Can Ecosocialist Praxis be a Real Alternative?

Gordon Peters | London Left Green Blog | December 21, 2017

How can ecosocialism respond to the operation of power in capitalist accumulation and reproduction? Does ecosocialism help provide answers to struggles taking place in the local state and in sites of contest?

I want to suggest that it does in 4 broad ways:

1] The Refusal Strategy

This has a long lineage in class struggles in many different ways, but came to be articulated by the Italian Autonomists. Here I can only draw together some links from very different places in recent times and which all have as their distinct characteristics a refusal to yield to the capitalist logic and to say no to displacement.

For instance, indigenous struggles in Latin America particularly against mining, deforestation and land grabbing demand an anti-capitalist sustainability and in Bolivia were enshrined in the Cochabamba Declaration and the Rights of Mother Earth.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement when applied to fossil fuels and Leave It in the Ground, anti-fracking protests in southern England and in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and campaigns on housing rights against estate demolition are increasingly confronting the demands of corporate capital and in their own sites of struggle re-framing demands in terms of rights to land, community, place to live, clean air and water, and freedoms, which are essentially ecosocialist.

The housing struggles in London are having to resist speculation and maximising value from land which depends on further debt creation and the actual emisseration of working class people by displacement of social housing, and in some cases further polarising class relations by building blocks with separate entries for ‘affordable’ and higher price housing.

I am involved in Haringey with the StopHDV campaign where the local state and the multi-national corporation Lendlease aim to establish a financial nexus worth several billion pounds as a 'development vehicle’ and in the process re-make Tottenham and Wood Green thereby displacing thousands of people.

As the plaintiff in a Judicial Review I have taken this struggle into the High Court, along with a broad coalition of people on the ground. Marching and protesting against the Council we refuse to accept the Haringey Development Vehicle, and in the court our final submission to the Council/corporate argument is ‘we say not so’.

This is the Refusal Strategy and it echoes to some degree the methods of 'In and Against the State’, in the 1970s, where workers were employed by but refused to be co-opted by the local state. It is however broader and puts much more emphasis on the protection of place and the right to a decent environment, mobilising residents as well as trades unionists.

2] Social Protection, Community and Natural Rights

My contention is that these are being more necessarily inter-weaved. In the Haringey struggle for instance the role of the local state and capital become more inter-twined. Debt accumulates on a promise of returned profit for company and authority, with the risk of default held by the public purse [local authority] and demolition of estates required for revaluation. Debts for supposedly affordable housing also accumulate.

In the free market transfer of value to companies and to richer buyers and renters, fighting to preserve a ‘no go’ area for demolition [as distinct from locally agreed refurbishment] becomes a vital demand: this is our place, this is our land. We are fighting, amongst other things, against a new debt spiral - to use the phrase of David Harvey - not a debt cycle.

The fight against both social cleansing as it has come to be known, and local despoliation, tends then to unify the issues of social protection, community and natural rights [in this case in an urban setting]. Urban density is a further issue at stake in the case of Northumberland Park estate in Tottenham which is adjacent to the Lea Valley Regional Park in London.

The human world is also the natural world, and the natural world contains the human world, in cities all the more so. The campaign for London as a National Park City is one way of recognising this, but unfortunately not much linked to community issues and social exploitation to date.

3] Place-based collective alternatives and the Partner State

Troncoso and Utratel in a recent article in Red Pepper talked about the Partner State as ‘’a fluid facilitator to assist and emancipate the bottom-up counter power that keeps it in check’’. In other words there is some kind of dialectical tension between the demands of ‘the commons’ -  sometimes through open source, sometimes through organising and devising more horizontal power structures from below which make more sense for local infrastructure - and the hierarchically inclined and generally pro-capitalist structures of which they are part.

There are traditions of municipalist participation to build on from an ecosocialist perspective, including that espoused by Murray Bookchin who called himself a social ecologist and drew in part from the Vermont town halls experience. In an altogether different setting, the political experiment in Kobane and Rojava in war-torn Syria draws on municipalism and eco-feminism while fighting both for survival and for a non-hierarchical, non-exploitative future.

Closer to home, I would cite examples such as the Isle of Eigg Community Trust in Scotland, the Peoples Plan in Lambeth allied to the fight to retain Cressingham Gardens local estate, Our Tottenham movement and local planning initiative in Haringey, and arising demands to set up Community Land Trusts as showing the potential of transformative power.

I see no reason why such initiatives cannot be allied to demands for the restoration of Council housing, with participative management [not Arms Length Management Organisations] such as the one which went so wrong at Grenfell].

Radical municipalism may be due a rebirth, and another indication here is that offered by Plan C [see Radical Municipalism: Demanding the Future -by Plan C and Bertie Russell, 30 October, 2017 in Bella Caledonia]. I was a chief officer in Hackney in the 1980s when the ‘’radical socialist borough’’ had a Redprint for localisation which ground into the dust mainly because of an inability of the Council to deal with trade union demands. That is a lesson for any partner state.

There are probably better examples of place-based collective alternatives in Germany than in the UK, particularly with regard to municipalised energy production, ownership and distribution. Participatory budgeting is more advanced in Brazil than the UK but it is another example of re-framing what we want and what is needed from below.

My contention is that the nature of the current struggles to resist corporate takeovers of whole communities and the fight for social protection and environment require place-based collective alternatives to be put forward and linked to other similar struggles framed as an ecosocialist challenge to the further creation of debt and capitalist social relations.

4] A Just Transition

Here I am suggesting that as well as knowing how and when to refuse, how and where to protect, and where and what to re-organise, an ecosocialist praxis needs a strong sense of a direction to something better. It in a way turns utopia on its head as the utopians are the capitalists, the big corporates and those who run local states who go into partnership with them in a constantly re-branding drive for new wealth which in fact trickles up, not down.

In looking at ‘transitional demands’ [a phrase redolent of another tradition] towards something achievable and recognisable, I have found the Just Transitions and Energy Democracy document produced by the Public and Commercial Service Union as relevant as anything. Their first of ten demands is for ‘worker involvement through their trade unions in building the public services of the future in a worker-public partnership based on social need and not private greed’. It also includes a national plan for renewable energy, frameworks for democratic control and energy democracy at different levels, transition process to zero carbon, and new statutory rights.

There is of course much more to be said on this, on climate action and trade union involvement now coming together more, on banks and green investment, on the million green jobs proposals, on the TUC’s 2017 commitment to action on climate change, and for what must be demanded of a Corbyn government for that matter. My unifying point is that an ecosocialist praxis examines what has to be tackled, acts on it and learns from practice while informing a better theoretical understanding of what is necessary and possible.

The four elements set out here do not pretend an answer universally applicable. Rather they may provide a framework for contesting the spaces and places occupied by capitalist dynamics and a way of bringing together forces of the commons and harnessing popular demands for open-ness, fairness and sustainability in the actual living circumstances of people.
And the aggregation of these amounts to an ecosocialist alternative. When we demonstrate that capital is at the root of the disturbance of the metabolic interaction between humanity and nature then we are far from being an academic or utopian or any other sideshow.

Gordon Peters in a supporter of the Ecosocialist Network