I often struggle to name a political or economic philosophy which defines my beliefs. In Bolivia, where I reside, I don’t like to call myself a “socialist,” because that would align me with the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) party and I strongly disagree with a number of their policies. I agree in some concepts of anarchism on a local level, especially the anarcho-syndicalism of Latin America a century ago, but I see anarchism as a hopeless ideology for governing. Anarchists essentially assume that humans are good by nature and will do the right thing if freed from the coercive power of the state. I don’t see this as a viable philosophy for confronting the concentration of wealth and power that governs today’s society. Noam Chomsky, who is probably the world’s most renowned anarchist, observes that dismantling the state in the face of concentrated corporate power is suicide and we currently need an organization like the state to protect against organized corporate interests.
Unlike Marx who predicted that the state would eventually wither away, because it would no longer be necessary, I believe that we will always need a state to articulate the general will of society, even though I deeply distrust many of the side effects of nation states such as nationalism and the necessary ideation that accompanies the nation state. Because I distrust the concentration of power in a state, I am reluctant to call myself a “socialist,” especially in the traditional sense where the state owns all means of production because it can lead to the kinds of dystopia found in the USSR and Mao’s China, which strips individuals of their rights and their autonomy of conscience. In order to guarantee individual liberty, I believe in the dispersion of power throughout a society. I believe in some aspects of modern Socialism, such as Richard Wolff’s worker-owned cooperatives, which remind me of anarcho-syndicalism.
In fact, “democratic socialist” is probably the best way to define me in current US politics, since I generally support the kind of policies articulated by Bernie Sanders. A decade ago, I might have said that the closest term to describe my beliefs was “social democrat,” but it did not embody the kind of fundamental reform which I believe to be necessary. Many of the European Social Democrats have allowed neoliberalism to enter their policies, so I find myself even less willing to identify with the term.
Bernie Sanders’ use of the term “democratic socialist” captures the kind of balance I would like to see between public and private ownership of the means of production. I have seen the kind of problems that occur when a state owns too much, as when the Mexican state’s ownership of the paper monopoly allowed the PRI party to control the news by raising the price of paper and disrupting the supply for the newspapers which printed critical articles about the PRI. I have also seen what happens when corporate power becomes so powerful that it has essentially takes control of the government as has happened in the US, so neither pure socialism nor pure capitalism strike me as good ideas. Likewise, pure anarchism also strikes me as a recipe for disaster. I am looking for some balance between public vs private and collective vs individual that both guarantees the rights of the individual and provides a minimum social safety net for everyone. In the US, that position makes me a socialist, but in Cuba I would be called a capitalist.
I would like to see more collective ownership of the means of production through worker-owned co-ops and community governed commons that are independent of the centralized state. At the same time, I want a state that is powerful enough to enforce anti-trust regulations to break up concentrations of wealth and power and to provide essential services such as policing, public education, water, electricity and health care.
Nonetheless, my decision on whether a good or service should be public or private is fundamentally based on pragmatic, rather than ideological, grounds and it is based on a case by case basis. Empirically universal health care works best, so I want the state to guarantee it. I don’t have an ideological preference whether health care is provided by a state-owned health service as in Great Britain, a state owned insurer with private health providers as Medicare works in the US or an entirely private system like in Switzerland where the health companies are heavily regulated by the government. The British system is the most cost-efficient, so I would probably choose that one on an economic basis, but it is also the most dependent upon a functioning democracy with activist citizens to properly regulate the state. In the US, where democracy often fails to properly regulate either the state or private corporations, a Medicare-style universal health care system is probably the best option, since it is the system best able to keep functioning when democracy falters.
As I examine the way that technology and trade promise to concentrate wealth in fewer and fewer hands, it becomes clear to me that we need greater redistribution of wealth and a guaranteed minimum income to take care of the vast majority as computerization, mechanization, robotics, artificial intelligence and autonomous technologies make human labor increasingly obsolete. For the last 8 years I have worked at a firm that produces software that is designed to ensure that humans working in an organization will cooperate in predictable patterns. It is not hard to see that most of the decisions currently be made in these organizations could be handled by artificial intelligence, that would make the human workers superfluous.
If I have a fundamental ideology, it does not cleave to the traditional political polarities because it is not human based. As I examine the way the planet is being destroyed by humans, I am becoming increasingly convinced that we humans need to see ourselves as part of nature. The developmentalist ideas based on continuous growth in both capitalism and Marxism have served to destroy the environment. Marx’s vision of an industrialized society where the workers control the factories will lead to the collapse of the ecosystem just as much as Adam Smith’s vision of larger and larger factories which leads to greater specialization and more trade. Khrushchev’s and Mao’s pursuit of growth were arguably more destructive to the environment than Lyndon B. Johnson’s. The concept of economic growth whether in capitalism or socialism is fundamentally at odds with a planet containing a finite number of resources.
Likewise, the Western concept of individualism only makes sense in a planet with few people and abundant resources. In the current ecological context, the collective need to live in balance with nature outweighs the wants and desires of the individual. This is not to suggest that the individual has no rights, but those rights need to be bounded by what the ecosystem can support. No individual should be allowed to consume more natural resources than the ecosystem can sustainably provide. As the human population continues to grow, the amount of natural resources per capita must continue to shrink. Humanity as a whole must rethink all the isms in our new reality where human behavior is obligated to fit in a ever shrinking ecological footprint. In a world where humanity as a whole has to reduce its CO2 emissions from roughly 40 gigatons per year to zero in a decade in order to limit global warming to a target of 1.5ºC, many of the traditional concepts need to be jettisoned from both traditional capitalism and socialism. The capitalist idea of individual property rights has to be adjusted, just like the Marxist idea of a secular paradise, based on increasing industrialization and high material production and consumption.
To guarantee the survival of everyone, no one can consume too much water, food (especially meat), fuel, minerals, etc. The amount of resources per capita will need to continually shrink as the human population grows to 12 billion by the end of the century. Switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy will not be enough for humanity to survive in the long term. Fundamental adjustments in the way we produce and consume will need to be transformed, along with the ideologies which buttress these activities.
Similarly, traditional concepts of morality and religion also need a fundamental realignment to fit humanity within a smaller ecological envelope. Islam and Catholicism must be altered to allow the moral precept of birth control. The idea of material accumulation being a blessing from God must be jettisoned from Mormonism and some strains of Protestantism and Taoism. Limits to consumption and respect for nature must become a fundamental part of all moral systems. In the same way that ministers, priests and imams now inveigh against adultery and abortion, future religious leaders will need to inveigh against the sins of polluting the ecosystem, flying in jets, wasting water and hording food when your neighbor has none.
We need to be guided by the empiricism of science to know our limits and determine where we fit into nature. I doubt, however, that scientific rationalism alone will not be enough to save us. If we are going to protect nature and our place within nature, we will need to find a sense of the sacred in nature. Just knowing from science that a forest provides essential ecological services often isn’t enough to stop us from cutting it down. We will also need to acquire the kind of respect and awe for nature found in druidism and many native religions. The destruction of an ecosystem needs to be confronted with social opprobrium and a new kind of moral outrage that our current belief systems do not possess.
If we are going to maintain an inhabitable planet, we need isms that have an inherent respect for nature. Science alone will not help humanity acquire the sense that cutting down a forest or spraying tons of toxins on the earth is inherently immoral behavior. I doubt that most people can both be guided by both science and druidism, but if there are enough people who adhere to one or the other, we have a chance of building a coalition to keep the planet intact for future generations. I feel some sense of awe and wonder when in nature, but I personally cannot be a druid in my regard for nature. Nonetheless, I recognize that some portion of humanity will need to acquire an emotional connection to nature in order to develop the collective will to protect nature, because rationalism and empiricism alone have not proven to be enough to move humanity to stop trashing the planet.
Although scientific rationalism and a new-found druidism should guide us in determining the limits of human consumption, the traditional isms will still be at play when deciding how to allocate precious resources. Capitalists will say that markets should decide how to allocate natural resources, whereas socialists might favor the state assigning rations. People will argue about the rights of the individual to overconsume versus the right of the collective to regulate or ration. Hopefully, collective forms of managing limited resources will arise that aren’t based on either the top-down dictates of a state hierarchy or the private empires of corporations.
It is hard to predict what will happen to human belief systems in a world of limited resources. Some people may find refuge in the traditional asceticism of monastic Christianity and Buddhism or the needs of the community expressed in Islam. It can only be hoped that the increasing interconnection of communications will lead to greater empathy and compassion for distant peoples who are suffering the ravages of climate change and ecological collapse, but natural disasters and hateful ideologies based on insiders vs outsiders will likely lead to greater tribalism and less willingness to cooperate beyond borders.
We face a very dark future if we aren’t willing to adjust our traditional isms to the new ecological reality which we face. People who retreat into traditional beliefs, like the free market ideologues who currently refuse to acknowledge the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming, are only making the needed transition more traumatic with greater risk of catastrophe for everyone. Jared Diamond’s Collapse provides a cautionary tale of what happens when human societies hold too tightly to their beliefs and refuse to change.
I don’t know if we will be far-sighted enough to change quickly or only after the majority of humanity has been decimated by famine, drought, wars over resources, mass migrations from sea level rise, natural disasters, etc. Eventually a time will come when these traditional ideologies will be seen in the same light as we now view slavery and the religious intolerance of the inquisition. Unfortunately, we are still chained by these anachronistic belief systems, so we we have no choice but engage in the difficult struggle to redefine our isms and create new moral systems based on our ecological reality.