Green Capitalism: Why it can’t work.
Merlin Press/ Resistance Books, 2013
I approached this book with some scepticism. It wasn’t that I was unsympathetic to the arguments I expected to find in it. I do regard myself as a Marxist, on who thinks that to understand the systems (political, economic, cultural, social, family, psychological) that shape our lives, it is necessary to understand the ‘deep processes’, the often hidden ways in which some groups dominate others in the control and struggle for resources (historical materialism). But there is a strong tendency in organised Marxism to adopt a ‘maximalist’ line, one that suggests that nothing can be done, improved, sorted out, until the workers triumph and overthrow the rule of Capital. This is, apart from being inaccurate (significant victories over Capital such as the establishment of the NHS, the Scandinavian welfare states, Kerala’s superior human development compared to neighbouring Indian states, the result of social movements with reformist politicians have shown how another world is possible), a counsel of despair, and indeed often, paradoxically, of quietism. This book has been distributed by Socialist Resistance, a group that now describes itself as eco-socialist, whose lineage goes back to the International Marxist Group, Ernest Mandel and Trotsky’s Fourth International. Indeed they still think it necessary and helpful to describe themselves as the British section of the Fourth International. However, like the old IMG they do represent the more human, thoughtful end of the Trotskyist tradition.
But on reading the book I was favourably impressed. Tanuro caries out a careful examination of capitalism and its destructive tendencies and of attempts to ameliorate the impact of continual capital accumulation (a.k.a economic growth) on, for example greenhouse gas emissions, using its own tools, such as the creation a market in carbon emissions. He examines carefully forensically the huge problems of such trading schemes, with their inadequate pricing, and effective licence to emit. He also makes it clear how government targets for emission reduction are nowhere near enough to prevent harmful climate change, even if schemes like the European Emissions Trading Scheme were actually to work. He also criticises the traditional left its general lack of concern about the environment and its destruction: “At best it ignores the problem.. at best it is on the defensive”.
He then considers some alternative approaches, ecological economist Herman Daly’s idea of the Steady State Economy and the European degrowth movement, particularly associated with French economist Serge Latouche.
My own criticisms of Daly’s approach are somewhat similar: most treatments of the Steady State economy take the view that it would be consistent with some form of capitalism (British economist Tim Jackson for example suggests this, but he uses an inadequate definition of capitalism as the market economy). Daly also fails to make it clear that our current level of economic activity is far too high: it needs to decrease so we (humans in the aggregate, though levels of consumption differ radically) live within the capacity of the earth to support us.
His treatment of Latouche is also unsympathetic but in this case I don’t think he has read him very thoroughly. For Latouche ‘degrowth’ is a mater of changing the conversation, from growth and development to other goals. He is attempting to move the debate, the narrative, from one dominated by economic concepts to one where human and ecological values take their place. In this he is close to socialist thinkers like Raymond Williams and the ‘post-Marxists’, who he discusses, Cormelius Castoriadis (Paul Cardan) and André Gorz, a key thinker in the movement for a shorter working week. All of these theorists had in common the critique of the ‘productivism’ that the traditional left (though arguably not Marx) share with capital’s ideologues. Furthermore Latouche has a lot in common with the decolonial thinkers from the global South (such as R Grosfoguel, S Amin, V Shiva, E Gudynas, A Acosta, A Escobar, E Dussel, and A Quijano) who criticise the very idea of ‘development’ as a linear, Eurocentric concept tied to that modernity whose underside is the global extraction of wealth from South to North (a.k.a. West) and the myriad tricks of defamation, devaluation, obfuscation that go with it. But despite including a quote from Mandel that makes it clear that material ‘progress’ can be harmful, Tanuro objects to what he sees as a conflation of capitalism ad development. Perhaps we’d agree with the slogan of environmentalist Bolivians though, that “another development is possible’, at which point we might search for a better term.
Tanuro ends with a call for ecosocialism, but for a Marxist the glaring gap is of a convincing praxis that could conceivably bring this about.
So, if we accept that (most of) the dominant approaches to reforming the economic and social system are unworkable or utopian, then how do we move forward without falling into the maximalist “after the revolution we’ll see” that Tanuro himself ridicules? For me at least part of the answer lies in some of the more innovative concepts from socialist praxis:
Trotsky’s notion of transitional demands is to mobilise around those reforms that can be reasonably campaigned for, that the system might agree to, but which through the failure to realise them in reality, expose its true nature. The shorter working week and increased pre-distributive equality are good contemporary examples.
Gramsci’s concepts of prefigurative struggle, war of position, hegemony and counter-hegemony, little understood by swathes of the left, connect with both the alternative lifestyles movements and the hard-nosed struggles against neoliberalism, suggesting the basis for the kind of anti-capitalist, ecologically literate alliance that we perhaps se emerging in Spain, Greece and parts of Latin America.
Gorz’s concept of revolutionary reforms (like Gramscian prefiguration) similarly bridges the day to day creation of an alternative reality within the current system with the revolutionary reconstruction of society, economy, culture, politics – and our relations with nature.
But there again, perhaps this is all a conceit – the system will crash and what we think might be seeds of a new society may be no more than lifeboats in a storm of unprecedented destruction.
Mark H Burton
[Mark Burton is part of the Steady State Manchester group, but is writing here in a personal capacity]