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

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