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Dossier “System Change through Democratic Eco-Socialism”. An introduction

CJCM-Launch Conference (October 2022)

By Hauke Neddermann

In today’s multidimensional crisis, it is becoming ever more apparent that capitalist production continues to undermine, in the words of Marx, “the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker”. Marx’s words apply in all their human-devouring ramifications. Even the United Nations has been raising the alarm for some time: our planet is on fire, António Guterres said, pointing to global warming. The catastrophe, which is turning from a gloomy forecast into present reality before our very eyes, also illustrates a second point: in the man-made historically produced asymmetries of the world– including social as well as colonial/imperialist ones – the crisis-ridden disruptions affect those who have contributed least to the emergence of the problem with particular severity. The privileged of the Earth hide behind walls and seas from the damned, turning away from the suffering and the struggles at least for the moment. Yet, today’s human struggle, which is a struggle for the future, must be about productively combining different perspectives, reworking them in solidarity, and developing them further.

In October 2023, scientists, academics and activists met in Johannesburg, South Africa for a three-day exchange at Wits University. The conference was organized by the South African Climate Justice Charter Movement (CJCM), chaired by Vishwas Satgar and Ruth Ntlokotse, under the umbrella theme of »System Change through Democratic Eco-Socialism«.

The Berlin Institute for Critical Theory participated in the meeting as a supporter and joint partner. For the Historical-Critical Dictionary of Marxism, such an exchange with proponents of the South African climate justice movement is a genuine opportunity. After all, the thematic field of the HCDM does not only consist of questions about Marx, i.e. on his work and reception, but also and above all by the type of questions that Marx himself posed: investigating relations of domination and exploitation past and present. And this leads right into the heart of the crises and struggles of today’s world, in terms of practical critique and experience. Without an understanding of the struggles being fought in the Global East-South, such reflection would merely be West-Northern hubris.

It is with great pleasure that we present some of the think pieces written by our African comrades. They can be read as a mosaic of perspectives from the Global South, forming a broad panorama of eco-socialist systems change and transformation. Not only South Africa would be a better place if it succeeded.

In the Global East-South, the climate crisis is ravaging natural and social landscapes that have historically been shaped by colonial/imperialist dispossession and capitalist exploitation. Current struggles are often determined by this: the colonially expedient hegemony of productivist ideologies and deep social fragmentation complicate collective action. The climate question demands an answer, argues Tara Nair van Ryneveld (Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute) in »Decolonial and eco-socialist principles to respond to the climate crisis«, which examines coloniality, class and ethnicity in an intersectional perspective – it is necessary, Tara writes, to »deconstruct the systems in place that created and perpetuate this inequality«.

In her article entitled »Ecosocialism in One Country? Reflections on scale and nation in the Just Transition«, Janet Cherry (Nelson Mandela University, Gqeberha) reflects on a fundamental contradiction in the current crisis of humanity: processes of degradation that threaten the commons – including oceans and forests, etc. – and take place on a global or macro-regional scale, are confronted primarily within the framework of the nation state. Using the example of the climate catastrophe in sub-Saharan Africa, Janet calls for a fundamental reorientation. What is needed, she argues, are decentralized, democratic, resilient and sustainable strategies in the local context of the community (below the national and provincial level) and regional integration (above the national level).

One essential public good at stake in the current ecological and climate crisis is water. In »The water commons, small scale farming and democratic eco-socialism«, Matthew Wingfield (Stellenbosch University) examines the political ecology of water in South Africa. Profit-driven water extractivism, e.g. in agriculture, is offset by increasingly devastating periods of drought (as well as occasional floods) and dwindling supplies of drinking water. The climate catastrophe thus becomes a clarifying moment: The unequal management of the worsening shortage of resources – in this case: water – makes it unmistakably clear what and who is considered expendable by the ruling class. The fight for water thus opens up spaces for eco-socialist resistance.

Scholar activists Sinegugu Zukulu (Sustaining the Wild Cost, Baleni) and Andrew Bennie (Institute for Economic Justice, Johannesburg) focus on the resistance of the Amadiba, who have long been resisting their eviction by transnational mining companies. Indigenous knowledge of the local ecology in which traditional societies are embedded plays a special role in this struggle. The local example provides lessons for the eco-socialist project as a whole: indigenous cosmovisions, practices and knowledge systems, as Sinegugu and Andrew argue in their text »Indigenous Knowledge and Democratic Eco-Socialism«, harbour considerable potential for socio-ecological transformation and are often superior to eco-modernist and carbon nationalist approaches from above. This potential must be mobilized.

Our health as humans and the ›health‹ of our planet are inextricably linked – global capitalism is harming both. Health expert and activist Natalya Dinat (Johannesburg) points out in »Public Health Care and Democratic Eco-socialism« that unrestricted access to good health care must be part of any eco-socialist transformation. This can succeed if the health care sector is freed from the dictates of profit, and only then can the environmentally damaging and inhumane routines of the health care industry be reformed in a sustainable way.

Under the title »Ecosocialist Electricity? Just Transition or Neo-Luddite Revolution«, Tony Martel (Nelson Mandela University, Gqeberha) places the energy problem at the centre of his considerations – after all, the energy problem is also at the heart of the climate crisis. However, Tony rejects neoliberal approaches that focus solely on a ‘green transformation’ of electricity production while leaving the demand side unscathed. His question is a much more radical one: Isn’t electricity itself an instrument of power? If that is the case, the next revolution – unlike the revolutions of the 20th century – would not be another productivist one aiming to connect every household to the power grid, but one in which the constant availability of electricity is fundamentally called into question.

What is evident in fundamental questions and challenges like these, is the need for a real cultural revolution. Climate change is forcing people to change their consciousness. Against this backdrop, Devan Pillay (Wits University, Johannesburg) discusses how »happiness« can be conceptualized in ecomarxist terms. In order to be sustainable, »happiness« (and well-being) must point beyond the capitalist logics of growth and accumulation. What is urgently needed, Devan suggests in “Happiness, Degrowth and Democratic Ecosocialism”, is a socio-ecological, anti-capitalist, feminist concept of happiness – one that truly reflects the alternative modernity which is at the heart of any eco-socialist system transformation.

To be able to provide answers to today’s problems, Marxism needs a deep renewal along the lines of an eco-centric ethic. In his programmatic theses under the title »Marxist eco-centric ethics, the commons and democratic eco-socialism«, Vishwas Satgar argues that an opening of Marxism towards decolonial and democratic, eco-feminist perspectives is required to meet the challenges of the current historical moment and account for the historical defeat of the state- and party-centered Marxisms of the 20th century, which only deepened the planetary eco-catastrophe. It is necessary, Vish writes, to extend Marx’s (implicit) ethics of care to the human-nature relationship, so that it can guide and inform eco-socialist transformative practice.

We hope that the short texts, which cover a wide range of topics and perspectives, will stimulate an equally broad debate. The situation is too serious not to enter into a conversation involving actors at every latitude who, despite their specificities, are linked and interwoven in many ways.

Johannesburg & Berlin, Autumn 2023