Chris Harman

Dialectically speaking

Tories turn green

(December 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.115, December 1988, p.13.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

ON THE face of it Thatcher’s sudden attempt to make capital out of green issues is quite amazing. The arch priestess of deregulation is now also trying to present herself as concerned about the effects of unregulated industrial processes on the environment.

For years her government resisted pressures to introduce lead free petrol, slowed down international efforts to restrict the use of ozone layer-destroying CFCs and denied British power stations had anything to do with acid rain in Germany and Scandinavia.

But it is not only Thatcher who is adopting a contradictory position on these questions. So are the great majority of political and social commentators, including those on the left. In virtually any copy of the New Statesman or Marxism Today you can read calls for a new left politics which is both to embrace the market wholeheartedly and to take ecological questions seriously.

Yet reliance on the market means leaving the development of production to the uncoordinated efforts of competing owners of the means of production. Each will use whatever methods are most remunerative, regardless of their impact on the environment in which they all operate. Even when a state eventually steps in to bar certain processes as dangerous or polluting, this will not stop them searching for new and potentially even more dangerous processes.

This inextricable link between production for the market and the creation of intolerable environmental conditions is not some recent discovery. Engels showed in his pioneering work The Condition of the Working Class in England, written in the mid 1840s, how capitalist industrialisation was leading to appalling conditions in the major cities. Marx in Capital shows again and again how the drive for markets leads to the adulteration of foodstuffs as well as the exposure of people to the most dangerous working practices.

Marx and Engels are often depicted as being “out of date” because they wrote more than a century ago. In this instance, as in so many others, what they grasped about industrial capitalism in its youth on the western fringes of Europe is even more relevant today after its expansion to encompass virtually the whole, world.

In Engels’ day the fumes from a relatively small number of industrial enterprises soured the atmosphere of Manchester; today, as factories in Chicago and Calcutta, Moscow and Milan, Seoul and Shanghai pour out pollutants, the result is the Greenhouse effect, or even the Chernobyl effect.

The threats these pose to the very prospect of human life on this planet has inevitably caused an awareness of environmental issues among people who do not yet see the connection with capitalism as a system. It could not be otherwise. People always take time and much argument to move from anger at particular effects to an understanding of the causes behind them.

Unfortunately, the movement is not always one way. A partial view of the dangers facing humanity can lead to the elaboration of viewpoints which base themselves on seeing things in isolation.

So it is with many people whose political activity starts from a concern with the environment. They draw the conclusion that it is not a particular form of human production, capitalism, which leads to disaster, but any form of human action to change the world. For that involves interfering with naturally occurring ecosystems (or as one proponent of this view put it to me, “raping mother earth”) in a way that can only rebound on us.

Strangely enough, it is a view which parallels in some ways Thatcherism. While she preaches the impossibility of intervening to control market forces, they preach the impossibility of intervening to control natural ones. In both cases, we are told that if we could only leave everything alone, things would work out harmoniously.

The trouble is that nature is no more harmonious in its totality than is capitalism. It is continually undergoing changes, and these can, on occasions, have a catastrophic impact on particular species. The dinosaurs may have lived “at one” with nature for many millions of years; that did not stop their eventual eradication!

The human species itself is a product of natural transformations which enabled a certain group of biped mammals to prosper rather than others. And like many other species, it could not develop without transforming the conditions for the rest of the “natural world” (killing some off in the search for food, providing habitats in which others could prosper as never before). It is not this or that thing we do which is an “interference” with old ecosystems, but our very existence.

It is a vague recognition of this point which leads some ecological fundamentalists to the most anti-human forms of mysticism – to the contention that human beings as such are bad and that all that matters is the preservation of other species, even if the price of doing so is the destruction of the conditions of life for much of the rest of humanity.

It is difficult to see what else is meant when certain greens denounce the culling of predators that live off the foodstuffs of, say, native Americans on the north eastern coast, or when they attack “artificial” farming methods which mean that agriculture in Britain today can feed ten times as many people as in the thirteenth century.

There is only one way to avoid being pushed in this sort of direction. It is to recognise the inevitability of human action to change nature, but then to insist upon a rational organisation of this action, based on an open, informed, scientific and democratic discussion of its consequences.

It is not less human intervention we need, but more – intervention that enables human beings consciously to control their own social labour (and therefore their interaction with nature) on a world scale, instead of leaving it to the blind workings of the market.

Last updated on 15 April 2010