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A planned economy is the only way to save the planet. Here’s how

Capitalism has never offered so little to humanity, while socialism has never been more feasible. Now is the time for utopian thought

Troy Vettese Drew Pendergrass
26 April 2022, 4.29pm
The solution to the climate crisis lies in democratic control over the economy

Unlike most utopians, Otto Neurath had a chance to change the world. One of the polymaths that fin de siècle Vienna seemed to produce in droves, Neurath – a leading philosopher, economist, designer, civil servant and curator – was appointed as head planner for the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic.

This revolutionary state, which lasted little more than a month in the spring of 1919, emerged from the ruins of Germany’s defeat in the First World War, when the hardship and social unrest of the period helped foment the 1918-19 German Revolution. The new republic’s leaders confronted adverse circumstances not dissimilar from our own as they attempted to build a new society threatened by a pandemic, war and nascent fascism.

But Neurath was never able to enact his utopian plans because the Social Democratic government in Berlin dispatched the proto-Nazi Freikorps to strangle Bavarian socialism in its cradle. Unlike some of his peers, Neurath was lucky to survive the terror they wrought.

He blamed the Left’s defeat less on adverse circumstances than on a failure of the imagination in the years that preceded the revolution. Neurath argued that the Left was unprepared for power because of the longstanding Marxist aversion to utopian thought, which he saw less as daydreaming than the practical work of building a new society. “This misery has befallen us not at least because we lacked clear aims,” he lamented in the aftermath of defeat. “Marxists killed playful utopianism paralysing the resolve to think up new forms.”

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In his work as a planner and in his later writings, Neurath deftly outlined the principles of socialist governance. He argued that any system based on a single metric would be “pseudorational” because it would lead to the optimisation of one criterion, while life was actually a messy mix of ethical, environmental, social, and political goals. This is why the capitalist pursuit of profit alone led to illogical outcomes.

Neurath believed that planners should see the economy as composed of discrete and incommensurate “natural units” that related to each other as a whole – be it watts of energy, bushels of wheat, or tonnes of steel. He envisioned that a “central office for measurement in kind… would have to design the economic plans for the future”, which would then be decided upon by “the people’s representatives”. Socialism would enable a new kind of freedom by allowing society to survey “total plans” and then democratically decide its future.

Neoliberalism: a conservative response

Neurath is largely forgotten today, but his arguments catalysed another, much more influential ideology – neoliberalism. That neoliberalism’s roots extend a century ago to the Bavarian Soviet Republic might surprise many who focus on the late-20th-century governments of Augusto Pinochet, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher. But neoliberalism emerged as a conservative response to Neurath’s uniquely clear definition of socialism, indeed as its mirror image: instead of making the economy visible through total plans, the market was unknowable and therefore beyond democratic control.

Neoliberals have succeeded in transforming the world to conform to their ideology, but the Achilles’ heel of their thought was apparent from the very beginning. In his exchange with Neurath, the conservative economist Ludwig von Mises conceded that the market would often fail to protect the environment because markets would not price environmental services properly. Neurath, however, failed to take advantage of this weakness because he was hardly an environmentalist himself. Socialists today should not repeat this mistake. Indeed, we need a new socialist theory that combines Neurathian planning with ecological insights if we are to overcome the environmental crisis and dethrone neoliberalism.

A pandemic, recession and war have not been enough to set society on a new path. Crises alone do not lead to positive change

On 4 April 2022, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released another section of its new assessment report, the sixth since 1990. More knowledge has not led to more change. Indeed, the majority of all carbon emitted by humans has been emitted over the last 32 years, and nearly all of the Amazon’s deforestation has occurred in that same timeframe.

Four years ago, the IPCC warned that without “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”, warming of greater than 1.5°C would be impossible to avoid. There have been few positive changes, despite the decay of the neoliberal order. A pandemic, recession and war have not proven enough to set society on a new path. As Neurath noted a century ago, crises alone do not lead to positive change – we need to imagine the new society we must create.

Socialist solutions to the climate crisis

The causes of the environmental crisis are not mysterious. Solving these problems does not require more science but more socialism. The solution to the environmental crisis is conscious and democratic control over the economy that constrains it within boundaries that ensure we do not harm our planet beyond repair.

Imposing such constraints will destroy the profits of the capitalist class. There is no ‘win-win’ solution out of this mess. Leaving trillions of dollars of oil in the ground or reforesting billions of hectares of pasture will never be ‘rational’ under capitalism.

Such a rupture will require Neurathian planning that balances incommensurate goals. First, we need to provide the conditions for a good life for all; second, we need to protect the Earth-system from being destabilised. The question becomes: what kind of life do we want and how much do we take from nature? Socialism allows us to negotiate trade-offs directly instead of them being subject to the whims of the market.

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It should not be surprising that socialising the economy means the politicisation of everything. Instead of interacting as autonomous consumers, we have to negotiate amongst ourselves as to whether to have wasteful levels of energy consumption paired with perilous solar geoengineering, or renewable infrastructure teamed with energy quotas that help the poor even as they constrain the rich. If we eat meat, how much and what kind? Or should we become vegan and ‘rewild’ pasture to protect biodiversity, lock in carbon, and protect us from new future pandemics like avian flu?

Socialism is not about finding a single ‘optimal’ plan. There will be many possible solutions for these very difficult problems. Scientists and planners can offer guidance but only the people have the final say in a democracy – especially a socialist one. Neurath believed that socialism was having these kinds of far-reaching conversations.

Empowering the people

After his brief tenure as Bavaria’s central planner, Neurath worked as a curator of a museum dedicated to making the economy visible to the Viennese working class by using the innovative graphic design of Isotype, which uses pictorial symbols to represent data. He believed that socialism was only possible if people understood and controlled their collective future. The neoliberals’ worship of an omniscient but unknowable market is the complete opposite of Neurath’s dream of deep democracy.

Since Neurath’s day, the technologies available to democratic socialism have grown dramatically. Not only do we have the technology to overcome the environmental crisis, such as next-generation solar panels and smart grids, we also have the tools to democratically control the economy. As we outline in our book ‘Half-Earth Socialism’, advances in computing power and algorithms, combined with the lessons of many past successes and failures in economic planning, allow us to imagine a just and ecologically stable society.

Capitalism has never offered so little to the great multitude of humanity, while socialism has never been more feasible. Now, in this moment of crisis, it is time to return to Neurath’s utopian dream of humanity consciously governing itself, freed from the diktat of the market. Either we democratise the economy and take less from nature, or we will be doomed to face a future of pandemics, fascism, war, and endless neoliberal hegemony.

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