What's Left?
Environmentalists and Radical Politics

Rick Williams

Dramatic changes are afoot on the world stage, and it seems that they have precipitated the political left in developed countries like Canada into a state of crisis and transformation. No dominant thinkers have come forward to define what it is we are now experiencing, or to give voice and coherence to the new aspirations which events are forcing us to search for. This doesn't mean that we are simply sliding into chaos, although it may often feel that way to many of us: as Marx observed of his own revolutionary epoch, you can't judge an age by its consciousness of itself.

Traditionally, left politics in the West has tried to raise social awareness of the root causes of exploitation and oppression and lead the struggle to democratize economic and social life. The goal of socialist political activity has been to redirect the use of the immense productive capabilities of a modern industrial society towards socially useful and rational purposes.

One major task of the left has been to challenge the dominance of those elite groups that perpetuate the status quo to protect their own positions of power and privilege. It has also tried to mobilize and educate social movements in order to expand popular control in key areas of social and economic life to build a new society “within the shell of the old.”

Throughout the post-war era, this mixture of analysis and practical political instincts has supplied the Canadian left with its basic goals and strategies. During the long economic boom that stretched into the early '70s, social democratic politics had a particularly clear focus: the massive wealth generated at the centre of the economy had to be redistributed. Workers would increase their share of the pie through unionization and collective bargaining. A continually expanding welfare state would meet the needs of the poor, the disabled and the elderly. Poorer regions would be helped along through public enterprises, and the community at large would benefit from a vast system of publicly funded services and cultural resources. A strong centralized state, an instrument of popular will, was seen as an essential counterbalance to what remained the driving force of the economy, private corporate capital.

While sharing many of the same basic values, the more radical among us rejected this “redistributionist” politics. Some saw the state as the principal enemy of workers and other oppressed groups, and so opted to work, not to influence or capture state power, but rather to undermine it. The welfare state in particular was attacked as a pervasive machine of social control.

Those with a strong grounding in Marxist theory tended to focus on the “accumulation process” those basic mechanisms of capitalist economic growth that were seen to produce ever more social, regional and international inequality even as the total amount of wealth produced grew. This radical tradition of political economy has, within the left, always provided the strongest challenge to the redistributionist politics of the NDP, supporting both the struggle to defend the “social wage” (that is, the public sector), and the vision of a strong, progressive and democratic state.

Through its critical analysis of capitalist economic growth, radical political economy has also provided some potentially important theoretical bridges to the environmental movement. But its great weakness, perhaps, has been its failure to put forward a practical political vision of how we might structure and manage an alternative economic system.

Despite wide differences on many issues, social democrats and more radical thinkers of the left have implicitly shared one fundamental perspective the certainly of future economic growth. Whether we were for redistribution or for radical restructuring, we have all assumed that expanding economic activity would generate new productive forces which could, if used rationally, provide full employment and raise living standards in the poorer regions of Canada, and even in the most impoverished nations of the world. In this region, for example. There is implicit support on the left for what a friend calls “Stalinist economics” the view that new steel mills and automobile plants are the only real antidote to our economic marginality.

All of those ideas are part of a more or less unified ideology that is now in crisis as a result of contemporary intellectual and political upheaval. Without going into great detail, I would identify three principle trends in recent history that have given rise to the crisis of the left.

The first, obviously, is the dramatic breakdown of the hegemony of the communist parties in Eastern Europe, a collapse brought on both by the failure of the system in practical economic terms and the popular struggles for democratic rights. Although few on the Canadian left have identified with the bureaucratic centralism of the Soviet model, it has always seemed significant to us that so many nations continued to reject the capitalist way of life. As these states now endeavour to restructure their political economies, there seems a strong possibility that the socialist baby may get thrown out with the Stalinist bath water. Until the real shape of “post-communism” eventually emerges, events in Eastern Europe will be a continuing public relations embarrassment for Western radicals.

The second trend leading the left to its current dilemma has been the restructuring, led by the Thatcher-Reagan-Mulroney political agenda, of the Western capitalist economies. Traditional working-class political strength has been seriously undermined by free-trade arrangements, technological change and job de-skilling, policies of high unemployment, cuts to social programmes, freezes on hiring and wages, union busting strategies and the increasing mobility of international capital. Left-wing political parties with their base in the working class have been on the defensive everywhere as capital becomes more and more unfettered and better able to set its own rules.

The third, and perhaps most interesting trend, has been the dramatic shift in the sources of creative political action and opposition in the West. Over the past decade or so, the most profound challenges to the dominant order have come not from class conflict in traditional Marxist terms clashes between industrial workers and factory owners but from struggles of groups that Marxist have often depicted as “marginal” or “unproductive”: racial and linguistic minorities, women and independent producers. Oppositional political action has also come from recently forged “single issue” political movements, most importantly the peace and environmental crusades.

The women's movement in particular has created a new ideological and practical base for political action. It has challenged the left with new values, issues, strategies and methods. Traditional working class organizations are being reformed and revitalized by the expanding presence of women, both in the workplace and the union hall. Slowly but surely, the labour movement is being revitalized by a new set of concerns and priorities that encompass personal and social issues in the community as well as in the workplace. Many old-line leftists will be dragged kicking and screaming into a non-sexist environment, but it seems clear most will get there one way or another.

The politics of the environmental movement are much more problematic: it is not yet clear how the “greens” will interact with the Canadian left and the popular movements which are its natural constituency. Environmentalism is emerging, almost as a new religion, bringing light and meaning into the lives of upper-middle class people who are burnt out after a decade of hyperconsumerism. Within the movement, with a few important exceptions, there has been little hard-edge analysis of ways to go about saving the world (the task that, in their great humility, the greens have taken upon themselves). Most environmentalists have given little serious thought to the radical economic, and therefore political, changes that their agenda is certain to require. Much work remains to be done in this area.

This challenge before the environmental movement clearly relates to the crisis of the traditional left. Each movement has something the other needs.

Environmentalist have a head start in their recognition of the poverty of growth-oriented politics and economics. They are also leading the defence against impeding ecological disaster. In doing so they have made some progress in developing a political base for green politics, mobilizing and inspiring young people and building links to native people and other threatened communities. They are clearly riding a wave of public concern and emotion, to the point where even right-wing governments and big business are finding it necessary to identify explicitly with “green-ness” and ecological consciousness.

But immense naivete remains. Veterans of the women's movement and the New Left of the ‘60s and ‘70s could teach the greens a lot about the perils of success and co-optation. The language of change, be it “peace and liberation” or “saving the planet,” quickly loses its power when it is used to obscure issues of real political conflict on the one hand, or to sell commodities on the other.

Building a different kind of economy and a green way of life will require a radically new way of making decisions in society, and some powerful vested interests are going to lose out in the deal. David Suzuki argues that we have about ten years to decide to live differently: after that we will have few real options because we will be too busy just responding to accelerating crises. French ecologist Andre Gorz foresees a new authoritarianism emerging from environmental breakdown. He sees the possibility of a new ruling class emerging, made up of scientists and technocrats who fill impose their solutions on a traumatized and forcefully controlled population.

If the long struggle for human rights and participatory democracy is not to be abandoned in the face of ecological crisis, the greens will have to develop a practical politics and build a social base. To accomplish this, they will have to plug into the socialist and feminist traditions of popular struggle and leadership through which the needs and aspirations of particular groups in particular places get linked to wider organizations and are given coherence and focus.

The greens will have to learn that while seals are important they don't vote, they don't join in protest marches and they don’t sit down together to decide how the world is to be “saved”. Human beings do all those things, and as recent events in Southern Africa and Eastern Europe so clearly prove, when people get together they can move mountains. It is time the greens stopped waiting for the mountain to come them. And when they do go to mountain, they will need a lot of other people with them if they really want to make it move.

For its part, the left's great strength has been its commitment to human freedom and development and its effectiveness in mobilizing popular movements to fight for those things. Most of what is decent and progressive about Canadian society can be attributed in one way or another to political actions that were originally inspired and led by people on the left. These same instincts and capacities now have to be focussed on the tasks of imagining and fighting for a democratic, egalitarian society that isn't dependent on ever-expanding consumption and destruction of the natural world.

The left simply must come to grips with the limits of growth. Democratization of the economy and the redistribution of wealth are still fundamental issues on which to challenge capitalist dominance, but of themselves they are insufficient. The public imagination has been seized with both the dream of a clean, healthy and safe environment, and the fear of ecological disaster. There is a growing confusion on the left about the goals of popular struggle, given the contradictions between economic growth and expanding consumerism on the one hand, and the deterioration of the natural environment and of public health and well-being on the other.

What this country needs is a new synthesis of ideas. We need to combine the popular politics and radical humanism of the socialist left, the creativity and person-to-person effectiveness of feminism, and the energy and future-mindedness of the greens. Feminism and socialism have their intellectual roots in the social sciences in understandings about how people grow, change and are affected by their social environment. The ecology movement seems to be rooted more in the natural sciences and in understanding about the strengths and limits of the bio-system as a whole. To conceive a better world, to go out and fight for it, and eventually to win it, will require a merging of all this knowledge and understanding.

I started thinking about all of this at a recent gathering of the region's labour leaders when David Suzuki addressed the delegates. At the end his speech, the audience gave him a heartfelt standing ovation. They were then given an opportunity to ask the speaker a few questions. The first person to the microphone was Donnie MacRae, a leader of the coal miners' union in Cape Breton. He said with obvious emotion that he understood now why coal mining would soon have to be phased out, but he just didn't know what he was going to say to his 2,500 union members who had no other way of making living. Suzuki was unable to offer any real help or advise.

In that questions lies the fundamental challenge facing the environmental movement how to build a broadly based popular movement for ecological transformation that does not exclude and alienate the people who make their livings in industries that pollute and destroy. Environmentalists will have to get together with the left and others if we are to find an answer to Donnie MacRae's question, and we will have to work to make his union members participants in the change rather than victims of it.

In the audience's warm response to Suzuki, I got a glimpse of a potential new role for the left in Canada and beyond. What if environmentalism became a working-class issue, a focus of broadly based popular mobilization and political action? What if we were able to merge longstanding struggles for equality, democracy and economy justice with the battle for a safe and healthy natural environment?

Well, then, number Twenty-one might just become a pretty interesting century.

This article originally appeared in the March-April 1990 issue of New Maritimes. Subscriptions are $15 for six issues, from New Maritimes, Enfield, Nova Scotia B0N 1N0.



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