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An author argues that, love it or hate it, capitalism is making planetary crises worse.

Progressive politicians from Bernie Sanders to new Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have grown increasingly bold in calling for quasi-socialist solutions as the only viable means of addressing a range of intractable, growing problems —  from the health care crisis to climate change.

Others are even more explicit, arguing that capitalism itself is at the root of the matter.

Victor Wallis, a history professor at Berklee School of Music and longtime writer and thinker on the environment, this week’s guest on the WhoWhatWhy podcast, believes that “ecosocialism” is the only answer to the existential dilemma facing America and the world.

Wallis argues that, whether one is passionate about capitalism or is troubled by its extreme manifestations no longer matters. The imperative for ever greater profits, he says, creates more of everything and more demand for everything — and inevitably produces strains the earth can no longer afford.

Maybe not what you want to hear as you contemplate yet another Black Friday spree. But maybe also a good time to hear and debate unconventional ideas.

Victor Wallis is the author of Red-Green Revolution: The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism.

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Jeff Schechtman: Thanks for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy, I’m Jeff Schechtman. The phrase “democratic socialism” has just now entered the mainstream of our political debate, but the ideas behind it have been around for a long time.

  There was a time not that long ago when to be branded in any way by the label “socialism” was a political death sentence. Today, not so much. What this means for our politics, for public policy, and for those that have stayed with socialism through its long dark night is today an open question.

  But few understand this better than my guest, Victor Wallis. Victor Wallis is a professor of liberal arts at the Berklee College of Music. He has for 20 years been the managing editor of Socialism and Democracy, and has been writing on ecological issues since the early 1990s. His writings have appeared in journals such as Monthly Review and New Political Science. And his work has been translated into over 13 languages.

  His new book is Red-Green Revolution: The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism. Victor Wallis, thanks so much for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.

Victor Wallis: Thank you, Jeff. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Jeff Schechtman: One of the essential premises of what you talk about in Red-Green Revolution is this idea that our ecological problems today, that the devastation today, that the planetary emergency issues seen today, really makes looking at socialist politics an essential ingredient to try and find a solution. Talk a little bit about that nexus first.

Victor Wallis: Yes, I think the basic point is that we have to get away from the idea that economic decisions, decisions about production and so on, should be made on the basis of whether it’s possible to make a profit.

  I mean, because the one thing that that inevitably leads to, and which is a consensus of both the dominant parties in this country, is that we always have to be having economic growth. Growth, growth, growth.

  And the basic ecological insight, which has been around for quite a while, is that you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. There has to be some other principle on the basis of which to make decisions about production and distribution and the organization of society.

Jeff Schechtman: Doesn’t that mean, though, that in slowing down growth, or pulling back on growth, that there will be losers in that equation? And does that make it almost impossible to try and get to that stage within the context of a democracy?

Victor Wallis: Well, you see, that’s the thing. Ironically, the country, the United States, is now moving away from democracy in order to keep its present priorities going. Because the present arrangements are so harmful to so many people, and there’s a whole area of lack of accountability, voter suppression and so on, which illustrates that maintaining capitalism means suppressing the expression of needs on the part of the majority of the population, really.

  So, now, to get to the question of limiting growth, here is a question of what we need, what people need, as opposed to what gets produced. And there’s a lot of production that doesn’t correspond to any human need, but that instead is called into existence by the dominant interests in the society.

  And here I’m thinking about all the production that goes into the military and into the whole finance sector, advertising, and a particular way in which services like transportation are organized.

  They’re not organized on the basis of getting people where they need to, in the best and safest way possible. They’re organized on the basis of how many cars can be sold, and how much space can be built up in garages and so on.

  There’s a whole apparatus that is not dictated by human need, but that it is instead dictated by all the opportunities that may be available to make profit. I mean, also in communications, you have this phenomenon where you used to have one phone per household. Now the idea is have one phone for every individual. What a great increase in the market that is.

  But then, whoever took into account the whole infrastructure that would have to be set up in order to make this possible. And the possible adverse health consequences of it.

  So, the point is that in talking about not producing as much, we’re not talking about creating worse conditions for the majority of the people. On the contrary, we’re talking about a different basis for measuring what is necessary for people.

  I like to get away from the idea of standard of living measured as being the amount of possessions you have and so on, and more towards quality of life. Which is the quality of community, with the possibility of living in a society where there’s not suspicion. Where people can walk safely. Where we’re not at war as the country is now, as has been for decades.

  All these are aspects that suggest that by pursuing ecological goals, we can actually have a better life for the overwhelming majority of the people, rather than a less satisfactory life.

Jeff Schechtman: How does that relate to what some people see as human nature, I suppose? And this desire for acquisition, this desire for more?

Victor Wallis: Well, you might say that that is one component of human potential. But it’s not the only one. I mean, this is an age-old question. But I think each of us has many different impulses and tendencies within us. And the question is, which of those are going to be brought out?

  In particular, the desire for perpetual acquisition is what ultimately leads to wars of domination, aggression, conquest, and so on. And to the idea that you can dominate nature.

  And I think what we’re finding now is that whatever the basis for that type of behavior, it has led to a catastrophic situation now. And so it has become all the more urgent to draw on the other potentials that we as a species have. Which are the potentials for cooperation, community, mutual interest.

  The idea of serving everyone, rather than serving the interests of the powerful. So I think that’s really the basic point. I think there’s a whole lot of psychological literature about how people develop their impulses, and how children are conditioned in some ways to compete with one another. That’s not necessarily the only way that people can be. And there are societies that have existed on the basis of other types of behavior.

  We have to remember that capitalism has been a characteristic of human society only for the last few centuries, at most. And although there have always been, even before that, as long as there’ve been class visions and property, there’ve been people with acquisitive desires.

  This is not governed the way everyone has to interact. In the pre-capitalist societies, even though there would be a privileged class, the rest of the population was sort of on its own in the sense that they at least had control over the immediate way in which they worked and interacted with others.

  And you still find the remnants of that kind of community feeling in traditional areas, and places where some remnantsare, even in this country. Communities where people don’t have to lock their doors because they trust everybody else, and so on.

  There are different types of human nature. And it’s really a question of a contention between the acquisitive impulse and the other impulses. And the point now in history, is that the acquisitive impulse, the continuation of it, has become so dangerous, that it’s become a matter of great urgency to curb it.

Jeff Schechtman: Given that the planetary urgency is global, and that the world is as interconnected and globalized as it is today, talk a little bit about how that plays into the things that you were talking about before, because this is no longer a solution just for the United States.

Victor Wallis: Right. Yes, it’s certainly a global issue. And there are many regions of the globe that have not really done so much to create the situation. There’s nonetheless suffering its consequences.

  In a global context, what stands out is the U.S. role as the leading, let’s say, obstacle to arriving at any kind of common action to reduce all the factors that have contributed to the environmental crisis. There needs to be a kind of political leadership which recognizes the importance of changing the way in which production and the social order is carried on.

  So, I’m not saying that no other societies are characterized by some of these drives that I’ve talked about, that exist here. Certainly they are. But if there’s going to be any process of changing this, there have to be popular movements in all these countries.

  The popular movements have had more of an effect in some other countries than they have in the United States. And so the governments of those other countries have been more willing to accept certain kinds of limitations on this all-out orientation towards growth.

  But that the U.S. has been the one with the greatest power and the greatest sort of impulse to reject any such restraints. So it is a global problem, though, as you say.

Jeff Schechtman: And yet in the developing world, it is this acquisitive or capitalistic impulse that has been so successful, arguably, in lifting billions of Chinese and Indians and others out of poverty.

Victor Wallis: Well, the question of lifting out of poverty, this is a complex matter. In India, for example, there’s a tremendous amount of poverty still existing.

  In China, the foundation for allowing the development to take place was nonetheless a revolution in which the country was able to escape from the domination previously exercised over it by the imperial powers.

  And it was within that situation that they were able to initiate the process of development, on which the later policies have built.

  In other words, the recent Chinese development has taken advantage of the gains that were made earlier, and for which not enough credit has been given. And at the present time, the Chinese are, it’s a mixed model, in a way. There are some progressive elements in relation to the ecological issue.

  As for example, their intention to emphasize solar production. But on the other hand, the orientation towards growth is nonetheless alarming. And it doesn’t really benefit the entire population of that country itself. It’s still an extremely polarized society. And the conditions of the workers have led to suicide and factory exploitation, are by no means satisfactory.

  So there needs to be some redistribution of power within China itself. Although it does retain some of the positive potential of a policy that’s ecologically informed, thanks to the changes that it went through earlier in the 20th Century.

Jeff Schechtman: As you see it, what kind of framework is required to begin to address these ecological issues?

Victor Wallis: Well, essentially it’s a framework in which the whole population is actively involved. Because we’re talking about changes, say, in the allocation of space, and the organization of urban space that affect everybody in a very immediate sense.

  And in order to bring about those changes, and to have them take place effectively, the people have to be actively involved. It’s not the kind of thing that can be imposed by decree, as that possibility that you mentioned earlier. It’s something that people have to be involved in actively.

  So there has to be democratic structures. But the point is that the democratic structures have to go for beyond what we have traditionally been satisfied with, or thought was sufficient to qualify as society as being democratic.

  It’s not just a question of having contested elections. It’s a question of having continuous discussions, and organized structures for developing plans to transform localities, to transform ways of doing things, to call into question the priorities of production.

  So that the enterprises, which actually produce the goods, need to be socially controlled. None of this can happen as long as the enterprises remain controlled by those who have an interest in just simply making money.

  So that the whole major sectors of production need to be socially owned. That’s why we talk about socialism in this context. That you can’t have decisions to radically reduce certain types of production if those decisions are going to be made by people who stand to benefit from increasing the production.

  So, this is why it is a radical scenario. In order to have decisions made on the basis of a concern for humanity and nature — the natural infrastructure on which we depend — there has to be a process which involves everybody, and which is based on considerations that refer to the outcome of any particular process.

  If you’re considering agriculture, for example. You look at the whole way in which food is produced. You want to get away from the use of poison. You want to get away from the use of untested genetic engineering, which is arrived at solely on the basis of profit consideration. And you want to restore biodiversity. Now, restoring biodiversity may mean having less specialized types of cultivation and production. This is pretty well known.

  So these types of redesigning of production, are something that require everybody’s involvement. So that they can take place, so that all the relevant considerations can be taken into account. And when the decisions are made, they have a kind of acceptance on the part of the people.

Jeff Schechtman: Where is the historical precedent for that? Number one. And number two, in a country where the largest voting bloc in the last election was people that didn’t vote, and we have the degree of apathy that we do, how does that square?

Victor Wallis: Well, in terms of precedents, there’s no huge national precedent. But there are models here and there. And I speak in my book about workers control experiences in various countries at various times.

  I speak of the case, model of Bologna in Italy in the 1970s, where there was a local government under the Communist Party, which introduced, with a process of wide public discussion, a transformation of the organization of the city. With free public transit and maintaining the quality of the center of the city when it was being destroyed by commercial interests.

  There are hints of this type of thing being possible. Now, as for the question of the apathy, the reason for the apathy of so many people in the United States is precisely the fact that they recognize that the political choices they have are meaningless to them. They see no basic change between one party and another.

  What arouses people out of this, the people who are most apathetic are also actively discouraged from voting. Everything is done to make it more difficult for them to participate. And they need to be encouraged.

  But the encouragement has been not only by legally facilitating their participation, but also providing the actual political platforms and movements that can engage their enthusiasm.

  And this is what we’re beginning to see happening in some of the newly elected progressive people in the country. They’re elected on the basis of mobilizing people who would’ve otherwise been apathetic. And it’s long been known in the political science literature that the U.S. is one of the countries with the lowest percentage of participation.

  Those who would participate in other countries, they’re the ones they have Labor Parties or Socialist Parties to vote for. And that without such a party in the United States, that’s another factor that accounts for this great rate of abstention in voting.

  So the people who don’t vote are not necessarily the ones, they’re not at all the ones who are least interested in this process. They’re the ones who potentially are most in need of having the kind of transformation that we’re talking about, and who have to be approached and brought into the process in defense of their own interests.

Jeff Schechtman: In many ways, though, the process as it exists in the United States, the process of a representative republic that we have, is inconsistent with some of the ideas that you’re talking about.

Victor Wallis: Well, the representative republic, it’s insufficiently democratic. I mean, that’s an important thing to realize. And this even goes back to the explicit arguments of the Founding Fathers. They did not want democracy. They saw a republic as an alternative to democracy.

  In the famous Federalist Paper Number 10, James Madison made the point that what they were afraid of was a majority feeling its common interest, and able to act in unison. They wanted to prevent that.

  So, we’re talking about something that goes far beyond the very limited democratic dimensions that exist now, which can so easily be twisted to lead to people having a choice just between two candidates who are both ultimately accountable more to their contributors, more to the top financiers of their party, than they are to the popular interests.

Jeff Schechtman: It seems to me that’s two different discussions. One is about the degree to which money is so pervasive in politics. The other is it goes to the fundamental heart of the system that our founders passed on to us.

Victor Wallis: Well, I think that the two are connected, [inaudible]. I mean, the founders never intended to have real majority rule. That’s the explicit point made in Federalist Number 10. They were always looking for ways to assure that the well-heeled, or as they might put, the better element of society, would remain in charge.

  And the ways in which this was done have evolved over time. And now it’s reached the point where it’s taken the form of unlimited contributions from huge corporations, unrestricted and so on. So, the form in which the rule of the few has been exercised has evolved. But the rule of the few has been maintained.

Jeff Schechtman: And that goes back to this idea when we were talking before, about historical examples. That to find them, and you mentioned a couple, and they’re relatively small. It’s hard to imagine them scaling up within the context of the country that we have today, to accomplish similar things.

Victor Wallis: Well, no one says that it’s easy. But the point is, that it’s become urgent. The things you could coast along with, have your cake and eat it too, have the rule of the few and still have enough sense of well-being on the part of a big enough proportion of the population, so that it would seem to be okay.

  This is no longer the case. That’s what has happened. We’ve reached the point where this, to the extent that it may have been tolerable — and for many people, it wasn’t — but to the extent it may have been tolerable for decades and generations, it’s no longer tolerable now.

  We’ve reached a crisis point, where it’s absolutely essential to reconsider underlying assumptions. And even though the examples have been of limited scope, they’ve at least been enough to show that people are capable of this type of thing. And it has to be undertaken on a larger scale.

  So this is really the crux of the matter. That one has to build from what small positive examples one has. One has to magnify it, diffuse it, amplify it in every way possible. Which is a vast democratic undertaking. So this is the challenge.

  We’re in a crisis situation now. If this is not done, it’s easy to foresee within a few decades, the level of catastrophes that are going to take place from an environmental perspective. The wars are only one part of it. They just aggravate the situation, and accelerate the process of destruction.

Jeff Schechtman: Talk about what you think the triage is, the priorities are, in terms of this environmental emergency.

Victor Wallis: I would say the biggest priorities are … Well, ending war and putting the wealth that’s been concentrated in such a small number of hands, to the benefit, to the use and to the control of the society as a whole.

  I mean, you hear about Jeff Bezos whose worth is estimated at $150 billion, talking about he should go to Mars or whatever. Whatever nonsense like that. And disregarding all the steps that could be taken to relieve world hunger, to establish a decent healthcare system, and so on.

  These things are not new ideas. But the point is that the ecological crisis has given them an urgency, which needs to be acted upon.

  So if you’re talking about you have the priorities, yeah. And ending war and ending poverty. Those are absolutely essential. And that’s part of the process of creating an environmentally sound situation.

Jeff Schechtman: Doesn’t history tell us, though, that capitalism has been a much more potent force for ending poverty than socialism has?

Victor Wallis: Capitalism creates poverty. The point is, you don’t have extreme wealth without having extreme poverty. The prosperity that has been diffused in certain sectors of the population outside of privilege, has been as a result of popular struggles.

  There’s been a concentration of wealth over, say, the past century in the so-called First World, the most powerful countries. For a while, in these countries, like including the United States, Europe, Japan, for a while, there was a degree of spreading of the wealth. That was thanks to progress of the labor movement and popular struggles, which were enabled to get certain concessions.

  But everything, as long as the capitalist system exists, the capitalist class does everything it can to undo those changes. So that we’ve witnessed in the recent years in the so-called neoliberal period, a kind of taking back of all those concessions, and an impoverishment, really a decline in the conditions of so many people, including even in the United States.

Jeff Schechtman: Should we be looking then, at that example of the late ’50s, the ’60s, a period of time where there was more wealth spread around more evenly, within the context of the current system we have, and in the context of capitalism, as opposed to looking at something as dramatic as what you’re talking about?

Victor Wallis: Well, that so-called Golden Age, it was an artificial age. It has to be recognized that this was the period in which the United States was the only one of the great powers that hadn’t suffered physical devastation during the previous war. And it was on the basis of its dominant position in the world in that sense.

  It’s not a model for the world as a whole. It’s a very artificial period within U.S. history. And the natural tendency came back in full force, so that you have a situation now comparable to that which existed in an earlier period, before the labor movement had begun to have its impact in the economic distribution of the society.

Jeff Schechtman: As you look at the wave of nationalism throughout the world today, how does that fit in to how you see all of this?

Victor Wallis: Nationalism, insofar as it involves hostility to other ethnicities or other nationalities, is a negative force. On the other hand, insofar as it expresses a demand to have self-determination and not to be under the domination of someone else of another power, an imperial power, then it’s something positive.

  But I think the big thing that’s happening in a way, as a result of these global conquests and the continuing domination exercised by the great powers, especially the United States now, there’s been an extraordinary disruption of societies all over the world, and a terrific process also of migrations. In some cases, forced or at least, not the first choice, mixtures of people.

  And so this has created the possibility of tensions. But also, and here’s where the popular movements come in. It has created opportunities to fight against the nationalistic type of mentality, and call for inclusiveness, the whole kind of multicultural idea of every ethnicity deserving equal respect and so on.

  So there’s a battle between those two forces. And definitely, the ecological agenda depends on the movement towards mutual respect and mutual appreciation and valuation of every culture and nation.

  And you might say that the aggressiveness that’s fostered by the dominant culture works against that. It tends to encourage chauvinistic and exclusivist and supremacist behaviors, which we have to fight against.

Jeff Schechtman: The kind of socialism that you’re talking about, in Red-Green Revolution, how different is that, if at all, from the kind of democratic socialism that we have seen in Europe over the past 20, 30 years?

Victor Wallis: Well, what’s called democratic socialism is really a society in which there is still a capitalist class structure, and still capitalist industry. But because of the influence and the political strength of the labor movement, there’s a strong public sector which provides important services and certain guarantees of well-being.

  You might say that that’s a step on the way to the kind of thing that I’m contemplating. But it isn’t the full attainment of it. The problem with that so-called democratic socialism, is that it’s just as in the United States, the capitalist class took back the gains that had been won by the labor movement.

  Also, in all those countries, including Sweden, Norway, the capitalist class is trying to take back the gains. To some extent if there’s an extraordinary wealth in the country, as in Norway, they can, as I said earlier, have their cake and eat it too. They can have their rich people and still have a decent condition for the rest of the population.

  But this is a kind of exceptional situation. Looking at the world as a whole, that the two things are incompatible. You can’t have both the extraordinary concentration of wealth and power, and at the same time, on a world scale, have decent conditions for the majority of the population.

  The tendency of the dominant forces is always to grasp as much as they possibly can. As illustrated by this extreme, these billionaires, multi-centi-billionaires. What rationale is there for that? That’s an overwhelming force that really constrains the opportunities to arrive at solutions that are to the common interest.

Jeff Schechtman: How realistic do you think the ideas are? How practical do you think they are, that you put forth in Red-Green Revolution?

Victor Wallis: Well, let me first say that I think that what’s totally impractical is the idea that the world and humanity, our species, can survive with business as usual. That’s become impossible. So, it’s certainly not easy. I don’t want to underestimate the difficulty of bringing about the changes that I’m talking about.

  But they’re a matter of necessity. And so, what I’ve done in the book is try to look at indications of where you can find inspiration, really, for this type of change. And in that sense, in the sense that humanity has shown its capacity under certain conditions, and in certain places and so on, to act in the way that’s more desirable.

  I mentioned examples of indigenous peoples. I think we can learn important things from them. That’s a practical application. Urban gardens, for example, in certain places. Farmers’ markets, healthcare systems in which you have preventive approach, recognizing that one of the biggest causes of illness is poverty.

  These are important practical considerations. But the biggest practical consideration is that it’s a matter of survival to change away from the way that things are currently done.

Jeff Schechtman: Victor Wallis. The book is Red-Green Revolution: The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism. Victor, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.

Victor Wallis: Thank you very much, Jeff. A pleasure.

Jeff Schechtman: And thank you for listening and for joining us, here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

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  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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