Converting and dismantling industries through social appropriation

The fifth part in the series Ecosocialist Strategies in the Anthropocene by Christian Zeller.


In the first three articles of this series, I showed how urgent it is to pull the emergency brake against global heating. In the fourth article, I argued that this emergency brake can only be a revolutionary one. In this fifth article, I explain strategic considerations for an ecosocialist perspective.

We need a debate on a comprehensive social transformation towards a society that decides together, shares more and produces less – an ecosocialist society. However, revolutionary ecosocialist strategies face the challenge of providing concrete responses at the local, regional, national, transnational, continental and global levels. These must contribute to rapidly using less energy in the imperialist countries and to distributing access to energy equitably, socially and globally. This is not primarily a technical challenge, but a social and political one. These ecosocialist strategies must serve to build a balance of power that allows us to break with the constraints of capital accumulation and the exploitation of people by people. However, the necessary building of social counter-power faces strategic challenges that urgently need an open discussion. I ask three immediate questions to start this discussion:

  • How can such a broad transnational social movement that really changes the balance of power substantially be organized?
  • How can we succeed in winning the great mass of workers in all their diversity to such a perspective?
  • Are the labor unions, which until now have been more concerned with the competitiveness of companies than with the health of workers and the natural foundations of life, an instrument or a hurdle to be overcome?

Beyond the failed participation in government by reform-oriented left parties such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, and the longing of the party leadership of DIE LINKE to repeatedly repeat this experience, there are hardly any debates on raising the question of power through alternative strategies. The crises caused by global warming require this strategic poverty to be overcome quickly.

The topicality of an ecosocialist revolution

I agree with the left variants of a Green New Deal that the economic, social and cultural concerns of the working classes must equally be cast into an alternative programme under the conditions of a limited nature. But the inequalities, impoverishment and exclusion of large parts of the world’s population, exploitation and oppression, and the advancing destruction of livelihoods can only be stopped and overcome if we break fundamentally and practically with the constraints of capital accumulation and profit. Before I present some strategic considerations for discussion, I will briefly explain what I mean by an ecosocialist transformation of society.

The goal of limiting global warming to 1.5° C compared to pre-industrial times requires a historically unprecedented conversion and deconstruction of large parts of the productive apparatus of our societies. This is only possible if we break with the capitalist constraint of accumulating more and more capital and maximising profit. Thus, we have to question the capitalist mode of production, not only theoretically and abstractly, but concretely in our everyday demands. However, since the resources needed to build a non-fossil energy infrastructure are limited, this goal is difficult to achieve even under non-capitalist conditions.

We need a society that produces less and differently, transports less, care more for people and nature, shares wealth and decides together.[i] A change in ways of life requires a radical transformation of forms of production and ways of working. In this sense, an ecological transformation of production, transport, technological development and all everyday life, including reproduction, must be fought for to initiate a sustainable social metabolism with nature.[ii] That means that the exploited and oppressed must successfully oppose and end the economic and political power of the capitalist class in a process of self-empowerment. Ecosocialists want to overcome the capitalist mode of production.

An ecosocialist upheaval of society aims at the democratic social appropriation of production, the financial sector, transportation infrastructure and a massive expansion of social infrastructure to be offered largely for free. Only in this way can society be democratically organised in a socially just and ecologically compatible way. The central goal of an ecosocialist alternative is the just division of socially necessary working time, namely paid and unpaid working time. The ecosocialist perspective explores possibilities for a solidary way of life and comprehensive social emancipation.

The orientation towards an ecosocialist alternative takes into account that the classical labour movement has historically failed in advancing the emancipation of the exploited and oppressed while taking into account ecological limitations. In this sense, “ecosocialist” also means a commitment to constantly rethink and revise its programmatic foundations.

The big challenge, however, is to develop political perspectives that meet at least three requirements. First, they must close the enormous gap between the necessary measures against global heating and the level of consciousness of large sections of the working classes. Second, taking into account the ecological limitations, they must link up with concrete social, feminist and ecological concerns of large sections of the working class and with current struggles. In doing so, it is necessary to give political expression to individual and social needs at the regional, national and global levels. Third, these demands and perspectives are to be merged in an ecosocialist transitional programme so that the dynamics of their realisation overcome the frame of the existing logic of competition and profit, but adhere to the limitations imposed by nature.

Ecosocialist Urgency Programme

An ecosocialist urgency programme takes both the use values and the organisation of social metabolism equally as its starting point.[iii] In doing so, it is essential to follow the scientifically proven findings on global heating. It would be negligent to relativise this perspective because it appears too impractical politically. The same problem exists in the fight against the Corona pandemic. It was and is nonsensical not to demand and do what the scientific findings command, that is a radical interruption of the chains of infection to end the pandemic, just because it ostensibly seems unrealistic politically. It is unreasonable to demand only what is possible in the political, economic, social and ideological context of contemporary capitalist society. This would distort reality and thus itself be entirely unrealistic. We have to recognise the balance of power, but not to adapt ourselves, but to identify points of attack, to change it substantially. So we have to think about how we can act to make possible what is necessary.

A reasonable “social metabolism with nature” presupposes organising production and reproduction from beginning to end according to ecological criteria. [iv] Destructive industries such as armaments are to be dismantled. Motorised individual transport is to be largely shifted to public transport and non-motorised transport. In the same course, the car industry should be largely dismantled and the production lines still needed merging into a publicly controlled integrated mobility and railway industry. The traffic volume, which has risen sharply in recent decades, must be significantly reduced with appropriate spatial and urban planning. We need cities of short distances. Freight traffic has increased so much due to the fragmentation of value chains that the railways would no longer be able to handle it. Therefore, freight traffic must be reduced by planning production locations. These conversion steps require at the same time the democratic appropriation of spatial and urban planning and the social appropriation of land. Food production must be ecologically restructured and agribusiness disempowered. The meat processing industry must be massively dismantled. Energy conversion and supply must be converted to renewable energy sources and energy consumption massively reduced. This, however, requires the democratic social appropriation of the energy system.

The public sector must make extensive investments in renewable energies, energy conversion, public transport and social infrastructure, especially in the health, care and education sectors. In parallel to this, broad sections of the population must be convinced to democratically take social ownership of fossil fuel corporations, including car companies and financial corporations. Only on this basis is it possible to shut down and restructure these corporations in a controlled manner and in accordance with social concerns. This reorganisation and restructuring mean that a great many people will have to reorientate themselves professionally. Only if these corporations are socially owned and democratically controlled by society is it possible to guarantee that the necessary reorganisation and restructuring does not lead to deep social crises.

But this perspective needs to be sharpened. How this is done most sensibly depends on the concrete conditions in different countries and regions. In the early industrialized imperialist countries, the climate movement should concentrate on a few axes and make every effort to fundamentally change the balance of power. For the time being, I identify three focal points:

  • First, we must continue to focus on the fossil fuel corporations.[v] It is necessary to consider how broadly effective transnational campaigns for the expropriation of these corporations and their democratic social appropriation can be conducted. Socialisation is a prerequisite for dismantling the fossil sector so that it does not lead to mass layoffs and impoverishment.
  • Second, a comprehensive ecological mobility transformation including a far-reaching ban on motorised individual transport from urban agglomerations and a massive restriction of air traffic is urgently needed. This presupposes that the aviation and automotive corporations and their major supplier companies are socially appropriated, broken up and merged with the railway industry to form a publicly and worker-controlled integrated mobility industry. It is necessary to consider how this perspective can be sharpened with a socially broadly understood campaign.
  • The third axis aims at the social appropriation of the financial sector. Financial capital is a central pillar of the fossil fuel industry. Its power must be broken. All restructuring measures require comprehensive investments. The financial sector must be put at the service of this restructuring. All socially unnecessary parts of the bloated financial sector must be shut down under public control. A central point of attack are the funded pension systems. These must be transformed into pay-as-you-go pension funds that provide a dignified life for everyone after their working years. It is obvious that only a democratically socialised financial sector can be organised in to meet the needs of a society respecting ecological limits. With a joint international campaign for the social appropriation of the financial sector and the transfer of funded pension systems into publicly controlled and pay-as-you-go pension systems, ecosocialist forces and the climate movement could take an important step to linking important social concerns with the defossilisation of society.

Moving the balance of power through social appropriation

Theoretically and practically, the logic of profit and competition and the organs of power must be broken with. An alternative orientation includes the democratic social appropriation of the most important resources and the central means of production. I use the term social appropriation in the threefold sense of a method of systematically raising the property question, an anti-capitalist strategy to build social counter-power, and real practice in concrete struggles at all geographical scales.

There are starting-points in most everyday concrete struggles, from the appropriation of a residential street, via the socialisation of Deutsche Wohnen AG in Berlin and the abolition of intellectual property monopolies in vaccines and medicines, up to the perspective of democratic social appropriation of the financial sector, the energy supply and the large industrial corporations. The central idea is always promoting the self-activity of those affected. This method, strategy and practice of social appropriation is intended to contribute to a process of reconstructing a movement including workers in all their diversity; that is, the formation of communities of the working class.

The method, strategy and practice of social appropriation means thinking democracy, property and self-empowerment practically together so that the self-emancipation of workers, the exploited and the oppressed is empowered. Demands in an emancipatory and ecosocialist perspective begin as reforms and at the same time have an inherent logic that contradicts the logic of capital accumulation. They set common self-empowerment and social appropriation against the capitalist exploitation of labour, incapacitation and subjugation of the vast majority of people, as well as the plundering and destruction of nature.[vi]

An ecosocialist strategy is based on the takeover of decision-making power by workers’ councils, cooperatives, communal assemblies of citizens, and on pushing back the influence of capital in society and political bodies. Finally, capital must be disempowered and communal forms of ownership implemented instead.[vii]

How can the climate movement, trade unions and other social movements enforce the restructuring of all essential sectors of the economy as well as the expansion of the social infrastructure and at the same time advance a social emancipatory process that reaches beyond the capitalist mode of production? By participating in elections and exerting influence in state institutions, the social relationship of forces can be mapped and discourses shifted. But the proposed method, strategy and practice of social appropriation focusing on self-activity and self-empowerment of workers points beyond bourgeois parliamentary democracy.[viii]

The decisions about what is produced, where, how and by whom, are key decisions for our society. They are crucial not only for the creation and distribution of wealth but also for society’s metabolism with nature. Today, decisions related to the allocation of investments and the placement of finance capital are almost exclusively in the hands of companies, that is private capital. They make decisions not according to social needs and compatibility of society with nature, but according to their profit expectations. It is a matter of considering how workers and the affected population put themselves in a position to appropriate these decisions.

Workers’ and consumers’ control

The climate movement has so far been able to bring the need for a radical political change to the attention of broad sections of the population through demonstrations and blockades. The majority of people want an effective climate policy. But the climate movement has not achieved any concrete successes. Andreas Malm responds to this sobering finding with a detailed examination of the strategic pacifism that is widespread in the climate movement. He argues that under certain and clearly defined conditions, militant action and violence against property can also make sense. [ix] His arguments are understandable, but they miss the point of the main challenges. Strangely, Malm does not name the necessity of an anti-capitalist break, nor which subjects are even capable of implementing a radical climate policy.

But to implement real changes in industries, the collective action of workers at their workplaces is necessary.[x] Only when millions of workers and their trade unions see themselves as an active part of the climate movement and are prepared to stand up for an ecological transformation of production in “their” companies and workplaces, will the balance of power change substantially. The decisive factor is how to win the large majority of workers for radical socio-ecological structural reforms. In the course of the struggle for such reforms, people in movements and workplaces can learn together and gain the necessary experience that will allow them to effectively put the question of power on the agenda of political struggles throughout society. The most effective measure with which workers fight for higher wages, better working conditions, shorter working hours, more comprehensive social protection and more ecologically and socially compatible production processes is the strike.

Through strikes, workers in a company question the power of companies over the control of production. Through their walkout, they signal that they will not obey management’s orders and form themselves into a counter-power. Especially when strikers take their action further and occupy their production plant or office complexes, or even move from passive to active strike and resume work under their own direction, they challenge the power of capital, first in their perspective and eventually in reality. If the workers of many companies in a region or country unite for a general strike, they demonstrate their collective veto power against the economic power of capital and sometimes also against the political power of ruling parties. This is shown by the experience of many general strikes. If it were possible in several countries to carry out unlimited general strikes for an ecological industrial conversion, the political balance of power would substantially change. Every government would have to take such a manifestation of counter-power into account.

The prerequisite for such a dynamic is the democratic organisation of the industrial dispute. All strikers, whether they are members of a trade union or not, decide democratically on the course of their struggle in regularly convened general assemblies and elect their delegates for negotiations and higher-level strike unions. A democratic organisation based on the self-activity of workers offers individual workers the possibility to overcome their own long-experienced passivity and subordination to various “authorities”, be they state authorities, company management or the trade union bureaucracy. This way they become active as a subject. Self-empowerment is the beginning and prerequisite of self-emancipation.[xi]

Workers would take a decisive step towards the democratic appropriation of production if they could assert themselves against institutional investors and managers on all issues that directly affect their work processes and conditions – that is, their direct metabolism with nature at the workplace – and even the strategic orientation of the company. A further step would be if organised workers and working-class communities succeeded in controlling the companies and corporations and enforcing disclosure of all essential information. In strategically important companies, this would amount to fighting for forms of social control and ultimately more extensive self-management and appropriation. Ultimately, however, decisions on the orientation of production and services are a matter for the entire affected population of a territory as well as along the value chain, which is, however, localised in many places and therefore organised transversely to the politically demarcated territories. Political territories do not correspond to economic interdependencies. This means finding ways for working-class communities and entire populations living in different places in the world to decide on production systems.

The concept of workers’ control can be an important part of a strategy of transitional demands and anti-capitalist structural reforms.[xii] Transitional demands overcome the separation between immediate goals (in terms of wages, working conditions, social legislation, environmental regulations, democratic rights and measures against repression, etc.) and an often abstract, pseudo-radical propaganda against capital and the state and for socialism in general.[xiii] Based on the desires and consciousness of workers and activists in social movements, demands should be formulated that the existing regime cannot easily integrate into its system. If the workers are convinced of the necessity of a struggle for such demands, immediate demands can be combined with a broader perspective overcoming the rule of capital. [xiv]

Erecting a workers’ control, workers assert a veto right in matters that affect their existence in an enterprise. This includes the disclosure of the books. Workers’ control should not seek to become an institutionalised part of a system of co-management or co-called transition councils and in this way lose their class independence, but to enable learning processes and the building of counter-power in a society-wide perspective.[xv]

If, in addition, striking workers democratically elect delegates to strike committees in general assemblies – and not just in one company, but in all the companies in the region or country – and if these strike committees, in turn, elect delegates to regional or even national assemblies of workers, then they form council structures. Such territorial workers’ councils, as democratic organs of the workers, can establish control over corporate management. If the councils of workers acquire power and are recognised by a growing part of the population as organs of the administration of society, then these organs can even develop into a social counter-power to the established organs of the state. In such a case, a situation of dual power arises, which, however, can hardly exist for a long time.[xvi] The councils would be the seed of a new order. So far, council democracy is perhaps the most far-reaching alternative to the parliamentary system and bourgeois rule produced by the labour movement. But under the ecological constraints and in the face of the tipping points of the Earth system, democratic challenges of unprecedented magnitude arise. Here, new democratic concepts are needed that can only be developed through practical experience.

In the sixth article of this series, I will discuss how counter-power can mature into dual power and how this unstable situation can subsequently play out.

[i] vgl. Tanuro 2020: 249ff; Löwy 2016: 28ff

[ii] Zeller 2020: 73

[iii] Zeller 2020: 72

[iv] Zeller 2020: Kapitel 4-8

[v] Zeller 2019

[vi] Zeller 2020: 74ff

[vii] Zeller 2020: 182

[viii] Zeller 2020: 182-184

[ix] Malm 2021

[x] Zeller 2020: 184-186

[xi] Zeller 2010: 16

[xii] Zeller 2020: 187-188

[xiii] ausführlich in Mandel 1978: 283-321

[xiv] Mandel 1971: 21f

[xv] cf. Hoffmann 1975: 83

[xvi] Mandel 1971: 12ff; McNally 2021


Hoffmann, Reinhard (1975): Formen, Bereiche und Grenzen einer Demokratisierung industrieller Entscheidungsprozesse in der Privatwirtschaft. In: F. Vilmar (Hrsg.): Industrielle Demokratie in Westeuropa. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt. S. 78-88.

Löwy, Michael (2016): Ökosozialismus: Die radikale Alternative zur ökologischen und kapitalistischen Katastrophe. Hamburg: Laika Verlag, 192 S.

Malm, Andreas (2021): Wie man eine Pipeline in die Luft jagt. Kämpfen lernen in einer Welt in Flammen. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 211 S.

Mandel, Ernest (1971): Einleitung von Ernest Mandel. In: E. Mandel (Hrsg.): Arbeiterkontrolle, Arbeiterräte, Arbeiterselbstverwaltung. Eine Anthologie. Frankfurt am Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt. S. 9-55.

Mandel, Ernest (1978): Revolutionäre Strategien im 20. Jahrhundert. Wien: Europaverlag, 352 S.

McNally, David (2021): What Is the Meaning of Revolution Today? Beyond the New Reformism. Spectre, June 16, 2021. Zugriff: July 19, 2021.

Tanuro, Daniel (2020): Trop tard pour être pessimistes! La catastrophe grandissante et les moyens de l’arrêter. Paris: La Découverte, 314 S.

Zeller, Christian (2010): Wirtschaftsdemokratie und gesellschaftliche Aneignung. Demokratisierung durch gesellschaftliches Eigentum und partizipative Planung. Theorie und Praxis sozialer Emanzipation (SoZ+) 2 (September), S. 12-25

Zeller, Christian (2019): Die Konzerne der fossilen Energieträger ins Blickfeld nehmen. antikap (11), S. 4-8.

Zeller, Christian (2020): Revolution für das Klima. Warum wir eine ökosozialistische Alternative brauchen. München: Oekom Verlag, 248 S.

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