If you want to be red, then don’t be green!

The Canberra Times (a daily newspaper published in Australia’s Capital Territory) has published an article by me in its Saturday edition (16th August 2008). It hasn’t gone on-line yet but I’ll add a link as soon as it does.   The letters’ section may be interesting in response to the article.

Here’s the text:

We live in strange times. Ideas that would normally be identified as belonging to the right are widely accepted as being of the left.

At a time when governments around the world are trying to convince their subjects that humanity’s carbon footprint is a catastrophic problem rather than just another measure of industrial progress, environmentalism has become a case in point. Prior to the 1970s, groups that warned the end was nigh unless people started living in harmony with nature were properly seen as being on the far right. With origins in seventeenth century romanticism and pagan ‘nature worship’, the green opposition to modern industrial society and capitalism is reactionary.

A modern left position draws on Frederick Engels’ assertion that “Humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom” occurs when humans become “the real conscious master of nature”. The left outlook has two fundamental interconnected qualities: it is on the side of the working people, the real producers in society, and it supports progress, abundance for all. This was the case for more than 100 years after the publication of ‘The Communist Manifesto’ in 1848.

I joined the left, as a young wannabe communist, in the mid-1960s. Like most around me, I opposed capitalism because it exploited people and because its pursuit of maximum profit held back the forces of production. This was standard Marxist fare. With the owners of the means of production overthrown, the working people would win their own world, one in which production would be unfettered and limited only by technological capacity and human imagination. We believed there was no excuse for poverty anywhere, especially a country like Australia with such vast natural resources. Our imaginations were on full forward and the key struggles that united us – Vietnam, conscription, capital punishment, South African rugby tours – were won by the early 1970s.

After that, like so many others, I just went along with whatever seemed to be the left position. (I could write a book about this process, and probably will one day). There was little critical appraisal of the new green movement in the early 1980s, and people like Rudolph Bahro in Germany were attempting to synthesize ‘red’ and ‘green’ outlooks. At best, this resulted in carefully selected quotes from Marx being awkwardly spliced into green tracts – but it served to fill the vacuum. I joined the Australian Conservation Foundation around 1982 but by 1990 felt embarrassed by its emotionalism and hyperbole.

A defining quality of the left is its optimism, its confidence that humanity can solve problems. Large-scale modern industry has already freed human beings in many countries from the oppression and drudgery of small-scale production and village life. And the spin-dryer has done more for women than all the spin of the greens. Modern industry has produced electrification, high performance materials (like steel alloys and synthetic fibers), safe water supply and treatment, health technologies, computers, telephones, radio, television, automobiles, aeroplanes and freeways.

The problem is not large-scale industry but alienation which was, and is, due to people not having any sense of ownership over what they produce. Capitalist social relations, in which socially-produced wealth is privately appropriated, is the problem, not big industry. The greens adopt classical romantic notions about the pre-industrial era when people produced a ‘whole product’. They say ‘small is beautiful’ but ignore the fact that, prior to modern industrial society, workers had no leisure time, life expectancy was less than half was it is now, people rarely moved beyond their village, they died from minor infections that are cured by drugs purchased over the counter today and they lived in superstitious ignorance with no real choices in life.

Large-scale industry created material affluence and leisure time, something that benefits the working class more than the established leisured class. And it created the need for literacy and education for the workers. Such a working class has the potential to one day realize that it doesn’t need the historically redundant capitalists to organize production. Leftists celebrate these achievements with the same enthusiasm that Marx displayed for the Industrial Revolution. The achievements of the new bourgeoisie, he said, “accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals”. He rightly welcomed this disharmony to nature and society because it was creating the preconditions for a better world.

The green outlook, by contrast, is basically submissive: humans must submit to the power of nature and not disturb its order. It is also essentially religious: a new version of the ancient idea that we humans need to be contrite, aware of our sins, answerable to something above us (in this case nature or “the planet”), or else that ‘something-above-us’ will strike us down.

This is antithetical to the leftwing approach to life that bows before no gods and wants to see humanity make an even bigger leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.


3 Responses to “If you want to be red, then don’t be green!”

  1. 1 Doug1943

    If, as someone said, being determines consciousness, perhaps the anti-modernist sentiment in the advanced countries just reflects the boredom and unhappiness of disappointed former radicals deprived of a cause?Apparently, in the Third World, which carries on entering modernity, the outlook is more sunny. They seem to believe in a Bright Future, so to speak.According to a Pew Global Attitudes poll last year:
    “The planet is a happier place these days, at least in many parts of the world where incomes are low and life is tough … but economies are improving. In particular, as economic growth has surged in much of Latin America, East Europe and Asia over the past five years, people are expressing greater satisfaction with their personal lives, family incomes and national conditions. The picture is considerably different in most advanced nations, where per capita GDP gains have been less robust and citizen satisfaction has changed little since 2002.
    The Pew Global Attitudes Project’s 47-nation survey finds that measures of personal and economic satisfaction remain modest in the developing world when compared with measures for advanced nations, but this gap has narrowed. The increasing contentment in developing nations is clearly correlated with sizable increases in per capita gross domestic product that, in most cases, far outpaced the rate of growth prior to 2002.”

  2. 2 byork

    Thanks for your comment Doug, especially for the Pew poll. The mainstream debate seems to be between those who think we have reached the pinnacle of our capacity for effective production and mass consumption on one hand and, on the other, those who think we have gone too far with it all. What is missing is the political imagination that allows for commitment to a better future, with even more stuff for more people, plus greater individual free time to do what we like. This failure of imagination means that the pseudo-left is openly reactionary, harking after previous times and endlessly complaining about change in the world, while for the right it means ‘staying the course’ with the existing social relations. My article in the ‘Canberra Times’ provoked one critical reply in the letters’ page but I have personally received two responses that were basically favourable; both surprised me as I would have expected the individuals concerned to have been hostile. This is extremely scant experience but I frequently find in personal discussion that a lot of people are just not familiar with the anti-green left critique and confuse the green outlook with a left-wing one. I have found people quite open-minded to the pro-development position explained in left terms, including the critique that says progress is held back by capitalism in the advanced countries and we need to advance beyond the profit motive into a system based on genuine free enterprise for all. Barry

  3. 3 keza

    I think that the anti- modernist sentiment in advanced countries does reflect boredom and unhappiness, but in only a tiny number of cases would it be   a matter of “former radicals deprived of a cause”.  We are talking of a groundswell of mass alienation here.  The negative role of “former radicals” is due to the lack of any decent Left.  This has allowed the groundswell to be captured by various reactionary elements (including “former radicals”) and fed back in anti-modernist clothing.

    In the developing world people are more optimistic (except in the worst places, presumably) because they can see things changing in a positive direction and often they feel part of this. People in the developed world are not having a similar experience.  Some time in the mid 1990s,  I remember looking into statistics on depression and discovering  that the prevalence of depression is far higher in parts of the world where people have apparently “got it good” (relative to the rest of the world).  Of course, in the developing world,  people don’t have the luxury of being diagnosed with depression, so the statistics could be misleading.  However my (little bit) of research was prompted by contact with a Turkish psychologist who was here (in Australia) to compare rates of depression between Australia and Turkey. She did have some information on depression in parts of Turkey where things were pretty bad (socially and economically)  and it was clear from her data that despite this, there appeared to be a much lower rate of mood disorders.

    The dissatisfaction of people in the West does have a real material basis.  I’m of the view that on a personal level, people become depressed when they feel powerless.  If nothing you do seems to have any positive effect, a hopelessness sets  in. I quite like Martin Seligman’s notion of “learned helplessness” as an explanation of depression. And I think that this can be extended to the social level.

    Yes, we have democracy, the rule of law and a standard of living which was inconceivable at the beginning of the 20th century, but there is still widespread dissatisfaction, often manifested as cynicism.  There isn’t much sense that things here are moving in a positive direction.  And I think that this is because the movement in a positive direction is subjectively slow and that people do lack a sense of their own agency in any of it (and they are largely correct in this).

    The anti-modernity movement tells people that this sense of malaise is all the result of rapid development, consumerism etc. And at the same time the Green anti-modernity movement taps into the lack of a sense of personal agency by pushing ideas of “self-sufficiency” …..  suggesting that we can escape our alienation by building water tanks for ourselves, generating our own electricity by going solar, growing organic veges etc. It also sidetracks people into engaging in “feel good” activities to “save the planet” etc. (People do things like taking part in a mass switching off of lights, and even feel proud of themselves for ‘doing without’ and being more green and virtuous than their neighbours and friends. It’s quite religious really…

    Unless there is some movement which gives people a sense that they can push things forward (and not backward!) by their own actions, I think that we will be stuck with political attitudes which are based on fear, cynicism, a misguided opposition to modernity and even a reluctance to support the democratic revolution and modernity in the developing world.

    Pseudo- leftism teaches people to see themselves as powerless victims and to actually abdicate any real responsibility.   The general attitude is that the best we can hope for is a government which takes care of us better, protects us from evil, gives us a bit more pocket money. It’s very adolescent really – all about protesting and whining about how bad things are…..

    We need to defend bourgeois democracy against those who  make ridiculous claims that it is hardly worth anything and is actually just some sort of cover for fascism,  while at the same time not coming over as complacent about the way in which most people (in the advanced world) see the electoral process as a charade which is not something they can engage with. 

    I’m not very clear about any of this. But I know that we need to be optimistic about the future and about people themselves.  Cynicism,  despair , lack of confidence in the future, fear of progress, are all obstacles to mobilising people to make things better -in the developed world or anywhere else.

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