Derek Wall: 'Ecosocialism places Marx at the centre of its analysis'

September 10, 2011 -- Green Left Weekly -- Economist, activist and writer Derek Wall (pictured above) is a member of the Green Party of England and Wales (and the Green Left grouping within it) and is the author of several books on ecology and politics. Wall will speak via video link at the Climate Change Social Change activist conference in Melbourne,r September 30 to October 3. He maintains the ecosocialist blog Another Green World. He spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Simon Butler about the politics of ecosocialism.

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What are the most valuable insights ecosocialists can bring to discussions about the source of our ecological problems?

Ecosocialism, without being reductionist, cuts to the roots of the ecological crisis. The destruction of the environment is not an accident. It is not simply a problem of false ideas and it is not a product of inappropriate policies that can easily be dealt with by electing a new set of politicians.

The assault on the basic life support system of our planet, the basic biological cycles, climate being just one, is caused by our economic and social system. We live in a capitalist society and capitalism tends towards the destruction of the conditions necessary to sustain life.

To deal with ecological problems we have to focus on capitalist assaults on the rest of nature. I don’t condemn individual lifestyle change but changing ones consumption is not key to creating social change.

The present system demands that we work harder, produce more, consume more and throw more away at ever increasing rates.

Ecosocialism is pragmatic, not utopian. It is strategic. One example will suffice, the Peruvian Amazon. The Amazon is key as a carbon sink, absorbing CO2. It is fantastic for biodiversity. Why is it under assault? Primarily because corporations aided by corrupt elites in Peru want to slice it up for gas, oil and biofuels.

Environmentalists don’t like to use the “c” word for risk of offence, but it’s about “capitalism”. Yes, we can try not to buy timber from the Amazon. Yes, we can support NGOs. But the political and economic realities of Peru, to give one example, must be recognised.

The Indigenous organise to fight for the Amazon. They formed a federation of over 40 ethnic groups — Aidesep — to gain unity. They ally with workers in the cities and social movements across Peru. They have used non-violent direct action to stop the forests being taken and for their pains they were massacred at Bagua [in 2009]. They have intervened politically in Peru and helped elect [Ollanta] Humala, another left leader in the mould of [Bolivia’s Evo] Morales and [Venezuela’s Hugo] Chavez. They have achieved new forest laws to protect their land. If they are betrayed, they will take militant but non-violent action.

Ecosocialists give solidarity. Aidesep have worked closely with the legendary ecosocialist and Indigenous leader Hugo Blanco.

Ecosocialism, with its focus on fighting capitalist destruction and articulating with indigenous [people] and workers, is a pragmatic, effective response to the crisis on our planet. Capitalism is an articulated system. A key node is of course property rights, but capitalism links economics, culture and politics — it’s a whole system and it’s a process that exploits and degrades both humanity and the rest of nature.

To fight the enemy one must know the enemy's name.

How does ecosocialism differ from most 20th century interpretations of socialism?

Well I am tempted to say unlike 20th century interpretations of socialism, ecosocialism places Marx at the centre of its analysis.

Marx and Engels were contradictory thinkers — if you understand Marxism as a slogan or something empirically flat you ignore the nuances of the system. So yes, Marx and Engels praised globalisation, argued that a raising of the productive forces created working-class agency and the potential to create a society that met human needs.

However, it is equally true that they were profoundly aware of environmental problems and the way that capitalism attacks through the environment. This flows from Engels’ early concern with river pollution and his masterful analysis in The Condition of the English Working Class as to how industrial pollution harmed workers, right through to Marx’s writings at the end of his life where he plunged into the study of indigenous societies.

From the Paris Manuscripts to Das Kapital, environmental concern is prominent in Marx’s work.

It is often repeated, but needs repeating again, all socialists if they are sincere should perhaps learn off by heart Marx’s brilliant statement of ecosocialism from volume 3 of Das Kapital:

Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the Earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].

I don’t think [all] Marxist thinkers and leaders [of the 20th century] read this far! Marxism was transformed into a form of positivism, crude productivism dominated and Stalinism took its toll. Twentieth century socialism in its reformist, social-democratic flavours was also productivist.

Of course there were exceptions. Lenin had some green tinges but, alas, after he died socialism was deformed in so many ways. While I am not a Leninist, I would acknowledge there is a big difference between his ideas and many later interpretations of Leninism.

In the early years after the Russian Revolution, conservation was very important. Rosa Luxemburg cared for animals and birds.

Ecosocialism is focused on democratic property rights — the commons. Socialism is primarily about property relations — these are articulated together with productive forces, of course, but Marx was primarily interested in a communist society, that is, a society based on democratic ownership of the means of production by the population.

This is key and this, as Marx reminds us in the quote from Das Kapital, must be achieved in ways that sustain future prosperity. That is, ecology is vital.

In your recent book The Rise of the Green Left you track the development of ecosocialist ideas but also the growth of social movements that are influenced by, and are helping to further develop, ecosocialism. Where are these movements the strongest?

Well Australia deserves an honourable mention. You people at Green Left Weekly have been real pioneers and I learnt about ecosocialist ideas first from reading Alan Roberts’ The Self-Managing Environment.

An Australian, the late great Nick Origlass, who was a revolutionary and in his last years a Green Party member, fought all his life using elections, strike action and direct action and is a real hero to me.

In Britain, although more formally anarchist than ecosocialist, the direct action environmental movement since the anti-roads protest of the 1990s and more recent climate camps have used militant direct action to challenge the destruction of the planet.

They have linked with workers like the occupying wind turbine workers at Vestas on the Isle of Wight and they have seen capitalism as the root of environmental destruction.

However, the real action is in Latin America — from the Mapuche revolt in Chile to the struggles of Indigenous peoples in countries like Ecuador, the social movements for ecology and social justice are racing ahead.

In turn, leaders like Morales and Chavez have been arguing for ecosocialist ideas. It was nice to see, for example, the recent car-free day in Bolivia.

The relationship between states and social movements is vital. State lefts have not always fully delivered but without left victories space for social movements would be reduced. At their best, the socialist states aspire to ecosocialism. Witness how the ALBA  [the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas] countries Ecuador, Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia lead the world in militancy at international climate conferences. However, there are stark contradictions. Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia are “extractivist” economies based on oil and gas.

The social movements need to keep pushing the states. However, make no mistake, the Western media, which wants a return of the old comprador elite states that will crush the social movements, use ecological failures to attack these countries.

As I have noted the most militant and effective of the social movements in the world are Aidesep in the Peruvian Amazon. We can all learn from them — they are seriously good and strategic.

The social protests from Chile to here in Britain show that people are growing tired of neo-liberalism and are prepared to challenge the system.

Some environmentalists and writers have pointed to the dangers of endless economic growth and have offered various proposals for a zero-growth or steady-state economy. Is zero growth possible in a capitalist economy?

The short answer is no. Firms compete to make profit. Those who make the most profit can reinvest in capital and with more efficient machinery they out compete other firms.

Firms have to make profit to survive. It’s not a case of wicked capitalists but instead a system with a built in growth imperative.

The problem is, from declining oil to diminishing fish stocks, an environmental wipeout is occurring.

We could rollout good public transport, eat lower on the food chain, make goods that last longer — there are all sorts to ways of gaining prosperity without growth. You can make goods repairable or modular for easy upgrade, but in an irrational system we throw away and buy more and the system works. But the better the system works the worse it is for us and the rest of nature.

But capitalism only works if we work harder, consume more and throw more away. Capitalism without growth is capitalism in crisis, as we can see at present.

You have written much about how the concept of “the commons” provides the basis for an alternative, ecological economy that is democratic, resource efficient, decentralised and sustainable. What do you mean by “the commons” and how could it be applied across whole economies?

The commons is collectively owned property, as opposed to state or privately owned. To me it is the essence of ecosocialism, involving the democratic ownership of the means of production. Communities, including Indigenous and peasant farmers, have collectively regulated resources including land, forests and fisheries for thousands of years.

Access is free, but those with access must conserve the resource. Commons is key to Marx’s ideas, as we can see from the quote from Das Kapital above. In 2009, [US political economist] Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for economics, incidentally the first woman to do so. Her research shows that, with care, commons can create sustainable and prosperous economies.

There are numerous examples of norms within commons that tend to encourage sustainable use.

Chris Hannibal-Paci’s examination of conservation of sturgeon by the Cree and Ojibwe at Lake Winnipeg, Canada, is a good example of a successful commons. The lake fisheries were a commons used by Indigenous people until commons rights were eroded during the colonial era. In recent years, overfishing has been a problem. Thus, as private property rights and the commodification of fisheries have increased, sturgeon catches have fallen. Before colonial times, fish catches were fairly and carefully regulated. There are thousands more examples.

Commons is simply about collective and ecological regulation. Private ownership of resources encourages short-term waste and destruction. Commons is an appropriate alternative.

The commons is always under threat of enclosure. To me, ecosocialism is about defending, extending and deepening commons. Cyberspace is to a large extent commons. The wiki principle is commons. Collective, creative solutions are possible.

While commons work at a community level, with the web we can nest commons and use wiki principles to democratically plan regional, national and international economies.

The notion of workers’ plans for green production is also an important manifestation of the commons principle. Markets and states are not going to disappear, but 21st century socialism and especially ecosocialism is about democratic, creative, common pool property rights, not top down Stalinist perversions of a democratic vision.

Land, cyberspace, factories — you name it, it can, with care, be made commons. Ostrom is fascinating: coming from a background in neo-liberal Hayekian economics she was convinced by research into existing commons that sustainable collective property rights can work well.

She has been a great friend of the Indigenous and the green movement. While there are weaknesses in her work — for example, she lacks a class analysis — she is a tremendous inspiration. This is a nice quote of hers:

Our problem is how to craft rules at multiple levels that enable humans to adapt, learn, and change over time so that we are sustaining the very valuable natural resources that we inherited so that we may be able to pass them on.

I am deeply indebted to the indigenous peoples in the US who had an image of seven generations being the appropriate time to think about the future.

I think we should all reinstate in our mind the seven-generation rule. When we make really major decisions, we should ask not only what will it do for me today, but what will it do for my children, my children’s children, and their children’s children into the future