Left Luggage

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Archive for the ‘Environmentalism’ Category

What Left?

Posted by Left Luggage on June 7, 2009

I had an interesting discussion with a friend of mine recently, in which he questioned Left Luggage’s strategy. He asked why we direct our arguments towards the section of the Left populated by groups whose names contain the word “Socialist…” or “Workers’…”, rather than towards much larger groups involved in global justice, human rights or environmental campaigns. He acknowledged that the latter groups were not explicitly socialist (or often even left wing) in orientation, but argued that they were preferable to the groups we currently address in a number of ways.

Firstly, he argued that these groups had far more members and supporters than the openly socialist groups, even if most of those members were middle class. This, he said, gave the “soft Left” a greater reach than the “hard Left”, and a greater potential for influence.

The second argument was that the soft Left was far more internally democratic than the hard Left, and less attached to the kinds of symbols, slogans and dogma that might put ordinary people off. These two advantages make the soft Left better able to launch creative campaigns that capture the attention of the public, he claimed.

My friend felt that the involvement of the soft Left in environmental and global justice campaigns was proof of their progressive values, and suggested that it might be a strategic error to ignore such a numerically significant and (potentially) influential demographic.
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Posted in Class, Environmentalism, Left Luggage, Socialism, Working class | 4 Comments »

Talking about our values

Posted by Left Luggage on May 25, 2009

As the MPs expenses scandal rumbles on, it is interesting to note that the harshest criticisms in moralistic terms have come from the Right, especially the press. This is not too surprising as “moral issues” issues are generally seen as the preserve of the Right, with the Left generally preferring structural socio-structural over agent-focussed explanations.

In the US this trend is much more well developed than here in the UK. Republicans use the language of right and wrong consistently, for example in the “culture wars” around Bush’s election. There are totemic issues such as abortion, gay marriage and gun control, but GOP members also used the language of morality in its campaign to abolish inheritance tax in 2001, a change that would have only affected a tiny number of the wealthiest in society. In his book, Death by A Thousand Cuts, Michael Gratz chronicles how the Democrats responded to this proposal with an appeal to self interest – “most of you don’t pay it and, besides, we need the money” – thus making the party seem like the defenders of a corrupt status quo. They didn’t try to argue the moral position of their own: that inheritance is deeply undemocratic and anti-meritocratic.

There is certainly a resistance to talking explicitly about morality from liberals and the Left. Partly this is justified insofar as we have an understandable distaste for the right-wing tendency to reduce everything to individual moral questions, blame social problems on individual failings, and obscure structural injustices. But our reluctance to address issues of morality leaves the field open for the Right (and the Christian Right in the US) to position itself as the defender of moral values against an out-of-touch liberal elite.

A case study in how the Left should not address issues of morality came recently from Jeremy Seabrook in a Guardian article which argued the MPs expenses scandal told us more about ourselves, as a society that has lost its moral compass:

There are, perhaps, no innocent bystanders, yet many are ready to cast the first stone at the crooked and self-serving. Perhaps, after all, our MPs represent us more than we care to admit. This is why the indignation of the unforgiving media and the vengefulness of the public have reached such a paroxysm.

While reintroducing the question of morality, Seabrook shunts out any structural analysis of society in favour of emphasising individual failures and individual solutions. In a sense, it is similar to the phenomenon of -Keep reading>

Posted in Crime, Environmentalism, Morality, Strategy | 2 Comments »

Great Green hope?

Posted by Left Luggage on May 11, 2009

The Green Party are talking themselves up as the best hope to prevent the BNP gaining seats at next month’s Euro elections. Green candidate for the North West region Peter Cranie argues that it is Green votes, and not Labour votes, that will keep the far right out:

Anti-racist votes in the North West region for Labour, the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives will certainly count. No one can dispute this, as those parties will claim seven out of the eight regional seats. But it’s the eighth seat that Griffin is aiming for. Calling on everyone to once again get out and vote for red/yellow/blue simply won’t work on voters already disillusioned with the Westminster parties. But those few extra thousand votes could keep the Greens ahead of the BNP – and that is the scenario with the best chance of keeping Griffin out.

This argument is correct in the sense that if the Greens get more votes than the BNP, it is they and not the fascists who will claim the final seat for the North West region. However, is the Green Party convincing as an alternative to the BNP for those “disillusioned with the Westminster parties”? This would imply that Greens are capable of winning support in working class communities by providing progressive solutions to pressing social problems.

There has long been a tension within the Green Party, and within mainstream environmentalism more generally, between left and right. Although the Green Left is active and well organised, the right of the Party has traditionally dominated, with the consequence that many see the Greens as a middle class party out of touch with the concerns of working class people. One Green Left activist summed up the problem incisively in a post on one of our articles:

The problem the Green Party has is not chiefly its policy, but its class composition and image – these are what make it difficult for that Party to reach out in working class areas, not people already being aware of the intricacies of its policies – though some of these still need a lot of work. Chief amongst the issues that Greens need to address are the good points made by socialists about the effects of Green Taxes, restrictions and increased costs falling chiefly on the poorest.

A kind of Bloomsbury self-righteous middle/upper class hair shirtery is unfortunately still alive and well in some quarters of the Green Party, and I speak as someone with long experience of membership of that Party!

The point about green taxes reminds us of the debate over the introduction of London’s Congestion Charge in  2003. Allegations  from the right that the Charge was a “Poll Tax on wheels” can be taken with a pinch of salt, given that many of the denunciations came from those who previously idolised the inventor of the original Poll Tax. Nevertheless, there were some more thoughful analyses from those on the Left that accepted traffic congestion was a huge problem but pointed out the regressive nature of the Charge. These arguments are supported by research from 2008 that found 66% of respondents from social class DE thought the rise in Congestion Charge from £5 to £8 was “unfair”, compared to 64% from ABs. The figures appear all the more striking when we take into account that 79% of DE respondents to the same survey say they never had to pay the Charge, suggesting that they were opposed in principle.

Whether or not Greens support flat rate charges, there may be an entrenched perception that associates environmentalism with policies that call upon individuals of whatever social class to make sacrifices to protect the environment. This, in turn, may be due to what the poster cited above calls the “self-righteous middle/upper class hair shirtery” prevalent within the Green movement. Some environmentalists subscribe to a world view that sees environmental degradation as the result of a culture of materialism and greed, and places the responsibility for redressing this degradation on individuals who must make better, more moral choices.

It is certainly true that everyone has a personal responsibility to consider the environmental, as well as social and political, consequences of their actions. However, unless Greens stress that those who do most to destroy the environment – namely big businesses – must make the biggest sacrifices, their policies are unlikely to go down well in working class areas. More importantly, Greens need to facilitate community campaigns to protect and improve local, working class environments in order to build grassroots working class support for environmentalism.

Posted in Anti-fascism, Environmentalism, Strategy | 4 Comments »

Taking back our power

Posted by Left Luggage on May 8, 2009

A reader sent us a link to an event in London next week organised by Climate Camp and titled “Take Back the Power! The Importance of Direct Action Today”. He wondered what we thought about the strategies suggested in the promo material for the meeting. The group say:

Throughout history ordinary people have been responsible for all major social changes – women’s rights, civic rights and even democracy itself in many places can be said to be result of direct action. Taking action is the very first step in making big changes happen. Direct action is taken by people who feel that the political process is not working to address profoundly important issues.

Climate change is the most urgent challenge we’ve ever faced – and politicians are not showing the strength of character needed to actually address this problem. […] Climate Camp believes that people everywhere need to work out what they can do – and then do it. Taking action yourself to make the world you want to see is a logical response to a very serious situation.

Of course we agree climate challenge is the greatest threat to long-term human survival ever faced. Equally, we would take issue with the idea that politicians’ inaction is due to their lack of “strength of character”. But what of direct action?

Obviously it is true that “Taking action is the very first step in making big changes happen”, but is taking direct action also “the very first step”? It is true that direct action has been used by social movements throughout history, but it has been the initial or primary tactic of very few (successful) ones. (In this discussion, “direct action” excludes strikes and workplace occupations, which are in any case not on the agenda of Climate Camp or other anti-capitalist/environmental groups.)
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Posted in Anti-capitalism, Direct action, Environmentalism, Strategy | 2 Comments »