Technology, Power and Social Change: Comparing Three Marx-Inspired Views

Jonathan Michael


A central debate in the contemporary Left concerns the extent to which technology can be used proactively, within the confines of the existing system, to promote a sustainable ecosystem. One view is that “technology is not the solution” because we must change the system first. Another view is that technology itself may be the very enabler of system change. Still another view may be that systemic ecological change is impossible without technology. One way to arbitrate these debates is to ask: “Can we use technology to solve the problem without getting rid of capitalism first?” The problem, however, in asking this question is that we need to define what capitalism or socialism means. While there are more or less complicated formulations of these terms, my approach will be to analyze the alternative visions of social change.

I will compare three kinds of thinkers. The first group, whom I call Foundational Marxists, primarily includes Karl Marx, Herbert Marcuse, and David Noble. These writers base their analyses on empirical investigations of the industrial system, historical accounts of technology, or a material reading of how culture developed. They manifest a strong inductive tendency, i.e. they tend to base their conclusions on detailed empirical investigations of how society evolves. They differ among themselves on the key question of technology as a solution to social problems. Marx and Noble studied the design of the production system in order to understand the potential base of power in society rooted in the roles played by labor and technology. Where Marx and Marcuse saw benefits as well as costs of the current technological regime, Noble was more focused on the dystopian aspects.

The second group, the Ecosocialists, includes John Bellamy Foster, James O’Connor and Joel Kovel.1 This group, while using empirical referents, is marked by a strong tendency towards deduction. Often, these thinkers use a Marxist framework, adapting their findings to fit that framework. In some cases, they engage in original research, but their findings seem theory-bound or derivative of what they take away from Marx or earlier Marxists like Paul Sweezy. Each of them tends to emphasize contingency rooted in social movements, with institutional development being only a secondary consideration.2 This group argues that while much technology contributes to ecological problems, some technology solves problems but the capacity of technology to do so requires system change and radical social movements. None of these thinkers have done detailed studies of production systems. So, one of my primary theses is that the absence of a production-centered approach limits their understanding of how power is actually accumulated. By looking at Marx’s analysis of capitalism, they naturally focus on incumbent capitalist institutions, capitalists and their deployment of technology. By not focusing in detail on post-capitalist or alternative institutions and their power accumulation systems, they necessarily fail to reach certain conclusions.

The third group, Economic Reconstructionists, includes thinkers like Thorstein Veblen, Lewis Mumford, Barry Commoner, the brothers Paul and Percival Goodman, and Seymour Melman. These thinkers are not as Marx-centric as the aforementioned thinkers and use a more inductive approach in the case of Melman and Commoner or an approach which is informed by utopian thinking, i.e. conceiving of alternative designs for society based on contingency. Unlike the Ecosocialists, Economic Reconstructionists are more likely to find contingency not just in social movements but also in the institutional enablers or barriers to such movements. Moreover, they see movements as dependent variables vis-à-vis institutional development. Each of these thinkers believes that institutional and technological design matters, with certain technological configurations having a kind of carrying capacity for social change. Even in a period without radical change, a changed configuration can therefore help create a system of investment which will later facilitate more systemic change. Within this group, Melman has studied production systems in detail, Commoner was a biologist, and Percival Goodman as an architect studied the “technology” of buildings.

The reconstructionists focused their attention on change within or development of new institutions which they believed could serve as a bridge toward changing both political consciousness and economic realities. These key institutions include regulatory frameworks, schools and universities, media networks, cooperatives and defense firms.

All three groups have made important contributions in linking ecological and system-changing concerns. While there is some overlap among the groups, the differences can partially be understood by referring to key thinkers, who provide a range of possibilities for answering the questions posed above. My general thesis is that while the Foundational and Ecosocialist approaches offer a sound starting point, they often fail to address barriers to achieving their millennial visions focused on social movements (such as current ones in Latin America). In contrast, the Economic Reconstruction approach offers a more comprehensive solution to ecological problems, and may even represent a more authentic engagement with Marx’s ideas regarding technology, the environment and social change. The three schools of thought in one sense represent ideal types, with both overlaps and distinctions among them. I will highlight the distinctions in addressing my central question: “To what extent can technology help us overcome the ecological crisis of the 21st Century?”

In answering this question, I will address three sub-questions. First, how do we define technology in a capitalist society? The Left agrees generally that there are technologies that have positive or negative impacts on the ecosystem, but disagrees on what technology is or what constitutes a technological or social impact (some even envision a joint impact of “technological” and social forces).

My second sub-question is, can technology solve the ecological problem? The ecosystem is under various threats associated with global warming, climate change, deforestation, drought, famine, pollution, species extinction, and urban sprawl.3 These problems are linked to some combination of capitalism, dystopian technological artifacts, and the design of systems or networks which organize technologies as well as economic, political, ideological and military power more generally. Certain agricultural systems are also more sustainable than others, particularly those not reliant on herbicides and pesticides, with food taking fewer calories to produce being more sustainable.4 Certain technological artifacts or systems that negatively impact the environment or ecosystem include: the internal combustion engine, diesel locomotives, nuclear or petroleum-based energy systems, military and repressive technologies, and technologies which constrain or control the capacity of workers, citizens, audience, users and consumers to gain relative autonomy in decision-making.5 There are disagreements as to whether or not technological determinism, social determinism or some alternative framework can explain how technologies are developed and deployed. Technologies are not simply artifacts; they can be embedded in systems or social processes. As a result, some Left critics question the premise of celebrating technologies as opposed to changing the system.

The environmental movement has several options to reverse climate change: (a) mobilizing political opposition to unsustainable technologies; (b) trying to reduce unsustainable technologies by market means or existing networks; (c) trying to promote sustainable technologies by social movements; (d) trying to promote support sustainable technologies by cooperative or worker and community controlled firms; (e) creating corporate forms that try use their economic power to lobby for regulations to advance sustainable over unsustainable technologies; and (f) trying to change the system in which sustainable and unsustainable technologies are embedded, i.e. promoting a post-capitalist, sustainable society.

In theory none of these goals has to be mutually exclusive. Yet two problems arise. The first problem arises when strategies focused on (c) or (f) are decoupled from (b). For example, a movement could support efforts to change the system which put themselves outside the bounds of decision-making agendas of transportation agencies, transportation workers and unions, planning organizations, local community groups, and companies developing green technologies. These groups are what I mean by “incumbent networks.” Some of these networks have agendas which are too short-term, but others conceivably have the political muscle to expand mass transportation. Cooperation with incumbent networks risks co-optation or death by inertia, but creating system-changing agendas that alienate or fail to relate to these networks is also a danger.

The other problem arises when (a), (b) or (c) involve strategies which amount to “end pipe” remedial solutions, rather than strategies which also get to the source of how good or bad technologies emerge.6 For example, you could protest against a car with bad mileage (downstream) and try to develop regulations to improve fuel efficiency. Or, you could also focus (upstream) on how engineering schools fail to promote research on mass transportation and electric car technologies and you could oppose legislators who resist tougher mileage standards.

 These practical problems and strategic choices require understanding the differences between treating technology as having effects without having a history and treating it as having effects traceable to social steering.7  Ignoring the historical dimension can lead to downstream opposition to technologies without addressing upstream causes. The advantage of theories of social steering is that they can help broaden the repertoire of social movement strategies to include (d) and (e) or an (a), (b) and (f) that is more closely tied to challenging or converting the various institutions that steer technologies, e.g. universities, factions within a multi-divisional firm, or local power complexes which help elect certain legislators, etc.

My third sub-question is, what is the appropriate political agenda? The answer each school of thought gives is tied to the specified relationships among technology, social change and the ecological crisis. The answer to this question depends on various factors such as: (1) the definition of technology, (2) the capacity for social change within capitalism and (3) the possibility of revolutionary reform through meso level alternative institutions whose development changes society in the present as well as the future.8  Marxists often question the capacity of ecological or other social movements to gain autonomy for technological development or to promote ecological solutions within the current capitalist system without a mass mobilization or revolution.

The Foundational Marxists How Do We Define Technology in a Capitalist Society?

Technology can be defined as both an artifact and reflection of a set of social relations, which in turn affects social relations. Technological choices are initially open-ended, with the ability of technology to be used for ill or good. As artifacts, many technologies reflect contingencies of past designs which are carried forward into the future and affect societal outcomes. In this sense, technology as artifact is technology as intermediary. Some view the agency given to technology as a kind of fetishism which masks the power relations and contingencies behind its development and elaboration. This fetishism occurs not in the recognition that contingent artifacts have interim causal impacts, but rather as the result of attempts to view technological artifacts as simply technical devices beyond alteration and beyond the responsibilities and proactive power of designers, politicians, corporations and other actors.9

In his essay, “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology,” Herbert Marcuse describes technology’s dialectical quality:

technology is…a social process in which technics proper (that is, the technical apparatus of industry, transportation, communication) is but a partial factor. We do not ask for the influence or effect of technology on the human individuals. For they are themselves an integral part and factor of technology, not only as the men who invent or attend to machinery but also as the social groups which direct its application and utilization. Technology, as a mode of production, as the totality of instruments, devices and contrivances which characterize the machine age is thus at the same time a mode of organizing and perpetuating (or changing) social relationships, a manifestation of prevalent thought and behavior patterns, an instrument for control and domination…Technics by itself can promote authoritarianism as well as liberation, scarcity as well as abundance, the extension as well as the abolition of toil.10

The quotation makes clear that Marcuse and the Frankfurt School did not simply view technology as a kind of dystopian sinkhole. Rather, even if modern technology serves the most authoritarian objectives, it can also be used for alternative purposes. One reason is that the social processes shaping technology upstream reflect both a social code and a related set of implicit or explicit specifications. With the development of technology, “a new rationality and new standards of individuality have spread over society, different from and even opposed to those which initiated the march of technology.” The new rationality and standard “are not the (direct or derivative) effect of machinery on its users or of mass production on its consumers; they are rather themselves determining factors in the development of machinery and mass production.”11

The social code in the era preceding the ascent of technocratic norms included, for example, “radical Puritanism” or “the principle of individualism” which “set the individual against his society.” Later, “the process of commodity production undermined the economic basis on which individualistic rationality was built.”12 The impact of the “institutions, devices, and organizations of industry in their prevailing social setting” has led “individualistic rationality” to become “transformed into technological rationality.” This rationality shapes the social code that makes people “ready to accept…the dictates of the apparatus.”13

Later, critical Marxist and social historians like David Noble and Maxine Berg explained how academic discourse itself propelled the social code. During the first half of the 1800s, against the backdrop of the machine-breaking movement in Europe, Berg explains how apologists in the middle class and their economist allies became “missionaries who spread the gospel of the machine in a land of heretical anti-machinery attitudes.” As Tories and the radical working class challenged automation, “expressions of wonder at the technical perfection of the machine” became inadequate. This led the middle class to adopt a “‘scientific’ theory, political economy.” Thus, “it was not mere coincidence that industrialization and the emergence of political economy occurred at the same time.” Political economists were either blind, optimistic, or both when it came to the plight of a working class threatened by automation.14 Later, by the middle of the 1800s, political economy became “irrevocably established,” Noble explains, “and with it the hegemony of apologetics for unrestrained technological progress.”15

Can Technology Solve the Ecological Problem?

The question emerges, however, whether these negative tendencies in technology are determinate or even just a pole in competing tendencies. We learn from Ellen Meiksins Wood that Marx’s view differed from classical political economy because it created “no sharp discontinuities between economic and political spheres.” The continuities linking both were emphasized as Marx treated “the economy itself not as a network of disembodied forces but, like the political ‘sphere’, as a set of social relations.” Quoting Marx, Wood explains that the politics embedded in economic relations is tied to “the historical process divorcing the producer from the means of production.”16 Decisions about technology partially reflect the alienation of workers from technology as a means of production, with this alienation constituting a way in which politics and economic relations occur simultaneously. Yet, politics also exists in political mobilizations outside the workplace and the production system as well as in the steering mechanisms or economic mobilizations existing in markets which shape production zones of alienated (or what we will later see also as de-alienated) economics and politics. 

What is the Appropriate Political Agenda?

Turning to political mobilizations first, David Noble suggests that political mobilizations outside the workplace helped submerge concern for control over production. He explains that political radicals came to see the machinery problem “in terms of the distribution of property and political power.” Such radicals “viewed machines simply as tools to be used for good or evil, depending upon who had the power to use them.” Noble concludes that “the removal of the struggle from the point of production rendered matters of machinery and production secondary to the political issues that lay beyond the realm of actual production.”17

As workers became politically and ideologically subordinated to their leaders, “matters that workers themselves initially considered central” became minimalized and the “direct action” effectively used by workers to fight against capital reduced.18 Marx did not believe, however, that politics external to the workplace necessarily represented a diversion. The effort to secure an eight-hour day through legal means constituted a “political movement” whereas the same effort by workers in a factory or a trade represented “a purely economic movement.” Such political movements required “a certain degree of previous organization,” but also were “equally a means of developing this organization.”19 There were divisions among the Left historically on the promise of technology and hence the relationship between politics and technology: “Because technology would undermine capitalism and because it would make cooperative socialism possible, the Owenites condemned antimachinery sentiment as essentially counterrevolutionary.”20

Noble argues that Marx embraced the ideology of “technological progress” with technological development a dependent variable subject to future social control by the workers’ movement:

For Marx… modern industry signaled the transition not only from the hand to machine-based labor but also liberation from the drudgery of labor altogether. Technological progress under capitalism was at the same time progress toward socialism, creating the conditions for the demise of capitalism, the living vehicle of revolution (the proletariat) and the material basis for the classless society.

According to Noble, Marx believed that “technological progress” had “a life of its own, with liberatory consequences for humanity,” and Marx viewed opposition to technological progress as counterrevolutionary: “all those who suffered in the present, in the wake of such progress, were encouraged to accept present technology and look for future deliverance.”21 Yet, others argue that Marx also saw the detrimental impacts of contemporary technology on the ecosystem.22

Turning next to steering mechanisms found in markets and economic mobilization, we see a potential opening for a liberatory technology. Marx did not posit a “unidirectional chain of causation for technological change,” but rather emphasized “the mutual interactions and feedbacks between economy and technology.” He did not believe that “technological forces are the decisive factor in generating socioeconomic changes.”23 A key passage in the Communist Manifesto shows how Marx believed that the extension of a new kind of market gave birth to new technologies to serve these markets:

Modern industry has established the world-market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages.24

This passage raises the interesting question of whether the creation of an alternative market, procurement or consumption stream could adapt technology to its own purposes.25 Here, the insights from Marx are slightly ambiguous. At one point Marx believed that it is “useless to seek ‘the cause of social ills’ in the political domain.” Marx highlighted limits to political power when he wrote: “Even the radical and revolutionary politicians seek the cause of the evil not in the nature of the state but in a specific state form, which they want to replace by another state form.”26 But his advocacy of social and not merely political revolution seems to relegate changes in state policy to a secondary level.

Later, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels advocated changes in state policy including: “a heavy progressive or graduated income tax,” “centralization of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly,” “centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State,” “extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing of cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the social generally in accordance with a common plan.”27 In The Grundisse Marx raises the possibility that a politicized stream of procurement might open the door to changes in production. There he writes, “production is also immediately consumption” and “the act of production is…in all its moments also an act of consumption,” with economists describing these linkages as “productive consumption.” Moving beyond this, Marx discusses how “consumption creates the motive for production.” Consumption “creates the objects of production in a still subjective form,” as there is “no production without a need, but consumption reproduces the need.” Infrastructure that is not consumed is not used: “A railway on which no trains run, hence which is not used up, not consumed, is a railway only [potentially], and not in reality. Without production, no consumption; but also, without consumption, no production since production would then be purposeless.”28 Here we see how the cycle of procurement (“consumption”) begins with the individual (the “subjective form”) as the mediator helping to trigger the later production of technology. The subjective form can be related to the idea of social codes implicit in Marcuse’s formulation.

Marx and Marcuse focused on how technological change created potential opportunities for a liberatory society, but only if the system changed fundamentally. Noble suggests that these opportunities are severely constrained even in the present; hence he criticizes what he views as Marx’s celebration of the potential liberatory capacities of technology or the focus on social change at the expense of attacks on the immediate (“present tense”) dystopias. Whereas Noble was concerned with immediate attacks on the deployment of dystopian technologies, Marx was more concerned with projecting social movements and revolutions that would harness technologies in alternative ways. Even if Marx understood how dystopian artifacts reflect social relations, for the most part he only indirectly explained how changing social relations in the present could rework technology for a liberatory (and ecosystem-friendly) agenda. The long-term goal was communism, the opposite of alienation.29

In his description of the Paris Commune, Marx discusses social control by “associations of workmen, under reserve of compensation, of all closed workshops and factories,”30 but we learn little about how technology subject to such control would change. The Commune encouraged the establishment of two major industrial cooperatives, as discussed by historian Robert Tombs.31 During the Siege of Paris which isolated the city, Parisians used technology and processes of industrial conversion as a way to break down their spatial alienation: “The city’s train stations were transformed into balloon factories, and more than 60 globes managed to breach the Prussian iron belt, carrying…millions of letters.”32 Here we see how technology can support cooperation and vice versa, creating possibilities for a liberatory technology.

Despite the short duration of the Commune, the ability of the cooperative form to provide an organizing force points to mechanisms that can have effects short of a permanent revolution. In the Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association in 1864, Marx wrote about a “victory of the political economy of labor over the political economy of property.” This victory was constituted by “the co-operative movement, especially the co-operative factories raised by the unassisted efforts of a few bold ‘hands.’” Marx said such “great social experiments” could not “be overrated.” These cooperatives demonstrated “that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behests of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands.”33

In Volume 3 of Capital, Marx shows how cooperatives represent a new mode of production. But, he also shows how social control over financial capital represents a bridging and extension system to social reconstruction:

The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new…They show how a new mode of production naturally grows out of an old one, when the development of the material forces of production and of the corresponding forms of social production have reached a particular stage. Without the factory system arising out of the capitalist mode of production there could have been no co-operative factories. Nor could these have developed without the credit system arising out of the same mode of production. The credit system is not only the principal basis for the gradual transformation of capitalist private enterprises into capitalist stock companies, but equally offers the means for the gradual extension of co-operative enterprises on a more or less national scale.34

Nevertheless, in the Inaugural Address Marx also makes clear that support for cooperatives was not sufficient, even if useful as one among many changes in society’s general conditions. System change required movements “whose objective would be to conquer state power in order to democratize the political system and then to engage in the process aimed at the emancipation of labor.” At the same time the Marx-aligned debate with Proudhonists in 1868 rejected the idea of “people’s banks” as an adequate or sufficient strategy to free labor from domination.35 Another problem is that the exact meaning of “co-operative factory” in Marx’s formulation is unclear, e.g. whether he assumed this firm “to be the property of the workers’ collective or [of] the state.”36 In sum, in light of Noble’s objections to Marx’s emphasis external to the workplace, we see how strategic divides in the left could emerge as to (a) how much emphasis should be placed on political versus economic organizing and (b) which kind of organizing might take place first or even be delayed.

Finally, Marx provides us with the implicit idea that social change involves creating an ensemble of different kinds of power or capital governing the use of technology and the appropriation of the surplus. This ensemble corresponds to the operation of the Paris Commune and how different reforms proposed in the Communist Manifesto relate to diverse forms of power.37 I have shown how this ensemble corresponds to political, economic, media, and human capital in Table 1.  The idea of an ensemble suggests organizing on the economic and political fronts simultaneously. Marx did not necessarily specify, however, the mechanisms for extending or exchanging all of these diverse forms of capital in a proactive system other than through a revolutionary movement. Marx’s theory of communism linked the transcendence of capital alienation to new institutions centered in the State. For example, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx addressed alienation from finance capital through the “centralization of credit in the hands of the state,” alienation from media capital through “centralization of the hands of the state,” alienation from economic capital through “extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state,” and alienation from human capital through “free education for all children in public schools.”38

Marx saw that the institutions of finance capital were peak organizations in society. He called for centralizing credit in the hands of the state through a national bank which held an exclusive monopoly and was financed by state capital. If the state held exclusive control over credit, it could choose what parts of the economy could be expanded and the rate by which they could be allowed to grow.39 Human capital could provide a bridge to the control of productive capacities, as, for “every child over a given age,” productive labor would be combined “with instruction and gymnastics, not only as one of the methods of adding to the efficiency of production but as the only method of producing fully developed human beings.”40

Table 1: Marx’s Ensemble of Capitals Source: Marx, The Paris Commune, 74; Marx and Engels as quoted in Ollman, Social and Sexual Revolution, 52, 55.

The Ecosocialists

How Do We Define Technology in a Capitalist Society?

Like Marx, David Harvey focuses on how the procurement regime in markets shapes technology. He argues that “it was the suburbanization and deconcentration of the population and industry…that was to become a major element in stimulating effective demand for Ford’s products in the long postwar boom after 1945.”41  The production system in turn came to affect culture. Postwar Fordism was not “a mere system of mass production” and should be seen “more as a total way of life.” With mass production and mass consumption, “a whole new aesthetic and a commodification of culture” emerged.42 In this pattern, market organization shapes technologies and production which in turn shapes culture. In fact, Harvey sees the possibility of technology resulting from social steering related to institutional mechanisms. The individual’s activity in the production system is based on social relationships which “can vary both with the coordinating mechanism (which may be different in different societies) and according to the mode of production.” These “social relationships form a social structure which is maintained through political, legal, and other forces.”43

Can Technology Solve the Ecological Problem?

A key distinction among Ecosocialists relates to the role played by Marx as a potential champion of sustainability. This distinction is partially rooted in differing views on Marx’s understanding of ecological problems (and by extension the role played by technology). Somewhat like Noble, O’Connor has been linked to a view of Marx as someone who does not question technology—but here the question is capitalism’s ecological impacts. Foster writes: “The journal Capitalism Nature Socialism, founded by Marxian economist James O’Connor in the late 1980s, generally denied any meaningful relation to ecology in Marx’s work itself.” O’Connor insisted “that prevailing ecological concepts should simply be joined, in a centaur-like fashion, with Marxian class-cased perspectives—a position known today as ‘first-stage ecosocialism.’”44 Foster also took issue with O’Connor’s argument that “Marx did not explain how ecological crisis generated a crisis of accumulation for capitalism, and hence his analysis was incomplete, unsystematic, and undeveloped.” In contrast, Foster argued “we should not underestimate capitalism’s capacity to accumulate in the midst of the most blatant ecological destruction, to profit from environmental degradation…and to destroy the earth to the point of no return.”45

For Harvey, the choice of technology sometimes appears to be a matter of dystopian alternatives. In his book, The Enigma of Capital (2011), there are two entries related to “green technology.” One explains how he conceives of technological choices: “The idea of nature as a social product has to be paralleled by the recognition that natural resources are cultural, economic and technological appraisals.” One resource can “be replaced with another through, say, the invention of new technologies that use different materials.” Therefore “if coal is scarce or too heavy polluting, then move over to natural gas or nuclear power.” Even “so-called ‘green’ technologies like wind turbines…depend upon the availability of what are called ‘rare earth metals’ with names like indium, hafnium, terbium and neodymium.”46 China has controlled as much as 95 percent of the global supply of such substances, and production of rare earth metals has “devastating environmental impacts.” Moreover, Harvey suggests China “may restrict exports, thus forcing the producers of these new green technologies to locate to China.”47 Harvey’s second reference to green technology begins by arguing, “The capitalist class has to convince us, however, that capitalism is not only good for them but good for all of us.” But the public’s interests and those of the capitalists don’t necessarily overlap. They clash when new technologies are part of a dubious growth project and capitalists argue that “green technologies and new ‘cap and trade’ markets in pollution rights will help save planet earth.”48

In contrast, Harvey wrote in Spaces of Hope (2000): “Marx’s historical materialism has a problem in preparing our imaginations (let alone our political practices) for the creation of a socialist (or for that matter any other) alternative.” The spaces of hope seem rather narrow, however, as when he writes: “The material organization of production, exchange, and consumption rests on and reinforces specific notions of rights and obligations and affects our feelings of alienation and of subordination, our conceptions of power and powerlessness.” Yet, Harvey also argues that “the contradictions and paradoxes of globalization offer opportunities for an alternative progressive politics.” These possibilities are created by “deepening inequalities,” ubiquitous “environmental difficulties,” and “the spread of Western ways of thinking about self-fulfillment and self-realization.”49

Unlike Harvey, Foster spends even less time envisioning the various combinations of technology with economic or political capital which could facilitate ecological solutions. Where Harvey is able to problematize Marx’s relations to contingency, Foster places less emphasis on that question. He analyzes three key ways to address the environmental crisis: (a) stabilizing the population, (b) improving (or changing) technology, and (c) socio-economic transformation. He argues that option (b) is not sufficient without (c). He writes that “capitalism is a system that pursues accumulation and growth for its own sake. It is a juggernaut driven by the single-minded need on the part of business for ever-greater accumulation of capital.”50 The emphasis is on how profit, growth and pollution grow together, a theme emphasized by other Marxists.51 Foster writes, “under capitalism, it is those energy sources that generate the most profits for capital—of which solar is certainly not one—that are promoted, not those most beneficial to humanity and the earth.”52 Other Marxist or Left critics argue that capitalist power (essentially the transformation of economic into political capital) limits renewables and environmental regulation.53 Collectively, these ideas can be summarized as a dystopian cycle of growth and regulation (Figure 1). The basic idea here is that the system of accumulation advances pollution, and pollution is the other side of corporate profit. Capitalism propels less sustainable technologies. The resulting growth and profit propels corporations and a system indifferent to comprehensive regulation or sustainable technology.

Foster writes that technological change can attenuate environmental impacts in two ways: “First, it can reduce the materials and energy used per unit of output and, second, it can substitute less harmful technology.” He warns about the limits to changing technology without changing capitalism as mainstreamers advocate “the magic bullet of technology” which appears “to hold out the possibility of environmental improvement with the least effect on the smooth working of the capitalist machine.” More energy-efficient production, cars with improved mileage, and the replacing of fossil fuels with solar power are part of the mainstream solutions. The problem, however, is that “environmental improvements” might not accompany “the growth of capital and consumption” or “expanding affluence.”54

Figure 1: The Dystopian Model of Growth and Regulation under Capitalism The reason why the two can be decoupled is partially based on “the Jevons paradox.” In 1865, William Stanley Jevons argued in his book, The Coal Question, that “increased efficiency in using a natural resource, such as coal, only resulted in increased demand for that resource, not a reduction in demand.” Thus, Foster argues, “the introduction of more energy-efficient automobiles” in the United States during the 1970s “did not curtail the demand for fuel because driving increased and the number of cars on the road soon doubled.” Improvements in refrigeration likewise led to the use of more and larger refrigerators. Moreover, “the same tendencies are in effect within industry, independent of individual consumption.”55

James O’Connor, another leading Marxist writing about ecology, joins Foster and Harvey in his dystopian view of technology, although he is clearer about technological choices. He points to the dominant view in the West that “science and technology, combined with private property and market economy” produce “freedom from the ravages of an unknown and uncontrollable nature and freedom to appropriate and manipulate nature in rational ways to enhance the ‘wealth of nations.’” O’Connor says that “Marx himself bought into the idea of progress,” in contrast to the Critical Theory School which believed “that science and technology have turned into means of repression, not of emancipation.” Yet, O’Connor also concedes that “radical ecologists, feminists, political economists, and others…agree that the future of both labor (in both senses of the word) and nature depends on the future of technology.” O’Connor says such groups “think that much, if not most, capitalist technology is in reality a force of oppression, exploitation, and destruction.” Examples include nuclear weapons and energy, toxic chemicals, fossil fuel combustion, robotics, computers and numerically controlled machine tools. Even while conceding the positive potential of technology, O’Connor faults technological optimists like the authors of the Brundtland Report who pointed to “technological solutions to environmental recovery, economic growth, and the alleviation of poverty.”56

O’Connor’s somewhat deterministic or negative view of technology (or capitalist technology) is tempered by his discussion of “new social movements” which question “the ecological efficacy of modern technology, as well as the foundations and uses of Western science.” He cites the Economic Reconstructionist Barry Commoner who demands “social governance of technology.”57 Now technology appears to be a dependent variable subject to actions by external movements. Thus, “workers and unions, citizens and communities, and environmentalists (among others with a stake in the human and environmental effects of capitalist production processes and products) have fought against capital’s monopoly of power” vis-à-vis both production and the producing classes. For example, in Sweden “codetermination laws” gave “workers a voice in the introduction of new technologies.” As a result of such intervening forces, we “should give pause to…those who argue that capitalist technology is or is not inherently harmful.”58 O’Connor appears to be saying that we should not prejudge that a technology found in the capitalist system will have negative ecological outcomes for two reasons: (a) because social movements are still able to steer technology within the system or (b) because the system generates good technologies of its own accord, e.g. wind entrepreneurs who develop a technology without a movement’s direct involvement.

This last point then leads us to ask whether or not social movements are always needed to steer technology. O’Connor says that technology governed by capitalists will not produce sustainable results unless “it pays,” and if sustainable technologies are not profitable, such results can only be expected if capitalists come “under duress” from “ecological movements and environmental legislation.” Nevertheless, if social movements support density requirements, cutting of emissions, or bans on automobile use, they change the larger context in which capitalists make decisions. Therefore, it may be difficult to separate the profitability of a green capitalist project from previous social movement actions (which don’t necessarily have to do with steering technologies directly).59

O’Connor further distinguishes between the effects of capitalism and those of technology in itself. He cites a study suggesting that stressful work does not necessarily come “from the line itself” but from the design of jobs, which he calls “decisions rooted in capitalist production relations, not in the technology per se.” The array of technologies on the market can reflect social movement praxis as the latter attempts “to abolish harmful technologies, to prevent the introduction of dangerous technologies, and to develop ecologically sound alternatives.”60 Likewise, “consumer environmental consciousness” can shape the kinds of consumer nondurable goods which the market offers, e.g. organic produce and recycled paper products.61 This reference to “consumer environmental consciousness” opens possibilities for exploring the links between procurement and technology, production and consumption, but necessitates a further investigation of how social movements and capitalists steer technology.

Joel Kovel also links technology to growth and growth to dystopian outcomes. He argues that when it comes to capitalism “technological innovation has been the sine qua non of growth, and, because it cheapens the cost of labor, indispensable to surplus value extraction.” Moreover, “the more technology, roughly speaking, the more growth under a capitalist regime.” As “growth, capitalist-style, is the efficient cause of the ecological crisis, it shouldn’t take a genius to sense the ambivalence of technological solutions to the crisis.”62 Nevertheless, Kovel cites with approval initiatives like those “to build public works whose impact is reduction of dependence upon petroleum, for example, light rail networks.” While acknowledging these as “a profound shift in orientation,” he also calls them “reformist gestures” which “slow the accumulation of atmospheric carbon and gain time for more radical measures, for example, nationalization, to take hold.”63 While there may be different levels of engagement with technology, this view in any case decouples it from a radical social movement agenda.64

What is the Appropriate Political Agenda?

Foster lays out a vision for how ecological change is possible by focusing on the necessity for socialism. He points to “the Great Capitalist Climacteric,” or “a period of critical transition or a turning point in the life of…a whole society.” On the one hand, he argues that we have a “necessary epochal transition associated with the current planetary emergency.”65 On the other hand, when pressed for positive examples he focuses on “islands of hope” associated with change in places like Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba and Venezuela, the latter admittedly highly dependent upon fossil fuels. In Brazil, he describes radical planning models like Curitiba and Porto Alegre which point to “the possibility of more radical forms of management of urban space and transportation.” He also notes that “there is little real prospect for the needed global ecological revolution unless [such] attempts to revolutionize social relations… in the periphery are somehow mirrored in movements for ecological and social revolution” in advanced capitalist nations.66

Foster also points to movements for “radical direct action” or merging of “ecological” and “economic” movements. He sees these as part of a kind of vanguard for change:

Such an ecological and social structure will be revolutionary to the extent that it draws its force from those layers of society where people’s lives are most precarious: third world workers, working-class women, oppressed people of color in the imperial core, indigenous populations, peasants/landless agricultural workers, and those fighting for fundamentally new relations of sexuality, gender, family, and community—as well as highly exploited and dispossessed workers everywhere.

Foster also calls for other reforms such as the diversion of “military spending … to the defense of the planet as a place of human habitation.”67

Foster discusses O’Connor’s idea that contradictions in capitalism can generate internal contradictions tied to workers and class-based social movements and external contradictions tied to new social movements. He calls this “an approach that sees the labor-based class struggle playing second fiddle.” He concludes that “Ecological Marxism…arguably divides the movement artificially…reducing the field of hope.”68

One presumption is that Foster’s defense of social movements is the more radical position. Yet, one can also argue that Harvey, O’Connor and Kovel are more critical than Foster of contemporary social movements.69 For example, Harvey argues that the effectiveness of anarchist, autonomist and grassroots organizations “is limited by their reluctance and inability to scale-up activism into organizational forms capable of confronting global problems.”70 Elsewhere Harvey says Ecosocialists must address problems of alienation and alternative technology under socialism, and the dysfunctional impact of the sometimes vast scale of national states.71 In Ecology Against Capitalism, Foster has criticized social movements, as when he faults middle class environmentalists for separating themselves from class problems and workers’ struggles. Yet, such criticisms are not well connected to his embrace of movements elsewhere or how the coopting limits to movement patronage systems might require alternatives advanced by economic organizing in its own right.72

Can cooperatives link the ecological and economic? Kovel argues that cooperatives are limited because they cannot change the system or its rules. They must operate “against the backdrop of a system that constructs the rules of property.” Cooperatives are “attractive,” but “so far as the transformation of society in an ecological direction goes, no more than a very halting isolated first step.” While much of the capitalist economy “is already in cooperative hands,” this development “has not stopped the ecological crisis from maturing, just as it matures with leaded gasoline, recycled newspaper and other worthy palliatives.” If the entire economy were placed in cooperative hands things would differ but that would require marginalizing capital and a revolutionary movement “which would not come from the cooperative movement.”73 Green political parties are often not much of a help either because they “have tended to prove loyal to capital, giving it a shield of ecological responsibility.”74 and alternative production, institutions that prefigure the ecosocialism to come,” referring to the Zapatistas (EZLN) in Mexico as having created “the most prefiguratively successful example of a reclaimed commons in the image of the Paris Commune.”75

A key essay by Harvey, “Marxism, Metaphors and Ecological Politics” (1998) is partially based on a criticism of Foster for his use of naturalistic metaphors to promote ecological change. Harvey argues that “all projects to transform ecological relations are simultaneously projects to transform social relations.” Moreover, “transformative activity (labor) lies at the heart of the whole dialectics of social and environmental change.” This labor-centered approach potentially involves labor’s engagement with technology, but Harvey’s own use of language does not spell out any such specifics. The overarching principle is system change: “the foundations for an ecologically sensitive Marxism” require “massive confrontations with many of the central institutions of a capitalistic world order.” The problem is that commodification and market processes limit an alternative and sane “regime of socio-ecological relations,” requiring “nothing short of a radical replacement of the capitalist mode of production.” Nevertheless, Harvey’s project is potentially based on reconstructionist sentiments when he calls for “reconstruction of social relations and modes of production and consumption.”76 The problem with Harvey’s approach is that one could envision a radical social movement that alters the technological regime, but we really need to know how labor and ecological movements could “bank” political power not just during the peaks of social mobilizations, but also during the valleys.77

In a very recent work, “Listen Anarchist!” (2015), Harvey embraces some ideas by Murray Bookchin related to political reconstructionism through mass citizen mobilizations.  Where Noble emphasized how political engagements historically distracted workers from challenges at the point of production, Harvey argues that “Marxists have…historically been far too preoccupied with the labor process and productivism as the center of their theorizing.” A service job “easily compensates for the losses due to the industrialization of agriculture and the automation in conventional manufacturing.” Harvey is less impressed than Kovel with the Zapatista model for change. He argues that the creation of “a parallel state (like the Zapatistas) within the capitalist state” is something that rarely works and when it does (as in Colombian paramilitaries or mafia organizations), “they are rarely benign.” He also critiques the idea that economic change on a local level is sufficient for promoting needed changes, as capitalists can exploit such local changes: “decentralization and autonomy are primary vehicles for producing greater inequality and centralization of power,” e.g. networked capitalism and certain NGOs. In contrast, he supports Bookchin’s proposals for “municipal libertarianism organized confederally,” but argues that anarchist horizontalism must be complemented by verticalism which attempts to seize state power.78

Harvey’s critique of horizontalism is useful as the state will continue to promote a dystopian technological regime if left unquestioned. Yet, left movements which attempt to accumulate political capital without also consolidating pockets of economic capital will be limited in their power, denying themselves the mechanisms which Marx saw as part of the transformative repertoire.  A counter example can be found when the Occupy movement in Chicago supported the efforts that led to the formation of the New Era Windows cooperative at the Republic Windows and Doors Company.79 This does not mean that progressive state power from above cannot facilitate economic and community organizing from below.80 Finally, the extension of service jobs has accompanied deindustrialization and imports of green technologies, developments potentially linked to a division of interests within the working class and between manufacturing workers and environmentalists. In contrast, manufacturing of alternative technologies is a key foundation for fighting climate change and building labor-ecological coalitions.81

In summary, the Ecosocialist relationship to the ensemble of capitals involves a wide variety of approaches. In relation to political capital, it often embraces existing movements, sometimes criticizes them, but often decouples political power accumulation from its economic form. Foster and Fred Magdoff argue that “it is necessary for the population to seize control of their political economy, replacing the present system of capitalism with something amounting to a real political and economic democracy,” i.e. “socialism.”82 But these ideas have not been consistently incorporated into the general Ecosocialist or Ecological Marxist discourse. The orientation of Monthly Review (of which Foster is the editor) is often toward social movement actions like media reform.83 Yet, as we shall see, this vision is hardly as revolutionary as that embraced by some reconstructionist Marxists. When it comes to human or cultural capital, the emphasis is sometimes on “radical pedagogy,” but like media reform these sound suggestions are decoupled from an exchange system linked to democratic economic power accumulation.84 These constitute critically important, yet “serial” struggles against the system.

The Economic Reconstructionists

How Do We Define Technology in a Capitalist Society?

Reconstructionists like Seymour Melman (1917-2004) and Barry Commoner (1917-2012) were rooted in part in a Marx-inspired vision. Melman grew up during the Great Depression. Against this backdrop, “theories of market regulated economy seemed to function as ideological masks for the class interests of private and government managers.” As a result, he explained, “the ideas of Karl Marx and Thorstein Veblen had greater interest … as vantage points than those of Adam Smith, Alfred Marshall, and John Maynard Keynes.”85 In his last major work, After Capitalism, Melman recounted the logic of Marx’s theory of accumulation and how capitalism was based on a system of dispossession that alienated communities from control over capacities and resources essential to their lives.86

Barry Commoner brought a class perspective to ecological concerns. In a 1976 speech, he explained, “the environmental movement is in retreat…because it can’t stand the force of economic priority, that jobs are more important than the environment.” He noted that “decisions … about how we produce goods are based on what maximizes profit, not human need.” He referred to Marx’s description of “the displacement of labor by capital and the resulting inefficiency of the operation, so that people are now forced to lose jobs in order to avoid polluting the environment.” He concluded arguing that “we have to now begin to think about replacing the capitalist organization of the economic system by a system which is governed by human need, by social need, and of course, with a small s, that’s socialism.”87

Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) and Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) were among the first reconstructionists in the US. Writing in 1906, Veblen argued that “the solution offered in the name of science is decisive so long as it is not set aside by a still more searching scientific inquiry.” In fact, scientists may not be the best authority in making technological decisions: “it might conceivably be preferable, as a matter of cultural ideals, to leave the last word with the lawyer, the duelist, the priest, the moralist, or the college of heraldry.”88 Like Veblen, Mumford argued that the control of technology required “decisive inventions in the realm of morals, politics and psychological direction.”89 Technology had to be controlled in accordance with a diversified set of criteria.

Melman believed technology reflects a combination of power with social or ethical criteria that shape alternative designs.90 Paul Goodman likewise believed there are “political, moral, and psychological criteria for choosing technologies.”91 In fact, “whether or not it draws on new scientific research, technology is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science.”92 Goodman thereby saw technology as a dependent variable which even under capitalism was not necessarily detrimental: “underdeveloped countries…must rapidly innovate in order to diminish disease, drudgery, and starvation.” Technological aid to such areas from “the native ruling groups” often has “done more harm than good.” Yet, alternative technologies (what Goodman called “Intermediate Technology”) can be beneficial as they “use only native labor, resources, traditional customs, and teachable know-how.” Such technology can remedy problems rather than advance “cultural imperialism.”93

Technology is thus subject to different specifications, as Melman explains, “as a consequence of variation in the economic and social criteria that are used” to make technological choices.94 Mumford saw the technological problem as reflecting a breakdown in critical self-reflection. As Veblen also noted, originally a kind of optimism pervaded weakening critical faculties. Thus, “when the Royal Society was founded in England…its members deliberately decided to reject any collaboration with those disciplines which would now be called the social sciences and the humanities.”95

Can Technology Solve the Ecological Problem?

The capacity of technology to solve ecological problems even under capitalism is based on the fact that capitalism itself is a contradictory system even in the present. The present tense of technology is not always dystopian because there are liberatory pockets. What is “good” or “bad” is not the technologies (as Ecosocialists often imply), but rather these spaces which exist even without external, social movement intervention. Mumford argues that democracy “is necessarily most visible in relatively small communities and groups, whose members meet frequently face to face, interact frequently, and are known to each other as persons.” There is a problematic “tension between small-scale and large-scale organization, between personal autonomy and institutional regulation, between remote control and diffused local intervention.”96

Mumford distinguishes between an authoritarian and democratic technology with the former “system-centered, immensely powerful, but inherently unstable” and the latter “man-centered, relatively weak, but resourceful and durable.” Yet, these different technologies are partially derivative of the alternative spaces which either enable or shape them. In contrast to the idea that technocratic rationality and concentrated power foreclose most options under capitalism, Mumford writes: “even when paying tribute to the most oppressive authoritarian regimes, there yet remained within the workshop or the farmyard some degree of autonomy, selectivity, creativity.”97 The capitalist organization of work and economic power helped create a foundation for authoritarian spaces and hence technology: “at the very moment Western nations threw off the ancient regime of absolute government, operating under a once-divine king, they were restoring this same system in a far more effective form in their technology.” They reintroduced “coercions of a military character no less strict in the organization of a factory than in that of the new drilled, uniformed, and regimented army.”98 The political revolution was thus followed by a kind of economic counter-revolution.

Like Marx and Harvey, Mumford examines the role of consumption, which for him becomes the key driver of authoritarian technology. Mumford explains that “our age” has “surrendered so easily to the controllers, the manipulators, the conditioners of an authoritarian technics,” because of the ways in which technology permeates and wins over citizens as consumers. Unlike brutal or authoritarian systems, “present day technics…has accepted the basic principle of democracy, that every member of society should have a share in its goods.” In contrast, the maintenance of “democratic institutions” requires the transformation of technology by inserting into it “the rejected parts of the human personality.” Alternative technology is no longer tied to “infantile compulsions and automatisms” and involves a more organic relationship to the environment. Thus, “the glut of motor cars that is now destroying our cities can be coped with only if we redesign our cities to make fuller use of a more efficient human agent: the walker.”[99] A key problem is social control: “When technical advances are not coordinated with social advances, the result of an overconcentration on technics may be social confusion, frustration and retrogression.”100

While social control may regulate bad technologies, can growth itself contribute to ecological renewal? Barry Commoner acknowledged that “the short-term profits of the new postwar industries have been high as long as they have not yet felt the impact of their ecological transgressions, which emerge only after industry has been operating for a time.”101 Nevertheless Commoner showed how growth itself could be compatible with the ecosystem. In The Closing Circle (1974), he argued that “what happens to the environment depends on how the growth is achieved.” Growth, like technological designs, is not homogenous. For example, while the nineteenth century created growth in the US through “rapacious lumbering,” in the 1930s “an ecologically sound measure, the soil conservation program…began to lift the United States out of the Depression.”102

Commoner traced dystopian growth to dystopian technologies. Bad technologies drove out good technologies after World War II. Through “technological displacement” we saw “the replacement of a natural organic product by an unnatural synthetic one.” This displacement meant that “the new technology has worsened the environmental impact of the economic good.”103 One driver was that “new, more polluting technologies” often yielded “higher profits than the older, less polluting technologies they have displaced.”104 Yet profitability may ultimately also be hurt by increased pollution. Externalities which cost society but help polluting industry tend to “destroy the very ‘biological capital’ that the ecosystem provides and on which production depends.”105

In Making Peace with the Planet (1990), Commoner again concluded that growth need not require dystopian technologies. In fact, growth could be compatible with improvements to the ecosystem:

In sum, the conflict between economic productivity and environmental quality is apparent only if economic gain is defined as short-term profit, and if environmental improvement is restricted to the futile but costly efforts to control pollution rather than prevent it. On the other hand, if one takes a more fundamental, preventative approach to the problem of environmental quality by recognizing that it is inherent in the design or production of technology, it is possible to find ways of improving both the environment and the economy.106

Commoner’s argument represents a stark contrast to claims incessantly repeated by the Ecosocialists. One way to reverse the problems associated with technological displacement would be to engage in technological substitution.107 For example, “compared with railroads, cars are a very inefficient means of long-distance and commuter travel.” Cars “use much more fuel, and therefore produce that much more pollution, per passenger mile traveled.” Not only could cars be redesigned with “nonpolluting electric motors,” a change in technological artifact, but we also need to change the technological system: “production technology encompasses not only the design of a particular facility, such as a car, but the overall system in which it operates, in this case transportation.”108

What is the Appropriate Political Agenda?

Yet, what do we do with Mumford’s problem which is that technological consumption tied to growth can have deleterious impacts by fostering what amounts to a fetishism of commodities and embrace of consumer culture? Commoner suggests that the limited usefulness of dystopian technologies creates a political opening for social change in consumption: “The displacement of soap by detergents has made us no cleaner than we were; but it has made the environment more foul.”109 In addition, political action can help trigger economic constraints on dystopian technology. By the 1990s, nuclear power had “failed so dramatically because the high costs generated by its environmental hazards” were “internalized” and therefore were “directly reflected in its economic productivity.”110 Growth itself can decline with ecological quality because of an under-investment in ecological infrastructure like mass transit, sewer and water systems, and bridges. Studies have shown “a statistically significant relationship” between the “rate of growth in productivity” and the “relative investment in public facilities” among advanced capitalist nations.111

Commoner was fully conscious of Marx’s ideas both on the capitalist growth imperative and on how capitalist growth undermines the ecosystem.112 Yet, he saw ecological consciousness as potentially constraining dystopian growth, and argued that new technology and ecological conversion offer a solution. In the 1970s, he estimated that “something like one half of the postwar productive enterprises would need to be replaced by ecologically sounder ones.” This required promotion of alternative production platforms or enterprises using ecological criteria, which in turn involved cultural shifts. Engineers would “become impatient with narrowly conceived, single-purpose productivity- (and profit-) enhancing technologies” and would “invent new ones that are more appropriate to these new social goals.” This cultural shift involves “new technologies” that “necessarily cut across the narrow lines of present scientific disciplines.”113 Commoner’s alternative model of ecological growth is illustrated in Figure 2. The figure describes what I have elsewhere referred to as “grounded utopia,” i.e. utopias driven not just by alternative designs and ethical judgments, but also by accumulation systems facilitating dynamic extension of the alternative model.114

Commoner understood that fragmentation of the Left itself helped block ecological conversion. He saw a need to link ecological, antiwar and civil rights concerns. He wrote: “unless the United States becomes committed to peaceful fraternization with the rest of the world, it will have neither the productive resources for its own ecological restoration, nor the world’s cooperation needed to carry it out.”115 Conversely, civilian procurement could promote ecological conversion: “the market power of government purchases…might facilitate the transformation of production technologies.”116 The tremendous costs of ecological conversion thus required demilitarization and disarmament, a point duly noted by Melman.117 Commoner also saw fragmentation between the white-led environment and the concerns of African Americans as early as 1970. The attack on affluence could alienate the poor. Commoner noted that “pollution in the United States is caused by the excessive consumption of goods and resources,” so “the eco-activist is advised to ‘consume less.’” Yet, given that “the per capita consumption of blacks is much lower than that of whites, such observations are not likely to arouse the enthusiasm of blacks.”118

Figure 2: The Grounded Utopian Model of Growth and Regulation under Reconstruction Even Ecosocialists like Foster recognize that “public transit…would vastly reduce carbon dioxide emissions compared to a transport system built around the private automobile, and…would actually be more efficient in terms of the free and rapid movement of people.” Yet, he argues that the extension of such transit has been limited by the growth of the “automobile-industrialization complex,” including “not simply automobiles themselves but the glass, rubber, and steel industries, the petroleum industry, the users of highways for profit (such as trucking firms), the makers of highways, and the real estate interests tied to the urban-suburban structure.”119 This complex constitutes an accumulation axis and source of economic, political and cultural power.

In contrast, however, one might evaluate how systems of accumulating diverse forms of power could be used to promote social movement and ecological agendas. Alternative spaces of the kind Mumford addresses open up as social movements evolve. A key change involves the conceiving of alternative institutions or development of coalitions linking short term-actions to long-term reconstruction. These ideas are central to the thinking of Paul Goodman and Seymour Melman. In 1961, Goodman explained the ideal design criteria for pacifist films and by implication for the praxis of the peace movement. He argued that it was not sufficient to promote moral ideals without also explaining the power structure and alternative exemplars for action.120 Melman further explained the need to orient peace movements toward potentially disarming militarist technology. He wrote that despite the peace movement’s successes in raising alarm about the destructiveness of nuclear war, “this awareness was not accompanied by formulated programs for halting and reversing the war system juggernaut.”121 One alternative to militarist planning was economic conversion, “the process of reducing the economic decision-power of the war-making institutions.”122 Such radical planning could be supported by mobilizing diverse constituencies disenfranchised by the arms race.123

These groups were mobilized in a national town meeting on the peace dividend held on May 2, 1990, involving over thirty-eight radio stations and about sixty-four cities and towns. This meeting included Seymour Melman and Barry Commoner, as well as labor and political leaders including George Kourpias (International Association of Machinists president), Jesse Jackson, George McGovern and Bernie Sanders. Here, radio technology and political celebrities facilitated face-to-face meetings and proposals for social control over technology through conversion and disarmament. Media capital was instrumental in the accumulation of political capital to promote alternative designs of economic capital (procurement commitments and technologies). Horizontal linkage of environmental, labor and peace issues was tied to creation of a trans-scalar space connected by a radio broadcast and call-in format.124

Another nexus of political and cultural power could be found in the spaces of universities. In the “technological society…the knowledge generated by science is a chief source of wealth and power.” Commoner argued that the environmental crisis required “profound fundamental judgments of how this knowledge, and the power it endows, is to be used.” He showed how the teach-in movement had created a diverse set of constituencies that could influence this fulcrum of knowledge and power by promoting an alternative technological social code. The University of Michigan environmental teach-in on March 11-14, 1970 brought together 15,000 students, politicians including progressive Republican Governor George Milliken, municipal, state, and federal officials; industrial representatives from Ford Motor Company, Dow Chemical Company, and Detroit Edison Company; labor leaders like Walter Reuther of the UAW, “a variety of scientists with a professional interest in the environment: biologists, ecologists, engineers, sociologists, urban analysts, and public health experts,” and celebrities like Arthur Godfrey and Eddie Albert, “both ardent conservationists and anti-pollutionists.”125

In addition to the public town meeting and university-based teach-in, alternative cities and cooperatives were reconstructionist building blocks. Mumford addressed the possibilities for “utopias of reconstruction,” which sought to change the external world “so that one may have intercourse with it on one’s own terms.” These built on reconstructed environments associated with “a new set of habits, a fresh scale of values, a different set of relationships and institutions.”126 The alternative town became a platform for alternative technology. For example, James Buckingham, a British utopian, envisioned “a model town association” which would build the utopian community of Victoria: “The town is to contain every improvement in ‘position, plan, drainage, ventilation, architecture, supply of water, light, and every other elegance and convenience.’” Shareholders in a kind of cooperative company owned “all of the lands, houses, factories, and materials” in this utopian scheme.127 The contemporary transition town movement finds echoes here.

Paul and Percival Goodman, in Communitas, built on the ideas of thinkers like Veblen and Mumford. Like Marx, the Goodmans discussed the relationship between production and consumption, only formalizing the creation of consumption spaces that would minimize consumption (through spatial concentration) and break the divide between town and country (thereby minimizing energy, transportation, and car use through localized and proximate consumption). Mumford saw consumption as disempowering, yet the Goodmans turn this concept on its head, revealing other possibilities. Consumption (and by extension procurement) could transform political space and capital: “in fact the most powerful influence that people exercise, and would exert even more powerfully in a city of efficient consumption, is the economic choice to buy or not to buy a product and to be employed in this or that factory or office.” This was not just a matter of applying political capital to economic capital via the market; the politicization of consumption created a new kind of market such that consumption affected technology and production: “Everybody who has a penny can influence society by his choice and everybody has, in principle, a penny.”128 Thus, rather than just depend on the constant and concentrated agitation of social movements which rise and decline, or on bureaucratic top-down administration, an alternative market building on the utopian spaces created a possibility for dynamic sustainable growth. Mumford argued these alternative spaces were ubiquitous in the US, not limited to the “periphery.”

This dynamic sustainable growth paradigm is partially visible in the Mondragon Industrial Cooperatives. Melman explained that “in cooperatives and labor-community initiatives alike, disalienation by design challenges the conventional pursuit of profits and power by predatory competition and hierarchy.” He showed how cooperatives like Mondragon could be both more productive and profitable than traditional enterprises, yet share wealth with workers in an industrial system organized more around job creation than short-term profit-taking. Yet, Melman also noted that the normal workings of capitalism produced an ecological dystopia, in which “quality of life including the environment and infrastructure” were given a “low priority.”129 Part of this problem could be resolved by cooperatives which transcended short-term decision-making criteria and joined managers and workers in situ, where pollution decisions would no longer be made by absentee managers.130 Like the Ecosocialists and Commoner, Melman explained that “external pressures” could lead to changes in the applications or design of technology.131

The reconstructionists can also be understood with reference to the “ensemble of capitals” which is partially implicit in Marx’s vision. When it comes to economic capital, Melman highlighted the role played by Mondragon’s bank in sustaining a real (manufacturing) economy and promoting retention of jobs.132 When it comes to political and media capital, teach-ins and town meetings were used to bring attention to economic and media questions. While not addressing media reform, these efforts ran parallel to those of Bertolt Brecht who viewed the media as an organizing tool. In one sense, Brecht embraced a reconstructionist vision in his essay, “Radio as a Means of Communication: A Talk on the Function of Radio.” Brecht wrote:

Radio could be the most wonderful public communication system imaginable, a gigantic system of channels.” Radio could play this role “if it were capable not only of transmitting but of receiving, of making the listener not only hear but also speak, not of isolating him but of connecting him. This means that radio would have to give up being a purveyor and organise the listener as purveyor of receiving, of making the listener not only hear but also speak, not of isolating him but of connecting him.133

Some may recognize in this quote the use of the Internet by the Arab Spring and Occupy movements.134 In contrast, we see in the teach-ins and national town meeting examples of a real-time, social movement that integrates far flung spaces horizontally in communication with one another. The radical possibilities of radio (and by extension the Internet) are also conveyed in part by other writers, but they fail to conceive of how the audience database could easily be translated into an economic network, as in crowdsourcing and efforts to link radical media programming to support for cooperative economics.

Finally, the full potential of a reconstructionist approach to education can also mean more than radical pedagogy, but include remaking society as a whole. In a 1934 essay “Can Education Share in Social Reconstruction?”, John Dewey explained that although schools could not literally “be builders of a new social order,” they could “share in the building of the social order of the future according as they ally themselves with this or that movement of existing forces.”135 While Marx saw education (human capital) as a potential circuit for building industrial workers’ power, we see in Mondragon a clear example of how a technical school developed into a network of dozens of inter-linked cooperatives, i.e. a system in which human capital was used to accumulate economic capital via an exchange system.136 In Table 2, I compare the Ecosocialists and Economic Reconstructionists in terms of how they relate to the ensemble of capitals.

Table 2: The Ensemble of Capitals, Ecosocialists and Economic Reconstructionists In contrast to O’Connor’s view of the “critical theory” position, Marcuse acknowledged that technology could be liberatory. One problem, however, was the emergence of a social code based on “technological rationality.” The social code was also shaped by ideological institutions like the university or scientific academies which failed to problematize contingency in technological design. Both Noble and Berg show how even political economy neglected technological contingency. In contrast, reconstructionist thinkers emphasized contingency but also the language of ethics and values in discussing technological choice. Like the Ecosocialists, they recognize both utopian and dystopian technologies and the role of established power in perpetuating the latter. Commoner and Melman saw teach-ins and national town meetings as a way to advance a progressive technological social code.


The problem, however, was the extent to which technology could solve the ecological problem. Marx was less concerned with changing what Noble calls “present tense technology” than with changing the relations of production and the larger social system. Noble suggests Marx embraced technological modernization, although Marx’s critique of the factory system suggests limits to this embrace. While Ecosocialists may acknowledge how use values exist even under capitalism, they pay less attention to existing spaces for potential democratic control.

As Marx found cooperatives and alternative technologies dependent upon a larger political social movement, Ecosocialists potentially see good technologies, but often argue that social movements are necessary to achieve them. The problem, however, is that social movements themselves can be limited. While Foster takes what some might view as a romantic “third wordlist” view of useful models in developing nations, other Ecosocialists (like Harvey) offer a more persistent critique of radical social movements at home and abroad. The critiques often center on strategies or a radical view without specifying a convincing dynamic system of alternative power accumulation. While Ecosocialists view growth and accumulation as a dystopian process, Economic Reconstructionists like Commoner and Melman see possibilities for sustainable growth. Each identified how more productive or efficient aspects of alternative technology and social organization could actually advance a progressive agenda in the present, short of a revolutionary transformation. As in the Paris Commune’s industrial conversion and use of new technology to advance political communication, the Economic Reconstructionists identify technology under a capitalist regime as a means to produce the future in the present.

Harvey notes that crises may be an engine for change, but the Left has failed to systematically exploit the political openings created by such crises. In contrast to one thrust in Marx, Kovel has an ambivalent if not limited view of the utility of cooperatives as an agent for social change. For Melman, on the other hand, cooperatives are a key change agent. Some have tried to resolve such differences by establishing criteria for more or less progressive cooperatives, although Melman was clearly aware of how Mondragon’s linkage of technological development, banking, and worker control systems in networks of firms were essential to “best practice.”137

The major limit, however, to the Ecosocialist approach is that it seems very much driven by dystopian models of capitalist accumulation, less informed by Marxist analysis of consumption and the ensemble of capitals necessary for social change.138 Here is where the Economic Reconstructionists can be considered truer to one aspect of Marx’s vision. Although neo-Marxists are conversant in alternative technology, they tend to discuss the political or design options vis-à-vis each form of capital in a serial fashion. As argued above, they often speak of a Gramscian-like march through distinct institutions, one by one, rather than a strategy in which accumulation of power in one institution is used to leverage accumulation in another. For example, they don’t show how changing universities (or marshalling educational resources) might lead to altering technological development (as in university green spin-off firms), which then confederate into networks that act as political lobbyists.

In contrast, as early as the Paris Commune, if not earlier, we see how media (communications) capital could potentially advance economic (cooperative) capital. Likewise, Mumford and Goodman show us the diverse criteria and discourses which can be applied to technological questions. The problem, therefore, is how to create movements which accumulate each form of capital individually and through exchanges of capital, i.e. the transformation problem in diverse capitals.139 As I have noted elsewhere, established interests like the warfare state have been very much attuned to this exchange process, the Left less so.140 Clearly, a network of radical radio and TV stations could advance cooperative consumption and production, leveraging cooperative consumption to facilitate cooperative production and vice versa.

The link between consumption and production was earlier identified by Karl Marx. G. D. H. Cole, the famous guild socialist, explained how to proactively act on such linkages: Cole emphasized the importance of consumer cooperatives “to make articulate and definite the consumers’ needs and desires.” These cooperatives would give producers an incentive to meet such consumer interests. In addition, he saw consumption as a political relationship, “the ‘consuming’ point of view requires to be definitely expressed, in order that articulate demand may co-operate with, and direct the course of, organised supply.”141 Given that social movements represent potential consumption blocs, social movement agitation can be used to shift consumption and thereby potentially alter technology and production.

We see evidence of this already in the oil divestment campaigns presently underway. While these efforts represent a form of politicized consumption aimed at divesting from established banks and oil companies, the Economic Reconstructionist complement would involve shifting capital into cooperative banks and energy companies. These cooperative platforms could then themselves be supporting institutions for social movement formation. As they accumulated capital and grew, they would represent a platform for both promoting good technologies and limiting bad technologies.142 The links between social movements and alternative production platforms can be seen in Denmark, where “wind guilds, groups of small investors who joined together to fund and own wind installations” both started and own wind farms (without corporate middleman).143

The alternative models called for by Ecosocialists, sometimes inspired by Latin American exemplars such as those in Porto Alegre (Foster) or the Zapatistas in Mexico (Kovel), appear to take the form of ecological utopian enclaves. These are seen as models of system change in contrast to interventions like cooperatives which some say don’t change the system. They are also antagonistic to green growth models. There are three limits to this approach. First, in some cases the alternative models of Latin America depend on a mixture of power from above and below: state concessions creating “invited spaces” of participation and local initiatives where communities “invent” alternatives.  To a certain extent each shapes the other, begging the question of how these spaces will be created in countries like the United States without building on the base of indigenous, alternative institutions like cooperatives.144 Second, cooperatives and green growth can actually be drivers of one another as the comparative advantage of cooperatives extends alternatives in space. Third, cooperatives are blamed both for being too localized and for being market driven, whereas the under-examined networks of cooperative firms become less bound to the local scale and can create an alternative to the supposedly homogeneous market.145

In contrast, there are ubiquitous openings in the core which can promote system change. These drivers of system change include democratic and de-alienating possibilities for using alternative organization of media capital (the communications power of radio-based mega-events), political capital (the organizing power of town meetings or teach-ins) and economic capital (politicized consumption linked to networked cooperatives) to which many but not all Marxists are oblivious.146 While cooperatives do not necessarily generate sustainable outcomes and must follow a green “social code,” they can be instrumental in facilitating a green conversion.147 For example, about “half of Germany’s renewable energy facilities are in the hands of farmers, citizen groups, and almost nine hundred energy cooperatives. In addition, “up to around 2000, roughly 85 percent of Danish wind turbines were owned by small players like farmers and co-ops.”148

Are the strategies of the Economic Reconstructionists – tied as they were to the heights of power of the New Left, post-Cold War peace dividend, and (to a lesser extent) Occupy movements – now obsolete and hence utopian in the ungrounded sense? There are several reasons to argue that they are not, even if these initiatives have presently lost momentum.

First, in the United Kingdom continuing concern about the financial, energy and environmental crises and the declining price of oil creates a space which various activists have been able to exploit (like their counterparts elsewhere). The Debt Resistance UK and Move Your Money campaigns there have been institutionalized. The Debt Resistance group assists local residents in the worst affected localities to support High Court legal challenges against big banks, advisers and brokers who sold toxic loans. These loans have cost councils “hundreds of millions of pounds in added interest, at a time of austerity and service cuts.”149 The Move Your Money campaign has boycotted the Royal Bank of Scotland. The bank reduced its investments in gas and oil firms by 70 percent in 2015 and “doubled UK green energy loans” to £1 billion a year.150

Second, the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign championed reconstructionist ideas in the area of military spending and economic democracy. Sanders to a certain extent advocated cutting military budgets to fund college tuition. His track record partially is used to convey the idea that he would cut military budgets. For example, “he stood with only two other Democratic senators in opposing the 2014 defense bill, … calling it bloated ‘particularly in light of the many unmet needs we face as a nation.’”151 Sanders has also championed worker cooperatives as a way to preserve jobs and boost productivity.152

In contrast to the idea that alternative institutions represent a co-optation of more radical social change of the systems that shape technology, one can easily see that such institutions represent the very extension of alternative technology and the movements it generates. Thus, the real tactical problem is not just the embrace of “alternative institutions” without radical social change but – inversely – social change which fails to produce the future in the present by extending alternative institutions. “Capital” is already deploying social movements through the non-profit industrial complex. We should also ask whether social movements can deploy capital sustained by an ecological industrial complex.153


1. I have also placed David Harvey in this group, although he breaks with these thinkers in some key areas.

2. By “contingency” I mean they see social change beyond structural barriers of capitalism as coming primarily from what social movements do as “independent variables.” This choice mirrors Marx’s preoccupation with revolutions and social movements as primary actors in changing the system. To a certain extent this view is derivative of Marx’s agenda. In contrast, other thinkers focus not just on social movements per se as change agents, but also on how social movements can be more or less effective, or how to develop institutions which facilitate social movement change or make change without a mass movement. Here “contingency” can be based on different tactics or organizations, e.g. cooperatives. Harvey has the broadest conception of contingency within this group, although he differs from the reconstructionists as we will see. As I will show, the contingent elements are somewhat diluted by the choice of language. For a related discussion of contingency, see John Gerassi, Talking with Sartre: Conversations and Debates, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

3. Joel Kovel, The Enemy of Nature, London: Zed Books, 2007.

4. For an overview of these issues, see: Victor Wallis, “Socialism and Technology: A Sectoral Overview,” Capitalism Nature Socialism, Vol. 17, No. 2, June 2006: 81-97.

5. Ibid. See also Ricard E. Sclove, Democracy and Technology, New York: Guilford Press, 1995; Seymour Melman, After Capitalism: From Managerialism to Workplace Democracy, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

6. One Economic Reconstructionist, Barry Commoner, discusses the analogous distinction between “prevention versus control” of pollution. See Making Peace with the Planet, New York: Pantheon Books, 1990, 41-55.

7. Fredrik Sjögren, “Technology and sustainability in the light of questions of determinism,” in Kajsa Borgnäs, Teppo Eskelinen, Johanna Perkiö, and Rikard Warlenius, eds., The Politics of Ecosocialism: Transforming Welfare, London: Routledge, 2015, 69-82. On social steering, see Seymour Melman, “The Impact of Economics on Technology,” Journal of Economic Issues, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1975. Melman argues that technological forms partially reflect political choices: as trade unions, workers and other groups pressure management or form new organizational forms like cooperatives, they can change the design or uses of technology.

8. By “meso level change” I mean a level above individuals but below the workings of the (global or national) capitalist system as a whole. I also mean a level beyond short-term political strategies and a rhetorical deconstruction of the capitalist system. The idea is that systemic social change can come by developing alternative institutions which become building blocks for systemic change. Meso level change is neither insurrectionary in the first instance, nor gradualist. This concept builds on Seymour Melman’s critique of “short-termism” in The Demilitarized Society: Disarmament and Conversion, Montreal: Harvest House, 1988; on Paul Goodman’s analysis of institutional change in People or Personnel: Decentralizing and the Mixed System, New York: Vintage Books, 1968; and on Ralph Miliband’s ideas about radical or revolutionary reform in Marxism and Politics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977. See also Gar Alperovitz, What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution, White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013.

9. Herbert Marcuse, “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology,” in Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt, eds., The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, New York: Urizen Books, 1978, 138-162. See also Sjögren, “Technology and Sustainability” (note 7), and Alf Hornborg, “Technology as Fetish: Marx, Latour, and the Cultural Foundations of Capitalism,” Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 31, No. 4, 2014: 119-140.

10. Marcuse, “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology,” ibid., 138-139.

11. Ibid., 139.

12. Ibid., 140-141.

13. Ibid., 141.

14. Maxine Berg, The Machinery Question and the Making of Political Economy, 1815-1848, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980 as cited and quoted in David Noble, “Present Tense Technology,” Democracy, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1983, 16.

15. Noble, Ibid., 18.

16. Ellen Meiksins Wood, “The Separation of the Economic and the Political in Capitalism,” New Left Review I, No. 127, May-June, 1981, 68.

17. Noble, “Present Tense Technology” (note 14), 18.

18. Ibid., 19.

19. Karl Marx, 1871 letter to F. Bolte, in Robert C. Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed., New York: W.W. Norton, 1978: 520.

20. Noble, “Present Tense Technology,” (note 14), 20.

21. Ibid., 21.

22. John Bellamy Foster, “Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 105, No. 2, 1999: 366-405.

23. Nathan Rosenberg, Inside the Black Box: Technology and Economics, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982, 35-36.

24. Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Marx-Engels Reader, 475.

25. Marx believed “that the real transformative power of cooperative enterprise lay in the production of goods rather than in their distribution (via cooperative stores).” See Michael Joseph Roberto, “Capitalist Crisis, Cooperative Labor, and the Conquest of Political Power: Marx’s ‘Inaugural Address’ (1864) and its Relevance in the Current Moment,” Socialism and Democracy, Vol. 28, No. 2, July 2014, 97-98.

26. Quoted in Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol. 1, State and Bureaucracy, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977, 178 (the quote is from Marx’s 1844 article, “Critical Notes on ‘The King of Prussia and Social Reform’”; Marx’s emphasis).

27. Marx-Engels Reader, 490.

28. Ibid., 228-229.

29. See Bertell Ollman, Social and Sexual Revolution: Essays on Marx and Reich, Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1978, 90-91.

30. Marx, The Paris Commune, New York: New York Labor News Company, 1934, 73, 74, 85. Under the decree of 16 April 1871, “abandoned factories were to be handed over to ‘the cooperative association of the workers who were employed in them.’” Robert Tombs, “Harbingers or Entrepreneurs? A Workers’ Cooperative during the Paris Commune,” Historical Journal, Vol. 27, No. 4, 1984, 969.

31. Tombs, ibid., 970-971.

32. Patrick Luiz Sullivan De Oliveira, “How 19th-Century Parisians Under Siege Improvised a System of Airmail by Balloon,” Slate, December 15, 2015.

33. Karl Marx, “Inaugural Address of the International Working Men’s Association, ‘The First International,’” October 21-27, 1864 as published in Marx & Engels Internet Archive, 2000. See also Bruno Jossa, “Marx, Lenin and the Cooperative Movement,” Review of Political Economy, Vol. 26, No. 2, 2014: 282-302.

34. Karl Marx, Capital Vol. III, Chapter 27, “The Role of Credit in Capitalist Production,” as published in Marx & Engels Internet Archive. Jossa, “Marx, Lenin and the Cooperative Movement” (note 33), emphasizes cooperatives as a new mode of production.

35. Roberto, “Capitalist Crisis, Cooperative Labor, and the Conquest of Political Power” (note 25), 97-98, 100.

36. Jossa, “Marx, Lenin and the Cooperative Movement” (note 33), 286.

37. Kovel links the Paris Commune to the idea of an ensemble or “commons” (The Enemy of Nature, 246-249), but his use of the term, although somewhat related, differs from mine.

38. Karl Marx as quoted in Ollman, Social and Sexual Revolution, 52.

39. Ibid., 55.

40. Marx as quoted in ibid., 57.

41. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, Oxford: Blackwell, 1989, 127.

42. Ibid., 135.

43. David Harvey, Social Justice and the City, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973, 199.

44. John Bellamy Foster, “Marxism and Ecology: Common Fronts of a Great Transition,” Monthly Review, Vol. 67, No. 7, 2015 5-6.

45. John Bellamy Foster, The Ecological Revolution: Making Peace with the Planet, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009, 205-206.

46. David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, 188.

47. Ibid.

48. Ibid., 221.

49. David Harvey, Spaces of Hope, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000, 203, 237, 91.

50. John Bellamy Foster, “Capitalism’s Environmental Crisis—Is Technology the Answer?” Monthly Review, Vol. 52, No. 7, 2000.

51. Kovel, The Enemy of Nature.

52. John Bellamy Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002, 100.

53. Barbara Harriss-White and Elinor Harriss, 2006, “Unsustainable Capitalism: the Politics of Renewable Energy in the UK,” Socialist Register 2007, London: Merlin Press: 72-101; Peter Newell and Matthew Paterson, “A Climate for Business: Global Warming, the State and Capital,” Review of International Political Economy, Vol. 5, No. 4, 1998: 679-703.

54. Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism, 92-93.

55. Ibid., 94-95.

56. James O’Connor, Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism, New York: The Guilford Press, 1998, 200-201.

57. Ibid., 201.

58. Ibid., 203-204.

59. This historical layering of past struggles creating later possibilities can be seen theoretically and concretely. First, the concept of “the circulation of struggles,” traceable to autonomous Marxists in Italy, explains how social movements in one region and time can spill into and affect social movements in another region and time. See e.g. Guido Baldi, “Theses on Mass Worker and Social Capital,” Radical America, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1972: 3-21. Concretely, research in progress by the author explores how the urban environmentalist, farmer and reformer movements in Portland, Oregon, which established a foundation for mass transportation use in the city, were later leveraged to promote a company’s effort (now stalled if not abandoned) to mass-produce light rail vehicles. See “Public Transit: A History of Public Transit in Portland,” Portland: Trimet, 2013, and Jonathan Michael Feldman, “From Mass Transit to New Manufacturing,” The American Prospect, April 2009: A12-A16.

60. Ibid., 204-205.

61. Ibid., 206.

62. Kovel, The Enemy of Nature, 170.

63. Ibid., 260.

64. I discuss below how such coupling can take place.

65. John Bellamy Foster, “The Great Capitalist Climacteric,” Monthly Review, Vol. 67, No. 6, 2015.

66. John Bellamy Foster, “Ecology and the Transition from Capitalism to Socialism,” Monthly Review, Vol. 60, No. 6, 2008, 8-10.

67. Foster, “The Great Capitalist Climacteric,” (note 65).

68. Foster, The Ecological Revolution, 209.

69. David Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference, Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996, 197-204; O’Connor, Natural Causes, 267-339; Kovel, The Enemy of Nature, 242-275.

70. Harvey, The Enigma of Capital, 254.

71. Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference.

72. Foster recognizes the limits to (or imposed upon) social movements. See Ecology Against Capitalism, 118-127. Monthly Review published this article: Efe Can Gürcan, “The Nonprofit-Corporate Complex: An Integral Component and Driving Force of Imperialism in the Phase of Monopoly-Finance Capitalism,” Monthly Review, Vol. 66, No. 11, 2015: 37-54, where the author states that non-profits diffuse social movements. The problem is that because social movements are often steered by networks tied to non-profits, one has to more strongly highlight how organizing economically can provide an alternative patronage or support system for movements. This could take the form of cooperatives, crowd sourcing or even collaboration with green capitalists and parts of the state opposing oil companies, fracking and auto-centered development.

73. Kovel, The Enemy of Nature, 179-180.

74. Ibid., 265.

75. Ibid., 252, 259.

76. David Harvey, “Marxism, Metaphors and Ecological Politics,” Monthly Review, Vol. 49, Issue 11, 1998.

77. One could also argue that even during the peaks social movements encounter obstacles because of a lack of historical memory of past movements, i.e. they have not “banked” a political cultural capital of the past. See Alexander Cockburn, “Biggest Financial Scandal in Britain’s History, Yet Not a Single Occupy Sign; What Happened?,” Counterpunch, July 6, 2012.

78. David Harvey, “‘Listen Anarchist!,’ A personal response to Simon Springer’s ‘Why a radical geography must be anarchist,’” blog post, June 10, 2015. Here Harvey explains that his very choice of language in past writings was mediated by constraints of the academic system. See also Murray Bookchin, The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy, London: Verso, 2014.

79. Sarah van Gelder, “Three Years Ago, These Chicago Workers Took Over a Window Factory. Today, They're Thriving,” Yes! Magazine, October 9, 2015.

80. Harvey correctly embraces this sort of thinking against certain varieties of anarchist thinking. For a concrete example of the mix of power from above and below that affects urban outcomes related to local communities’ control over economic and other resources, see Juan Velásquez Atehortúa, “Barrio Women’s Invited and Invented Spaces Against Urban Elitisation in Chacao, Venezuela,” Antipode, Vol. 46, No. 3, 2014: 835-856.

81. Jonathan Michael Feldman, “The foundations for extending green jobs: The case of the rail-based mass transit sector in North America,” International Journal of Labour Research, Vol. 2, Issue 2, 2010: 269-291; Jon Rynn, Manufacturing Green Prosperity: The Power to Rebuild the American Middle Class, Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010.

82. John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009, 139-140.

83. Robert W. McChesney, “Sharp Left Turn for the Media Reform Movement: Toward a Post-Capitalist Democracy,” Monthly Review, Vol. 65, No. 9, 2014: 1-14.

84. Henry A. Giroux, “Beyond Pedagogies of Repression,” Monthly Review, Vol 67, No. 10, 2016: 57-71.

85. Seymour Melman, “Decision Making and Productivity as Economic Variables: The Present Depression as a Failure of Productivity,” Journal of Economic Issues, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1976, 218-219.

86. Melman, After Capitalism, 9-10, 40-42. Melman, like Paul Goodman, was also inspired by various anarchist or decentralist ideas. For a contemporary reconstructionist in this tradition, see Alperovitz, What Then Must We Do?

87. Barry Commoner, “Oil, energy and capitalism,” Speech at the Community Church of Boston, February 22, 1976, in Climate & Capitalism, July 30, 2013. In a book co-authored with the Italian urban ecologist Virginio Bettini, Commoner “explicitly connected environmental struggles to a class perspective, theorizing the need for a ‘class ecology’ as opposed to the ‘ecology of power’ advocated by mainstream organizations and reflected in the existing legislation on nature conservation” in Italy. See: Stefania Barca, “On working class environmentalism: a historical and transnational overview,” Interface, Vol. 4, No. 2, 2012: 71.

88. Thorstein Veblen, The Place of Science in Modern Civilisation, New York: Viking Press, 1919, 3-4.

89. Lewis Mumford, In the Name of Sanity, New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1954, 39.

90. Melman, “The Impact of Economics on Technology” (note 7), 59, 72.

91. Paul Goodman, Decentralizing Power: Paul Goodman’s Social Criticism, Montréal: Black Rose Books, 1994, 71.

92. Ibid., 88.

93. Ibid., 91.

94. Melman, “The Impact of Economics on Technology” (note 7), 60.

95. Mumford, In the Name of Sanity, 41.

96. Lewis Mumford, “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics,” Technology and Culture, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1964, 2.

97. Ibid., 2-3.

98. Ibid., 4.

99. Ibid., 6-8.

100. Mumford, In the Name of Sanity, 39-40, 43.

101. Commoner, Making Peace with the Planet, 90.

102. Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle: Man, Nature and Technology, New York: Bantam Books, 1974, 139.

103. Ibid., 153-154.

104. Ibid., 258.

105. Ibid., 264-265.

106. Commoner, Making Peace with the Planet, 94.

107. See also Melman, “The Impact of Economics on Technology” (note 7).

108. Commoner, Making Peace with the Planet, 100.

109. Commoner, The Closing Circle, 156.

110. Commoner, Making Peace with the Planet, 88-89.

111. Ibid., 93-94.

112. Commoner, The Closing Circle, 275, 280.

113. Ibid., 284-287.

114. Jonathan Michael Feldman, “From Warfare State to ‘Shadow State’: Militarism, Economic Depletion and Reconstruction,” Social Text, Vol. 25, No. 2, 2007: 143-168. Students of alternative technology link its extension to both waves of technological and market opportunities and a resulting “chain reaction of positive feedback loops … which involve all the constituent components and the functions of the technological system.” Utopia in this case becomes grounded because “the linkages between functions may turn out to be circular, setting in motion a process of cumulative causation.” Steffan Jacobsson and Anna Bergek, “Transforming the energy sector: the evolution of technological systems in renewable energy technology,” Industrial and Corporate Change, Vol. 13, No. 5, 2004, 823.

115. Commoner, The Closing Circle, 290-291.

116. Commoner, Making Peace with the Planet, 205.

117. See, for example, Melman, The Demilitarized Society.

118. Barry Commoner, “Beyond the Teach-In,” Saturday Review, April 4, 1970, 52.

119. Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism, 98.

120. Paul Goodman, Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals, New York: Random House, 1962.

121. Melman, The Demilitarized Society, 37.

122. Ibid., 60.

123. Ibid., 64.

124. I was one of the principal organizers of this meeting while working as Program Director at the National Commission for Economic Conversion and Disarmament, chaired by Seymour Melman.

125. Commoner, “Beyond the Teach-In,” (note 118), 50.

136. Lewis Mumford, The Story of Utopia, New York: Viking Press, 1962, 15, 21-22.

127. Ibid., 124-127.

128. Paul and Percival Goodman, Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life, New York: Vintage Books, 1960, 125-131, 148.

129. Melman, After Capitalism, 351, 173.

130. Melman made this observation many years ago in communication with the author. In addition, “strong local economies reduce the negative ecological impacts of global trade, in particular fossil fuel emissions from long-distance transport.” Likewise, such businesses are more likely to be concerned with local labor and environmental conditions. See Mark Roseland and Lena Soots, “Strengthening Local Economies,” in Linda Starke, ed., State of the World 2007, New York: W.W. Norton, 2007: 152-169.

131. Melman, “The Impact of Economics on Technology” (note 7), 64.

132. Melman, After Capitalism, 352-358.

133. Bertolt Brecht, “Radio as a Means of Communication: A Talk on the Function of Radio,” Screen, Vol. 20, No. 3-4, 1979: 24-28.

134. Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age, Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2012.

135. John Dewey, “Can Education Share in Social Reconstruction?” (1934), in Debra Morris and Ian Shapiro, eds., The Political Writings of John Dewey, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992, 127.

136. Melman, After Capitalism.

137. Melman, After Capitalism; cf. Carl Ratner, “Neoliberal Co-Optation of Leading Co-Op Organizations, and a Socialist Counter-Politics of Cooperation,” Monthly Review, Vol. 66, No. 9, 2015: 18-30; and Peter Marcuse, “Cooperatives on the Path to Socialism,” Monthly Review, Vol. 66, No. 9, 2015: 31-38; Roberto, “Capitalist Crisis, Cooperative Labor, and the Conquest of Political Power” (note 25); Jossa, “Marx, Lenin and the Cooperative Movement,” (note 33).

138. One bridge between Marxist and Economic Reconstructionist approaches can be seen in Victor Wallis, “Technology, Ecology, and Socialist Renewal,” Capitalism Nature Socialism, Vol. 15, No. 2, June 2004: 35-46.

139. For an extensive treatment of the exchange of diverse forms of capital, see Jonathan Michael Feldman, “Social Inclusion, Capacities Development and the Principle of Extension,” in Jonathan Michael Feldman and Jessica Gordon Nembhard, eds., From Community Economic Development and Ethnic Entrepreneurship to Economic Democracy: The Cooperative Alternative, Norrköping, Sweden: Partnership for Multiethnic Inclusion, 57-98.

140. On capital transformation, see: Feldman, ibid.., and Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” in John G. Richardson, ed., Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1986: 241-258. On the left’s limits in capital accumulation and exchange as opposed to the warfare state, see Feldman, “From Warfare State to ‘Shadow State’” (note 114).

141. G.D.H. Cole, Guild Socialism Restated. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1980, 89.

142. Jonathan Michael Feldman, “Turn On, Tune In, Drop In: The New Economy Virtuous Cycle,” The Global Teach-In, September 3, 2013.

143. Majorie Kelly, “Living Enterprise as the Foundation of a Generative Economy,” World Watch, December 5, 2012.

144. Velásquez, “Barrio Women’s Invited and Invented Spaces…” (note 80).

145. Cf. Spencer Paul Thompson, Bringing Society Back into the Theory of the Firm, PhD Thesis, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK, 2015, 127. Networks of cooperative firms come to resemble a “mini-economy.” See William Foote and Kathleen King Whyte, Making Mondragon: The Growth and Dynamics of the Worker Cooperative Complex. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1988, 5. The notion of a “mini-economy” is essential for demonstrating how meso-level changes are not oblivious to the need to “scale up” even if Mondragon-type interventions could be bolstered by the political capital of global social movements.

146. For a Marxist approach that embraces cooperatives, see Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012. Recent surveys of left treatments include: Stanley Aronowitz, Left Turn: Forging a New Political Future, Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2006, 208-219; and the articles cited in note 137. Among the pitfalls of many left deconstructions of cooperatives are: a) they focus on single cooperatives, fixating on the idea of “socialism in one firm,” rather than networks joining multiple cooperative enterprises; b) they look at coops in isolation, ignoring the supporting technical universities and banking system which are part of the Mondragon network; or c) they look at past trajectories of cooperatives, but can’t envision future solutions linked to complementary institutional changes, e.g. supportive political campaigns such as that of Bernie Sanders, as a way to avoid or limit constraints on cooperatives. The importance and ubiquity of alternative spaces in trade unions, cooperatives and citizen groups (even those that dialectically both oppose and service the system) is addressed in Staughton Lynd’s discussion of E.P. Thompson’s idea of “warrens.” Staughton Lynd, Doing History from the Bottom Up: On E.P. Thompson, Howard Zinn, and Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014. See also E.P. Thompson, Out of Apathy, London: Stevens, 1960: 301-302. A reasonable hypothesis is that the turn to Latin American exemplars might reflect a frustration with these servicing aspects and limits to trade unions and non-networked cooperatives, and also a limited sense of where contingency is possible in advanced capitalist states of the North.

147. Deborah B. Warren and Steve Dubb, Growing a Green Economy for All: From Green Jobs to Green Ownership, College Park, Maryland: The Democracy Collaborative of the University of Maryland, July, 2010.

148. Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014, 131.

149. Debt Resistance UK has about fifteen voluntary members, six of whom work on the local government debt audit project. Move Your Money (UK) currently has one full time Director, Fionn Travvers-Smith, and one part-time staff member (Dan Goss) as well as half a dozen part-time volunteers. Email communication to author from Joel Benjamin (Move Your Money campaigner), London, April 17, 2016.

150. Damian Carrington, “RBS pulls back fossil fuel investments as green deals grow,” The Guardian, April 17, 2016. These changes are driven partially by oil price declines.

151. Miriam Pemberton, “Bernie’s Big Budget Cuts,” US News and World Report, March 1, 2016.

152. Dave Johnson, “Bernie Sanders Proposes to Boost Worker-Ownership of Companies,” Campaign for America’s Future blog, August 17, 2015.

153. Feldman, “The foundations for extending green jobs,” (note 81).