If there was one heartening thing about the disgraceful race/khaki election of 2001 it was the number of people who didn’t vote for the so-called “war on terrorism” and the racist, inhumane treatment of refugees. The cacophony of vilification of refugees, cynical appeals to xenophobia and outright warmongering was meant to win a majority of voters to one or other of the major parties. However, the ALP gained only 37.9% of the primary vote, the Liberals 37.1%. In other words, 62.1% of people failed to vote for the ALP and 62.9% gave Howard’s Liberals the thumbs down. Far from feeling defeated, radical activists can take a measure of comfort from the election outcome.
Limits of Parliament. I was heavily involved in the Socialist Alliance campaign as Victorian Senate campaign manager. Socialist Alliance (SA) campaigned as the anti-war party and the party which would free all the refugees in the concentration camps set up by the ALP and now run by the despicable Liberal minister, Philip Ruddock. SA received 25,000 votes nationwide, a brilliant performance, given that its name was not on the ballot paper. The other anti-war and pro-refugee platform was that of The Greens, which attracted more than 1 million votes to its humanist, pro-environment platform, and this also has to be seen as a positive outcome. The Greens Party nearly doubled its vote from 1998, gaining an extra Senator and forcing the ALP to preferences in its “heartland” inner suburban seats.
This parliamentary success is no doubt very encouraging to Greens members and supporters, who took a principled stand in the face of great political and media pressure. However, as has been shown in other countries, parliamentary success is often the first step on the road to ruin. It is only necessary to look to the German Greens, which form a substantial bloc in the ruling coalition, or the New Zealand Greens, also part of a coalition government, for a lesson in how power corrupts. In both countries, substantial numbers of Green MPs have voted to support George W. Bush’s socially — and environmentally — disastrous war in Afghanistan.
In Australia, The Greens maintains links with grassroots activist movements, including the trade union movement, and tends strongly towards a radical anti-Establishment line on most issues. Bob Brown, Greens Senator for Tasmania and the party’s public face, has maintained principled progressive and anti-corporate positions in the face of heavy criticism and ridicule from mainstream politicians and their Establishment sponsors. Given these links and Bob Brown’s tenacity, it would be ridiculous to point to a German-style betrayal any time soon.
The Freedom Socialist Party (and Socialist Alliance) takes the position that while it is true that a presence in Parliament is a very useful tool for organising and propaganda purposes, it is only one weapon in the arsenal of any genuine opposition force. What is also needed is a strong, organised activist base, deep links to the working class and Indigenous communities, and a commitment to the principle that lasting social change is not won through the ballot box, but on the streets.
The problem with a reliance on parliamentary reforms is that, quite simply, they do not last. The various global crises facing the world community are not emergencies within the global capitalist system, but failures of the system. The Greens’ reliance on Parliament as the chief focus of its political interventions is a profound flaw. A purely parliamentary orientation to political change is not sustainable, because capitalism is not sustainable.
Marxism and the environment. One of the main criticisms levelled at socialists of a Marxist tradition is that Marxism fails, on principle, to take account of the impact of human activities on ecosystems. It is certainly true that theoretical discussion of environmental issues has been largely absent from socialist literature up to the mid ’80s or so. This almost certainly arises from a chronic weakness of the global Left: economism, the tendency to reduce all political analysis to the everyday problems of life, particularly those arising from participation in the paid workforce. As a socialist feminist organisation, the FSP has criticised this approach as also weak on questions such as women’s emancipation, queer liberation and Indigenous rights.
However, this weakness is one of method, rather than capitalism stole from the land as much as from the labourers, and in 1876, Frederick Engels observed that “…at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature — but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst.”
In his unfinished pamphlet, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, Engels also identified the root cause of capitalism’s indifference towards environmental issues: “Classical political economy, the social science of the bourgeoisie, in the main examines only social effects of human actions in the fields of production and exchange that are actually intended…As individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account. As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers. The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions. What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees — what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock! In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate…the harmony of supply and demand is transformed into the very reverse opposite…”
Fundamentally, then, Marxism is not indifferent to the question of the planet’s ecosystems, although it is true that socialists owe a large debt to the generations of environmental activists and ecologists who have made certain that so-called “green” issues are now the subject of everyday debate. But there is a key issue that Marxism brings to the debate: what forces are responsible for the crisis, and what needs to be done to end it.
Class a key issue. Green political theory, from the “deep ecology” movement through to simple conservationism, tends strongly to ignore the issue of class relations in capitalist society. In this sense Greens borrow heavily from classic Liberalism: at the root of all society is the individual, and therefore all individuals share responsibility for the outcomes of social activity. All well and good in the world of ideas, where all “men” are equal before God and the Law, but under any system of private property, equality comes at a price for the majority, and that is surrender of control over the conditions of production to a wealthy élite. In return, the vast majority of the world’s population is “free” to be paid for a tiny fraction of the value of their labour, or “free” to starve. The “conditions of production” means everything which influences economic output, including the soil, air and water.
Any analysis of the global ecological crisis which ignores differential social power is ultimately flawed. It is true that an important current of Green thinking does take into account social power, and does make strong criticisms of capitalism and patriarchy more generally. This current takes a large lead from anarchist traditions, emphasising local control and direct involvement in the productive process. But this approach leads only to temporary personal solutions, because it does not deal with the key issue of the global market and who controls it.
The harsh reality of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and its protocols means that the only possible response to capitalist globalisation is planet-wide organising. This means providing leadership to the industrial working class in the major cities of the developed world, as well as threatened Indigenous and rural communities. A large chunk of the ecological movement inclines towards blaming working people for the actions of their bosses and the capitalist State. Such liberal individualism is backward-looking and divisive, and only serves the interests of the corporations. And that means having a clear idea of who is with us and who is not: class analysis. The poor are not responsible for the destruction of ecosystems, indeed they are often the main human victims of it.
Historic origins. For hundreds of thousands of years, human society lived in relative harmony with the natural environment. Key to understanding why the planet has been despoiled over the last ten thousand years, and in particular the last thousand, is that private property arose; most of the population was alienated from the earth and, under capitalism, from almost every social transaction except the exchange of commodities.
The advent of private property, around 8,000 BC, corresponds quite well with early evidence of sustained environmental damage around the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It was a historic overturn, and key to the success of the new system was the relegation of women from the leaders of society to private servitude within a patriarchal family structure, a point made by some leading ecofeminist authors. It often surprises newly active feminists that, once again, Engels, the collaborator of Marx, provided one of the earliest political analyses of the overthrow of matriarchal, communal society: The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State.
It is difficult to overstate the revolutionary nature of private property, compared to what came before. Here was a system where individuals retained first some of their own share of the community’s surplus, then, because this progressively freed them from the productive process, came to control other people’s share. That was the origin of the class system. It then became necessary to create an ideology to explain and justify this new state of affairs.
This included the invention of a system of laws which divided and regulated property, a religious credo emphasising the supremacy of male images, and a social structure centred on segregated households headed by men acting in the image of the god(s) they’d just devised. The patriarchs also granted themselves “ownership” of the natural world: “every beast of the earth,…every fowl of the air, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb…” (Genesis, Chapter 9).
The idea that things were only useful as commodities did not arise overnight, nor in one place. But certainly by the time Rome was founded and the Jews were exiled in Babylon, the ideological framework of the private property system was in place. A number of early civilisations disappeared, it is now thought, because they placed too much pressure on the local environment. By the time of Julius Caesar, most of the Mediterranean coast had been denuded of its forests, and the Fertile Crescent was, in parts, turning to desert.
When capitalism arose, it merely accelerated a process that had been operating for millennia. The accumulation of the social surplus — the profit system — is bound up with the degradation of the global environment. Once the patriarchal idea took hold, once nature was defined as the dominion of the ruling class, the resulting crisis was inevitable. Those who benefited from the labour of others had no need to care about the ruin of the environment. They were insulated from it, they were the self-defined masters of it and besides, the world was large, and “Mother Nature” would continue to be an endless source of wealth and a bottomless pit for garbage.
Two thousand years ago, of course, the global economy did not exist, and the environment was able to tolerate these local catastrophes. Still, the seeds of the current ecological crises had been sown through the ideology that “Civilized Man” was separate from and superior to “inferior beings” like women, “barbarians,” slaves — and all other species.
Capitalist globalisation means that the contradiction between the exponential use of resources for the enrichment of a few and the limited rate of regeneration of those resources (those that can be replenished) can no longer be avoided.
Only one way out. The various ecological crises facing the world in the century to come are profound. Sure, capitalism was able to alleviate ozone depletion by simple substitution of products. But most of the emerging catastrophes are insoluble, both economically and technically, in a system which abhors planning and which locks up wealth in a few private hands. The ultimate contradiction of capitalism is that it socialises the scope of production, breaking down local barriers to the market economy, but privatises the control and the benefits of the society-wide productive effort.
The key issue in dealing with the major ecological problems is, firstly, to map out strategies to deal with them, and then to apply the necessary resources to repair the damage. This is not possible when the resources and the social power are concentrated in the hands of a minority. Global Warming is not going to be stopped when it is so profitable to burn fossil fuels and when the wealthy are shielded from the effects of that process. Bill Gates can move to higher ground, a luxury not open to the populations of low-lying Pacific Island nations. The salinity crisis affecting most of Australia’s agricultural land will continue for as long as the last dollar of profit can be extracted from the last patch of good soil — and then agribusiness will find another river system to dam, another forest to cut down, until the last is destroyed. And then, what few species survive would compete with the barbaric remnants of global civilisation for vanishing food sources. Unless, of course, a stop is put to it.
This bleak vision is the inexorable consequence of capitalist plunder of the planet — but we must not let them get that far! The Green movement has correctly identified many of the issues, and proposed some of the solutions, but without a second revolutionary planet-wide social change, such solutions are utopian. Restoring the balance between human society and the global ecosystem does not mean a regression to earlier times — there never were any “Noble Savages.” But it does require a social system where all the inputs and outputs are in harmony and where the health of the environment is a core consideration in the management of the global economy. Sure we can think globally and act locally when it comes to delittering beaches. But the global ecological crisis requires us to act globally. Human society is sustainable — private accumulation is not. If the issues identified by The Greens worry you, act today. Become a Red! Save the planet, join the revolution.