Overthrowing Babylon

By Andy Newman

A review of “Babylon and Beyond” By Derek Wall.

“Babylon and Beyond” is a very thought provoking book, and the ideas contained within it are extremely important for all socialists and environmentalists to engage with. Derek Wall certainly doesn’t have all the answers, nor does he claim to, but he is certainly asking some of the correct questions.

The book explains each of the main theoretical strands within the anti-globalist and radical green movements. I think Derek has made a generally successful attempt at this, and it is particularly useful that he has included in his account theorists as diverse as George Soros, David Korton, Caroline Lucas, Toni Negri and Fidel Castro. There is a warmth and generosity of spirit in the discussion of what are sometimes quite obscure ideas, so that it is possible to appreciate that each critic contributes some insights, without feeling the need to wholeheartedly accept or reject any of the theories.

Derek draws attention to the struggle in the global south, where conserving the environment is often a defence of traditional commons, for example the struggles in South Africa and South America to resist water privatisation, and the rejections of western concepts of poverty being based on lack of private wealth, as expressed in the writings of Vandana Shiva.

A significant accomplishment is to starkly show the current dilemma, both nationally and internationally, that while there exists a significant movement for ecological sustainability, only a minority within the green movement agree that market economics is incompatible with sustainability. Conversely, only a minority of socialists question the assumption that economic growth is desirable. The result is that we are both weaker, and Derek Wall challenges us all to create a synthesis that transcends the limitations of each part.

Derek includes a provocative chapter on the various Marxisms, that most socialists will partially agree with, and partially disagree with. It is our tragedy that none of us will agree which bits are right and which are wrong! Nevertheless, Derek’s critique is offered in the spirit of constructive and fraternal debate, and in particular he focuses on the relations of production and the dialectic between exchange values and use values as the Rosetta Stone that will perhaps allow us to translate between the green and socialist traditions. Of course a strength of the socialist movement is that we have given a lot of thought over the question of the nature of the state and the obstacles to achieving radical political and economic change, which Greens seem often rather naïve about.

He quotes the argument of American eco-socialist, Joel Kovel, who believes that a process of “greening the green parties” is required. The fight for economic sustainability requires the rejection of capital accumulation: It is impossible to have capitalism without economic growth, and therefore Green parties should become left parties. What is more Kovel argues that we need to create or recreate a sensual concern with our surroundings and our products, this demands a change from the socialist left. Derek Wall links this with the struggle to conserve and extend the commons, not only the traditional commonwealth of traditional communities, but also extending the creative commons of shared labour projects for use rather than for exchange, such as Linux, Indy-Media and Wikipedia.

The strongest and weakest part of the book is the attempt to underpin this by Marxist economics. Derek is absolutely right to emphasise that the drive to competitive capital accumulation is destroying the environment. I also think he is absolutely right to stress the need for us to challenge the traditional socialist preoccupations with just fighting for more material wealth, and return to also challenging the logic of commodity consumption that wage labour imposes on us.

Derek does make a brave attempt, but his account is not yet entirely finished or convincing. Part of the reason it has taken me so long to write this review (I promised it months ago) is that Derek has stimulated me to give a lot more thought to this issue, and I am still not quite sure what I think about it.

I think insufficient attention is given in Derek’s argument to how wage labour makes commodities of human beings, how this leads people to give greater value to commodities that are bought, rather than “home made” products, and how unpaid labour is stigmatised. I also think that in this area of commoditisation of human labour power, and the mediation of human relationships through things, lies part of the explanation for how sensual animal experience, emotional and physical connections between people and with our surroundings has been devalued.

Socialists have been dismissive of alternative lifestyles, complementary medicines, handicraft production and natural birth movements, in part through unconscious rejection of part of our own socialist tradition: the vital organic Marxism of William Morris. More often than not we concentrate on simply struggling to have more stuff, rather than putting human happiness and creative fulfilment as the central aims.

Capitalist economics constantly generates a tension between capitalists and workers over wages and conditions, and we are right to see this as a motor for challenging the logic of Capital. But at the same time we have to find a way of defending and extending those parts of human production and relations that are outside the market, and that means celebrating and extending alternative lifestyles. It means celebrating and validating every triumph where we assert our animal, human, physical and emotional needs over the logic of money.

We need to find a way of doing this, so we can knit together the partial insights of the existing left and green traditions into an inclusive eco-socialist movement. Derek Wall’s book is a great contribution to that debate, we should all read it, and see if we and build upon it.

You can read the introduction to “Babylon and Beyond” by New Zealand Green MP, Nandor Tanczos here.




March 2006

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