medium/econews 1-2023 A Gaian Perspective on Politics – Politics from a planetary perspective – by John Pearce
“Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness — and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe. The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling — their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability. Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
Arundhati Roy, “War Talk”
“…we must recognise that because the earth is the source of all life, the health of the earth must be the primary consideration in our decision-making processes.”
“Bright Green Lies”, Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith and Max Wilbert.
“We’re losing the fight, badly and quickly — losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilisation is in.”
Bill McKibben, in “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”, Rolling Stone, 2nd August 2012.
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.”
“The movement to address climate change is about something deeper than justic, it’s about solidarity. Human solidarity.”
Bill McKibben, 350.org
As well as seeking a new faith in Gaia, it is proposed that we also seek a new system of participatory government. The new way of organising should be a movement for everyone — being inclusive and breaking out of the middle-class enclave that has tended to dominate environmentalism in the UK. This movement should seek to build the largest possible consensus, aiming to reach as many people as possible, from all parties and backgrounds working together, and in the spirit of XR’s concept of a movement of movements, to create a coalition of coalitions.
A triple-track approach is needed, of protest, prefiguration, and politics. Protest is needed to force change, prefiguration is needed to provide an inspirational vision of what that change should look like, and politics is needed to provide a theoretical basis, with the policies and structures for the social system we want to achieve.
The protest strand of this triple-track is exemplified in the roads protests at Newbury and Twyford Down, international campaigns against pollution, loggers and dams, and more recently the school strikers led by Greta Thunberg, and groups such as Extinction Rebellion (XR), Insulate Britain, and Just Stop Oil (JSO).
However while protest is vital, but it is not an end in itself. At some point a successful movement progresses from protest to delivery of what it aims to achieve. XR was born partly out of the idea that traditional political campaigning has failed, a realisation that tactics like endless petition-signing, letter-writing, and “A to B” marches, have not achieved results, or not on the scale needed. How often do petitions actually change anything when they are so easily ignored? For example, a petition for a second referendum on Brexit, against taking Britain out of the European Union, gained millions of signatures but was unsuccessful.
Many seasoned campaigners are familiar with getting bland replies to their letters from their local MP, often with paragraphs clearly copied and pasted, with lots of cleverly constructed platitudes, but in reality the reply means that nothing changes in practice. Letter-writing achieves little except maintaining the illusion that we live in a meaningful democracy.
Turning up on marches with a banner, accompanied by lots of like-minded people, can make the participants feels good, but rarely gets results. You get to the end of the march, listen to the speeches (unless it is a large march, and you are at the back, in which case you may miss the sometimes dubious highlight of the event), and then everyone goes home and nothing has changed.
Participants on large marches regularly bemoan the lack of press coverage, but unless there is an outbreak of violence the media is rarely interested. The media are supremely fickle in this respect, as not only will they ignore a huge peaceful march, but at the merest hint of a scuffle, the right-wing press will seize on the smallest incident to portray all the participants on the march as a mindless mob.
The number of people on a march seems to have little correlation with it achieving its aim. The much-quoted example being the 2003 march in London, against war in Iraq, attended by up to two million people, that was ignored by the Blair government, which was determined to have its war. As we now know, the weapons of mass destruction, which were the pretext for the war, never existed, but the government sought to persuade the public with its dodgy dossier. Those responsible have never been held to account. So if marches are ignored if they are peaceful, and have failed if they turn violent, the logical conclusion is that they are a waste of time, except in giving the participants a feel-good bonding experience, which is not really the aim of a march!
It is partly from the failure of traditional campaigning such as petitions, letter-writing and marches, that the XR approach of taking and occupying spaces in a capital city emerged. The XR theory is that by creating “dilemma” situations, where the police are forced into making arrests of peaceful protestors, more people are motivated to join them, and the critical mass referred to by researcher Erica Chenoeth, of 3.5% of the population on the streets is reached, when a movement may succeed.
Protest itself is often negative, shouting slogans, opposing what you don’t want. It is a dangerous trap to get stuck in that negative mindset, always looking for the next protest to join, always against things, never building.
Tactically the use of protest to achieve change also needs careful consideration. Sometimes a demonstration can have the opposite effect to what was intended, so that it causes consolidation and entrenchment by those maintaining the status quo. Sometimes better progress is achieved by seeking common ground, building bridges, and working together, rather than by opposing sides taking pot-shots at each other.
There is also the undeniable fact that taking part in some actions can be exciting, and the friendship bonds that come with them extraordinary, so that there is the risk that protest becomes a way of life, and one drifts into being “anti” everything, rather than building positive projects.
What is needed alongside protest, is a vision of a better world, as the 2019 Waterloo Bridge occupation was so successful in demonstrating, which brings us on to the second strand of this triple-track approach, of prefiguration.
AsBuckminster Fuller put it:
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Rather than just fighting and opposing, we should also be doing something more constructive.
Prefiguration may be defined as a mode of organisation and social relationship that strives to reflect the future society that is being sought. According to Carl Boggs, who coined the term, the desire is to embody “…within the ongoing political practice of a movement ….. those forms of social relations, decision-making, culture, and human experience that are the ultimate goal”.
The politics of prefiguration that emerged in the 1970s, rejected the centrism and vanguardism of many of the groups and political parties of the 1960s. It is both a politics of creation, and one of breaking with hierarchy. There is an emphasis on participatory democracy, embodied by the citizens’ assemblies favoured by XR.
Although prefiguration politics gained its name in the 1970s it had been around as a principle for far longer. Such idealistic attempts at building better societies often seem short-lived, snuffed out by reactionary forces, threatened by any challenge to established power structures, or just victim to the less positive aspects of human nature.
The short-lived Paris commune, a far-left revolutionary socialist government that controlled Paris from 18th March to 28th May 1871, established policies for a progressive, anti-religious system of social democracy, including the separation of church and state, self-policing, the remission of rent during the siege, the abolition of child labour, and the right of employees to take over an enterprise deserted by its owner. Feminist, socialist, and anarchist currents played important roles in the Commune. As an idealist construct it was born and died in bloodshed, and if there is to be a green revolution, we hope it will be more peaceful and have greater longevity.
More recently, around the turn of the twentieth century, anarchists embraced the principle that the means used to achieve any end must be consistent with that end, though they did not use the term “prefiguration”. For example, James Guillaume, a comrade of Mikhail Bakunin, wrote, “How could one want an equalitarian and free society to issue from authoritarian organisation? It is impossible.”
The Arab Spring uprisings embodied elements of prefiguration, as did Occupy Wall Street, and its spinoff occupations around the United States and Europe. The supporters of Occupy envisaged creating a public space in the middle of American cities to demonstrate a vision of a better world, a space for political dialogue, an inclusive community, offering free food, libraries, medical care, and a place to sleep.
A religious example of prefiguration can be found in the global Baha’i Faith community, which aims to provide a model of their ideal society, by developing a pattern of community life and administrative systems, in ways which embody the principles contained in its principles and teachings. These include the oneness of mankind, equality of the sexes, and harmony of science and religion. The community’s grassroots praxis can be seen as a living experiment in how to demonstrate religious or spiritual teachings in the real world, in a progressive way.
The community land trust model also known as co-housing, provides a method of providing cooperatively-owned, resident-controlled permanent housing, outside of the speculative market. Examples of such communities can be found at Whiteway in Gloucestershire, and the Findhorn community in Scotland. Many attempts to set up such communities suffer the inevitable collision between idealistic principles, with the realities of internal conflict that can occur given human nature, or a drift from the radical ideals of the founders.
Other examples of prefiguration are workers co-operatives, or during times of industrial unrest, factory occupations, where workers try and take control. This was seen in Argentina, during the occupation of factories by workers such as Zanon. Likewise the organising of many of the unemployed workers movements, and the creation of popular neighbourhood assemblies, reflect the participants’ desire for a horizontal structure, which includes equal distribution of power among people, and the creation of new social relationships based on dignity and freedom.
Similarly idealistic social and military organisations have been widespread in South America, such as the Zapatistas, a libertarian socialist political and militant group that controls a substantial amount of territory in Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. These movements often have idealistic and progressive ideals, that struggle to succeed, or become corrupted or undermined by external reactionary forces.
Another example of a prefigurative society is found in Rojava, a Kurdish-controlled region of North and East Syria. Supporters of the administration describe it as governed by secular policy, with direct democratic principles, based on libertarian socialist, feminist, and anarchist ideologies. It promotes decentralisation, gender equality, environmental sustainability, social ecology, and pluralistic tolerance for religious, cultural and political diversity. These values are mirrored in its constitution, society, and politics.
At one time, it might have been sufficient to “be the change you wish to see in the world”, a quotation ascribed to Mahatma Gandhi. However just going off to live the good life in an isolated self-sufficient commune does not work, if the way the rest of the world lives is dragging everyone over a cliff. So alongside protest and prefiguration, we need a new politics.
The green revolution must involve everyone, or as close as possible to that ambition. This may be a startling message for those of us receiving it from within traditional, entrenched political positions of left, right or centre. These positions seem so far apart, that the idea that we all need to work together may seem anathema. How can we possibly work with people who may have views quite different to many of our own?
However at the end of the day, the great majority of people, from any background and from any part of the world, all want pretty much the same things: safety, security and happiness for our immediate family and friends. As the late MP Jo Cox so poignantly stated: “We are far more united, and have far more in common with each other, than things that divide us”.
We should not have those in power, and an opposition, shouting schoolyard insults at each other across parliament, with barracking and banality from backbenchers, and puerile paper-waving as we have under the present system. We urgently need to grow up into a mature democracy, where the structure has us all facing in the same direction, rather than in power or opposition. We all need to work together as one, constantly seeking common ground, rather than differences, with similar aims and objectives, with mitigation measures to prevent excessively hierarchical structures developing, or the consolidation of power by a minority.
With this green revolution, former hedge fund billionaires will have to work along former trade union socialists. We need to drop our hostilities and divisions, and abandon labels like “Tories” and “Trots”, and treat each other with respect and friendship. Capitalism and communism have both failed in preventing the climate and ecological emergency. They have both been just as effective in devastating the natural world. The enemy is not capitalism or communism, but selfish human behaviour, that has treated the world as if it were an inexhaustible trough, from which to consume endlessly without giving back, and as a bottomless bin in which to sink our waste.
It will be hard for idealogues of all descriptions to give up our deeply entrenched positions as socialists, centrists, or neo-liberals. The old ways of thinking are habitual patterns that are difficult to break out of, a lazy default that we may naturally slip back into, or we may be among a comfortable coterie of companions who think like us.
If we are to progress the green revolution, we may all have to give up some of what we would ideally like to see, to reach a position where we can all work in harmony. This will not be easy. In many ways it is simpler to fall back on the traditions of demonising an opposition. For many on the left the default mindset is of attacking “Tories”, or seeing the well-off as the enemy, perhaps familiar with the distasteful slogan of “eating the rich” or referring to “Tory scum”. Conversely those on the right may see those less well-off as lazy, feckless, or naturally less-gifted, and look down on those with less education or wealth, with equally unpleasant references to “Chavs”.
The inconvenient truth is that “saving the planet” requires us all to work together. We all rely on each other, as we are all part of each other’s environment. We will not win this struggle by the efforts of a tiny, pure vanguard. It is better that a hundred people “do green” imperfectly, than one person achieves environmental sainthood. In terms of impact, it is what the majority does that matters.
So to achieve progress on environmental protection, both left, right and centre will need to work together and compromise, to give some ground, and see the good in the other, however hard that may seem at times. We need to have the humility to acknowledge our own faults. We need the skills and talents of everyone to extract ourselves from the current crisis, all working together, facing in the same direction, with no “opposition”, just a sense of unity and a common goal of a safer, healthier, and fairer world.
It has been said that “Politics is an art of compromise.” Some may argue that compromise is weak and leads to second best. However there is much to be said for the view of political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain, who wrote: “….compromise is not a mediocre way to do politics; it is an adventure, the only way to do democratic politics.”
Just as there is a middle ground between passivity and aggression, of being assertive, where both parties get some of what they want, so it is with politics. It means that the wealthy and powerful must share some of their riches, and in return those on the left must be prepared to accept that we will not have complete equality; also that given the lack of time to build a completely new alternative, we must accept some form of capitalism, for all its faults.
It is also time for an end to the green-washing of the main parties and big business, and to recognise that the days of what Paul Kingsnorth describes as politicians serving us up “…old mutton…. dressed up as low-carbon lamb…” are over. We urgently need real change for the better.
The green movement needs to be grounded and universally accepting and accessible, appealing to everyone regardless of background; moving beyond the tired old politics of left vs right, communism vs. capitalism, workers against bosses .We need to bury the class-war hatchet that has poisoned UK politics for too long, not in the back of our opponents, but in a spirit of reaching out and making a new start, the lion laying down with the lamb. We need the often-despised billionaires working alongside ordinary people.
After all, those with greatest wealth and assets have the most to lose if everything goes wrong. The greatest stranded assets will not only be the fossil fuels that have to stay in the ground, but also the zillions in offshore bank accounts, meaningless zeroes on balance sheets if the Earth becomes uninhabitable. For all the talk of space travel and setting up home on other planets, the reality is that this is just a futile, hubristic, resource-depleting pipe-dream. All the wealth in the world cannot recreate another clean and safe planet to live on, if we irreparably damage Earth.
We need a new social contract and we will all gain. There needs to be redistribution of wealth and power as part of this new approach, not as an attempt to introduce socialism by the back door, but because it benefits those who give up some wealth. Redistributing resources reduces crime and makes society as a whole happier, so it can be a win-win solution. The social democracies of Scandinavia, which have less extremes of wealth and poverty, and a strong social safety net, are among the most stable and happiest societies. Economies also work better when workers have money to buy things, as many years ago automotive manufacturer Henry Ford advocated for the workers in his factories.
The green movement needs to be as relevant for white van person as it is for everyone else, it needs the wealthy and the dispossessed all working together. We need the talents and skills of everyone. We cannot to afford to move at the pace of the slowest, but we need to include the largest number in the movement as possible.
The Green Party
In considering a political system that integrates a consciousness of Gaia, it is worth looking at the history of environmental politics, and the UK Green Party in particular. If we are to have a future, many of the policies espoused for decades by the Green Party need to be adopted, though it is not essential that the Green Party itself comes to power.
Green politics have been around for a long time in different guises. The Green Party in the UK was originally called “PEOPLE” when founded in 1973, a peculiarly British mix of survivalism, libertarian communism and conservative anarchism, which then changed its name in 1975 to “The Ecology Party”. The founders of the party were influenced by “Blueprint for Survival”, a feature published in January 1972 in “The Ecologist” magazine, by its founder Edward Goldsmith and others, which drew attention to the urgency and seriousness of environmental problems, and called for radical social and economic change, to build a sustainable future, later published as a book of the same name.
Derek Wall, in his cheerily named history of the Green Party, “Weaving a Bower Against Endless Night”, describes the context and birth of the party well:
“The theme of ‘Survival’ marked the bleak evolution of Green politics in the early 1970s. Sunflowers, optimism and even the colour green were to come later. The summer of love in 1967, the world-shattering conflicts of 1968 from Vietnam to Paris, the revolution of values brought about during the 1960s among the young, although later influences, were not yet significant for Party development. Freaks, hippies, street farmers and communards were to talk ecology but until later in the decade, they remained outside of the political ecology movement.”
The Green Party, as it was later named, has always suffered from the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, and negative or tactical voting, never achieving the breakthroughs seen in France and Germany. Although the party has not reached power, Wall states:
”The Party has survived, helped inspire a worldwide movement and made some of its most important concerns part of the common-sense. Greens have achieved practical change……The Party, by remaining intact and independent, has kept the green flame alight. It has helped create a community of resistance. Its creativity and energy have helped to build a Green Movement that provides the seeds of a new sustainable, just and fully democratic society.”
As Derek Wall presciently stated, “We need to redouble our efforts, tomorrow is undoubtedly coming sooner than we think”.
XR has taken a new approach, calling for a move “beyond politics”, which makes a lot of sense given the urgent need to work together, and the incremental progress of the Green Party, meaning it is too late for it to gain power through the normal democratic process in the UK.
The traditional approach in a democracy has a party in power and others in opposition, whereas in an emergency we all need to be working together. Ultimately large-scale change is achieved when those in power either voluntarily change, or are forced to. Strategic thinking is therefore required to consider what is most likely to bring that change about, which may not always be protesting against things, but can sometimes involve finding ways to work with those in authority.
Part of building a better world should be about finding common ground, healing divisions, working together, and building consensus. This is more likely to be achieved by radical centrism than from an extreme position. Radical centralism was an effective strategy for electoral success by Tony Blair using focus groups. A party is meaningless unless it comes to power — the Blair strategy was working out what is the most popular policy and adopting that. That’s the trouble with populism — it’s popular!
The need for radical centrism is explored by Rupert Read in his call for a moderate front he has termed “GreensCAN”, a green Climate Action Network, to carry out less disruptive NVDA that large numbers can get involved in, rather than a vanguard of radicals blocking roads and bridges. Rupert explains his rationale:
“The dream that motivated the Green Party, the dream of achieving power by the electoral route in time to prevent eco-disasters… that dream is dying. We now have only 5 to 10 years left in which to transform our entire system, or face nemesis. Is there anyone who seriously believes that the Green Party can take power in that time-period and make the necessary changes? Essentially, that would mean the Green Party winning the 2024 general election. That is pure fantasy…..The Green Party is not going to attain power in time through a conventional electoral route. This is the painful reality that life is calling upon us to acknowledge. Now for the good news: there is one very real power that the Green Party has. In politics, we are the trusted messengers when it comes to climate. We ‘own’ the green area of the agenda. The real power we have is to call it. To name the truth: that the dream of arresting dangerous human-caused climate change is dead. That conventional politics has failed. That we have to turn more to people-power, and have to aim at adaptation and not just mitigation.”
The Green Party provided a beautiful dream, but its incremental progress means that the dream has collided with the reality of the science, that political change via traditional means has failed to achieve results in the necessary timeframe. We have been overtaken by events, and the climate future has arrived much sooner than expected. There may still be forces of denial and scepticism, but as the saying goes, gravity still exists whether you believe in it or not.
So is there any future for the Green Party? It is argued that what matters is the policies rather than the party, and many of the policies put forward by the party decades ago, when they were perceived as just for sandal-wearing bearded hippies, are now mainstream, like recycling, sustainable transport, and renewable energy.
It has long been observed that many people become more conservative with age. I would like to think that age has taught me that instead of the Workers Revolutionary Party and Class War, that we need the wisdom from XR of a move beyond politics. The one thing that matters more than anything else, is to have a safe and healthy environment. Without that there is no politics of any description.
To achieve that now, we all must work together, in a unified way that we have rarely achieved. Adversarial politics of the petty point-scoring type, so long seen in the House of Commons, needs to end. We need to assemble at a round table and work together. When leadership is required, it needs to be rotated to prevent power consolidating in the hands of a few. This was the view of Leopold Kohr in “Breakdown of Nations”, that whatever the political system, when people have excessive power it is abused, so the task at hand is to limit the power of any individual, organisation or government, which went alongside his belief that keeping things small was critical.
So just as we need a new awareness of Gaia, we need a new political system. The new politics will be one that recognises that we are all part of the same organism, and therefore should be a politics of unity, not those in power and an opposition, but a politics where we all work together for common goals, recognising our connectedness with each other and the planet. It will be a politics of consensus, not moving at the pace of the slowest, but seeking to carry with it as many people as possible.
This article is an adapted version of a chapter in the book “Gaia — A Faith for the Future”. – 2021