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Environmental Democracy

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Radicalism has many facets, the political-economic-ideological struggle to achieve social change, itself, then, an agency for the democratization of social structure and cultural values, being for me the primary one (and for others, no doubt other areas worthy of action and emphasis), but it is also something else—and to its credit, testifying to its vitality and openness—for radicalism is a journey of discovery, and for the individual, both self-discovery and a potential for the fuller affirmation of humanity. For me, radicalism turned on political economy as central to the foundations of societal welfare, a seemingly inclusive framework of systemic analysis and the basis for social protest. The view is familiar, 19th century Marxism, with or without the inclusion of revolutionary violence (and in America, largely without). All else purportedly was extra, incidental, perhaps even distractive. Labor strikes trumped sexual orientation, attacks on corporate wealth trumped cultural politics of gender equality, opposition to imperialism trumped liberation of a drug culture, and so a gap between generations, ultimately, a gap between CLASS and the rights and preferences of INDIVIDUALS, still within radicalism, began to widen, to the point that issues treating wealth, power, and social upheaval were becoming phased out in favor of personal emancipation and a non-class, perhaps anti-class, orientation.

To an old-style radical, radicalism in America was losing its ideological fighting edge, as though protest had entered the realm of touchy-feely politics and demands. Until recently, that was my feeling—and, insensitive as it sounds, still is. The one exception, which on close inspection was obviously deserving of inclusion, was RACE, not only on humane grounds or to form livelier coalitions, but because race could best be apprehended through the political-structural dynamics of class exploitation. (Oliver Cromwell Cox, Race, Caste, and Class, after many years still repays reading.) “Class” and “exploitation,” factors which are critical to the formation of a racial system, are incorporated into the analysis—and reality—of radicalism, so that for a traditional radical matters related to racial solidarity primarily or alone appear tangential if not frivolous. Racial solidarity is antithetical to radical political consciousness, as when now blacks remain loyal to Obama despite his antidemocratic record of war, intervention, assassination, corporate favoritism, deregulation, the concentration of wealth, income, and power, unemployment, in sum, a class system harmful to working people and the community of the poor, disproportionately, on both counts (and in the larger picture, broad-gauge militarism and business dominance at the expense of a vital social safety net), affecting and penalizing blacks. Yet factors other than race, termed cultural issues, possess insufficient class specificity, however important to individuals and at odds with societal democratization (e.g., punitive attitudes toward abortion and same-sex marriage), and hence are, for radicalism in its systemic mode of fundamental change, thought to have trivialized its significance and made it ripe for co-optation.

What has changed is a questioning of the finitude of radicalism. I may be dragged screaming into the modern era, and still reject manifestly non-class social-cultural phenomena as a distraction from class warfare as practiced by upper groups against the working (and unemployed) poor, but on one recent morning came an awakening, literally, at 5 a.m., with the phrase “environmental democracy” as the departure point for a left-analysis of social structure. My interest was not in cosmic questions such as climate change, though obviously determinative of the fate of the earth in the long term, but rather the politicization of the environment in its actual but often hidden class dimension of power (thus bringing it within the province of radicalism as subject to criticism and transformation). Yes, the environment (long- and short-term in its effects) states a class-relation, whether one speaks of biotechnology, fracking, plantation agriculture, heedless extraction of natural resources, engrossment of vast tracts of land, economic development as fool’s gold and rationale for every kind of spoliation, and privatization as the granddaddy of the systematic abuses of the environment—all in all a curse of world civilization.

The environment spells out a class-relation; it also represents the arena for practicing counterrevolution through exercising dominance over subject populations. US defined and enforced globalization starts from preserving and expanding a two-tiered world structure based on a pliant indigenous labor force, ready entrance for and protection of American capital investment in extractive industries, agricultural production, and a controlled setting for industrial outsourcing, together effected through manipulation of the terms of trade to ensure the “host” country’s economic backwardness. Pressures on the captive nation(s) are unrelenting, the IMF and World Bank, as always, solicitous of the interests of capitalism in all its forms, to the consequent destruction of the environment. (Joyce Nelson’s CP article, “Monsanto and Ukraine,” Aug. 22-24, implies US-EU encouragement of biotechnology is partly responsible for the crisis with Russia and East-West confrontation.) The environment increasingly bears the brunt and is the coveted object of international politics, conservation per se anathema to the conquistador/profit-seeker mental set.

Climate change is viewed as a distant nightmare—if viewed at all, polluters the world over, transcending ideological systems, contemptuous of restraints on their activities. Industrialization, in this case, erases or subsumes ideological differences between capitalism and socialism in the name of modernization, to the detriment of their peoples and the environment on which each fastens. (Also CP, same date, Robert Hunziker’s article, “The Current State of the Planet,” is a sobering discussion of global warming.) What radicalism must do, then, is break the traditional mold in defining class issues, proposing an alternative path to societal development which treats Nature as one would fellow humans, with love, compassion, respect, and in doing so, identify privatization as one would a child molester, corrupting the well-springs of that which dignifies human existence: an innocence, freshness, capacity for wonderment, engendered in the beauty that lies outside the self, and gazing upon enables one to understand the self better. One cannot despoil the environment and pretend to professions of democracy.

This is why the collective appropriation/stewardship of Nature is inceptively socialist or radical. Here I make no distinction between them because the environment, even granting modest private property, can inculcate in one through selfless attachment and respect an attitude toward life as the fusion of Nature and Humanity which wholly contradicts privatization as the kernel of exploitation, xenophobia, war itself. (Louis Proyect’s CP article, “Gunning for Vandana Shiva,” same date, makes the case for the social ownership of the environment, a collective dimension militating against the uses of biotechnology in agriculture because stewardship rather than profit is a motivating force.) The environment is not an abstraction divorced from capitalist investment, hierarchical labor relations, the world of exploitation; beginning with that realization, perhaps it can be returned to life-giving sustenance—to itself as well.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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