A Comment: Environmental Politics for Socialists

Against the Current, No. 21, July/August 1989

Bill Resnick

THE ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS is fundamental; it will shake current capitalism to the roots and involve increasing numbers of people, with the working class and the poor most affected. So Mike Wunsch’s article is timely, indeed overdue in Against the Current. It’s appropriate that we think about the politics of the struggles and the role of socialists.

Mike ends his essay “socialism or extinction,” a play on “socialism or barbarism.” In movement work leftists can help their fellow Americans appreciate the kernel of truth in both, but neither offers a politics for1oday.

The Final Crisis?

Our history is littered with predictions of capitalism’s imminent demise under the pressure of some “contradiction.” Much of the left was convinced that under capitalism masses of workers could never rise above subsistence levels. Nor could the terrible suffering in boom/bust cycles be moderated. Nor inter-imperialist wars be avoided.

To be sure, the environmental crisis presents an unprecedented problem – economic growth and some sharing the wealth will not be the earth’s salvation this time. The greenhouse effect, indeed the chemical time bomb comprising the carcinogens and toxics accumulating in oceans, ground water, and soil, cannot be solved by banning one process or one chemical, nor through some relatively easy regulatory tinkering. Fundamental change will be necessary.

Yet we shouldn’t underestimate capital’s adaptive capacity. Capitalism has revolutionized its productive apparatus every fifty years or so. Many industries have disappeared, with most others radically transformed.

The environmental crisis will bring many a technical and regulatory fix. Technologies of food and energy production (including bio- and genetic engineering and perhaps fusion or solar power breakthroughs) will be developed. Indeed it is conceivable that capitalist visionaries could be right, that the environmental threat will spur new technologies, the basis of another long wave of development and accumulation.

My sense is that both capitalist visionaries and the apocalyptic left are wrong. Capitalism will not solve the problems, for the reasons Mike gives – the environmental crisis is too deep, and capitalist elites, with very different interests, will be unable to unify.

But the oft-predicted “final crisis” will take a long time to develop. Up to now few environmental troubles have been dealt with successfully. Environmental problems are surely getting more severe. Yet it is a creeping sort of crisis. And each new manifestation, each mini-crisis, brings on some state/corporate action to partially ameliorate the situation, or at least make the problems less visible.

Even when technological innovation and regulation fail, the most horrible effects are transferred to the least powerful people, here and in the Third World, also delaying the final crunch. Capital’s capacity to keep changing, to meet some demands, lo put off the day of judgement should not be underrated.

A Long View

It might take fifteen, thirty, fifty or more years before it becomes clear that band-aid solutions won’t work. So before any final test or rupture, the environmental crisis will be felt by most North Americans as a series of struggles, larger and larger, drawing in more people, more serious, but much like those we’ve already seen – encounters over garbage, in the water, terribly polluted streams, lead in the air from gasoline, cancer-causing chemicals in water, oil spills, nuclear power, pesticides, acid rain, Love Canal, DDT.

Thus the environmental movement could present a repetition of a pattern familiar under capitalism in which deep problems generate powerful social movements. As in previous periods of U.S. capital crisis – the earth nineteenth century, the turn of the century, the 1930s – capitalism will be deeply challenged. Basic structural issues will arise; masses of people will be mobilized.

But as in the past, the struggles will not be direct struggles for socialism. And while past crises and struggles created the possibility of revolutionary rupture, they only succeeded in forcing change in the nature of capitalism.

This requires thinking hard about left environmental politics. Surely we can’t just simply work for reforms. They would be welcome, masses of people will struggle for them, and we have to work in these struggles but in ways that build movements progressively stronger and more able to challenge capitalist domination.

As environmental problems deepen, each new crisis becomes a test of strength. Forces built in previous struggles come into play in the next. The limits of capitalism’s capacity to cope with environmental collapse are not just technical, but political too.

In upcoming struggles capital will try to preserve not just the ecological basis of accumulation, but also its political, organizational and ideological forms of domination. If in each struggle forces grow that challenge capitalist logic and structures, it will be that much harder for capital to impose solutions on its terms. And so in each reform struggle we must build movements that will advantage us in the next.

So we reach a familiar problem – how to work as socialists in reform struggles to build our movements. In brief this means building radical consciousness and democratic commitments, and integrating people into communities with these commitments. Let me give some examples of what left practice could be.

Examples of Environmental Practice

The greenhouse effect and growing cost of fossil fuels are intensifying the search for new energy sources. Corporate and government scientists and planners envision megaprojects – solar installations deep in space beaming energy back to earth, huge biomass farms, vast fusion projects, and many others, all designed to maintain private utility control of U.S. energy production.

Yet solar and perhaps fusion power can also be small scale, decentralized, under local democratic control. In greenhouse and energy struggles we can argue for democratic solutions, for radically changed living patterns, for the posibi1ity and desirability of what amounts to socialist forms. And we can give people some taste of socialism by making sure our movements are also participative and democratic.

As Mike points out, working-class people are divided on environmental questions. Here in the Northwest we see pitched battles: loggers want to save their jobs versus environmentalists seeking to save old-growth forests.

Socialists can help bring them together: to help gain worker appreciation and support for an environmental policy that preserves their communities, enables them to earn a living, and offers sustainable lumber yields; to help current conservationists come to appreciate worker needs. Socialist organizing in these struggles can politicize both groups around a program of conversion, conservation and democratic control.

So, as in labor struggles and plant closings, or Third World solidarity, or feminist campaigns, socialists can play major roles. Socialists can help build radical commitments, can help people understand the roots of environmental problems and the links to other problems, can help people realize their own powers and recognize that working-class collective power has changed the world and can do so again.

These are the understandings that underlie powerful, democratic, class – conscious movements. We can push reforms to the limit – reforms that not only benefit the class but also empower it. We can do all the things that help build left forces.

Thus if we aren’t directly, insistently arguing that socialism is the answer, we are building popular appreciation for the component elements of a socialist alternative – popular power exercised in democratic communities. And within this overall discourse and practice, we can argue for the necessity of radical transformation.

Organizing in this way will not alienate or infuriate average Americans. This society is alive with radical critiques, ideas and practices. Perfectly sensible, understandable, non-offensive language exists to discuss critical, feminist, and radically democratic notions with popular audiences. In every movement we can discuss ideas and help shape processes that are essentially socialist.

Challenging Capital

Perhaps I’m wrong about the time frame and capitalism’s capacity. Perhaps deep crisis comes faster than even pessimists predict, and production has to be fundamentally reconstructed very soon. Or perhaps capital can indefinitely succeed in putting off any final crunch. Still our political tasks remain the same.

Let’s take the case in which terrible crisis comes on very fast, with precipitous climate change, declines in agricultural production, widespread hunger, shortages of drinking water, rising ocean levels and soaring cancer rates.

If this were to occur in the next several years, my sense is that popular frustration, fear and demands for solution would quite certainly be mobilized by the right around an undemocratic state program. Not “socialism or extinction,” but a corporatist state, a militarized command economy under elite control is the most likely outcome. In the national emergency dissenters would be harshly treated. We are not now well positioned to win this struggle.

But if the crisis comes more slowly, when the crunch comes we’ll be better prepared, having had the chance to build forces, to push toward empowering alternatives, to help build movements that reject bureaucratic and statist solutions. Even in the unlikely event that capital successfully manages the environmental crisis, movements of that sort – in coalition with other similar movements in the workplace and in neighborhoods, around feminist, minority, and labor issues – could still mount powerful challenges to capital’s system of domination.

Argue for Democratic Solutions

Fortunately for everybody and socialists in particular, we probably have a respite. What we do depends on the time frame of the crisis and the ways capital and popular movements respond. The danger is in getting hysterical, in seeing the crisis as insoluble, and in proposing solutions that seem irrelevant.

In most of the struggles we’re likely to see, the movements will be responding to some big problem or powerful need, perhaps more serious than what we’ve already seen. All sorts of reform proposals will be put forward – by parts of the movement, by capitalist reformers, by sectors of industry and government most directly involved.

But we can’t just argue for socialism as the answer. Socialism, as understood by most people, has been discredited. Compared to past periods, socialist possibilities today are less known and appreciated. Until we’ve done a good deal of organizing, until people come to understand what socialism is and to appreciate its virtues (partly because they’ve experienced it, if only in small part, in genuinely democratic organizations), until people are ready, a call for socialism will seem harebrained or ultraleft.

This model of practice should be distinguished from “two-stage” organizing – that is, building movements, encouraging activism with lowest-common-denominator organizing, then trying to win friends to our groups and to socialism in private conversation. These two-stage tactics are counterproductive. They weaken our movements, confusing and undermining people, teaching deception to our most militant and active pie, who in time forget their real ideas and commitments.

July-August 1989, ATC 21

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