Being a consideration of the ways in which the radical critique of the Green Party hath been suborned and subjugated by the evil dominion of wrong-minded persons who hath evil intent
A pamphlet in traditional style by
Molly Scott Cato
All We Like Sheep
Le Chatelier’s Principle: When a constraint is applied to a system in equilibrium the system undergoes a change to oppose the constraint and thus restore equilibrium.
Chemical Thermodynamics, J. A. V. Butler, 1927.
Should we be supporting Local Agenda 21? Are we not overjoyed that the Labour Party have adopted an anti-roads transport policy? Is eco-labelling a good thing? Isn’t it exciting that Alan Beith has put forward the Energy Conservation Bill as a private members’ bill? Surely the ecological imperative has become an important force guiding contemporary politics?
Ten years ago in Green Party circles these questions would have been subjected to scepticism, and the majority response to them would probably have been a negative one. Yet today, those of us who are suspicious of the apparent acceptability not to say ubiquity of Green thinking are spurned and dismissed by the very same people. Five years ago the Green Party would have placed these questions in the same category as catalytic converters and biologically friendly washing powder.
Yet today’s Green Party welcomes the sustainable development initiatives being talked up by the great and the good. Those who urge caution and who remind us of the radical agenda are hushed. The voices which dominate speak excitedly of coalition-building, of approval from environmental pressure groups.
For the Green movement the history of the 1980s was one of progress from the loony fringe to the centre-stage. Ideas which were once mocked or ignored are now being discussed by Jonathon Porritt and John Major at round table discussions at No. 10. And many within that movement are congratulating themselves at this success in achieving a place for the ecological crisis on the political agenda.
In reality, this is in itself an unsurprising victory and one which it is disingenuous of us to claim as our own. After the disasters of Bhopal and Chernobyl and with an increasing number of scientists coming to believe in phenomena such as global warming and ozone depletion it was clear to politicians the world over that the destruction wrought by industrialization could no longer be ignored. They must adapt or perish.
The interesting question is not why those in power decided to accept the ecological crisis–in this they really had little choice–the interesting question is how they decided to respond and manage the anger and potential social unrest which the ecological crisis had given rise to. What we in the Green Party have to decide is whether we are still setting the pace of political criticism, or simply being managed.
The first response of the establishment to irrefutable proof of environmental degradation was to suggest that science would find an answer. None of us bought this. We were rightly sceptical of Thatcher’s photo opportunities in which she, donning a white coat to convey an appropriate emotional message, reassured us with talk of a techno-fix.
The second response was more subtle and more invidious. Now the wolf sheds its white coat to replace it with sheep’s clothing. We are welcomed into the corridors of power. In our naivety we believe that those in power have been convinced by the rightness of our arguments. With a sense of pride and vindication we embroil ourselves in the political system; like lambs to the slaughter. We do not question the volte-face performed by notoriously unresponsive bureaucratic institutions. We do not wonder why they should be interested in a political message which, in its holistic form, strikes at the very root of their power.
When I think of the movement from the first response to the second I think of the conversion of Margaret Thatcher by Crispin Tickell. I wonder what words the latter murmured which convinced the termagant to abandon years of intransigent opposition to the environmentalist position. I imagine it had something to do with the fact that the acceptance that industrial processes were environmentally damaging was inevitable. Given this wouldn’t she rather be the one who devised the solutions?
And this is exactly what has happened. Those lunatics have taken over our asylum. It isn’t that they have only taken on the parts of our message which are compatible with their view of the world. It is rather that they have kidnapped our beautiful, holistic, and pure critique of capitalism and all its works and perverted and corrupted it. We have not had anything taken away from us but rather are left holding something we no longer recognize as our own. Our policy of no growth has been subtly replaced with `sustainable development’. Rather than a fundamental critique of the industrial system we are arguing for growth in areas which are eco-friendly. But capitalism is still capitalism, even if the workers are making insulation materials, or masks for urban cyclists. Industrial manufacture is still alien and alienating; its workers are still disempowered;
Surely, though, it is churlish to bite the hand that feeds, even when we suspect it might be a wolf’s paw. How rude of us not to feel grateful to these important, powerful people for listening to our humble ideas. How insidious and inevitable the process of cultural absorption is. If John Major invited you to dinner at Chequers to discuss your particular Green hobby-horse would you actually be physically able to tell him to fuck off?
We should all practice it in the mirror before bedtime, because what we are being sold here, if I may continue my mixture of animal metaphors, is a pig in a poke. The acculturation of the environmentalist view of the world (by which I mean its absorption into and perversion by mainstream culture) began with the Brundtland Report Our Common Future published in 1987. The spin on this, and all subsequent publications and conferences in this vein, including the UK Government’s response This Common Inheritance is that we are all in this together. Like the myth of the Second World War, where newsreel footage of the King and Queen visiting the East End bomb-sites was spliced with pictures of their own palace in ruins (or one wing of it at least), we are being subtly informed that we share common responsibility for the problems and that we must all join in solving them.
This is wrong on two counts. First, we, meaning Joe and Joanna Bloggs, are not responsible. We didn’t ask for factories making Mr Blobby puppets, or for the advertising which persuaded our children to nag us to buy the same repulsive item one evening when, after returning home from the factory making Sindy dolls or perhaps even Mr Blobby puppets, we were too tired to refuse. The destructive cycle of manufacture, advertising, and consumption of worthless and environmentally destructive items is not the fault of you and me. It is a cycle which is created and maintained by those who gain from it. If all we gain is Mr Blobby puppets it is hardly in our interest to perpetuate the system.
Second the planet Earth is not a common inheritance. If it were perhaps I could ask to become the heir of the Duke of Westminster or the Sultan of Brunei. The 1993 Green Party strategy paper `A Basis for Renewal’ restated the commitment which has always been at the heart of Green political philosophy: that social and environmental crises are inextricably linked. A deep understanding of the ecological crisis demands a response with tumultuous social consequences.
But the powerful members of governments and world institutions were there before us. They had seen the potential for social upheaval inherent in the ecological critique. Their attempt to convince us that the Earth is a `common inheritance’ is their attempt to subvert this potential. For the reality is that the world was owned by the few before any of us were born. In the North many of us manage, through good fortune or hard, soul-destroying work, to claw back a part of what should be our `common inheritance’. In the South, by contrast, it is clear that a stake in the planet is not an issue for the vast majority, and yet these people are also asked to play their part, in fact in many cases the most self-sacrificing part, in the united struggle to save the planet.
Our lovely and yet fragile planet Earth. The propaganda which has accompanied the acceptance into the mainstream of a bastardized version of the ecological critique has been replete with emotional images of this blue jewel, hanging in the dark and barren wasteland of space. How lonely and vulnerable it makes us feel. And how open we are therefore left to those in power who tell us that they are now going to sort it out. We relax and fall back with gratitude into our culturally acceptable trust of the government and its authority. Like teenagers, we always felt rather ambivalent about our rebellion against the industrial state. What a sense of comfort there is in realizing that its leaders have accepted that we were right. We can all be on the same side now.
Again we can draw an analogy with the situation during the Second World War. The propaganda suggested that we were all in it together, that we were all a big happy family, that times might be hard but if we all tightened our belts and kept a stiff upper lip we would have Jerry on the run. Behind these myths the political reality was of a country with a population whose lives were controlled in every detail, down to the amount of different types of food they could eat. The fear of invasion and death (in this case genuine fears) were used to justify paternalistic and authoritarian government. And the fear engendered by the environmental crisis has, perhaps not accidentally, coincided with a period of increasingly authoritarian and unresponsive government. Fear of environmental collapse and of financial hardship are being used to undermine both the ecological and the socialist critique.
Our abandonment of opposition to the prevailing power structure has become so prevalent that it now infects our view of our own party. Our local councillors tell us we should follow procedures they follow in their council chambers. The Green way of politics criticizes local councils for their disempowering and unrepresentative systems: so why should we model ourselves on them? We are all rejoicing that a bill drawn up by the Green Party has been given a reading in parliament. In a parliament we would abolish because it is unrepresentative and corrupt.
We have become absorbed into the culture of deference which we grew up with in our schools and probably our homes. We relax in the knowledge that mummy and daddy will sort it out. We are pleased to see our own dear Jonathon, who may be an Old Etonian and a Lord, but is still a right-thinking person, and his close associate Prince Charles, worthily intoning the value of the Earth Summit and UNEP-UK. This organization has aptly been characterized as a Blue Peter outfit. Its response to the ecological crisis reminds me of the joke about the Blue Peter guide to playing the flute: you just blow through it and move your fingers up and down the outside.
So what is to be done? What role is left now that politicians the world over are claiming `We’re all Greenies now’? Perhaps we should retreat, with a sense of a job well done, back to our spinning or our organic vegetable plots? Perhaps we should join the Local Agenda 21 groups and make friends with local businessmen. I hope not. It seems to me that now more than ever is the time when we should preserve our true and holistic Green vision, and snatch back, from the jaws of the wolf itself, what remains of the ecological age.
Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge, 1972.
U. Beck, S. Lasch, and A. Giddens, Theories of Reflexive Modernisation, Cambridge, 1994.
Frederique Apfel Marglin and Stephen Marglin, Dominating Knowledge: Development, Culture, and Resistance, Oxford, 1990.
Stephen Lukes, Power: A Radical View, London, 1974.
Doris Lessing, The Good Terrorist, London, 1985.
A. Callinicos, Althusser’s Marxism, London, 1976.
Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, London, 1983.