27 Apr 2006

Top Ten books on ecology and revolution/George Monbiot, Hilary Wainwright and Joel Kovel

Top Ten books on ecology and revolution.

'How rare it is to come across Marxists who actually proclaim what is subversive, philosophical and militant in Marx’s work, or greens who unambiguously state that we need to live in an entirely different way if we are to live at all. In Kovel we have both; his book provides a pure and fundamental account of the key and overlapping themes of red and green philosophies.

There is a lot here: from Rosa Luxemburg’s love of buffaloes to Bhopal as a case study of capitalist-growth-induced catastrophe; from the pathologies of the Bush state to the threat in a devastated world of eco-fascism. It is richly argued, well referenced and impossible to put down.'

Foster, J. (2002) Ecology Against Capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Foster, J. (2000)Marx’s Ecology. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Fromm, E. (1979) To Have or To Be? London: Abacus.

Gould, P. (1988) Early Green Politics. Brighton: Harvester.

Kovel, J. (2002) The Enemy of Nature. New York: Zed Press.

McNally, D. (1993) Against the Market: Political Economy, Market Socialism and the Marxist Critique. London: Verso.

Mellor, M. (1992) Breaking the Boundaries: Towards a Feminist, Green Socialism. London: Virago.

Roberts, A. (1979) The Self-Managing Environment. London: Allison and Busby.

Trainer, E. (1985) Abandon Affluence! London: Zed Press.

Wall, D. (2005) Babylon and Beyond: the economics of anti-capitalist, anti-globalist and radical green movements. London: Pluto.

I would value your suggestions as well....here is a review of Joel's book, Joel like Nandor is somebody I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to work with. When here in London, he offered to buy a round in the Sun (?) in Lambs conduit street, I said I would buy if he agreed to run for the US Presidency again, sadly he hasn't but his bid to go for the green party usa nomination was an inspiring attempt to promote ecosocialism.

The Enemy of Nature is a classic. Joel of course worked hard with Walt Sheasby when Walt was still alive....some Monbiot and Hilary stuff here as well....

Manifestos for the millennium

Derek Wall

January 2004

Derek Wall considers George Monbiot’s, Hilary Wainwright’s and Joel Kovel’s alternative visions for future radical politics:

The Age of Consent: a manifesto for a new world order

George Monbiot (Flamingo, �15.99)

Reclaim the State: experiments in popular democracy

Hilary Wainwright (Verso, �15)

The Enemy of Nature: the end of capitalism or the end of the world?

Joel Kovel (Zed Press, �15.95)

George Monbiot, Hilary Wainwright and Joel Kovel have each produced a manifesto for radical politics in the new millennium. Depending on your perspective, these books will provoke, annoy or stimulate. They are necessary reading for all those who seek a better world. They account for the end of one kind of radicalism and the emergence of a new revolutionary alternative.

After the ‘death of socialism’, the ‘end of history’, the fall of the Berlin wall and the replacement of ‘Labour’ with ‘New Labour’, social democratic parties have become neo-liberal, socialists have become social democrats, and the old communist parties have morphed into thuggish oligarchic clans (� la Serbia) or post-modernist posses (the British Communist Party famously turned into the New Times network). Yet injustice remains and capitalism continues to buy and sell the world. Thus, we have the new anti-capitalism – a chaotic, vibrant wave of global fervour using grass-roots organisation, direct action and mischief to fight the power.

The new anti-capitalism, seen so visibly at the protests against the WTO in Seattle in 1999, has no central organisation, leaders or blueprint for change. It is plural, experimental and sceptical of existing structures and ideologies. Such an orientation is both positive and very limited. The books of Monbiot, Wainwright and Kovel can each be seen as contributions from individuals who have participated in the new anti-capitalism, and which seek to make the networks involved more reflexive about what they want and how they are going to get it.

Many commentators have argued that, rather than protesting, the ‘movement’ should provide ‘positive alternatives’. Personally, I have mixed feelings about this. As one wit once proclaimed, the only policy session worth attending at party conference is the one from the drugs working group. Protest can all too easily be channelled into worthy discussion of policy, and while alternatives are debated ad infinitum the elites are allowed to construct a world safe for themselves.

Equally, we must also be careful that when we imagine a different world we don’t subconsciously re-import the features that we already have. Happily none of these titles focuses simply upon lists of policies for a better world. Instead, they seek to identify causes of the injustice the new anti-capitalists seek to combat.

In The Age of Consent Monbiot argues for the creation of a global parliament, proclaiming that everything has been globalised except ‘our consent’. Usefully, he points out the need to debate institutions of global governance now that we live, for good or ill, in a global order with worldwide problems of war, injustice and ecocide. Monbiot is sceptical of those, like Colin Hines, who argue that economic activity should be localised. He finds anarchism and Marxism wanting as sources of ‘movement’ ideology.

The Age of Consent is entertaining because of Monbiot’s fiery rudeness to opponents, his refreshing ideological self-belief and admirable frankness. The whole text is imbued with a passionate certainty; you can imagine the writer on the podium, proclaiming his truth and smiting detractors – particularly the anarchists who, as we all know, live mainly in Brighton. Monbiot certainly feels he is on to something that we should all know about.

Yet ‘criticism’ in The Age of Consent looks too close to an attempt to silence alternatives and present Monbiot’s vision as the only one permissible. Criticism is never wrong in radical politics, because the way to a world that works will only come with the most rigorous debate. Only then can new strategies be developed. Dialogue and modesty are necessary if we are to be militant. Rather than being criticised, localists, anarchists and Marxists are caricatured and then knocked down by Monbiot. A liberal form of politics is then ‘regrettably’ offered as the only alternative.

Marxism has been a wellspring of radicalism for revolutionaries from William Morris to Fidel Castro. Whatever its manifold failings, it should not be simply binned and ignored. Maybe Marx had something to say about capitalism. Yet after a brief account of The Communist Manifesto, Monbiot has Stalin merrily butchering the kulaks.

‘The problem with [Marxism’s] political prescriptions,’ Monbiot says, ‘is not that they have been corrupted, but that they have been rigidly applied. Stalin’s politics and Mao’s were far more Marxist than, for example, those of the compromised – and therefore more benign – governments of Cuba or the Indian state of Kerala.’ Slagging off Marx’s manifesto for its deterministic simplicities is one thing, but refusing to engage with the socialist tradition full stop is quite another.

Similarly, grass-roots movements have been fertilised by anarchist thought since the days of Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin and Percy Byshe Shelley, but Monbiot rejects the possibility of learning from anarchism with an unconvincing parable of violence. And while localism may be an insufficient economic critique it does provide a practical alternative with the power to mobilise communities against capitalism. We can move from making cider from local apples to a critique of accumulation. But plans for world government rarely elicit enthusiasm in the streets or villages.

If I had worked as closely with the Socialist Workers Party as Monbiot I might also be a bit chary of Trotskyism or even Terry Eagleton, but what has the normally mild-mannered Hines done to attract such wrath? Monbiot’s liberal globalism could be presented as another ideology of straw and burnt with a single match. Where do we have the classic liberal constitution? In the US. Where do we have a blueprint for global government? In the UN? But while rhetoric is fun to condemn the book in this way would be quite wrong; it at least poses a number of difficult questions – including that of agency and strategy. The Age of Consent lacks the precision and the poetry of Monbiot’s excellent column and previous books, and it doesn’t contain any answers. But it does ask a number of important questions, and it demands our engagement for doing so.

Like Monbiot, Wainwright rejects anarchist purity and repressive forms of Marxism. Unlike Monbiot, she sees a variety of alternatives growing out of and beyond liberal democracy.

The theoretical underpinnings of Reclaim the State are strong, but the book is most interesting when examining grass-roots democratic alternatives. Wainwright argues that while we may need global governance, political parties, constitutions and old-style ‘representation’ none of these concepts are sufficient or even come close to exhausting the concept of democracy.

Wainwright has not magicked up a blueprint, but engages in dialogue with those who have started to live new democratic experiments. She visits Porto Alegre in Brazil, and shows how the people’s budget is put together in the city famous for the World Social Forum. In Luton she shows how Bob Marley has inspired local community government. And she examines how alternative networks have fought privatisation in Newcastle. She also takes the place of Anne Robinson in a Manchester version of The Weakest Link.

The book is intellectually stimulating and fun to read, but there are weaknesses. The Brazilian Workers Party (PT) that pioneered the people’s budget in Porto Alegre now forms a government that cohabits with the right in the form of the IMF. Yet elsewhere in South America there is encouraging resistance to neo-liberalism. Hugo Chavez in Venezuela has proved too tough for capital to kick out, and the Cuban revolution continues to enjoy popular support. Even for their admirers, however, Castro and Chavez cannot be seen as democratic libertarians.

While there is clear continuity between Reclaim the State and Wainwright’s earlier work, closer integration and questioning would have been beneficial. Why did Tony Benn and the GLC fail to leave any legacy? Why were we left with Tony Blair? Does the iron law of oligarchy always win? And where does ecology fit in with the struggle for democratic socialism?

Nonetheless, the book is a pleasing blend of documentary, theoretical sophistication and metaphor. Wainwright’s notion of radical politics is informed by literature. It is a politics that must be practised, and ‘that is willing to cope with uncertainty and is not constantly straining for a programmatic unity that would restrict the creativity of the process for no good reason. A good metaphor is the jazz of Charlie Parker or Miles Davis: an underlying structure with which everyone is familiar, and then improvisation whose character is impossible to predict or orchestrate’.

While often equally musical Kovel’s book is brutally frank. It argues that capitalism is essentially a gigantic cancer that is devastating global ecology. It has to be excised with an eco-socialist crusade based on the creation of economic alternatives around production for use not exchange.

There have been many books on ecology and socialism; think of Andre Gorz’s Ecology as Politics, Rudolf Bahro’s Socialism and Survival and Barry Commoner. This is the best. Marxism is merged with radical green politics, and the joins have been erased. I would love to place this book in the hands of any ‘anti-capitalist’ and say this is what your antipathy is about. Kovel sees the economy as dominating and distorting our lives. Hostility to multinationals is not enough; capitalism is not a conspiracy but a process.

The ecological crisis can best be understood by reading chapter one of Das Kapital and understanding the nature of the commodity. To survive, we exchange commodities to generate the cash to get more commodities; money sticks to our hands and we become dominated by the need to accumulate cash to meet our needs. For Kovel multinationals, debt, the dislocations of ‘free’ trade and all the rest are conjured up by the basic atoms and molecules of commodity production. We must sweep away commodification and directly produce what we need. We must share and construct a pleasurable, even lazy, form of socialism based on the needs of people and the rest of nature.

How rare it is to come across Marxists who actually proclaim what is subversive, philosophical and militant in Marx’s work, or greens who unambiguously state that we need to live in an entirely different way if we are to live at all. In Kovel we have both; his book provides a pure and fundamental account of the key and overlapping themes of red and green philosophies.

There is a lot here: from Rosa Luxemburg’s love of buffaloes to Bhopal as a case study of capitalist-growth-induced catastrophe; from the pathologies of the Bush state to the threat in a devastated world of eco-fascism. It is richly argued, well referenced and impossible to put down. It invokes passionate commitment, but to do quite what?

Kovel argues for building eco-socialist parties to proclaim the red-green message. This basically means greening existing Green Parties, a process that I know to my cost to be both necessary and stressful. In line with this approach Kovel even contested a presidential primary and US Senate seat to stimulate debate.

Yet Kovel’s core passion seems to be for building religious communes based on ecological production. This kind of stuff tends to induce a kind of ‘haven’t we been here before’ despair. Like world parliaments, communes have failed to provide swift roads to liberation in the past.

So what we are left with in all three texts, enjoyable and informative as they are, is an invitation but no party. Without a stronger debate about how change can be achieved, the most worthy of the anti-capitalist manifestos remain pious rather than truly political. In short, we need to ask how – not whether – we should build eco-socialism. And this should be done in the most immediate and practical ways.

Derek Wall is a Green Party member and teacher of economics


Joe Otten said...

Derek, Isn't it a bit rich to accuse Monbiot of seeking to silence just because he disagrees with you?

Constructive dialogue is not always helpful. If somebody is trying to rescue a discredited ideology like Marxism on the back of a mass movement to save the planet, it may be better just to keep them at arms length.

Similarly with Conservatism

Incidentally, which of Marx's policies did Stalin neglect to implement?

chilean luxemburgreen said...

Dear Derek,

The books produced around the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Journal of Socialist Ecology are worthy of being included in the Top list for Left Political Ecology. At least these two ones :

James O'Connor (1998). Natural Causes. Essays in Ecological Marxism. New York : The Guilford Press

Ted Benton, ed. (1996). The Greening of Marxism. New York : The Guilford Press

Friendly yours,

José Antonio Vergara

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