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Some thoughts on the relevance of Social Ecology at the present time
The English nation, Rousseau famously observed, has delusions of freedom. Free only at the moment it is electing members of parliament “as soon as the members are elected, the people is enslaved; it is nothing.”
But the deluded may now be learning to see clearly. Government by mass deception and enforced privatisation has reaped a rational, if cynical, refusal to truck with the system. Its threadbare claims to representation now verge on illegitimacy. The current Labour government was ‘elected’ in 2005 by 35.2 per cent of the 62 per cent of the electorate registered to vote who actually bothered to do so. That amounts to an endorsement of around 18 per cent of British adults. As Gandhi might have said – democracy in Britain? – it’s a nice idea.
But while Labour completes the Thatcherite marketisation of British society and a handful of private equity firms casually trade the livelihoods of millions, where is the alternative? The promise of the millions-strong anti-war movement has been dissipated in a Trotskyite-dominated political party content to confine its attentions to three per cent of the population. The Labour left is impotent and cannot conceive of an alternative beyond a re-hashing of failed social democratic policies. The direct action movement, which once expressed the ‘scream’ that official politics shut out, cannot move beyond protest that, at best, slows the juggernaut of state and corporate power. No matter how militant its poses, it can do no more than extract concessions.
We need a new movement that moves beyond these fatal limitations. One that is not laden with the dogmas of antique Marxism, does not want to seize state power in a repeat of Russia in 1917. But also one that recognises that real social change will not occur without the slow and patient building of a mass movement and democratic institutions in society, open to all, in which people can learn self-management.
The philosophy of Social Ecology could supply an invaluable theoretical grounding for this movement. Social Ecology believes that the roots of our conflict with nature lie in social conflicts and domination by elites. It calls for the dissolution of all hierarchies, not just class divisions. As such it is anti-capitalist. It sees the cause of the ecological and social crisis we face in the market economy, in which profit effaces all other human values and pits economic rivals against each other in a battle for survival which can only be won by expansion and growth, the creation of new desires and the commodification of more aspects of life.
According to Social Ecology, the problems we face are systemic and cannot be solved by exhortations to radically reduce personal consumption habits (which, if by some miracle, were truly heeded would lead to economic collapse and mass unemployment under present arrangements) or the attainment of a more managed form of capitalism. Ironically the more impressive growth rates attained in the social democratic golden age of capitalism, if emulated now, would send us into ecological oblivion quicker than neo-liberalism. A “greenfield” area the size of Leicester is lost to development every year and the government estimates that traffic will increase by a third in the UK by 2015. The more “successful” the economy is, the sooner we will engulf our remaining green spaces in concrete and asphalt.
But if capitalism is destroying the natural world, it shows no signs of destroying itself. All Marxist predictions about its impending demise have proved mistaken. Profit is not falling because of the replacement of living labour by machinery, cyclical downturns in the economic cycle are not becoming more intense and the working class, at least in advanced economies, has more than enough consumption power to assuage any fears of overproduction. In fact the entire system is based on the endless contrivance of new desires.
But most significantly, capitalism does not produce its own gravediggers. The working class is not disciplined by the factory system into an implacable opponent of the social order. In fact, the opposite is true. The more developed capitalism becomes, the more competitive, greedy, distrustful, individualistic, indifferent to suffering and acquiescent to hierarchy people become. As Murray Bookchin has emphasised, the market economy is a school, “forming the moral character of the individual as well as providing major guidelines for his or her behaviour.” We now live in a market society, not just a market economy.
If this is true, then the precondition for the emergence of any serious left movement is the development of what American economist Robin Hahnel has called “prefigurative experiments” – institutions that create a culture of cooperation and self-management in the present society but that are also committed to go beyond it. We have to accept that the Left in Britain has all but disappeared as a source of values and inspiration for ordinary people. Trade unions, once the schools of socialism, are now limited to public sector bastions and have long since abandoned any pretence of challenging capitalist work hierarchies. No movement for social change can exclude them, but on their own they are not enough. The alternative of Social Ecology – neighbourhood assemblies, open to all citizens, is predicated on the idea that if markets are turning us into unsympathetic egotists and destroying ties of solidarity, we need institutions that do the opposite. Institutions that can reach people trade unions can’t – those outside the labour market, and those whom the traditional labour movement has simply neglected or ignored. The Left must start talking to people beyond the confines of its shrivelling ‘natural constituency’.
A democratic and humanistic alternative must also articulate more than material needs. It must also be a movement that espouses qualitatively different values, that brings to the surface the instinctive revulsion many feel for the market system. It has to oppose the twisting of all potentiality, intelligence and skill to serve the demands of a system that exists simply to make profit through the manufacture of wants. It has to express the exasperation with a system that coerces people to work for it by the unending threat to remove their livelihood. It has to expose the irrationality of a system that insanely ties economic well-being and the availability of work to the fanning of unlimited consumption desires and denies its victims the power to consciously choose the balance between leisure and work.
If a Social Ecology movement began to establish local assemblies, what would they do? At one level, assemblies could act as extra-legal ‘ethical’ focal points to express a community’s wishes: against a war, for example, or to lead a campaign for a living wage in a town or city. As they grow in popularity and accrue power from the local council, they could begin to create a dual power and establish their own economic institutions. They could set up community-controlled banks to offer affordable credit as an alternative to loan sharks or moneylenders. They could create co-operatives under the control of the assembly which serve the local community but also act as living embodiments of the aims of the movement and share out empowering and necessary tasks equally, avoiding any permanent division between order givers and order takers. This is not an unattainable dream. A community on the Marsh Farm estate is Luton is already establishing its own publicly-owed cooperatives, from waste collection to a community-owned fast food restaurant.
These institutions of social self-management can also represent a counterpoise to growing state power. Contrary to fantasies of its ideologists, the neo-liberal revolution of the last thirty years has been accompanied by a massive increase in the power of the state. As the economic historian Karl Polanyi has demonstrated, laissez-faire always needs a strong state to enforce the social engineering project that it represents. In Britain, we are witnessing the construction of a security state in which the personal lives of citizens are increasingly surveilled, bureaucratised and controlled. The UK is the most surveilled country in Europe, a “surveillance society” in the words of the UK information commissioner. The process will get yet more invasive with innovations in technology to enable CCTV cameras to listen to conversations, and the introduction of identity cards. There is already huge disquiet about loss of freedoms, the undermining of privacy, and the criminalisation of protest and unless Left libertarians are able to give direction to this mood, it will be channelled in a right-wing, anti-social, privatistic direction.
The ultimate vision of Social Ecology – a confederal direct democracy of local assemblies may seem utopian but the process of slowly accruing power from corporations and the state is gradual and will take decades. If social ecologists appear to be going against the grain of ‘human nature’ it is worth reminding ourselves that face to face democracy has a lineage going back thousand of years to our tribal past. As historian Jane Mansbridge has argued, for more than 99 per cent of our history we lived in hunter-gatherer bands, which in all probability, practiced a form of egalitarian, face to face democracy.
The locus of social change in the 21st century also appears to be shifting away from the factory and into the neighbourhood. At the heart of the movement that brought Evo Morales to power in Bolivia is a communal vision of democracy which challenges representative government’s claims to legitimacy. Neighbourhood assemblies played a crucial role in the “water wars” against privatisation which preceded Morales’ election and now constitute a kind of dual power. According to one activist, “the type of democracy that comes from the streets has to be respected because it is based on the deliberations of communities in assemblies and popular lobbies, where leaders have to observe the debate and make decisions accordingly.” In Argentina, the network of neighbourhood assemblies that sprang up following the IMF economic crisis in 2001 for a time seriously rivalled the discredited ‘democratic’ political system and dealt with issues that it refused to – community purchasing of food, for example, or reconnecting people to the electricity grid when they were cut off for failure to pay their bills. One third of the population participated and many believed they were building a new form of political organisation.
Participatory budgeting, the attempt to give local assemblies the power to determine how a municipality spends its money, is also spreading to Europe from its spiritual home in Brazil. The Spanish city of Seville has allowed 21 assemblies across the city to allocate around half of its budget for the last three years. In 2006 9,000 people participated in the assemblies, which have their own constitution, prioritising improvements for poorer areas, repairs for schools and the creation of a community-owned radio station. “People are empowering themselves, gaining a better understanding of how to fight for their projects and dreams without getting lost in the labyrinth of the state apparatus,” says one organiser. “It is a rewarding experience to see how public officers are questioned by ordinary people.”
These may be the first faltering signs of a new movement that is unsure of its ultimate destination. But for the first time in many years, sizeable minorities in western countries are willing to question both state power and corporate dominance. The libertarian and ecological Left must start thinking seriously about the kind of society it really wants and take the first steps on the long journey ahead.
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