What we cannot avoid

Jeremy Seabrook surveys a political landscape riven with virulent nostalgias which obscure an essential conflict – how to reconcile the needs of the planet with the necessities of economics?

Illustration: Peter Reynolds

The great ideological divide in the world between capital and labour has been overtaken by an even more urgent conflict. This is the dispute between the defenders of global industrial society and those who defend the rapidly depleting resource-base of the planet and all who depend on it. The spaces between an ever-expanding economy and the living, breathing earth have been choked by continuous economic growth.

This is not, of course, to underestimate the familiar gulf between rich and poor. That would be irresponsible, when the eight richest men in the world (and they are all men) possess wealth equal to the poorest 3.7 billion people on the planet. Such a gap could be closed, were the $80 trillion ‘global product’ (as estimated by the World Economic Forum for 2018) shared more fairly; but this would do nothing to halt the contamination of the biosphere by irreversible industrial processes.

Existing political parties do not deny this. They are quick to own what they call ‘green issues’, ‘environmentalism’, even ‘the ecological crisis’. The great falsehood is their claim to be able to deal with it within the system that caused it.

The actors within this deeper ideological split have made their roles clear. Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and their supporters see in the laissez-faire of free markets and perpetual economic growth answers to all human ills. For them global warming, resource-depletion and species extinction are either fictions or the necessary price of progress. They face campaigns by indigenous peoples against corporate invasion of the habitats they have sustained for millennia, and ecological and internationalist movements for the defence of cultures, languages, spaces and species threatened with extinction; a threat created by the system that has caused all the radical discontinuities in the world.

Occasionally, this clash of forces expresses itself within the existing electoral process. Elections in the German state of Hesse in 2018, in which the two main parties ceded ground to the Greens and to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, far from being an aberration, actually presage the future of political conflict. This was in part confirmed by the elections for the European Union Parliament in 2019, where both Greens and racists gained ground. This is part of a developing process, which has yet to define itself with the clarity that the more familiar division of the disputatious partners of capitalist society (capital and labour) achieved long ago, and which masks the more recent cleavage, albeit in an increasingly threadbare way.

The rise of nationalistic, xenophobic and overtly racist parties on the one hand, and of Greens and internationalists on the other, should not be interpreted as a consequence of popular ‘disenchantment’ or ‘disillusionment’ with the old parties – anyone who was enchanted by them or under any illusions about them, at least within living memory, must be part of a small and eccentric minority. It is because fewer people recognize their interests in these ossified political groups that disengagement from what is sometimes still called ‘mainstream politics’ has occurred. For a long time this was called ‘apathy’ by politicians. It is no such thing. It is a state of withdrawal, an antechamber to future commitment to whatever will seize the heart and imagination of the people.

It is not that what are euphemistically called ‘green issues’ have been ignored. But no effort has been spared to drag these onto existing discourse, so that they remain subordinated to the apparently greater importance of a sacralized ‘economy’ and the material, social and moral advantages which are supposed to derive from it. And indeed, the passion engendered by attempts to mitigate global warming demonstrates a widespread recognition of the gravity of the situation. But even this does not place the integrity of climate, the safeguarding of planetary diversity and the survival of species and life-forms at the centre of ideological debate.

The heating of the earth’s atmosphere appears to lend itself to technical solutions, and thus the belief that it can be contained within the existing paradigm. It is, however, significant that what was seen initially as a problem of the lifestyle of the rich (over-consumption, waste and pollution, as exemplified in the Club of Rome report ‘The Limits to Growth’ in 1972) has been transformed over the years into ‘anthropogenic activity’, which makes it the responsibility of all humankind, even the poorest.

Limping behind

The ecological imperative is no temporary diversion. If Greens have been successfully marginalized as an embodiment of ‘fringe’ or ‘single issue’ politics, this is precisely because, foreshadowing struggles to come, they are in the vanguard of the politics of globalism. Politics always limps behind economic and social realities: it took generations before organized labour achieved power in the industrial era. The ‘real’ Britain lingered in an imagery of sunny cornfields, autumn hedgerows red and black with hawthorn and elderberries, dairy-churns in frosty farmhouses and harvest suppers, even when large tracts of the country were blackened pit-villages, city slums and urban desolation.

Similarly, post-manufacturing Britain is still haunted by memories of its historic industrial function, even as the mills fell silent and factories collapsed in rubble and splintered glass. Just as the possibilities of socialism were slow to show themselves, so the politics of a global industrial system, in which the making of necessary and useful objects has deserted the ‘developed’ world in order to set up its oppressive compulsions elsewhere, has also been shy to show itself – not least because local nationalisms and parochialisms have hidden producers and consumers from each other.

Rich societies have been able to talk of ‘post-industrial society’, ‘a service economy’, a ‘knowledge-based society’, because their dependence for the necessities of life has been outsourced to unvisited sites of manufacture in the South. If we have been complacent in acknowledging the most remarkable ideological division confronting us, how much more grudging will be our recognition of the implications of this.

It is quite clear why the internal clash of interests within industrial society has for so long been an overwhelming ideological preoccupation. The existence of a working class called into being by capitalism was from the start inimical to the necessities of capital: from the Luddites to the arson and agitation against threshing machines, the Combination Laws (which for 20 years from 1799 forbade any ‘combination’ of workers), the Rebecca riots, the Plug riots, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Hungry Forties, the long Depression after 1873, the great socialist demonstrations at the end of the 19th century, the formation of the Labour and Communist Parties, the 1914-18 war, the general strike, the Depression, the war against Nazism, the less than permanent settlement of 1945, the miners’ strikes, Mrs Thatcher’s ‘enemy within’, the collapse of the Soviet Union – who had time or energy to worry about anything beyond these epic dramas, for which the planet appeared to be simply decor, mute setting and witness of events?

Fabulous prosperity

The long-term response of capitalist society to an early threat to its existence – the menace of a socialism which would expropriate the excesses of the rich and deploy these to raise up those who had laboured in poverty – was the creation of a form of affluence which in industrial society muted criticism and brought a majority of the people within its embrace. This appeared not only to have reconciled a sometimes mutinous working population to the system which had given it birth in such pain and grief in the early industrial era, but also to end the melancholy certainties of a socialism which would have forcefully divested privilege of its advantages for the sake of the excluded toilers of industry.

Indeed, the existence of the workers’ state, the Soviet Union, which had promised so much, and yet could provide only the most clumsy imitation of the cornucopia which spilled from the productive – and highly imaginative – technological advances of the West, was undermined by its inability to compete.

After 1945, economic breakdown was seen to have been the source of the evil that had engulfed the centre of what liked to think of itself, not only as European, but as world civilization; it was vital to ensure that no such horrific taint should ever recur. Rehabilitation of capitalism was a priority and, accordingly, this became the hour of economic miracles and wonders, designed – not without success with the passage of time –to erase all memory of what had gone before.

In spite of this, the West could never be quite sure that the Soviet Union would not provide both plenty and social justice to its captive peoples; particularly when so many countries liberated from European colonialism, as well as China, also declared their commitment to socialism. When, in 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first space satellite, alarm was expressed at the possible permanent advantage the USSR might gain over the West; a possibility enhanced when Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space in 1961.

The West diffused a global iconography of fabulous prosperity, both as a signal of profound penitence to formerly colonized territories, which were promised they could ‘become like us’ if they followed the prescriptions offered by the Bretton Woods institutions, and also to eclipse the hollow promises of its ideological rival. In the West, constructed upon a secure edifice of the welfare state, the affluent society was born. But like many initiatives embarked upon to serve a particular purpose, the abundance of the West created a profound dependency in its own people and, in doing so, took on a life of its own. Values introduced into an alien context wither and perish as readily as transplanted flowers.

Western prosperity became affluence, and this swiftly turned into an unstoppable consumerism, a cult which has now overrun the world and has fed prodigious growth in many countries until recently reduced to the ordinal number ‘Third’. It has exacerbated the menace of global warming, destabilized whole populations, set in train great one-way migrations of our time, and led to new extinctions and the spectre of ecocide.

Squandered resourcefulness

Following these developments, politics ought, perhaps, to have gone far beyond the ritual procedures that evolved in the 19th and early 20th centuries and the slow and ponderous ‘reforms’ enacted by a self-congratulatory West. The constraints of globalism have forced ‘local’ (ie national) governments to forfeit some of their power, while a single worldwide economy has placed the peoples of the world into new ideological, economic and moral relationships with each other, antagonisms as well potential alliances.

These can no longer be contained within the diminished, decorous dance of social- or Christian-democratic or liberal parties as constituted in those countries which have constantly advertised their own democracy, one of their principal moral and cultural exports. ‘Choices’ offered by this version of democracy no longer correspond to the possibilities and perplexities in the world, since the cleavage between an indefinite continuation of the existing order, and the dramatic breach with it required for the sake of survival, is no longer to be found within the imaginative capacity of capitalism, however ample and inventive this has proved in the past. Perhaps the resourcefulness of capitalism, like the material resources it has devoured, is also close to exhaustion.

Socialism was predicated upon the possibility, not of an alternative industrial system to capitalism, but of a different deployment of its riches for more benign ends, and a restructuring of ownership of the instruments of wealth-creation. People would define their own priorities and needs independently of the tyranny of free markets which gave precedence to the whims of the rich over the necessities of everyone else.

The spaces in which socialists built their structures of hope have, like gentrified working-class suburbs, long since been occupied by the expanding power of capital, magnified to such an extent that it has both transformed the treasures of the earth and at the same time colonized the inner landscapes of humanity with its promises to provide all the heart desires and a great deal more besides. No element of life on earth – or, it seems, in the cosmos that capitalism has become – is proof against its invasive power: outer space is seen as its next frontier, a site of astral overspill for a planet of seven and a half thousand million people.

This imperium, both internal and external, is vast. Before alternatives become possible, great clearances and extensive demolitions are necessary; not only of the material edifice created out of the living tissue of a wasted planet, but also of the inner spaces, the sanctuaries, where the yearnings and longings of humanity have been re-shaped on the ruins of our capacity to make, do, create, invent and to answer our own needs and those of others; drawing upon a squandered inner resourcefulness become wasteland through neglect. This is where resistance to capitalism must be concentrated: not only in the regeneration of a spent and depleted world, but in renewal, re-creating the great capacity of the heart and spirit for reclamation and recultivation, in order to supplement the dwindling plenitude of the natural world.

Where the split occurs

The point at which the ideological cleavage now occurs has been blurred, so that archaic conflicts continue a long, inconclusive afterlife. Internationalism, a desire for social justice, recognition of the limits of what the planet can bear face intensifying nationalisms and the politics of nostalgia. If today’s professional politicians wish to discredit Greens, regional parties, the displaced and evicted of globalism, this is not because of their irrelevance, but because these are the principal actors in the present-day social and economic struggle.

They hint at more vibrant disputes than a declining preoccupation with capital versus labour ‘in one country’, particularly where the industrial base of that country has all but collapsed, capital is in perpetual flight and the industrial army of labour has been demobilized, wandering as scattered mercenaries to fight under the colours of this or that cult, just as a vagrant soldiery has always been dismissed and scattered once wars are concluded.

Present-day paralysis of political debate is ritually deplored, although it remains unaddressed, because the conservatism of the ‘mainstream’, despite its sluggish meanderings, seeks to draw everything into its narrowing confines.

Fear is the dominant emotion of our generation of politicians; fear, above all, of speaking truth to the people about the limits of the earth which they have promised.

The split is now between planetarism and parochialism. This does not mean globalization versus the parish (although there are distinct echoes in the contemporary response of the rich to refugees of the Settlement Acts of England in 1662, which sought, vainly, to tether individuals to the parish of their birth.) Nor does it refer to ‘environmentalism’, a diminished synonym for respect for the earth. ‘The environment’ is an inert term. It suggests scenery, ‘background’ against which the dramas of social and economic life have traditionally played themselves out.

Nothing could be more misleading than this tame, yet tendentious, word, redolent of volunteers picking up litter or the tending of cordoned-off national parks. If the faultline in the belief-system of globalization is between those who fight back against the degradation of the earth as a consequence of industrial and technological development, and those who believe the answers to the crisis may be found in an intensification of processes that have created it, what does this imply for those who still interpret the world in terms of Right or Left? It is not that the older division has been invalidated – in fact, it also makes addressing the inequalities it has magnified more urgent – but that it has been overtaken by a greater emergency.

Rethinking wealth, sufficiency, poverty

The most aggressive attack on the global Green movement is that it is a ‘luxury’ which only privilege can ‘afford’. The implication is that the rich have more to spend on costly ‘sustainable’ items, while the poor depend upon the cheapest goods mass markets can provide. This represents the opposite of what the ecological movement means. For if limits on global incontinence are to be set, this brings distribution back to the heart of discussion. It is not the poor who will have to make sacrifices. For with a more modest – not to say rational – use of resources, both material and human, the rich would have to yield a great deal of their treasure and their power, so that the poor might live unconstrained by hunger and insecurity.

And in a globalized world, poor people are not only the excluded of Kinshasa, Mumbai or Manila, but also the outcasts of the West, the rough sleepers of London and Paris, the mentally and emotionally sick of Chicago and St Petersburg, the afflicted and disabled of Bengaluru and Istanbul; just as the abusively wealthy of the world comprise both those who flaunt it in Jeddah or Singapore, and those who conceal it in Frankfurt, Jersey or the British Virgin Islands.

If we are still far from a necessary revision of the nature of wealth, sufficiency and poverty, this is because existing politicians are animated by ideologies which have embalmed the ritualized orthodoxies of political ‘reason’. ‘Electability’ is the taboo which inhibits leadership and prevents candour and an openness in those who occupy ‘seats of governance’ or ‘high office’, pretentious phrases that conceal a cowering impotence.

Those seeking ‘power’ must defer to a stale common wisdom that the political parties that developed with early industrial society are capable of dealing with the long-term consequences of a system, whose productive and technological capacity was undreamed of in the days when a hungry, ragged population from derelict villages migrated into the mill-towns and pit- villages of Britain, where they found their daily bread adulterated with chalk and their water contaminated with typhoid.

Fear is the dominant emotion of our generation of politicians; fear, above all, of speaking truth to the people about the limits of the earth which they have promised. In this context, all politics has become conservative, susceptible in extremis to virulent nostalgias. The conservatism of conservative parties wants to conserve nothing but privilege; the conservatism of social democracy is still living off the dwindling political capital of its sometime opposition to laissez-faire industrial capitalism.

This is a temporary blockage, since the social forces confronting each other cannot be wished away or denied, any more than the unstoppable force of organized labour could be halted in the early 20th century. Suppression can function only for a season, until the passions contained burst forth once more for the instruction and chastisement of the world.

It is not surprising that in places hitherto considered beacons of ‘advanced’ technological achievement, the dark hour of millenarian reaction should have struck: Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and all the others claiming to ‘restore’ former national glory. These crusaders of institutionalized nostalgia are also, naturally, on the side of climate-change deniers. They pose a challenge to those eager to reconcile the needs of the planet with the necessities of economics; and the stage is set for a confrontation between traditional ‘reactionaries’ and ‘progressives’, although both are on the same side, in that they believe all can be resolved within the existing paradigm.

The voices of their true opponents are only faintly heard, since these appeal to more modest virtues than rancid nostalgias of restoration. Climate change is, of course, only one aspect of the ruinous results of economic ‘freedoms’ which hold humanity captive. If it has become almost an obsession, this is because it dramatizes the distinction between those who place their faith in the miraculous ability of free markets to solve moral dilemmas, and those who believe they can ‘reform’ the deformities of a system that claims a universality unknown since the emergence of the great monotheistic religions.

One proud claim of politicians is that they operate in the ‘real world’; a construct which is actually materialized fantasy. In their desire to outlaw alternatives, any diversion will do. In Britain, between 2016 and 2019, the most promiscuous spillage of money, energy, time and emotion was wasted on the merits or failings of leaving the European Union: no more trivial exercise could be imagined in a wasting, wanting world. In the US, Trump’s wall to ‘protect’ America from lesser beings from Central America and Mexico served a similar purpose; while Russia’s apparent interference in the sacrosanct US electoral system shocked a nation that has since 1945 routinely de-selected governments everywhere, when these have appeared contrary to US interests.

In a world where wealth has become a wasteful abuse of resources rather than a noble and generous plenty, and poverty is a starveling insufficiency rather than a frugal restraint, a re-evaluation of political possibilities becomes more and more difficult. Efforts by scientists, visionaries and radicals to alert people to the dangers of global warming are only one fragment of an epic campaign; and we have seen how this has been overtly denied by those who value economic ‘progress’ above planetary endurance and, covertly, by those who would contain strategies for survival within a global economic system that is at war with the earth.