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Modern Ecologism and its Prospects

August 26th, 2008 · post by anon · 2 Comments

“It is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but also against ourselves.”

-George Monbiot, Heat, 2007

The world is ending and we have to do something. Quite apart from the same appalling reality we’ve grown to expect in these past centuries – total war, mass murder, the starvation and illness of poverty, the relentless, brutal emptiness of everyday life and the bitter half-memory of countless revolutionary waves defeated, dispersed – quite apart from all of that, we are told, we face a disaster of colossal proportions, a species-emergency, a modern apocalypse. And we have to do something. Club together; forget old differences; fight this heroic battle for nature, for the species, for – no: against, says Monbiot – ourselves. Against ourselves.

But all of this is necessary, we are told. Human industry has had its gleeful ascendant period, but now the price must be paid. The analogy they would like us to think of is Icarus, swooping up towards the sun with wings whose limits he does not grasp, and whose dissolution will be his death.  Say the ecologists, if we fly too high: shot through with pleasure though it is, we must regrettably swoop lower again. (The wings, needless to say, damaged by the sunlight, will take a great deal more effort to power from now on.)

This analogy cannot hold. Because ultimately the ‘we’, the ‘us’ appealed to by Monbiot and his ilk, their wilful Icarus who now has to grow up and learn to be responsible, does not exist.  Monbiot will admit this, and talk about capitalism as a distorting force which must be constrained; and he will talk about the state (or perhaps some future state) as the means to effect this constraint. He will talk about how it is the rich who cause climate change, and so the rich who must take the burden.

But the state is not ‘us’ any more than the market is. We bitterly remember two million tramping London streets, the decade-long Thatcherite war of attrition, the horrors inflicted on the third world in the name of neo-liberalism, of Progress; we remember these things and we remember the first time we felt betrayed by those in whom we had once, perhaps, placed our trust. The time when we learnt that what politicians say is not the whole story, that they say and do in different worlds, that spoken words are lies covering brutal acts of economic necessity, in the National Interest which is as much a lie as anything else poured from fetid, hateful maws. We are young, many of us, and have lived little; some of us are older and have forgotten. But these memories are ours, not theirs, and it is up to us to recover them. Half-memories will not do if we are to succeed.

So, remember: the state is not ‘us’, any more than is the market; rather, the state – all states, in this modern global capitalist economy – are above all bound to serve the interests of the market; for, without maintaining a good environment for ‘capital accumulation’[i] (see endnote) any modern economy would soon collapse. That means: the state acts in the interests of the market, and, on pain of collapse, cannot act otherwise.  The state, we might say, acts in the interests of capital.[ii]
And here we can return to the question of ecologism, of our New Green Apocalypse. These next years will see the present river of words form into a raging torrent. And many of these words will be the authentic, concerned pub mutterings of the flooded and the hurricane-hit, wondering what might be done. But there are forces concerned to harness this human misery, and put it to practical use: they are damming the Yangtze, and the communities behind the dam are going to have to live with it.

Because there are two green apocalypses: there is the one the scientists of the IPCC[iii] tell us about – human-caused, carbon-driven global warming, with catastrophic tipping-points – which is the same one which we will be forced to experience as individuals in the form of violent storms, water wars, droughts and all the rest. Then there is the apocalypse the government will refer to in its policy announcements, will utilise as ideological cover for the business-as-usual of capitalist modernity: attacks on real wages and conditions, the imposition of work discipline and military intervention to sustain global economic stability and growth.[iv]

It is in this light that we can begin to answer the question posed in the title: what are the prospects of modern ecologism? The trouble it faces is that something must be done, and only one sort of body seems to be in any place to do it – the state. This creates a powerful pull towards appeals to state agency: calls which can only reinforce that agency across the board, providing it with more and stronger ideological tools to pursue the same old strategic goals. The difficulty faced by any group trying to effect meaningful change in the present climate is how to do it without this sort of state appropriation of the rhetoric and symbolic power of the campaign for its own interests, often against the will of the campaigners.[v]

The question we have to ask ourselves, then, is where the modern green movement stands in relationship to this stark division between the crisis and its ideological use. The most recent manifestation of this movement was at the 2007 Heathrow Climate Camp, and even a cursory examination of the event, its literature and of various reports[vi] demonstrates the complexity and uncertainty of the movement at present.

On the one hand, Monbiot and his crowd were prominent, especially in their natural domain the media, in demanding immediate and drastic state imposition of austerity measures. Monbiot’s  undoubtedly sincere desire to make the rich take the burden is regrettably unencumbered by a class analysis or a critique of state power. He and those taking his lead will find their present political work transformed before long into the ideological basis for political attacks on the working class. The anti-flight group Plane Stupid can also be – arguably more straightforwardly – grouped under this objective role.

On the other hand, the dual function of the camp as simultaneously against aviation in general and against the new runway at Heathrow in particular gave rise to some interesting counter-currents. Local communities campaigning to prevent the expansion – which would lead to the demolition of whole towns – proved extremely supportive of the camp as a whole, which gave their campaigns a media profile they couldn’t previously have hoped for. How far there was any real alchemy between the two groups – how far they transformed one another’s perspectives and practices – will of course only become clear in the coming months; but initial reports are encouraging.

Along similar lines, the banner which lead the main bloc on the day of action read “Social Change not Lifestyle Change”, and this admirable slogan was reflected in a well-attended visit of 60 climate campers to the picket of striking Heathrow workers, which was apparently appreciated and reciprocated by a visit to the camp by some of the workers and their families.

This last is particularly encouraging. The challenge, for those who recognise the risk of state appropriation of a green politics built at the grassroots, is to keep their hard work out of state hands. In the Call, reviewed  in Last Hours #15, the anonymous French authors call for what they call ’secession’, which is, ‘Less a practical refusal to communicate than a disposition to forms of communication so intense that, when put into practice, they snatch from the enemy most of its force.’ This is an important formulation of an old idea: that mere speech can be stolen with the greatest ease by media and state for their own ends; that what is needed is a form of struggle, which is capable of reinforcing its hold on power, winning cumulative victory after victory, rather than spending itself on a partial campaign whose ‘victory’ is guaranteed by the inevitable just-adequate concessions of the state. Such campaigns which, too isolated and uncertain, are easily flanked and routed by adept state planners, official and otherwise; their weapons too easily captured.

The starting foundation that suggests itself, today as much as two hundred years ago, and despite the 80s, is class struggle.It is an old topic, too large and – sadly – too controversial to take up properly here. But I offer it up, here, to be considered: the state, which is always – directly or indirectly, as guarantor – engaged in material attacks on the working class, will sooner rather than later begin to utilise the Green Apocalypse as a disciplining mechanism. Insofar as it acts to suppress climate change, the state will seek to pass on the cost of those measures to the working class. This will take the form of economic attacks. This, I suggest, will provide the foundation for an ecologism capable of the sort of long struggle that is necessary, demanding that the rich and the state absorb the cost rather than passing it down.[vii] It is a question, I believe, of doing what we can – as those already committed and more-or-less organised – to articulate, ahead of the mass formation of such class resistance, a proletarian ecologism, and to prepare ourselves for the necessary practice to spread such a critique.

I would be glad to be proven wrong, but as it stands it seems to me the modern green movement, despite encouraging superficial signs at the last Climate Camp, is structurally bound up with the state to such an extent that directly to build political support for it is, for now, to do the state’s work for it in the broader class struggle. No, it is better to bide our time, refuse directly to build for green politics per se, and in the meantime, do whatever “increases the confidence, the autonomy, the initiative, the participation, the solidarity, the equalitarian tendencies and the self -activity of the masses and whatever assists in their demystification.” (Solidarity, As We See It); That is: prepare the counter-attack.

There is a genuine crisis in global ecology, one which threatens to eradicate human life and snuff out a flame which has as yet only stuttered, nervously, into being: the full dawn of human potential – our species mistaken for a gleaming sun, rising for the first time on a strangely alien landscape – has been a dream for centuries. Monbiot’s columns (monbiot.com) are an excellent way quickly to acquaint oneself with the depth of the challenge facing us, and the measures that are likely to be necessary.

There is not likely to be a revolutionary alternative to state reforms of the economy available on the timescale the most up-to-date science is showing us[viii]. But any solution (if any be possible at all) mediated by capital and the state will mean – unless the class is able to enforce its own interests, and make the state and capital absorb the cost – the increased dispersal and exploitation of working people all over the world, and stringent cuts in the real wage. The old dynamics of war and empire will not go away either, and the third world will continue to languish.

We have described two apocalypses: Both green; one real, the other symbolic. We should counterpose another, our own: a red apocalypse, suppressing those social relations which keep us bound in an everyday existence of alienation, war, suffering. To successfully organise a class response to the statist green austerity on the horizon moves us closer towards that ultimate goal. Conversely, if we accept the dispersal of the one force able to break those chains – us, ourselves – in the name of Necessity, Humanity, then we consign ourselves to an infinite future of this same, sordid world.

We must hope for more.


[i]       ‘Capital’ can very inadequately be said to be money which exists to be invested in the production process. Under capitalist conditions it is such investment that initiates, shapes and concludes the production process. Exactly what capital is, how it functions in modern society, and exactly the structure of the economic imperatives referred to above is a question about which millions of words have no doubt been written. Libcom.org has a good short introductory text at libcom.org/intro/capital, and the libcom library is full to the brim with texts on the question. Marx’s Capital and Rosa Luxembourg’s The Accumulation of Capital are the two great classical works on the subject; the journal Mute (online at metamute.org), has published some excellent, accessible essays in its latest two issues on the interaction between economy and modern politics.
[ii]       It is important to emphasise that this does not mean that state policy can at any given point only take on one form on pain of failure. Rather, the ideological commitments of the state mediate, or transmit, communicate but shape at the same time, the imperatives of capital. Thatcherite policies are different from Chavismo, but ultimately (ie in the end) both are coerced by the needs of the economy.
[iii]       The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ipcc.ch), a UN commission of scientists which recently issued its latest report, outlining the imminent catastrophe in global climate. Worth looking over.
[iv]       This is not to say there will not also be sincere attempts to secure carbon-neutral energy sources, although this will probably be motivated as much by a desire to detach our economy from unstable middle-eastern and Russian oil sources as by a long-term interest in ’saving the world’, an objective it is very difficult to get markets to care about. George Caffentzis’s article in Mute 5 (tinyurl.com/ytsp5u) has some very interesting observations on this topic.
[v] This has recently happened, for instance, with the Make Poverty History march at the Edinburgh G8, which was  very poorly defended (arguably intentionally) against this sort of strategic appropriation. The state made very good propaganda out ]of their policy responses at the summit, as part of a political cover for the continued neo-liberal subjection of the third world to capital by ’structural adustment’.
[vi]       Found on indymedia.org.uk and solicited on the libcom forum, especially http://tinyurl.com/yofvkr .
[vii]       This could take the form, for instance, of demanding that if flying must be suppressed, it ought to be rationed, not (regressively) taxed; and that the loss of air travel be paid for by the mass subsidy and improvement of public transport, and the legal extension of paid leave to incorporate new, longer travelling times.
[viii]       Monbiot’s essay in the latest New Left Review, (tinyurl.com/yrm6eg) is a good survey; his column ‘A Sudden Change of State’ (tinyurl.com/2t89wq) is also worth a look.

→ 2 CommentsThis entry belongs to the following categories: Articles · resistance

2 responses so far

  • Edd posted:
    Aug 26, 2008 at 10:50 pm. Comment #1

    Damn, I’d forgotten how good this article was…

  • H posted:
    Mar 13, 2009 at 3:54 am. Comment #2

    holy shit. that is a brilliant, fantastic article.