Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Rupert Read’s ‘Ecologism’ is Watered Down Ecosocialism for Liberals

The Green House Think Tank’s report Green Politics and the Left will be launched at Progressive Politics in Britain, to be held at the Adrian Cadbury Lecture Theatre between 18.00 and 20.00, Aston University in Birmingham, on Tuesday 16 February 2016. The report contains seven essays on the new dynamics of Ecologism, Socialism, Democracy and Republicanism.

Clearly the impetus behind this report is the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party, and the possible threat this holds to halt the steady progression of the Green Party over recent years, so I approached it warily. I must say though, that I was surprised to be in agreement with a fair amount of the content of the report.

The first chapter, written by Rupert Read of Norwich Green Party, is I think, a bit confused. He lays out the reasons he thinks defines the differences between Corbyn’s Labour and the Green Party, whilst welcoming Corbyn’s election and then goes onto to what reads as a quite defensive argument for people to remain in the Green Party, rather than jump ship to Labour.

Whilst in some ways his essay is a reheating of the tired old Green slogan of ‘Not Left or Right, but Forward’ type of nonsense, what he actually outlines as Green philosophy, and terms ‘Ecologism’, is pretty close to a description of Ecosocialism in some ways. 

He also trots out some Green Party policies as evidence of this ‘Ecologism’ such the Land Value Tax (a policy promoted  by the Liberal Party under Lloyd George) and  Citizen’s Income (CI) (this policy was voted on last year in the Swiss Parliament, and was defeated, by amongst others, Swiss Green MPs). That's not to say that there is anything wrong with these policies, and I understand Read's context with CI particularly, reducing 'paid labour' necessity. But it does little to advance his argument generally.

Ecosocialism would have 'freely associated' labour of course, which is to say, free from the extraction of surplus value, profit for capital. Ecosocialists also accept that paid labour is not the only revolutionary force, and that capitalism treats domestic labour (and reproduction) as a free benefit of the patriarcal system, which has been coopted by capitalism as a further surplus value.  

Where he is on firmer ground, is when he describes Corbyn’s Labour (and socialism generally) as addicted to economic growth, and the disastrous consequences that this has for the planet’s ecology. What he calls socialism, not unreasonably, is the twentieth century versions of socialism. Ecosocialists will agree wholeheartedly, that twentieth century socialism was just as bad if not worse for the Earth’s ecology as capitalism (also addicted to growth), but Read makes no concession for Ecosocialism, and seems to be just as stuck in the past as he says Corbyn is. And where is the critique of ecocapitalism?

Read also refers to the commons, a very important concept for Ecosocialists, saying money should be a commons, not a commodity. The whole commons concept though goes way beyond this timid idea, and is at the heart of Ecosocialist philosophy. The commons is a way of sharing, communing with and caring for the land and stands in direct opposition to enclosures and private property rights.

But the interesting part of the essay is Read’s description of the historical lineage of ‘Ecologism’, in which he credits Karl Polanyi’s work The Great Transformation, where Polanyi theorises that the capitalist system (and the competing socialism) commodifies labour fictitiously. Polanyi's politics were somewhat social democratic in nature. 

Polanyi’s  book has generally been interpreted as reformist by capitalist commentators, figures such as Joseph Stiglitz, ex World Bank economist, and this is probably the spirit within which Read is advocating it.

But The Great Transformation can be interpreted in more than one way. It has also influenced more radical thinkers like the Social Ecologist Murray Bookchin, who see in the book an appreciation that for almost all of human history, capitalism was rejected as a way to run society. Social Ecology is very similar to Ecosocialism, and Bookchin described himself as a revolutionary anarchist, definitely not some reformist liberal.

Furthermore, the introduction to this report (written by others perhaps) cites William Morris as an influence on Green philosophy, when it says:

‘William Morris articulated four claims to a decent life: a healthy body; an active mind in sympathy with the past, the present and the future; an occupation for a healthy body and an active mind; and finally, a beautiful world to live in. This is a much better basis for understanding and creating a twenty first century progressive politics.’

There is no doubt that Morris was a socialist, who I am sure would have been horrified to be labelled as a ‘progressive’ (like Mandelson etc) and he is indeed counted by Ecosocialists as one of us. And anyone who has read Morris’ novel News from Nowhere, which describes an Ecosocialist utopia, will be in no doubt that he was a revolutionary, not a reformist. In one of my favourite passages in the book, Morris is told how the site of the Houses of Parliament is now, in this future world, used for keeping horse dung, as there was no other use for the buildings.

It should come as no great surprise that some Greens have an aversion to describing themselves as ‘socialist’ or even Ecosocialist (if they know what this means). Caroline Lucas, the Green Party’s single MP, is a notable exeception, in that she has said that Greens have ‘socialist principles’, but this is fairly rare amongst prominent Greens.

I am reminded of Ecosocialist writer Joel Kovel’s story of when he ran for the US Green Party Presidential nomination in 2000. He finished third, with Ralph Nader gaining the nomination, but Kovel says of his campaign tour, ‘if I had a dollar for every time someone has told me that they liked what I was saying, but that the term socialism puts off voters, I’d be a very rich man.’

Viewed from this year’s US primary process, it doesn’t look to have done Bernie Sanders much harm, and there is no point in avoiding the truth anyway, by trying to hide Green philosophy behind such terms as ‘Ecologism.’

Whether Read is consciously trying to do this, or not, he needs to bite to the bullet and call Green philosophy what it is, Ecosocialist. There is no way the planet can be saved by a reformist ecoliberalism, we need to pass through capitalism and into an Ecosocialist future.

Ecosocialism is a much more developed philosophy than Ecologism, so come on Rupert, admit that you are a fellow traveller and be done with it.  

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