The limits of green politics

Green politics have caught on in a big way. Jack Conrad explores their contours, limitations and contradictions

Everyone, it seems, is going green. David Cameron's Tory Party conference was awash with eco-friendly images and vague green tax promises came from the platform. The Liberal Democrats shifted their fiscal emphasis from taxing the rich to taxing pollution and in the name of the environment the Labour government is considering a new generation of nuclear power stations. Not to be left out, last week the Socialist Workers Party's Jonathan Neale told Respect that we "already have the technology to halt climate change almost completely" - as if 'climate' and 'change' were not virtually synonymous. And, proving its real concern for the environment, Respect then raffled away two Easyjet flights!

 So, as with every popular cause, the environment is being politically fought over. Political parties of all hues are attempting to jump on the bandwagon and green themselves. The moot question is, however, does green politics offer a realistic way forward? Can greenism save the environment from total degradation and overcome capitalism's innate drive for endless growth for its own sake? On both counts the only honest answer must be no. We can best show why, not by exposing the plagiarists mentioned above, but by dealing with the real thing: ie, the Green Party and its progenitors and offshoots.

The Green Party is an officially registered party and although it has no MPs it boasts 92 local councillors and two MEPs. It certainly deserves credit for being in the forefront of those who brought the question of ecological degradation back to public attention in the 1970s after many decades of almost total neglect. The environmental damage caused by capitalism was comprehensively detailed. Destruction of habitats, extinction of species, pollution of air, seas and rivers. Timely warnings are still issued. A sustainable balance between human society and nature has to be re-established before it is too late.

However, the programme of the Green Party hinges on a domesticated capitalism, a capitalism restricted to the 'safe' borders of the nation-state. Under a green economy a refashioned Bank of England is to be retained for regulatory purposes, but the whole system of clearing banks "brought under democratic control". While wage slavery would remain the norm for the majority, small enterprises, home and self-employment are paraded as the lofty ideal. European integration, globalisation and the transnational division of labour have to be firmly put aside as ecologically destructive. Trade should continue, but on a much reduced scale. The slogan of the Green Party is 'localism not globalism'.

It should be emphasised, however, that capital began as an international relationship. Capitalism is a global system of many, rival, capitals. Having captured the state, capital uses it as a salient to aggressively expand outwards. That was true even for the period 1939-79 - the heyday of state capitalism in Britain.

Boxing capital into the nation-state is manifestly retrogressive. Productivity would sharply decline alongside a massive destruction of value. There would certainly be a flight of capital and collapse of the pound sterling on international money markets. A green government would be faced with the unenviable choice of either screwing up rates of exploitation or administering poverty. Unfazed, the Green Party pledges to maintain living standards. Greenism as self-deception.

Resolutions on constitutional reform, local self-sufficiency, fair trade, the US-UK occupation of Iraq, etc, are passed at the Green Party's annual conference. Campaigns are conducted against third world debt and climate choas. But the party's anti-capitalism is transparently Platonic. Like their German sister party, the leadership - Caroline Lucas, Darren Johnson, Keith Taylor, Jean Lambert, Richard Mellender - overwhelmingly consist of realos, not fundies. They would responsibly administer capitalism, not fight it. That helps explain why green opponents condescendingly label them pale greens.

Elitist pressure groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth - for the price of their annual subscription the paper membership get a vicarious thrill from TV stunts and other high profile actions - also take capitalism as a given. Albeit, once again in the imagination, downsized and made eco-friendly. The same goes for multi-millionaire Zac Goldsmith - editor of The Ecologist and new darling of Cameron's all-things-to-all-people outfit.

Tory greenism is, of course, nothing new. In October 1988 Margaret Thatcher made her famous 'green' conference speech: "No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy - with full repairing lease. This government intends to meet the terms of that lease in full".

Indeed ever since the dawn of industrial capitalism a strand of aristocratic conservatism has protested against the despoliation of nature. The Young England movement of the early 1840s comes to mind. Born on the playing fields of Eton and Cambridge, it loosely grouped together an aristocratic membership - George Smythe, Lord John Manners, Henry Hope, Alexander Baillie-Cochrane, but most notably, Benjamin Disraeli.

To gain a wider audience these gentlemen were obliged to appear indifferent to their own class interests. Nostalgically they put the case for a rural idyll of snug hamlets, independent artisans and upright yeomen farmers. Everyone has their place and everyone knows their place: "The rich man in his castle, the poor man by his gate."

Even in our times protests against the damage wrought by capitalism can go hand in hand with barely concealed plans for a return to the feudal past. Edward Goldsmith, uncle of Zac, argues for cutting the population by 50%, repatriating immigrants "¦ and establishing a green social order based on the patriarchal family, small-scale communities and something resembling the Indian caste system.

Young England had not the least interest in, or wish for, democracy. Dreamy poems lauded absolute monarchy and the medieval church, along with benevolent alms-giving to the poor - patronising sentiments which were the subject of much wicked mockery at the time. Young England accused industrialists of subordinating all moral scruples to the balance sheet. Utilitarianism excused greed. The rich and powerful had abdicated their responsibilities to the weak and vulnerable. Capitalism threatened to destroy everything tried and tested, everything sacrosanct, everything that rooted people in the well-regulated soil of past generations.

Unless halted, such vandalism, it was darkly prophesised, would inexorably lead to a revolutionary explosion and plunge the country into unimaginable chaos. Memories of 1789 and Jacobinism were seared onto ruling class brains. Swift action had to be taken to rescue what little remained of the national heritage - historical monuments, ancient woodlands and time-honoured rural ways.

We hear the same old tune from the Countryside Alliance - a melange of aristocratic landowners, plebeian retainers and the rightwing of the middle classes. Foxhunting is dressed up in the garb of timeless tradition; the 2004 Hunting Act condemned as the politics of townie envy and Blairite opportunism.

Reality is different. Those who run the Countryside Alliance - ermined Labour supporters included - are the very people responsible for degrading rural Britain. They ripped up the hedgerows. They are addicted to state handouts and subsidies. They preside over and profit from monoculture and the wanton use of chemicals.

The origins of our denatured system of agriculture lie in the enclosure acts of the 17th and 18th century which expropriated the mass of Britain's peasant farmers. Huge tracts of moorland were turned over to killing 'wildlife': grouse, partridge and fatted deer. An aristocratic playground. A small army of gamekeepers were employed to keep out the hoy poloy. Wolf, polecat, eagle, hawk and otter were all categorised as vermin and systematically exterminated. Foxhunting was invented only in the 19th century. Horses and dogs had by then been bred to the point where they had the speed and stamina needed to chase foxes down to a kill.

Today 0.28% of families own 64% of the land in Britain. Hunting foxes symbolises that landed wealth, class domination and inherited privilege. Here is what the Countryside Alliance's rural values amount to. This is what they want to conserve.

There are pale greens who unapologetically promote monopoly capitalism. A small clique; but well connected and therefore disproportionately influential.

Monopoly capital

Jonathon Porritt's book Capitalism, as if the world matters (2005) serves as a kind of manifesto. Porritt is the government's chief adviser on the environment and a friend and confidant of Charles Windsor. His undeservedly acclaimed, intellectually threadbare solution to the planet's mounting ecological problems is to legally, financially and linguistically repackage capitalism - "the only real economic game in town".

With the dawning light of liberal governance and long-term corporate self-interest spreading across the face of the globe, Porritt's greened capitalism proceeds to deliver a sustainable and prosperous living for all. Wishful thinking. Either that or smoke and mirrors.

Ecological responsibility and egalitarianism cannot replace accumulation for its own sake as the ruling criterion of success and the mainspring of capital's laws of motion. Capitalism presupposes exploitation and uneven development. For Marxists, ABC. Imperialism is declining capitalism reinforced by direct military force, a system which ensures the structural oppression of the vast majority of humanity by the core countries, today first and foremost the USA. While such a global pecking order remains in place - whether dominated by Britain, the USA or the EU - poverty is inevitable. Equality while capitalism lasts is therefore chimerical.

In 1996 Porritt and Sara Parkin founded the Forum for the Future. After a simmering civil war they had both resigned from the Green Party's executive, just a few weeks prior to the 1992 autumn conference. A well-healed charity - 60 staff and an annual income of £4 million - Forum for the Future has singlemindedly courted big business and its chequebooks. It is not a one-way street though. Forum for the Future magnanimously bestows green credentials and translates sustainable development into the language of share price, cash flow, cost-cutting, efficiency and profit - and vice versa.

The Forum's 50-plus corporate sponsors and partners have, we are reassuringly told, a "proven commitment" to the environment. Only the naive will be surprised to learn that listed amongst the virtuous are: BP, ICI, Calor Gas, GlaxoSmithKline, J Sainsbury, Royal Bank of Scotland, Unilever, Wessex Water, Barclays plc, Cadbury Schweppes, Philips Electronics, Marks and Spencer, Tetley Group, etc, etc.

Obviously, being green is considered good public relations and therefore good business. Saving on inputs such as energy and other raw materials can certainly be marketed in a way that enhances green credentials. Motivated not by the intrinsic capitalist drive to minimise costs, but worries about the environment.

Green taxes, emissions trading and CO2 sequestration all chime with manufactured public opinion. However, these green capitalist panaceas legitimise pollution, favour the most powerful concentrations of capital, threaten to pass on additional costs to the consumer or simply lead to offloading dirty industries to less developed parts of the world.

Old technologies can be abandoned or superseded, but individual capitalists personify, are in thrall to, a mode of production which relies on constant growth. Hence they go to any lengths to find novel ways to pass through the eye of awkward laws. In the words of Marx's Grundrisse, all limits placed on the growth of capital turn out to be a "barrier to be overcome". Money is certainly used to purchase state guardians, to open up loopholes and, failing that, to bulldoze down legislation ... essentially allowing the fundamental laws of capital to reassert themselves.

Capital aims to expand capital. Not cherish the environment or promote human wellbeing. Neoliberalism exacerbates what is a general characteristic. Capital and state interweave as never before. Corruption becomes institutionalised, normalised and, except in its most overt forms, nowadays goes hardly noticed.

Environmental regulations are not only subject to outrageous abuse and constant string-pulling. Governments are also quite willing to slough them off if sufficient pressure is applied or the bribes are lucrative enough - the US plutocracy being an obvious case in point.

Since September 11 2001, the Bush administration has serially invoked 'national security' to justify the abandonment of environmental protection measures, including granting permission for drilling oil in wildlife refuges. Richard Nixon's environmental chief, Russell Train, voiced rightwing outrage: "I think this administration is not a conservative administration. I think it's a radical administration. It represents a radical rollback of environmental policy going back to a period many, many years ago. It's backward".

Blind to the systemic decline of 'actually existing' capitalism - all too visible to the trained eye - Forum for the Future holds out the entirely spurious prospect of finance capital - one of Porritt's so-called five capitals - "giving value" not just to industrial capital, but "social, human and natural capital" too. But lions do not lie down with lambs. They devour them.

Legally trained proponents of green capitalism seriously - at least according to their own warped precepts - want to extend property rights to cover almost every conceivable use-value, including the very air we breath. Their crazy notion is that this would stop exploitation. History, to put it mildly, fails to support such a contention. Capital treats what is bought and sold, what is property, in a purely instrumental (slave-like) fashion. Necessarily that entails mistreatment as a means to an end. Labour is thereby exploited. So too is nature.

Do the innate laws of capital mean that the system cannot partially curb its metabolic appetite and moderate its behaviour? Of course, it can. Capitalism as a total system has never moved according to the exclusive interests of capital. There exists another ought. There is the political economy which constantly pushes in the opposite direction. There is the class struggle conducted by workers and, nowadays, an emerging socialism.

History is stacking up more and more examples not only of capitalist decay, but of the becoming of socialism: legal restrictions on working hours, universal suffrage, compulsory primary and secondary education, free health provision, unemployment and housing benefit, clean air acts, health and safety, countryside access, public transport, minimum pay levels, etc - all negative anticipations, because socialism is emerging within, remains unseperated from, capitalism. It is what Hegel called a "double determination" which is both "being and nothingness".

Unsurprisingly, all such state-enforced measures cause their own problems: a hybrid system is a malfunctioning system. As incisively explained by Hillel Ticktin, the law of value and state organisation interfere with the workings of each other; they "conflict", and produce completely irrational results. Chronic waste, ballooning and alienating bureaucracy, a stream of time-consuming and essentially meaningless tick-box targets.

Capital limits its inherent drive to maximise exploitation, not least, given our present line of discussion, the exploitation of nature, for one overriding reason: self-preservation. But attempts to organise what is decay actually compound existing contradictions and add new ones besides. The system becomes uncontrollable even for its controllers; hence the greater likelihood of nature suddenly exacting revenge.


Prostituted apologetics of the type coming from the Forum for the Future notwithstanding, there are those greens who offer forthright critiques of monopoly capitalism. Overconsumption, third world indebtedness, advertising and the degradation of nature are all subjected to snarling polemic and on occasion biting analysis. Many radical ecological theorists fondly cite Gerald Winstanley, William Morris and Peter Kropotkin and their spicy inspiration. Others prefer the milder flavours of St Francis of Assisi, Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi.

Obviously, anti-capitalism is a many-headed beast. Before examining the deep greens, I shall briefly discuss Ernst Schumacher, George Monbiot and Murray Bookchin. Between the three of them they cover the spectrum of ecological thought that stretches from green christianity by way of neo-Proudhonism to social anarchism. Besides a burning desire for global change, the thread that joins them is that small is beautiful.

The future must be non-capitalist, but also decentralised, self-reliant and non-hierarchical. However, the social agent capable of bringing about such an outcome remains totally unconvincing in each account. For Schumacher it is enlightened aid workers and third world bureaucrats. Monbiot talks of collective action by "poor countries", while Bookchin looked to "libertarian municipalism". All shrink from the necessary task of organising the working class into a revolutionary party.

Ernst Schumacher (1911-1977) considered unrestrained industrialisation to be the cause of "unlimited sorrows", especially in the former colonial countries. Schumacher advocated 'appropriate technology' and criticised the 'bigger is better' ethos characteristic of the 1950s-60s long boom. He located this ethos not in the concentration of capital enforced under circumstances of a declining system, rather in six leading ideas inherited from the 19th century.

These were: Darwinism and "natural selection"; the "idea of competition" and "the survival of the fittest"; Marx's observation that all "higher manifestations" of human life - religion, philosophy, art, etc - are nothing but "necessary supplements of the material life process"; the "Freudian interpretation which reduces human life to "the dark stirrings of the human subconscious"; relativism and "denying all absolutes"; positivism and the claim that "no knowledge is valid unless it is based on generally observable facts" and therefore denies the possibility of objective knowledge of purpose and meaning. These ideas, which "claimed to do away with metaphysics," were in fact, intoned Schumacher, "bad metaphysics and bad ethics".

Bundling together natural selection and historical materialism with positivism and scientism is not as absurd as might first appear. Ideologically the post-World War II period was under the hypnotic spell of positivism - the official 'Marxism' of the Stalinites on the one side and social democracy and mainstream liberalism on the other. In both cold war camps the seductive promise was made that technological Promethianism would soon shrink necessary working time to somewhere near zero, while simultaneously delivering unimaginable abundance. During the 1950s both John Kenneth Galbraith and Nikita Khrushchev heralded the leisure society. As it turned out, a permanently delayed utopia.

Though manifestly failing to locate the real causes, Schumacher exposed the anti-ecological results of both capitalist and Stalinite development to full public gaze. As an alternative he famously opted for what he called 'buddhist economics' (though he himself converted to catholicism). His model was post-independence Burma. Enough said.

A regular columnist on The Guardian, George Monbiot has issued a bold rallying cry for a "democratic revolution". His case is elaborated in two recent books, The age of consent (2003) and Heat - how to stop the planet from burning (2006), in which he skilfully reveals the inner workings of the "global dictatorship of vested interests". Clearly a welcome revolt against 21st century capitalism; but just as clearly a re-invention of pre-Marxist utopian socialism.

Monbiot wants to "harness" globalisation in order to eventually extinguish capitalism. Down the road of his democratic revolution, when at last some preset programmatic milepost is reached, the transnationals will finally be broken up and production radically decentralised. Once a confirmed localist, he now espouses globalism - at least in terms of strategy. His democratic revolution begins at the global level.

Anarchism and green capitalism are rightly rejected. But Monbiot suffers from what can only be described as a Pavlovian reaction when it comes to Karl Marx. To use a phrase, he sees red. The merest mention of Marxism sends his brain into delirium. Monbiot runs around in ridiculous circles, yappingly blaming Marx for Stalin's gulags, Maoism and Pol Pot. Bureaucratic socialism is put down to the Communist manifesto. His "pathological" Stowe public school education seems to have conditioned him all too well.10 

Monbiot has generously gone to the trouble of drawing up a detailed blueprint for tomorrow's world. There will be a 600-seat global parliament - one MP for every 10 million people. Parliamentary voting will be weighed according to a sliding democratic scale - once again courtesy of our clever friend. However, the authority of his body would be purely moral. National states continue to exist. It is just that they would now be under pressure to do the right thing. The world 'government' would have no law courts, no army. Nonetheless, a fair trade organisation ensures that transnationals retract the claws of exploitation and bend to popular environmental causes.

How such a one person-one vote global institution is supposed to arise while national states and the transnationals still constitute the ruling global power is lightly skated over. Does anyone really expect the US administration to facilitate its citizenry voting in Monbiot's elections? Would Washington shoulder the considerable costs involved? And what of China, Iran and North Korea? Though Monbiot gives a passing nod in the direction of existing campaigning organisations, his elaborate schema is built on nothing more substantial than the clouds of fantasy.    

Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) presented a much more rigorous, far more satisfying account. Describing himself as a libertarian communist - a former official communist and former Trotskyite - he always took theory seriously. His impressive body of work contains much that is valuable.

Bookchin particularly targets domination and hierarchy in class society. This has produced humanity's imbalance with nature. He has no time for pro-capitalist greenism, overpopulation panics or technophobia - all have inbuilt reactionary implications. A progressive social revolution is needed.

Bookchin's unwillingness to embrace the means, the revolutionary party, is perfectly understandable, especially given his location in the US radical milieu. The leftwing sects which commonly pass themselves off as parties, even those which more modestly say they aspire to that aim, pathetically reproduce the structures and much of the attending egotism of capitalism itself. Central committees behave as boards of directors, the rank and file are treated as mere speaking tools. Then there are the proprietorial general secretaries.

Fleeing from this madness, Bookchin found refuge in little communes, municipalities, which consist to begin with of a putative hardcore cadre. Somehow these bacillus survive within the decaying body of capitalist society and steadily grow into organs of dual power.

Momentarily suspending our disbelief at the chances of this happening, we are still left with a fundamental problem. If for some reason these households managed not to succumb to the antibodies of coercion, the pressures and the lures of capitalist society, no matter how powerful they became, would mean they still come to grief. By their very nature they would articulate sectional, not universal, interests and therefore quickly fall into bickering rivalry. The fate of soviets as soviets. Without the coordination, discipline and theory provided by the highest form of working class organisation, that is bound to happen.

Deep greens

Schumacher, Monbiot and Bookchin are clearly motivated by a heartfelt desire to improve the lot of the world's population. That cannot be so readily said of deep greens. Yes, they savage consumerism, industrial effluent, monocrop agriculture and the whole cult of economic growth. However, for them, the adverse effects all of this has on humanity is secondary. Nature comes first. We have many responsibilities to nature, but few definite claims on it.

Arne Naess, the Norwegian mountineer and sage, began laying the theoretical foundations as far back as the early 1950s - at least to the degree that deep greenism can be considered a theory. He attacked the short-termism, the irrationality of neo-classical economics and sought to displace anthropocentric modes of thinking with what he and his followers call biocentrism.

Anthropocentrism - which I take as meaning that humans alone have intrinsic value - dates back, he argues, to the Neolithic revolution, around 10-8,000 years ago. The adoption of anthropocentric modes of thought is collectively remembered in the story of Yehovah's expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden and other such myths.

The long and the short of it is that once human beings stopped venerating nature and started to treat it as a thing to be subdued, fit only for exploitation, then they fell from grace and condemned themselves to the endless drudgery of labour. Civilization thereby becomes a terrible mistake, a dangerous detour. Suffice to say, deep greenism lacks anything resembling an adequate account of history.

Deep greenism amounts to a retrogressive plea for humanity to adapt to nature, to give up on all hope of progressive social change and return to a lost innocence of childhood. But just as no adult can perform such a feat, nor can the human species. The door to the past is permanently closed. The only door open to us is to the future.

According to Naess there is no moral hierarchy of life. He rejected all paradigms whereby species are ranked according to whether they have a soul or posses consciousness. Naess says, "the right of all forms [of life] to live is a universal right which cannot be quantified. No single species of living being has more of this particular right to live and unfold than any other species".11 

This is not the self-denying ordinance it might first appear to be. Despite the insistence on non-hierarchy, elementary biological necessities have to be recognised. "Except to satisfy vital human needs" there is no sanction to kill. But there is a "vital human need" for food that must be constantly satisfied. People have to consume fellow life forms "¦ and thankfully they can do so with the sanction of the deep greens. In point of fact there is a deep green macho minority which actually revels in hunting, shooting and fishing as a means of rediscovering their natural human essence - nature being red in tooth and claw.

Meanwhile, socially orientated deep greens energetically campaign against third world debt, motorways, waste incinerators, nuclear power, climate change "¦ and blood sports. A direct action aristocracy live out the ideal as eco-warriors, travelling from squat to squat and from protest to protest.

Nor is Aids viewed neutrally, as another wonderful addition to life's rich tapestry. It should be fought, and if at all possible, eliminated. Yet sadly, revealingly, there are a few prominent deep greens who gleefully welcome the HIV/Aids virus. Celebrating authenticity, fragility and destiny, these ecobrutalists decry anti-Aids drugs and the entire health infrastruture. Nature knows best. Via the Aids pandemic, alienated humanity is being culled. When that task is finally completed deep green survivalists inherit the earth.

Almost in the same culpable spirit one finds green thinkers of the stature of James Lovelock expressing a scornful disregard for fellow human beings: "Our humanist solicitude towards the poor living in the impoverished suburbs of the big cities of the third world, and our almost obscene obsession with death, suffering and pain - as if these were harmful in themselves - all these thoughts deflect our attention from the problem of our harsh and excessive domination of the natural world".12 

Most deep greens disavow such overt examples of misanthorphy. They simply refuse to put humans above nature, both being accorded equal rights. Either way, paradoxically, all such viewpoints smack of anthropomorphism. Nature is given human attibutes. Hence we find the American naturalist Aldo Leonard telling us to "think like a mountain" and Christopher Stone asking "do trees have rights?" A rhetorical question. Forests, mountains and other natural objects should be given the same legal status as corporations, he suggests.13 

Nature exists objectively, but right, like politics, art and morality, is obviously a human construct. Nor does nature, as nature, have interests. Human beings have an interest in nature, its preservation, its variety, its health  - because nature supports human life and enhances humanity materially, culturally and spiritually.

Biocentrism, to state another obvious truth, is a human-created ideology. If it means recognising that humans are part of nature - the uniquely conscious part - that human society should cease fetishistically worshipping production, that we should start looking after nature by first reordering arrangements between ourselves, then no communist would disagree. We call it Marxism. On the other hand, if biocentrism means placing the interests of humanity against nature, diminishing the human and depicting it as a malignant cancer, then we must disagree.