1980s >> 1989 >> no-1016-april-1989

How green can you get?

Throw away the red paint, lads; green is the latest fashion. Red banners and class struggles are out of date. These days, if you want to look radical you have to be green. From Number Ten the Green Goddess has sounded the clarion call: “Let’s pretend we care about the environment — there are votes in this one”. Where Thatcher leads the hapless promise-makers in the Neil, David and Paddy camps follow. On this year’s Labour agenda, vote-losing, truncheon-battered miners are out, vote-winning baby seals are in. The Green Party is printing application forms on recycled paper for those who like the sound of its late Eighties, health-conscious. conservation-minded message. Pity that those filling them in have not checked the parliamentary record of the German Greens who, in order to make a few legislative deals with other parties, voted in favour of a huge military budget. The Left is going green too. In the Communist Party the fetishism of commodities is distinctly passé; Gramsci on the burning question of deodorant sprays and the ozone layer is big talk. The Two Royals, Phil and Charlie, are making speeches to whoever will listen about the importance of conserving this green and pleasant land. They own enough of it for the subject to be of direct interest. Meanwhile, they eagerly await the hunting and shooting season when they can pursue the noble sport of killing innocent animals. Elkington and Hailes Green Consumer Guide became a non-fiction best-seller last September, and now publishers are falling over one another to publish vegetarian recipes and shocking accounts about rain forests. It is fashionable to be green these days.


Socialists have been saying for a very long time that workers must wake up to the enormous threat of environmental damage which the profit system poses to the world around us. Nuclear weapons are just the most obvious and powerful symbol of self-destruction which capitalism has created. For decades it has been cheaper for capitalists to pollute the air workers breathe than to adopt clean techniques and practices. Methods of production which are unsafe, disease-spreading and potentially explosive have long existed. Workers’ food has been adulterated for as long as there have been wage slaves; see Engels’ comment about this in his book, Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. In order to make a fast buck it has long been capitalist practice to destroy the earth’s irreplaceable resources. Animals are made to suffer and die needlessly; endangered species which have no exchange value in the market are free to become extinct. There is nothing new about any of this. It is not peculiar to the late Twentieth Century, and we did not require a new fashion to hit the tabloid headlines to recognise that we inhabit an endangered planet — endangered by the dictates of profit.


The Socialist Party is hostile to the Green Party. It is a party which stands for the continuation of the capitalist system, but in a different form. We stand for the abolition of capitalism in all forms. The two positions are irreconcilable. Those who vote for the Greens are doubtlessly sincere and caring people who want something different. In their own lifestyles, perhaps some of them have made genuine adjustments which are in line with a socially more co-operative way of living. So have many socialists, but we are well aware that individual lifestyle changes, whether they involve not eating meat or using what are called “environment-friendly” products, are not going to change the fundamental nature of the social system which oppresses us. A few million workers might give up using products which destroy the environment, but what power do we have in comparison with the minority who own and control the means of wealth production? The ruling class, be they multinational companies, state-capitalist bureaucrats or small manufacturers, have an interest in keeping their costs down. If their profits come before the long-term interests of workers, who can blame them for sacrificing workers’ needs? After all, workers voted for the profit system. Only by abolishing the system which is the cause of these problems can the effects be eliminated. The Greens, both in their own party and in the major parties, put out an on appealingly radical message, but when examined it becomes clear that it is a case for the market with a green tinge.


Green reformism
Let us imagine that a Green government is elected at the next General Election. What would it do? To begin with, it would govern. The job of governments is to run the coercive state on behalf of the capitalists who monopolise the means of life. So, like all previous governments, a Green one would be compelled to ensure that the workers are producing profits. In another sense, a Green government would not really govern at all: it would be governed by the profit system. Its Ministers would be constantly coming before us, like Labour reformists in the past, saying “Look, we honestly did want to reform this and that but. you see, with the capitalist economy being what it is…” And so the old story of reformist promises coming to nothing, followed by working-class disgust and disillusion, would go on. In Green Line (November 1988) Tim Andrews reported on a list of reforms which the Green Party Conference had just voted for: “the scrapping of the Common Agricultural Policy, the replacement of price support with income support . . . the party’s intention to withdraw from the EEC unless reconstituted on ecological principles . . . opposition to free trade . . . commitment to economic as well as political decentralisation.” In short, a package of policies to reform capitalism, many of which have been tried and failed in the past, and others which are just pious platitudes. A Green government of British capitalism would be no freer than any government before it to carry out changes which would conserve what is worth keeping in the world around us. Let us say that a Green government abolishes nuclear weapons, as they say it would. What weapons would it introduce instead? If none, then capitalism in Britain would be undefended and ripe for take-over by profit-hungry vultures from other states. If the Greens seek to introduce new, more humane, greenish weapons of murder, then let them spell out such a defence policy here and now. Likewise, let us assume that the Green government fails to persuade the EEC to reconstitute itself on ecological principles. Who will the British capitalists trade with? And why should non-EEC trading agreements be any less concerned with profit before need than the current ones are? Or would a Green government only agree to trade with nations which are ecologically principled? The question alone demonstrates the catastrophic implications of the expected green answer.


It is simply impossible to purify or humanise this capitalist system. And some of the more aware Green politicians, such as Jonathan Porritt, probably know this. They would argue that politics is about pragmatism, that is cynical compromise. It is about “lesser evils”. But why vote for Porritt and his fellow would-be governors to administer the lesser evil when capitalism, which creates the evils, can be abolished altogether? The usual reformist answer is that the lesser evil will take less time to achieve than the grand socialist aim. The Socialist Party was told this by CND nearly thirty years ago when they were going to reform the threat of nuclear annihilation out of existence; we were told it by the reformists of the Labour Party over eighty years ago — they were going to eradicate poverty. It is a foolish myth that partial objectives are more worthy of support than realisable big ones. There is unlikely ever to be a Green government, and if there is, then its greatest critics will be present Greens who will complain that it has sold them out. It is inevitable with reformism; it must sell out in order to fit in with the needs of the system.


Green anti-materialism
Socialists are materialists, but not in the sense that the term is often used: it does not mean that we want people to have more and more “material” things, such as cars or video machines. To be a materialist is to recognise that human beings are rooted in our social environments. Our consciousness is social, and through conscious action we can alter the material environment of which we are a part. The environment is not something Out There which must be protected; it is part of us and we part of it. To be a materialist is to reject antiquated, idealist nonsense about the soul or the spirit. The present writer attended a debate two years ago in which the Green speaker pointed out that being green was all a question of the spirit. Asked to identify this spirit, the Greens laughed a little and ended up proclaiming that if you don’t know what it is then you ain’t got one. Are we to conclude from this that the new Green World is to be established by those who have discovered their spirits, leaving behind us poor wretches who have only our material selves to live with? There is a good deal of arrogant self-righteousness in the Green claim to have seen a better world. What they fail to understand is that seeing visions does not transform the world. Even Tories see glorious visions.


The task facing us is not to romanticise, but to revolutionise. Of such thinkers Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto that they were “half lamentation, half lampoon; half echo of the past, half menace of the future: at times, by its witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart’s core; but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history.” Such will always be the condition of visionaries whose pictures of social completion are really images of a re-created past. The Green dream of a semi-rural arcadian utopia, undisturbed by the thundering force of Big Business and its needs, is really a looking backwards, a conservative ideal All this spiritual nonsense serves as a valuable diversion as far as the ruling class is concerned: while the proles are searching for the invisible spirits they will not be disturbing capitalism as a material reality.


The Times (26 December 1988) reported that “After a decade of old-fashioned pursuit of money and status. Americans and the citizens of the other rich countries will, as the planet runs low on space and resources, turn in the closing years of the century to spiritual fulfilment.” The newspaper was responding to an article published in The Futurist, which is published by the World Future Society based in Washington DC. In the same city is the US Department which collects figures on official poverty. It reports that one in four citizens of the United States is living below the government poverty line. So, while bored Californians turn to the non-existent spirit for comfort in a worrying world, others cry for lack of material necessities to keep themselves warm, fed and clothed. There is no solution to be found in the so-called New Age ritualism whereby abstract idealism overcomes the need to attend to harsh material requirements. And it is precisely because there is no solution in such inaction that capitalism will quite willingly accommodate the growth of Green ideology.


Green profits
Big business is making plenty of money out of the new green consciousness. An article in The Guardian entitled “Conning of the Greens” (17 December 1988) pointed out that the supermarket chains are losing no time in cashing in on the willingness of workers to buy healthier food. This suits the capitalists who employ workers: the healthier we are the more exploitable we are. And it is increasingly suiting the retail capitalists who have created a whole new range of commodities which can be sold at extra cost — conscience money. Sainsbury’s was selling organic potatoes at 64 per cent above the price of normal potatoes; organic leeks were 67 per cent dearer and organic lemons 114 per cent more. Tesco’s is selling its “own-brand UK mineral water . . . that is calorie free “. John Elkington points out that “People . . .  like to feel that they are paying something extra to protect the planet.” Very nice too, if you are one of the capitalists who own the planet.


Capitalism will pass a few minor reforms to win a few green votes, and also because the capitalists themselves realise that their investments are being damaged by the filth created by a lack of environmental concern. Just as they passed The Clean Air Act of 1956, so in the months to come they will attempt a few more self-regulating laws. Needless to say, these laws will be evaded by those rich and powerful enough to do so. Even when the capitalists are agreed on their common interest, there will always be one or two who will try to sneak behind the others’ backs and make an even faster buck.


The planet belongs to them. We, the workers who produce everything and run the planet from top to bottom, have given it to them. Our task is to take it away from them; to reclaim the planet. The Green Party, which does not stand for the socialist transformation of global society, cannot take the planet away from the capitalists. In the end, all they are is a rather futile reform group, pleading with the profit-taking class to do us all a favour and take less profits. Given such a pointless crusade, we need not to be surprised by the following section of the report of their 1988 conference:


Perhaps the most contentious issue at conference was the attempt by National Party Council to replace the sunflower as the party’s logo with one of three designer-symbols commissioned by professionals . . . The arguments against keeping the sunflower were confused: it had become associated with healthy eating, some said, while others claimed it looked like a fried egg (hardly healthy food!). Commissioning new logos on such spurious pretexts seemed unnecessary. After all, sunflower logos only look like fried eggs when the petals have not been drawn properly . . . (Green Line, November 1988)


For further news of these exciting political dramas within the party of the future, watch this space.


Steve Coleman