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Book Reviews: "Ecology and Socialism", "A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization"


Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis. By Chris Williams. Haymarket Books 2010.

The introduction bodes well with clear statements of where the blame lies for the ecological mess we’re now in. ‘We live in a social system predicated on endless expansion” and ‘The blind, unplanned drive to accumulate that is the hallmark of capitalist production – the profit motive – has created the problem of climate change, not individuals” profligate natures or overpopulation.’ The book’s title is ‘Ecology and Socialism’ and the ecology side is explained admirably well. (Williams gives ecology courses as part of his work at Pace University, N.Y.) but not the socialist aspect.

The first four chapters cover the science of climate change, debunk the myth of overpopulation (an excellent chapter that can be read in isolation) and ‘make the case as to why there can be no such thing as sustainable or environmentally friendly capitalism’. Williams’s arguments are backed up with well-documented notes in which he refers to a host of well-known and well-respected ecologists, scientists and writers, along with named articles and reports. Although he repeatedly states that capitalism as a system is the cause of the world’s environmental problems he also stresses that it is neoliberalism that has speeded up the process detrimentally. In fact, at this stage, by pages 57/58 some reforms to neoliberalism are listed as being a way ‘to roll back the hostility’ that small farmers have suffered.

Unfortunately, from a very promising beginning, Williams quickly negates the case he started to build ostensibly for socialism by saying in one breath the productive forces need to be in the hands of the producers and in the next that we, as workers, must fight for “good unionised jobs”. There is a definite lack of coherence in his argument from hereon in. He writes of “solutions”, but how many solutions can there be to capitalist ecological crisis? If the argument has been all the way through that it is capitalism that has caused the ecological crisis then the solution must be single and particular: get rid of the cause.

He does address the difficulty of writing for an American readership in that the general misconceptions widely held by many US citizens as to what socialism actually is may prevent them from serious consideration of these or similar arguments. Perhaps it is this that has led to his muddled thinking when attempting to lay out what socialism is? He states and agrees with Marx’s position that ecology (nature) and socialism are inextricably linked but goes on to muddy the water by detailing more of an overhaul than an overturn of capitalism. He claims that separate nation states and borders could not exist but nowhere is there any mention of a moneyless world. And that the government needs to be pushed into making changes – as it has been before – by millions of people fighting for change in this area or that; but no mention of how reformism is an endless treadmill of two steps forward and two steps back.

In comparing the US situation with that of Europe he has this to say, ‘As European capitalism has survived and prospered with tougher governmental regulatory controls and greater restrictions on corporations, it is clear that we can win important and life-enhancing reforms without threatening the overall structure of capitalism.’ Are we to seriously consider that ‘European capitalism’ has done or is going to do anything beyond nodding towards serious climate change reversal? And what of the statistics of the unemployed, homeless, malnourished; how do they fit into the ‘important and life-enhancing reforms?’ Then he goes on to say that reforms, theoretically possible in capitalism, will only be made if politicians are ‘forced’ to implement them (by us). So now, it seems, we are to devote all our spare time and energy to demonstrations and strike action for a bit of reform here and there. Surely if all that mass energy is to be rallied we go for the whole thing – system change – now heard so often, and even featured on the book’s cover, but obviously misunderstood by many to mean a system of reforms. To end the chapter there is a hint that he doesn’t really support what he’s written when he writes of competing capitalist states that can’t plan and coordinate on the global level required and that, ‘such planning could only realistically come about through a completely different way of organising production – one based not on making a profit but meeting human need’.

Williams doesn’t seem to have really come to his own conclusion yet as to what he sees as the alternative. Where are his proposals as to how we rid ourselves of the profit motive? If we don’t rid ourselves of money how do we rid ourselves of the profit motive? He offers plenty of solid argument to back up the idea that only a society not driven by the profit motive would benefit both labour and nature positively and yet Williams seems to shy away from total commitment. How can he write that nothing short of totally remodelling the world on a social, political, technological, cultural and infrastructural level within a fully democratic process carried out by those who will be affected by those decisions, with no nation states or borders and therefore no resource wars – and then add that the Global South will require ‘technological help, capital and training’ (my emphasis).

He has shot himself in the foot by seemingly offering an alternative, having given ample reasons why capitalism can’t change its logic, but by being far too ambiguous about the solution(s) he offers. Conspicuous by its absence is just what Williams proposes is our actual route to this ill-defined alternative society.


Not consistent

A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization … and how to save it . By Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed: Pluto Press, 2010, £19.99

The author is an Executive Director of an ‘independent’ think-tank, working within the sphere of International Relations theory. He has written a very interesting and useful book, but it’s not always an easy read. The subject matter is dense, and there is an immense amount of material packed into its 300 pages.

Ahmed argues that a conjunction of crises is facing humanity, comprising a massive threat to modern industrial civilisation. The crises are global warming, energy scarcity, food insecurity, economic instability, international terrorism, and the tendency towards an erosion of democratic rights. What he stresses and successfully demonstrates is how the various crises are interconnected, and make worldwide systemic change to humanity’s political economy not just desirable, but inevitable. He also rightly insists that these global crises are not aberrations but are actually “integral to the ideology, structure and logic of the global political economy”. As such, they can not be solved by either minor or major policy reforms “but only by drastic reconfiguration of the system itself”.

There is certainly plenty for socialists to agree upon in this urgent and appropriately alarming book. Ahmed advocates a radical extension of democracy, with a need to localise and decentralise political power, the need for sustainability and balance in our relationship to the environment, and a consequent rejection of the values of rampant consumerism. Many of the suggestions outlined for future social organisation are also useful and necessary, but the question arises as to what type of system they should take place in.

In stating that he is using a “Political Marxist Framework”, the author contends that “global crises are generated directly by the operation and structure of the global system” with its untrammelled pursuit of profit. However, a problem arises with his emphasis on ‘neoliberal capitalism’. This description is fair enough when referring to a specific phase of development within global capitalism, but it seems it’s not capitalism in its entirety that he rejects, despite his desire to see it radically restructured.

Ahmed does say we need to “fundamentally reconfigure the relationship between labour and capital,” but not to the extent of eradicating private ownership of the means of production. Instead, he argues that it should be massively extended “to facilitate universal access … by all individuals and communities” (original emphasis). If there is to be ‘universal access’, why retain private ownership? Work – labour – is a social activity; and if all own, then none do. It’s better, therefore, to end the system of ‘production for profit’ and all the paraphernalia of the class-divided system.

To be fair, he does describe his solutions as a “tentative template”, and insists that we all need to be involved in developing responses to our problems. The issue remains of what direction a “post-carbon revolution” will take. The danger is of a continuing and refined super-exploitative society dominated by the interests of a small minority, but a more hopeful scenario is also put forward of large grassroots movements emerging worldwide to push humanity in a more equitable direction. This book provides plenty of reasons why the task of building a political movement for socialism is more urgent than ever.