“…there are two sorts of radical demands we should be raising: peace conversion and ecological industrial conversion”

Against the Current, No. 25, March/April 1990

Howard Hawkins

THE EXPLOSION OF the pro-democracy movements across the core region of Stalinist statism from China to East Europe raises the big question for the Western revolutionary left: Can we build pro-democracy movements that challenge capitalism as the 1990s proceed?

The medium-to-long-term potential for radical pro-democracy movements in the West is exciting, but immediate prospects are not good. Despite the best efforts of third camp socialists, anarchists and more recently Greens, decades of official U.S. and Soviet propaganda have successfully associated “the left” and “socialism” with the repressive statism of the East bloc.

For a while anyway, this biggest of big lies will hold sway. Apparently emerging is a world in which almost all politicians pay homage to the virtues of parliamentary “democracy” and a market economy with mixed forms of ownership. The right will rant with dire warnings of creeping socialism, while the reformist left will embrace a strategy of creeping (market) socialism. The center, and most particularly the elites who will “moderately” hold to the center, will understand that strong state—an economically interventionist state, centralized and militarized—is needed for a predictable, profitable climate for private capital. On the left side of the political spectrum, social democracy is the immediate ideological and political beneficiary, East and West.

What does this emerging situation mean for revolutionary socialists, anarchists and Greens?

The radical left should encourage and support new popular mobilizations that may arise, but given our very limited size and resources, our role in the movements should emphasize education. Study groups, publications, public forums and provocative demonstrations that raise new demands should be our focus for now. Our energy needs to be directed toward education and rebuilding a revolutionary left at a time when liberal, social-democratic perspectives have hegemony.

We need to continue to stress how little democracy there is in a parliamentary system. Most of the power structure remains extra-parliamentary—in capital’s private veto over public policy through threats of disinvestment; in the mostly unelected executive and its bureaucracy; in the executive’s secretive military and intelligence agencies; in elite domination of cultural production by the press, media, entertainment industry, foundations and universities.

We need to continue to emphasize that the only power that can counter the establishment’s extra-parliamentary powers is direct action from below. Parliamentarist strategies, by their very nature, substitute the legislative actions of small elites for the direct action of large numbers of people. Transition to an ecological, libertarian, socialist society will ultimately require a majoritarian movement that creates new forms of participatory political and economic democracy, a popular power base outside, opposed to, and capable of replacing capitalism and the centralized state.

Notwithstanding the potential for a new round of capitalist growth fueled by access to the cheap labor and consumer markets in East Europe and China, the traditional socialist critique of the market will remain relevant as instabilities, inequalities and the selfish spirit of capitalism persist With the failure of centralized statism as a political framework for socialism, the radical left must also develop a clear vision of an alternative. This is the only way to finally put to rest the legacy of the Soviet-U.S. fraud about the “socialist world.”

While the Marxian critique of capitalism retains much of its relevance, it is to the visions of anarchist and utopian socialists, like Peter Kropotkin, Lewis Mum-ford, Paul and Percival Goodman, and Murray Book-chin, that we can most fruitfully look for a socialist economic vision.

To advocate an emphasis on radical education is not to say we should be aloof toward social movements. To the contrary, I think there are two sorts of radical demands we should be raising in the 1990s: peace conversion and ecological industrial conversion. Will there be a “peace dividend” and, if so, how big?

We should challenge the imperial premises behind the U.S. global military reach. We should figure out what it takes to defend U.S. territory from all reasonable threats by morally acceptable (that is, non-nuclear/chemical/biological) means based at home. As a starting point, we should call for military cuts on the order of 90%-95%. Of the $300 billion military budget, is for foreign intervention and nuclear blackmail, and only 3.5% for defending U.S. territory by conventional means. Being very conservative, $15-30 billion a year seems to be more than enough for a non-nuclear, non-provocative, home-based defense of U.S. territory from all reasonable threats.

Reduced military spending requires increased social spending to keep the economy from collapsing. Peace conversion thus opens the door to all sorts of complimentary demands for spending the “peace dividend” from fully socialized medicine, to income and education grants for workers and soldiers displaced by demilitarization, to shorter work weeks with no loss in pay in order to keep up aggregate demand while sharing employment opportunities equitably. These programs, of course, step on capital’s prerogatives and thus raise the necessity for structural change.

Peace conversion, however, pales in comparison to the displacement and restructuring needed to convert from ecologically destructive technologies to ecologically harmonious ones. Ecological conversion of our industrial base means moving from nuclear and fossil fuels to the efficient use of solar-based renewables. It means replacing the whole synthetic petrochemical industry with a new materials industry based on recyclable and biodegradable materials.

Ecological industrial conversion means rebuilding most of the industrial infrastructure of our economy. These ecological demands have the same transitional logic for structural change as peace conversion, only magnified many times by the sheer size of the undertaking implied by ecological industrial conversion. The radical implications of ecological demands strike at the heart of capitalism’s accumulative structure and acquisitive ethos. The dynamic of a competitive struggle for profits that yield an aimless, endless expansion of production is an ecological nightmare. It will poison and consume the planet beyond recovery if it is not replaced.

Thus “green” seems to me to be the best metaphor around which the kind of radical left we need to build in the United States can coalesce. It speaks to the mounting ecological crisis and to the general human interest in ecological survival. And it solidarizes with a radical-democratic left of Green movements that is significant in both East and West Europe, in Brazil and Australia, and is growing rapidly in many other countries. Despite the social-democratization of some Green parties under the sway of the “realo” strategy, the original Green identity as a new politics that gives extra-parliamentary movements political expression without surrendering to  the co-optive logic of a parliamentarist strategy is far from dead and what we need.

March-April 1990, ATC 25

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