2.2 A green social democratic world view

A moral perspective on the roles of science, education, democracy and imagination in achieving a green social democracy

Let us agree for the moment at least that science, education, democracy and imagination are among the necessary means to achieving a just, sustainable future.

This, however, requires an explanatory digression. The reference here and throughout this work to science is to its content (scientifically validated knowledge) and its processes (the methods by which scientific knowledge is gained). There is no argument here for giving priority to scientific institutions or scientists over other institutions and workers. Likewise, the references in this work to education are to the process of teaching and learning and not to educational institutions and educators. If the authors could find a magic wand that would put all scientific and educational institutions and all scientists and educators at the service of a just, sustainable future they would not feel the need to write a work like this one. To the contrary, science and education as institutions are at present subsystems of our currently dominant neoliberal capitalist socio-economic system. Only to the extent and in countries where an aroused and determined people successfully transform their current societies into more just, sustainable ones will their institutions of science and education more consistently serve the moral purposes argued for in this essay.

If the aims of justice and a sustainable natural and social environment are to shape our ethical relationships to each other and to nature, what world view should we adopt to guide us in the use of science, education, democracy and imagination? Can the thinking that predominated during the past century produce different results in this century than the tragic failures of the last one? The urgent need for timely adaptive action to avert the potentially catastrophic consequences of humankind's impact on the natural environment and the associated threats to the stability and even to the very future of human civilization are an impetus for asking these questions and responding with the world view that follows.

Moving beyond all forms of "the capital system"

Let's begin by stating what may, for many, seem obvious: neither the supporters of socialism nor of capitalism have so far unequivocally demonstrated in practice viable alternatives for this century. The forms of capitalism and socialism that emerged in the last century all behaved as if Earth's resources were infinite and the class division in roles, income and wealth between those who did most of the planning and deciding and those who did most of the work in carrying out those plans and decisions was reasonable and just. In the case of the Communist Party ruled socialist states, this contradicted their identification of communism as the alternative to a society characterized by the exploitation of people and nature for private profit.

At their best -; in more peaceful conditions -; the twentieth century alternatives may -; and for many clearly did - seem reasonable when Earth's resources still appeared to be unlimited for all practical purposes and when the unequal division of labor and its results appeared capable of producing beneficial results for all. But it is now painfully clear that unlimited resources and a distribution of resources that assures that all prosper -; these necessary conditions for either socialism as practiced in the twentieth century or capitalism as practiced today to work - cannot be met by the finite character of Earth and its resources and an absence of full democracy in decision making rights and responsibilities.

But none of this criticism of "socialism" as practiced in the twentieth century implies rejection of the centuries old ideal of a fully cooperative society. Indeed, communism, prior to the authoritarian socialist models of the twentieth century, referred to a system whose operative ethical principle, following Karl Marx (Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875), was ‘from each according to [their] ability to each according to [their] needs'. Marx argued for this form of socialism as the logical alternative to systems of private appropriation of what had once been resources held in common by all people (land, air, water, natural resources).

As a condition for the achievement of communism Karl Marx envisioned an historical period of rule by the associated producers. He did not propose rule by a political party substituting itself for the associated producers. Nor did he envision the instantaneous achievement of communism by people whose recent historical experience had been in an exploitative society. Rather, he understood that people develop themselves in the process of taking action to improve their existence. Readers who would like to find in one place a full account of Marx's vision of a future beyond capitalism can do so thanks to Peter Hudis (2012, Haymarket Books) Marx's Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism.

An idealized form of capitalism was envisioned by such early proponents as Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations, 1776). Rather than a competitive market place, however, capitalism in practice has been dominated since at least the end of the 19th Century by large monopolistic enterprises, ultimately able to set prices and shape public policy to their own benefit, subordinating both labor and smaller businesses.

A deeper source of criticism of capitalism can be found in the nineteenth century analysis of the nature of Capital by Karl Marx, including his Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (in 3 volumes, available in paperback from Penguin Books). In Capital, Marx assumes the validity of Adam Smith's assumptions and proceeds through logical analysis to the likely outcomes, buttressing his conclusions with documentary evidence from the actual behaviour of capitalism in the 19th century. In this work Marx identified the origins and laws of development of systems that have in common the private ownership or control of capital. He was able on that basis to explain the boom-bust business cycle that accompanies capitalism, the tendency for the rate of profit to decline, capitalism's generation of both a vast and increasing army of unemployed and underemployed and of the production of waste at a rate beyond that which nature can absorb. He described as an example of waste production the metabolic rift created by the removal of materials from the countryside to the cities, where the waste from human processing of these materials is typically not returned to nature in a form that can be recycled through natural processes. He also correctly predicted the emergence of the forms in which we know capitalism today, including its global reach, monopolistic character and domination by finance capital.

Istvan Meszaros (2010, Monthly Review Press) Beyond Capital: A Theory of Transition applies the same logic to the centralized control of capital in Soviet style "socialist" countries, labelling these "post-revolutionary" but finding that they share with capitalism the essential features of what he describes as "the capital system", including the same alienating division of labour between those who plan and decide and those who are required to carry out the decisions (including payment of fines or service as "political prisoners" if they resist) and the same wasteful treatment of nature as an externality to the purpose of producing surplus value (profit). He updates to contemporary conditions the argument for moving beyond all forms of "the capital system", using logic to identify the necessary features of such a transition.

Readers wishing a brief introduction from Karl Marx to his identification of the defining characteristics of capitalism can read his pamphlets Wage Labour and Capital and Value, Price and Profit. Also brief in presenting his theoretical perspective is a summary statement that may be the most influential in all of social science literature: the 1859 preface by Karl Marx to his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. These brief works can be found online at www.marxists.org, specifically:


https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1865/value-price-profit, and

https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critque-pol-economy/preface, respectively. This latter is also reproduced in this work as an appendix to this chapter (section 2.17). For a contemporary presentation, see Samir Amin (2013, Monthly Review Press) Three Essays on Marx's Value Theory.

From the liberal theories of Adam Smith to the neo-liberal ones of Milton Friedman (Capitalism and Democracy, 1962)) supporters of capitalism have argued that the exchange of goods and services on the capitalist marketplace is guided by an invisible hand to satisfy human needs in an efficient manner. Underlying this expectation is the undeclared assumption that Earth is an unlimited source of natural and human resources (in other words, scarcity of natural resources and consequent monopolistic tendencies in their private for profit ownership and management do not exist). In practice, the competitive drive to the accumulation of capital and its concentration in fewer hands appears increasingly to be inconsistent with the aims of equity, human well-being and a healthy environment on a finite planet.

Ostensibly guided or at least influenced by an opposing theoretical perspective, the environmental record of twentieth century socialism, both its Communist Party and, to a lesser extent, its more conservative social democratic variants, was no better, to put it as kindly as one can. One thing that both sides of the twentieth century debate between communists and socialists have in common, however, is the departure of practice from theory. Another is their failure to produce just, sustainable societies.

Moving beyond "the capital system" necessitates more than modest reforms

While millions of people are engaged in examining existing and past ideas and practices with the purpose of finding solutions for moving forward, it is understandable that at this moment of transition even more millions continue to cling to existing models and more familiar ideas. The hope exists that modest changes and reforms will address the problems we recognize. We argue here, however, that modest reforms of inherently unstable systems will not be enough.

Our starting point, however, is not a blank slate. Rather, in facing the greatest challenge ever before our species, our very existence, we have at our disposal a vast, rich cultural heritage and a well-recorded historical experience. This experience, however, does not reside in a few leaders or books; it resides in the combined knowledge and experience of all of us. Full democracy -; and only the most democratic society we have yet experienced - can enable us to utilize this heritage, knowledge and skill to the extent needed to meet the challenges we face, that of a degraded environment and moribund socio-economic system. Our challenge is first of all a social one. The barriers to our cooperation and continuing development need to be removed. It is this reality that defines the need for a green social democracy.

Our heritage includes both Marxism and liberalism, often considered by some of their proponents to be polar opposites. The future will draw from both.

The aim of human freedom, for example, is our heritage from both, although the emphasis is different. While the emphasis of the neo-liberal theoretician Milton Friedman was on individual freedom, Karl Marx clearly articulated the connection between the freedom of the individual and the freedom of all individuals in a society.

An intellectual descendant of the 17th Century liberal philosopher John Locke, Friedman also advocated for the freedom of the individual capitalist entrepreneur, but for the twentieth century. Sandwiched historically between Locke and Friedman, Karl Marx, on the other hand, attributed the lack of freedom of working people to the employer-employee relationship under capitalism. In his typically expansive manner, Marx argued for "the free development of each" but understood this to be "the condition for the free development of all" (1875, Critique of the Gotha Programme.) The reader can refer to Karl Marx and Frederick Engels' Communist Manifesto (1844) and Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Democracy (1962) for the classic elaborations of their aims and views, noting Marx and Engels' emphasis on social context and Friedman's focus on the individual.

Necessarily bound to the aim of human freedom is the inextricable aim of a sustainable human future. Applying this criterion to the difference between Friedman's and Marx's conceptions of freedom favors Marx. Friedman's role at the side of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet condemns him to the historical dustbin of those who have served "the capital system" by upholding the tyrants who have used military force to suppress the people's struggle for a just, sustainable alternative.

A dialectical approach to achieving green social democratic aims

It is argued here that the temporal reconciliation of several opposing characteristics of contemporary capitalism and the people bound up in this system (so far all of us) is needed at every stage in the effort to achieve a just, sustainable future. These opposing characteristics include competition and cooperation, globalization and localization, homogenization and diversity, appropriation and conservation, centralization and decentralization, validity and reliability, among others. The reconciliation, or set point, reached at each stage in the struggle will depend on the conditions then prevailing, including the alignment of political forces, the development of science and technology, the level and effectiveness of education and the extent and participation in democratic decision-making.

To this list of dichotomous variables, public (or common) ownership of property and private (or individual) ownership of property are also suggested as two opposing but defining characteristics of contemporary human societies, the first corresponding to cooperation and common action (today evident, for example in relation to the oceans and atmosphere and for the social provision of such common goods and services as education and healthcare), the latter to competition and individual action (today evident, for example, in relation to both capital and personal or family use property).

Naming the alternative forms of society based on the predominant form of property ownership

Common ownership might be equated with communism or socialism, but historically these descriptors have become identified with their bureaucratically centralized and even totalitarian forms. Likewise, private ownership of property might be equated with capitalism, but the combination of stewardship responsibilities and usufruct rights in a society that has moved beyond capitalism will likely feel to the vast majority like the kind of personal or family use property people either enjoy or aspire to enjoy today within capitalism.

Similarly, we might prefer to differentiate socialism from communism, applying the former to societies with mixed forms of ownership and reserving the latter for systems in which common ownership dominates. But even Marx and Engels often used these terms interchangeably, so we might best avoid using either of them in relation to the just, sustainable societies we aim to achieve. See: Michael Heinrich (2004, Monthly Review Press), An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx's Capital for more on this theme.

A society that combines elements of communal ownership and private stewardship and usufruct rights and responsibilities could be described as a socialist one or, for environmental emphasis, an ecosocialist one. But socialism as a descriptor of the green + social + democratic aims of the emerging popular movements seeking an alternative to capitalism is for the most part avoided in this work, primarily because of its historical association with leadership and governmental practices that were anything but green, social and democratic.

While social democracy is arguably a preferable descriptor for what we have in mind, it too has negative historical connotations, notably the frequent failure of right-wing social democratic politicians to oppose imperialist war and defend working people against the predations of the ruling capitalist political and economic elites.

Private versus communal property

Returning now to the issue of private versus communal property, more is said later in this work, but some clarification of how we envision property ownership and use in the emergent green social democracies of our future is in order here. First, the communal societies that prevailed during most of human history and those that continued to exist in the interstices of more recent class societies likely either held no concept and therefore no practice of private property or practiced only a limited personal use form of property ownership. Moving beyond capitalism, however, we are likely to retain the concepts and practices of personal use property inheritable from one generation to the next of the same family, but with stricter legal qualifications, and perhaps rapidly diminishing prominence in the future.

The present practice of continuing concentration of property ownership in fewer hands may (or may not) be reversed even before the forces for a green social democracy become politically dominant or at least before green social democracy becomes an irreversible reality. Both the commons -; that part of nature held in common by all people of the Earth -; and cooperative ownership and use of the remaining part of the Earth will undoubtedly grow, rapidly so when green social democrats become the dominant political force globally.

Nevertheless, the continuing desirability of private use dwelling spaces and land to enjoy in private is, in our view, likely to be translated into a fundamental human right. At the same time, the degree of wealth inequality that today excludes many families from a private dwelling and a private space within nature will likely no longer be tolerated. Ultimately, when the Commons expands to all of the Earth, including all human artifacts, personal privacy will likely be universally respected without resort to a property concept in practice or law -; much as we believe was the case before the advent of class societies.

Short of the cultural disappearance of the concept and practice of private property, the political dominance of green social democrats is likely to mean legal intolerance of the currently permissible practice by private property owners of constructing barriers (exclusion rights) to access by other people to the commons. The organization of private use property will undoubtedly be constrained by the public right of access to the commons, enforced by law and correspondingly forceful agencies of the people's will. Private property without exclusion might have seemed a contradiction in terms to the seventeenth century advocates of private property. In the 21st Century, however, with 7 billion going on 9 billion people sharing planet Earth, the absence of the right to exclude others from access to the commons has become a necessary and reasonable restriction on the rights of personal use property.

On the communal side of this relationship between private and communal use property, our future as a species, if we are to have one, necessarily includes increasingly equal rights to participate in the stewardship of the commons. Not only is greater wealth equality desirable from the standpoint of the common interest in a healthy society and a healthy environment, on a finite planet with a multi-billion human population no other outcome is possible. It will be a case of every hand on board for healthy ecosystems and healthy human communities.

In summary: The alternative to the mutual destruction of the antagonistic social classes through conflict and irreparable harm to nature is a society in which the right to a private dwelling and private space outdoors and accessibility to the commons is universally practiced. For an increasingly small, privileged minority, this alternative will mean even in the shorter term of the first generations of a green social democratic society a reduction in their personal use property and more stringent obligations for stewardship of any property they might own or manage.

It remains true, however, that if common ownership of some resources is preferable, then the sacrifice of individual freedom for the common good is an associated evil. Likewise, if private ownership rights to some property is preferable, then the consequent limitation of the freedom of those who do not share in this ownership is an associated evil. The challenge is to maximize the benefits while minimizing the evil. The direction this takes us inevitably leads to a society in which the responsibility for owning and managing resources is more evenly distributed across the population, joining a parallel movement towards more equal and universal participation in democratic decision-making. This means decisions that expand common ownership and place greater conditions on private ownership. This direction responds to the needs of seven billion people and counting that have the right to share this planet and the corresponding moral obligation to pass it along in a healthy state to future generations.


This website was launched September 1, 2010 in support of a green social democratic alternative to neoliberal capitalist policy and practice. The primary result is a work by Charles and Karen McFadden of seven chapters, grouped under the title, Towards a Green Social Democratic Alternative to Capitalism available here in pdf and html formats.

Below under the heading What’s New can be found the most recent materials posted on this website, including opinion pieces, book reviews, articles and selections from the 2017 edition of the main work.  For the interest of new and returning visitors, new materials will be included quarterly.

What's New


Authors' Preface

1.6 The epochal nature of the period we are entering

6.0 The socialism we need against the "socialism" of the 20th century

6.8 Additional concerns about 20th century variants of "socialism"

6.9 The people united!

7.1 Policy alternatives and political movements to advance them


Charles and Karen McFadden, Is revolutionary transformation on the agenda

Charles and Karen McFaddenHumanity on the Brink

Charles and Karen McFaddenMovements of Resistance to Movements for System Change

Charles McFaddenTranslating Green Principles into Education Policy and Practice

Charles and Karen McFadden, The Role of Revolutionaries in the Labor Movement


Charles McFadden, The People United for a More Just Sustainable Future

Karen and Charles McFaddenCan emergent early 21st century neo-fascism be defeated without coming to grips with late 20th century restructuring of capitalism into a global system

Karen and Charles McFaddenA Dominant Capitalism or a Sustainable Environment? Why we can't have both.


William I. RobinsonThe Crisis of Global Capitalism and Trump's March to War

William I. RobinsonTrumpism, 21st Century Fascism, and the Dictatorship of the Transnational Capitalist Class


George HewisonWINNIPEG 1919 & THE COLD WAR

George HewisonArt Manuel - "Unsettling Canada

George HewisonThe NDP and LEAP


Albert Einstein, David Swanson, Jill Stein, Chris Hedges, William I. Robinson, and others Selected articles for Winter 2018



1.7 The dynamics of capitalism as a system and the limits of single issue reforms

2.11 The economy in transition towards a new deal for labor and the community

3.1 The challenge of a moribund economic system

3.7 Public banking: A cornerstone of a green social democracy

4.7 Economics and culture

6.5 Using the non-market economy as an opportunity to begin moving beyond capitalism


1.6 The epochal nature of the period we are entering

2.0 Theoretical Perspective: Defining Green Social Democracy

2.5. Socialism and green social democracy in historical materialist theory

4.3 Culture in historical perspective

5.1 Contrasting a green social democratic world with the currently prevailing, but challenged neo-liberal one

6.2 Socialism and capitalism as coexisting social systems


2.11 The economy in transition towards a new deal for labor and the community

5.7 Defeating neo-liberal capitalism: The role of social movements

7.3 Justice: Creating a just society, based on the right of all to a dignified, secure existence

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) applies to all work posted on this website except that which appears with authors whose last name is other than McFadden, in which case standard copyright should be assumed to apply.