us human, but evolutionarily and ecologically we still belong to nature. Whatever our conditions on this planet: how we perceive and socially determine this continually evolving relation to nature has immediate and delayed, real-world consequences. It is our future in the making. Thus, considering that the roots and limits of human creativity are intimately connected to natural ecosystems, it would be unwise and outright dangerous not to explore these connections. If nature-inspired social change is what we need to survive, it is definitely time to reconnect. We are not genetically programmed to live in ignorance.
Our Common Future
The immediate past is not the best guidebook to the future. Why learn from wasteful, profit-driven urban development, when we can learn from water, trees, and honey bees? Why give disruptive food companies access to our cities, when we are in great demand of diverse, neighborhood-integrated food systems? Why contribute to the pollution of lakes and rivers, when we can recycle soil nutrients? The choice is still ours. The choice has to be ours. By rejecting the reified capitalist version of reality, by adopting property rights and work relations that serve the common good, and by rebuilding our neighborhoods with equality and sustainability in mind, rethinking everything from water use to public health from a commons perspective, we are not trying to reverse history; we are using our creativity for the benefit of all.