Thinking about ecological economy on the basis of social movement experiences

Written by Olli Tammilehto. This article marks the initial publication of several revised papers presented at the fifth TRISE conference titled “Power to Destroy, Power to Create: Building a Culture of Resistance – Towards Radical Social Change,” held in Athens in October 2019. Stay tuned for more updates, as there will be additional publications to follow!

It is easy to see that capitalism cannot be ecological. The growth imperative and the necessity to make profit by externalizing costs create perfect conditions for ecological nightmare. Any regulations are bound to be circumvented by counter measures or innovations that bring about old or new forms of ecological havoc in new areas or on new dimensions. However, constructing a non-capitalistic ecological economy is usually understood to be a very difficult task. In the light of the urgency posed by the potential climate catastrophe and the rapid species extinction it appears as a daunting undertaking. Our situation seems to be hopeless and one is easily led to desperate proposals. Therefore even in the left there is a tendency to accept risky techno-fixes proposed by those who cannot see beyond capitalism.

Eco-Leninist fallacy

Among the most radical in the traditional left one can even hear calls for an authoritarian communism with a small vanguard conquering the state and using state power to force climate friendly transformation. For example, Andreas Malm speaks about ecological Leninism and war communism as a solution to the climate crises (Malm and Mealy 2020)[1].

From historical perspective this is surprising idea because Lenin’s inspiration for war communism was the way how Germany in 1914 organized its economy for war which he called “war socialism” which wasn’t socialism at all (Nowak 2020). Malm’s analogue is also astounding therefore that Leninism was such a failure in solving the key revolutionary tasks in Russia: stopping exploitation and liberating the peasants and workers. Of course Lenin and the Bolsheviks had enormous effects on Russian society but those effects were not the ones why the revolution was made in the first place.

In 1917 workers’ gained control over their workplaces through factory committees. Lenin supported this movement before October revolution but soon after destroyed it (Brinton 1975). The citywide or neighbourhood wide councils or soviets were the essential democratic achievement of the revolutionary movement, but soon after gaining power the Bolsheviks made them tools of the dictatorship of the party. From the Lenin’s maxim “Communism is soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country” only the latter part remained. Peoples’ own initiatives were discouraged even if it meant hard material deprivation. Everything had to go through the party and the bureaucracy. (See e.g. Bookchin 2004; Voline [1947] 1990; Hosking 1998; Sparrow 2015; Goldman 1970)

The peasants, too, liberated themselves in 1917, but the autonomy of this vast majority of Russian people did not fit to the plans of the Bolsheviks. The crushing of it through collectivization was carried out by the Stalin regime with extreme brutality but in principle this was not in conflict with the Leninist ideology. Much of the peasants regarded the collectivization as the second serfdom. (See e.g. Bookchin 2004; Voline [1947] 1990; Hosking 1998)

Similarly, the “Malmist-Leninist” cadres in state power would certainly transform profoundly the infrastructure of a country, but after the metamorphosis the society might be as anti-ecological as before: only the character of the ecological havoc would be different. Some of the reasons for this paradoxical  result would be – as in the Soviet Union – the stupidity created by the state bureaucracy (see Graeber 2015) and the silent resistance (see Scott 1990; Filtzer 1996) against undemocratic power by the ordinary people.

 Eco-Leninism caught wind during the corona crisis. It was thought that as in the case of corona epidemic, powerful state measures restricting people’s freedoms could also be used to solve climate and general ecological crisis. (Nowak 2020) However, the corona politcies were as terrible failure as Leninism. Lockdowns and other restricting measures certainly had enormous – mostly negative – effects on societies. Yet there are many studies comparing lockdown and no-lockdown countries and areas. According to these, lockdowns had neither noticeable effects on the behaviour of the epidemic nor decreased covid mortality (see e.g. Bendavid et al. 2021; Chaudhry et al. 2020).

Capitalistic thinking

A reason why finding a feasible ecological transition is difficult comes from our economic thinking. The origin of the modern concept of economy is capitalistic, created by the theoreticians of the aborning industrial system. However, even for many radical scholars it is hard to go beyond this concept. The conservatism of economic thinking is reinforced by institutions such as IPCC[2] which, while proposing radical changes in material and energy flows, don’t suggest any structural changes in the world economy nor in economic thinking (Spangenberg and Polotzek 2019).

The economy is usually thought to be the sphere of society that provides us with the material basis for our various activities. Yet a large part of the modern economy doesn’t produce anything material. Instead it produces information, entertainment, advertisements and other things connected to culture. An essential part of it is creating monetary and legal entitlements to material and non-material things. Therefore the economy can embrace anything and it is difficult to find common features to all economic activities. Yet you can say that the legitimation of economic activities is their presumed direct or indirect contribution to good or normal human life.

Movement economy

To find inspiration for another kind of economic thinking, it is helpful to have a look at already existing alternative economies. Anthropological research shows that people have been able to live good life without causing ecological havoc. Among historically known hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists one can find such societies even though not all of these groups have been ecologically benign (see e.g. Sahlins 1981; Bookchin 1982; Bradford 1989). Yet, imitating the life of these societies is thought to be impossible: it doesn’t befit modern humans. Therefore it is common to regard the external force wielded by the state as the only option for modern humans to be ecological.

Most anarchists would regard voluntary ecological life as being possible in principle. However, those who only have personal experiences of acting in small anarchist groups tend to see rapid enough change possible only for people like themselves but impossible for common men and women.

Yet the pessimism concerning our human potential may arise from the lack of social movement experiences or from the scanty reading of movement literature. For those of us having activist backgrounds these experiences have often been formative for one’s social and economic thinking[3]. Occasionally we have witnessed human and social miracles. This is even more so for people who have experiences or adequate knowledge of the more or less temporary, local and non-capitalistic societies created by movements such as the Kurds of Rojava or the Zapatistas of Chiapas (see e.g. Knapp, Flach, and Ayboga 2016; Grubačić and O’Hearn 2016).

In the beginning of a movement you may see very different people coming together and making deeds you wouldn’t expect from them given their respective backgrounds. Women and men change rapidly or find their radical side coming out of the closet.

In the mainstream economic gaze, movement practices and the societies they create represent, if anything, only pockets of poverty and parasitism surviving on the production of the normal economy. However, from the inside poverty is at any rate not the topmost part of the experience. On the contrary, often these practices represent the liberation of creative energies and the flourishing of human interaction. The participation in direct democracy and the “public happiness” (Arendt 2006) this engagement creates are enriching experiences. These processes happen especially in such wide movements that rise in crises when the injustice or irrationality of the social order is commonly recognized.

Thus, surprisingly social movements can rapidly create well-being without huge material resources. One reason is the way a rising movement is organized. A key feature in social movements is the lack of monetary rewards and forcing mechanisms at least in the earliest phases. Movements may have strong leaders but they are leaders in the same sense as the “chiefs” of indigenous groups: they cease to be leaders immediately when they are not trusted any more and they may be the last ones to notice this change. Local groups have a wide degree of autonomy. In general meetings the opinion of every group must be taken into account if the movement wants to go forward. Inside the groups, there must prevail some sort of democracy – otherwise people vote with feet.

Collective action changes power-relations immediately. Disobedience in hierarchical structures is widespread and therefore domination is severely curtailed. People getting together generate a huge power-to that they can collectively steer. Participants are respected and they regain their dignity. Redistribution of resources happens immediately but material flows may be quite limited in the first stages. However, poverty in the form of misery is greatly reduced and social richness compensates meagre material resources.

These features are reflected in many social movement studies. For example, participation in social movements have been observed to increase psychological well-being (Klar and Kasser 2009).

Here is an example from the history of Nordic environmental movements: In January 1981 thousands of people were resisting non-violently the construction of a dam in Alta-river in Sami territory in North of Norway. Sun did not rise over the horizon and the temperature was often below -20 degrees centigrade. People had to sleep in tents in arctic winter. Every tenth of Norway’s police officers – altogether 600 – came to the site and arrested 800 demonstrators (Wikipedia contributors 2020). Yet, after some years when the participants were interviewed they said that the time during the Alta action was the best period of their life.

I do not contend that these experiences, observations and analyses of movement practices apply to all the movements or that they offer a blueprint for a future economy. Rather they are presented as indications of surprising human potentialities for radically different economy that exist here and now. The same kind of potentialities emerge also during earthquakes and other disasters when small “paradises are built in hell” (Solnit 2009).

How is it possible for thousands of movements to create these kinds of alternative ecological economies almost immediately and seemingly out of nothing? Is it only a mirage that disappears when you look more closely? Yet, there are many keys to this miracle. One is the “economic explanation”: In the beginning a rising movement has no material resources and therefore it is forced to give the “real thing” to its participants: autonomy and democracy. Or perhaps it is better to formulate this from another perspective: autonomy and democracy are a normal choice for a movement but with money it easily goes astray.

Another explanation is that our societies are not wholly integrated entities: There is a shadow or alternative society in the midst of the prevailing society on which a movement can base itself (Tammilehto 2019; De Angelis 2007). A large part of this is a shadow economy that comprises goods and services production and distribution that are not recognized in the official economy, for example in the GNP calculations. To the shadow economy also belong the commons and other forms of common wealth that humans have created during thousands of years and nature during millions of years. Alongside the official society people routinely participate in that shadow society. Therefore people have also “shadow personality” which may differ widely from what they are in official settings. In movements shadow society and shadow personality gain strength and it comes partly to the fore. It is the “energy source” in the rapid creation the economy of a given movement.

The purpose of the mega-production?

A third explanation is that the compulsion to produce and consume huge amount of things is socially and politically created and is not directly related to human needs. Of course people always require food and shelter and an array of other products whose composition depends on circumstances. Yet, for many reasons the amount of material production needed in non-capitalistic conditions may be surprisingly small. To understand this we must analyse what the massive production nowadays is needed for.

The modern economic mega-machine does not exist to get people out of poverty. A person whose income is well above poverty-line may live in misery: she has an exhausting and dangerous job with no free time, lives in a polluted and ugly environment, she has bad social life, is not respected in any community and has no dignity nor autonomy. In these circumstances much of her consumption is compulsory or, to use Illich’s term, shadow work: money is needed to get to the job, to keep her in some kind of fitness for work and to compensate the distress at work and at home (Illich 1981). Such a person with a normal wage is in fact poor in many respects (Tammilehto 2003).

In mainstream economics it has been noticed that when the economy grows, larger and larger shares of the production are needed to keep up the economic machinery. Even though productivity is improving, more and more work and resources are needed just to give each individual food and shelter because production increasingly goes to maintain necessary infrastructure and administration. This is called intensification paradox (Fleming and Chamberlin 2016).

Maintaining the present hierarchies, the rate of capital accumulation and the opulence of a small minority has a heavy cost on the rest of society. The maintenance requires many social processes and arrangements that cause a lot of misery and ecological havoc. A huge amount of human toil is needed to make the extravagance of some people possible. Heaps of drudgery are also necessary to construct and maintain the administrative apparatus and the physical structures portraying that some people are above the rest.

To secure unequal distribution of wealth and power a lot of weaponry is required. In order to have people wielding the weapons, many humans must be indoctrinated to be inhuman. Yet, to decrease the need of costly and ugly violence it is necessary to maintain an ideology that perpetuates respect and appreciation for the rich and those in the upper echelons of social hierarchies and, correspondingly, causes shame and loss of dignity among the rest of the population.

To make this disparaging social order more tolerable a lot of effort is put on physical and cultural production of status goods that carry a fleeting glamour of the elite to the toilers. On the other hand, this constantly changing production transforms lifestyles and creates cultural and physical dependencies on new products. An illusion is created that all the new products and the work associated with them are necessary. Thus in capitalistic circumstance many commodities are used to compensate real social relations by attaching social meanings to them (see e.g. Leiss 1978; McCracken 1988).

All these social processes creating both poverty and opulence demand enormous amounts of resources. As a consequence the life-killing system has spread in almost all corners of the planet.

In a social movement these processes are weakened or cease altogether. Accordingly, the needs to consume are not reproduced to the same extent as in the capitalist context. Thus using only a small amount of resources is not a problem.

New concept of economy

When we see that the prevailing economy is only one of humanly possible ones, we can also conceptualize the economy in a new way. Fundamentally the economy is not a sphere of material necessities separated from the polity: economic and political structures are interlinked in various ways. The essence of the economy is to produce humans and their relationships (Graeber 2011). In different social circumstances different kinds of social processes that produce different kind of humans may exist. Contradictory social processes can exist in a society side by side which enables rapid and radical societal shifts.

What then would a wide-spread ecological economy based on similar processes that exists in many social movements be like? It would evidently go hand in hand with a different kind of polity: grounded on direct democracy, nested confederations and delegates with imperative mandate going from a lower level to a higher. Like in a movement power-to would be great but power-over weak. Poverty reduction wouldn’t depend on economic growth but on opulence and domination reduction. Huge material resources and human labour which have been needed to maintain power hierarchy and the wealth of a few would be freed. The fraction of this wealth that do not cause the continuation of ecological destruction could be redistributed to the needy. Status competition would be drastically reduced. Therefore the experience of poverty would be curtailed and sharing of resources would be socially and psychologically easier.

Wide political participation in local assemblies and other entities of direct-democracy and self-governance would mean that people with modest material resources would be respected and regarded as normal. They would regain their dignity and public happiness would prevail.

Working and interacting freely without domination would create huge social richness that would replace much of the material wealth of the old days. Public festivals and occasional dancing in the streets and fields would bring about such moments of ecstasy that women and men would look at pictures of life in consumer society with pity and astonishment (Ehrenreich 2008; Fleming and Chamberlin 2016).

People would enjoy the many things money can’t buy. Richer human relationships would be the salt of life. But important relationships wouldn’t be limited to the human world. They would encompass various living beings, ecosystems and natural formations. Co-operative spirit of the economy could extend to non-human beings and the idea of subjugating nature would disappear with the fading away of the subjugation of humans by humans (Bookchin 1982). The ability to enjoy nature as such without drastic human interventions would be widespread. Anti-ecological economy would be regarded as one of those irrational practises of bygone dark ages.


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[1]   Malm had even more authoritarian tone in his speech in the Malmö Degrowth Conference in 2018: .

[2]   The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

[3]   My own experiences are mainly related to Finnish anti-nuclear, environmental, human-rights and peace movements and to local struggles in Fiskars village where I used to live.

December 12, 2023

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