1980s >> 1988 >> no-1012-december-1988

Book Review: ‘Ecology and Socialism’

Ecology and the abolition of the market 

‘Ecology and Socialism’, by Martin Ryle, Radius, £5.95

This short book—it is only 100 pages—is written by a member of the “ecosocialist” wing of the Green Party. The Green Party’s official position is that it is neither of the Right nor the Left but, like the SDP and Liberals, appeals to the so-called classless centre. This means that in practice it accepts capitalism and seeks to obtain reforms aimed at protecting or repairing the damage it does to the environment (what might be called “Green reforms”, hence our description of them as Green reformists”).

Ecosocialists, says Martin Ryle, are Greens who recognise that capitalism, with its built-in mechanism of seeking profits to accumulate as more and more capital, is the cause of environmental problems and that therefore no solution can be found to these problems within it. Ryle criticises, in the same terms as us, the Green Party’s much vaunted Basic Income Scheme as merely an attempt to redistribute income within capitalism: profits are to be taxed to provide cash handouts for everybody, but this assumes the continuation of a “profitable market sector” that “would remain the source of all money”; the continuation, in other words, of the economic mechanism that is capitalism. This scheme, says Ryle, is both “useless even as a transitional tactic” and “untenable as a long-term strategy”. Such criticism is all the more devastating coming from someone who played a prominent part in drawing up the Green Party’s manifesto for the 1987 elections in which this scheme was given pride of place.

So far, so good, but what does Ryle mean by “ecosocialism”? He speaks of a “non-market society” and of breaking with “the law of value”. Even better, but unfortunately when he goes on to flesh out the sort of non-market economy he would like to see replace capitalism one of its features is to be … the market! Needs are met, either directly on a free basis (water, sewage, energy, transport) or indirectly through allocating everyone a monetary “social income” (a basic income?):

“Beyond this, and again evolving out of what we have, a ‘market-type’ sector would produce a range of commodities and services between which people would choose according to preferences … here the feedback of market-type mechanisms is an effective means of allocating social labour to meet demand, and of encouraging the necessary expansion and contraction of the productive and retailing enterprises concerned. This is the rationale for the pseudo-market and the use of money. The monetary form, moreover, as opposed to some utopian visions in which the citizenry simply help themselves from a cornucopian socialist abundance, implies the possibility, which in ecological terms is a necessity, of exerting collective control over levels of overall individual consumption.”

Such a society (were it viable) might not be capitalism, but it wouldn’t be socialism either. Socialism is a non-market society in the strictly literal sense of the term: a society without markets, buying and selling and money. The reason for this is that buying and selling presupposes separate owners of the goods that are exchanged, while in socialism both the productive resources and the products are commonly owned and so directly available for people to take rather than buy.

The sort of society advocated by Ryle would not, as he believes, destroy “the law of value”. On the contrary, it would still involve commodity-production and so the creation of wealth as exchange value. Indeed, the free basic services he envisages would have to be financed, just like the cash handouts in the Green Party’s Basic Income Scheme, by siphoning off some of the exchange value created in the commodity-producing sector which would thus remain the key sector of the economy.

Production for sale without profit or capital accumulation, which is what Ryle (and many other Greens) seems to be advocating, is something similar to the “simple commodity-production” which Marx analysed as the logical starting point for the development of capitalism. Were it possible to establish such a society today (which it isn’t), then it would inevitably tend to develop into capitalism a system of commodity-production where the aim of exchange on markets was not simply to obtain money to buy useful things but to obtain money as profits to be re-invested and accumulated as capital.

Ryle and the “ecosocialists” can perhaps be allowed to describe themselves as anti-capitalist but not as socialist. They want to go back to pre-capitalist market forms instead of forward to the abolition of the whole market on the basis of common ownership and democratic control and its replacement by production directly for use and free access to goods and services according to need.

Adam Buick

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