Beyond Green Capitalism: Social–Ecological Transformation and Perspectives of a Global Green-Left

Original Paper


Given certain reactions to the ecological crisis as part of the multiple crisis of capitalism (like the so-called energy transition in Germany), a new mode of development might emerge which can be called green capitalism. This would shift the terrain of social critique and emancipatory social struggles. The paper introduces the debate on “social–ecological transformation” which emerged as a radical part of a more comprehensive debate on “great” or “societal transformation” and highlights its core issues: the issue of a necessary attractive mode of production and living for all, the role of pioneers of change and changing political and economic institutions, the acknowledgment of shifting social practices, the requirement for alternative imaginaries or “stories” of a good life as part of a contested process which is called “futuring.” As an example for alternative imaginaries, the current debate on “degrowth” is outlined and evaluated. The second part of the paper focuses more concretely on issues around the formation and existence of a global green-left. After mentioning a crucial problem for any global alternative—i.e., the structural feature of economic and geopolitical competition which historically divided the global Left and pulled it into compromises at national or regional scales—four requirements or characteristics of a global green-left are highlighted: to weaken and change capitalistically driven competition and competitiveness, to push a social–ecological transformation in democratic ways and not at the back of ordinary people (like conservative and liberal proposals for transformation tend to do), to link more systematically green issues with labor issues and, finally, to transform the overall dispositive of political action from a “distributive” to a “transformative Left.” One dimension of such an enhancement, it is concluded, is a broader understanding of the “economy” itself by acknowledging the demands and achievements of a “care revolution” which will be crucial for an alternative mode of production and living.


Green capitalism Social–ecological transformation Ecological civilization Global Left Futuring Degrowth Marxism 

In Europe, “business as usual” is the motto of ruling politics nowadays. The dominant public discussions and policies are staged as necessities and unavoidable adoptions to an austerity policy which is apparently without alternatives. We are assured that rising poverty rates, the redistribution of wealth from bottom to top and the cutback of social rights and democracy are only temporary conditions until we reach the ultimate goal: bringing us back to the promising path of growth. The future is seen as the extension of the present and, accordingly, drastic decisions are being made wherever capital interests (and the interests of core employees) and the position of the wealthy are at stake.

However, alternatives are proposed and carried out by social movements, alternative entrepreneurs, progressive state officials, leftist political parties, critical intellectuals and changing everyday practices. They become more and more visible. This is also the case for China (Huan 2014). The new Greek government under the leadership of the radical-leftist party Syriza is an important achievement. The next elections in Spain might bring the new political formation PODEMOS (“we can”) into a leading position.

One of the most important debates and approaches attempt to bring environmental perspectives and questions of justice together, i.e., they attempt to formulate green-left analytical and political perspectives. I mean the debate about and strategies of a social–ecological transformation.

What we discuss in Western Europe but also in Latin America: the capitalist growth imperative itself has become a destabilizing factor. The continuous growth in producing (short-lived) goods and services also causes potential and real instability and manifold conflicts. Therefore, I present some aspects of the so-called degrowth perspective. But right at the beginning I want to stress that for China the concept of degrowth does not make sense. It would be immediately understood as an imperial concept from the North and as an austerity program for the poor. However, I think that we can learn something from a green-left understanding of the degrowth concept. What seems to me necessary is a more critical and Marxist perspective on growth as a assumed precondition for well-being. There are differences between an orientation at pure quantitative growth at any price and qualitative growth which looks at the quality of production and consumption processes, of social relations, justice and well-being—and which is critical of the capitalist growth imperative. It is a question whether systems like health or education should be put under the imperative of capital—which means growth—or not. Whether long-living goods are produced which means in the medium-term less growth. Whether renewable energy and public transport are developed which means at the beginning investment and growth but then less compared to fossil fuels and automobiles.

In the last part of this text, I am going to outline some crucial aspects of a global social–ecological transformation. I start with one crucial problem any green-left perspective has to deal with and then underline some dimensions which need further elaboration.

1 Social–Ecological Transformation

Some years ago, under the header of Societal and Great Transformation an intense debate started about possible changes in the material dimensions of production and consumption systems. The focus is mainly on energy and natural resources (Brand and Wissen 2015). A first assumption is that ecological questions will play an increasing role in future politics; we need to reduce the use of resources and sinks, of emissions drastically. This is not a technological question, but one of transforming the predominant mode of production and living.

Among the progressive liberal elites and also in large parts of society, there is a strong displeasure with the ongoing dealing with the ecological crisis: They want to change politics, norms and values and hope for technological innovation. However, they do not want to change power and property relations, do not want to give up their position, to not want to get rid of the capitalist imperatives of competition and competitiveness. Therefore, they prefer the Green Economy strategy and forms of ecological modernization, and they offer for instance a “smart agriculture” to maintain the industrial agro-food complex, the logics and power behind, to put a positive label on genetically modified organisms.

Social–ecological transformation goes beyond this. It mainly stands for the emancipatory way to deal with the multiple crisis and to develop attractive modes of production and living (i.e., of food and clothing, of mobility and communication, of housing and living together), new understandings of well-being beyond productivism and consumerism, beyond fossilist and nuclear power, for emancipatory forms of the social division of labor. Another, better society needs in its socioeconomic (re-)production a “material core” (Antonio Gramsci), a strong attractively of the manifold modes of production and living.

An important normative claim is that profound social–ecological transformation cannot take place at cost of the weaker parts of the population or at the back of the workers. When we talk about the conversion of industries like the automobile industry in Germany, this has to be done with the workers themselves. It must me a social–ecological learning process—not free of conflicts—which is secured institutionally.

Therefore, a starting point for any alternative is to ask who decides today about the dominant and mainly problematic norms of production and consumption, i.e., the investment into research and development, large infrastructures; about forms of mobility and communication, housing and the development of cities, and agriculture and food; and about overall development paths. Then we come to questions how to overcome capitalist imperatives, the blind forces of the world market and how to control democratically society and societal nature relations.

The concept of social–ecological transformation is discussed in countries like Germany in leftist think-tanks like Rose Luxemburg Foundation or Heinrich Böll Foundation, among critical scholars, within parts of progressive political parties and trade unions, NGOs and trade unions. It entered into international reports and is sometimes used by state officials.

The term develops its special significance in the face of a society whose predominant logic of change: the logic of making profit and accumulating capital, expanding economic activities and the capitalist growth imperative, related interests and power relations. It produces ever stronger and less controllable crises.

From a critical perspective, a crucial assumption regarding social–ecological transformation is that in modern capitalist societies, change takes place continually. “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones” (Marx and Engels 1998: 243). The decisive question is what kind of logic of transformation is to predominate. This has far-reaching analytical and political-strategic consequences.

2 Entry Points of Social–Ecological Transformation

There is good news: We do not have to start from scratch. There are manifold discussions, proposals and practical approaches already available. More and more people are defending themselves against the impertinences of current politics and already strive to live and work differently: socially, ecologically and together.

There are many entry points—whether and how they articulate to a whole and in what sense there will be a new “collective will” in the sense of Antonio Gramsi beyond particular interests is an open question; key is an attractive mode of production and living, related politics and cultures which make a life in prosperity, peace and individual flourishing under conditions of ecological sustainability possible.

Thie (2013) argues that we already can identify in those processes principles of a deeply restructured society: cooperation instead of competition, the orientation at and practices of equity, more economic planning, an overall dominance of the production of use values. Other principles might be added like the acknowledgment of different identities—the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno said one that to him the basis of a free society is the possibility “to be different without fear.”

Also the radical debates in Western Europe make one point quite explicit. Proposals for a social–ecological transformation do not intend to develop a master plan, but it is a term which recognized that a lot is going on, that more and more people start to create alternatives. Community gardens, barter groups, car sharing, reuse and recycle initiatives like fix it. There is resistance against large infrastructure projects, and there are movements for food sovereignty and energy democracy as well as for the right to the city. There is the concept of the “prosumer,” i.e., the merger of producers and consumers.

They are often called “pioneers of change,” and they are diverse and not necessarily green-left. The challenge is—probably also for China—to discover and systematize those initiatives, to make links, to understand their strengths and weaknesses, their post-capitalist and emancipatory potential.1 I think that is worth to look at these small reforms, at emerging alternative subjectivities and practices. These smaller and bigger initiatives like the German energy transition can contribute to a new understanding of prosperity. Within the process of social–ecological transformation, many pioneers of change might become increasingly aware that the changes induced by them should be put into a larger context. In order to get out of a niche and to make particular alternatives more relevant, they possibly need to confront powerful actors which defend their current position and that for this political support might be helpful.

A second dimension is also important and often underestimated in green-left debates: despite all ambiguous developmentalist dynamics in countries like China, different forms of socioeconomic (re-)production and changing practices of a growing number of people take place around the world. It is not the explicit actors, i.e., pioneers of change but changing practices in the sense that an increasing amount of young people in Western Europe do not eat any longer meat, that in a city like Vienna more than half of the households do not have any longer a car, and that the everyday division of labor and the relationships between the formal economy and other forms of the production of well-being are changing. I am sure that in the near future we will experience more and more that people (who can afford it) want to work for their salary 4 days a week, accept less income and recognize other activities beyond wage labor.

Good living and well-being for all not at the cost of nature does not mean to have a society where everything is controlled and everybody lives similarly. Not at all. Emancipatory forms to live together means to create the conditions that the conditions to live its own individuality imply societal liberty, justice and a democratic shaping of societies.

Therefore, collective political and social action is also needed. A radical social–ecological transformation is the task of a broad red-green left: movements, trade unions, parties, entrepreneurs, progressive business associations, NGOs, state officials incl. teachers, intellectuals, cultural workers, scientists, media workers, etc.; even some conservative actors come in like socially and ecologically sensitive parts of the churches which are open to learning processes.

This is a center-stage for an organized green-left, i.e., a pluralist left which acknowledged differences and particular fields of conflict (like food and agriculture, queer-feminist and LGBT, work place issues, manifold environmental struggles, migration).

A global green-left is a promoter and stabilizer of the varying initiatives toward social–ecological transformation.

It promotes the weakening of capital power, of existing capitalist, imperial–colonial, racist and patriarchal imaginaries and related modes of production and living, of a conception of nature as “resource” to be exploited.

Political and social institutions are crucial for the stabilization of problematic social relations and social order. Therefore, a green-left should look particularly for changing political and economy institutions and should promote the shift of cultural institutions into more emancipatory directions. This means that the state and privileged actors around the state like political parties remain crucial terrains to change the existing world. The state is not a more or less “neutral” regulator nor the mere agent of capital, but a condensation of societal power relations and diapositives like capitalist growth (cf. Gallas et al. 2011; Brand et al. 2011).

This is not just a programmatic question but one of being an active part of the varying transformation processes. It is the difficult and necessary political and social work for certain coherences, for really changing modes of production and living, for new subjectivities and interactions, for mechanisms to secure achieved changes and to hinder rollback in the interests of anti-emancipatory actors. Collective green-left actors acknowledge existing forms and processes of transformation, discuss and push their emancipatory potentials. They also initiate changes and conflicts, make proposals, build alliances.

In a Gramscian term (Gramsci 1991: Prison Notebook 1: 111; Prison Notebook 13: 1560, 1567), a green-left should contribute that societal and political actors overcome for an emancipatory project their own and others narrow “economist–corporatist,” to convert them into “political–ethical” ones which implies to overcome short-term group interests and to be ready for compromises. This might lead to a “hegemonic and state” phase where alternative projects are secured with the strategic financial, legal, physical and epistemic resources of the state.

3 Futuring

This brings me to another aspect of social–ecological transformation. We have many middle-range concepts which orient these alternative practices, actors and politics. Commons, energy democracy, food sovereignty, right to the city, to name a few. Those concepts cannot be developed from the writing desk, but they evolve within social struggles and orient them. “Degrowth” in Western Europe in the last years is a good example, and I will come back to this.

However, what might be needed beyond the important middle-range concepts is a horizon or a “story” of an attractive mode of production and living which overcomes the capitalist growth imperative and power relations without denying manifold forms of property. Such a broad story might be called “good living.”

I contend that a green-left perspective and especially a global one need to deal more with this, i.e., with the question of future stories and attractive horizons as one condition for a desirable social–ecological transformation.

The German scholar and member of Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Rainer Rilling, argues that the debate about futures, visions and pathways itself is a terrain of contestation. How to think possible and desirable futures today, to integrate them into strategies and contest, to shed particular light on the actual in the sense of Ernst Bloch’s “real utopia,” to indicate possible directions and criteria of change and foster a sense of the possible and to mobilize to approach those futures? Rilling (2014: 42) argues that we live in a society which integrates (and historically integrated) access to futures into their own mode of operation and patterns of action, into reflection and politics due to its permanent and accelerating transformation. However, this transformation understood as “futuring” is an enormously power-driven process (who has the resources to develop sophisticated scenarios?). Futuring does not focus on possible futures but asks how those imagined futures are integrated in current societies. In that sense, futuring means to capture and interpret futures, to envision them and, therefore, to make them to an object of current (non-)decision and (non-)action. Debates about transformation, transition management, preemption or resilience imply “the attempt to occupy the absent continent of future, an appropriation and usurpation of futures and incidents which still need to be actualised” (ibid.: 32; own translation, emphasis in original).

A consequence of this contested process is to make environmental and societal values more explicit. The visionary and strategic dimensions of a sustainable society should be linked to the (always ambiguous) project of enlightenment, i.e., the contested realization of autonomy and self-determination; of freedom and justice; of forms of work, production, and consumption, which are not based on nor stabilize societal domination. The question of a democratic shaping of society and societal nature relations seems to be crucial. This implies the democratic control of resources but also of the manifold processes of production and consumption. This is an important research perspective: What are the already existing democratic forms of resource control, which struggles have been and will be necessary in order to realize them, and how do they stabilize themselves institutionally? Which demands can be made in a comprehensive sense for the democratic structuring of society’s interaction with nature? In that sense, debates about social–ecological transformation and the claim to formulate a political project constitute a counter-perspective to dominant forms of futuring.

Before I turn to some dimensions of a global social–ecological transformation, let me briefly introduce one of the most interesting debates within the European green-left spaces.

4 Degrowth

The context is paradox. Currently, in Western Europe one claim of the elites and trade unions predominates in order to overcome the crisis: “growth, growth, growth.” At the same time, economic growth and prosperity are being debated intensively and also questioned. This is due largely to the current economic crisis and decreasing rates of economic growth in the OECD countries as well as to a re-politicization of the ecological crisis. The latter has mainly to do with the obvious fact that international environmental politics has largely failed and that environmental destruction is in many areas accelerating.

Besides all analytical and strategic differences, an important theoretical reference is the concept of a steady state economy—in the tradition of John Stuart Mill’s stationary state—where the costs and benefits of economic activities are accounted for separately and where material and energy throughput and not just output is considered. The (im-)possibility of markets to deal with ecological and social problems, especially, is a core commonality. Some argue for an internalization of ecological and social costs, others go further: They add that more structural changes as well as a decolonizing of economics and minds from economism toward another collective imaginary are preconditions for eligible change.

The consequence of many contributions is a call for stronger support of grass-roots movements, and others focus on an adequate political framework, different individual behaviors, the reduction in wage-labor hours or, more generally, “a multi-faceted political project that aspires to mobilise support for a change of direction, at the macro-level of economic and political institutions and at the micro level of personal values and aspirations. Income and material comfort is to be reduced for many along the way, but the goal is that this is not experienced as welfare loss” (Kallis 2011). Normative principles like cooperation and social justice are being re-introduced, while social movements are seen as the major subjects of change. Many contributions aimed at degrowth do not focus so much on crises or secular trends of diminishing growth rates in highly industrialized countries. Rather, to the contrary, they propose a “voluntary, smooth and equitable transition to a regime of lower production and consumption” (Schneider et al. 2010: 511). Degrowth is thought of as a conscious societal process based on a change of values.

I share this overall perspective and would also argue for the priority of qualitative changes of societal relations and societal nature relations. Despite the fact that—in contrast to the debate around qualitative growth—power and competition play a role, and the contributions to the degrowth and a-growth debate fail to think the manifold structures and processes of societal domination through more thoroughly.

Power and domination commonly refer to the power of the state or political actors like parties, associations or corporations. Of course, this perspective is relevant; however, I contend that a more sophisticated conception of domination helps us to achieve a more differentiated understanding of reality.

This is important because then we go beyond the “yes/no” question of growth and can ask more precisely for the capitalist drivers of growth. Of course, the education and health system must grow, the production of healthy food and renewable energy.

The questions then is: What drives growth, and what kind of growth and related to which interests.

From this perspective, the growth critique runs the risk of underestimating or even denying the key moments of capitalist economic growth, namely its broader societal foundations and consequences in terms of societal power relations and domination. Economic growth is not just a (questionable) process of material well-being and (re-)distribution. It is based upon and reinforces social relations in which life opportunities and spaces of action, assets and income are distributed unevenly. It guarantees economically, politically and culturally manifold social inclusion and exclusion, class and property relations, the asymmetrical relationship between men and women, between majority and minorities, as well as international inequalities.

Capitalism is not just a system of producing and consuming goods and services, but also a system of power and domination—especially over nature.

A red-green, i.e., Marxist critique of growth, claims that social dynamics are determined first by the production of exchange values and not by the production of concrete use values. Goods, represented by their exchange value, “have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom” (Marx 1977 [1867]: 86). Marx was sensitive to this, writing that through capitalist accumulation dynamics, the natural “sources of all wealth” would be undermined. In addition, to be economically quantified resources, such as non-paid work force, public services or aspects of nature, they tend to be converted into commodities and exchange values. Capitalist competition and the associated drive to accumulate are further reasons why more commodities would be produced more cheaply, along with the natural tendency to use and overuse free resources. Capital, “fanatically bent on making value expand itself, (…) ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production’s sake (…) and competition makes the immanent laws of capitalist production to be felt by each individual capitalist, as external coercive laws” (ibid: 618). This is especially visible in the process of globalization, which has led to more intense competition and an enormous increase in resource consumption.

Moreover, the domination-formed societal division of labor is crucial. Historically, there was an emergence of a class of owners of the means of production and other assets, who aimed to multiply their assets. The overwhelming majority of people possess little or no assets, but sustain themselves through wage labor, in terms of which the capitalist surplus value is produced. The more people subsist through wage labor, the more the production of goods, and thus capitalist growth is encouraged. We see this in the past two decades in China, where hundreds of millions of people were drawn into wage labor to produce commodities for the world (probably the majority do this willingly, although one must take into account the specific social and environmental conditions). Indeed, class structure has become more diversified in many countries. Nevertheless: If people subsist from wage labor, they and their organizations like trade unions have an interest in the perpetuation and expansion of capitalist production as their wages depend on it, thus reinforcing capitalist class relations. As wage earners, most people accept not only the machinery of capitalist growth, but also the underlying relations of control and ownership, though this is largely involuntary and impotent (Marx 1969: 34).

Many drivers of growth are mentioned in the debate: technological progress, productivity growth, consumerism and its social-psychological dimensions, the debt and repayment cycle, globalization and urbanization. These are all clearly important factors. Yet it should be remembered from a Gramscian perspective that the societal relations of domination in the minds of those who are dominated are usually not perceived as such, but rather as silently enforced anonymous relations (Demirović 1997: 257), as the uncontrolled processes of technological progress and global markets, of globalization and productivism. In other words, most people experience their daily life as relatively powerless individuals—notwithstanding all of the new management methods and approaches to the transfer of responsibility and political participation. This is the basis of capitalist culture. Moreover, there exist central social and economic dynamics which, as conditions of capitalist competition, transform more and more aspects of society into marketable goods, i.e., capitalist commodities. This relates not only to nature and to people who sell their labor. In this respect, the capitalist market or economy not only constrains the sphere of social innovation and the production, allocation and consumption of resources, but also the manner in which power relations are constituted and reproduced along dispositives of class, gender and ethnic lines.

After having introduced the concept of degrowth and a green-left reading of it, I outline now the some further and quite tentative dimensions of social–ecological transformation.

5 Global Social–Ecological Transformation

I would like to push these thoughts a bit further, i.e., to a global perspective. Greg Albo criticizes rightly that many social–ecological alternatives focus change on regional or even local scales. These scales are important but need to be enhanced to other ones. The question emerges then: What could be the global efforts and contributions of green-left thinking and political action to a truly sustainable and fair mode of production and living?

At a general level, we need to ask: How can an attractive mode or production and living emerge which ensures the conditions for a good life for everybody, wealth and freedom and ecological sustainability? How can jobs be maintained and created in an economy which is truly ecologically sustainable, just and not any longer under the imperative of capital power and accumulation and a state which promotes the power of capital? How can a different division of labor be achieved?

Or again with the words of Antonio Gramsci: How a new “collective will” beyond particular interests can be developed by the people themselves, but also in and through institutions, economic and cultural practices?

Before I give some tentative answers to this, let me outline one problem which seems crucial to me.

Green-leftist perspectives are bound to a central ambiguity.

Historical achievements of emancipatory movements like political equality, labor rights or women rights but also many environmental laws were achieved against the power and control of strong and often well-organized economic interests. State and governments play here an important role but change comes usually out of the struggles of the affected, of those who want a better life for themselves or for society: workers, women, migrants, those who are concerned for the environment, those who want a better education. Let’s call this a “vertical” political perspective, especially a perspective of class (Revelli 1999).

However, Global capitalism is also organized within nation states. Beside vertical struggles within nation states, there are also compromises, especially among classes and often against the background of a “national popular” orientation. When these compromises function and other conditions apply, dynamic growth models might emerge. We have a strong experience of capitalist development in Western countries after World War II of a strong class compromise. I do see that this was full of inequalities within and between classes, the post-war social contract was highly gendered and mainly at the backs of migrants. However, many people felt integrated and had experiences of growing wealth and security. This is what happens in China today.

We can call this perspective a “horizontal” one, i.e., that economic development is possible because an economy is more competitive than others and has a more or less functioning capitalist growth model with certain mechanism of distribution and rights for the subaltern classes. Economic development occurs under conditions of globalizing capitalism and at the cost of nature. The international division of labor puts some regions in countries in the position of a resource supplier like many countries in Latin America, Africa or like Russia. Others have the function of the “global factory” like China, Bangladesh or Germany. And other offer cheap services with millions of people in call centers like India.

A first issue green-left politics has to deal with is how to overcome the horizontal perspective, i.e., to set the people around the global in a capitalist competition. As I said, capitalist development is uneven and it takes place at the cost of others and at the cost of nature—and at the cost of the future, of future generations which might live under worse conditions. This is the whole history of imperialism: to externalize many negative effects of capitalist toward other regions of the world.

However, we cannot overlook—especially in China—that under certain condition such national development can occur and that this improves the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

Any alternative to capitalism with its productive and destructive forces, with its integrating and hegemonic and with its excluding and destroying characteristic must offer better lives for all, i.e., also for them who are today more or less included. This is the bottom line for a global social–ecological transformation and a truly international green-left.

Let me highlight four important implications for global green-left politics and then I develop some final thoughts in social–ecological transformation.

What is clear: Green-left politics must think about changes in the existing modes of production and living, related power relations, broadly accepted overall societal orientations (diapositives) and practices. But it must also take the international and other forms of international cooperation into sight. International political cooperation today is to secure the capitalist competition for markets and resources; it is cooperation to foster neoliberal “lock-in” effects in forms like the WTO. As long as capitalist and imperial competition within societies and internationally predominate it is very difficult to develop and even think radical alternatives. So, a first principle seems to me to lower the competition and orientation toward competitiveness. Green-leftist international politics must look differently. Capitalistically driven competition and competitiveness are structurally bound to the interests of capital and hinder the emergence of a global mode of production which bases on cooperation and solidarity. This is not easy, but capitalist and imperial competition must be weakened and overcome step by step.

When we talk about a good society, a good living for everybody we have to talk about work, about wage labor and non-wage labor; about the social division of labor. Globalization means a changing international division of labor. I don’t have to explain this here in China because your country is a central site of this changing division of labor.

But labor is under pressure. Many people cannot live out of their wage of one job. We call them the “working poor” because they do not earn an adequate living wage. In many countries, the minimum wage is not enough to live from or it is even not reached by millions of people. And in many so-called developed countries, the wages are still under the level before the beginning of the crisis 2008.

This is an important task of a global green-left perspective. To support the creation of conditions under which everybody can live well. This means to support the struggles of wage and non-wage workers. To support independent organizing of workers and that they can form trade unions which are politically independent. Besides many other activities of organizing and resisting, the means of a strike are still an important way to make claims heard.

Timothy Mitchell reminds us that political and social rights in modern societies are closely linked to fossil fuels. He argues that since the nineteenth century workers achieved political and social inclusion, especially through their power in the extraction, distribution and use of coal. He calls this “carbon democracy.” The labor intense processes allowed workers to interrupt processes via strikes or at least to menace the use of coal. However, the modes of living were not deeply affected, many workers remained at least in parts living within a subsistence economy (Mitchell 2011).

“A century ago, the widespread use of coal gave workers a new power. The movement of unprecedented quantities of fuel along the fixed, narrow channels that led from the coal mine, along railway tracks and canals, to factories and power stations created vulnerable points of passage where a labour strike could paralyse an entire energy system. Weakened by this novel power, governments in the West conceded demands to give votes to all citizens, impose new taxes on the rich, and provide healthcare, insurance against industrial injury and unemployment, retirement pensions, and other basic improvements to human welfare. Democratic claims for a more egalitarian collective life were advanced through the flow and interruption of supplies of coal” (Mitchell 2011: 236).

This changed with the use of oil in the twentieth century. At the one hand, workers were less powerful given the more decentralized (pipelines) and internationalized production of oil (especially the role of authoritarian governments in the Arab world). At the other hand, industrialism based on oil (and gas) shaped the modes of living of workers and ordinary people in a profound way: clothes, plastics, food, mobility became more and more oil and fossil fuel based. It was an integral part of what we can call the “imperial mode of production and living” (Brand and Wissen 2013).2

Such a perspective implies that to take international solidarity seriously in a sense that it is not just a slogan but a political practice. This would mean that the workers in a high-income country like Germany support the organizing and interest in better working conditions and wages of the Chinese worker. And it implies a collective and individual acknowledgment that the own living standard bases partially upon the living situations of other people elsewhere.

However, from a green-left perspective there is the need to go a bit further: to promote proposals, initiatives and struggles which question the control of capital and its ability to put the global workforce into permanent competition—at the cost of others and at the cost of nature.

However, from a green-left perspective a crucial question is how can we develop a mode of production and living which is not imperial, i.e., not at the cost of others and of nature.

This means from a global green-left perspective to support the many struggles but at the same time to promote emancipatory and ecological forms of production and living.

Up to date, the global development model is bound to quantitative economic growth. Jobs and taxes, i.e., the financing of the state, depend on this. Political legitimation.

But we should not overlook that economic growth is mainly driven by capital. The driving force is the exchange value, not the use value. The aim is capital accumulation, not a good living for everybody and the careful dealing with nature, i.e., nondestructive societal nature relations.

Labor struggles need to be linked to ecological issues.

Therefore, it must reframe the old split between the “social/economic” and the “ecological”; environmental questions like energy poverty, dirty work places, housing along loud streets, unhealthy food are at the same time social questions.

What we discuss in Austria and Germany is that we need develop a transformative Left and to overcome the still strong distributive Left. It is not to leave questions of distribution aside but to put them into another context. If the left wants to formulate adequate answers to the challenges mentioned above, there is no way around developing a progressive understanding of prosperity which overcomes the formula “growth and distribution.” In the industrialized countries, absolute production and consumption levels and the average must shrink in many branches—but not in all, i.e., a growth in care work or renewable energy is definitely required. But it means less cars, less air traffic and meat consumption, and also turning back from a highly industrialized to a sustainable agriculture.

In some way, politics need to be reinvented. “Crossover” as a process brings together parliamentary and non-parliamentary forces, pioneers of change and progressive entrepreneurs. All in all, it is about initiating, enforcing and defending social–ecological transformations in parties, public institutions, associations, unions, enterprises and their interest groups, social movements and the general public through various initiatives. All these processes will face leaps and backlashes and will not take place simultaneously.

This has strategic political consequences: In order to modify the mentioned powerful logics in the direction of a solidary modernity, a transformative left is required that can deal with conflicts in a constructive way and is not only able to distribute in a better way, but also to intervene in the very mode of social (re-)production where powerful forces are extremely well organized.

6 Outlook

Rosa Luxemburg introduced the concept of “revolutionary real politics,” Joachim Hirsch called it “radical reformism” (Hirsch 1994) and recently Klein (2013) “double transformation.” A crucial strategic perspective is to promote reformist politics and concrete steps to change societies—but this should take place in light of an emancipatory horizon, of a good society where the conditions for a good living of everybody are secured; and where this does not occur at the cost of nature. A global green-left should not understand this as two consecutive steps (today reformism, tomorrow its radicalization) but to integrate into reform proposals and politics and related conflicts already an emancipatory potential. This is more easily said than practically done—but it is a decisive condition for a true emancipation of humankind.

What we ultimately need is an enhanced understanding of the economy. An understanding which goes beyond the formal market (often narrowed down to the capitalist market and hiding the public sector) and wage labor. They are important and struggles for emancipation (Biesecker and Hofmeister 2010).

This is discussed in Western Europe and internationally under the header of a “care revolution,” i.e., an economic starting point and priority which puts the well-being of people, use values and the ecological reproduction of nature as the decisive criteria. And it implies a reorganization of the societal and international division of labor. This is today the site of power and domination along the lines of class, gender, race, along manual and intellectual work, within and between nation states. Emancipation means also emancipatory forms of the manifold divisions of labor.

And it means that we require different forms of knowledge, skills and competences. How to create such a society? For instance, which educational systems do we need for it?

What we see again: An emancipatory social–ecological transformation needs a horizon of an attractive mode of production and living, of a blocking and shaping of existing power relations, of alternative experiences which should be stabilized and others which still need to be developed.

This goes hand in hand with certain uncertainties about the future. That means to counter the capitalist-neoliberal “story” that too much change implied a worsening of living conditions, that a questioning of existing power relations meant chaos, that ordinary people should have fear when the elites are no longer controlling. Crucial here is that uncertainties are not a power technique and that weaker people are convinced that processes of social–ecological transformation do not take place at their cost. This is an essence of any social–ecological transformation and of a socialist ecological civilization.


  1. 1.

    Of course, there are also conservative or NIMBY (not in my backyard) approaches.

  2. 2.

    Given this constellation, Mitchell argues, it is hard to imagine that liberal democracy will be able to overcome the fossilist mode of production.


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Copyright information

© Fudan University 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceUniversity of ViennaViennaAustria

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