Reply to Ian Birchall
IAN BIRCHALL’S response to my article on ‘Trotsky, Ecology and Sustainability’ (What Next? No.31) was a refreshing change to the vituperative tone and trivial nit-picking that characterises much polemic on the Left. He raises issues of real substance which need to be fully debated if "anti-capitalists" (a term which, I think, unites us) are to be really relevant to a fast changing world. It is difficult to respond with brevity since there is less shared understanding on these matters than is normally the case in debate on the Left.
An example is Ian’s puzzlement about the nature of progress. He claims that I contradict myself by condemning "progress" while proposing improvements. My criticism was of an ideology born of the Enlightenment (Condorcet’s Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain is a key text). Its hold on the modern human mind was strengthened by the "miracles" wrought by science and technology in the Industrial Revolution and after. Opposition to particular developments is often vanquished by that killer reply: "you can’t stop progress". Regrets about environmental, social and cultural costs are likewise swept away by its cousin: "that’s the price of progress". The old maxim, that "if it works, leave it alone", has been replaced by an almost compulsive desire to chop and change.
Now I certainly believe that there should and could be specific advances in many aspects of modern life. However, I dispute the possibility of open-ended and across-the-board advancement. Instead I argued that there are insuperable limits to what humans can sustainably do, with diminishing returns and increasing negative trade-offs taking their toll. As a result we should think in terms of an optimum rather than a maximum. As those great sages Mick Jagger and Keith Richards once put it, "you can’t always get what you want". They might have added: "... and what you can sustainably get is often less than you wanted". Or as Cervantes suggested, it is possible to have "too much of a good thing".
Having read a very wide variety of socialist publications, it seems clear that the socialist movement has become committed to the maximisation of every good thing. The Greens too are little different (revealingly the Green Party slogan is "Real Progress" and offers a long list of entitlements for every citizen, minus any ecological costing). This brand of progressive politics is, in the words of Joe Hill, "pie-in-the-sky". The Earth could never sustain such expectations. (Since my original article, I have read Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress [Penguin, 2006] which explores these matters with erudition and elegant style.)
I do strongly concur with Ian’s point about the scientific method. I feel that its development has yielded great knowledge even if we have to be careful about the dangers of compartmentalising life and studying it in reductionist and mechanistic ways. There is also a very real danger that ethics can get compromised in scientific study (experiments in the Holocaust camps etc). But many Greens have bent the proverbial stick much too far the other way. Sometimes so much faith is placed on "intuition" and "feelings" that irrationalism takes hold (perhaps most evident in "alternative medicine" circles). "Hard heads" and "kind hearts" need each other.
Certainly, anti-capitalism will remain part of this new ecological "paradigm". An inherently expansionist economic system cannot but be unsustainable in a finite world. Furthermore, as I am sure Ian is fully aware, the least powerful in the capitalist social order suffer disproportionately from pollution and other symptoms of our unsustainable ways. The dumping of toxic wastes from rich regions on the poorer parts of the world is only one of many examples of such inequities.
Ian may call for socialists to address issues such as global warming. But the evidence suggests that, in reality, not many are doing so. My original article focused largely on Trotsky but, after reading Ian’s rejoinder, I did a thorough trawl through a variety of on-line material posted by groups that might, in a loose way, be seen as Trotskyist. In the case of Ian’s own organisation, the SWP, I did find a handful of articles but they represented but a tiny proportion of the total subject matter. They also seemed to have been produced rather late in the day, long after issues like global warming became routine headline news. The Where We Stand statement from the SWP and other sections such as Theory and Discussion further underlined my sense that environmental issues in general are only of marginal concern.
Given that the McGarr piece noted above had claimed that "two terrible threats define the 21st century. One is imperialist war and all that follows in its bloody train. The other is the accelerating threat of catastrophic climate change", it seems that, deep down, the SWP largely sees the latter spectre as not such a serious menace after all. The SWP might, of course, be unrepresentative. Yet my own involvement on the Left taught me that groups like Militant have traditionally dismissed "environmentalism" as a trivial middle class self-indulgence.
Since Ian had claimed that the Respect coalition is "trying hard to give greater importance to climate change", I decided to double check what it says. It is true that its website masthead mentions the word "environment". There was one leaflet to download on climate change and, in its manifesto, Another World is Possible, there was one section out of 25 on climate change and energy policy, plus two others (rural affairs and animal welfare) that also mentioned environmental issues. There were also passing comments in the section on globalisation.
I will discuss later the electoral arguments about the emphasis placed – or not – on sustainability and focus now on what seems to be the dominant socialist viewpoint. Most striking is the way in which the ecological crisis is reduced to largely one dimension, that of climate change, despite the fact that the Earth’s life-support systems are being eroded in many other ways, many of which are "non-polluting". Indeed the greenhouse effect itself is analysed one dimensionally, in terms of just anthropogenic additions of CO2 to the atmosphere (other contributory gases are largely ignored). There is scant awareness of the way human alterations to the Earth’s land surface and especially its vegetative cover alter atmospheric balances in terms of both sources and sinks.
I would speculate that a perhaps sub-conscious desire to heap blame on obvious anti-capitalist targets such as airline owners, car manufacturers and power plant operators gets in the way of a full understanding by most socialists of the dynamics of global (over)warming. Also lurking deep down might be a reluctance to address the role of all agriculture, not just its capitalist forms, in the global warming, species extinction, water pollution and so forth. Such a recognition would raise the issue of the number of mouths to be fed, i.e. population levels. Instead most socialists one-sidedly focus on land ownership and the (for-profit) distribution of food resources. There is a pathological unwillingness to face the reality of "too many" (not just "mouths": people do not live by bread alone!).
This failure to really get to grips with the sustainability issue is further reflected in the poor appreciation of the range of ecological factors (and associated human activities) that were responsible for the destruction of New Orleans. Even when the Hurricane Katrina disaster is discussed, most socialist authors quickly focus on how the poor suffered disproportionately (true), correspondingly downplaying the more significant ecological message.
It is also striking that socialists such as Respect’s policy writers are either dishonest or ill informed about the limits of "alternative" technologies. In particular, they give the impression that so-called "renewables" could power a society characterised by lifestyles not too dissimilar from those of today. This is pure fantasy. Renewable sources will yield only small and variable supplies of energy. This is one reason why my original article stressed the need to "think shrink" (this argument has been most cogently developed by the Australian anti-capitalist Ted Trainer – type his name in Google to access a selection of his invaluable work).
Worst of all, Respect’s manifesto indulges in all sorts of promises to expand citizen entitlements (housing, health, education etc). Yet much of the physical wherewithal to underwrite such expanded provision could only be found by adding to the pressures being put upon already overstressed ecosystems. Some might be found by a "peace dividend", i.e. much reduced arms expenditure, and similar "conversions" of production, but, by themselves, such initiatives buy only temporary respite from the general ecological threat. There seems to be little understanding that ambulances and armoured cars cost the same in Nature’s accounts. In other words, the geological limits, thermodynamic penalties and ecological costs remain the same be it in production for private profit or production for social use, for richer or for poorer consumers.
Ian also pointed his readers to George Galloway’s campaigning. Now I must confess that I have not attended any of his meetings. I find his behaviour odious and remain baffled by the esteem in which some people on the Left seem to hold him. But I put my prejudices on one side and looked at his personal website. Ian says that Galloway "frequently" addresses climate change in his radio show. I have not heard it but I could not find any such frequency on the website or in Early Day Motions from Galloway (though, to give him due credit, one of the latter recognises the wildlife value of so-called "brownfield" sites which many would sacrifice for new build).
Devils in the detail
In this article, he takes conventional economic growth as, ipso facto, a good thing. He notes that the US economy "has been growing quite respectably". His main criticism is that such growth (including the "continuing Chinese boom") is unlikely to be sustained. There is no sense that such expansion is the flip side of ecological recession.
He also spotlights the slow down in the American housing market "with falling prices and new houses going unsold". Yet it was its growth in the past that has covered vast areas of the USA in brick, concrete and tarmac. The resultant sprawl has been so great that new words have had to be coined to describe, from suburbs to "exurbs" since cities now stretch way beyond previous suburban tracts. It has been far from sustainable in terms of lost farmland and wildlife habitat as well as greater car travel, oil depletion and pollution.
Callinicos rightly chastises the speculative practices of the financial markets such as credit derivatives. He says that "tens of billions of dollars have been lost" as such bubbles burst. Underpinning his discussion, however, seems to be acceptance of the idea that such monies are the same thing as real wealth. Yet money is only a symbol, a token giving its owner claim to resources. Monies are not the resources themselves. Those "billions" bear no relation to what is happening in the real world – both the "means" of production (soil, water, plants, forests, fisheries minerals, etc) and the conditions for production (stable climate, protection from UV rays, breathable air, photosynthesis, pollination, decomposition of wastes etc).
It is, at one level, unfair to pick on one article. Yet it is precisely in the more mundane material that it becomes clear just how wide is the gulf between socialism and ecocentrism. Proof of the pudding is that the further one gets away from the Trotskyist tradition the better the environmental coverage becomes (Red Pepper etc). All of which suggests that my critique of Trotsky and his legacy was more accurate than his defenders like Ian would care to admit.
Make mine more
I am at a loss to explain how socialism has changed so much. One reason is wholly positive: a far greater appreciation of the personal as opposed to the collective. Too many crimes have been committed in the name of the "class", "masses" and "party". To be honest, "ecopolitics" too carries this danger given its emphasis on "systems" and "holism". So, there was need to assert the value of actual individual people as opposed to empty abstractions.
But the stick seems to have been bent too far the other way. Anti-capitalists need to get to grips with this phenomenon. I first became aware of it during the so-called May Events in Paris, 1968. Some readers may remember one popular slogan of the day: "What do we want? Everything! When do we want it? Now!". There is an umbilical cord running from such cornucopian dreaming to a shop I saw a few years ago in New York named "Too Much Is Not Enough".
By the 1970s, American author Tom Wolfe had christened such social currents as the "Me Generation". Today the private has begun to overwhelm the public. A veritable new wave of narcissism manifests itself in many ways from the self-absorption evident in much blogging and other Internet traffic (YouTube etc.) to the egotistical exhibitionism of reality TV, confessional chat shows, "bling", "emo-goths", and the like.
This is all music of course, to capitalist ears since it is easily co-opted into marketing opportunities. But they are exploiting, rather than creating, this egocentric cultural shift. So too did Margaret Thatcher in 1980s. Little has changed since then except for the addition of a strain of self-indulgent sentiment (most evident in the near mass hysteria after the death of the Princess of Hearts, Lady Diana Spencer).
"Egocentrism" may perhaps be driven by the fact that millions of people do not want mature responsibility. Instead they simply prefer to take what they want in the here and now. There is more to the phenomenon than advertising-driven consumerism. The American historian Christopher Lasch, for instance, diagnosed a "culture of narcissism", others like Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman perceived an "individualised society" while yet more social critics have talked about a disease they have named "affluenza", "infantilism"/"Peter Pan" syndrome and "therapy culture". Whatever the diagnosis, deep cultural changes have been afoot.
Their strength is such that it is now almost impossible to preach any message of restraint. Its presence is all pervading. Socialism has been unable to resist the tide. Revealingly, on several anti-war demonstrations I attended, the platform speakers kept on congratulating the audience and asking us if we were having a good time (No! I’d have been much happier to stay in bed but my wife and I felt it was our duty to turn up to protest).
It is not just socialism that has changed. Green Politics has been similarly afflicted by this one-sided focus on rights but not responsibilities. This author once spoke at a conference of Green Euro MPs. At the event, it was proposed that there were 67 basic citizen entitlements (why not 66 or 68?). Not a thought was given to how the resources could be found to sustain their delivery. Even in magazines like The Ecologist, talk of population control has been replaced by the more individualistic concept of "reproductive rights".
These points may seem a bit removed from the original debate about ecological limits but, hopefully, the link might just remain clear. I see it every time a measure is proposed to cut consumption (water metering, higher energy prices, waste collection surcharges etc) and it meets a knee-jerk negative response in left-wing circles. Even the anti-Council tax protests had a degree of selfishness about them with some protesters certainly giving the impression that they simply didn’t want to make any payment for the services they enjoy. Yet, to avoid ecological catastrophe, society will have to learn to cut its coat from a smaller clothe. The challenge is not to expand supply but to find palatable ways to reduce demand. Socialist principles are very relevant here since those with the broadest stomachs should have their belts tightened the most (the opposite, of course, of recent Tory and New Labour policy). The equality agenda becomes more pertinent than ever before.
Today three fallacies particularly prevent proper understanding of the all-pervading impact of population increase. One is the so-called Netherlands Fallacy (i.e. Holland is heavily populated but no-one starves there). Second is the Redistribution Fallacy (i.e. there is more than enough for everyone if resources were to be shared equally). My original references spotlighted studies that explode such myths.
Ian relies on a third fallacy, "affluence is the best contraceptive". Sociologists, though not ecologists, have long dressed up this wishful thinking in the form of so-called "demographic transition theory". Their focus is too narrow, however. In fact, human history abundantly illustrates the opposite. Historically more resources have produced more population growth. It can be seen, for example, in the explosion in the numbers of Cro-Magnon Man, fed by an abundance of wild meat and in the much greater growth in human numbers following the development of agriculture.
Obviously other factors do intrude. The most positive has been the desire and ability of women to regulate their own fertility. But the general argument still holds. The fastest growing populations today are found in areas like the Middle East where sudden wealth has led to spurred population growth. The same happened in sub-Saharan Africa with the digging of deep wells, increased water supply and greater (short-term) food production in the ’50s and ’60s.
The mirror fallacy, that large families are simply the product of poverty, has some roots in reality but it is still a very limited explanation of population dynamics. Many readers will know well-to-do and well educated friends and neighbours who have parented large families. Our own dear Queen has been quite active in this department too. A tiny microcosm can also be seen in the French presidential election where the main candidates, none of them poor or ignorant, all have given the world sufficient children to ensure that population levels continue to rise (Bayrou 6, Sarkozy 5 with Royal bringing up the rear with 4).
There is not space to refute all the errors in Demographic Transition Theory (the American demographer Virginia Abernethy has done sterling work here) but it might be quickly noted that, as the post-war economic boom tailed off and conditions began to tighten, it was comparatively poorer parents who first began to parent fewer children, not their more affluent counterparts.
There are three separate issues here. First there is my contention that population growth is the most important factor in the pressures undermining ecosystems (and many purely social institutions) and one that, ipso facto, compounds pressures from other sources. This argument stands or falls, without reference to the other two issues: what causes such growth and what can be done about it.
Ian seems unwilling to face fairly and squarely the first issue. He recycles shop-worn arguments that are, at best, only half-truths about the causes of growth. But on the third issue, he resorts to the most bizarre chain of reasoning. He seizes on my discussion of Trotsky’s attitude to technological innovation, and especially his endorsement of genetic engineering, to assert that Cassandras like me who worry about overpopulation must also support this technology. He claims that we must do so since only it can defuse the population bomb.
This is a bit rich. There are other alternatives. The first thing to do is to stop the various incentives increasingly being adopted by a variety of governments to encourage the production of more babies (it might be remembered how much effort is also being put into boosting reproduction rates – witness the frequent headlines about a new "fertility breakthrough" – as well prolonging life, thereby boosting overall population levels from the "other end"). The second is to reward those who parent no more children than replacement levels. But most important of all is the provision of free, reliable birth control, coupled to removal of the huge variety of ways in which women continue to be oppressed and denied choices in their lives (it is this that makes me so amazed at the way many socialists today refuse to oppose organised religion, especially fundamentalist varieties, but that is another story!)
Most socialists, I suspect, would support not-for-profit genetic engineering. Most ecologically minded people, by contrast, feel that the risks will always outweigh the benefits. These dangers make it a non-starter as a contribution to ecological sustainability in general and the stabilisation of population levels in particular. The serious threat from human eugenics is certainly a factor but more serious is the unavoidable contamination of evolutionary processes. The Earth provides sufficient bounty only if we would moderate our numbers and our appetites.
At this point, let me throw a veritable hand grenade into the proceedings. It takes the form of the question of immigration controls. It is here that the Left makes its biggest breach with sanity. If human numbers do count, then all additions must be counted, not just domestic birth and death rates but also losses and gains from migration. It is illogical to accept that the Fire Brigade can set limits to the numbers a building can contain and then argue that there is no corresponding need to worry about the numbers flowing into a city, region or country.
It is folly not to see, for example, the future calamities likely to result from the continuing flood of migrants from north and south into the "sunshine" states of the SW USA where already local water supplies are chronically overstretched. Yet any attempt to raise the problem is met with the knee-jerk accusation of racism. It might be added that to call for "open frontiers" is not only ecologically suicidal but also hands the whole issue on a plate to racists and other malign forces who prey upon the xenophobic tendencies sadly common across society.
In other words, it is about sharing a finite world with its diversity of other co-dependents. In our individualistic culture, it is not surprising that this perception has shrunk to that of "animal rights", i.e. the entitlements of individual non-human creatures. But if we accept that we share the Earth with other lifeforms, then the big issue becomes habitat protection. That word "share" means, for example, that we humans would forego the jobs and possible pleasures that might be afforded by, say, a hotel development if that construction would rob other creatures of vital habitat. As a practical level, I would cite the American Wildlands Project as an example of what all this might mean in practice (see http://www.twp.org:80/cms/index.cfm?group_id=1000).
Of course, all living means some dying. So the next step involves the principle of due respect and the minimisation of death and suffering. We take but we can also "give". I see ecocentrism as an agenda and framework for debate, rather than a long list of prescribed behaviours. Many vernacular cultures had a sense of the intrinsic unity and value of all life. Some theorists like Edward Wilson argue that such feelings are "wired" into our genes (the so-called Biophilia hypothesis). Scientists like Wilson may be right though it does seem that the wires have been badly cut, given the severity of human abuse of other creatures and the bizarrely diverse forms it takes.
There are several issues to debate here. I feel, for example, that there is an overwhelming case for vegetarianism or at least a low-meat cuisine. Personally, I became a vegetarian many years ago not on grounds of animal welfare but because meat production is very wasteful of food resources and highly polluting. But I can see a certain logic in the arguments put forward by the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in his TV cookery shows. However, those who eat "high on the hog" must be very myopic if they cannot see the pain and waste they cause. Certainly, in the years after I changed my diet and otherwise tried to moderate my appetites, I have done more good for other species, other people and the planet as a whole than in the many, many hours I spent trying to sell Socialist Worker on the High Street and at factory gates.
But I must stress that ecocentrism is about an agenda for decision-making rather than a set of detailed conclusions. Perhaps the most contentious item on it is vivisection. I would hope that we might agree that all but absolutely essential experiments should be instantly phased out (make-up testing etc.). It might be noted that such issues have often mobilised more people than many conventional "bread-and-butter" protests. Ian is entitled to think that the animal rights movement is misguided but perhaps it contains more potential for social change than he recognises.
In passing, I must note that Ian’s resort to ad hominem arguments (he asks if I drive a car) detracts from serious debate. Actually I do own a car but I am trying to minimise my driving. Here is a good example of the tyranny of micro decisions. If I gave up all use, my act of goodness would make next-to-no difference to the overall problem if everyone else continued as before. In the meantime, I would often suffer much inconvenience. Yet I would vote and otherwise support as best I can a government that sought to drastically curb car production and usage. Doubtless I am guilty of many other inconsistencies in my daily living. It is equally doubtless that many anti-capitalists use banks, shop at supermarkets and otherwise "sustain" capitalism in a myriad of other ways. But that fact should not be allowed to detract from the merit of their case against the capitalist system.
But I stand by my original characterisation of the Socialist Alliance election manifesto as "idiocy". It makes absolutely no sense. Ian defends it by claiming that campaigners have to start "where people are". He is right in that values and policies need to be expressed in ways that connect with the necessary "critical mass". I would agree that, more specifically, it is a matter of a "transitional programme", not the "minimum" (which solves nothing) nor "maximum" programmes (which attracts too little support to solve anything).
Yet those seeking to transform society cannot hide the depth of their critique of existing society nor the radicalism of the alternative they seek. Otherwise they are avoiding the ideological battles they must fight if they are to ever succeed. Moreover, any such secrecy would leave them open to damaging accusations of dishonesty. More generally, Ian’s argument smells of the "tailism" of the Second International which, in effect, asserted that it is better to be wrong with the working class than right against it. This led most socialists to support the war efforts of their respective governments in 1914-1918 since belligerent patriotism had swept through working classes in the combatant countries.
In line with the words of Paul McGarr above, it seems to me that the growing ecological crisis is the equivalent to a looming war. To put the issue as point 12 in an election programme is like the anti-war authors of the 1915 Zimmerwald Manifesto putting the Great War in a footnote. Their position was massively unpopular ... but the delegates were still right to take their stand against war. Ian’s case about "chance of election" is, of course, the very argument used by Tony Blair (and, in his own terms, correctly so).
Millions of working class people will deeply resent the drastic cuts necessary in air travel, road traffic and so forth to achieve sustainability. This does not alter the need to loudly and clearly to advocate such changes. In some but certainly far from all cases, there might be popular "sweeteners" such as much cheaper and more reliable public transport. Even then it is an idle fantasy to think that existing volumes of people and goods can be simply switched from private car to public rail/bus. (In passing, it is worth noting that recent reports have demonstrated that what many see as environmentally friendlier sea transport is in reality a major source of greenhouse gases as well as oil depletion, water pollution, and ecological degradation via dredging and harbour construction).
Given the (dis)ease characteristic of the dominant lifestyles of today, there are good reasons for thinking that an ecologically sustainable society might be a more convivial and personally fulfilling one. In other words a greater quality of life might be derived from lower quantity of things. That is one possible argument to popularise the needed changes. But the argument over the unsustainable nature of the contemporary social order still remains a separate issue, regardless of whether the conclusions are widely liked. Key analytical tools like geology, entropy and ecology are scientific concepts. They are not matters of taste, to be judged in popularity contests.
There is one other argument that many Marxists fall back upon when in need. It is that those wishing to question its tenets lack faith in the intelligence, integrity and decency of the toiling masses. Conversely the solution, Marxists argue, is, as TV’s Citizen Smith used to put it: "power to the people".
In my original article, I did indeed question whether the "people", the "working class" or some such agency could be the vehicle for the changes needed to avoid collective ruin. In doing so, I was not proposing any alternative way forward. I was trying to demonstrate the inadequacy of theories that blame environmental and social problems solely or even largely upon private profiteering (or state capitalist accumulation, for that matter).
I was equally questioning parallel perceptions that, likewise, deem the culprit to be "vested interests", the "state", "hierarchy", some sort of new "Empire", or simply "them" (thereby, of course, exonerating "us" from any responsibility). Some readers may remember that silly song in which those great political theorists Pink Floyd demanded that "teacher, leave those kids alone" as if educational problems and broader social repression were the fault of brain-washing teachers (actually it is more the case today, for kids to stop oppressing teachers!).
I was trying to underline the need for other explanations of why, collectively, we are in such a dangerous mess. I did not seek to downplay in any way the destructive consequences of the profit motive or bureaucratic aggrandisement. But such factors only explain so much. We need to take on board what theorists have variously called the "tyranny of small decisions" (Kahn), "social traps" (Costanza), or the "ecology of micromotives" (Schelling). Ronald Wright has no simple phrase but he similarly spotlights the way early success/satisfaction tempts people on journeys that turn out to be dead-ends, likening many technological "triumphs" to a giant pyramid scheme destined to collapse.
The American biologist Garrett Hardin particularly stressed in his "tragedy of the commons" thesis the conflict between individual attempts to maximise personal economic welfare (e.g. by grazing more cattle on an open commons) and the malign consequences for the collectivity (i.e. ruinous erosion of common pastureland). It is odd that many on the Left rubbish Hardin’s writings. His argument is a powerful indictment of the destructive workings of what Adam Smith and his heirs have claimed to be the benign invisible hand of the market economy.
Two points must be stressed here. First, long-term tragedy can result when no exploitative, oppressive or otherwise wilful dynamic is at work. Good motives can still produce bad outcomes given the long-term cumulative consequences of a countless tiny decisions. The loss of the "night sky" due to a myriad bits of night-time lighting is one of many examples. Second, and with specific reference to Hardin, his real error was to ignore the way that small-scale, cohesive communities can protect common property resources, though such protection becomes harder to exercise in anonymous mass societies (another reason why the dangers posed by population growth need to be addressed, not ignored).
It is for such reasons that I feel that "anti-capitalism" is a valid perspective but remains, none the less, an inadequate diagnosis of what is wrong and an incomplete guide to possible remedies. Of course, as Ian spotlighted, I have not offered any strategy to create an ecologically sustainable society. To be blunt, I feel that Ian, like most theorists on the Left, have little to offer either. They are like armchair generals manoeuvring armies that exist largely in their own imagination. The fact organisations like the SWP remain utterly marginalised suggests that all the reams of paper and all the conference hours devoted to debate over strategy have yielded rather barren fruit.
That said, if Ian were to still demand to know who can save the world, I could give a half-answer. It would counsel against faith in will o’ the wisps. I see no way forward in any strategy based on marginal / marginalised social groups, be it globally (the global "multitude" of outsiders) or locally (ethnic minorities, lifestyle nonconformists, the unemployed, etc). It might be noted that some Green parties have gone further down this dead-end road than "Red" equivalents (Die Grünen appointing gypsies as national candidates etc). I feel that the much used and abused strategy of the "turn to youth" is equally hopeless. I would assume that no honest person now believes in the "long march through the institutions" (for which, apart from anything else, there is no longer time).
I would agree with the late Christopher Lasch, the radical American historian and social critic, that socialists and other radicals have been too quick to write off the "ordinary Joe". Worse, they have often adopted stances that needlessly alienate such people (Lasch cites the counter-productive disdain with which returning Vietnam veterans were treated in the USA, driving them into the arms of the Right).
It is, of course, true that many ordinary citizens remain utterly addicted to cars, plasma TVs and the like. The "petrol protests" against Tony Blair commanded much popular support. Many people support Ryanair’s boss Michael O’Leary in his efforts to oppose any curbs on cheap air flights. Tesco has become such a monster because millions of people like shopping there. There are many, many more ways in which the average citizen sustains our destructive social order.
Yet most people also care about their children and their prospects. They rue the loss of familiar townscapes and landscapes in the name of "development". They also resent "fat cats", corporate raiders and their ilk. Indeed they seemed prepared to countenance quite radical economic measures, even if, socially, they remain much more (small "c") conservative. The critical mass necessary to change society is more likely to come from more mature and better educated individuals and groups, ones more prepared to turn such sentiments into actual deeds, be it in their own lifestyles or collective action.
The building of the necessary social forces has more chance if marginal social demands that pointlessly alienate potential support were to be dropped. I remember attending a Green Party conference when one of its then leading figures, Linda Hendry, wound up the event by demanding that the Party be really radical and make cannabis decriminalisation one of its major planks. Such politics really is an infantile disorder. We need to stick to bare essentials that address the really urgent challenges of today.
A good example of the kind of "transitional politics" I had in mind in my first article was the removal of all public subsidies for environmentally destructive activities. It is a good demand in itself but it would also connect with many people. Yet it has to be recognised that many trade unions will fight to preserve such grants and tax perks. There are terribly difficult problems in seeking to reconcile people’s attitudes and behaviour in their different roles and experiences, be it at work or in the spheres of family life, private consumption and leisure. Marxism’s historical focus on the forces and relations of "production" have perhaps not helped it to address the complexities of contemporary lifestyles.
To conclude, the road to ecological sustainability cannot be found by sticking to the old signposts of traditional socialism, be it Trotskyist or indeed any other historically significant variety. I wholeheartedly welcome Ian Birchall’s willingness to engage with ecological issues. He makes many valid points. But there is still a need to reflect on the reasons why revolutionary socialism failed to make that engagement and why, odd individuals apart, it still seems reluctant to do so.