Saturday, 24 January 2015

Dances in the Kingdom of Sand


Two days ago, the 90 year old King of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdul-al-Aziz, died.

Yesterday, British flags flew at half-mast across the UK in tribute to this ally of our country and today our Prime Minister David Cameron travels to Saudi to greet the new King, the comparatively youthful septagenarian, Salman. As well as shaking hands warmly with the new absolute ruler of the Arabian peninsular state, Cameron is going to pay tribute to the deceased monarch, who has been repeatedly described as a "reformer" since his passing. It will be all the more of an emotional event for Dave as Abdullah personally awarded him the Saudi equivalent of the Order of Merit for our PM's services to this exceptionally vicious, dictatorial regime.

Abdullah's death comes at the end of a fortnight when, unusually, the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the fiefdom of the Ibn Saud family for nearly a century, has been in the world headlines for two internal matters. They are matters that more than slightly question Abdullah's allegedly reformist credentials.

Raif Badawi
One was the administration of fifty lashes to a liberal blogger, Raif Badawi, the first of twenty planned weekly instalments to deliver 1,000 blows to his body for the crime of expressing his own views - followed by ten years in jail. This was in spite of a higher court ruling that he was not guilty of apostasy as previously decreed by a local judge. Indeed, many commentators concluded that Badawi was targeted by the regime because of a blog he set up to discuss social and religious issues rather than "insulting Islam", the charge for which he was beaten.

Still worse was the case of Lalia Bint Abdul Muttablib Basim, a Burmese woman accused of abusing and murdering her seven year old step-daughter. She was dragged through the streets, crying out her innocence, before being beheaded in a car park by a state executioner who took a sword to her neck three times before the act was completed. It was the tenth execution in just three weeks, yet by Saudi standards her brutal death was merciful - others are stoned slowly to death or even crucified. Bad enough, but all the more appalling given the random and chaotically brutal nature of the Saudi "justice" system, as evidenced by the terrifying experience of Scottish anaesthetic technician Sandy Mitchell back in 2005 - even his one year old baby son was implicated as a terrorist by the Kingdom's police.

Yet while such barbarities are rightly condemned when carried out by the Islamic State, when they occur in Saudi they pass barely mentioned as our leaders and businesses shake hands with their Jeddah counterparts.

Just yesterday President Obama hailed Abdullah as a man of "conviction" (apparently unaware of the irony of his words) and a great ally of the USA. Similarly, British Premier David Cameron expressed his sadness at the despot's passing and hoped the "long and deep ties" between the UK and the Kingdom of Ibn Saud would continue. He even lauded the dead King for an apparent commitment to peace and a desire to increase understanding between religions. Perhaps he was referring to Saudi Arabia's saturation of Libya and Syria troubled lands with weapons channelled through Abdullah's ally, Qatar. And as for religious understanding, perhaps Dave was thinking of the Saudis' execution of a woman, Amina bint Abdel Halim Nassar, for the crime of witchcraft in 2011.

King Abdullah awards Cameron a medal for "services to Saudi Arabia"
Even more striking are the Saudi links, mostly private but well known, with both al-Qaeda and ISIS. While a former head of British MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, has hinted at the latter, the British radical, Tariq Ali, outlined the first connection in his powerful, wide ranging book, The Clash of Fundamentalisms, back in 2002.

Railing against the state religion of Wahhabism, a highly puritanical form of Sunni Islam, Ali notes that it was originally sponsored by the British to help defeat the Ottoman Turks in the first world war through the ludicrously lionised agency of T.E.Lawrence (of Arabia fame). Then, with the forming of the Kingdom of the Ibn Saud warlord family in 1932, wahhabism was endorsed by their western overlords, Britain and the USA, as an effective form of total political control over what was once a very diverse and tolerant society. Sunni and Shia Muslims who failed to conform to its extreme teachings suffered at its hands, as well as those of other faiths. As time passed, some Saudis used their petrodollars to export their beliefs at the end of gun barrels.

Ali relates:
"During the war against the Soviet Union, Pakistani military intelligence requested the presence of a Saudi prince to lead the jihad in Afghanistan. No volunteers were forthcoming and the Saudi leaders recommended the scion of a rich family, close to the monarchy. Osama bin Laden was dispatched to the Pakistan border and arrived in time to hear President Carter's National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski giving open support to the jihad. One of his first actions as a pro-western freedom fighter was a raid on a mixed school, which was burnt to the ground, its headmaster killed and disembowelled. (p.323)"

Many Saudis long for the end of a state that bans all freedom of speech, belief or association - indeed, one where new laws in 2014 declared all forms of dissent to be "terrorist". Gay and lesbian people face flogging, chemical castration and even death. And for Saudi women, not only is their country a place where they are infamously banned from driving - it is also a land where women are electronically tracked so they cannot go abroad without the permission of their male "guardian". Their rulers remain firmly among the most authoritarian in the world and use a wide range of torture, repressive laws and a deeply conservative culture to slow change to a snail's pace. Corruption is rife and ordinary Saudis are completely cut out off the decisions that affect their lives. Consequently, with no prospect of liberal reform, many younger people are turning to the violence of al-Qaeda and ISIS as their compass. Were it not so dangerously tragic, these terrorist organisations' policies of adopting the extremes of the Saudi royals' own deeply conservative wahhabist outlook would verge on the satirical.

So why are our leaders so keen to do business with this regime? Why were they so anxious to overthrow the likes of Saddam, Gaddafi and Assad, all of them secular rulers who eschewed links with the likes of Bin Laden, but happily court the favours of the Ibn Saud dynasty?

British Prince Andrew is a frequent visitor to the Arabian peninsula
There are two key factors - one is the personal links many in the West have with the Saudis, as well as other royal families through the Gulf states. The Queen hosted Abdullah at her castle in Balmoral in 1998 and members of her family have frequently visited Saudi. In 2011, Prince Andrew visited the Bin Laden family in Jeddah at the British taxpayers' expense in spite of significant criticism within the UK. In the USA, the US Bush Presidential dynasty has enjoyed close connections with the Bin Laden family and many other influential Saudis, allegedly to the tune of $1.5 billion. And tens of thousands of westerners in the oil industry and its auxiliary sectors have benefitted personally from earning large tax-free salaries in the kingdom - usually complete with exceptionally low paid servant guest workers from poor east Asian countries like Burma and Indonesia.

Central to this, of course, Saudi Arabia is the third largest oil producer in the world and critical to the supply of energy to Europe and the USA, as well as a major customer of our arms manufacturing companies. The kingdom produces over 9,000,000 barrels of oil every day. In context, that is currently third in the world, just behind the USA and Russia and more than Iran, Iraq and Kuwait combined. And unlike Gadaffi's Libya or Saddam's Iraq, or Iran now, the Saudi Government, nervous of its own people, is happy to work in concert with the West in return for its support.

So our PM goes to the Arabian peninsula to continue a decades-old dance of diplomatic protocol and corporate greed with a corrupt, repressive regime markedly more brutal than other regimes he and his predecessors invested so much in destroying. It is a dance that suits both parties - the Ibn Sauds depend on their western sponsors military backing to stay in power; the western oil companies and their shareholders meantime benefit from extracting huge profits from the Saudi deserts, pillaging the resources of an oppressed people. And the Saudi people, desperate for change but held down by their medieval rulers, know this.

Tariq Ali explains how this is seen by many Saudis through an interview with the exiled Saudi novelist Abdelrahman Munif:
"The presence of oil could have led to real improvements and change, creating the opportunities for a better life and providing everyone with a future. The West is not owed the credit for the riches of the Peninsula and the Gulf. These riches come from within the earth. What happened was that the West discovered these riches and took the lion's share, the larger part, which ought to belong to the people of the region. Our rulers were brought in by the West, which used them as its instruments. We all know the sort of relationship there is currently between the West and these regimes."

As oil-addicted western states continue to "do business as usual" with the Saudi Royals, it seems rather unlikely that, in the future, their subjects will quickly forget our nations' collaboration with this most odious regime. Just as the USA/UK overthrow of Iran's democracy in 1953 for the sake of corporate oil profits ultimately drove dissent into the arms of Ayatollah Khomeini, the West's grasping alliance with the slowly crumbling House of Ibn Saud means there is little hope for progressive social change in the peninsula. Instead, when the current regime has finally sunk in the dessert sands, Arabia and the wider world face an uncertain and potentially terrifying future.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Three Men in a Debate

As I stared in the shaving mirror this morning, Radio 4 announced that Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg AND Nigel Farage had written to David Cameron urging him to take part in the Leaders' TV debates without the Greens' participation, otherwise they would go ahead on their own without him. Aping Have I Got News For You's "tub of lard" wheeze some years ago on Roy Hattersley's non-appearance, they threatened him with asking the broadcasters to set up an "empty podium" to highlight the Prime Minister's absence.

Momentarily, I paused from assaulting my hirsuteness (just as Cleggie apparently did 5 years ago when he secretly converted to austerity during his morning shave after apparently confusing the UK with Greece). How coincidental, I naively thought, that these three rivals would write to Cameron on the same day.

But my naivete was short-lived. Was the write-to-Dave stunt co-ordinated? Well, yes. In fact, it was so co-ordinated that they all sent the same letter. Yep; "Red" Ed, whom Labour supporters keep claiming has put Blairite Nu-Labour behind him shacked up with that betrayer of progressive politics, Nick Clegg. And then they got new best mate to join in. Yes, former stockbroker and doyen of the populist right, Nigel Farage.

So, finally, all the claims from Labour and Lib dems over the months that their leaders had not refused to involve the Greens now stand naked and clear - these self-interested, anti-democratic trough-swillers are prepared to actively work with UKIP to exclude the fourth party of British politics, the Greens, in order to shore up their crumbling grasp on the political stage. All on the same day that the Greens' total paid up membership figures overtook those of UKIP and on current trends are likely to overtake the Lib Dems' by early next week - over 2,000 people joined the Greens today alone.

They may be right when they claim Cameron's stance on the Greens is rooted in his own self-interest; but what is even more evident is that their own stance is so completely self-centred and exclusivist that Miliband and Clegg are prepared to debate with Nigel Farage but not with Natalie Bennett, let alone Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP or Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru.

The only cold comfort in this most cynical of moves is that our electorate is somewhat more intelligent than these machine manipulators realise. And with 300,000 signatories to a petition calling for the Greens to be given a platform and 80% support for a Green speaker in opinion polls, the voters are infinitely fairer and more inclusive that the three men who audaciously refer to themselves are the "leaders" of the people.

Shame on them, then. And may they face a full reckoning on 7 May.

Nick's letter. And Ed's...And Nigel's.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Wake Up! The Tories are coming...

As the Government splutters towards its final weeks in office, concern mounts about rumours of increasingly desparate Tory Party tactics after an alleged candidates' training video is unearthed.



Thursday, 8 January 2015

Asking the Wrong Question - Cameron and The Greens

Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator for the UK yesterday morning decided effectively to bar the Greens, the one anti-austerity UK-wide party, from any significant TV and radio coverage at the General Election this May. But by the evening the Green Party unusually and ironically found itself in the national TV headlines after Prime Minister David Cameron said he would refuse to take part in the Leaders' debates on TV unless the Greens were included.

This is not news as such - Cameron first said this back in the summer when the BBC and other broadcasters issued a proposal for three debates in the run up to the polls, one of which would include UKIP but none the Greens. Ofcom's ruling covers not only the debates but all broadcast media - TV and radio news programmes and party political broadcasts in particular.

Ofcom's convoluted reasoning holds that UKIP is a major party deserving of coverage while the Greens are not. Hence we will have four pro-austerity, neoliberal parties covered, more than ever creating an illusion of choice for voters which bears just more of the same in reality. The Greens, who oppose austerity and campaign for greater equality would provide the only different narrative in any debate.

Cameron is not, of course, staking out his position for reasons of principle and fair debate, although unsurprisingly this is the argument he claims. With UKIP rising until recently largely at the Tories' cost, he has calculated that a Green presence would counter that any damage Nigel Farage inflicted on the Conservatives by the Greens impacting on Labour and the Lib Dems. Alternatively, with him as the incumbent, he knows that he is more vulnerable to attack from other leaders and so may be quite content to not have any debates while posing as a champion of fairplay.

So, all day, the media have been interviewing his confirmed opponents for the debate - Farage, Miliband and a rather hysterical Clegg (who briefly soared after the first "I-agree-with-Nick" debate last time). Why, they keep being asked, do they think Cameron is doing this? And of course, without exception, they say that he is keen to avoid the debates altogether and using the Greens as an excuse.

A more interesting question might have been to ask each of them for their reasons for not wanting the Greens to have a place. Why don't they just call Cameron's bluff and agree to have the Greens take part? Why won't they debate with the Greens? 

After all, the Greens had an MP four years before UKIP won their first one (a Tory defector who stood again in his own constituency as UKIP). Greens outpolled the Lib Dems across the UK at the European elections last May and won 3 MEPs to the Lib Dems' one. They reached 10% in the opinion polls before Christmas, one point ahead of Clegg's party and just three per cent behind UKIP - they are particularly popular among younger voters and are in second place to Labour among students. In Scotland, there are now more Green Party members than individual members of the Scottish Labour Party, while nationally 40,000 people are members of the Greens -possibly slightly more than UKIP and just 4,000 behind the Lib Dems' last declared membership figures. Nearly 300,000 people signed a petition calling for the Greens to be invited on the leaders' debates, while opinion polls show that about 4/5 of voters want them on, with clear majorities among supporters of all parties.

Greens - on rise among students, and everywhere else
So, who is really frit of the debates? Cameron maybe. But, in the absence of any other explanation or view being offered (aside from Paddy Ashdown's absurd claim that a fifth leader would confuse the voters!), Clegg, Miliband and Farage are clearly scared too - scared of a party that stands for the opposite of the dead, elitist agenda they offer. Because, in the end, bar a bit of tinkering here and there, these neolib quadruplets all offer pretty much the same - Britain PLC as a profit-seekers, privatised paradise, its people reduced to low wage service drones. All of them, in the end, have one purpose - to serve the interests of an ever smaller, ever richer and ever more bloated elite at the top of our society.

Noam Chomsky's warning has never been more appropriate: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.

So, all four of the men (and they are all men) who lead the neoliberal parties are playing a game. None of them, Cameron included, really want the Greens, or other truly different parties, to be heard. Rather, the PM hopes to have no debates at all while his rivals want ones that minimise their other competitors.

No one has asked them the questions that really matter. But then that's not news. Nor is it any surprise at all.

But we can make our views known and voices heard. Ofcom's decision is open to challenge via a consultation process now underway. You can comment by emailing them via http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/consultations/major-parties-15/  or phone them on  0300 123 3333 . The process runs until 5 February. Tweet your views as well using the hashtag #invitethegreens. Similarly, to call for the leaders' of the nationalist parties to be invited too, sign on to #leadersdebates and #fairdebate2015 .

And, whether the decision is changed or not, our fading Establishment can know that one more mask has been peeled away and one more column chipped a bit more deeply as the facade they put up for British democracy slips yet further into its terminal decay.


Thursday, 1 January 2015

Reaching for the Future

Reaching for the Future - Glasgow, Saturday 13 September 2014
(author's photo)
January is named after the Roman deity Janus, god of endings and beginnings. And so on this first day of January, I thought I'd look back a little at the last year and forward into what promise to be, in the words of the ancient curse, "interesting times".

2014 opened with a sense of foreboding for many progressives - not least because of the challenges that lay ahead in a Europe littered with discredited "mainstream" governments unpopular with demoralised, austerity-abused publics. The far right was on the rise in election after election; even in Britain, although the extremist BNP was largely gone, the UK Independence Party, lampooned by some as fascists-in-suits and certainly adopting a range of beggar-thy-neighbour tactics in its divisive politics, seemed to be gaining ground with the endless encouragement of the media.

Into this stew, the Conservative-led Coalition Government proclaimed 2014 to be the time to "celebrate" the appalling war of 1914 - 1918. The then-Education Secretary, Michael Gove, proclaimed the conflict to have been a "noble" war seen as "just" by those fighting it. "In Remembrance of Lions" charts the arguments around this - the war was far from the narrative of thse armchair "warriors". At the close of the year, with the likes of Sainburys supermarkets invoking its memory to boost their Christmas sales, my closing blog, "Piping the Peace", sought to expand on the well-known story of the 1914 Christmas Truce to explore how a bitter hatred of a war that was widely held even at the time to be nothing but a power-play between competing elites led to the greatest challenge to authority by ordinary people in all of history.

The parallels between now and then have been constant through the year - and not in the superficial way desired by the likes of Gove and Cameron. The disconnect between rulers and ruled, now as then, is widening as the days pass. In a country where political leaders on the one hand continue to worsen climate change through approving massive expansion of fracking ("Inside the Mind of Ed Davey") ("No Wind Turbines to Spoil the View"), in spite of the evidence of global warming causing flooding across Britain ("When Only the Wellies are Green" ) and the slaughter of over 29,000 Britons every year from pollution-related illnesses ("Take Your Breath Away"), it is little wonder people look for other solutions. This is all the more compounded when the Establishment continue to fall back on scapegoating vulnerable groups such as disabled and unemployed people ("Choosing Poverty"), ("Having a Heart Attack? You Shirker...") while subsidising their rich friends to run public services ("The Coalition of Kleptocracy" ) and making it ever easier for them to hire and fire workers at will ("You're Fired!"). Even the one remaining, highly profitable and popular state railway company, East Coast, has been sold off to private speculators ("Keep East Coast Public") and the NHS, the most successful health service in the world, is being auctioned off piecemeal ("999 for the NHS"), a situation likely to be embedded if the Government's enthusiasm for the TransAtlantic Trade & Investment Partnership is allowed to come to fruition ("Death-Wish Lib Dems"). In response to the disaffection that inevitably has followed, all our current leaders seem capable of coming up with is surreptitious "reforms" to disenfranchise likely opponents, especially younger people ("Bite The Ballot") or threaten to deploy violence in the name of keeping order ("Water Cannon: Doing What It Says On The Tin").

As with the tumult of decades ago, first trailed back in December 2012 ("Weimar Britain"), the void deserted by mainstream politics offers up a variety of opportunities for change - some giving a glimpse of a far happier world, but others giving instead visions of a nightmare future. For myself, much of the first half of 2014 was given up to work as Campaign Manager for the Green Party European election effort in Yorkshire and the the Humber. As with Greens across the country and indeed throughout the EU, we faced a situation where much media attention was focused not on our ideas for a fairer and more sustainable world ("Neither Nick nor Nigel for the Common Good"), but rather on the prospects for rightwing "insurgents" like UKIP in Britain ("Still Nothing Worth Watching... UKIP TV")and the FN in France. In the end, while the Greens polled ahead of the Lib Dems in both votes and seats, UKIP won the election in the UK with just under 27% of the vote and in Yorkshire took 3 of the 6 seats (with barely one-third of the vote) and elsewhere other rightwing parties performed strongly on anti-immigrant, xenophobic platforms.

Echoes of the past sent a chill down the spine of many on the Left, all too aware as we are of where such visceral hatreds ultimately lead ("Don't Let The Lights Be Dimmed"). For the first time since the 1990s, Europe has been the scene of fighting, with conflict in the Ukraine ("Khrushchev's Crimea") ("Balkan Echoes"). Further afield, terror spread with the assault on Gaza by far superior Israeli forces and the kidnapping of women in west Africa by the Islamist Boko Haram ("Bloody Brothers") while self-centred western and Saudi interference in Syria led to the rise of Islamic State in the Middle East. However, in this last instance, women are a key part of the counter-attack in Kurdish areas, forming a third of the Rojavan army that is driving the slavers of ISIS back ("Sisters in Arms - Kobane, Kurdistan and Women Against ISIS").

Nevertheless, more optimistic vistas appeared as the year wore on: in Scotland, the independence referendum galvanised hundreds of thousands of people into unprecedented levels of political activity. Although a remarkably positive campaign for a separate Scotland ultimately failed under a barrage of vitriol and neoliberal State Power ("Scotland - Trust The Bankers"), the YES vote reached an unimagined 45% and tens of thousands of Scots joined up to the three pro-independence parties (the SNP, Scottish Greens and Scottish Socialists). Support for the SNP in particular has soared with the prospect now of former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond potentially brokering who will form the next UK-wide Government. Both in Scotland and more widely, the power evidently wielded by ordinary people in search of social justice rather than the cold hostility at the heart of the UKIP and Tory agendas has found new outlets which promise that things really never will be the same again ("The Last Days of the United Kingdom"). The 999 for the NHS March, Occupy Westminster Green and the Britain Needs A Payrise protests all showed how large numbers of citizens, many previously not involved politically, are now rising to make themselves heard and call for real change.

As the summer moved to autumn, UKIP continued to poll well, but now so did the Green Party throughout Britain, in spite of a much lower level of media attention. By the end of the year, its membership matched UKIP's and its poll ratings had on numerous occasions overtaken the collapsing Lib Dem wing of the Coalition - the final Ipsos-Mori survey of the year put UKIP on 13% of the vote with the Greens just behind on 10% and the Lib Dems on 9%.

In spite of this and a petition from over a quarter of a million people, the Establishment closed ranks to exclude the Greens (and the SNP) from the leaders' debates in the upcoming General Election ("#fairdebate2015"). Yet, given what is at stake if any truly insurgent party challenging the power of Big Money and the Establishment breaks through, it is little surprise that something like UKIP would be employed and promoted as a sort of "licenced" opposition, a bit like the state-sponsored "opposition" parties in Putin's Russia ("The Men in Grey"). (Separately, I wrote a piece for the online Scottish socialist magazine "The Point" on the origins of the Union of 1707, "The Whales of Kirkcaldy", which, while providing me with some fascinating reading, pointed up just how corrupt and brutal Establishments can be in seeking to secure their self-interest and preservation). Smug in its belief of its own right to power, our political class continues to believe that it can get away with a pretence of democracy ("Seeing Through the Illusion of Choice") But, as with others who have thought this would work in the past, their days may now be numbered ("1905 Again").

Of course, for change to come, we must know what the alternatives are; how might a new world work; how can we found a society based on co-operation when all around us is a world formed of conflict and competition? How can we fashion a place where we might find happy people, content with their lives, living in harmony with other species and the biosphere that lets us exist?

It was to this end that it was good to spend time towards the end of the year looking at the history and development of ecosocialism - the green socialist ideas that offer some ways forward to a world where we value sharing rather than accumulation; where we put back what we take out so that our own and future generations will have the resources to thrive; where we learn to live by the idea of "enough" rather than pursuing the illusion of happiness being found in ever "more".

"Stories of Tomorrow - Ecosocialism and The World To Come" came from a talk I gave as part of a debate on ecosocialism. And for me it was an encouraging way to draw the year to an end. A look  forward to what could be if we have the imagination and courage. A way to a very different world, but one which harnesses the co-operative spirit and compassion which are inherent to our species. These are natural human qualities, but ones long twisted and denied by our socio-economic systems, from slavery through feudalism to capitalism. As capitalism stumbles, flailing dangerously in a world of diminishing resources and global warming, only the ever more tenuous and tiny layer at the top stands to benefit from its continuation - a miniscule elite numbering at most a few hundred thousand people ("On The Big Red Bus To Oblivion") while several billions hunger and our entire planet suffers. Humanity can do so very much better than this.


Most of history is neither a beginning nor an end - days simply follow days. Although 2014 is now over, the events that traced its course seem to offer no conclusion and only a vague sense of direction. Still, in the haze and confusion, perhaps some signposts are now dimly perceptible and while the journey is far from ended, in 2015 the time of transition is perhaps that little bit closer.

Another world is possible; and, if we want it enough, it is coming.


Happy New Year and, as this blog approaches its first quarter of a million views, thank you for reading.

Reaching for the Future - Wakefield, Sunday 24th August
(author's photo)

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Piping the Peace

Tonight, one century ago, across the battlefields of war-ravaged Europe, tens and likely hundreds of thousands of soldiers laid down their weapons and crossed the desolation of "no man's land" to greet their enemies as friends and celebrate together what has become known as the Christmas Truce. Over half the British sector of the western front was involved in this Yuletide fraternisation as were huge segments of the French and, of course, their German counterparts. On the eastern front, less marked but similar reconciliation occurred between Austro-Hungarian and Russian soldiers as the poor bloody infantry ignored the threats and demands of their superiors in an act of defiant international solidarity.

British and German troops celebrate together at Christmas 1914
Well known are the games of football that were reputedly played (there is no photographic evidence, but there were professional footballers in the trenches of both sides and many reports of informal games). Gifts were exchanged, photographs of sweethearts, wives and families displayed, hymns were sung, music played and meals taken together - many Germans in particular could speak English (then as now not so the other way round). In the Belgian sector, German soldiers, who had occupied nearly all of Belgium, agreed to take letters for their opponents and post them to their families behind the lines.

The High Commands of France, Britain and Germany, safely far behind the dangers of the Front and living in extremely comfortable conditions, had been anxious for some time about what might happen in this, the first Christmas of the First World War. Nearly five months on from the heady August days when leaders on all sides had promised that victory would be theirs and it would all be over by Christmas, the troops had experienced weeks of shell-shock and near static warfare. Equipped for summer campaigns, many lacked the boots and clothing required to survive in the open winter air, never mind the shells and bullets of their enemies. Friends, neighbours and relatives had been lost, especially demoralising for regiments that were often formed from the men of the same village and even street. The enthusiasm which had greeted the war among some, though far from all, of the heavily propagandised civilian populations had already begun to dissipate as casualties mounted in this, the first large industrial-scale war. Indeed, the recovery and burial of the dead was a key part of the truce, with men helping each other inter and commemorate their dead.

A British High Command note from General Horace Smith-Dorien, dated 5 December 1914, is particularly telling about the generals' concerns about their soldiers' temperament: “It is during this period that the greatest danger to the morale of troops exists. Experience of this and of every other war proves undoubtedly that troops in trenches in close proximity to the enemy slide very easily, if permitted to do so, into a “live and let live” theory of life…officers and men sink into a military lethargy from which it is difficult to arouse them when the moment for great sacrifices again arises…the attitude of our troops can be readily understood and to a certain extent commands sympathy…such an attitude is however most dangerous for it discourages initiative in commanders and destroys the offensive spirit in all ranks…the Corps Commander therefore directs Divisional Commanders to impress on subordinate commanders the absolute necessity of encouraging offensive spirit… friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices, however tempting and amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited."

Live & let Live - Generals frowned on truces to retrieve the fallen.
The truth of the matter is that the Christmas truce, sanitised in the years since as a touching gesture of reconciliation by troops from three Christian nations on the eve of Christ's birth, was far from the one-off incident that many rightwing historians portray it as being (indeed, a few seem to like to imagine it didn't actually happen at all). Rather, it was the latest of a string of incidents that marked discontent and dissent among the ordinary soldiers stuck in muddy trenches facing dreadful attrition and injuries which often made death a preferable option.

From as early as the start of November, when the initial moves and counter-moves of the armies had become bogged down in trench warfare with millions of men facing each other in some places just a few yards from each other, the "live and let live" nostrum first manifested itself in unspoken agreements to respect mealtimes, while by December half hour ceasefires would be called to allow joint retrieval of the dead. During these, soldiers began to speak to each other, exchange newspapers and in some areas even visit each others' trenches. The Christmas truce, possibly kicked off by the quaint and typically out of touch decision of the German Imperial Government to send thousands of Christmas trees to their soldiers with which to decorate their trenches, in many areas lasted well beyond Christmas, with messages and joint singing reported up to and on New Years' Day 1915.

The news of the truce was suppressed by all Governments - but the Scottish and American press broke the story a few days later and soon the German and English papers followed, most of them commenting positively and lamenting the fact that the slaughter was about to begin again. But this did nothing to slacken the resolve of the High Commands - all of them reissued instruction banning all forms of fraternisation and threatening punishment of those who disobeyed.

Perhaps because of its widespread nature, there is relatively little evidence of retribution against soldiers who took part in the Christmas truce, although the film Joyeux Noel shows British officers being removed from duty and a chaplain defrocked, while the Kaiser's son personally oversees the transportation of a German unit to the Eastern Front. However, future episodes were not treated so lightly - and Christmas 1915 saw only a very partial repetition of the truce. The Church was employed to ensure that British troops in particular could find no commonality with the Germans, as Brigadier General Crozier described in 1915:
"Blood lust is taught for the purpose of war, in bayonet fighting itself and by doping their minds with all propagandic poison. The German atrocities (many of which I doubt in secret), the employment of gas in action, the violation of French women, the "official murder" of Nurse Cavell, all help to bring out the brute-like bestiality which is necessary for victory. The process of "seeing red" which has to be carefully cultured if the effect is to be lasting, is elaborately grafted into the make-up of even the meek and mild .. . The Christian churches are the finest "blood lust" creators which we have, and of them we must make full use. (The British soldier) is a kindly fellow ... it is necessary to corrode his mentality"

Yet, as fraternisation died away with the ever more overpowering destructive nature of the war, discontent turned inward. Agitation grew against the officers among the troops on all sides. Mutinies broke out - in April 1917, two months after the Russian army refused to support the Czar against the political revolutionaries in Petrograd, a battalion of French soldiers refused to go over the top at the battle of the Aisne, which had cost over a quarter of a million French lives. Four ringleaders were shot and many others imprisoned, but within a short time the mutiny spread to 68 divisions - half of the French army refused to go into battle and many talked of marching on Paris to overthrow the Government. In June, Russians units lent to their allies on the western front joined with French troops to set up a soviet council which issued a "Declaration of Soldiers' Rights".

The revolt was eventually contained with the court-martial of 3,500 troops, and 550 condemned to death (49 were actually executed). As Dave Sherry observes in "Empire and Revolution", "This was limited punishment given the scale of the mutiny. Clearly it had terrified the French generals and the ruling class."

But next mutiny spread to British, Australian and New Zealander troops following Field Marshall Haig's decision to throw them into a series of bloody and unsuccessful battles in Flanders in appalling weather. In September 1917, 100,000 troops revolted in the base at Etaples, burning down the Military Police buildings and locking up their officers. As with the French, the British High Command responded with some limited concessions and execution of the leaders, suppressing the revolt after five days - and keeping it secret for decades. More mutinies were to follow through 1918 both at the front and even back in England, with mass groups of troops refusing orders and walking out of barracks in Folkestone, Dover and Shoreham. Canadian troops rebelled as well over two days at Arras. (The 15,000 strong West Indian Volunteer force continued to obey orders until after the ceasefire when they were denied the pay rise given to British conscripts and detailed to clean toilets for white soldiers - at this point, after already enduring several years of racist treatment, they too rebelled.)

Among all sides, desertion grew the longer the war endured and as the willing volunteers of 1914 fell under the shells and bullets, they could only be replaced by forced conscription. By autumn 1918, as many as two million Germans had either deserted or avoided the draft, with 25,000 fleeing to Switzerland where many associated with Russian Bolshevik exiles.

As 2014 closes, with the British Government's David Cameron and Michael Gove's attempts to "celebrate" the conflict of 1914-1918 continuing, it is worth reflecting that this was no popular war. Although  unsurprisingly titled "The Great War for Civilisation" by the victors, this was not the battle against Nazism or totalitarianism of 1939 to 1945. It was fought essentially in the interests of elite ruling classes and at the behest of their capitalist leaders - arms manufacturers and merchants, engineering firms, oil companies, all seeking to expand their profits and, in an early manifestation of the neoliberal ethos, happily incorporating state power so that, to paraphrase Clauswitz, war became economics by other means.

Many of these rulers, with some notable exceptions, had anticipated a quick war and a few even believed their own propaganda about over by Christmas. But, writing nearly 30 years earlier, Karl Marx's colleague and friend Friedrich Engels had anticipated things very differently and, as it turned out, highly accurately:
"(There will be) a world war of an extent and violence hitherto undreamt of. Eight to ten million soldiers will slaughter each other and devour the whole of Europe until they have stripped it barer than any swarm of locusts has ever done.
The devastation of the Thirty Years' War compressed into three of four years and spread over the whole continent; famine, pestilence, general demoralisation of both armies and of the mass of the people, produced by acute distress; chaos in our trade, industry, commerce and credit, ending in general bankruptcy; collapse of the old states to such an extent that crowns will roll of the pavements and there will be no one to pick them up; absolute impossibility of seeing how it will all end...
This is the prospect when the system of mutual outbidding in armaments, taken to its final extreme at last bears its inevitable fruits. This my lords, princes and statesmen is where in your wisdom you have brought old Europe." ("Empire and Revolution", D.Sherry, p,12)

Little wonder then that the war came to an end first in the east with the Russian Revolutions of February and October 1917 and then in the west with the German Revolution of October 1918. History has come to view both as isolated, but in fact all Europe was ablaze by the final Armistice on 11 November 1918. Ten million soldiers and ten million civilians were dead; and a flu pandemic originating among in the squalid conditions of the trenches was to take between another twenty and forty million lives over the next two years.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was no more, shattered into at least six different entities. Soviet Republics were declared in Bavaria and Hungary and Italy endured the Bienno Rossa, two years of social upheaval which eventually birthed the fascist Blackshirts and brought Mussolini to power. The Ottoman Empire had also collapsed and Greece and Turkey faced each other in a new conflict that would lead to massive and brutal transfers of populations between Europe and Asia Minor.

In Britain, the Government invested huge military efforts and resources to subvert the new Communist regime in Moscow and for several years was spooked by the prospect of revolution - furiously sending tanks to Glasgow in 1919 to suppress protesters after the Battle of George Square. With angry, demobilised conscripts demanding the Government make its' promises of a "land fit for heroes" a reality and even the police going on strike, King George V persuaded the the Prime Minister to withdraw an offer of refuge to the deposed Russian Czar, fearing his cousin's presence would precipitate a similar royal cataclysm in the UK.

The Christmas Truce was a remarkable event. And now, more than ever, as capitalist companies seek to profit from its memory, it is all the more important that we remember the context in which it occurred and where, in time, it led. It was just the first of a number of events that eventually saw several million combatants ignore the commands of their leaders and instead make common cause with their fellow soldiers across the lines. It was an act of humanity and compassion for sure; but it was also one of the most powerful statements of defiance against authority by oppressed people in all of the last century. Let us never forget them.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Stories of Tomorrow - Ecosocialism and the World To Come


Politics & The Planet - to the left, Haiti under Duvalier deregulated land use and developers destroyed the lush forests once shared with more conservationally minded Dominica on the right.
Where are we now and why?

Our world now is faced with several major crises, each of them existential in their nature. Any one of them has the potential to overwhelm human civilisation and even the means for humanity to continue to exist in any meaningful way on our planet.

We face:
-         Climate change in the form of global warming: 98% of scientists agree that this is a result of human activity and, as things stand today, at the end of what is likely to have been the warmest year in history, we are on target for a climate increase on 1990 levels of between 4 and 5 degrees centigrade by the end of this century. To put this in context, long before 5 degrees, we would face the collapse of much of the agriculture that feeds all of us, along with hundreds of millions, even billions, of climate refugees and all the attendant conflict and misery you might expect.

-         Resource depletion: especially in respect of carbon fuels, where we are around now at the Peak Oil point, where the majority of the oil on the planet has already been extracted. Water and food resources are similarly under intense strain.

-         Mass extinctions: human activity is now destroying other species at a record level. WWF estimates the extinction rate to be somewhere between one and ten thousand times the natural rate.

-         Gross record levels of human inequality: earlier this year, we saw this powerfully illustrated by the Oxfam double-decker bus demonstrating that if the 85 richest people of the planet got on board, the passengers on that one bus would own more than than the poorest 3.5 billion people combined; and later on we heard about how just 5 families in the UK are wealthier than the poorest 12.6 million people put together. Wealth is concentrated in the hands not of the top 1%, but about one tenth of the 1%. This is infinitely greater than at any time in human history – even in the feudal age

These crises, from an ecosocialist perspective, as from the perspective of all socialists I imagine, are very much driven by capitalism. As we know, capitalism is predicated on:

-         Theoretical infinity of supply and demand, with the ever-changing equilibrium point between these two forces setting the temporarily prevailing exchange value, or price.

-         Scarcity is inherent in this model, so the prospect of a resource crisis which would concern most humans leaves the Lords of the Universe rubbing their hands at the prospect of higher and higher profits. This is because anything that is scarce, anything that is not freely available (such as, for now, air) can be commodified - in other words, it can be owned and sold. The scarcer any commodity is relative to demand, the higher the price that can be expected to be paid by the consumer to the supplier and the greater the profit made. For example, if water is scarce, whoever owns it can make far more money out of this essential for our life than if it were in abundance.

Left to continue as it is, we face a future of environmental degradation and growing human conflict over things as basic as water and food. One prediction by John Beddington, UK Chief Scientist in 2009, sees a “Perfect storm” of population growth resource depletion and climate change as early as 2030. As the world's population grows, competition for food, water and energy will increase. Food prices will rise, more people will go hungry, and migrants will flee the worst-affected regions.

As the ecosocialist thinker Joel Kovel has written:
“Having beaten back the spectre of communism, the ideologues of capital even proclaimed that not just Marxism, but history itself had come to an end. A generation later, the tables appear to be reversed. We are now compelled to recognize the distinct possibility that history may indeed come to an end thanks to capitalism–not in triumph, however, but through the generalized ecological decay it causes.”

Why Ecosocialism?

So what is ecosocialism, how is it different to socialism and why does it matter now?

There has long been significant co-operation between greens and socialists given a shared agenda in many areas – in the peace movement, in some aspects of social justice and civil rights. We have seen Red-green coalitions in some European states and it was a Green Left/Left Socialist coalition that delivered Iceland from the bankers’ crisis of 2009 in a radically different way to the rest of the world, refusing to pay all debts and jailing bankers and financiers as opposed to underwriting their bonuses.

But significant differences remain.

Among greens, so-called deep ecologists do not always see markets as inherently hostile; some talk of reforming and even saving capitalism from itself; to my mind a bit like hoping to talk sense to Hitler, but there you are.

Among socialists, on the hand the environmental agenda has often been viewed as separate from the human.  We can see in the works of some who acted in the name of Soviet socialism a view of the environment as a resource for use and consumption pretty much in a similar way to capitalism. Stalin’s geo-engineering of central Asian waterways and the longterm destruction of the Aral Sea, now barely a twentieth of its original surface area, amply demonstrate that it is not just capitalism that kills nature.

Then & Now - the death of the Aral Sea
Similarly, Trotsky, had this to say.
The present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests, and seashores, cannot be considered final… Through the machine, man is Socialist society will command nature in its entirety, with its grouse and sturgeons. He will point out places for mountains and for passes. He will change the course of the rivers, and he will lay down rules for the oceans. The idealist simpletons may say that this will be a bore, but that is why they are simpletons.” (Wall, Rise of the Green Left, p80)

In the west at the same time, Fabian Social Democracy’s rejection of revolution saw it needing to compromise with capitalism. All it could offer was to somehow outperform capitalism, but on capitalism’s own terms of maximising material output. Sustainability was not a consideration.

The impact of human industry has become more and more evident in recent decades and so the evidence that an approach that is not purely human-focussed is vital has become overwhelmingly obvious from the ecosocialist perspective. But it isn’t simply about the damage and danger of existing capitalist practices.

Dr Derek Wall, a key ecosocialist thinker and former Principal Speaker for the Green Party, has put it this way:
“The ecocentric element of green philosophy stresses that other species – and even the Earth itself – have moral standing; they cannot just be used without regards merely as instruments to benefit humanity. This means that even if…severe environmental problems… did not threaten human society, greens would still seek to combat them, because they would threaten the diversity and beauty of our planet. In essence, greens argue that the rest of nature has ethical status and cannot be used for human gain without thought.” (Wall, The No-Nonsense Guide to Green Politics, p47)

Dr Derek Wall
So how distinctive is this analysis? Is ecosocialism a distinctive philosophy or do we simply allow labels to obscure an inherent commonality among all socialist viewpoints?

Origins and Evolution of Ecosocialism

There is a long history of thought which sets human harmony alongside harmony with nature. At the heart of this thinking is the concept of The Commons where resources are shared between contemporaries and fostered for future generations. This feature of resource ownership and use goes back millennia – a simple example would be the right to graze cattle and collect firewood on common land which was often seen in feudal society.

Modern examples persist though – for example the harvesting of the Amazon by rubber tappers who extract only small amounts from trees so that they will replenish themselves by the following year, or the sustainable fishing methods of west African communities, sharing the fruits of the sea.

The concept of the Commons is central to most ecosocialist thinking, from ancient forms of land use to modern car clubs. And there is a close linkage between early radical movements from the Peasants Revolt of 1381, through the Diggers, Levellers and Luddites to contemporary ecosocialist thinking.

But it is the more recent thinkers and advocates of socialism that I would like to look at. Long before the term ecosocialism or the tenets that however loosely structure ecosocialist thought were formulated, we can see a concerns for nature and humanity’s relationship with it informing the development of socialist thought.

Ecosocialism and thinkers

Some of ecosocialism’s earliest modern expressions can be traced back to the Romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This moved on from the Enlightenment which had broken down so many old shibboleths and created new ideas about human rights and equality.

The Romantic thinkers were a reaction of sorts to the extreme rationalism of the Enlightenment – they did not reject the Enlightenment but sought a reconnection with nature, drawing on the ideals of a lost Eden, of a humane past informing the future. They stressed not only the importance of human nature but also the importance of humanity’s relationship with Nature itself.

Goethe
The German writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe was linked to the “Sturm und Drang” (Storm and Stress) movement which sought to express the extremes of emotion and nature. His most famous work is like an ecosocialist nightmare – "Faust" tells of a man who sells his soul to Satan in return for temporary possession of the world.

And what does he do with the world? 

He builds and builds and builds. His motives though are not necessarily founded on the evil which Satan represents – Faust wishes to drive tragedy from the world, eliminate human struggle by conquering nature and replacing it with a landscape forged in his own image. Only one small patch of land remains resistant, a sand dune where an elderly couple live by a chapel with a little bell and a garden full of linden trees. In spite of bribes and threats, they refuse to give up their home.

Faust plays for his soul & the world
Faust, driven by the need to overcome nature itself, laments their resistance:
“That aged couple should have yielded
I want their lindens in my grip
Since these few trees are denied me
Undo my worldwide ownership
Hence is our soul upon the wrack
To feel, amid plenty, what we lack.”

In time, they are eliminated by his obliging agents without him needing to instruct them.

The late Marshall Berman, the American Marxist academic, wrote that the couple “are the first embodiments in literature of a category of people that is going to be very large in modern history: people who are in the way – in the way of history, of progress, of development; people who are classified, and disposed of, as obsolete.” (Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, p67)

Left behind - if you don't move, we will surround you
Between 1986 and 1996 alone, the academic Joel Kovel, of whom more later, notes that over three million people were displaced by "conservation projects"; and at an earlier point, some three hundred Shoshone Indians were killed in the development of Yosemite National Park in the United States.

Marx
Berman cited Goethe’s Faust in his work, “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air”, paraphrasing Karl Marx paraphrasing William Shakespeare. The Faust story predated Marx, but it is a telling illustration of the process Marx identified as “innovative self-destruction”.

“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face with sober senses the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.”

Karl Marx
Capitalism’s very nature requires anything predating it to ultimately be commodified, consumed and reconstituted into something new, which will soon enough go through the same process again and again, constantly reinventing itself in the name of supposed progress.

It is a progress born solely of the need for profit, the driver of capitalism. Engels was scandalised that housing in the 1840s was being constructed with a maximum 40 year lifespan – even the houses of the rich were to be pulled down again within a generation.

So even if there is material progress, it is at a terrible cost: 

“All that is solid – from the clothes on our backs to the looms and mills that weave them, to the men and women who work the machines, to the houses and neighbourhoods the workers live in, to the firms and corporations that exploit the workers, to the towns and cities and whole regions and even nations that embrace them all – all these are made to be broken tomorrow, smashed or shredded or pulverized or dissolved, so that they can be recycled or replaced next week, and the whole process can go on again and again, hopefully forever, in ever more profitable forms.” (Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, p99)

Marx called this “a metabolic rift” between humanity and nature and although he did not write directly about the environment, John Bellamy Foster in “Marx’s Ecology” argues that ecological themes were a constant part of his thinking: in Capital, he describes the origins of wealth as “labour is its father, and the earth its mother”, as fine a definition of ecosocialist values as you could get.

Engels
Friedrich Engels
Marx's friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels took these themes further.

“Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature, For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first… 

Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature and exist in its midst, and all out mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.” (Wall, Rise of the Green Left, p73-74)

Morris                                              
But perhaps the first real emergence of a distinctively ecological Marxist view point came in the form of William Morris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although starting out as a poet, designer and artist very much rooted in the traditions of the Romantic movement, he grew more political and eventually worked with Eleanor Marx and with Engels himself in the Social Democratic Federation, Britain first socialist party, and authored numerous tracts on socialist change.

His best known work is "News from Nowhere", not a political tract as such, but a mix of science fiction, political fantasy and polemic. In it, a time traveller goes far into a future England where an egalitarian society lives in a sort of pastoral idyll. Gone are the great smokestacks of Victorian London and in their place people live with nature.
William Morris
 This ideal world is striking in a number of ways – gender equality has been achieved and social class is absent. But Morris’ future society is also one of material sufficiency – where people have adopted the concept of enough. In the absence of the enduring competitiveness and acquisition at the heart of capitalism, his vision of a socialist society is one where humans draw wealth from an inner life of learning and creativity, where there is still competition, but it is around intellectual and physical achievement, not material gain.

These were themes also taken up by John Ruskin and in Sheffield by Edward Carpenter.

Bogdanov & Proletkult
As we move into the 20th century, harmony between humans and their environment featured among many on the Russian Left in the years up to the October revolution. The Social Revolutionary Party under Chernov, was rooted in peasant culture and sought land reform as its primary aim

Feudalism was abolished late in Russia but paradoxically this often led to a decline in the peasants’ condition rather than any improvement. Although small by western standards too, the rise of an industrial proletariat within the larger cities followed the same patterns of exploitation in the factories and overcrowded housing as elsewhere: but with many workers fairly newly arrived and driven to the cities by the endemic poverty of the countryside, nostalgia for a better past however idealised paralleled Morris in England. All that was solid had indeed melted around them and this dislocation was fundamental to fostering the conditions for eventual revolution.

Among the Bolsheviks, Lenin’s rival for leader, Aleksander Bogdanov, advocated a less determinist route for the party and identified environmental science as an important factor in a revolutionary state. Interestingly, paralleling Morris, he used science fiction to advocate some of his views, including a novel about a socialist society on Mars. (Lenin was not impressed.)

Eco-Bolshevik Bogdanov
Although he left the party in 1913, Bogdanov resurfaced in 1917 to lead the Proletkult, an independent body that promoted ideas to "integrate production with natural laws and limits”, but was shut down in 1920 and the Narkompros, the Education Ministry.
Subsequently, under Stalin, the Ukrainian agronomist Trofim Lysenko was put in charge of Soviet policy on agriculture and the environment and although he did improve crop yields, his work was very much directed to support Stalinism. Ironically echoing Trotsky, Lysenko "set about to rearrange the Russian map” and conquer environmental limitations.

Kovel  
In the latter part of the 20th century, ecosocialist thinking was developed by the American psychologist and academic Joel Kovel. He was involved for a time with the Green Party of the USA and was an unsuccessful rival to Ralph Nader for the party’s Presidential nomination for the 2000 election. He is now an advisory editor of Socialist Resistance.
 
In 2001, Kovel and Michael Lowy, a member of the Fourth International, issued “An Ecosocialist Manifesto”, which attempts to set out ecosocialist ideology.

In this, Kovel and Löwy suggest that capitalist expansion causes both "crises of ecology" through "rampant industrialization" and "societal breakdown" that springs "from the form of imperialism known as globalization". They believe that capitalism "exposes ecosystems" to pollutants, habitat destruction and resource depletion, "reducing the sensuous vitality of nature to the cold exchangeability required for the accumulation of capital", while submerging "the majority of the world's people to a mere reservoir of labor power" as it penetrates communities through "consumerism and depoliticization". (Wikipedia)

Kovel is generally very critical of the idea of working within existing political structures. He argues that especially where they do not acknowledge the values of socialism, Greens are easily drawn into and neutralised by the establishment – for him "that which does not confront the system becomes its instrument".

He argues that a truly green transformation of society cannot be achieved by technology and regulation: drawing on Marx, he sees patterns of production and social organisation as central to a sustainable society and planet. So Greens need to be concerned about social change and social justice more than technology alone.
Equally though he is critical of the development of socialism during the 20th century –the Soviet Union’s rejection of Bogdanov and the Bolshevik environmentalists was to him a perversion of true socialism. He sees a continuity rather than a breach between Lenin, Trostsky and Stalin where Lenin’s productivist outlook and Trotsky’s concept of a Communist Superman moving rivers and mountains came into a devastating reality under Stalinist bureaucracy.

Kovel rejected Trotsky's Soviet Superman
So his solutions sit in what he and Lowy called “first epoch socialism”. In this, there is a return to the original socialist concept of a free association of producers and the recreation of the Commons. As opposed to the concentration on the sale or exchange value of products and services in capitalism, the focus is on use-value.

Use-value would eliminate the built-in obsolescence of good that sits at the heart of capitalism. The pressure on resources would be greatly decreased if everyone shared vehicles and free public transport eliminated the need for car ownership. Similarly with any other product or service that could be shared; so Kovel sees the development of things like Opensource software on the internet, crowdsourcing projects like Wikimedia and public libraries as central to a process he calls prefiguration.

Prefiguration is the mental and psychological preparation of people for the great change from the ethos and values of capitalism to a society where much more is shared and held in common ownership. Where personal material gain is no longer the main objective in life and where concepts of co-operation and sufficiency become the norms of human development rather than viewed as wildly idealistic nonsense.

Joel Kovel
To advance this, he seeks the development of an ecosocialist party rooted in what he calls communities of resistance – this is not a vanguard party like the Bolsheviks, but it isn’t a parliamentary party either. Rather it is a vehicle for expressing the intention to end capitalism through a transformation of social values. It should participate in elections but not engage in power sharing with established parties because here, he believes, it would be fatally compromised and undermined.

Instead, he wants ecosocialists to work through community organisations and trade unions to establish the new outlook needed for a peaceful ecosocialist revolution where, as attitudes change even among agents of the state such as the police, there will be a spontaneous move to a new paradigm.

Post-revolution, Kovel foresees an assembly of revolutionaries overseeing the transfer of capital into the hands of various self-governing communities – some geographical but others self-governing functional communities, such as health care or education. Money would continue but would be heavily regulated to support user value rather than be a commodity in its own right. An international trade body, democratically selected, would set an ecological value on goods to encourage things like organic agriculture and penalise production that damaged people or planet.

Worker ownership would be a major feature, but so too would be the valuing of activities such as child-rearing and care which are devalued under capitalism. Creativity could be more valued and Kovel foresees a time when many activities currently viewed as hobbies become valued activities in their own right. As people refocus on intrinsic human values, the understanding and acceptance of ecological limits would become a given and society would embrace social justice within a sustainable environment.

Ostrom, Wall and Angus
More recently, ecosocialism has been advocated by writers and activists like Derek Wall in the Green Party and Ian Angus, who heads up the Canadian based Climate & Capitalism web journal. Wall in particular develops on from the works of the American economist and Nobel Prize Winner, Elinor Ostrom. She drew heavily on the examples of Latin American indigenous people in sharing and conserving their environment and its resources as possible examples for wider sustainable living.

Elinor Ostrom
Ecosocialists are present now in a number of political parties and independently. We collaborate and exchange ideas through various bodies such as the Ecosocialist International Network and social media forums like Ecosocialists Unite and Green Left and web journals like Climate and Capitalism. Many came together a few years ago to sign the Belem Declaration, which sets out a manifesto for change and the principles underlying our thinking.

Ecosocialism In Practice

Cuba
Is any of this possible?
Ecosocialists say yes – and look as a practical example to Cuba as well as to many other examples particularly from Latin America.

Throughout the Soviet period, Cuba was subsidised with food and oil from the USSR, both essential given the longterm economic blockade of the Communist island by the USA. So when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba was left reeling as it faced both an energy and food crisis. Washington must have been rubbing its hands in glee at the prospect of the fall of yet another socialist state. But it was not to be.

Instead of decay and final collapse, Cuba embraced a full-on transformation of its society. It carried out a revolution in agriculture, using sustainable low-emissions permaculture to maximise land use in an organic way. It adopted widespread use of renewable energy, fostered local shops and services to reduce the need to travel and promoted public transport. Cuba is the only country in the world recognised by the WWF as having achieved sustainable development.

And this shows in some striking ways – in spite of being blockaded since 1961, Cubans live longer and are measurably happier than citizens of the United States of America.

Now and Tomorrow: The Hope of Ecosocialism

So we face now both crises and opportunity. Even at the height of the Cold War, the existential nature of possible nuclear war was not as pervasive or seemingly certain as the degradation of our biosphere and the exhaustion of our resources we now face. 

But just as the threat is potentially so overwhelming, so too the opportunities have never been greater. We can transform our world by shedding not only the patterns of capitalist society but its mindset as well. With greater equality, co-operation and social justice, our planet can sustain our species and all the others that inhabit it. We can transition to a world where people have enough and where each of us can find the self-fulfilment and happiness central to the needs of every human being. Ecosocialism signposts the way forward to that.

To close, I’d cite the romantic poet William Blake’s poem “The Auguries of Innocence”.

A robin redbreast in a cage
Puts all heaven in a rage
A dove-house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders hell thro’ all religions
A dog starv’d at his master’s gate
Predicts the ruin of the state.
                       
William Morris' "News from Nowhere" described a better, happier world.

NB This piece originally was the basis of a contribution to a discussion on Ecosocialist Ideas at the Wakefield Socialist History Club in December 2014.