George Walford: The Red and the Green

Issue No.3 of Spanner has just arrived. It concentrates on greenism, and since the journal retains its stance in favour of socialism (though preferring to call it a non-market economy) a question of priority arises. Let us agree, to start with, that the greenists have a solid point. We clearly cannot go on treating our planetary environment as we have done in the recent past without suffering serious consequences, and this holds good even if some of the apparent dangers should prove illusory. (Warnings of an increase in global temperature, for example, rest more on theory and assumption, and less on direct observation, than the greenists always make clear).

Industry stands out as the principal immediate culprit, and Spanner holds that we can control industry, thereby saving the ecology and ourselves, only by replacing capitalism with socialism. As Robin Cox puts it in this issue : “… any attempt to install a truly Green economy… must align itself with the movement for a non-market future… ”

If protection of the ecology requires a non-market society we face a grim prospect, for this would require the general body of the people to adopt an ideology radically different from their present ones; we have not only the work done on systematic ideology but also the evidence provided by the limited success of the socialist movement since it began – around 1830 – to show the improbability of that. Anybody acquainted with the history of socialist literature and its claim, reiterated over a century and a half, that the movement towards the revolution was just about to begin, will feel their heart sink on recognising this familiar note in Spanner‘s opening sentence: “A significant and potentially fruitful convergence of economic and ecological thinking is taking place today.”

If we need a socialist or non-market society to protect the ecology, God help the ecology.

Have we then no hope at all? Let history answer. In the 19th Century, with London’s population increasing and no adequate drainage system, the Serpentine became a cesspit and the Thames an open sewer. No single firm could have made a profit from installing adequate sewage-disposal for its own use, but in spite of this the trouble did not continue, getting worse and worse, until everybody died of cholera; action by public authority brought the unpleasantness and the danger under control.

After 1945, as coal for domestic heating became plentiful again, the “peasouper” or “London particular,” a thick, greasy, choking, sulphurous fog in which one could hardly see across the pavement, became worse and more frequent. About 1951 a specially bad one lasted for several days and had the bronchitic old people dying in their hundreds. The Clean Air Act dealt with that. Neither of these insults to the environment came anywhere near threatening the survival of the race, or even of London, but the establishment of the time secured the common interest, imposing the needed restraints upon recalcitrant individuals both industrial and domestic.

The ideology of Principle and Domination, finding expression through authoritarian government and industry, favours an economic system operating as a number of competing individuals, with each firm putting its individual interest above the welfare of the total community. This practice bears much of the responsibility for the damage the ecology has suffered. But although favouring this form of individualism this ideology does not totally disregard the community (only the primal one, the ideology of Expediency, does that); it seeks to operate an economic system, and that implies recognition of a common interest, subsidiary though it normally remains. Faced with a threat to the system it protects the whole by imposing on individuals (firms and industries as well as people) such control as may prove necessary. In time of war, for example, every belligerent nation protects its security in this way, and indications have begun to appear of a similar response to the threat from damage to the ecology. Pollution from petrol fumes and acid rain, dangers from additives in food and damage to the ozone layer have all become subjects of attention and sometimes of action.

Marxism itself leads us to expect something of the sort. Advocates of this theory have long been saying that capitalism has to maintain the working-class not merely as labouring bodies but as educated people capable of operating complex institutions and sophisticated equipment. For similar reasons it has to maintain a suitable environment, and that means not merely a source of raw materials but conditions and surroundings the general body of the people, workers and consumers, find acceptable. The London examples given above demonstrate its ability to do this. We do not have to wait for socialism (in the sense of a non-market economy) before effective action against damage to the environment can be taken.

On the question of market versus non-market societies the cartoons in this issue of Spanner show it taking a remorselessly one-sided attitude. One shows a giant mechanical grab destroying the earth; no recognition that of all the societies known to history only industrial market capitalism has made any effort to restrict damage to the environment. Another shows Death scything down the masses; no recognition that during this market-capitalist century the amount of human life on earth has increased faster than ever before. Another shows goods for profit appearing in profusion, with a thin trickle of needed products; no recognition that goods which meet no need do not sell and produce no profit. Another shows the “Rich World” feasting while starving figures in loin-cloths scramble for the crumbs; Spanner has evidently forgotten Mrs. Gandhi’s other son, Sanjay; he died in a crash while flying his own jet aircraft between two of his own motor-car factories, a form of ‘poverty’ that many in the ‘rich world’ would like to suffer. And what of the African ruler who gave a French Premier a tray of diamonds?

Rich worlds and poor worlds, first, second, third and fourth worlds – such phrases serve the facile purposes of popular journalism. They help people who have to squeeze the news of the day into a 30-second sound-bite. Serious treatment of the difficulties arising in the course of social development requires sharper thinking than these worn coinages permit.

So what would IC have Spanner do? Why, carry on as it goes, printing whatever the writers and editors feel will meet the ideological requirements of themselves and their intended readership. Nothing is Absolutely True. One partial truth supplements another, the one-sidedness of the reformers and revolutionaries goes to offset that of the traditionalists and authoritarians. Let Spanner continue in its present vein, and more strength to its software, for we approach completeness not by suppressing difference and variety but by developing each conflicting ideology to the fullest, with all its quiddity, limitations and distortions. But the recognition that the different approaches complement each other brings recognition also of the whole which together they constitute. (A whole which itself turns out on examination to be incomplete).

With the ecology, as in other connections, the reformers and revolutionaries, the eidodynamics, show themselves more far-sighted than the (eidostatic) authorities. They see the dangers first. Whatever their ambitions and intentions, and whatever status they may eventually attain, at present they serve as antennae or outriders, reporting back to the main body on the troubles ahead. (With each step in ideological development the area of moral concern widens). But they can do little more than that. To deal with the difficulties arising as society develops takes the ideology of Principle and Domination, supported, as it consistently is, by far greater numbers than non-market socialism has been able to attract.

from Ideological Commentary 53, Autumn 1991.