there’s an important debate in the latest edition of turbulence over which demands should be put forward by the ecology movement:
turbulence co-editor Tadzio Mueller and former German Green Party European MP Frieder Otto Wolf dispute over whether there exists a progressive kernel within the proposal for a Green New Deal… whether it can be considered a transitional set of demands for the Left.
Tadzio begins by pointing out that endless growth, a defining characteristic of capitalism, is at the heart of the ecological crisis (what Tadzio calls the ‘biocrisis’). the continuous need for profit by capital means that capital must seek out, develop and invest in new productive forces creating an increasing demand on natural resources at a growing rate.
the Green New Deal, Tadzio argues, in the middle of the current capitalist crisis, would only jump start capitalism with new, so-called ‘green’ technologies that don’t fundamentally change the aforementioned social and economic characteristics of capitalism. any energy (capital) that is saved through these technologies would just be reinvested anyway. the dominance of Clean Development Mechanisms as the ruling class method for addressing climate change is evidence of this. under any Green New Deal the ecological contradiction of capitalism would go unaltered.
Frieder, on the other hand, responds that the current crisis presents the unique opportunity to inject ecological demands into capitalist recomposition that address both its social and economic dimensions. short of world revolution, capitalism will, by the end of the crisis, reconstitute itself, so it is best to get what concessions the ecology movement can for the time being. behind his approach is Frieder’s lamentation over the worldwide weakness of the Left.
Tadzio rejoins that Roosevelt’s New Deal was not a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ between politicians and economists. it was a maneuver by the ruling class to coopt a powerful and vibrant working class movement centered around the CIO. without such a movement, there are almost no possibilities of wresting any concessions from the rulers.
what’s in a transitional method?
this is important, and worth exploring more. the crisis of working class power, self-activity and organization cannot simply be lamented and left behind. it needs to remain at the center of any discussion of transitional demands.
Trotsky’s Transitional Program is helpful for thinking through this. written in 1938, this document takes up this issue of working class self-activity… well, sort of. Trotsky and his comrades thought the problem was a crisis of the “right” type of vanguard leadership of the working class. (it’s worth asking how much Trotskyist visions of socialism has historically differed from Stalinist rule-from-above, but not here.) communists of all stripes were working through the contradiction between powerful working class movements, and the Stalinist parties and bureaucracies that coopted them.
rejecting Trotskyism’s vanguardist aspirations, though, this crisis can still be broadly understood as one of working class self-activity and organization. without adopting the whole Program or Trotskyism per se, a transitional method can still be distilled through engaging with this document.
the Transitional Programs addressed this crisis in two ways. first, the demands presented in the program were as much demands on the working classes themselves as they were on the rulers. Trotsky understood that era of capitalism to be one of decadence and decline. in the middle of a crisis, the rulers could not grant even the most meager reforms. if the workers were going to win anything they would have to organize and fight for it against both the rulers and the Stalinist parties.
Stalinist parties vacillated from subordinating and hindering working class movements themselves to the liberal wings of capital in the US and Europe, to attempting to co-opt working class movements in order to defense Soviet state capitalism. far from fighting for any alternative to capitalism, this brake on working class militancy and self-activity needed to be broken.
in the Program, Trotsky proposed forming workers’ councils and defense militias, pushing for working class control over social and industrial institutions and services that would not by themselves spell the end of capitalism. this was the second way the Program addressed working class self-activity. through self-managing these industries and services, Trotsky believed, the workers would be teaching themselves to manage production and services on a local, national and global scale, breaking down the capitalist division between mental and manual labor.
the division between mental and manual labor is part of the laws of capitalist organization and domination. it breaks down and reduces the complexity of the social organization of production involved in the daily recreation of society into individualized tasks. without the freedom to understand the entire process of production and shape it — self-manage it — as they see fit, workers and everyday people are degraded and alienated from their work and their lives. tasks and aspects of our lives are compartmentalized so that the rulers reduce it to a cost-effective minimum, and better manage us by keeping us in the dark while degrading our human potential.
but just like individual human beings and the social world in general, the ecology of the biological world is far to complex to managed by one or few homogenizing bureaucracies that degrade the expression of life to a narrow set of uses. the developmental connections within both the social and biological realms extend beyond the narrow set of uses and logic of capitalism. biological and social life require freedom and spontaneity to realize their potentiality throughout the entire complex connections required to sustain life.
capitalism pits the needs of the (capitalist) social world against the needs of complexity, diversity and freedom by the biological realm. if the ecological crisis is rooted in capitalist social organization — manifest capital’s need for endless growth — then the laws of capitalist domination must be challenged and broken, including the ecological divide.
despite the problems of anti-consumerist politics, it raises an important point by begging people to look beyond the immediate commodity and recognize the social forms — and we can add to that the ecological forms — of domination that went into its production. in contradistinction to the advocates of consumerist politics, the goal and success of these campaigns should not hinge on whether or not you or i buy something, but on the self–emancipation of the oppressed.
both Tadzio and Frieder agree that the Left is extremely weak. if this is going to change, and if we hope to reach any chance of making transitional gains these crises of working self-activity need to be addressed. through struggle people develop both their confidence and capacities for self-governance. working class self-governance and the breaking out of a new ecological society are tied together at the hip. self-emancipation needs to be tied the ecological crisis in practice, not just in rhetoric.
planting the seeds & charging forward
this makes an aspect of Frieder’s position worth considering: if, in the middle of an economic crisis, people are facing rising unemployment, won’t people want jobs? can we tie the fight for jobs and the development of the self-activity, consciousness and self-organization of the working classes to both worker & community control, and sustainable, ecological development?
i think we can, but the key question is “on what terms?” it’s a question of how people become politicized. thinking along the objective terms that Trotsky laid out might mean strategically building autonomous worker and community organizations in key sectors that call into question capitalist development and ecological sustainability at the same time. the demand for climate reparations falls into this category, but i would go further to encourage organizing agricultural workers, sanitation workers and transit & transport workers.
for example, city bus drivers fighting job and shift cuts should connect their struggle to that against US Empire’s occupation of Iraq and control over its oil reserves. the struggles should be connected to everyday people learning the ecological aspects of the entire process of production, and contribute towards thinking and learning how to plan differently. perhaps this can be described as moving against the ecological alienation from the natural conditions of human existence.
the Program also aimed to break down divisions within the working class; building bus rider unions and community recycling groups to break down the workplace-community divide… community coops in this sense linked with concrete struggles pose question of community control, and raise the issue of production for use or production for profit — at the heart of capitalist growth
fighting for jobs, benefits and wages in these sectors will, without world revolution, be part of some form of capitalist expansion. it’s worth noting that many of these sectors have been attacked and underdeveloped for years, which raises the question of the state of Third World peoples. shouldn’t they have a right to develop ecologically infrastructure and ecological technology? these are questions and comments i pose to Tadzio in response to his demand for ‘degrowth’.
‘degrowth’ is an interesting demand, though, because it does not imply an end to production or industrial society altogether as would the anti-civilization primitivists. by extension, this also does not rule out the technological and infrastructural reorganization of society that needs to take place if we’re to live in an ecological society. but, how is this accomplished concretely? can we lay the groundwork for this reorganization today in a set of transitional demands?
in contrast to the Green New Deal, Tadzio, along with Climate Justice Action, presents an alternative set of demands:
- leaving fossil fuels in the ground
- socialising and decentralising energy
- relocalising our food production
- recognising and repaying ecological and climate debt
- respecting indigenous peoples’ rights
- regenerating our eco-systems
the question is, do these demands take up the issues of 1) building working class power through autonomous workplace, school or community organizations that raise the questions of democratic control and ecological sustainability, and 2) building popular democratic control at particular sites of struggle pertinent for laying the foundations of an ecological new society.
in regards to the first issue, it’s unclear to me if ‘respecting,’ ‘relocalising’ and ‘repaying’ translate into posing the possibility of direct democratic control. this would mean not simply building autonomous organizations, but also challenging rule from above with popular control from below. for instance, it’s not enough that climate debt be repaid, but it must be put under the charge of students, workers and community member, not the rulers and aspiring capitalists of oppressed nations.
some of these ideas, however, such as localization, certainly contribute towards an ecological polemic against state socialists who drone on about the need for vast capitalist development and state planning, but how do they pose the possibility of direct democratic control in contrast to the ecological devastation of capitalism? these are questions of organization, strategy, tactics and philosophy.
at the center of this debate stands the question, “what is the uniquely ecological content of an anti-capitalist movement?” this, i believe, is why Tadzio centers in on ‘degrowth’ and what the demands of CJA attempt to outline. do they succeed? is a transitional program for the ecology movement even possible, or do we just need to wait for world revolution?
ultimately, all of these demands warrant further discussion in terms of both their content and organizational efficacy.