From the start, capital’s alienated mode of social metabolic control has consistently generated nonviable social-ecological metabolic configurations. Already in the nineteenth century, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels noted this in the way that the capitalist mode of production exacerbated the town-country antagonism inherited from feudalism in Western Europe and exploded it. The fallout of this explosion included an even more crippling division of intellectual and physical labor, dramatic ruptures or “rifts” in the nutrient flows necessary to sustain the fertility of agricultural soils, terrible contamination in the towns, and a brutal round of colonial conquest through which Western Europe seized control of the majority of the world’s wealth.
As capital’s social-ecological metabolic configuration moved closer to globality, particularly in the aftermath of the Great Acceleration in the mid-twentieth century, so too have its ecological rifts. These rifts, together with the social crises of the capitalist system, confront humanity in the twenty first century with the imminent threat of potentially unprecedented social-ecological devastation, and possibly even human extinction. Under these circumstances of intensifying crises, the need for a hegemonic alternative to capital’s social metabolic order has become correspondingly urgent.
Around the world, communitarian agents are currently constructing alternative, unalienated, sustainable social-ecological metabolic configurations. Rather than yielding to the overriding imperative of exponential capital accumulation, these alternatives are being developed around criteria of substantive equality and democracy, rational social metabolic control, and reciprocity. Such movements and their struggles point to an important category of revolutionary agency: the communitarian revolutionary subject (CRS). This subject, principally associated with Indigenous and peasant communities in the Global South, is simultaneously confronting the dominant social structures responsible for our contemporary crisis: the capital system, its settler-colonial project, and its social-ecological destruction.
Central demands around which much of the CRS’s struggle has crystallized are territorial, political, social, economic, and cultural autonomy. While this reflects their disinterest in seizing the political power of the state, it nonetheless places the subject in conflict with the totalizing logic of the capitalist system and its nation-states. Often, this translates into strategic engagement with the state and capital, including an appeal to treaty rights and precedents acknowledged by the modern state, individual and collective engagement in market exchange without complete reliance on wage labor or commodity production, and social control over the community’s economic surplus.
More generally, this engagement reflects the position of the CRS vis-à-vis the capitalist system: it is neither wholly subsumed within the system, nor is it wholly external to it. Rather, the CRS constitutes a residue in the dialectical sense, an unreconciled component escaping from the capital system’s totalizing imperative that threatens to erode that same system. As such, the issue of autonomy becomes one of degrees, with the amount of autonomy the communitarian subject attempts to achieve and succeeds obtaining at any given moment depending on factors that include the intensity and organization of its struggle, its material wealth and means of subsistence to which the community already has access, and the degree of autonomy the state or capital is able, willing, or forced to concede.
Perhaps it is important to identify the significance of the CRS in today’s global setting. Current estimates suggest that indigenous communities involved in the conservation and defense of their territories occupy more than one-quarter of the planet’s land mass. The Indigenous Community and Conservation Consortium has members in 81 countries. They are actively forging new systems of production, social organization, governance structures while also assuming responsibility for their territories on the margins of the nation-states in which they are located.
Many of these peoples are guided by a rich corpus of cosmogonic knowledge. Central to these inherited belief systems is the conviction that their societies are an integral part of nature, one of a plethora of beings that are interdependent and mutually responsible for their well-being. Over time, they have acquired a profound knowledge of their surroundings and learned how to care for them while also drawing sustenance and pleasure from this heritage. Of course, they are also continually learning from developments in other communities, even those deeply embedded in the capitalist world.
Recognizing the CRS as one of the most significant challenges to the capitalist system in the twenty first century, as well as the potential foundation for a global hegemonic alternative to capital’s mode of social metabolic control, shifts much of the locus of anti-capitalist struggle to the peasant and Indigenous communities of the Global South. Many of these societies are organizing themselves to reduce their dependence on the global system from which they are distancing themselves, providing themselves with their basic needs, developing a metabolic balance with their environs, and creating local, regional and international networks for mutual support and exchange that facilitate their search for assuring an adequate quality of life.
In addition to the material importance assumed by the territories over which the CRS is struggling, this shift is prompted by the prefigurative aspects of its project and the manner in which it forges the basis for a hegemonic alternative to capital’s social metabolic order. In many parts of the world the CRS is actively engaged in a process to mobilize all of its members to participate in social, political, and productive activities that assure them the ability to generate surpluses to further enhance their traditional practices and undertaking the reparations of their territories that are so desperately needed as a result of centuries of mismanagement by peoples who had little or no understanding of their dependence on the planet’s well-being.
In closing, it is perhaps important to mention some examples of societies involved in creating the many worlds that are emerging in the global struggle for forging alternatives. From our experience in Mexico we can cite the Zapatista movement in Chiapas that is now approaching its thirtieth anniversary; the Tosepan cooperatives that celebrated forty years since their foundation with a collective effort to write a life plan for the next forty years; and the indigenous community of Cheran, which just celebrated its twelfth anniversary since a group of women initiated a movement to wrest control of their forests from organized crime and has moved on to create a system of self-government that is guiding a process of recuperating traditions, cosmologies, language, and solidarity and setting an example for indigenous communities throughout the country. All of these examples can be explored further on the world wide web.
Brian M. Napoletano is an assistant professor at the Centro de Investigaciones en Geografía Ambiental at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
David Barkin a distinguished professor at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana de México He is recognized for his theory of Radical Ecological Economics and, in 2016, was awarded a research position from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (Germany).
To read more, see David Barkin and Brian M. Napoletano. “The Communitarian Revolutionary Subject and the Possibilities of System Change” in Monthly Review 2023.
Image: Matthew T. Rader vía Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)