Green Communism? - Subversion

Article from Subversion #21.

The following text is a revised version of a talk given at a discussion meeting we held in Manchester. The title was Green Communism? - aspects of social transformation.

In the early 1970s I joined an organisation called the Socialist Party of Great Britain. It had and still has many faults, but there are two aspects of those early politics of mine that I want to pick up on.

Firstly the positive side. The great strength of the SPGB was, and is, a very clear understanding of the basis of capitalism and similarly an understanding of what communism could be. Those are ideas that I have held since those days. So when I talk about communism, what do I mean? Well, I start from an understanding that capitalism is not dependent on private or any other formal legalised ownership of property. The basis of capitalism lies in the control of the means of production and distribution by a minority, the exclusion from that control of a majority. The majority are then forced to work for the minority. To do so they sell their ability to work to the minority, the ruling class. In return they receive sufficient money (wages/salaries) to keep them in the standard of living to which they are broadly accustomed. This never equals the value that they produce when they are working for the ruling class. Thus the majority, what we call the working class, are exploited. In modern society it is futile to try and see who is exploited and by how much. Capitalism has evolved to the point where we are exploited collectively as a class. What we produce as a class is sold at its value on a market. At this point, surplus value, or what we usually refer to as profit, is realised collectively by the ruling class. So their whole position of wealth and power derives from production for profit, exchange and the wages system.

Communism is the negation of these fundamental laws of capitalism. It involves social control of the means of production and distribution, production for use - because things are needed - and the abolition of wages and the whole money system of buying and selling. People will freely associate together to produce and will freely take from the common store according to their needs.

To survive, to regulate itself, capitalism utilises the state. This is an instrument not only to regulate production, distribution and exchange, but also to defend the control by the minority over the majority. The state has existed in various forms as long as class society has existed. At every stage of class society it has existed to support the minority in power over the majority. It follows that communism will only exist when we have got rid of the state, for we will then have no minority whose position needs defending. The actual process of establishing communism will involve the destruction of the state.

There is one negative aspect of those politics that I want to talk about. Along with many others in the movement at that time I held a view of communism as technology triumphant. We believed that communism would base itself on the technology of existing, capitalist, society. Thus, we would have unlimited power - from nuclear power or we believed from non-polluting nuclear fusion. Everything possible would be mechanised, freeing people for a life of leisure. Freed from pollution (weren't we naive!), industry would produce an abundance of all the things that people could want. True, production would no longer rely on built-in obsolescence - things would be made to last and consumer durables would be shared. Nonetheless, it wouldn't be too much of a caricature to say that for many of us then, communism was dreamed of as a kind of science fiction society much like Star Trek portrays to this day.

All this ignored one thing. That was the nature of capitalist technology. Capitalism is a society with another basic law. That is expand or die. All businesses have this imperative. They must constantly be searching for ways to produce more and cheaper, to compensate for the tendency of the profit produced on individual items to decline and to steal a march over their competitors. So, capitalism constantly seeks to replace living labour (people) with dead labour (machines), to increase the amount produced by individual workers and screw more surplus value out of them. As a result it increases the level of production and is constantly searching for new markets. It is this search for new markets that has led to this increasing domination of every aspect of our lives by commodities. It is the reason behind such essentially useless commodities as Walkmen and Gameboys - essentially anti-social artifacts that isolate us from our fellows. It is the reason behind the commodification of children's lives.

The technology of capitalism was created to aid this process. They call it progress. Pre-capitalist societies hardly changed their technologies from century to century. For a thousand years, the greatest advance in military technology was the invention of the stirrup - the Romans conquered most of Europe without the aid of it. Gunpowder was known of for hundreds of years before anyone saw any military advantage in it. Clocks took hundreds of years to become widely used. The list goes on. Today, we live in a society where change of even more fundamental natures happens several times within our own lifetimes. As I am writing this I am using a computer and listening to a CD. Just 20 years ago, knowledgeable insiders were speculating that computers might one day come down in price to around 5000! A modern American car has more computer power than the first Apollo spaceship to land on the Moon.

Today both science and technology are fully integrated into capitalist society. Science is the last, but after human labour, the most important social property to be turned into an adjunct of capitalism. The story of its conversion from the province of amateurs, philosophers, tinkerers and seekers after knowledge, to its present highly organised and lavishly financed form is the story of its incorporation into capitalist industry. The kind of technology that emerges from this alliance is one which, when applied to the work process, is spurred on by the need to remove control of that process from the workers. The consequence of this is known as "deskilling". Technology is designed to centralise control in the hands of managers and engineers reducing the amount of understanding of it needed on the part of the workers. This, together with the application of science to the management of the work process (sometimes called Taylorism) where every bodily motion is classified and timed, eliminating time spent "inefficiently" and reducing contacts between workers, has led quite literally and systematically to the exploitation of people as cheap and interchangeable parts of machines.

One thing that's clear is that technology and science are not independent variables in history but social forces which adapt themselves to the needs and exigencies of capitalism. Furthermore the imperatives behind technology to control us are no longer confined merely to the workplace. The application of science to organise our 'leisure time' as consumers (with theme parks like Alton Towers etc) is a growth industry.

In the last twenty years or so, capitalism has created a new movement of opposition - often called the 'environmental movement'. This is simply because it has so messed up the world that many of us can see that there can be no future for our species if the damage it brings is not halted.

This movement can take a number of directions. Capitalism would like it to head in the direction of self-imposed austerity. Working people gladly accepting cut-backs - to save the planet! (While the bosses continue to live in luxury). Or working class people in the North blaming poor people in the South - for destroying rain forests for example. Or more subtly, for working people in the North to blame themselves for being part of a society that forces poor people in the South to destroy rain forests! It likes us to be green consumers - buying Ecover products because that way we avoid guilt for the destruction of the planet - meanwhile, of course, spending more for the things we need - preferably at Tesco's or Sainsbury's, but feeling oh so good and sanctimonious about it.

Alternatively, those parts of the 'green movement' that are actively resisting capital can be revolutionary. They can recognise that the cause of environmental destruction is the very imperative of capital to expand or die. To recognise that it is the very existence of the buying and selling culture that causes the destruction we so abhor.

Now, capital has many strategies to recuperate the struggle against it. It deploys any number against the environmental movement. One of these is to attack from within the movement itself. In this it finds willing allies in the likes of the Green Party and Friends of the Earth. More alarmingly, it finds allies in some of those who claim to be anarchists.

Over recent years there has developed a tendency, calling itself anarchist, who have fallen for the lies of capitalism hook, line and sinker. Capital would like us to think that the problem does not lie in the control of production or the existence of wage labour. Rather we have constant talk about the dangers of technology - usually foreign technology, like clever japanese with their computers and robots putting our workers out of jobs.

Latching onto this, not recognising that particular technologies are the product of particular societies, have arisen a new brand of anti-technological anarchists. The most obvious examples of these are grouped around journals like Green Anarchist. Recently they published an extract from the Unabomber's Manifesto (and distribute it in full) - in this he rambles on about technology being the problem. The need is, he said, to get rid of technology. Not technology as it exists in capitalism, but all technology. This view is supported by the likes of John Zerzan who asserts that humanity was better off when it was primitive - he says, for example "Prior to agriculture, in other words, humanity existed in a state of grace, ease and communion with nature that we can barely comprehend today". He wants to go back to that state. (I can only echo the view of Murray Bookchin, who asserted that at least one benefit from the kind of non-society Zerzan envisaged was that nobody would be able to read the crap he wrote!).

They talk about being anti-civilisation.

Green Anarchist say that the problem is "mass society". They say "it is too complex to work without specialisation". They go on to suggest that "mass society must be replaced with communities small enough for each person in them to be respected as an autonomous individual." They say "mass society alienates people from earth. By controlling the Earth's resources, the state controls society. We must end our dependence on the state by taking back the land and living self-sufficiently". They advocate a revolution(?) by landless people in the south because when they take back the land, "less resources [will be] imported from the Third World [and] mass society won't be able to come up with the goods in this society." Their strategy for change here is as follows:

"We must support the revolution on the periphery by making our own here. We must share skills needed to survive without the State, create a culture of resistance to free us from the alienation of mass society, live free of exploitation by boycotting banks and multinationals, building an alternative economy and defending ourselves and the Earth by taking direct action against military bases and labs, developers and industry, exploitation and bigotry." ('Autonomy Now', part of their article "This Is Green Anarchism").

There are many problems with this approach. Firstly, it ignores the fact that environmental destruction is not new to capitalism. Their much-vaunted wild human beings were responsible for burning and clearing vast tracts of the world's forests. Australia is a case in point. Capitalism is just much better and faster at it. Secondly, it offers little more than saying - go and live in communes, farm a few poxy bits of land, wait for millions to starve after the peasant south have taken control of 'their' land, whilst boycotting banks and getting involved in LETS schemes.

This is, of course, just another example of militant, liberal reformism.

The problem with militant reformism is that it fails to tackle the underlying reality of capitalism - that it is based on buying, selling and hence profit. It fails to recognise that it was from small scale production that modern capital grew - spurred on by the needs of capital to expand or die.

A while ago, I asserted that the green movement could take on a revolutionary character. Why? Because the destruction of the environment is the result, not of civilisation, not of technology, but of the domination of the planet by capital. No society has destroyed so quickly or efficiently. No society has exploited nature so ruthlessly or with such disregard for the consequences. At least when the indigenous people of australia were destroying the forests, they weren't aware of the long-term results of what they were doing.

Now we see corporations destroying vast areas of rain forests. We see roads ripping up mile upon mile of countryside and polluting the air we breath. We see the food we eat being mixed with all sorts of additives, farmed with fertilisers and pesticides, animals pumped full of hormones, genetically engineered foods being forced on us. In the past 100 years, 250,000 people in Britain have been killed in auto accidents. Yet more cars and roads are built. Countries in the south are indebted to the West, forced to farm for the market, in order to pay for the debts they owe. Millions die each year, killed by poverty and starvation that would be avoided without these debts. Vast areas of the world are polluted by oil companies.

Capitalists and the State don't do these things because they are nasty people. Though of course it is quite likely that many of them are evil bastards! They do it because it is necessary for their system to survive.

So when we struggle against the effects of capital's destruction of the environment, we are struggling against capital itself. We are, actually, engaging in acts of class struggle. These can only succeed when they merge into a struggle to get rid of the system that causes them in the first place.

This is what frightened the state so much over the Reclaim The Streets action in Liverpool. Dockers and eco-activists seeing their struggle united and one! It's hardly surprising the police attacked the eco's with such ferocity.

As communists, we have much to learn from this movement. Not least, it reminds us of the true nature of technology. It reminds us that technology is not neutral. It reminds us that any society must count the ecological impact of any decisions it makes. There is truth in the idea that regions of the planet should be as self-sustainable as possible.

It is just not conceivable that a communist society could base its transport on the mass use of individual motor cars. It doesn't matter whether they be petrol driven or some green alternative. The sheer quantity of power and raw materials involved would continue to be destructive, whether they be petrol or electric. Neither is it conceivable that there would be an obsession with travelling as quickly as possible. It is only the needs of capital that dictate that we have to get from here to there by yesterday. It is likely that we would try be self sustaining, and where we cannot be, that food and other resources be transported the shortest distance possible. As a result it would suggest a move towards vegetarianism and the end of strawberries in the winter and flowers flown in from Zimbabwe.

We cannot conceive of cities going - overnight or possibly ever. But we can conceive of greening them. Of planting trees, of breaking them down into more human size, of reducing the power of the centre. We can conceive of people choosing to live in smaller communities where they can know and support each other.

Will technology go? Will we return to the wild? Hardly. We have no wish to see a return to backbreaking labour, a continuation of the ridiculous number of hours we work. However, any technology a green communism chose to use would have to be long lasting and designed not to pollute, not to destroy. It would tend to be smaller scale and more manageable, less reliant on specialists. By getting rid of useless work, by escaping the cash economy, we will be able to produce enough to feed, clothe and house the planet's population. To provide enough of what people really need, rather than artificially produced wants. For all to live a life that is worthwhile, freed from the fears that surround us today.

Then we could see a new kind of progress. A progress towards a real human society, where we live in harmony with the planet and can begin to restore it from the destruction wrought in the past.

note: I was greatly helped in writing this by reading two recent publications from AK Press. They are Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism, an unbridgeable chasm by Murray Bookchin ( 5.95)and Ecofascism, Lessons from the German Experience by Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier ( 5.00).. Available from AK Press, 22 Lutton Place, Edinburgh, Scotland EH8 9PE.