An Article in Two Parts, by Craig Collins 
Read Part One Here 

Part Two: Energy & Economics Shapes Politics

The first part of this article asserted that, contrary to the prevailing mythology on both sides of the Cold War, socialist revolutions never succeeded in creating genuine democratic socialism. Then, several insufficient explanations for why socialist revolutions failed to produce socialism were critiqued. Finally, a more comprehensive hypothesis was offered: Perhaps a rapidly expanding, multi-state, globalized industrial economy—powered by an energy base of fossil fuels—is incompatible with nationally restricted efforts to bring it under genuine democratic control. Part Two will explore this hypothesis in more detail and consider its implications for building genuinely egalitarian, democratic societies in a post industrial future powered by renewable energy.

In hindsight, it appears that the physical constraints and social requirements imposed by globalized industrialism foster undemocratic, hierarchical economic relations resembling either corporatist or statist political economies that resist bottom-up, democratic governance. This is the most feasible, comprehensive explanation for the failure of democratic socialism in both emerging and mature industrial societies. The other piecemeal theories discussed in part one are partially accurate, yet limited, derivatives of this pervasive, underlying restriction on genuine economic democracy.

The problem solving theoretical principle known as Occam’s razor (or the law of parsimony) considers the strongest theory to be the one that provides the simplest, most comprehensive explanation in line with the evidence.[1] The conclusion that economic democracy is incompatible with the hierarchical, vertically organized structure of industrial production meets these criteria.

By its very nature, fossil-fueled industrialism promotes extensive, highly integrated economies of scale that require top-down managerial direction. Complicated, highly mechanized, global chains of industrial production frustrate nationally confined, workplace-centered economic democracy. They require an managerial elite to oversee the planning, administration, and supervision these technologically elaborate, vertically integrated operations. Therefore, it becomes virtually impossible to govern these political economies in a decentralized, democratic manner—especially when chains of production override and transcend national borders.

Even for the “socialist” countries that tried to remain detached from the global capitalist economy, industrialization defied “democratic socialist planning.” Without profit margins and market signals to influence economic decisions and erratically adjust supply and demand, the extremely complicated process of fossil fueled industrial production had to be centrally planned to meet the multiple contending needs of the workforce, the surrounding community, the entire nation, and the sophisticated technologies needed to operate it.

Grassroots democratic control over this “pyramid of production” has never succeeded at the national level and is hard to even imagine on an international scale. Invariably, the nature of this giant, complicated, hierarchical system resists democratic oversight and impedes bottom-up decision-making procedures. Therefore, despite the polarized, antagonistic ideologies of capitalism and communism, the spectrum of real world production relations compatible with carbon-powered, highly mechanized societies is much narrower than these rival ideologies care to admit.

Whether they call themselves socialist or capitalist, all modern societies generate a managerial elite of central planners or corporate executives to oversee them. Even so, the enormity and complexity of globalized industrialism defies strict, comprehensive control. However, by occupying society’s commanding heights, ruling elites dominate the decision making process and claim an inequitable share of the benefits for themselves. They control the technologies of energy conversion and the institutions of economic power; they use this power to shape society’s political priorities and cultural institutions. Thus, the party officials and state planners of “socialist” countries like China bear a remarkable resemblance, in both appearance and function, to the top corporate executives and government policymakers of their capitalist counterparts. In each case, complex, centralized, mechanized, urbanized, fossil-fueled economies beget a powerful industrial elite who attempt to control the flow of energy, resources, money, power, and information.

While capitalist ideologues, in theory, extol the virtues of the competitive “free market” and spurn state regulation, in reality corporate executives revile competition and do everything in their power to avoid it unless the game is rigged in their favor. As Marx pointed out long ago, each successive bout of boom and bust reduces capitalist competition, which inevitably succumbs to centralization and oligopoly. Instead of a regulation-free competitive environment, giant corporations prefer a corrupt “revolving door” relationship with government policymakers who favor them with political influence, lucrative contracts, tax breaks, and subsidies, while forcing small businesses to contend with regulatory barriers and rigged markets that make competition nearly impossible. The supposed separation between the public and private sectors is more artifice than reality. At the pinnacles of power, capitalist elites circulate constantly between highly integrated “private” and “public” sectors of social control.

Powerful industrial states, whether capitalist or statist, always possess a well-funded national security apparatus of armies, propaganda and intelligence operatives, police, courts, and prisons. These institutions of social mind control, coercion, and violence are used in exactly the same way: to defend and advance the industrial elite’s interests at home and abroad and to suppress any significant dissent and unrest.

Beneath this powerful class of industrial “communist” and capitalist elites there are middle class functionaries, scientists, bureaucrats, and professionals who provide the intellectual talents, technological expertise, and managerial skills necessary to keep a complex society functioning. This middle class lives better than the vast majority of the population whose days are spent doing the mind-numbing, back-breaking, minimum wage jobs needed to tend the bureaucratic-industrial machine.

Except for relative differences in social welfare, modern conveniences, and purchasing power, these basic relations of production have characterized all developed industrialized countries from capitalist Europe and America to statist systems like the Soviet Union, its East European allies, and China. Wherever you look, genuine economic and political democracy has not proven compatible with the industrial mode of production, despite the dedicated efforts of free-market libertarians, anarchists, populists, radical democrats, communists, and socialist revolutionaries to redistribute wealth and power. Instead, some configuration of industrial rulers have always emerged and prevailed.

Thus, genuine socialism has never become a reality despite the best intentions of those who struggled to bring it about. Instead, their best intentions and noble aspirations were eroded and warped to fit the structural imperatives of modern industrial society. The result became the various versions of statist industrialism that passed for “socialism” during the 20th century. With few exceptions, all of these statist systems had re-integrated themselves into the global capitalist system to one degree or another by the end of the 20th century.[2] Marxists have been hard pressed to explain why.

This was especially perplexing for old school Marxists and communists who wanted to believe that these statist societies were genuine socialist systems at the vanguard of history, leading humanity down the evolutionary road to communism. After all, why would a socialist nation, supposedly run by and for working people, ever choose to reverse the course of history and rejoin the capitalist system? However, once you remove the ideological blinders, the answer to this question is much less perplexing: the working class was never in power in any of these so-called “socialist” governments.

Some Marxists claim these statist systems were actually socialist because, unlike capitalist countries, state-planned enterprises were not required to maximize profit and were not allowed to turn labor or means of production into commodities. The government was the only owner of the means of production and thus the only employer of the working class. It guaranteed workers a job and didn’t restrict basic social needs like education, housing, transportation, and health care to only those who could afford to buy them.

However, the working class did not have any effective control over these “socialist” governments. These statist systems were not democratic; and the inefficient, unaccountable bureaucracies that managed every walk of life were self-serving, impassive, insensitive, and generally unresponsive to public criticism. Even at its best, the quality of the jobs, goods, and services provided by these state planned economies was highly unsatisfactory for everyone except a politically privileged elite.

Thus, like capitalism, alienation pervaded every aspect of life under statist societies. While the profit motive is the primary directive for corporate elites, “communist” officials were motivated to please their superiors in the chain of command by perfunctorily fulfilling the directives of the central plan. This situation left most working people completely alienated from, and disillusioned with, the grand ideals of “socialism.” So when these centrally planned systems began to implode under the burden of their own bureaucratic weight, corruption, and inefficiency, those who imagined they could do better under industrial capitalism were not sorry to see them go.

As the Age of Fossil Fuels draws to a close, there is an important lesson to be learned from our brief, petroleum powered, roller coaster ride through industrial civilization. Energy sources, and the technologies used to harness them, are not socially or politically neutral. They have a powerful influence over how society can be organized. They promote some types of economic and political relations and discourage others.

While hydrocarbon powered industrial societies have proven incompatible with genuine economic democracy, future societies will have to live without this enormously rich, ecologically devastating energy source. The decentralized technologies needed to harness alternative energy sources may be much more conducive to democratic governance at the community and workplace level. However, there is absolutely no guarantee that post carbon societies will be more just or democratic. After all, feudal and slave societies were based on renewable energy. Those who hope to build a less alienating, more democratic future will have to pay careful attention to the social and political consequences of the technologies they adopt to harness renewable energy.

[1] The law of parsimony, often referred to as Occam’s razor, is the problem-solving principle that the simplest viable solution tends to be the right one.  Thus, when presented with competing explanations, one should select the simplest, most comprehensive, hypothesis with the fewest assumptions and compatible with the evidence at hand.

[2] Since 1960, Cuban “socialism” has remained a relatively self-reliant, partially state planned society by default in many respects.  The collapse of the USSR and the stiff embargo enforced by the US imposed a level of self-sufficiency on the island that largely removed the potential for greater reintegration into the world capitalist system.  If the embargo is lifted, these new conditions will alter Cuba’s domestic and global economic relations.  This externally and internally reinforced isolation is similar to the situation of North Korea, although these two systems differ dramatically in many ways.

Craig Collins Ph.D. is the author of Toxic Loopholes (Cambridge University Press), which examines America’s dysfunctional system of environmental protection. He teaches political science and environmental law at California State University East Bay and was a founding member of the Green Party of California. His forthcoming books: Marx & Mother Nature and Rising From the Ruins: Catabolic Capitalism & Green Resistance reformulate Marx’s theory of history & social change and examine the emerging struggle to replace catabolic capitalism with a thriving, just, ecologically resilient society.

Image: ‘The Ideal City’, formerly attributed to Piero della Francesca – Galleria Nazionale delle Marche Urbino