Sunday, 24 May 2020

‘Green New Deal’ and ‘Green Deal’ are opposites – Scotland has to choose



Written by Robin McAlpine and first published at Source News and Analysis from Common Weal

MY PERENNIAL CRITICISM of the Left is that it manages to be correct on high-level principles but bad at actually fighting the fight. As chatter about ‘afterwards’ grows and grows, it is even more important to focus. The future is either a Green New Deal or a Green Deal. They’re opposites and lead in opposite directions. We have to choose.

The challenge for those who want fairness is first to understand the difference, and second, to fight for the one that delivers it. This is especially critical in Scotland.
So I’m begging you – don’t be fooled. Get informed and get angry.

What is a Green New Deal?

I won’t go into the history of the Green New Deal because there is loads written about it. But basically after the 2008 financial crisis a small group of London-based left economists tried to describe how financial, economic, environmental and social problems can be tackled in an integrated way.

The concept of Green New Deal has suffered a bit from that left problem of failing really to get beyond principles. I mean, I don’t disagree with them in the slightest, but without more detail they can be (and are) distorted into something else.

Fundamentally, the purpose of a Green New Deal is to accept that the environment requires the economy to change, and so that change must be done in a way that creates greater fairness and reduces the social harm of free market economics while restructuring the economy so that it can’t return to the practices which did the social and environmental harm in the first place.

It contains a degree of cynicism – because, as we will see, it is quite possible to save the environment and still create an appalling social dystopia. You can save the environment without saving people. So the Green New Deal welds them together.

The fundamental characteristic of a Green New Deal is that it is about economic and social justice and not just environmental justice.

Again, the lack of detail in most conversations about Green New Deals means how exactly this is to be done is either hard to derive or is a confusing series of options. But it should basically work by ensuring collective and democratic ownership of the sectors which are key to environmental harm (like energy) and making major public intervention in others (like housing).

Then, you use the interventions to achieve economic and social change. House-building can create different kinds of jobs, energy can include manufacturing which creates different kinds of jobs. Attached to ideas like job guarantees and greater regulation, we create a more equal and better society.

That can range from the modest (a kind of revival of the post-war Keynesian approach to development) to the radical (a form of ecosocialism). But even the modest end expects big change to come from the transition.

That’s a Green New Deal.

So what is a Green Deal?

A Green Deal is why high-level principles are such a problem. Looking at the rising demand for environmental action from the public (and especially from a younger generation), the people who are behind both climate damage and social failure (i.e. the big corporations) tried to work out how to defuse the situation.

So what they did was come up with a system for taking the ‘New’ out of a ‘Green New Deal’ – which of course they then did literally. Doing this was remarkably easy.

All they had to do was claim completely to support the climate change objectives but decouple the environmental element from the social and economic elements. Their vision is Amazon and Facebook and BP still ruling the world as a low-wage hell-hole – but with renewable energy.

In fact there is a good reason that Green Dealers obsess over carbon; it disguises the real problem. It disguises the fact that the global economy is systematically fucking all the environmental systems on which life on earth rely.

Where a Green New Deal works largely because of the mixture of labour and environmental regulation with direct government intervention and a different economic ownership pattern, a Green Deal drops the regulation part, most of the direct government intervention part and all of the economic ownership part.

It is based around ‘incentivising investment’. Green Deals are highly neoliberal and see giant and powerful investment managers, soil-destroying agrobusinesses, Big Oil, plastic polluters and strip-mining companies not as the problem but the solution.

In particular, because Green Dealers are so ideologically bound to the financial sector they have been trying to work out how to make sure that its dominant role continues. There is a strong argument that these investment funds have done more environmental damage than any other entity in history (they basically own all the oil businesses).

And yet the theory of a Green Deal is that if only you can properly ‘incentivise’ these investment funds to stop investing in the wrong things and start investing in the right things, the problem will fix itself.

It won’t – and even if it did, it will simply make worse all the other social and economic failures of the world economy. But it green-washes some of the worst players in environmental destruction and guarantees them control of the world economy for another 30 years.

If you scratch just beneath the surface of this neoliberal fantasy it starts to fall apart – I mean, in this free market model with its low regulation but high ‘incentivisation’ (give public money to the already rich), who is actually paying to install your new heating system? Because it’s going to cost you £20k. It’s a con designed to ‘sound Greta, act Trump’.

You can tell a Green Deal in a second. It involves setting targets, declaring ‘climate emergencies’ and making theatrical speeches about how much you love trees. But there is no identifiable action and when asked what is actually being done there is a lot of talk of ‘investment opportunities’. That just means yet more wealth-stripping.

Where is this battle happening?

At a global level, there is no battle. That’s because for all the rhetoric of globalization about building a better world through multilateral cooperation, at the multinational level only the super-rich get to play. In the late 1990s, the World Social Forum was created to try and balance the power of Davos. Let’s just say Davos won. There is no serious global campaign for a Green New Deal.

For the US, the battle has already been lost. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren were the only real chance; Biden is anti-Green New Deal. In the world’s most powerful economy, the battle is between subterfuge and total denial.

In Europe, we get to the heart of the problem – it is here that ‘Green Deal’ was invented. There is much more social democracy in Europe, so there is much more pressure for a proper Green New Deal.

However, hard as it is for left-minded Europhiles to admit it, the EU is a powerless parliament stuck onto a much more powerful committee of European governments – and they’re all right-wing Tories just now. It is they who originated the concept of Green Deal. It is the official EU policy.

I mean, have a look at ‘Renovation Wave, the EU’s plan for tackling carbon emissions from the housing sector. See if you can work out who is paying the many billions this will cost. Then note how easy it is to see who’s pocket the money will end up in.

It’s barking mad. Proposing that a single street might have each of its houses properly retrofitted individually over say 15 years makes sense only to a free market evangelist. It is the definition of wasteful inefficiency and an open invitation to poor quality work. Unless there is a change (and a substantial one) in the EU, there isn’t a battle for a Green New Deal there. That happened and the Green New Deal lost.

At a UK level, I think we can safely say that a Green New Deal is off the table for the next five years. Beyond that the lead time to get one started is (conservatively) three or four years. Even a Starmer government in 2026 would mean no progress in the UK in this decade – and god knows where we’ll be by then.

So that means that, if you care in the slightest about a Green New Deal, your options start and end with Scotland. It’s not just that we’re exceptionally well placed to deliver one because of our outstanding natural resources, it’s that it would be easy to generate public support for it. So what are Scotland’s options?

Scotland’s options: a choice must be made

As I have already pointed out, Green New Deals remain a bit vague. This is a mistake; in the end they are a reform programme wrapped round a big engineering project. To get to the reform bit you need to understand the engineering bit.

So, in frustration, Common Weal undertook an enormous project next year to put the detail into a Green New Deal for Scotland. First, we committed ourselves to tackling not only climate change but all seven major environmental threats to the world. We committed not to ‘reducing’ our negative impact but taking it to zero. And we said ‘impact anywhere – not just in Scotland’ – so no dumping on the global south.

Then, we broke it down into major areas for action (buildings, heating, electricity, transport, food, land, resources and so on). Then we worked with experts to establish how, technically, it could be achieved. We then costed that and structured the spending in a way that achieved all the social goals of a Green New Deal.

We published it in November as the Common Home Plan. It is a comprehensive, costed, detailed plan for a Scottish Green New Deal. It is realistic and achievable and specific. You know exactly what you’ll get.

The other option on the table is the Scottish Government’s Green Deal. This has been heavily influenced by ‘Charlotte Street thinking’, the perpetual dominance of Edinburgh wealth managers on government policy. It involves the usual eco-theatre (‘climate emergency’ announcements, target-setting) but only one real action.

At the COP21 conference in Glasgow the wealth funds were going to be offered a very lucrative ‘green investment opportunity (announced personally by the First Minister). This is for global investors who are being offered “tens of billions worth of future opportunities” in energy and housing.

It is at the ‘call for projects’ stage where corporations come forward and say ‘if you give us money and the rights to your wind/land, we’ll take all that pesky energy/housing transition off your hands’. Which is a way of describing a £3 billion sell-off of Scotland’s renewable assets.

Or, to put it another way, this is the privatisation of all of Scotland’s most valuable resources – in perpetuity. It will simply repeat the same mistakes made during the oil boom of a massive public resource being handed to the already rich.

This will give pocket change to the Scottish Government to sprinkle initiatives around the country which will look like something is happening. But I call £3 billion pocket change because when the cost of a proper Green New Deal is more like £170 billion, it is.

There is no economic or social reform package attached to this , no plan for how any of the engineering supply chain will be captured by Scotland – more hand-wringing no doubt. The rich get richer, the rest of us have to spend our own money on their electricity generated by our natural resources.

And there is no way to block this in the Scottish Parliament because no-one in the SNP ranks ever rebels and so they’ll simply form yet another SNP/Tory coalition to push this through.

This is a choice to be made, not a compromise to be struck

The independence movement has been so broken by the last six years that people with ‘Bairns Not Bombs’ stickers still on their cars are asking me if there is any way we can ‘synthesise’ the Common Home Plan with the Scottish Government’s Green Deal.

No there isn’t. If the Scottish Government sells off Scotland’s remaining natural assets and all transition activity is in the corporate sector, the finances of the Common Home Plan (or any Green New Deal for Scotland) become impossible. Our plan is based on doing this collectively and through an industrial strategy which captures the economy gain of the transition for everyone.

We can finance £170 billion of spending because, doing it our way, it generates more tax revenue from expanded economic activity than it costs to finance the spending. But if the public hands over the source of that economic activity to foreign multinationals, it’s all over.

No matter how much pleading a future government does, the source of Scotland’s future prosperity will be privately owned by overseas multinationals and investment funds. The only option would then be to renationalise it, which is just enormous amounts of completely unnecessary spend which screw up the finance model leaving us trapped.

My current fear is that, given the alarming (indeed unacceptable) nature of the advisory group set up by the First Minister to produce a recovery plan, I very much fear that this renewables fire-sale might be kicking off over the summer. If you hear ‘green investment’, be very worried.

Right now, I have no further advice for you other than to be informed. With democracy in the SNP eroded and currently suspended altogether, with the media we have, with physical distancing rules preventing protest and with the option of an SNP/Tory coalition to get this through Holyrood, the virus has created an opportunity to strip Scotland of its future at its most vulnerable moment.

Right now I can’t tell you how to stop this. But I can beg you not to be fooled, and if you’re in the SNP and you care about these things, I urge you to think hard about means of challenging this which I can’t think of.

This is our collective future. If it is handed to the rich under cover of virus recovery, fury must follow.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

For a United Ecosocialist States of Europe!


Written by Allan Todd

 A tragic opportunity

The Covid-19 pandemic has already been a real tragedy for tens of thousands of UK individuals and their families. And, as information slowly emerges, it is clearly very much a neoliberal tragedy.

Since 2010, successive Tory governments - & the Tory-LibDem coalition - have deliberately underfunded our NHS, both as part of their austerity, and as steps to weaken it for further stealth privatisation. And, even though ‘Exercise Cygnus’ in 2016 showed just how unprepared our NHS was for a huge pandemic - which was seen as a much greater threat to UK citizens than terrorism - May and Johnson both ignored requests to increase the number of Intensive Care Unit beds and to replenish stocks of in-date Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

More recently, Johnson and his government have repeatedly lied about having sufficient - and safe - stocks of PPE for frontline health and social care workers; and have failed to introduce, as constantly urged to do so by the World Health Organisation, a ‘Test, Trace and Isolate’ strategy. All these deliberate failures to act in the right ways, at the right times, have resulted in the UK having the highest number of deaths in Europe, and the second highest in the world.

Thus it will now be much harder for the supporters of, and the apologists for, the neoliberal system to argue that the UK was, pre-Covid-19, an exemplar of social care and economic equality. Consequently, in some ways, this tragic crisis is also an opportunity for change, as it will be much easier to make the case that the pre-Covid system essentially best-served the interests of the 1% alone.

However, a word of warning: it is not just an opportunity for radical progressives to push for fundamental changes to this failing and grossly-unequal system - it will also be an opportunity, in the immediate aftermath, for those on the other side of the barricades to push forward with their agenda.

And this is an opportunity they are already planning to take advantage of: hence recent comments, from various right-wing quarters, about the need to impose pay freezes on public sector employees; to “set aside” the National Minimum Wage and “restrictive” legislation regarding employee and environmental protections; and the need for more austerity to re-coup the costs of this pandemic.

For those who doubt that the ‘other side’ will act in this way post-lockdown, try reading Naomi Klein’s 2014 book about what she calls ‘Disaster Capitalism’:

Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine, 2014

Internationalism

The rapid spread across the world of this Coronavirus has underlined once more, in a very deadly way, just how such crises have important global causes, dimensions and impacts - in a similar but more graphic way than the 2008 banking crisis did. 

In the same way, this pandemic has also shown the importance of global solutions - and, for those who have not forgotten the ever-worsening twin crises of global warming and biodiversity loss, it is even more clear now how, ultimately, such crises will only be fully solved on a global, international, basis. As Brexit looms, a useful starting platform would be that of Europe. 

George Orwell, in the journal Partisan Review, July-August 1947

George Orwell recognised that fascism and Nazi Germany would not truly be defeated by military means alone - he also argued that there needed to be fundamental economic and social reforms to end the inequalities and injustices of pre-war Europe. As History confirms, in 1945, the majority of voters in the UK and elsewhere saw the end of the war as an opportunity to transform their societies into various types of welfare capitalism - a state of affairs that lasted till the end of the 1970s, when neoliberalism began to roll back those gains.

The idea of a Socialist United States of Europe was first raised, as early as September 1914, by Leon Trotsky, in his The War and the International, at the start of WW1. That call was made in the belief that, after the end of the war, it would be necessary to make a clean break with the old order’s ‘business as usual’ that had led to the horrors of war; and to move the whole of Europe on to a new and better future.

If we are to turn this pandemic into a positive, then it is vital that the current crisis is seen as an opportunity, in some ways comparable to those presented by the two world wars of the last century. 

Even more than the 2008 banking crisis, Covid-19 is sapping the foundations of the rotten neoliberal ‘order’ - not just financially, but also politically, with many now seeing the glimpse of a better way of doing things. And that creating another, better, world IS possible - if the political will is there. Some shapes of this better world which have emerged in the lockdown - such as cleaner air, more free time, working from home, etc. - point the way to the changes we need to make.

As many are increasingly arguing, the Climate Emergency will, ultimately, only be tackled on a global basis - which is why ecosocialists are committed to internationalism. Thus, as an important first step, Trotsky and George Orwell’s slogans need to be transformed into a call for a United Ecosocialist States of Europe.

The Extreme Centre

The urgent need for such a political entity from Tariq Ali’s book, The Extreme Centre:

Tariq Ali, The Extreme Centre, 2015

As well as warning about the various threats to democracy, and to the living standards of the 99%, posed by the rise of neoliberalism, this book deals with the political dangers posed by what Tariq Ali calls the pro-neoliberal ‘Extreme Centre’.

Prior to 2015, the political situation in the UK was dominated by main parties that, to different degrees, were united in offering to serve neoliberal interests - a situation described by Tariq Ali as one of: 

“an extreme centre, a trilateral monolith, made up of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition plus Labour.” (p.17).

For almost 5 years, from 2015-20, that “trilateral monolith” was broken up by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party, and the Labour Party’s consequent moves away from Blairite ‘New’ Labour, pro-neoliberal, positions.

But, with Jeremy Corbyn no longer Leader, and with Keir Starmer now in his place, it looks possible that much of the Corbyn Project will now be rolled back if, as some fear, Keir Starmer tries to move the Labour Party back to some kind of an opportunistic ‘Centre’ position.

If such a development were to take place, this would be a political and human tragedy because events since 1979 have shown, with increasingly-severe impacts on the 99%, that a return to any tri-partite ‘Extreme Centre’ consensus on maintaining neoliberalism will result in ever-more suffering.

The neoliberal elites, protected and enabled by the ‘Extreme Centre’, are still both immensely wealthy and powerful - and forces of radical opposition are still small and often disunited. But, even if the Labour Party starts to drift back to that ‘Extreme Centre’, those who form the core of this radical opposition - in the Labour Party, in the Green Party, and elsewhere - are the only hope of stopping and reversing capitalism’s destructive activities.

Ever since the 1970s, and the first Earth Day, history has shown time and time again that, ultimately, market-based ecological ‘solutions’ haven’t and won’t stop the crisis.  In fact, to use a phrase of Walter Benjamin’s, neoliberalism is driving the world “into the abyss”.

Hence the urgent need to move, as quickly as possible, to an ecosocialist future - as Michael Löwy said in Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe (2015):

“Ecosocialism is a political current based on an essential insight: that preserving the ecological equilibrium of the planet and therefore an environment favourable to living species, including ours, is incompatible with the expansive and destructive logic of the capitalist system.” (p.vii).

Parties of the ‘Extreme Centre’ will never stop that destructive ‘logic’.
  
No Going Back!


Even if, under Keir Starmer, Labour do win the next election by adopting a more ‘centre’ position, that won’t save us from the Climate Emergency - or solve the other pressing problems.

Thus it’s imperative to make a clear political break from all those who belong to that ‘Extreme Centre’. For those who are still unconvinced about the need to make rapid moves towards ecosocialism, it’s useful to remember what James Hansen said in his book, Storms of My Grandchildren (2011):

“Planet Earth,…the world in which civilization developed, the world with climate patterns that we know and stable shore-lines, is in imminent peril. The urgency of the situation crystalized only in the past few years. We now have clear evidence of the crisis, … The startling conclusion is that continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not just the other millions of species on the planet but also the survival of humanity itself - and the timetable is shorter than we thought.” (p.ix)

Hence the importance of Extinction Rebellion’s argument that, post-lockdown, there can be ‘No Going Back’ to the failed and rotten system we’ve put up with for the past 40 years. A system so broken that it’s:

  • pushed millions into dependency on foodbanks - including many who are in employment, such as the nurses this government now wants to ‘reward’ for their Covid-19 sacrifices with another pay freeze

  • forced thousands into rough-sleeping, via the Bedroom Tax and insufficient affordable properties for rent

  • created, for the first time in over 100 years, a society in which life expectancy has stalled - and, for women in poorer areas, has actually declined

  • consistently refused to take the steps necessary for protecting UK citizens from the growing threats from global warming

Yet this awful health tragedy has shown - far more clearly than the financial crisis of 2008 - the gross inequalities existing in the UK. It has also shown how many of these problems can be tackled: for example, at present, rough-sleeping has been almost eliminated, overnight.

When we eventually come out of this pandemic, bruised and battered, what we must not do is attempt to ‘re-adjust’ ourselves to the so-called ‘normality’ of neoliberalism. In preparation for the tasks ahead, we should be watching Ken Loach’s excellent documentary, The Spirit of 45, which shows how the WW2 generations voted overwhelmingly for a better world in May 1945 - and made great steps towards achieving that better world, which lasted through the 1950s & 1960s, only to fall back after the oil crisis of 1973; and then, under Thatcher’s neoliberalism, suffer a fatal blow.

In particular, it’s vital to grasp that the human tragedies, social disruptions and financial costs of this pandemic are just a taste of the chaos and human suffering to come, as the impacts of the worsening Climate Emergency increase in severity.

At this month’s virtual Hay Festival, Mark Lynas will be talking about his new book, Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency:

Mark Lynas, Our Final Warning, 2020

His book (which is an even-more frightening update of his 2007 book) sets out, in stages of 1C degree, all the various scenarios for global warming impacts - from a 1C increase in average global temperatures above pre-industrial levels (where we are now already); to those which would accompany a rise of 6C (which some climate scientists and the IPCC are now warning is on the cards by the end of this century, if there are no immediate and drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions).

With the impacts of unchecked global warming going to be so much worse than those of this current pandemic, a ‘middle/liberal/centre’ position - whether pro-neoliberal, or half-way between neoliberalism and ecosocialism - is no longer tenable.

A Red-Green United Front

“Another world IS Possible!”  But, to get that other world, we need to recognise that the old order’s ‘business as usual’ has led us to the brink of an abyss - if not ended, it will push us and the planet over the edge. Instead, we need to be pushing for a completely new content for social life - giving real dignity to health & social care workers, and to all other workers - and for serious measures to cut carbon emissions.

In the present circumstances, this is going to need an active realignment of radical forces which are prepared to work together for common goals. 


On paper, in the UK, political groups such as RedGreen Labour, the Green Left, Left Unity and Socialist Resistance - and organisations such as Another Europe, War on Want, Global Justice Now and DiEM25 - have much more in common than what divides them.

Only such an active Red-Green Coalition of Radicals - which breaks with ‘business as usual’ and unites with like-minded people - can save us. Fortunately, there is a real basis for meaningful co-operation and joint campaigning between these groups. Consequently, history won’t forgive us if we continue to sit in our separate ‘camps’ and let this opportunity pass by. 

It’s not a question - certainly not at this stage - of merging to form a new party. It is completely understandable that many of those in the Labour Party - though disappointed by the outcome of the recent leadership elections - are deciding to remain members, in order to resist the dropping of the Corbynite policy programme.

The same holds true for those in the Green Party (especially those in Green Left) who, despite concerns over last December’s pact with the LibDems, remain to resist any shift away from the party’s commendable radical commitments to social and economic justice - something the right of the party has never been comfortable with.

Though, of course, as I’ve found out, those who do abandon old political loyalties and do decide to leave Labour or the Greens, will find a very warm welcome in Left Unity!

In the present circumstances, the important thing is to avoid the bitterness and narrow sectarian party political divisions and separations which are sometimes a feature on the left of the political spectrum!  There’s far too much at stake to hold back because of political loyalties which are too narrow to take us forward. It makes no political sense to operate separately anymore - if it ever did. Zoom gives us a wonderful chance to start joint discussions and planning, so that we can ‘hit the ground running’ once the lock-down ends.

History tends to give only fleeting opportunities for fundamental change - if they are missed, the usual outcome is increased reaction. The past 40 years - in particular, the last decade - have shown only too clearly what kind of reaction can be expected if we let this opportunity slip from our grasp.

Ideally, what’s needed is an ecosocialist and internationalist Red-Green Coalition of Radicals - like the Zimmerwald Movement which developed in 1915-16 before the crisis of WW1 ended. Referring again to Michael Löwy (2015):  

“The central premise of ecosocialism, already suggested by the term itself, is that nonecological socialism is a dead end and a nonsocialist ecology cannot confront the present ecological crisis.” (p.xi)

Allan Todd is a member of Left Unity, an environmental and anti-fascist activist, and author of Revolutions 1789-1917

Monday, 11 May 2020

Review - The Future of the Left (is Green) by Murray Bookchin

The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct ...

The Future of the Left is an essay written by Murray Bookchin in 2002, but first published in 2015, in Bookchin’s collection of essays The Next Revolution. The book is edited by Debbie Bookchin and Blair Taylor and runs through Bookchin’s fairly unique take on the politics of the Left.

The Future of the Left is almost sixty pages long, where Bookchin looks into the possibilities of Marxist socialism, but laments its deficiencies, more so that of contemporary Marxists and the twentieth century regimes inspired by Marx, but the old boy himself also gets some criticism from Bookchin. In particular, he labels the socialist experiments as centralised, bureaucratic and authoritarian, which is undeniably true.

After a promising beginning to the twentieth century, where socialism seemed as though it might replace capitalism as the dominant world order, with especially the Russian revolution offering an alternative pole of attraction, Bookchin says:

…what has occurred since the mid-point of the twentieth century is a very different development: a period of cultural and theoretical decadence so far as revolutionary ideas and movements are concerned; a period of decomposition, in fact, that has swept up nearly all the philosophical, cultural, ethical, and social standards that the Enlightenment had produced…as social theory has retreated from the lusty debating forums of 1930s socialism to the cloistered seminar rooms of contemporary universities.

Now that the twentieth century has come to a close, we are justified in asking, why has humanity’s emancipation failed to achieve fruition? Why, in particular, has the proletariat failed to make its predicted revolution?

Bookchin offers some answers to these questions, accusing Marxists of failing to understand the changing nature of the working class, as industrial production dwindled with workers increasingly moving into ‘white collar’ salaried jobs and professions. The aspiration to emulate successful rich people, rather than despise them, in this changing cultural landscape, being largely dismissed as ‘false consciousness’ by Marxist thinkers. Bookchin points out that 40% of the US public owned stock on financial markets at the turn of the millennium. He says Marxism fetishizes a kind of mysticism in the working class.

In western countries in the second half of the twentieth century, driven by an almost post scarcity, capitalism has managed to make changes in cultural norms, home ownership, status automobiles, and foreign travel have become fashionable for the masses, boosting consumerism with advertising for the next must have product. These are my words, but it is kind of summed up in the idea of ‘bucket lists’. Although capitalism falls into crisis from time to time, it always bounces back, stronger it seems than ever.

To those who have read some of Bookchin’s work before, like me, it comes as no surprise that he criticises Marxism and those acting in Marx’s name, but he then more surprisingly opens fire on anarchism and syndicalism. Asking if anarchism offers a better alternative to Marxism, he says:

After forty years of trying to work with this ideology, my own very considered opinion is that such a hope which I entertained as early as the 1950s, is unrealisable…In reality, anarchism has no coherent body of theory other than its commitment to an ahistorical conception of ‘personnel autonomy’.

He accuses anarchism, like Marxism, of importing alien concepts, like syndicalism and ecology, but seems to be mostly frustrated by anarchism's latent lack of organisation and distrust of ‘leaders’. He says anarchist theory is that it, anarchism, has always existed, but like the soil under the snow, the snow just needs to thaw for it come into its own. But with only a kind of primitivism to offer as an alternative society, it is doomed to failure.

With anarcho-syndicalism, citing the revolution in Catalonia in 1936, he says the unions allowed anarchist thinking to influence a disastrous reluctance to lead with a programme, after the initial success of the revolution.

So, what does Bookchin think is the future of the Left? Well, after all the criticism of Marxism and anarchism, and the accusation of importing alien concepts, he rather contradicts himself by recommending taking the best bits of both traditions and melding them into what he calls libertarian communism. This would be administered by municipalities under democratic community communalist control, with lower level assemblies having a right to recall those above them.

But he also thinks that to get to this place, the Left needs to appeal to the working and middle classes, and the best way he thinks to do this is through environmental concerns, which do affect the lower classes more, but also affect everyone. Air quality, polluted rivers and seas, and dangerous climate change, will impact on everyone, to some extent.

...the Left must focus on issues that are interclass in nature, addressing the middle as well as the working class. By the very logic of its grow-or-die imperative, capitalism may well be producing an ecological crisis that gravely imperil the integrity of life on this planet…

…Yet for capitalism to desist from its mindless expansion would be for it to commit suicide. By definition, capitalism is a competitive economy that cannot cease to expand.

Bookchin calls for a preparedness, on the part of the Left to develop a programme for a post revolutionary society in advance, around issues of a clean environment, more localised production and real democracy. Revolutions can happen quickly sometimes, and with all the uncertainty of these times, who can say what will happen? But the Left needs a coherent programme in place for when any opportunities can be forced, or arrive anyway.

Bookchin rounds off his essay thus:

In assessing the revolutionary tradition, a reasoned Left has to shake off dead traditions that, as Marx warned, weigh on the heads of the living, and commit itself to create a rational society and a rounded civilisation.    

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Capitalism and Nature - A Really Inconvenient Truth


Written by Allan Todd

Eight years before the first Earth Day in 1970, Rachel Carson was one of the earliest researchers and writers to warn about the growing threats to the natural world in the 20th. C - specifically, she focused on the dangers inherent in the use of organophosphate pesticides by large-scale agri-businesses. As a result of her studies, she concluded that: 

“The balance of nature is not the same today as in Pleistocene times, but it is still there: a complex, precise, and highly integrated system of relationships between living things which cannot safely be ignored any more than the law of gravity can be defied with impunity by a [person] perched on the edge of a cliff. The balance of nature is not a status quo; it is fluid, ever shifting, in a constant state of adjustment. [Humans], too, [are] part of this balance.”



Since she wrote her ground-breaking book in 1962, it has become frighteningly clear that the ‘ecological problem’ is now this century’s greatest problem, and that the world now faces an existential planetary crisis. In particular, it has become increasingly clear to many that capitalism is ecologically dysfunctional and inherently destructive of biodiversity. However, Rachel Carson was by no means the first to comment on the negative impacts on the natural world which accompanied the growth of industrial capitalism.

For instance, John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett (Marx and the Earth) have done much work to show that both Marx and Engels were aware of this as early as the second half of the 19th. C. Their work has established that ecological concerns were central to Marx’s critique of capitalism, based on his understanding that humankind was a part of nature, which led him to develop an ecological world view.

In particular, Marx saw capitalism’s commodification of nature leading, in practical terms, to the growing degradation of nature, thus creating a dangerous ‘metabolic rift’ - or separation - between humans and the natural world. The historian and environmentalist, Andreas Malm (The Progress of this Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World), saw Marx’s concept of the ‘metabolic rift’ as being one line of inquiry into environmental problems that: “…has outshone all others in creativity and productivity.”

Marx was also keenly aware of the importance of sustainability; and the need to think of future generations who would have to live in the world left to them:

“Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations,…”

As Foster and Burkett point out, Marx’s insight concerning ecological crises meant he understood that:

“The intensifying ecological problem of capitalist society could be traced…  to the rift in the metabolism between human beings and nature (that is, the alienation of nature) that formed the very basis of capitalism’s existence as a system, made worse by accumulation, i.e. capitalism’s own expansion.”

Both Marx and Engels understood that serious ecological problems could arise from the relationships between human economic production and the natural world, and that it was important to solve such contradictions by ensuring that human production remained in harmony with nature. This was because, ultimately, humans depended on the natural world, of which they were merely a part. Failure to do so, Engels warned, would result in serious problems:

 “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but… at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature…- but that we,…belong to nature, and exist in its midst,…” 

A later Marxist who was also fully aware of the importance of the relationship between humans and the natural world was Nikolai Bukharin who believed that the ultimate basis of materialism lay in ecology, because human beings were both the product of nature and, at the same time, a part of it.  As John Bellamy Foster (Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature) points out, “Bukharin built his analysis [of the relationship between humans and nature] on Marx’s concept of the metabolic interaction between nature and society.”

Thus we can learn useful lessons from Marx and Engels (who were not the out-and-out ‘Promethean productionists’ as is often alleged), and others who would now be seen as early ecosocialists, on how to deal with the current problems besetting the natural world. In particular, it is important to realise that capitalism - because of its global scope - has the ability to continue accumulating profits despite the damage it causes to nature in specific and scattered locations. As Paul Burkett (Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective) has noted:

“It is becoming more obvious in recent years that the natural conditions of human life (not to speak of other species of life) are increasingly threatened even as - indeed, precisely because - capital continues to accumulate.”

One important aspect to grasp concerning the issue of the metabolic rift and the ecological crises is that unlimited and continuous production and consumption is just not ecologically sustainable. Writing on this aspect in 2005, Sheila Malone (Ecosocialism or barbarism) emphasised that:

“Capitalism operates on the basis that the earth’s resources are there for limitless exploitation, and that market forces will always find a (benign) solution to a crisis.”

A society and economy that meets the true needs of both humans and nature will value different ‘commodities’: such as greater leisure time. Amongst others to point this out was Ernest Mandel (Power and Money):

 “Today we have become aware, with much delay, that dangers to the earth’s non-renewable resources, and to the natural environment of human civilization and human life, also entail that the consumption of material goods and services cannot grow in an unlimited way.”

Ian Angus (Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System) is one of many who has warned that the worsening negative impacts of capitalism could, if unchecked, very rapidly lead to the Anthropocene being the shortest of all epochs:

“Capitalism has driven the Earth System to a crisis point in the relationship between humanity and the rest of nature. If business as usual continues, the first full century of the Anthropocene will be marked by rapid deterioration of our physical, social, and economic environment.”

All this should make it clear that for an economy to be ecologically sustainable, it needs to heal the metabolic rift by re-establishing a respectful metabolism with nature - and, in particular, by accepting the need to protect and conserve the land for present and future generations. 

This is particularly relevant to the current forms of capitalist agricultural production which treats the natural world only as part of the productive process itself. Whilst no agricultural production can fail to have some impacts on nature, those of global capitalism’s highly-industrialised agriculture are so negative because, instead of growing food for use, it grows it mainly for profit.

Destruction of the natural world

One of those to have made clear how capitalist agriculture is environmentally irrational and unsustainable is Fred Magdoff. In a 2015 article:


he focused on a range of negative impacts concerning agriculture in the US - but many of his comments about capitalist agriculture’s impacts on ecosystems are applicable globally:

“There is loss of biodiversity as native plant species are eradicated to grow the crops desired for sale in the market The loss of habitat for diverse species means that there is also a loss of natural control mechanisms…All of the common decisions and practices in the agricultural system…[are rational] only from the very narrow perspective of trying to make profits within a capitalist system.”

Of the many negative impacts of global capitalist agriculture (apart from its high emissions of greenhouse gases), one of the most dramatic is related to land use, deforestation and biodiversity/species loss - which is particularly marked in the Amazonian rainforest. This acts as the ‘lungs’ of the planet, and is an essential part of Earth’s ecological equilibrium. In the last 50 years or so, one third of the world’s woodland has been destroyed. As pointed out by Ian Angus:

“Most of the land now being converted to agriculture was formerly tropical forest, so…tropical forest loss continues to accelerate.”  This is a huge factor in the current ecological crises: “Brazil’s tropical rain forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, cut down or burnt to create short-term grazing land for cattle to produce quick profits for big landowners.“


Much of the destruction of such important natural habitats is connected to the global meat and dairy industries. These need, at the very least, to be drastically reduced, if we are to create sustainable agro-ecosystems that work for people instead of for corporate profits.

Just how much biodiversity loss has been taking place because of capitalist agriculture - as well as global warming - was shown by Elizabeth Kolbert. In her book, The Sixth Extinction: A Unnatural History, she wrote about what is known as the ‘Sixth Extinction’, and to ‘background extinction’ rates. The normal ‘background extinction’ rate of mammal species is 0.25 per-million species-years. As she points out:

“This means that, since there are about fifty-five hundred mammal species wandering around today, at the background extinction rate you’d expect - once again, very roughly - one species to disappear every seven hundred years.” 

However, the current rate of species loss shows the earth is undergoing its Sixth Mass Extinction - the first to be driven specifically by human activities. Because of the combination of global warming, one group of scientists in 2004 estimated that, by 2050, anything from 13% to 32% of all species could be lost - with an average of 24% of all species heading towards extinction. Whilst different studies have produced varying figures, the general consensus is that the species extinction rate is the highest in 65 million years - with an extinction rate 1000 times greater than the natural ‘background extinction’ rate.


Although several aspects of the 2004 study have been criticised, it is important to bear in mind that this study mainly focused on the impact of climate change. Once physical destruction, or fragmentation, of natural habitats is also factored in, the picture becomes much more dire. This is because whilst global warming compels some species to migrate, the destruction of natural habitats and the creation of various ‘barriers’ (such as roads and clear-cuts) means migration becomes much more difficult or even impossible.

These threats - and others associated with capitalist agriculture, such as the heavy use of pesticides - are becoming increasingly destructive. This is particularly so because of the irrational demands of the meat and dairy industries, which dominate agricultural land use. 

Various studies have shown that, by shifting massively away from meat and dairy production, the world could adequately feed a population much larger then the present 7+ billion. The meat and dairy industries are extremely inefficient when it comes to producing proteins for human consumption: 100 kilos of plant protein is needed to produce 9 kilos of beef protein or 31 kilos of milk protein. Or, to put it another way, 10 hectares of land can produce:

•           meat to feed 2 people
•           maize to feed 10 people
•           wheat/grain to feed 24 people
•           soya to feed 61 people

Currently, over 50% of all crops grown is fed to farmed animals. The big agri-businesses require roughly 70% of the world’s land, as grazing for animals and for growing crops for feed. To ensure enough productive land is available, huge areas of forests are being felled all over the world - sometimes illegally - on an industrial scale. By far the biggest culprit in this is cattle farming, which is the main cause of deforestation across the globe. In particular, it is increasingly responsible for the destruction of what remains of the Amazon rainforest.

Globally, forests are still being lost at a rate of 7.3 million hectares per year - mostly for cattle ranching and the growing of fodder crops. Currently, about 70% of the cleared Amazon rainforest is used for the grazing of cattle. Just 1 hamburger made from Costa Rican beef results in the destruction of:

•           1 large tree
•           50 saplings
•           almost 30 different species of seedlings
•           hundreds of species of insects, mosses, fungi and micro-organisms

All this is confirmed by Alan Thornett (Facing the Apocalypse: Arguments for Ecosocialism), in one of the most recent - and most informative - overviews of the many negative impacts of capitalism on the natural world.  As regards capitalist agriculture, the current global levels of meat production and consumption are completely unsustainable. Apart from the huge numbers of land animals slaughtered every year for human consumption - around 70 billion - the meat industry is hugely inefficient when it comes to feeding the world’s human population, as these animals:

“…consume vast quantities of corn, maize, and soy that could otherwise be eaten, far more effectively, by the human population including the planet’s billions of hungry people...The cattle sector of Brazilian Amazon agriculture, driven by the international beef and leather trades, has been responsible for about 80 per cent of all deforestation in the region, or roughly 14 per cent of the world’s total annual deforestation. It is the world’s largest single driver of deforestation.”  

As well as being a key factor in the absorption of CO2 (and thus helping to slow down global warming), rain forests contain the largest reservoirs of biodiversity. Yet now, around 60% of global biodiversity loss is directly due to capitalist agriculture. This is of particular relevance to the current Covid-19 pandemic.

Ultimately, infinite economic growth is incompatible with the increasingly fragile ecosystems on what is a finite planet. Thus a more ecologically-sustainable society, more in tune with the natural environment, would make decisions to repair, as quickly as possible, the enormous environmental damage already inflicted on the natural world by global capitalism. For instance, in order to preserve the Earth’s ecological equilibrium, certain branches of production - such as the meat and dairy industries, industrial-scale fishing, and the destructive logging of tropical rain forests - should be discontinued or, at the least, drastically reduced.

Additionally, such a society would reduce or even abolish certain products, whilst subsidising and expanding those that could be produced in harmony with ecosystems and the non-human species living on this planet. It would also seek to move to greater local production for local consumption - something that the global pandemic lock-downs is currently enforcing - in order to enhance food security and further reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The creation of sustainable agro-ecosystems would go a long way to help achieve this.

As regards food production, there is a pressing need to eliminate the polluting industrial meat and dairy agri-businesses. Fortunately, there is already a rapidly-growing trend - especially, but not exclusively, amongst young people - to adopt vegan or vegetarian diets. Whilst separate ‘life-style’ actions taken by individuals will not, on their own, bring about the rapid significant changes needed to protect the natural world, such moves should nonetheless be warmly welcomed - and encouraged. This is a development which shows the emergence of a more humane and respectful approach to nature. As Gandhi is reputed to have said:

 “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Or, to put it another way: “Nothing changes if nobody changes.”

In the end, though, as Ian Angus says, the only way to avoid “a catastrophic convergence of multiple Earth System failures”  (of which global capitalist agriculture is one crucial element) is to use

“…methods that are anathema to capitalism. Profit must be removed from consideration; all changes must be made as part of a democratically created and legally binding global plan that governs both the conversion to renewables and the rapid elimination of industries and activities, such as…factory farming, that only produce what John Ruskin called ‘illth’, the opposite of wealth.”


However, whilst any prospects of a ‘green’ capitalism are rapidly evaporating, it is nonetheless important to push for some immediate reforms. In part, this is because we desperately need to win time and mitigate the harms currently being done by the ‘system’. In addition:

“The struggle for ecosocial reforms can be the vehicle for dynamic change, a ‘transition’ between minimal demands and the maximal program, provided one rejects the pressure and arguments of the ruling interests for ‘competitiveness and ‘modernization’ in the name of the ‘rules of the market’.” 

Another useful action will be to get behind campaigns that chip away at the ability of corporations to continue their attacks on the natural world - for instance, the various fossil-fuel divestment campaigns waged by groups like 350.org. In addition, as well as winning some immediate reforms, it will also be necessary to block any policies or actions by corporations or the government that will make the situation even worse. Hence the need to oppose any attempts to re-start fracking, once the lock-down has ended.  With time so short, we need to slow or reverse capitalism’s ecologically-suicidal activities.

Ultimately, however, there will be no radical transformations - of the kind now desperately needed - without a radical ecosocialist programme being embraced by a sufficient mass of people.

As Naomi Klein (This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate) has said:

“…only mass social movements can save us now. Because we know where the current system, left unchecked, is headed…[the only hope is that] some countervailing power will emerge to block the road, and simultaneously clear some alternate pathways to destinations that are safer. If that happens, well, it changes everything.” 

The rise of ‘Corbynism’ has shown the potential for inspiring huge enthusiasm for radical change. Extinction Rebellion, too, has shown what can be achieved in a very short time - XR wasn’t even launched until October 2018 - to build a new mass social movement.  

However, to create a really powerful and effective movement, that will promote what E. P. Thompson called the “human ecological imperative”, it will be necessary to draw in a large proportion of the working classes. This could be done by XR becoming more ‘political’ about the ‘System Change’ it so rightly calls for: an explicit endorsement of a radical ecosocialist programme of reforms would be a really big positive step towards this. We now have very little time left in which to halt capitalism’s increasingly destructive course.

Although things look bad right now, it is important to try to follow Antonio Gramsci’s advice: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

Essentially, if we don’t fight, we - and the Earth - will lose. Perhaps, to get some serious momentum behind such developments - and to give us the vision we so badly need of a better and more sustainable world - we should ask Ken Loach to make a 2020 version of his brilliantly-effective documentary film, The Spirit of ’45 (2013).

Allan Todd is a member of Left Unity, an environmental and anti-fascist activist, and author of Revolutions 1789-1917