Red/green dialectic

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Tue Jul 25 18:18:24 MDT 1995


Louis Proyect:

1. Industrialization does not cause environmental degradation
The greens are wrong in their belief that industrialization causes
environmental degradation. Neither do "anti-Gaia" values such as
Judeo-Christianity, patriarchy, greed, etc. The root cause is the
capitalist mode of production.

Capitalism uproots rural populations in order to facilitate industrial
development in urban centers. There is also a need to increase capital
growth in the countryside to finance new industrial growth. This
causes agriculture to become revolutionized technologically at the
expense of environmental balance. By creating urban centers to house
the poisonous, murderous factories and wreaking havoc across the
plains and forests to finance their creation, the capitalist class creates
the conditions for its own existence.

Capitalism can flirt with environmental responsibility, but the
tendency for capitalism to expand and devour non-capitalist sectors
means that "green" capitalism will be an anomaly, like rain in the
Sahara desert which actually does occur every so often. For every
concession to clean air in an advanced capitalist country like the
United States or Germany, we get the displacement of environmental
destruction into places like Mexico and Hungary. The imperialist
bourgeoisie doesnot lose sleep over increased cancer rates in the
maquiladora zone.

Capitalism is not a static system. It defies rational planning and
rational growth. Its growth is the growth of metastasizing tumors.
Desire for consumption is created through advertising. Production
heats up to accommodate consumption. This is a treadmill, not a
rational system. We end up with whatever Madison Avenue and Wall
Street can make money off of. We end up with 20 brands of cigarettes,
$125 running shoes and soft drink wars while the conditions of social
living continue to degrade. Public transportation, health and education
suffer while the alienated population looks for its next consumer fix at
the shopping mall.

2. Why existing socialism has not been green
The green anarchists believe that bad values lead to bad social
conditions. The capitalist values of the Wealth of Nations led to
environmental destruction in the capitalist world. Marx's enthusiasm
for growth and industry, as reflected in the more breathlessly ebullient
sections of the Communist Manifesto, explains the polluted rivers and
poisonous air of the former Soviet bloc. The greens believe that by
returning to a value system like that of the American Indian, balance
with nature will be restored. In their eyes, industrialization of either
the capitalist or socialist variety is the enemy. Small, self-sufficient
communities are the way forward.

In order to highlight socialism's problems, they draw on the ample
evidence of Soviet history. This history can not be denied, but as
anything else that has transpired in history, it was not inevitable. The
Soviet people had an alternative in the development approach
represented by Peter Palchinsky, a civil engineer who joined the
Communist Party shortly after the 1917 revolution. Palchinsky was
enthusiastic about planning. He believed that the Soviet Union opened
up possibilities for the planning of industry that were impossible under
Tsarism. He thought that engineers could play a major role in the
growth of socialism.

Palchinsky argued against the type of gigantic enterprises that were
beginning to capture Stalin's rather limited imagination. He noted that
middle-sized and small enterprises often have advantages over large
ones. For one thing, workers at smaller factories are usually able to
grasp the final goals more easily. He believed that the single most
important factor in engineering decisions was human beings
themselves. Successful industrialization and high productivity were
not possible without highly trained workers and adequate provision for
their social and economic needs.

His differences with Stalin's pyramid-building approach erupted over
the Great Dneiper Dam project, one of the most fabled 5-year plan
projects. Palchinsky made the following critiques. The project didn't
take into account the huge distances between the dam and the targeted
sites. As a consequence, there would be huge transmission costs and
declines in efficiency.

Also, the project didn't take into account the damage resulting floods
would cause to surrounding farms situated in lowlands. Some 10,000
villagers had to flee their homes. As the project fell behind schedule
and overran costs, the workers' needs were more and more neglected.
The workers suffered under freezing conditions, living in cramped
tents and barracks without adequate sanitary facilities. TB, typhus, and
smallpox spread throughout the worker's quarters.

Palchinsky argued forcefully against projects such as these and offered
a more rational, humane and less ideologically driven approach. In
other words, he stressed sound engineering and planning methods. He
helped to organize a study group dedicated to his principles.
Palchinsky and other engineers who opposed Stalin's bureaucratic
system allied themselves to some extent with Bukharin and Rykov who
had often defended engineers and their approach to industrial
planning.

Stalin cracked down on the Bukharin opposition around the
same time as he attacked dissident engineers and had Palchinsky
imprisoned. The engineer died behind bars 2 years later. His criticisms
of Stalin anticipated many of the failures of Soviet industrialization.
The Chernobyl disaster in particular could be attributable to the same
type of bureaucratic myopia that afflicted the Dneiper dam project.

Could the Soviet Union have evolved and progressed with an
industrialization model more akin to Palchinsky's? I believe so. In any
case, it is a mistake to draw an equation between Stalin's 5-year plans
and the term "planned economy". The loss of Palchinsky and the
political opposition he identified with constitute a major defeat in the
century-long struggle for socialism.

Cuba, of course, should be judged on an entirely different basis. Cuba
resorts to nuclear power only because it is economically isolated and
desperate. The electricity generated from the nuclear plant under
development would go to power hospital equipment, university
lighting and communications facilities. In many other ways, the Cuban
leadership has shown sensitivity to ecological concerns. It would be a
mistake to judge this beleaguered isle by the same standards as the
Soviet Union, the former super-power

One step ahead of Cuba, we had revolutionary Nicaragua. Volunteers
from my organization Tecnica worked with Sandinista government
officials on "appropriate technology" projects too numerous to
mention. Among the misfortunes accompanying Chamorro's election
was the abandonment of a number of these types of projects.

3. The nonsense of Malthusianism
Neo-Malthusians, who are endemic to the green movement,
misunderstand the cause of urban squalor and misery. They blame it
on there being "too many people". The Marxist explanation makes
much more sense. Marxism posits the existence of a reserved army of
the unemployed. This reserve army is a inevitable consequence of the
replacement of human labor by machinery. The reserve army permits
capitalism to increase the surplus value produced by labor and also
allows for expansion in boom times. The overpopulation "problem" is
simply a surface reflection of the tendency of capitalism to produce
this reserve army. When people have jobs, homes, savings, etc. as they
do in Western Europe, there is no discussion of an overpopulation
problem. When millions, driven off the land, crowd into the urban
slums of West Africa or India looking for work, we discover that there
is an overpopulation problem.

As David Harvey says, "There are too many people in the world
because the particular ends we have in view (together with the form of
social organization we have) and the materials available in nature that
we the will and the way to use, are not sufficient to provide us with
those things to which we are accustomed." (Economic Geography, 1974)

Was there ever a golden age when society lived in balance with
nature? People like Kirkpatrick Sale tend to romanticize indigenous
societies in a manner reminiscent of Rousseau. The explanation of the
difference between various stages of societies has nothing to do with a
change in values; it has everything to do with colonialism, imperialism
and the introduction of money into a primitive communist society.

P. Keleman cites the difference between descriptions of the Tigre
province in Ethiopia in 1901 and 1985 as recounted by two travelers.
In 1901, the first observes "The environs of Adowa are most fertile,
and in the heights of its commercial prosperity the whole of the valleys
and the lower slopes of the mountains were one vast grain field, and
not only Adowa, but the surrounding villages carried a very large,
contented and prosperous population. The neighboring mountains are
still well wooded. The numerous springs, brooks, and small rivers give
an ample support of good water for domestic and irrigation purposes,
and the water meadows always produce an inexhaustible supply of
good grass the whole year round."

Then, in 1985, another traveler says "Shortly before I left Ethiopia I
flew over large tracts of the desiccated provinces of Tigre and Wollo.
For hours the picture below was unchanging: plains which formerly
were described as the breadbasket of the north were covered in rolling
mist of what was once fertile top soil; eddies of spiraling dust rose in
the whirlwinds hundreds of feet into the air, stony river beds at the
bottom of gorges a thousand feet deep showed not a sigh of water or
new vegetation; and the grazing land at the top of the plateaux which
the dried-out rivers dissected were as bald and brown as old felt."

What changed in Ethiopia? Did the people stop worshipping Gaia?

No, Ethiopia was brought into the colonial orbit. Land began to be
used for the export of cash crops. The peasantry was driven off the
land and communal property relations were abolished. Instead of being
in trust for future generations, the land was viewed as just one more
resource to be exploited.


4. Alienation from Nature
The greens tend to view alienation as a problem of the individual
consciousness. This disharmony can be overcome by getting closer to
nature and living in a more simple manner, like the Amish in
Pennsylvania so admired by Kirkpatrick Sale.

The Marxist analysis stresses the social dimension. We are alienated
from each other and we are alienated from nature because we are
surrounded by the cash nexus in a market economy. Everything,
including people and nature, are seen from the point of view of their
exchange value. This colors everything. The way we speak reflects this
alienated existence. We speak of the "investment" we have in an
intimate relationship. We are worried whether our "assets" are to be
found in our appearance, like Richard Gere's, or in our intelligence or
wit, like Woody Allen's (well, from 15 years ago anyhow).

The relationship between society and nature is dialectical. It is a
mistake to think, as the greens do, that nature subsumes everything.
Nature has been and will be determined to some extent by this peculiar
animal, homo sapiens, which uses tools to control it's
environment. There was never a pure state of nature when we had the
same relationship to nature that a bumblebee or kangaroo has. We are
more closely related to another special primate, the chimpanzee, which
also uses tools when it extracts termites from their nest with a trimmed
twig.

Greens may resent Marx when he says in the German Ideology "The nature that
preceded human history...today no longer exists anywhere" but he is much
closer to the truth.  He is not being mechanistic or
anthropocentric when he makes this kind of statement, but being
dialectical. He understands that nature determines society while
simultaneously being determined by society. This contradiction of
course is tilted in the direction of society under capitalism. The only
way some kind of balance can be restored is through socialism. Homo
sapiens, the tool-user, has become estranged from nature over
centuries of social development under private property. The only way
we can overcome this alienation is through the intelligent use of tools
that allow us to *control* society and nature.

We should not be afraid to declare our intention, as socialists, to bring
society and nature into harmony through planning and through
technology. As David Pepper notes in chapter three of his "Eco-
Socialism", we can create a better world through this type of approach:
"But a rationalized global-to-local network of planned links between
users and suppliers can be envisaged, using modern operational
research, linear programming and logistics and systems sciences. The
network could hardly produce more wasteful and irrational results
than the 'free market' does today, with food mountains in Europe,
while Ethiopians starve yet produce coffee and lentils for the European
market! Furthermore, in a non-consumerist, stable society, without
overproduction-overdemand cycles, 'needs' would be less volatile and
more predictable than in capitalism. And where units of calculation
need not be expressed universally as money for exchange purposes, the
cash nexus will not govern the nature and purpose of economic activity
and relationships. Instead other relevant, including the environmental
impacts of different products and productions processes, can be made
significant factors in decisions about what to do and not to do
economically."


(Sources: David Pepper's "Eco-Socialism" (Verso, 1994) was the
source of many of the ideas and citations from this article, and the
article preceding this on the Unabomber and green anarchism. I think
this book by a British lecturer in Geography at Oxford is a must for
anybody exploring red-green connections. I also strongly recommend 2
journals: James O'Connor's "Capitalism Nature Socialism" and
"Society and Nature" which is edited by Takis Fotopoulos.)



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