One of the most perplexing ideologies to come out that seek to address the climate crisis is eco-authoritarianism. Proponents of eco-authoritarianism like David Shearman have argued that democracy has failed to confront the climate crisis and that an eco-elite must be created that would guide the world as a kind of benevolent overlord. These would be technocratic experts who would ensure that the climate crisis is addressed even if it meant severe restrictions on human rights and liberties. While I fully admit that the current neoliberal structure is blatantly unwilling to address the root causes of climate change, an authoritarian approach would be devastating both for the planet and human well-being. I will now turn to a more detailed description of what eco-authoritarianism is and why it is the wrong path for our society to take. Having shown why eco-authoritarianism is extremely problematic, I will then turn to how we could transform our society along justice lines through overturning neoliberalism and capitalism.
Eco-Authoritarianism: A Fundamentally Flawed Idea
Dan Shahar points out how eco-authoritarianism used to advocate a central planning method but after the fall of the USSR, proponents of eco-authoritarianism have turned to China as a shining example. China is seen as a regulatory state that fundamentally can get things done in a way that liberal democracies cannot. It is certainly true that infrastructure projects can be approved and built with astonishing speed. However, to turn to China as a great example is to look past the extreme totalitarian nature of its regime and its oppression of both its own people and the environment.
The Chinese regime has been guilty of human rights abuses on a massive scale. While not directly tied to addressing environmental issues, the mass detention and torture of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang amounts to genocide. How can a government that rapes and brainwashes its own citizens be a shining example for how to act on the climate crisis? When there is no check on the powers of the government and no opportunity for free speech or assembly, authoritarian governments are emboldened to crush dissent by any means necessary. This has also been blindingly obvious in the passing of the national security law to stifle opposition in Hong Kong. The crushing of dissent also includes those who might speak out about environmental issues.
In July 2020, 17 year-old climate activist Ou Hongyi was prevented from returning to school after she engaged in a Greta Thunberg-inspired #FridaysforFuture protest. She was clearly punished for being an activist and daring to speak out about climate change. A government that cannot tolerate activism and cannot listen to its own people will have no hope of addressing climate change. There needs to be a free and open discourse to allow everyone to share their ideas and voice their concerns about the environment. Crushing all dissent and preventing anyone from speaking out will lead to human misery and suffering. It is extremely patronizing and destructive to assume that an eco-elite will know what is best for all and implement it. They will implement what they perceive to be good for them but will do nothing to address underlying gender, race and class issues that are intimately tied into the environment and climate change.
Toward a Just Society
Perhaps eco-authoritarianism is seen as a viable path forward because the current neo-liberal system is failing so badly. As the billionaires get richer during the coronavirus pandemic, life is increasingly poor for the average person even in the Global North. Standard democratic processes continue to elect leaders who are, frankly, extremely unambitious when it comes to addressing climate change and the wider gender, race and class issues tied into the environment. The extreme focus on the market and the individual that has accelerated since the 1980s with Raeganism has resulted in leaders who are focused on “economic growth.” As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, investment bankers who speculate on currency are held up to be extremely valuable members of our society whereas people who do housework (which is unpaid) are held to a much lower regard. He goes on to argue that reform of this system to make it less oppressive is good, but that systemic change is necessary.
I am fully onboard with this idea of system overthrow. I do not believe that democracy (in its current flawed state) is capable of addressing the fundamental problems in the world including climate change. More radical forms of democracy are necessary. All of these forms of democracy entail moving back more towards collectivity rather than individuality and empathizing with our fellow humans. One idea proposed by Frank Fischer is a turn more towards the local with things like eco-villages. Such collectivist, pro-environmental communities are definitely a good step forward in addressing climate change and promoting a more just future for all. However, they still do not address the biggest threat to addressing climate change: capitalism.
The Problem with Capitalism
Capitalism and the extreme pursuit of wealth have led to deepening class inequalities but have also produced racial and gender inequalities as well. The institution of slavery (which was itself driven by capitalism) has produced long-lasting and deep inequalities within the US. European colonialism, too, has produced deep global inequalities and destroyed indigenous culture and human flourishing. When Marx proclaimed in the Communist Manifesto, “Workers of the World, Unite,” he easily could have talked about racial minorities or women. Workers were certainly alienated from their own humanity under capitalism (and still are), but the same could certainly be said for black people around the world or for women working extremely long hours in the household for no pay.
The alienation of everyone from their own humanity under capitalism extends to environmental destruction as well. We are alienated from our destruction of the planet. We are told that economic growth justifies all, and that the market knows best. The market will save us from destruction. It increasingly seems to me that Marx was right that capitalism contains the forces of its own destruction even if he was wrong about how quickly it would be overturned.
Thus, capitalism is both destructive to our own humanity and to the environment around us. A radical rethink of how we structure society is necessary in order to fundamentally address the flaws within it. I do not mean to presume here that I know exactly how to restructure society. I do not. In fact, I think it is an open question about how and what to do, but in order to address the climate crisis and create a just world, capitalism will need to be overthrown.
One Possible Vision for the Future
One of the more radical ideas for overthrowing the current system is replacing the nation-state entirely. While some might argue for a world government idea, I would favour more of a series of large collectives that have consensus decision-making and deliberative democracy. The break-up of the nation-state would also allow for addressing some of the long-enduring inequalities between various nation-states as the result of colonialism and exploitation.
This collective would not have private property (at least not in any large sense), and everything would be communally owned. Everyone would share from the communal resources and divide up labour evenly. All labour carried out would rotate among different people to allow for equitable distribution of work and all the means and forces of production would be communally owned. Animal agriculture would be cut out entirely (or severely cut back) to allow for the re-growth of natural environments and because animal agriculture is both exploitative for the animals and the planet. Eliminating the need for the pursuit of wealth as the ultimate goal would eliminate much of the activity that is so harmful for the planet. Such a collective would allow for a significant improvement in the well-being of all the inhabitants who would not have to worry about starving or being evicted from their apartment. In the Marxist sense, they could truly be emancipated from the oppression of capitalism and be freed to do whatever it is they wanted to do (as long as it respected the human rights of others).
I just want to put a short vision here (I may expand upon this in a future post), and I also want to say that I do not presume to know how it would be possible to implement these collectives. I also want to say that there are a myriad of other ideas floating around for how to restructure our society that are truly transformative, and I do not wish to say that my idea is better than any of those. However, capitalism will likely survive for some years yet, although if humanity fails to address climate change, I would not be surprised to see at least some societal collapse. New and innovative democratic organizational forms are necessary if we are to avert the worst of the climate emergency and provide justice for all marginalized groups.