The Point
Last updated: 11 December 2017.

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Another Green World

 

Adrian Cruden reviews “Economics After Capitalism: A Guide To The Ruins And A Road To The Future” by Derek Wall, 2015 Pluto Press (ISBN 978-0-7453-3507-0); 174 pages

 

In the days before the Green Party of England & Wales decided to have a leader, we elected Principal Speakers instead. Dr Derek Wall was one of them. Now the Party’s International Co-ordinator, he teaches political economy at Goldsmiths, University of London. He has emerged as a key thinker in the global ecosocialist movement – a growing body of thinking that combines socialism and ecology, holding that a fair society is impossible without environmental sustainability and that justice is not only for this generation and our species, but for all epochs and all the creatures that share our world. True to its democratic objectives, ecosocialism is purposefully anarchic, organic and constantly evolving, anticipating and responding to the ever new challenges our world faces, yet consistently underpinned by positive values of inclusion, equity - and even optimism. If it can be argued to be an ideology, it is of a distinctly non-dogmatic form.

Wall captured the emergence of this proactive philosophy in his 2010 book, “The Rise of the Green Left”, which tracked the development of the ecosocialist movement’s thinking and action. He drew on writings such as Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom’s work, and the 2009 Belem Declaration, of which Wall was a signatory, and which sets out the broad objectives of the ecosocialist movement. Alongside this, he documented on the ground campaigning and implementation of its ideas, often by indigenous communities. Latin America in particular was and remains a centre of ecosocialist practice, especially in the rejection of multinational “investment” pitched at despoiling natural resources and displacing long established communities and ways of life. More recently, inspired by the social ecology of American radical Murray Bookchin and echoing the anarcho-syndicalist initiatives during the Spanish Civil War, the Syrian Kurds have boldly adopted a form of ecosocialism termed “democratic confederalism” for their nascent state of Rojava, on the very frontline of the Syrian conflict.

Ecosocialist thinking can be traced back to the dawn of the industrial age. Even then, many writers including Goethe in his Faust identified the threat of industrial capitalism to people and planet, while radicals in the Romanticist movement and the utopian socialists often referenced the essential indivisibility of humans from a wider, all-embracing Natural World. But perhaps less well known is Karl Marx’s commitment to socialism with a distinctly green hue, and this is one important foundation point in Wall’s new book, “Economics After Capitalism: A Guide To The Ruins And a Road to the Future”, published late last year.

 

While Rise was a comprehensive cataloguing of ecosocialist responses to the growing socio-environmental crises around the world, Economics is a deeper, structured analysis of the crisis of capitalist economics and a mapping out of potential alternatives. It begins with a tour from Bretton Woods onwards of the damage caused by capitalism, particularly in its neoliberal form, to so many aspects of our world, and reviews the rise of the corporatocracy that has come to dominate both politics and economics. Wall draws on a wide range of sources, from Adam Smith to Frank Knight (effectively the founder of neoliberalism through the notorious “Chicago School” of economists), from Keynes to Piketty, to examine the proponents and opponents of the neoliberal adventure, and to tackle the apologists such as Soros and Stiglitz who talk up the idea of a “kinder capitalism” if only it can be saved from itself.

He goes on to expose the impact of the current dominant ideology. The increasingly obscene levels of socio-economic inequality are looked at through the prism of a system set so that those who own assets see their income rise inevitably much more rapidly than those without. The crude mechanism of GDP/GNP as an indicator of wealth and prosperity is useless in determining the true value of economics to human well-being: for poverty can and often does increase alongside rises in GDP/GNP simply because of the inequality inherent in the capitalist system.

To illustrate, the marketisation of the USSR post-1991 demonstrates the human cost this mechanism extracts – an estimated 27 million decrease in population has followed in the brave new world of free markets. Ironically, while the excesses of the Russian oligarchs are often sneered at by the Western media, it is perhaps a case more of indignation at the brazenness of the arriviste nouveau riche than a rejection of what they represent – for if anything is an honest example of naked corporate capitalism, it is surely post-Soviet Russia. 

Just as bad is the impact of the privatisation and deregulation that neoliberal institutions such as the IMF and World Bank have exacted from poorer states around the world in return for expensive loans and grudging admission to world trade. Food subsidies to some of the poorest inhabitants of our planet have been required to be abolished and community assets such as land and water alienated and sold off to pay the speculators in London, Paris and New York. As globalisation creates a homogenised world society, everything and everyone becomes degraded – even in a sense the capitalist class itself. Standards are lowered everywhere, lifecycles of products are shortened, waste increases, the environment grows polluted and resources become scarce so that, for our way of life to be sustainable, we would now require at least four planet Earths.

Wall reviews a number of the responses to this crisis, from the Occupy Movement, Positive Money groups, Social Credit advocates and anti-corporate activists such as Naomi Klein to “insider” critics such as billionaire George Soros, whose clever playing of global money markets created a significant amount of the chaos and damage he then put (some of) his money into countering through his Foundation. Above all, Wall questions whether markets of any sort can ever be efficient in any worthwhile sense, especially where we now have “split second trading” by computer algorithms with processes all of their own, far removed from any real link with the fortunes of the companies whose shares are being traded, or any concern with any genuine human need or environmental impact.

But while neoliberalism is only one particular form of capitalist thinking, and some such as Keynes argued for a more humane, regulated form with vaguely defined social objectives, Wall’s argument is somewhat more fundamental – a system based on the potential commodification and the maximum exploitation of anything and everything in pursuit of the highest level of private profit will always ultimately point in the same unjust and unsustainable direction.

In exposing the myth that capitalism might somehow sprout green shoots, stick on a kaftan and learn to love everyone, he goes back to one of the people many ecosocialists look to for many of our founding analysis and arguments – Karl Marx.

Perhaps owing to the corruption of Communism by Stalin, or by Britain’s non-Marxist Labour Movement’s inevitable interconnection with industrialism, Marx has often been seen solely as a proponent of productivist industrialisation. The capitalist phase made possible by technological and industrial advance was, after all, central to his argument about the progress of society and economics towards realising a communist society of abundance and freedom from scarcity. Yet this overlooks much of what he was concerned about.

In the very first chapter of Capital, Marx outlined the difference between exchange and use values of commodities. And it is moving from capitalism’s focus on the former to positioning the latter at the heart of our economics that is central to ecosocialist thinking; so too is a focus on common as opposed to private ownership. Wall traces this from Marx’s own writings and the utopian socialists who preceded him through more recent thinkers such as John Bellamy Foster and Joel Kovel. Productivist Marxism is only half of the story: green Marxism is the other part where Marx can be found declaring; “The view of nature which has grown up under the regime of private property and of money is an actual contempt for and practical degradation of nature… All living things must become free.”

Similarly, the idea of a metabolic interaction between humanity and the rest of nature, articulated by Marx, is vital to ecosocialism’s search for new, sustainable forms of society and economics. And it is to this that Wall turns in his final chapters, considering both writings and practical examples from around the world up to the present day. The need for capitalism to create and endlessly recreate desire in order to keep markets functioning is firmly located at the heart of the ecological crisis which is putting humanity’s whole future at risk, alongside countless other species (It’s worth noting that greens are not trying any so hubristic as saving the planet. It will long outlive us all – we’re actually trying to save ourselves, our own species’ future.)

Ownership and value are central to the debate. Citing the 15th century Hutterites’ phrase “Property is the enemy of love”, Wall argues for a redefining of economics to emphasise reclaiming and even extending the Commons – a concept he has often cited, partly drawing on the arguments of the late Elinor Ostrom – and use value: that is the social utility of something as opposed to how much it could be sold for to a prospective owner. Feminist concepts around flexibility and the innate value of life as opposed to patriarchal control and ownership of things are examined as principles needing incorporation into economic practice.

In such a world, markets and profits would no longer fit with the new economic paradigm: in their place would come self-governing communities with common/public ownership of their resources; and democratic decision-making would replace private control. Once capitalist accumulation and ownership cease to be the overarching purpose of economics, longer lasting and shared social goals come into focus instead. While there would still be personal property and money would have some purpose in aiding individual decisions, much more would be shared or borrowed, fewer resources used and greater sustainability achieved. Social inequality would be tackled as would other forms of injustice – for example, Ostrom pointed to intersectionality as being central to a fairer society – and Wall concludes with a rousing call for a better world.

It is a tightly written book that takes the reader through several centuries of thinking on sustainable alternatives to capitalism. It has a huge sweep, ranging from Plato and the Diggers to Kropotkin and Bookchin, and examines a plethora of socialist, anarchist, feminist and ecologist ideas - in this it is a vital primer for further reading from across the left and green movements. Derek Wall has provided a fantastic roadmap for any on the Left who want to find ways to a world which is not only more equitable, but which will last for many, many aeons to come.

“Private ownership of the globe by individuals will appear quite absurd… Even a whole society, a nation, or even all societies taken together, are not the owners of the globe. They are only its possessors, its usufructuries, and they must hand it down to succeeding generations in an improved condition.”

                        - Karl Marx

 

 

Ecosocialist links:

The Belem Ecosocialist Declaration  (on the Climate & Capitalism site)

 http://climateandcapitalism.com/2008/12/16/belem-ecosocialist-declaration-a-call-for-signatures/

Derek Wall’s blog, Another Green World        http://another-green-world.blogspot.co.uk/

Review of Rise of the Green Left on Viridis Lumen blog

 http://viridislumen.blogspot.be/2011/08/book-review-rise-of-green-left-by-derek.html

Stories of Tomorrow: Ecosocialism and the World To Come (Adrian Cruden, Viridis Lumen blog)

 http://viridislumen.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/stories-of-tomorrow-ecosocialism-and.html

Martin O’Beirne’s Blog                        http://www.martinobeirne.co.uk/blog

Ecosocialist Horizons                            http://ecosocialisthorizons.com/

Murray Bookchin Archive                     http://dwardmac.pitzer.edu/Anarchist_Archives/bookchin/Bookchinarchive.html 

Ecosocialism Group (on Facebook)      https://www.facebook.com/groups/ecosocialism/

London Green Left Blog                       http://londongreenleft.blogspot.co.uk/

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left

Greenpeace

The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books