Thursday, February 24, 2011

Inconsistent (2011)

Book Review from the February 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

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.
Janet Surman

Let the walls come tumbling down (2011)

From the February 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

How much longer are you willing to sit around and let a tiny minority divide us?

According to the Bible, 1400 years before our saviour arrived on Earth, the walls of Jericho came tumbling down; demolished by the buglers of the Israelite army marching around the city walls blowing their trumpets. No mention is made of any aural damage.

Walls, have had several roles in society since their inception. Several thousand years ago our ancestors would have built rudimentary walls for shelter against the elements, and these eventually evolved in to the walls of communal living spaces.

With the emergence of private property walls began to assume a new role in society: the defence of landed property. Kings, queens, emperors and a motley assortment of nobles laid claim to the land through divine approbation and conquest. What had once been held in common ownership gradually came to belong to a tiny minority that enforced their ownership through coercion.

Fortress and City walls were not enough for some rulers. The threat of losing the property that had been stolen from the majority led to the construction of fortifications of immense proportions. The Great Wall of China was under construction from the 5th century BC up until the 16th century to protect the Chinese Emperors from a northern threat to their borders. Nowadays, it is a major tourist trap. However, it is doubtful whether the tourist guides reveal that ‘it is estimated that over one million workers died building the wall’ [].

Medieval walled cities had become commonplace, but walls also served another purpose for those in power, and that was for imprisonment. Dungeons were often used to hold prisoners prior to execution or transportation. And, there was also debtors' prison, where the debtor was imprisoned until the debt was repaid. But it wasn't until the 19th century that the modern prison system took root, beginning in Britain, when incarceration was viewed as a punishment in its own right. Walls could now be seen to confine members of society as well as repel them.

The Berlin Wall demonstrates how capitalist states can contain and control their populations. The construction of the ‘Wall of shame’, as the West Berlin state dubbed it, began on the 13th of August 1961. The state capitalist élite of East Germany declared that it was erected as a defence against fascists who were conspiring to impede the ‘will of the people’ from the building of a socialist state – which is a contradiction in terms. Its real function was to prevent the mass emigration of East German workers to the private capitalist workshops of the West. However, by 1989 the economic decline of the Russian empire led to a change in policy by their ruling élite, and access to Russian coercion was to be denied to the puppet states. It was this that brought about the tumbling of the Berlin Wall.

Amid the rejoicing some people in power were not as jubilant as the East Berliners, and millions elsewhere. Margaret Thatcher, wary of a united Germany, was reported to have pleaded with President Gorbachev ‘not to let the Berlin Wall fall’, and to ‘do what he could to prevent it happening’ (The Hindu, Sep 15 2009). Similarly, the French President, François Mitterand warned Mrs Thatcher that a unification of Germany could lead to them making ‘more ground than Adolf Hitler had’, and ‘that Europe would have to bear the consequences’ (London Times, 10 September 2009). Both quotes offer an insight into how the competitive nature of capitalism affects the thinking of its leaders, and directly works against the overwhelming majorities’ hopes, dreams and desires of living in a humane world.

Israel's ruling élite ordered the construction of their wall in 1994, and duly baptised it the 'Separation Barrier'. You would have thought that the Israeli's might have recalled the wall that the Nazi's imprisoned 400,000 Jews behind in what became known as the ‘Warsaw Ghetto’ prior to their elimination, but evidently memories are short, and propaganda long. The justification for its construction is that it has been built to protect Israeli's from Palestinian suicide bomb attacks. Opponents regard the wall as a means to further annex Palestinian land, and that security is just a subterfuge. The wall also violates international law as laid down by the International Court of Justice. However, ‘justice’ under capitalism inevitably pans out as ‘might is right’, especially when the US is your Godfather.

The establishment of an Israeli state was the goal of Zionism and its founder Theodor Herzl’s entry in his 1895 diary reveals the thoughts of a ‘righteous’ man:

“We must expropriate gently the private property on the state assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment in our country. The property owners will come over to our side. Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discretely and circumspectly” (Righteous victims, p. 21-22).

The Israeli 'settlers', are also opposed to the barrier, but their opposition is because it appears to relinquish the Jewish claim to the 'Land of Israel'. This is the land that God promised to the descendants of Abraham. This is a biblical deal struck between God and the Jewish ‘people’ some 3500 years ago. It is also the ideological engine of Zionism, and the Likud party’s rationale for the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

Voltaire once wrote that ‘if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him’, and like the ancient mariner, Jonah, who was supposedly swallowed by a whale, millions of people swallow the Bible’s fairy tales as literal truths. And this suits the powerful; if it didn't the Bible, and all of the other ‘holy books’ would have been consigned to the fiction shelf of the Children's Library a long, long time ago. Within the Bible’s pages we have a superman walking on water, and feeding four thousand people with a shopping bag of groceries. The Red Sea opening up to allow the 'chosen people' to cross, but the 'all loving' God deciding in his infinite wisdom to drown the pursuing Egyptians. There's a man whose hair is the secret of his immense strength. A midget slaying a giant. Talking snakes, talking bushes, a dead man coming to life, and the useful trick of turning water into wine. Pages and pages of fantasy. But, in the hands of religious fanatics, and conniving élites these tall tales create intense misery for millions of people. And the 'Separation Barrier' is a symbol of that suffering.

Another 'separation barrier' has been constructed in the 'land of the free'. This 1951 mile long wall acts as a ragged border between the United States and Mexico. The justification from the US side about why they have erected this wall is that it is to deter drug smugglers and prevent illegal immigration. On neither count can the US authorities claim any success. The US is awash with drugs, as is the rest of capitalist society, and the answer to drug abuse does not reside in the construction of a wall.

The US Border Patrol in 2005 apprehended 1.2 million people trying to cross over from Mexico, and by their own estimates they only catch 1 in 4. In a country where it is estimated that 40 percent of the population live below the poverty line, it does not take a George Bush to understand what it is that drives these people to leave their homes and families for an uncertain future in a hostile country.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), like every other trade agreement is always constructed to benefit the few to the detriment of the many. Contrary to the rhetoric of the capitalist media, NAFTA had a predictable effect on the Mexican people. The peso crashed soon after the NAFTA was passed, and those already struggling were pushed further in to penury. Economic migration became inevitable as this Oxfam report underscores:

“NAFTA has created dramatic economic dislocations in Mexico. These economic impacts, among other factors, are leading Mexicans to migrate…For example; imports of U.S. corn have severely affected the local Mexican agricultural sector. NAFTA arrangements have helped increase the imports from 3 million metric tons in 1994 to more than 5 million metric tons in 2002. Also, the brief rise in outsourced U.S. manufacturing that helped the Mexican economy has ceased as these factories have now moved to Asia” (OXFAM; USDA, Nadal, 2002).

Even the walls that once gave us a feeling of security is undermined by capitalism as the debt incurred on the commodity that people have been persuaded to call their homes, has been transformed in to four walls of anxiety through the threat of unemployment, or just a few upward ticks in interest rates. The question is how much longer are you willing to sit around and watch a tiny minority dominate your life? Why not help us to bring the walls of capitalism tumbling down? We are asking you, as Shelley, once did to:
“Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you.
Ye are many. They are few.”
Andy Matthews