New Internationalist


Issue 307

Red and     Green

Eco-socialism comes of age
The time is right, says David Ransom, for socialists and environmentalists to work together on common ground.

[image, unknown]

In January 1991 the Amazon was in a state of chaos. I had been searching for any trace of logic in the tangle of rainforest destruction, and was feeling pretty much defeated, when I arrived at the Manaus office of an American environmental scientist, Philip Fearnside.

‘It’s a question of who is profiting,’ he said. ‘If that profit, and the costs, were evenly distributed, it wouldn’t be happening. It wouldn’t be worth the candle for anyone individually. The fact is that influential people are making money and poor people out in the forest are paying the price. It’s all perfectly logical, from the point of view of the people who are making the money.’

He was referring to the construction of hydroelectric dams for smelters and factories exporting aluminium cans. He had done some pretty conventional ‘cost-benefit’ calculations, and they simply didn’t add up – unless, that is, you happened to be a member of the oligarchy in Brazil, the most unequal country on earth. For a cause no greater than beer and soft drinks, the rainforest had been flooded, disease and displacement had seeped into thousands of lives, precious indigenous cultures had been trashed. Because nothing much to the disadvantage of the Brazilian oligarchy has happened since, it comes as no great surprise to me that the destruction of the Amazon rainforest has continued apace.

It upsets me to think of this, to recall that the Amazon was at the time the most fashionable of all environmental causes, and is now all but forgotten. Radical politics, however, is less interested in fashionable causes than in the struggles of ordinary people with everyday life. Our extraordinary stories have a habit of never quite fitting into preordained plots. William Morris, the nineteenth century revolutionary eco-socialist, gave a brilliant account of what it feels like. He described how people ‘fight and lose the battle, and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of the defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and others have to fight for what they meant under another name.’1 No struggle is ever completely lost – or indeed completely won.

Without any doubt, the two overarching political issues of our time are human inequality and environmental destruction, the consequences of which may be starkly visible in places like the Amazon but apply almost everywhere. But while passionate advocates of equality or ecology have sometimes ventured beyond their territory, the bridge between radical Red and Green politics has lacked the strength to carry much political weight and bring about lasting change.

It is, nonetheless, increasingly clear that inequality and destruction are directly linked. Indeed, it would be very much harder to demonstrate that they are not linked, given that they are both happening at the same time. They are also interacting in complex ways that accelerate their growth alarmingly.

This is because global consumer capitalism, unless it is restrained, grows faster and faster. Anything not devoted exclusively to the service of its immediate interests it seeks to destroy. The destruction is compounded because it must either grow or blow: it cannot contain itself. It is self-destructive, too, shot through with contradictions which make it blow precisely because it grows, like some force-fed hothouse vegetable.

One such contradiction is that it feeds by inflating profits, deflating wages and thus increasing inequality. This precipitates a crisis – because the labour we sell can’t buy all the things it makes – that ultimately undermines its imperative to grow, producing an almighty bang of the kind that is ringing in so many ears at this very moment. Successful capitalists have a name for this – ‘creative destruction’. It’s one of their favourite pastimes.

Because socialism knows how this works it has lost none of its explanatory power. But socialists have a few problems of their own, over and above the baleful legacy of Stalin and ‘actually existing socialism’. Not the least of these is that they are said to be dead, replaced by smooth but insubstantial Third Way figures who speak in tongues about ‘social justice’ and ‘equality of opportunity’, the perfect expression of which is a lottery. Nor does it help very much that Karl Marx has been resurrected in the salons of orthodoxy, on the strict understanding that although he may have been right about capitalism he was wrong about communism.2

Socialists’ biggest difficulty, however, is that they’ve been very much better on the redistribution of wealth than its redefinition. They longed simply to get their hands on the levers of the capitalist wealth machine, rather than redesign it. They should have listened to ecologists sooner. There is, as it turns out, no great theoretical problem with adding a Green contradiction to a Red analysis of capitalism, because there are environmental limits to capitalist growth. But it entails accepting also that there can be no prospect whatever of creating a distinctively ‘socialist’ economy that does not respond to ecological imperatives as well.3


Radical philosophers like André Gorz have meanwhile been conducting a fundamental enquiry into the nature of wealth. They propose the existence of a ‘Lifeworld’ which encompasses everything we aspire to as individual and social human beings. ‘The economic’ should rightly occupy just a small part of it, but has taken over our lives. What, after all, is the point of material wealth, if it does not enhance our well-being? How is this to be achieved if we are enslaved to the economic machine?4

There is here an echo of socialist writing at the end of the nineteenth century, when William Morris was alive. Oscar Wilde argued for the abolition of private property for the sake of the people who own it, because it distracts them from more important things – what we are, rather than what we own. In fact, he advocated socialism for a completely unexpected reason: ‘What is needed is Individualism. If Socialism is Authoritarian; if there are Governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we are to have Industrial Tyrannies, then our last state will be worse than the first.’5

Gorz is frankly uncertain whether capitalism is capable of being transformed by gradually pushing back the boundaries of ‘the economic’, and in particular by reclaiming more free time from work, as he recommends. He remains a defender of the more dynamic aspects of industrial society, with a largely European perspective. But he is quite clear that equality, ecology and the well-being of humanity as a whole can only be advanced if capitalism is transformed.

By no means all Greens would agree with this, or acknowledge any kinship at all with Reds. ‘Neither Left nor Right, but Ahead!’ they urge, anxious as they are to dodge the ‘watermelon’ jibe – green on the outside, red on the inside. There is also a dash of tyrannical misanthropy to some deeper shades of Green. But the more thoughtful Greens have no great problem with socialism.

‘Socialism is based on an enormous insight,’ says Wolfgang Sachs, for example. ‘Technical progress provides us with a floor under which nobody has to fall. Scarcity can be removed. The hope of socialism is that all people can lead a dignified life. Environmentalism adds another dimension. It says there is not just a lower limit, there is also an upper limit. There is a threshold beyond which there can be no more justice or democracy because progress, or wealth creation, takes a form in which not everybody can participate. There is a ceiling. If you go beyond it, wealth creation becomes oligarchic in nature.’6

The difficulty for Greens is that although they have influence they’ve never had political power. Projects and agendas proliferate, but capitalism adapts, the trees keep falling and inequality deepens. It is perfectly possible to argue that influence is preferable to political power. But that, I think, would be to evade the point. For what radical Reds and Greens must surely both be prepared to commit themselves to is popular democracy.

Earth day in Manila, Philippines.
New world disorder
One good reason to do this, as Oscar Wilde foresaw, is the enormous power of the modern state. Forget all rhetoric to the contrary – without a powerful state, capitalism would have foundered a long time ago. Leave aside, if you will, the state’s role in securing private property, containing unrest, bailing out private banks, financing unemployment, devising new forms of Armageddon, fighting extremely profitable wars and creating ‘favourable conditions’ generally so that corporations, the rich and the powerful can be free to pay no taxes and plunge us into renewed catastrophe. Consider just this: according to the UN, in the early 1990s the state subsidized environmentally damaging industrial activities – energy, water, roads, agriculture – worldwide to the tune of at least $710 billion (thousand million) every year.7 To put this into perspective, $710 billion is 14 times what is required to eradicate absolute poverty.

So the state is an active player in the new world disorder. If we are serious about change then it simply doesn’t make sense to leave it to its own devices. We can argue about what the state should be doing. We can even propose that in an ideal world it would cease to exist. We can suggest that since global consumer capitalism is so good at looking after its own interests then the proper job of democratic government is to look after ours. But, to get from here to there, popular democracy must prevail.

We are led to believe, of course, that it already does. Why, this is the age of democracy, is it not? Latin America is so much better now, with all those blood-soaked generals confined to barracks! Pity poor Africa – but salute Nelson Mandela! Papa Doc, Mobutu, Marcos, Suharto – all gone! And the Berlin Wall!

Ah, the Berlin Wall. A few months ago a little cameo was played out in Moscow. Bill Clinton, in town for a last tango with Boris Yeltsin, likened ‘market economies’ to the force of gravity: this, mark you, amid the ruins of ‘bandit’ capitalism in Russia. One of the laws of gravity, Clinton should properly have added, is that what goes up must come down. Shortly afterwards, the legendary speculator George Soros – who is credited with precipitating the latest Russian collapse – forewarned us that ‘the global capitalist system... is coming apart at the seams’.8

For many months now the vultures of creative destruction have been circling the globe, waiting for the force of gravity to fell the next carcass, while our democratic paragons stand transfixed, boasting that they are powerless to act. This, as it turns out, is the true meaning of the age of democracy.

Anyone who lived, as I did, under the Popular Unity Government in Chile in the early 1970s knows that when democratic push comes to capitalist shove the General Pinochets of this world are always on hand to ‘save the country for democracy’ (yes, those were the General’s precise words after the 1973 military coup). But we have also tasted, however fleetingly – like George Orwell in Republican Barcelona, and perhaps the people of South Africa not so long ago – the prospect of liberation and self-realization. Whether we have tasted it or not, I reckon all of us know instinctively that it is there.

But we do not always know how much energy is going into creating this kind of liberated space all around the world at any given time, because we have so few means of finding out. ‘Maori march on Wellington to oppose the Multilateral Agreement on Investment... Thousands of Argentinian teachers go on hunger strike against World Bank-imposed education cuts... Indian farmers protest against the World Trade Organization and the take-over of their agriculture by transnational corporations... Citizens around Europe pull up genetically modified crops... Reclaim the Streets anti-car protesters come out in solidarity with sacked Liverpool dockers... Some 50,000 go on a “Cry of the Excluded” march for four million people who go hungry in Brazil... Around 300,000 protest against globalization in Seoul... The G8 summit in Birmingham is ringed by 70,000 Jubilee 2000 demonstrators calling for Third World debt to be scrapped...’ The litany could go on, and had Katharine Ainger not given me this list by way of an introduction to her article on page 28 I would not have known a fair bit of it myself, even though it is my day job to keep pace with events.

These are the forces of creative construction, the harbingers of a Green Left politics that might eventually achieve what neither Reds nor Greens can do on their own. Whether we are called ‘social movements’ or ‘civil society’, whether we think of ourselves as trade unionists or eco-warriors, whether we are impelled by class division or by the rape of nature, with capitalism at the crossroads once again we should not underestimate our own strength nor fail in our responsibility to work together.

Most of us are, I believe, deeply wedded to the notion that the yearning for popular democracy will in the future, as it has in the past, push back the boundaries of the merely ‘economic’ and enhance all our lives. Once we have accepted that this is the objective we can set to work on the details of how this can best be done.

In the meantime we celebrate what we know: diversity, humanity and the wonder of the natural world. We venerate human equality because we resemble each other and because there is no better way to become truly ourselves. We will strive into the next century to create what is beautiful and useful, to destroy what is ugly and mean, to protect each other and what can never be replaced.

Again the Amazon and its people return to me. One day I was sitting with a group of women on land they had reclaimed from the devastated forest. Miles from anywhere, surrounded by a wasteland, they had created an oasis. From time to time, however, hired men with guns came to take possession of what they had made, saying that it belonged to someone else, who would crush them with fear.

I did not know quite what to say to them, nor yet why I asked: ‘Do you think it possible that, one day soon, you might govern your own country?’

There was a pause. I remember feeling like an intruder on secret thoughts. The animated stillness of the oasis engulfed us, and I began to suppose that this must be their answer. There was a cry from one of the women: ‘Yes!’ She looked at me and smiled. ‘Yes!’ cried another, and another. Of course! Of course! Then all of them began to clap. They were applauding themselves. And then there was laughter, ringing with relief and joy.

1 William Morris, ‘A Dream of John Ball’ (originally published in 1886/7), in Three Works by William Morris, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1986.
2 For example, John Cassidy, ‘The Return of Karl Marx’, in The New Yorker, 20 and 27 October 1997.
3 The most interesting, though dense, discussion of this point can be found in the US magazine Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, and especially the work of James O’Connor.
4 André Gorz, Capitalism, Socialism, Ecology, Verso, London, 1994.
5 Oscar Wilde, ‘The Soul of Man Under Socialism’ (originally published in 1891), in De Profundis and Other Writings, Penguin Classics, London, 1986.
6 Personal interview, February 1998.
7 Human Development Report 1998, UNDP.
8 The Guardian, 16 September 1998.

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This article was originally published in issue 307

New Internationalist Magazine issue 307
Issue 307

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