An Inclusive Politics of Radical Renewal

 An Inclusive Politics of Radical Renewal:

Why are we losing? I asked that question in the late 1990s after a frustrating couple of decades battling to protect our national forests. Sure, we had our successes. Old-growth logging had been discredited and largely halted, and livestock damage to streamside habitats had been reduced. We won these skirmishes by making the U.S. Forest Service obey its own rules for protecting wildlife. But forest exploitation shifted elsewhere, to places like tropical New Guinea, where protections were weak or nonexistent.

It isn’t just forests — the habitability of the entire planet is suffering from species extinctions, dead zones in the ocean, soil erosion, toxic pollution, radioactivity, urban sprawl, degraded water quality, fragmented wildlands and, of course, climate chaos. A pattern is emerging of small, local gains coupled with multiple and mostly invisible losses that are now metastasizing into an unmanageable planetary disease. Is it the rise of the neoconservatives, the weakness of liberal Democrats (With friends like these, who needs enemies?), the corporate takeover of the media, voter apathy, or the simple fact that most of our fellow citizens are too preoccupied with making a living to get out and take action?

I sensed a deeper problem when the U.S. Forest Service began referring to us tree huggers as “customers” in the late 1990s; it was part of Vice President Gore’s campaign to “reinvent” government, making agencies act more like for-profit corporations. But wait a minute — citizens aren’t customers; we’re the deed holders of national forests with a stake in their future. Instead of functioning as trustees poised between our forebears and our posterity, hired forest managers were selling off the trees at bargain-basement prices and, adding insult to injury, adopting the corporate practices of the logging companies to boot.

Today’s environmental laws were passed more than three decades ago in a flurry of activity following the first Earth Day. They were never designed to prevent environmental degradation but only to make it somewhat more manageable. Corporations have been working since then to remove teeth from regulations implementing those laws — in most cases removing the gums as well — so that today the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and many other well-intentioned efforts provide threadbare protection at best.

An example of regulation gutting is the sensible requirement to provide “viable populations” of all native wildlife on national forests. After we started winning in federal court, showing that the Forest Service was consistently ignoring its obligations to wildlife, the regulation was removed, first by Bill Clinton and then by George W. Bush.

Another problem is the hollowing out of the environmental movement by foundations and wealthy patrons who have become important funders for many groups. They urge the adoption of corporate business practices that focus on goals that can be achieved in the short term. Big-picture campaigns to decommercialize public lands by ending for-profit logging; amend the Constitution to establish rights to a healthy, self-sustaining environment (130 nations have constitutional guarantees of environmental protection, but not the United States); or reform the federal budget to account for the environmental costs of clear-cut logging can take decades to win and are therefore off the table for most funders. This would be like telling Martin Luther King to end the civil rights movement after the drinking fountains in the South were integrated.

There is also a quiet acceptance of nonconfrontation tactics — volunteer efforts to change light bulbs or plant trees on Earth Day — that don’t rock the capitalist boat. Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth, for example, urges viewers to be more conscientious consumers. These efforts, while obviously important, rely on the viewer’s sense of moral obligation and let corporations off the hook, despite their having racked up enormous profits dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. After an hour and a half of dire warnings of apocalyptic changes in climate, many are left feeling powerless and overwhelmed and do nothing.

No wonder we’re losing. What happened to our tradition of empowerment through collective action?

Politicians promise change but deliver hopelessness. Remember Bill Clinton, the man from Hope, Arkansas? In this election, Barack Obama has accurately perceived the longing for change among the electorate, especially the young, and has raised hopes that change is possible — which it isn’t unless participatory structures are available for collective action.

As I write this, a predictable deflation has already begun to settle on the body politic. Manipulation of hope sucks the air out of politics, turning us away from the work of citizenship and self-government back into atomized consumers preyed upon by corporate advertising that promises to satisfy our longings with needless stuff. We learn to distrust our highest aspirations and settle for token reforms rather than radical change that threatens corporate power arrangements. Hope becomes passive — like in the overworked expression “I hope things get better.”

But are corporate actors really the source of our social failures? A lot of outrage is directed at corporations from the Left, but it is mostly misdirected and therefore futile. Corporations are mere manifestations of the capitalist system that sanctions greed. Capitalism allows — even encourages — the socializing of environmental degradation across generational lines while privatizing profits. Like most of us, activists are so focused on narrow issues that they fail to see how this system works to unravel planetary life support systems.

So what’s wrong with the “invisible hand” of the market that efficiently allocates goods and services, lauded by everyone from Adam Smith in the 1700s to conservative icon Milton Friedman? In a nutshell, it’s the mammoth “invisible footprint” of state capitalism — the union of the national security state and what social critic Lewis Mumford 30 years ago called “carboniferous corporations.” State capitalism — which to its credit provides us with a choice of 27 different kinds of toothpaste — is rapidly destabilizing the planet’s climate, a wretched and seemingly inescapable situation threatening to end civilization as we know it.

Can the worst excesses of capitalism be curbed by incremental reform, such as better enforcement of existing laws, taxation of consumption instead of labor, incentives for technological innovation and many other worthwhile ideas? Or will worker self-management of the economy and direct citizen guardianship of nature’s gifts be required to end the social inequities and environmental plunder caused by more than three centuries of wealth accumulation?

This is the central question of our time, but it is never raised. “There is no alternative” to capitalism, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously said. History is over — there is no debate among rational people — proclaimed American neoconservative Francis Fukuyama when the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s.

While some see an end, former labor organizer and author Stanley Aronowitz sees a new beginning. He calls on citizens “to reignite the radical imagination” by crafting a compelling narrative of ecological renewal and collective action distinct from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and the failures of European democratic socialism and state communism.

The new narrative is not about outrage over corporations and bloodsucking CEOs — they’re doing exactly what the system was designed to do. Aronowitz counsels that our narrative both “name the system” and engage in a broad campaign of radical renewal. Elements of that campaign include framing an alternative where nature is not in revolt against human folly; welding together identity movements – ethnic, gender, indigenous, issue-based – into an unstoppable political formation; resurrecting the best visionaries of the Old Left (Antonio Gramsci, Bob Marshall and others); enlargement of our ethical boundaries to include all life, and paying serious attention to indigenous traditions of community building as well as the imaginative tactics of the antiauthoritarian new anarchists.

The ethical foundation of this new narrative is of shared sacrifice and collective action for the greater good. Instead of hope neutered by politics, we are guided by ennobling principles, passionate curiosity, critical questioning and innovative thinking. Rather than the end of history as claimed by the neocons, it’s a new beginning of doing impossible tasks today to be ready for a possible tomorrow.

Few are willing to face the fact that capitalism’s mantra of endless growth on a finite planet is unsustainable. When growth slows, states frantically try to stimulate growth by increasing the money supply and lowering interest rates. Despite these efforts, the worldwide economy is growing at a rate of less than half it was 30 years ago because of diminishing oil, plundered ecosystems, and the permanent war economy needed to expand and maintain economic advantage. By elevating growth to a religion, state capitalism lays waste to the planet’s productive capacities. (While ecological destruction is not unique to capitalism, its worldwide scale and the rapidity with which it unravels entire ecosystems is unprecedented.)

Boosters of capitalism invariably equate the market with liberal democracy. Yet state capitalism subverts democracy by amassing wealth and, therefore, power in the hands of the few. As a wealth-concentrating system, capitalism is fundamentally opposed to democracy. Does anyone believe that media giant Robert Murdock has the same influence in setting public policy as an unemployed steelworker in Youngstown, Ohio?

What about values? Capitalism glorifies greed and envy, which all religions condemn. How can antisocial behavior be good in the marketplace and bad in families, communities and places of worship? We are told that humans are naturally self-absorbed and competitive. But humans are also capable of empathy and compassion. When an economic system rewards our most heartless tendencies, then those will dominate. The brutish values of state capitalism are the result of poor choices, not innate behavior.

Another by-product of capitalism’s me-first competition is loss of the social glue that binds us together through shared purpose and shared responsibility.

After leaving Forest Guardians in April 2001, I began working with citizens in Las Vegas, New Mexico, contesting commercial logging in their municipal watershed, a coalition of the chemically sensitive made sick by the spraying of toxic herbicides and several groups fighting the off-roader takeover of national forests. There was plenty of outrage to fuel these struggles, but interpersonal skills needed to sustain small groups were lacking. In some cases, rage became misdirected at fellow activists, breaking apart coalitions needed to gain political momentum. Capitalism’s cutthroat competition runs counter to magnanimous citizenship, leaving us deficient in the artistry needed for collective action.

Another obstacle is that capitalism assumes nature operates like a machine, with investments resulting in predictable profits. The U.S. Forest Service, for example, develops forest models to ensure that logging equals annual wood growth. Environmentalists find fault and advocate for an analytical methodology that preserves old forests and shifts logging to younger trees. Rarely challenged is the simplistic machine model of nature itself, endlessly producing predictable outputs. In fact, forests are living systems that go through long-term cycles of destruction and rebirth having nothing to do with satisfying the desires of industrial economies.

Citizens weren’t always powerless and manipulated. By early in the last century workers, farmers, immigrants, suffragettes, conservationists and minority groups had begun to curb the power of market capitalism. A strong radical element in the labor movement pushed President Roosevelt to establish a social safety net during the Depression. The middle class grew, and income disparities between the wealthy and workers were reduced.

However, American radicalism unraveled when Khrushchev acknowledged Stalin’s atrocities in the early 1950s. Many former radicals moved to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and focused on defensive strategies to maintain achievements in social equity. The totalitarianism of Hitler’s fascism and Stalin’s state communism — both grand ideas that resulted in unprecedented human suffering — discredited all talk of grand schemes for political change.

The post–World War II compact between the Left and Right that regulated markets in exchange for a social safety net for the poor and opportunities for the middle class collapsed with the rise of the conservative movement in the early 1960s. At the same time the New Left arose, championing “participatory democracy” to empower citizens in struggles for social justice.

Although the New Left opened doors to government information and citizen involvement in environmental decision making, it quickly fragmented into identity, issue and gender movements that rarely agreed on anything but vague principles. The Reagan presidency tipped the balance back to wealth accumulation for the few by weakening regulations and repositioning government to serve corporate interests. Representative democracy was reduced to tatters by massive infusions of campaign cash from the beneficiaries.

We must learn from this history. Regulation cannot tame the destructive power of capitalism for long. Also, youthful idealists did not build on the organizing skills, party discipline and outreach efforts of the Old Left, who were seen in the 1960s as consumed by arcane ideological debates and blind to the Soviet Union’s repression.

Today, predatory capitalism is striving to commercialize every corner of the planet and every aspect of our lives. This overreach will fail because the system is fundamentally unfair and unsustainable. As gaps in the social fabric open, there will be opportunities at the local level to experiment with cooperative forms of economic activity, such as nonindustrialized food production and distribution, renewable energy, mass transportation, alternative media and cooperative housing. These efforts give citizens valuable experience and opportunities to learn at a small scale from the inevitable failures.

Equally important is strengthening the Left’s tradition of critical analysis to expose the hidden mechanisms of capital’s domination. Naomi Klein, Jeremy Scahill, Amy Goodman, Jim Hightower and many other progressives are like modern Totos in the “Wizard of Oz”, pulling aside the curtain to show whose hands are on the levers. As Utah Phillips reminded us, the planet isn’t dying, its being killed and the murderers have names and addresses. 

Yet our movement will come to naught if we don’t learn to be political animals again, a defining human quality that Aristotle noted in the citizens of ancient Greece. Politics weaves together disparate issues and causes — concern for economic justice, racial equality, workplace democracy, species extinction — into powerful and unified wholes. The 1999 “Battle of Seattle” protesting the cult of unregulated corporate trade was an inspiring example of unions, anarchist collectives, mainstream environmental groups and indigenous peoples from the overdeveloped north and the global south linking-up to create an alliance of momentous power.

We live in profoundly nonrevolutionary times. Yet revolutionary openings could become frequent with the increased likelihood of economic meltdowns, struggles over scarce resources, and Katrina-type weather events. Now is the time to forge alternatives and political formations so that we will be ready with viable narratives when an opening occurs. Our internal affairs ought to be organized using new models of direct democracy that prefigure the changes we advocate. Good examples are the youth-led anarchist collectives that promote consensus while encouraging a diversity of expression.

The civics of not voting must also be examined. Half of eligible voters have become so alienated that they don’t regularly vote, with a quarter having never voted. This alienated near majority can be seen either as fueling capitalism’s self-destructive tendencies or the fertile ground for radical renewal. I prefer the latter — our fellow Americans refusing to cheapen their citizenship with a meaningless vote. They are waiting for authentic and radical change that comes from the root of collective experience.

 To cheer us up in the darker times surely to come, imagine itty-bitty mammals scurrying around beneath the dinosaurs 60 million years ago just before an asteroid struck Earth, causing mass extinction. Mammals survived and later thrived because they were small and adaptable when times were rough. Dinosaurs didn’t.

It is a virtue to be considered insignificant — we can go about our business unnoticed, weaving together an inclusive politics of radical renewal. To paraphrase a rallying cry from the past: People of the world, unite! We have nothing to lose but our planet. 









Selected Readings:


Aronowitz, Stanley. 2006. Left Turn: Forging a New Political Future, Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, CO.

Graeber, David. 2002. The New Anarchists, New Left Review 13. London.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, edited and translated: Quintin Hoace and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, International Publishers, New York.

Jensen, Derrick. 2006. Beyond Hope, Orion Magazine, May/June, http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/170/

Jensen, Robert. 2008. An Unsustainable System, Synthesis/Regeneration Magazine, Winter 2008, pp. 39-41.

Marshall, Robert. 1933. The People’s Forests, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City.

Orr, David K. Law of the Land, Orion, Jan/Feb 2004, pp. 19-25. http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/133/


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