Citizen Action Monitor

Shortcomings of the Transition Movement as a mass movement strategy

Transition’s goal is to make society resilient when it should be to change the present social system

No 1124 Posted by fw, August 17, 2014

Saral Sarkar

Saral Sarkar

movements like the TTM [Transition Town Movement] ought to pursue a greater goal, which, apart from being good in itself, is necessary to attract people and encourage them to join it. We need not set an ideal society as our goal. An ideal will perhaps always remain an ideal. But an acceptably good and peaceful world society is possible and can therefore be our goal…. Very important here is the term world society. To make Totnes or even one country…resilient and its society good and peaceful, and to forget the others, would not be a great goal, but a selfish one unworthy of a big social movement. Moreover, the efforts to achieve it would also be a futile one. The wretched of the earth are already storming the gates of these and similar countries in search of a safe haven. Neo-Nazis and xenophobic right reactionary parties are already gaining ground in such countries.” —Saral Sarkar

Click on the following linked title to read Sarkar’s original provocative critique of the Transition Movement. Alternatively, a slightly modified version with added subheadings, hyperlinks, and text highlighting appears below.

Some Thoughts On Resilience And Transition by Saral Sarkar, eco-socialist.blogspot.ca, August 13, 2014

Sarkar acknowledges his meager knowledge of the Transition Movement

My knowledge of the Transition Town Movement (TTM) has until now been meager. So I am very thankful to Esther and Samuel for providing us with so much information on it and pointing out the aspects that require sympathetic criticism. Here is the link:

The Transition Movement: Questions of Diversity, Power, and Affluence, by Esther Alloun and Samuel Alexander, Simplicity Institute Report, August 14, 2014

Sarkar’s criticism of Transition’s primary goal and strategy leads him to promote a bolder goal and mass movement strategy for change

In the 1980s, I was enabled by the United Nations University (Tokyo) to make a participatory research study of the (at that time) New Social Movements (NSM) in West Germany plus a study of the origin, development and “end” of the German green party Die Grünen. I guess it might be useful for all concerned to hear what thoughts went through my head – 30 years later – while and after reading Esther and Samuel’s solid paper.

I do not want to mention the points with which I concur. So below I am making some other points, only those, which have not been made in the [Esther Alloun and Samuel Alexander] paper and which I consider to be important for developing a strategy for bringing about the changes we want. They are based on my studies as well as experience both in India and Germany, both as an activist and as participant in discussions.

Transition Movement’s primary goal is to “make society resilient” when it should be “to change the present social system”

1/ Discussions on strategy presuppose that the participants at least roughly agree on the goals that are to be attained by means of the strategy.

The goal of the TTM is to make society resilient against the shocks that are coming and are partly ongoing. Specifically mentioned are peak oil, global climate change, and global financial and economic crisis. Many other less important issues have been mentioned too: localization, social justice, solidarity, inclusiveness etc. They are goals as well as means to attain the main goal. Esther & Sam’s paper shows how problematic the resilience discourse is. The TTM wants to make society resilient, in order that it does not totally break down. The goal is not to change the present social system that not only has caused the shock-like problems the TTM is addressing but is also totally inadequate for the purpose. It is, moreover, an unjust social system. That is too little and too bad. I contend that nothing less than a fundamentally new social system must replace the existing one, so that the shocks in question can be successfully weathered.

Transition needs a “greater goal” if it ever hopes to attract and retain followers

That means, in short, movements like the TTM ought to pursue a greater goal, which, apart from being good in itself, is necessary to attract people and encourage them to join it. We need not set an ideal society as our goal. An ideal will perhaps always remain an ideal. But an acceptably good and peaceful world society is possible and can therefore be our goal. (This naturally requires elaboration and detailed discussion.) Very important here is the term world society. To make Totnes or even one country (England or Germany or Italy) resilient and its society good and peaceful, and to forget the others, would not be a great goal, but a selfish one unworthy of a big social movement. Moreover, the efforts to achieve it would also be a futile one. The wretched of the earth are already storming the gates of these and similar countries in search of a safe haven. Neo-Nazis and xenophobic right reactionary parties are already gaining ground in such countries.

On the plus side, Transition has a broad spectrum of goals

Despite this criticism, I praise the TTM. It is better than the NSM of Germany of the 1980s. The latter was a conglomeration of several one-point movements. One of it, the ecology movement, was also a conglomeration of various and separate one-point movements: the anti-nuclear-energy movement, the movement against dying of forests, movement for better air quality, movement for protecting endangered species etc. Compared to that, the TTM has a broader spectrum of goals. That is some progress.

On the negative side, Transition seems to avoid the subjects of consumption and economic growth

On the other hand, the TTM is worse than the NSM; for it seems to avoid the subjects of consumption and economic growth, which most activists in the NSM (particularly in the ecology movement as a whole) used to consider as very important. But that was before the mid-1980s, when opportunists of Die Grünen started talking of the possibility of ecologizing industrial society, i.e. capitalist industrial society.

In Die Grünen, a large number of leftists (including communists) from various backgrounds had sought to combine ecological goals with their societal goals. Their ultimate vision was some sort of an eco-socialist society (the term was also used). But they were pushed out of the party by the opportunistic majority, who wanted the party to become a governing party.

But how do you attract the masses to a movement promoting economic degrowth? There’s the rub.

2/ Another thing to be noted in connection with the goal-question is this: The greatest difficulty in attracting the masses to a genuinely ecological movement is its goal itself. The ecology movement is the only social movement that promises, if successful, a lowering of the standard of living of all, even curtailing to some extent various freedoms: for instance, the freedom to travel, freedom to consume luxury goods and goods imported from far away (e.g. to eat pineapple in Norway), the freedom to publish one’s own newspaper (there will be a scarcity of paper) and, generally speaking, all freedoms which involve a high degree of resource consumption. All other social movements, who assume that economic growth will continue, promise an improvement in these respects. Indeed, for a long time, higher wage demands of the working class movement could regularly be fulfilled. Also their non-material demands can be fulfilled more or less easily. The wishes of the civil rights movement can be granted, women can enjoy more rights, gays can be given the right to marry, immigrants can be given long-term resident permits and even communal voting rights etc. etc. But the ecology movement opposes economic growth; what is worse, it demands economic contraction. But, although millions of people know about the serious ecological crisis, no one has ever rioted for austerity, as Esther and Sam write. That is also the reason that the trade unions were opponents of die Grünen in the latter’s early years. That is why less developed countries, especially China and India, are vehemently refusing to commit themselves to reducing their CO 2 – emission.

Genuine eco-activists should not be interested in ephemeral gains based on illusions of sustainable development

3/ Of course, this difficulty can be overcome by spreading illusions of sustainable development, green growth, technological solutions to ecological problems (e.g. renewable energies/resources), green capitalism etc. But genuine eco-activists are not (should not be) interested in ephemeral gains in public support based on such illusions. They must tell the ecological truth. So what can they offer to attract more support from people? They can offer the prospect of a peaceful, egalitarian, exploitation- and oppression-free world as compensation for a lower standard of living. They can offer that in their good society nobody will be involuntarily unemployed, nobody will be discriminated against on any grounds, nobody will be tortured by the police. These too are material things. Anybody who has suffered unemployment or insecurity, anybody who has lived in the midst of war or civil war, anybody who has experienced the threat of being evicted from her home or has not been able to take out a medical insurance knows the value of these security guarantees. They will, in such a society, also feel freer to speak out against government policy. Of course, entrepreneur type of people, those who want to produce and sell something, anything, or speculate with stocks and currencies in order to become rich will not be attracted by this vision. We have to ignore them. They are being criticized even in the present system, even by average people.

I am convinced that for achieving the goals of genuine ecologists capitalism must be overcome and an eco-socialist society must be built up. (For details of my argumentation see my book Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism?)

No program for saving the planet can ignore the sensitive issue of population growth

4/ One very important point I missed in the program of the TTM (as summarized by E & S) as well as in the critique thereof is the population problem. In Europe and other rich countries of the North (including those down under), it is a common blind spot in most discussions on the ecology crises and questions of poverty. The reason for this is evident: Firstly, the problem does not exist anymore in these countries. And secondly, they are afraid of mentioning it lest the people of the less developed countries (mostly black and brown to boot), where the population is still growing, get furious. After all, even the ecologists of the rich countries of the North, most of them, enjoy their much higher standard of living and are not doing their best to save the planet. But no program for saving the planet is convincing unless also the population problem is addressed.

Transition is not telling the full ecological truth, including what it will take to avert collapse; they are victims of the illusions they themselves are spreading

5/ I share the TTM’s view that at present not much can be expected from the states and the ruling politicians. The latter are careerists. At present, in a democracy of the kind we have in place, any politician will be voted out of power if she dares to speak of the necessity of stopping economic growth, let alone to advocate economic contraction. Even those who are not in power want to be re-elected. Politics is after all their profession. So they too would not stand up against economic growth. The simple truth is that the great majority of the voters are not better than the politicians. And a people gets politicians that it deserves. But some people must do this, i.e. tell the ecological truth. They may be criticized as imagining themselves to be the avant-garde. But nothing will happen unless an avant-garde takes the initiative. Such people must be free from the temptation and/or requirement of getting their projects funded by established foundations or government agencies, so that they remain truly free to tell the ecological truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The ecological truth and the logical and compelling proposals for solving the problems must be widely disseminated, so that in a few years’ time the intellectual and journalistic hegemony in the sense of [Antonio] Gramsci can be achieved (Gramsci talked of cultural hegemony*). The activists of the TTM do not seem to be doing that, not at the moment at least. They are victims of some illusions that they are themselves spreading. [*Whereby one social class can manipulate the system of values and mores of a society, in order to create and establish a ruling class, a worldview that justifies the status quoof bourgeois domination of the other social classes of the society.]

The best genuine eco-activists can hope for is for the general public to come to accept ecological truths, for where the public goes, the politicians will be more likely to follow

When the intellectual and journalistic hegemony has been achieved, it would be manifested e.g. in sentences like this: Yes, you are right with your ecological truths, but what can I do? I am only an ordinary person. We could then hope that voters would not vote a politician out of parliament if she expresses the views that genuine ecologists hold. Later we might have grounds to hope that no matter which politician and which party comes to power, the parliamentary majority would not be afraid to take measures in the direction of true ecological sustainability. This hope can be compared with the situation today. No matter which politicians and which parties govern a country, the government will continue to pursue neoliberal globalized capitalist policies, because this line of economic thought gained hegemony in the 1990s and is still holding its ground.

The bad news is that any collapse in the near future will probably lead to a dictatorship

All this may take too much time, in which case the collapse cannot be prevented. But an armed revolution is not possible, because the well-paid and well-armed professional soldiers and policemen of the ruling classes are ready to kill revolutionaries and ordinary people when ordered. The coming collapse will probably lead to some sort of dictatorship, most probably one of right reactionaries. They will try to tackle the problems in their own way and with their own methods and would not care for the state of the planet, welfare of the future generations etc. etc.

While it is helpful that Transition is a grassroots bottom-up strategy, it will not lead to any “systemic change”

6/ In contrast to my top-down strategy of first achieving intellectual and journalistic hegemony which will hopefully lead an increasing number of parliamentarians of the ruling parties to support our ideas, there are also bottom-up strategies for change. The TTM’s strategy for building up resilience at the local level is a concrete example thereof. But the TTM’s objective is not any systemic change. That is why it is (it would be) easy to co-opt it. In fact, all reformist movements for change can be easily co-opted. History is full of examples of this process. In Germany, today, both the remnants of the NSM (the big ecological associations) and the Party die Grünen are partners of the ruling classes.

Germany’s 1980s spread of bottom-up revolutionary communal communities failed because “they were not responses to any challenge”

In the 1980s, in Germany, several communes – both rural and urban – were founded by revolutionary young people. They lived and worked there (in the students’ communes, however, the main activity was discussing theory and psychological issues). Their idea was to anticipate and try out the communist society of the future. The point I want to make here is that most of them soon failed. Moreover, most of them were no examples of a self-reliant, self-organizing grassroots economic unit. They were comfortably embedded in a prosperous welfare state. Many members of the communes received transfer payments from the state. They were not responses to any challenge.

Only time will tell what impact the growth of radical-democratic communities will have as a response to the “impending collapse”

Ted Trainer’s grassroots, self-organizing, radical-democratic (i.e. anarchistic) communes (or communities) must however be self-reliant, because Ted visualizes them as coming up in response to the (impending) collapse of the state. It seems to me that Ted thinks collapse is unavoidable. I would rather still try to prevent it through my strategy. But it is true, mankind does not have much time left for the purpose. So it is rational to exert ourselves at both ends, at the top as well as at the bottom, simultaneously.

For now, maybe the best eco-socialists can offer is the ongoing advancement of “inspiring ideas” that prepare us for the collapse

At least in our times, no commune or community would truly be self-sufficient; we are not living and would not like to live in the Amazon jungle. All communities would need things that they cannot themselves produce, salt for example. So some kind of more or less long-distance exchange must take place, and some state-like organization must regulate exchange and maintain order. It would be good if this organization were a socialist one. For when the collapse is there, it will be necessary to share whatever is available. That is why it would be good to promote an eco-socialist perspective and strengthen egalitarian thinking. These are moreover inspiring ideas, as we know from history. We should prepare ourselves for the collapse and subsequent actions. We must also be ready with a convincing perspective and an activities plan.

In the meantime, as an individual — don’t nag friends and relatives for their eco-sins — do practice what you preach

7/ One last point: Can individuals as individuals do something, i.e. contribute to the project of saving the planet and making human society better? It has often been suggested that reducing one’s own consumption is an effective means of achieving our goal. The great advantage of this strategy is that to do this the private person does not need a law passed by a majority in the parliament. Nor does she need a lot of money from parents or big donors, as most big bottom-up projects like rural communes, eco-villages etc. do. Many sensitive eco-friendly people are indeed practicing this non-consumption strategy; it can also be called a simple lifestyle strategy. However, there are limits to what even a determined non-consumptionist can do. The compulsions arising from living in a present-day capitalist industrial society are many. For example, one must today have a PC with internet connection in order just to be able to communicate with relatives, friends and comrades. Even the good old telephony inflicts a lot of damage to the environment. A person living in a village must have a car. The one area in which a person has more scope is food and clothing. But to forgo e.g. meat is very difficult for a westerner and to forgo sugary snacks is very difficult for a Bengali. After all, it would not be a happy world if people are unhappy even in such simple matters of life like eating. Having said that, it cannot be denied that a wide-spread non-consumption movement would surely have at least some effect on politics and economy. Eco-activists must however refrain from nagging friends and relatives for their eco-sins. That is the surest way to lose sympathizers. Let everybody do what she can and hope that others would emulate her example.

Saral Sarkar — Since 1982 Sarkar has been living in Cologne, Germany, where he has been active in the ecology and peace movement. Between 1997 and 2005, Sarkar was active in the anti-globalization movement. Over the years, he has taken part in many debates and discussions on green, left, and alternative politics, both through speaking and writing.

SEE ALSO

  • Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism: A Critical Analysis of Humanity’s Fundamental Choices – March 2010, a 7300-word review by Sandy Irvine of Saral Sarkar’s book. In his concluding paragraph, Irvine writes: “Overall, Sarkar is right to insist on the historical importance of Socialism. Amongst socialists as individuals, there is often a deep sense of justice and burning anger against oppression and exploitation. Many of the great struggles against those evils at home and abroad have been led by socialist groups. They have also played an inestimable role in stressing the importance of equity and compassion when it comes to matters like population control. Yet, as an ideology and an overall programme, Socialism has much baggage to discard if it is to be relevant to the challenge of the next century.”

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This entry was posted on August 17, 2014 by in information counterpower, social movements, Transition Network and tagged .
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