Green-Socialist Dialogues: the Green Side
by Roberto Verzola, Philippine Greens
As a Green activist, I would like to thank the organizers of this meeting for the opportunity to compare notes with socialists of Asia regarding our common as well as differing ideas about the environment and related topics.
I belong to a group called the Philippine Greens. This group consists of roughly three types of activists as far as the origins of our thinking is concerned: 1) political activists, who often began with a socialist perspective, who acquired a strong ecological consciousness as they confronted their society’s problems; 2) environmentalists who acquired a more political orientation after realizing that many/most of our environmental problems are also tied with socio-economic and political issues; and 3) those who adopted the Green worldview from the beginning.
Coming from the first category of political-turned-Green activists, I am quite familiar with socialist ideas, having studied them in detail in my younger days as a political activist.
Like socialists, the Greens also have a mindset. Call it, if you will, perspective, ideology, worldview, or value-system. It is how we look at the world and our role in it. Let me share with you three major ideas of the Philippines Greens to illustrate our basic mindset. These ideas are: 1) the eco-pyramid, 2) the three main sectors of the economy, and 3) the concept of progress.
Every social activist is familiar with the social pyramid: a triangle sitting on its wide base, representing the relative socio-political status of major social sectors. The pointed top of the triangle represents the elite, few in terms of numbers but very powerful – thus, on top – in terms of their economic, political and cultural influence and power are concerned. The somewhat wider middle section represents the middle classes/sectors – greater in terms of numbers but much less powerful. At the base, on which the triangle stands, are the masses, the poorest sectors. They have very little voice in economic, political and cultural affairs, but they are the most numerous, and this is the main source of their potential strength. The strategy and tactics proceed from this analysis.
Imagine this pyramid extended both on top and at the base. This is the Greens’ eco-pyramid.
On top, we Greens believe, sits a more powerful group than the elite men and women of the social pyramid. This is the corporation, also known in economic texts as the business firm. Corporations have acquired a legal personality that is distinct from their board of directors, their owners/stockholders or their internal bureaucracy. They have been given by human societies and legal systems a life of their own. They can nourish themselves from objects and other life forms around them; they can self-regenerate; and they reproduce themselves asexually, by simple division, or sexually, by mating with others of their own kind. We might even say they have become a distinct species, one created by humans but which has since become independent of and more powerful than us. They can also acquire property, put their human agents inside governments, run media, and do whatever else it takes to establish and expand their economic, political and cultural powers.In fact, we might further say that the dominant species on our planet is now the corporation, which has learned to domesticate Homo sapiens in the same way we learned to domesticate crops and animals. Globalization is nothing but the global spread of corporate power. Having mastered the human psyche, they have often managed to escape responsibility for their social and environmental crimes and direct the blame on human activities instead. How many, for instance, are aware that they are now the dominant species on this planet?
At the base of the eco-pyramid, below even the poorest of the poor, are the millions of other species of this planet, each consisting of hundreds of individuals in the case of species on the brink of distinction, to billions, perhaps trillions, in the case of microorganisms. To most socialists of the past, perhaps even of the present, they are represent a wealth of resource for potential exploitation. To us Greens, they are more than that: they are our fellow living things. Together, we all belong to the community of living things on this planet, each playing it own role in keeping the Earth the dynamic living system that it is. To recognize other species as part of the great community of living things has vast implications for human thought and action, and I challenge the socialists in this forum to grapple with them. Do these life forms, if not as individuals then at least as species, have a right to exist, as much as we do? If we recognize their right to exist, then shouldn’t we also recognize their right to their own habitat, their own living space, so that they may simply exist, as is their right?
To recognize that we have no right to drive species to extinction, that other species have the right to exist, that therefore they have the right to their own habitats is to acquire the germ of a species consciousness and, therefore, a Green consciousness.
Corporations do not belong to this community of species. They are not part of the great natural and biological cycles that replenish life on this planet. To us Greens, a species that we created cannot have the same inherent rights as the natural species on this planet. Especially not as this species has since domesticated – worse, enslaved – most of us and taken over our planet. I would even propose that the biggest challenge of our era is how to bring down the corporation from its dominant role, how to domesticate it, and how to kill a wayward, rabid member of this species.
The three sectors of the economy
Greens, socialists and other social movements today continue to grapple with the rapid developments initiated by new information and communications technologies (ICT) and the subsequent emergence of the information economy.
In the Philippine Greens, this is our analysis:
The economy has three major sectors: 1) the ecology sector, 2) the industrial sector, and 3) the information sector.
The ecology sector is more commonly known as the agriculture and fisheries sector. We believe it is not really land that sets it apart from the other sectors, but the fact that it involves the living world. Living things behave very differently from dead matter. They grow, regenerate, reproduce, mutate and evolve. Each living process is driven by its own dynamic which, through interaction with its external environment, produces a complex of behaviors, some of which provide us with useful goods and services.. The role of the human in this process is secondary. We might enhance, modify, divert, influence, control, etc. living processes for our own productive activities but we do not play the central role in the process. Playing this secondary role is bound to produce a unique mindset in the farmer that is qualitatively different from, say, the worker.
The second sector is the industrial sector, where workers turn dead matter into finished products through the application of human labor, often enhanced by machines. Here, the human plays the central role. Dead matter will not, on its own, transform itself into a useful good without human intervention. If nature provides us with an incredible variety of living forms, industry provides us wth an equal variety of goods made by human hands.
The implications of this qualitative distinction are quite far-reaching.
For instance, the methods used in the industrial sector – sawing, cutting, melting, drilling, welding etc. — are appropriate in this sector but not in the agricultural sector. We cannot use on living things methods that are meant for dead matter. We cannot apply industrial methods in agriculture. The industrialization of agriculture through mechanization and chemicalization – inappropriately called the “Green revolution” when it actually drew agriculture away from its truly Green origins – was a huge mistake.
The class that emerged out of the industrial sector, the working class, has often been described as the most disciplined among the classes. Workers are seen to reflect the preciseness, unified action, and rapid tempo of machinery, compared to the more laid-back attitude of farmers who know that their crops will grow anyway with or without close supervision and who have to adjust their tempo to the biological pace of their crops and the even slower pace of the seasons. This has led to the overglorification of mechanistic discipline, including the assertion that the proletariat must lead the farmers as their vanguard. On the other hand, working class discipline is externally imposed by machines, every worker in an industrial setting being a virtual slave to machinery. Machineries proceed inexorably at an even beat, forcing all workers to keep pace with the tempo regardless of the natural pace of their own internal body clocks. The tempo may be sped up or slowed down to keep pace with profit-making, and the poor workers — against their will, I would imagine – have to do likewise. Is this the “discipline” we want to glorify and expect from everyone else? No thanks, the Greens would rather look for human-scale, appropriate technologies that can be adopted to the wide range of human tempo at work. I am sure this difference in outlook will also be reflected in terms of our differing perspectives towards organizations and organizational work.
The third sector is of course the information economy. If the ecology sector is the sector of living goods, and the industrial sector is the sector of non-living, material goods, the information sector is the sector of non-material goods. Because of the new ICTs, the products of this sector can now be easily converted into digital electronic format and stored, processed, transmitted, etc. using increasingly advanced computing and communications equipment, and then converted back into forms appreciated by humans, such as books, music, movies, software, etc. Digital technology has made possible the reproduction of an unlimited number of identical copies of information goods, turning economics on its head, because it must now grapple with abundance instead of scarcity.
What is needed in the information sector and, to a certain extent, the ecology sector, is a political economy of abundance, where we must learn to cope with having more goods than we need.
Socialism hints at a future society of abundance in which everyone can enjoy a life of material wealth. Humans did enjoy ecological abundance in the past, but this is fast becoming mere memory as ecological destruction goes unabated. With the advent of new ICTs, we are beginning to enter an era of abundance in information and knowledge, thanks to Google, YouTube and other forthcoming developments in the information sector. Unfortunately, lacking a political economy of abundance, we insist on creating artificial scarcity by resorting to patents, copyrights, intellectual property rights, and other forms of information monopolies. In the material goods of the industrial sector, abundance may not come for a long time, if at all, especially if we all recognize, as Greens do, the finite limits of the Earth and the rights of other species to their own habitat. There is enough room for abundance in the ecology and information sectors that human happiness need not be constrained at all if material scarcity persists in the industrial sector.
The concept of progress
The simplistic materialist conception of history is the linear progression from primitive communal societies to slavery to feudalism to capitalism and then to socialism, with some occasional backsliding here and there. Each stage is an advance from the previous one. Sooner or later, one stage will transform itself to the next, the transformations usually being ushered by revolutions.
That is likewise how life is seen, a progression from the primitive to the advanced, from the simple to the complex, the human representing the most intelligent and therefore the most advanced life form on this planet. Even the concept of class struggle echoes the Darwinian concept of evolution through the survival of the fittest. This somehow endows the human with the mandate to change the world according to its will and to exploit every other life form for the benefit of humanity. Being the most advanced class somehows also endows the proletariat with the mandate the lead the other classes as vanguard of the socialist revolution.
In this conception, progress is usually drawn as a linear progression from lower to higher stages of development, or a spiralling progression moving linearly from lower to higher stages.
Let me describe a different concept of progress.
Imagine a tree that starts with a single trunk, which splits into two or more branches, each branch splitting into two or more subbranches, and so on, ending up in the leaves. A similar process occurs underground, with the roots.
The evolution of life shows the same pattern. Today, we coexist with living forms which have no nucleus, with single-celled life, with multi-cellular forms, with a vast diversity of life. Some of them have managed to survive on Earth for hundreds of millions to a few billion years – much longer than we have. In the process, many of them have enhanced further the Earth’s capacity to support life, something that we cannot say for Homo sapiens. Some indigenous tribes live today as Homo sapiens did a hundred thousand years ago, without causing Earth-wide threats that the corporate species and their human domesticates are now causing. Who can claim that capitalist society or socialist society is more advanced than these primitive communalists, simply because the former emerged at a later date in the tree of human social development?
When we Greens speak of progress, we think of the emergence of an increasing diversity of forms, reflecting the increasingly diverse way in which life – or more generally matter – responds to its environment. All these diverse forms, in a way, are equally valid responses to the challenges of the environment. The indigenous ways of life (which Marx sometimes called the “Asiatic mode of production”) are as valid a response to the challenges of human survival and existence as the capitalist or the socialist mode. Perhaps more, having proven their longevity as evidenced by the tribes that still exist today, still in harmony with their environment.
In our conception of progress, every social form that still exists today has by its very survival has proven its validity. As such, it is an option that should remain open to us, to be adopted on a voluntary basis. If one form disappears, it is because its approach has become inappropriate to its environment and so it is abandoned. Progress to us therefore means an increasing variety of options which each of us can individually or collectively take freely, rather than deterministic change from one form to another, in effect leaving individuals and communities no choice on the matter.
This Green perspective elevates diversity, together with freedom, among the highest values of human societies. Diversity and freedom are the twin faces of progress – an increasing diversity of options and the freedom to choose among them. From my distant perspective, based on reports trickling in from overseas Filipino workers, some societies in the Middle East are practically slave societies. Yet, Filipinos continue to flood into these countries, despite warnings that they will be treated as virtual slaves. Sadly, they choose to do so because their home country could not give them a better option. Who are we to tell those societies that they should abolish themselves? Or those desperate Filipinos to stop going to the Middle East? Give the Filipinos better options and ensure their freedom to choose, and they will opt out of slavery.
Diversity can best emerge if development occurs in a decentralized manner, where many individual centers of initiative can pursue their own course based on the resources available to them, the challenges of their immediate environment, and the combined inclinations of their members. On the other hand, homogeneity is often the result of highly centralized societies, where uniform rules and resources are imposed on all. Greens favor decentralized, small- to medium-scale (i.e., human-scale) approaches because these approaches enhance diversity and therefore bring us progress.
This is also the reason why many Greens are communitarians in action, emphasizing community-level alternatives rather than homogenous, nationwide or international solutions. This is furthermore the reason why we don’t think an agricultural society should give way to an industrial society, or an industrial society should give way to an information society. Rather, the agriculture, industrial and information sectors of the economy should all be developed, giving each of us a wider set of options in terms of jobs, goods and services.
What can be a better indicator of progress than people who are given the full freedom to choose among a diverse range of options, so that they can pick one that suits their inclinations and tastes best?
We Greens are driven by a species-consciousness which recognizes the rights of other species to a habitat of their own so that they may continue to exist on this planet. We have become aware that corporations, not Homo sapiens, are now the dominant species on this planet. Corporate activities are undermining human societies, obliterating other life forms and destroying the environment. We intend to end corporate dominance and restore the human role as a responsible, conscious member of the community of life on this planet.
In the economy, the Greens recognize three major sectors which should not be mixed up, because they are qualitatively different. These three sectors should be developed according to their own natural dynamics. In particular, the abundance of goods in the ecology and information sectors should be enhanced thru a political economy of abundance. The full development of the three sectors should provide us with sufficient living, material and information goods to ensure human happiness in harmony of the rest of the living world.
Progress, to the Greens, means to increase the variety of our options and to enhance the human freedom to choose among them. We reject the idea of progress in linear, deterministic terms, such as what is presumed to be the inevitable progression of all societies from primitive communal to socialist or from agricultural to information economies.
29 November 2007