Published on Counterpunch, 10 April 2015
The socio-ecological catastrophe that is global capitalism is clear for all to see. We are in dire need of an alternative system which does not ceaselessly destroy nature and oppress and impoverish the vast majority of humankind, including our future generations, whose lives may very well be highly constrained if not outright canceled due to prevailing environmental destructiveness. It is in this sense of contemplating and reflecting on alternatives to capitalist depravity that I was fortunate enough recently to discuss the present moment and some of the possible means of displacing hegemonic power with Quincy Saul of Ecosocialist Horizons (EH). Quincy and the rest of the members of this collective have envisioned a compelling means of overcoming the environmental crisis: that is, through climate Satyagraha.
The latest biological studies show a decline of a full half of animal populations on Earth since 1970, and an ever-burgeoning list of species and classes of vertebrates at immediate risk of extinction: a quarter of all marine species, a quarter of all mammals, and nearly half of all amphibians are on the edge.1 Moreover, two independent studies published in Science and Anthropocene Review in January conclude that the present rate of environmental destruction essentially threatens the fate of complex life on the planet.2 Meanwhile, global carbon emissions continue in relentless expansion, with each new year bringing a new broken record, whether in terms of total greenhouse gas emissions, average global temperatures, or both. Truly, then, this is a critical moment in human history, one which could lead to utter oblivion, as through the perpetuation of business as usual, or alternately amelioration and emancipation, as through social revolution.
Quincy, could you share your assessment of the global climate-justice movements at present, some seven months after the People’s Climate March (PCM)—a development of which you were famously highly critical—and five months after yet another farcical example of the theater of absurd that is the international climate-negotiation process, as seen at the Twentieth Conference of Parties (COP20) in Lima, Peru?
Thank you Javier for compiling those statistics. There’s such an immense range of data out there, and it’s important to hone in on the key information. In terms of the climate-justice movement, the problem I see is that the whole doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. So you have this amazing, fearless, courageous work that’s happening on local levels, all over the world—too numerous to even start listing. When it comes to resistance struggle, people are resisting mines, pipelines, and destructive development projects from the Altiplano of Peru to central Indian jungles, the Amazon River, indigenous reservations in the U.S., the factory-cities of China, the Niger Delta—uncountable acts of courage that people are taking to defend their ecosystems and their lives, whether climate change is the central issue, or it’s about defense of a single ecosystem. And then on the prefiguration side, there are people on every continent who are working really hard laying the foundations for the next world-system. Seed-saving, agroecologies—people are combining ancestral productive projects with appropriate technologies, building community resilience, and constructing community democracy in the context of war and natural disaster. So this is hopeful and wonderful work that has be encouraged. But somehow it’s not adding up.
One example I’d pick is this wonderful campaign that’s happening around the island-nation of Palau to create the world’s largest marine reserve. They want to ban commercial fishing in this whole area. It would be an unprecedented development, and it deserves our full support. But if ocean acidification is not addressed at the level of the whole earth-system, then a ban on commercial fishing is not going to save those beautiful marine ecosystems. That’s kind of the problem. The key question is convergence—how all these local movements could add up to something more than the sum of their parts. But what we have now is almost the opposite: when all these groups get together, they add up to something less. So what I wrote in that article is what Al Gore said many years ago: that he couldn’t understand why people weren’t undertaking massive nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns to shut down coal plants. And we’re still not seeing that. Everybody gets together, and it’s less than Al Gore: it’s petitions, it’s rallies, books, movies, advertisements. There isn’t even anything illegal. Not that illegality is the measure of what we should be doing or not doing. But whether we’re talking about the gatherings in New York, Durban, or even Lima, I don’t think it’s much of a difference. Durban and Lima were much more militant than New York, but these actions are still not at all commensurate to the scale of the catastrophe you just illustrated.
Our friend Sky Cohen said to me when I last saw him, “Look, I don’t think anyone is doing the work they should be doing. I mean, Bangladesh is going under water.” He was funny; he said, “Even Subcomandante Marcos isn’t doing enough!” And I resonate with that. Who’s doing enough? I got some criticism for what I wrote, but what’s the balance sheet? I think that now is the time for those who defended the march to speak up. What changed? Was there any payoff for this multimillion-dollar PR campaign? Did we concretely reduce carbon emissions? Did we change the United Nations agenda? Did we put climate change as a question on the map that now has to be addressed? Is it being addressed? All the things they said: “the biggest climate change march ever,” “this changes everything.” Has it? Let’s see. We can measure these things. But we aren’t; I think on some level people are afraid to.
So what is the answer? How do we get the whole to add up to more than the sum of its parts? I don’t have the one answer, but I do think that part of the diagnosis of what’s wrong is that there’s a problem inside of us: I think we lack imagination about what a real movement would look like. I think too many of us identify too much with this Earth-destroying system, such that we can’t imagine what it would be like to make a break from it. This is especially the case in a place like New York City, which epitomizes “empire as a way of life.” The other problem is that we keep chasing the ruling class around to all their conferences. I can’t get over it; when are we going to stop doing this? We know what the outcomes are going to be: they’re going to have a big PR campaign, they’re going to open up new markets for false solutions. We’ve seen this process happen so many times. When are we going to stop just conference-hopping around the world, putting up a big pagoda, and having the “alternative people’s tent”? An alternative precedent was set in Cochabamba, Bolivia, when they made the Cochabamba Declaration, which is still the most radical document out there on climate change, in terms of calling for even less than a 2°C rise in average global temperatures—a 1.5°C cap. They just held their own conference and set their own agenda on their own schedule.
I think these are the key things: We need to stop chasing the ruling class around the world, and we need to build our own autonomous bases of resistance and prefiguration. Again, all this amazing local work, how do we help it converge? How do we help it become more than the sum of its parts? I think the first step is that we have to imagine what that would look like, and that means imagining a break from the system that we’re dependent on. Concretely, how would you not have fossil fuels be part of existence anymore? Not as a consumer decision, but as an ontological life movement?
Recently, I read Truth and Dare: A Comic Book Curriculum for the End and the Beginning of the World (Ecosocialist Horizons/Autonomedia, 2014), which you helped to edit and write, as I understand. This work is divided into ten chapters or sections, and comes with an appendix listing seemingly hundreds of recommended readings. Could you speak to the vision which led you to put Truth and Dare together, and the hopes you have for it?
Thank you Javier, I’m very honored that you read it. Just to give some credit: I can be blamed for it, because I was the final editor, but I must credit Fred Ho, Seth Tobocman, Joel Kovel, and many other people who sent in suggestions for that curriculum. It was a big collective effort.
The vision? All the literature that was out there about ecosocialism was pretty academic, and we wanted to break out of that. We wanted to break out of the academic perspective and make ecosocialism a perspective that’s available to children, to people who don’t have the time or energy or inclination to read The Enemy of Nature or Imperiled Life or any of the many books out there that illustrate our problems. Specifically, we wanted to give an illustration of how our collective understands ecosocialism, which differs from the way some other groups have put it forward, as you’ve noticed.
Specifically, this comes through in our understanding of gender and the role of patriarchy in the development of capitalism; it comes out in our understanding of indigeneity, which relates to the question of intrinsic value; it comes through our attention to spiritual traditions and their role in emancipatory politics; and in terms of our perspective on questions of revolutionary strategy, where we understand struggle and prefiguration as equally important. So in those four areas, our conception of ecosocialism differs in some ways from what other people are putting out there. We wanted to put all this into an accessible framework. Another part of the vision is that we wanted the artwork to be of high quality. The whole first chapter has no words. We wanted to do that, to draw people in.
In terms of hopes for it, we just hope that it is both useful and inspiring. For rookies, it can be a point of departure to learn about all kinds of things. And for people who already know a lot, if it can inspire them, or maybe give them a new perspective on ecosocialism—even if they disagree with it—hopefully it will help them think more deeply about things. The curriculum at the end includes everything from children’s books to movies to scholarly theoretical texts, so hopefully all ages will find a way to make use of it. We also want to do translations. We have some inroads for Chinese, Spanish, Swahili, and Arabic versions. We hope that people read it and review it.
I particularly liked Paula Hewitt Amram’s illustration of the toad in “The Ecosocialist Horizon”: the panel in question says, “Nature has intrinsic value: it has value independent of us.” It is both telling and ironic that an amphibian should be chosen to depict this point, in light of the sordid fate to which humanity and capitalism—or better, capitalist humanity—has consigned these animals.
There’s this documentary I saw recently about a water struggle on a Diné (Navajo) reservation. They were fighting for their water, and a younger native woman repeated what one of the elders had told her—that actually the water didn’t even belong to the Diné people. The water belongs to the frog.
You highlighted the question of intrinsic value. In one word, what is ecosocialism? It’s socialism plus the intrinsic value of nature: a non-anthropocentric socialism, that’s what we’re going for here. In terms of how we see an ecosocialist horizon, that’s one of the crucial things. We differ from a lot of socialists who have a much more Cartesian outlook about inanimate, “clockwork” nature, here for human use and abuse. So we are breaking from those socialists, but on the other hand we are connecting to every single indigenous tradition on every continent. Perhaps there are very few universal things, yet one of the universal things it that every non-state or pre-state people—whether you call them tribal, indigenous, aboriginal, etc.—have some sense that nature is alive, even if it’s inanimate—that it has value outside of us. And I want to expose some of the socialists on this, because it’s very hip now to pay lip service to indigenous struggles. All socialists do this, and that’s great, a big change over a few decades ago. But in terms of the actual ideology, a lot of these socialists have a paternalistic, condescending attitude toward indigenous cosmovisions—they don’t believe in the Pachamama or in the Great Mystery; they don’t believe that value really exists independent of human labor. They think that this spiritual stuff is some sort of anachronism that will be overcome through social labor on the factory floor. And that’s just a disaster. That’s Manifest Destiny. So what we want is an anti-Manifest Destiny socialism, a non-anthropocentric socialism—not only for the humans, but for the frogs as well. I really want to expose that: If you want to have real solidarity with the first nations, you should pay attention to what they say, not just support them as bodies which just happen to be blocking a pipeline. No, genuine solidarity with first-nation peoples should be built on ideological unity, on a shared belief in and commitment to the defense of intrinsic value of nature.
Last summer, you attended the conference of the Pan-African Network for Nonviolence and Peacebuilding in Cape Town, South Africa, and the document which issued forth from this convergence was the “Call for Climate Satyagraha!” Please speak about the proceedings at this conference, and what you mean by climate Satyagraha.
Thanks for reading. This was a historic conference. It was organized by War Resisters International together with local sponsoring organizations. It was the first fully Pan-African conference on non-violent resistance, in the sense that there had been a few others, but they were smaller and more localized. There were people represented from over 30 countries in Africa, from some 50 countries globally, and from every continent. And everybody came with some kind of a base; people were representing organizations.
We were invited to bring the ecosocialist perspective to conversations around nonviolence and anti-militarism. We did three things: we handed out invitations to a discussion on the draft document of the “Call for Climate Satyagraha”; we did a big event, which included speeches, a tribute to Dennis Brutus, who was a very visionary person in terms of ecological struggle and climate change; and several world-class musical acts of local and international musicians. We were also part of a working group that met every day called “Resisting the War on Mother Earth and Reclaiming our Home.” A lot of the Working Group’s time was spent discussing the climate Satyagraha proposal, and refining it.
I’ve read a fair amount about struggles throughout Africa, about historical and contemporary genocides, but I had never really met people from a lot of these places. It changes things when you’re talking to someone from South Kordofan, Darfur, or the DRC. These are people who are here for a conference on nonviolence and peacebuilding, not on climate. And they’re coming from places where there’s not a lot of room for bullshit. Life and death: they’re taking a risk even being there. I was expecting people not to reject the environmental analysis in any way, but just to say, “Well, that isn’t really what we’re working on. This is a good idea I support, but we’re focused on trying to get these two ethnic groups to not kill each other.” But that wasn’t the case. People have a very acute awareness of how environmental factors are going to immediately play out into violent, warlike situations. They have an acute awareness of how climate change is going to precipitate violence in their communities. So to really meet people from these places and to know that whenever you talk about “the climate-justice movement,” you’re not just talking about some activists in New York, Lima, or Durban; you’re talking about these people! It was really transformative for us, to realize that these too are the faces of the climate justice movement, that this is a world-wide struggle which includes everyone.
There was a very positive response from so many people. We approached it with a lot of humility: we handed out our draft, and we said, “This is an invitation to discussion. We’re interested in any feedback or critique you have.” We had to push people to critique, because they were really into the idea from the beginning for the most part. It was, and remains very inspiring and challenging to understand that.
In terms of the idea of Satyagraha, it’s an old idea. It means “to hold onto truth,” “love force,” “truth-power.” There are many different definitions and translations. It’s a method of political struggle, an action and a process, which combines resistance and prefiguration. The Satyagrahi, or the person who engages in Satyagraha, has to embody the principles they’re fighting for. In this sense, I think this is really the antidote to a lot of the dead-end NGO activism in the U.S., where politics is a career. I think it’s this kind of salaried activism that is getting us nowhere. It’s not about going to work with your styrofoam cup of coffee, sitting at your computer all day sending emails, and calling that a climate justice movement. You have to really embody what you’re fighting for. This has a negative and a positive element, a rejection and an affirmation: You have to resist the war on Mother Earth, and you have to embody the alternative, “being the change you want to see in the world.” So I think as a framework, Satyagraha is hugely important. There’s a long history, very complex, in many countries, especially in South Africa and South Asia. I think specifically for people in the US, where we’re very colonized by the NGO activist culture, and its endless divorce of means from ends, it’s liberating for us to think about Satyagraha.
Climate Satyagraha: we need a climate Satyagraha now because 2015 is our deadline! The IPCC has been saying since this 2007, with their Fourth Assessment Report (4AR). In the 4AR, the IPCC said that 2015 is the deadline for a carbon emissions peak if we want to keep a temperature increase below 2°C, which as you know from Cochabamba isn’t even enough. Still, it is a threshold to be recognized, because if you get beyond that point, the various positive feedback loops in the earth-system are triggered, and it all slips out of our hands. So what do we do? We’ve chased the elite, we’ve written petitions, we’ve done everything short of what Al Gore called for, which is actually blocking the production and further use of fossil fuels. So that’s what we need, a mass nonviolent prefigurative resistance movement to keep the oil in the soil. The one strategic element we’re adding is the attention to ports and logistics, as we’ll see in the next question.
To turn to the question of spirituality: Let go of your ego form of the self for a moment and think about the future generations, about what’s going to be left on this planet after you die, and the opportunity that we have now. We have every technical ability to turn the tide. If you read David Schwartzman and a lot of other people—even if they don’t get a lot of publicity—there are actually immense strides in terms of solar technologies that could enable us to contain contain climate catastrophe and also reduce energy poverty. We already have climate catastrophe, but it could get hellishly worse. So we have that opportunity right now, but it’s a year-long opportunity. Next year carbon emissions need to begin a rapid decline. What, then, does it take? We can’t know the future, but we can know the path: I think Satyagraha lights the way forward. We have to hold on to the truth, which is love, which is power: that we can change the course of history.
What it says in Truth and Dare is that we need a convergence. “All of the world’s profound spiritual and revolutionary traditions converge for the preservation of life and beauty, in a world and time in which both are threatened.” Bottom line, all of these forms of organized spirituality value life—all the major world religions. Everybody needs to come together in a struggle against the big multinational corporations and their puppets in government.
As economic and ecological catastrophe continues, breaking-apart societies are going to get pretty ugly, and that ugliness will be expressed though all of our social contradictions, one of which is religion. So I do present a rather “pro-spiritual” line, but I know that Third Reich meant “Kingdom of God.” Religion is not inherently emancipatory in any way. During the decolonization movement in India, they would have big rallies for Hindu-Muslim unity. People of both religions wanted decolonization, and they had some foresight to see that things would get ugly if they didn’t emphasize strongly that they were united on this. And it wasn’t enough, but it also was something. We’ll talk about the Sarvodaya villages in Sri Lanka, some of which have acted as firewalls for the spread of ethnic and religious violence, because the people of those villages stood up to the mobs. Similarly, we must emphasize and educate around inter-faith unity here, as this will be a key part of our resilience to climate change. If we don’t do that type of work more and more, it’s going to get even worse, and it’s already terrible, especially for Muslims in this country.
Clearly, the question of logistics and the prospect of physically blockading the flow of capital is not foreign from current events, in light of the 2015 labor dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA). How do you think labor can be radicalized (or radicalize itself), both in the U.S. and throughout the world, and come to the revolutionary consciousness which is such a necessary prerequisite for engaging in material struggle against climate catastrophe from below? What can you say about the relationship between workers at the point of production and concerned outsiders, such as climate activists and radical intellectuals?
On the first question, I spent a couple of years working in and around organized labor. I worked with the United Electric Workers in Chicago and later I came to New York and worked with a Teamsters local, through a program at the Murphy Institute. These groups I worked with are exceptions to the norm: the United Electric Workers, like the ILWU, are some of the few radical unions left, who paid the price, and their membership got decimated, because they refused to sign Taft-Hartley. I only know in detail the U.S. labor movement. But let’s be honest, there’s not much of a labor movement in this country, unless you call retreat a movement. It’s important to say that, because leftists do a lot of “rah-rah labor movement,” but the only obvious movement is retreat. Union density has been declining for the last several decades, and people are fighting noble defensive struggles, but you can’t necessarily call that a movement.
I think the old answers still hold true: people are radicalized and revolutionized through struggle and collective action. The problem is I think what Guy Debord said, that the representatives of the working class have become the enemies of the working class. We spent a lot of time in the Teamsters fighting our own International reps, and against other mobbed up locals. There are important exceptions, obviously, but there’s really very little collective action or struggle. The labor “movement” is often all about corporate campaigns—meaning a bunch of union staffers doing media smear campaigns against the corporation, and the workers aren’t involved at all. Every few years they have election drives where workers are rounded up to vote for the less anti-union candidate. And then there are Potëmkin organizing drives. Every once in a while, they’ll do a big “Rah-Rah” spectacle. I think that’s what happened in the recent Walmart strike, to be perfectly honest; we were lied to. The whole country was told that workers were striking at Walmart. But go talk with them now; see what’s happening. They haven’t built a movement.
It’s not about building working-class power. The words “working class” barely even appear in mainstream labor movement discourse. It’s about integrating people into the middle class—that’s what they’re trying to do. That’s the state that things are in. But on the brighter side, if you look at labor-movement history, you see that change never comes from the established leadership. The CIO was born in a fist-fight on the floor of the AFL: John Lewis punched William Hutcheson, and the rest is history. Another thing that you see is that union organizing doesn’t come gradually; it always comes in surges. In the late 1920s union density was at a historic low. Within a decade it was the highest in U.S. history. So change is going to come from outside the established union leadership, and it’s going to come suddenly. I think we saw some seeds of that in Wisconsin when the state house was occupied. Who ended the occupation? It was the union leadership; they literally told people to “put down their picket signs and pick up their clipboards.” The people are ready, but the leadership is holding them back.
In terms of the relationship between workers at the point of production and climate activists: I think the novelty in the call for Climate Satyagraha is that we’re not talking about the point of production, but rather about the point of distribution. These are the new commanding heights, the new lynchpin of the global economy, and I don’t think that’s really been grasped by a lot of people—the way global political economy functions structurally today with just-in-time production. When you buy something from Walmart, it’s shipped two hours later from Shenzhen, so that Walmart doesn’t have to stock their shelves with excess product. Capital when not in motion ceases to be capital, so it’s constantly in motion; department stores get restocked several times per day. Then you have these mechanized ports, such that the entire port of Shanghai is run by a handful of workers. It’s an amazing opportunity for an intervention, for workers’ control. Chicago has about a hundred thousand workers in the logistics industry through whose hands pass about 60% of all commodities in North America. A hundred thousand workers is not that many. I think this is the equivalent of the GM Fisher No. 1 Plant that was famously occupied in the 1930s. If you occupy that one plant that none of the rest of the factories can function without, you can shut down the whole supply chain. That’s where the focus has to be.
But let’s be honest, in terms of relations between workers and activists, they’re terrible. With important exceptions, people don’t know each other, and they don’t even speak the same language. I think part of the problem is the climate-activist identity, which I think comes out of the dominant NGO culture. The NGO culture has transformed the way we think about social change over the past 60 years for the worse. Once climate activists and radical intellectuals start speaking a language that the people working in the ports can understand, and once they start leading lives that these people can relate to—instead of just conference-hopping and emailing—as soon as we can concretely build solidarity in door-to-door organizing, then we can see a change. I would emphasize the door-to-door approach. Hardly anyone one does that anymore. That’s the way to organize; you go door-to-door. As soon as the climate activists start doing that in the ports, I think you could see serious results.
I understand that you and David Schwartzman, author of “Solar Communism” (1996), have been working together to concretely propose that the Bolivarian government of Venezuela play a significant role in simultaneously advancing renewable energy and anti-capitalism on the global stage. Please explain how you envision this process unfolding. For me, the contradiction between petrosocialism and ecosocialism is fundamental and daunting. Why do you think the Venezuelan State would champion a dialectical transcendence of the very extractive economy on which it has depended for its power and prestige?
They have to. In 2013, they came out with a new Plan de la Patria, which was the campaign that Chávez ran on for his last reelection. It wasn’t just something that they wrote up in a room. It was a constituent process of creation. Some of the people I spoke to last time I was there said it was almost on the scale of the constituent assembly for the constitution (1999). It was a massive effort to get this document together, and it’s worth reading. Venezuela is the first government in the world to officially call for ecosocialism. So what does that mean? That’s the big question, and that’s literally being determined now at all levels of society. There are people in Venezuela who are counter-revolutionary, people who are opportunistic, people who are very radical. This fight is happening inside the ministries and it’s happening in in the fields—with the Green Revolution being practiced on one side of the street and agroecology on the other. It’s everywhere.
Why would they transcend petrosocialism? In terms of their mandate, they have to. They have a mandate to ensure the “general wellbeing” of all their citizens, in a healthy environment, for all perpetuity. So if they burn all the oil in the Faja del Orinoco—they just discovered a field that may be bigger than Saudi Arabia, though it’s hard to believe these oil predictions—everybody in the country and the whole world is going to be at severe risk. So they can’t. It says in the Plan that ecosocialism is another stage in socialism, where we respect the rhythms and cycles of nature, wherein we learn from indigenous peoples—all the language is in there. So the question is how, and also it’s a question of conscientization, to use Paolo Freire’s term. Ecosocialism has to be expressed at the level of poder popular, and that’s starting to happen.
There are contradictions in the Plan de la Patria, because they call for a coordinated mass-movement for climate justice, yet they also call for increased extraction of natural resources. When I was there for the Fourth Congress of Biological Diversity, this was all being debated. I think Brecht was right when he said, “in the contradiction is the hope.” These are the stages that we have to get through to move forward in a revolutionary process. How do you use oil to get off oil? It’s a huge challenge, and it’s not just a domestic problem—some people were very explicit there, saying quite plainly, “If we stop exporting oil, we get invaded by the Yanquis.” That’s the primary reality; they just prevented a coup!
So how do they do this? They have the mandate, and they’re required to do it based on what the people have asked of their government, and the government is constituted on poder popular. I think they’re better situated to do it than anyone else. Why? Because they’re sitting on a giant gold mine. Just use all that oil money to become the solar-energy hub of the entire world. Bring experts in from all over the world, build up the industry, train cadre in appropriate solar technology, and then send them out all over the world, like the Cubans send doctors. The key, qualitative tipping point that has to be reached in terms of renewable energy, is to build solar panels with solar power, no longer with fossil fuels. Venezuela has the money to start that process. Not only that, they also have the political process and the level of political consciousness among the general population to be able to precipitate something like that. You need it all. You can’t just have good people in government; you can’t just have a mass movement. You need these people situated at all levels to be able to push something like that forward. That’s the context of the proposal that David and I wrote—for people in the grassroots and in the government—for a new Gran Misión to solarize the economy of Venezuela and jumpstart the transition in all the Mercosur countries.
There is a revolutionary process underway in Venezuela, which you can’t necessarily tell without visiting it or studying it in detail. The key thing is, how do we play a role in this? We have to side with the people in Venezuela who are fighting for the ecosocialism that we want, which isn’t the Green Revolution, nor is it the opportunism of the Chinese Communist Party. It’s grassroots democracy built around communes, agroecology, and ancestral cosmovision. Those forces are there to be supported. This is the most important point to make, really. Using existing oil reserves, Venezuela can create a fully solarized economy within the next decade, stop using oil, and moreover provide all the seed money for the same transition in the whole region. The fact that that kind of proposal can potentially be heard and responded to in the mountains, in the jungles, in the barrios, and in the corridors of power in Venezuela is extremely unique.
Returning to the concept of climate Satyagraha, which we know to be a model that is clearly influenced by Gandhi and the Sarvodaya movement: given that you are proposing a “return” to Gandhian strategy, what is your assessment of the legacy of the Sarvodaya (or “common good”) movement during Gandhi’s lifetime and since? Our friend John Clark writes a very friendly account of the movement in The Impossible Community (2013), wherein he notes it to essentially be an anarchist mass-movement, given the stress on direct action, decentralization, ahimsa (non-violence), self-management, and (voluntary) redistribution of lands to the poor peasantry.3 John also discusses Sarvodaya Shramadana, a community-based alternate-development movement that blends Gandhianism and Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and he likens it even to the Zapatistas’ liberated territories. Yet I do not think that Gandhi’s approach should be considered as being beyond reproach, in light of his numerous critics, both from his day and ours.
Definitely. I recently read B. R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste that just came out with a long introduction by Arundhati Roy. I learned a lot from this, and I’m a lot more critical of Gandhi than I was before reading that book. In fact, I would go so far to say that the discussion of Satyagraha has to be completely divorced from the person of Gandhi to move forward progressively. Gandhi may have been a political genius but he had big blind spots and prejudices, to say the least. Yet in this complex matrix of contradictions is the path to truth. Gandhi, and Roy credits him with this, got something that Ambedkar didn’t, which is that Ambedkar saw the “liberated future” as an urban metropolis, whereas Gandhi had the vision to see—even if it wasn’t born of a specifically ecological understanding—that the future may lie not so much in a massive urban metropolis but in a return to village economies, as set forth in Hind Swaraj.
I recently got back from Sri Lanka, where I had the opportunity to learn a lot about the Sarvodaya movement, which is inspired by Gandhian ideas. Sarvodaya means “the awakening of all.” A. T. Ariyaratne, the founder of the Sarvodaya Shramadana movement in Sri Lanka, contrasts this to utilitarianism—the philosophy from European liberalism of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” Sarvodaya is about everyone, not just the majority. Sarvodaya Shramadana means “the awakening of all through collective work.” Founded i>n 1958, they started by going door-to-door, the way everything starts, by going to people’s houses in a village and talking to them about their lives and their needs. Then they would bring people from the city—Ariyaratne was a college professor, so he brought his students—and they would do this work together with the people of the village. Then someone in the next village heard about it and invited them to come. Fifty years later, there is a network of 15,000 villages, and over 2,000 are self-governing and self-reliant. It is a very unique formation in the whole world.
One of the things that is really compelling is the methodology they’ve developed. They’ve come up with a whole vocabulary for development, so that they’re not always stuck with the Western paradigm. It’s a five-step program: it starts with individual awakening (Purna Paurusodaya), then family awakening (Kutumbodaya), then village awakening (Gramodaya), then national awakening (Deshodaya), and finally world awakening (Vishvodaya). That’s the program. Recently they’ve just started the Deshodaya campaign—that’s how long they’ve taken. There’s a saying that bad news travels fast and good news travels slowly. This is a slowly building movement, and it’s good news! I think part of what appealed to me is about Sarvodaya was the culture—it was such a breath of fresh air! Everyone was so kind and generous. You could tell that everybody had been through a process of really soul-searching for why they’re in this work in the first place. That isn’t something you encounter much in the U.S., where people are involved for all kinds of crazy reasons, which can be a big obstacle to moving forward over the long term.
So it’s a very slow, non-violent revolution. You don’t often hear words like anti-imperialism or anti-capitalism; they don’t always come up. It’s very much rooted in satisfying people’s basic needs, and they’ve defined basic needs democratically. There are some interesting things about this. One is that employment is not included. They don’t think that it’s our purpose here on this planet to have a job. Instead they talk about leading fulfilling lives. Also they say that they are working for a world without poverty or affluence. So there are elements which are very revolutionary, but they don’t rant and rave about it. The politics are all prefigured in what they’re doing. Their conception of a society based on human needs sounds simple, but if you push it to its limits you realize it’s challenging capitalism at the level of the individual, the family, the village, the nation and the world.
It’s really amazing what they’ve built. At this point, about one in twenty people in Sri Lanka has gone through a Sarvodaya training process—about 1 million in a country of 20 million people. They’re everywhere, and they work with everybody. They’ll work with other NGOS, even with USAID, but they don’t get corrupted by it. Their guiding philosophy acts as a force field against the corrosive influences in the mainstream.
Our whole political culture in the U.S. left is built around protest and opposition; resistance and struggle. We’re not used to a politics that starts with meditation, and focuses on working with and caring for our neighbors. These Sarvodaya villages have acted as firewalls to contain the spread of ethnic violence, as I’ve said, so their politics are very real. We have a lot of discussion in the U.S. about what climate resilience. It occurred to me while visiting a self-managed village in Batticaloa, in the wake of a tsunami and a civil war, that the best resilience you can have is community democracy. When disaster strikes, are people going to know each other? Are they going to be able to work together to do things? Resilience is built by going door-to-door and finding out what your neighbors are doing and how to work and live together. So to go back to some of the other questions—I think Sarvodaya challenges us to rethink, what is the revolutionary subject? Who is the real climate justice activist? What does the revolution look like? Fifty years ago, A. T. Ariyaratne said, look, we need a revolution against capitalism and imperialism, but we are taking the long, slow, non-violent path to get there. Now five decades later, they are still on that path. They don’t protest, so they aren’t immediately recognizable as part of the left. But there are millions of people who protest all the time—and how many village economies have they built based on self reliance, democracy, and respect for nature? I was very inspired by what I saw and learned there.
In your critique of the People’s Climate March, entitled “Like a Dull Knife: The People’s Climate ‘Farce,’” you close by invoking the counter-image of the peoples of the U.S. autonomously deciding to overthrow the historical relationship we have maintained with the rest of the world for centuries: that is to say, parasitism and predation. You anticipate that we will abandon our “imperial hubris” and join the revolutionary ecosocialist uprisings of the Global South. How do you envision this transition proceeding in the imperial core of the capitalist world-system, or the “belly of the beast”?
Good question. I think this is the kind of thing that a lot of people haven’t really thought out. As far as I know, Marx and Engels said, “We don’t write recipes for the cooks of the future.”
Or, as they write in The German Ideology: “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”
Right—so we’ll see, and we are seeing. But on the other hand, climate change gives us a deadline, so we have to move a little more quickly here. First of all, this is an empire. It’s different than just any oppressive regime: there’s a major qualitative difference. We have a responsibility not only to our own population to bring it down, but as a matter fact to the entire world, whose emancipation is held back by our failure to overthrow it from the inside.
All empires fall the same way: through reclaiming the land. Sometimes it takes a long time. It took about three hundred years for the Roman Empire to fall. But it started on the peripheries, with people taking the land back. I think there’s no reason to think it will happen any differently here. It has already to some degree begun in the sense of the Monroe Doctrine falling apart. We no longer have any military bases in South America—
Well, Colombia is a U.S. military base. And so is Costa Rica. But the point is that, forty years ago, all these countries had military bases. So this process has begun, but it has to happen in the heartland too.
There’s a contradiction here: because we need more coordination and coming together than ever before, but we also need to break up the empire. So how does that look? That’s the question. For socialists, the question is, do you believe in the Socialist United States? Or is that a contradiction in terms? This is not a nation built on freedom, but on slavery and genocide. Let’s understand that and move forward. There are some wonderful things that happened in this country’s history, and we can continue to honor those things and respect them. The “founding fathers” said some great things—even the North Vietnamese copied their constitution! But the fifty states as we know them are an imperial project. So the people need to reclaim the land. The key element is how do we make sure that these reclamations—these secessions—are progressive. This is really a key thing, because if you look at the progressive things that have happened in our country’s history, it has mostly been federal legislation—Civil Rights, women’s suffrage, and so on. These are not things that the states decided. Grassroots democracy has to prevail over grassroots fascism. So this is a challenge: We need to break up the empire, but make the breaking-up a greater coming-together. We need to realize that the empire actually is in the way of our coming together closer.
This is controversial, but I would say that the vision for revolution in the belly of beast is not one of seizing power; it’s one of exodus. I think that’s very concrete in a coastal city like New York—we literally have to leave, because it’s going under water. So we should immediately, starting now, begin to plan the exodus. Sometimes the exodus is a physical movement; sometimes it doesn’t have to be a relocation. It can be a change in the way of life—a secession from empire as a way of life. Go back and read Exodus. It’s an interesting analogue to our times. Lots of people didn’t want to leave the pyramids; they liked the flesh-pots of empire. We’ve got a lot of nice flesh-pots around here: all the fast food and smartphones. We have to give that up. And along the way, some people are going to want to turn back. They’re going to make a little golden iPhone and worship it.
I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think that that’s the model: A revolutionary exodus which dismantles the pyramids. My ideal vision would be an ecosocialist confederation of maroon societies. And I think you can actually see the seeds of this starting to grow in places like Troy, New York, in northern Vermont, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—all the places where we’ve organized convergences with Ecosocialist Horizons, we’ve tried to focus on places where the system is already breaking down, and people are already in the midst of building something new. Again, the key question is how to make the breaking-apart of empire a greater coming-together of the people? It’s the same path, we just have to learn how to walk it, and since time is short, to run it.
1 Damian Carrington, “Earth has lost half its wildlife in the past 40 years, says WWF,” The Guardian, 29 September 2014; Robin McKie, “Earth faces ‘sixth extinction’ with 41% of amphibians set to go the way of the dodo,” The Guardian, 13 December 2014; Tom Bawden, “A quarter of the world’s marine species in danger of extinction,” The Independent, 30 January 2015
2 Oliver Milman, “Rate of environmental degradation puts life on Earth at risk, say scientists,” The Guardian, 15 January 2015.
3 John P. Clark, The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 217-45.
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