Commons, Social Ecology and the Transcending of Capitalism

Written by Yavor Tarinski


Life on this planet, as we know it, is a result of fragile environmental conditions that the contemporary predominant neoliberal system has already began to alter. Capitalism and its doctrine of unlimited economic growth seems to completely neglect this dependency and continues to violently exploit nature for the benefit of tiny elites, thus increasing their already enormous power.

But this economistic world-view, which considers everything as consumable commodity, hasn’t remained unchallenged. From as early as the beginning of the 19th century a concern for the environment arose within western societies, such as the romanticists, sparked by the pollution caused by the Industrial Revolution. Since then the critique against grew into a wide movement with multiple tendencies, as a response to the expanding hunger of capitalism for resources.

The tendencies, which became dominant within the ecological movement, however never broke with the hegemonic ideology of their time. Despite the influence of libertarian thinkers like Peter Kropotkin and Elisee Reclus, conservationists and environmentalists navigated the struggle for protection of nature alongside parliamentary lines, lobbying for environmental laws and agreements, targeting specific manifestations of the ecological crisis, rather than its root-causes. The results of such a strategy remain questionable at best. Despite the decades of protocols, treaties, conventions and amendments related to nature, the state of the environment today seems, instead, to be deteriorating.

Contestation and Co-optation within the Ecological Movement

The ecological movement has, since its beginning, been a mosaic of various and often contradictory tendencies. Certain tendencies remain entrapped within the limits of the dominant imaginary, whereas others attempt radical breaks with it, with different degrees of success.

In this context, tendencies, like conservationists and the majority of professional environmentalists, NGO’s and green parties, view the need to protect nature within the current systemic limits. The dominant perception among these circles is that the preservation of “the great outdoors” can be entrusted to the market. Carbon emissions and pollution are being viewed as rights that can be sold at market-driven price. In this way, the self-regulating capitalist fallacy is being reproduced among the ranks of the ecological movement. Terms, such as green capitalism and sustainable development, become central political proposals. Because of their non-critical acceptance of the contemporary system, these tendencies tend to approach the various facets of the environmental degradation as disconnected and necessary to be dealt with one at a time, instead of one holistic ecological crisis with systemic root-causes. As a result, their activity often leads to the co-optation of popular movements for the protection of nature by the systemic discourse.

Groups and organizations from these tendencies often tend to call on people to symbolically reduce their impact on nature, like calling for international days of closed lights or less water consumption, rather than pointing at multinationals and governments whose activities have environmentally catastrophic effects. In this way they cloak the systemic features that cause most of the pollution and, instead, inflict social feelings of common human fault.

What is often viewed as alternative to the foregoing “green mindset” are different eco-socialist and eco-Marxist trends. They are most often anchored into the metaphysics of the state and invoke the need of strong left parties in power to regulate human relations with nature. As can be imagined, the electoral seizure of political power is at the core of these tendencies. Despite the questionable effectiveness of this approach, these tendencies remain entrapped into highly economistic theoretical frameworks, which regard production as the engine of social change.

Finally, there are segments of the broader environmental movement which attempt to break with statism and capitalism. There’s much to be criticized about the contemporary individualistic imaginary of such tendencies and of their devotion to spiritualistic personal change and life-style. Deep ecologists, New Age enthusiasts and primitivists tend to blame environmental destruction on human civilization in general and advocate retreat to romanticized notions of the “natural”, rather than trace it to specific political and economic systems.

Unlike the foregoing environmental tendencies, social ecologists advocate for a holistic approach to contemporary ecological crises. With deep roots in green thinking, social ecology traces the source of environmental degradation to social domination, rather than to individual behavior or human nature, thus proposing the abolition of social hierarchy through the direct-democratic governance of public affairs by all citizens. The primal aim of social ecology is thus to politicize the ecological movement. In recent years, its influence among social movements has grown significantly, giving political and ecological struggles a more interconnected character.

Commons and Ecology

During the last couple of years the paradigm of the commons is being rediscovered by numerous social movements and radical thinkers, many of whom ecologically minded. Struggles over the collective right over common-pool resources and the protection of the environment seem inherently intertwined.

What is perceived as commons entails inseparable parts of the planetary ecosystem. That’s why this concept, diverse as it might be, tends to overpass traditional notions like ownership, so typical for market and state relations, and propose instead democratic stewardship of shared resources.

Practices of commoning have deep roots in human history with communities from all times and places taking care collectively for their common-pool resources. Even today many indigenous communities from different parts of the world still sustain themselves through commoning, which places them in direct confrontation with states and multinationals, striving at enclosing and commodifying the natural sources of livelihood. These societies that depend on and nurture their commons are surely more ecologically minded than other ones based on competitive market relation. This is so because of the direct and symbiotic relation they have with their environment (of which most often the commons are directly part of). They have different relationship with the land, fisheries, forests etc., than multinationals situated elsewhere, dealing with monoculture crops, pesticides, or exploiting recourses without any regard for biodiversity or long-term sustainability. In overall, the commons conjoin community balance with natural balance, thus establishing mindsets simultaneously ecological and democratic.

The paradigm of the commons represents the re-integration of our social and economic practices with those of the natural world. By overpassing market intermediaries and state bureaucrats, it places people and communities in the role of direct stewards of their environment. Commoning thus becomes a unifying practice which abolishes the imaginary opposition between nature and society. This paradigm challenges the dominant neoliberal view that social well-being is possible only at the price of environmental exploitation.

In this sense, the commons should be viewed as part of wide and holistic project of emancipation. In an age of generalized social exploitation by market mechanisms and bureaucracies directly linked with environmental degradation, commoning comes to challenge domination itself – simultaneously of man over man and of humanity over nature. The commons come as a powerful social force which strengthens ecological consciousness. It is not by chance that many similarities can be found between this paradigm and radical ecological projects like social ecology.

Libertarian Municipalism and Democratic Confederalism

Unlike most environmental tendencies, which tend to view nature in more or less depoliticized manner, social ecologists view the current ecological crisis as part of a deeper political one. That’s why they do not aim at tackling separately certain aspects of it, like species extinction or air pollution, but to point instead at the root-cause of them all – domination – and propose in theory and practice democratic alternatives to it. For them one of the main political fields where this struggle should be waged is the city. In communalism, the political category most suitable to encompass the systematic views of social ecology, the municipality is theorized as the natural locus of social, political and environmental change and the neighborhood, city or town, are conceived as the base for a new democratic politics (Roussopoulos 2015: 92).

Social ecologists view a historic clash over power between the municipality and the nation state. Unlike statecraft, predisposed to bureaucratic centralization and hierarchy, cities tend to empower local populaces, creating citizens, actively involved in public affairs. Today however, the city has been submitted to the dominant imaginary significations, abandoning its previous role of socializing public space and becoming instead sprawling urban monster, absorbing traditional cultures and producing alienation. One strategy for the reinvention of cities, advocated by social ecologists, is libertariam municipalism. It is a political concept, developed initially by libertarian theorist Murray Bookchin, that promotes the creation of direct-democratic decision-making bodies, like popular assemblies and councils, in urban neighborhoods and towns. Thus potentially conditions are being created for citizens to take back control of their cities.

Libertarian municipalism encourages dual power I.e. situation in which the authority of the state is being challenged by the empowered democratic municipalities. And while relatively peaceful coexistence could be expected initially, logically a conflict between the two is expected to emerge sooner or later. Thus emerges the need for collaboration between such liberated cities.

Historically speaking, independent municipalities tend to join forces into confederal alliances, not only for protection from common enemies, but also for sharing resources and knowledge. Social ecologists call this organizational model democratic confederalism. Its target is to lay the foundations of one truly autonomous society. Instead of centralized state apparatus governing the populace, it proposes the direct democracy of local decision-making bodies for self-management, networking with one another through regional confederations, thus rendering the state obsolete. A version of it is currently being built in the Middle East by the communities of Rojava.

The synthesis between libertarian municipalism and democratic confederalism attempts at permanent social revolution. It aims at radicalizing and emancipating one city after another through local municipal platforms and then connecting these rebel cities through confederal coordinational bodies. In this way the current functions of state and private/capitalist entities will be undertaken by the emancipated demos.


Uncertain times are descending upon us. After centuries of exploitation of nature, it seems that we have overpassed its limits. Scientists and communities that live close to the land are both warning us for the dire consequences our societies will have to pay for a capitalist lifestyle that was forced on us by governments and international institutions. And while growing number of people are becoming aware of the devastating impact this neoliberal discourse have both on humans and nature, the governing elites ignore the threat and continue down the same path on which their power depends.

This deepening ecological crisis has given birth to massive movement that aims at protecting nature. It has managed to achieve certain victories but also have faced serious limitations, and especially due to the narrow environmentalist mindset of the majority of the people that associate themselves with it. Despite many years of parliamentary lobbying and calls for greener consumerist culture, we have reached to the edge of the cliff and only few more steps are separating us from a free-fall. The State and the big green organizations have failed to successfully tackle this existential crisis.

Instead of trying to achieve significant social change and ecological improvement through the vertical mechanisms of contemporary bureaucratic apparatuses, we should look at the grassroots, where already many communities (significant part of whom indigenous) have shown in practice democratic and sustainable ways of life. Unfortunately large part of the more radical ecologists is dissinterested with public affairs and instead engages in new-age inspired self-help practices and lifestyle.

But there is also the paradigm of political ecology, proposed by social ecologists and many social movements that might be among the best ways to synthesize ecological sustainability with social and individual emancipation. We can certainly suggest that such holistic approach could be appropriate answer to a crisis like the contemporary environmental one. The ongoing degradation of nature, that produces unpredictable phenomenas like climate change, is expected to deepen other crises like increasing even further global poverty and creating migratory waves of climate refugees. Thus a multidimensional alternative is required to both unlimited economic growth and domination as social paradigm.

Political ecology that transcends narrow environmentalism and parliamentary lobbyism might not offer a completed systemic model by itself, but it is something even more important – it can serve us as a compass in one period of social disorientation and generalized insignificance. It is an attempt at drawing a road map that will take us beyond the contemporary age of crises and towards one more humane, democratic and sustainable future. But it is up to us, our movements and communities to make the crucial choice between ecology and catastrophe.

  • Hi Yavor! This is an idea that you might like:

    Despite the high quality of life that some of the so-called developed nations have achieved, the truth is that the world, considered as a group of countries located in a fragile and geographically limited biosphere, is threatened with extinction due to human conflicts and the depredation of the environment.
    Notwithstanding the good and very important actions taken by groups and individuals in favor of a better world, deterioration at all levels continues to increase dangerously.
    After more than thirty years dedicated to these matters, and since “an image is worth a thousand words” we have come up with a novel idea of designing a model city that has all the characteristics of infrastructure and organization inherent to the peaceful and sustainable society that we want for ourselves and our descendants, whose representation in the form of scale models, animated series, feature films, video games and theme parks, would constitute a model to follow to generate the necessary changes.
    The prototype that we present has some characteristics that are opposed, sometimes in a radical way, to the religious, economic, political and educational traditions and customs that have been transmitted from generation to generation, yet are the causes of the aforementioned problems, and therefore must be transformed.
    If you are interested in knowing about this project, or even participating in it, we invite you to visit our website (written in Spanish and English), where we are working in that sense.

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