Red questions seeking green answers

Mary Mellor poses some socialist questions for greens

October 28, 2007
5 min read

Peter Tatchell argues that green is the new red and that socialists should join the Green Party. I agree that the green issue should galvanise socialists. Capitalism ‘trumped’ socialism by its seeming capacity for unlimited growth, even promising that through the market, everyone would eventually benefit and have their share of ‘people’s capitalism’. The ecological crisis has removed this illusion.

Where resources are limited the question of who benefits and who loses cannot be passed off as a by-product of the ‘hidden hand of the market’ or failure of will, risk or effort. Within a resource-limited system, even if those limits are far off, the cruelties and inequities of global capitalism and its rather coyly admitted ‘market failures’ cannot be justified. In a limited system the case for the private ownership and control of resources is much more difficult to sustain.

Democratic control of the economy is at the heart of the socialist project. At its most basic, socialism represents the view that human well-being is the collective responsibility of society as a whole. Green socialism would extend the notion of well being to all other species and the ecosystems of the planet.

A common base

A major difficulty for the green movement is that while it unites around a critique of the abuse of the natural environment it does not have a common political position on which to base an alternative. Ideas have ranged from a return to hunter-gathering through local economies to market solutions.

From a socialist perspective both market and pre-modern solutions would be unacceptable, the former because they still retain a capitalist system, the latter because they are unlikely to be suitable for large-scale populations. Non-capitalist solutions at the local or community level are more possible but suffer from a lack of clarity about how the ‘local’ would be defined.

Geographically it is hard to say what is local (neighbourhood, city/town and hinterland, regional ecosystem, sub-national region, nation, sub-continent, continent?). Socialists are also internationalists (as are many greens) and human populations are now highly mobile, so the social focus of the local may be difficult even if it can be defined in ecological terms.

The economics of the local is also an issue for socialists. How would production be organised? Would there still be private ownership and waged labour? How industrialised would a local economy be? What would be the pattern of land ownership? Would there be a welfare system? Would there be a system of taxation?

How would the market, if any, function? Would a green economy reform market capitalism, exist alongside it, spread through it like a virus or confront it directly? What is to happen to the millions of people now living in the cities? These are practical questions that have been asked many times before but they all seem to point to a wider socio-economic solution than the green small scale.

Some green solutions may appear to challenge the status quo but mimic market solutions. For example, buying plots of land and aiming for self-sufficiency would seem to be a radical solution. However, buying land is an individualised response based on access to money or credit. In a limited system it is also highly unlikely there will be enough land for everyone.

‘Natural’ virtue

Socialists would also question whether the fairly widespread green view of ‘community’, the local, the regional, the human-scale as having ‘natural’ virtue is justified. Historically human societies have shown a range of behaviours from benign to violent, open to restrictive, egalitarian to hierarchical, and most show evidence of male domination and a sexual division of labour, if not outright repression of women.

Much green thinking, implicitly or explicitly, proposes a ‘natural’ basis for action. From the deeper green perspectives to some relatively shallow ones there is an assumption that humans have strayed from a natural path of harmony and balance with Nature. In order to return to the true path it is necessary to draw lessons from natural systems, from indigenous peoples, from unpeopled wilderness or from some spiritual insight associated with natural conditions.

From a socialist perspective any naturalistic approach to human actions must be questioned. Why should there be harmony and balance in nature? It is perfectly possible to see humans as existing within constrained physical limits without assuming that there is any natural answer to guide human solutions. To paraphrase Marx, humans must understand the dynamics of their condition in order to be able to change it.

This is not to make the human-centred assumption that humans can ultimately change the conditions of their existence, but it is also not to assume there is a natural answer. Natural conditions are constraining but not determining. Human responses to them must be open to social debate and analysis, to a politics of human existence in nature. Socialists must maintain their materialist analysis that there is no (super) natural power in nature.

Socialism is about analysing the sources of inequality and ecological destruction humanity faces and looking for new ways of living that would enable people to democratically control their means of sustenance in a way that minimises human impact on the natural world and enables each individual to express their own creativity. Certainly a case can be made that socialists should join the Greens, but I do not think it is yet proven that Greens are the new Red.

Mary Mellor is a social science professor at Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne UK and chair of its Sustainable Cities Research Institute


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill