Monday, December 26, 2011

Environmental Vow 18: Radical Politics and Activism

Radical Politics and Activism

I suggested previously that there was a second motivating factor besides religious faith, namely patriotism.  As I pointed out, however, the calamities of the 20th century pretty much debased that coin in the minds of most thoughtful people.  It is possible to stretch the definition of “patriotism” to embrace more than just “king and country”, though.   What if people build their lives around support for some set of noble ideals, such as “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”?

 Over the last three hundred years or so millions have built their lives around this sort of thing.  Indeed, there are a great many people today who are involved in this form of politics that is specifically focused on environmental issues, namely small and large “g” greens.  Surely something like a form of “eco-patriotism” offers some sort of locus for changing people's behaviour in order to deal with the coming eco-catastrophe.  Unfortunately, I would argue that any sort of patriotism, not matter what its foundation, has found its coin just as debased as that of the old “king and country” type.  Moreover, any attempt to deal with this legacy have made it particularly vulnerable to the “do your own thing” poison that has damaged so many other elements of our society.

The first issue that people have to wrestle with is the impact that Marxism and Fascism have had on the popular imagination and how they still profoundly affect the thoughts of people who aspire to a radical form of environmental politics.  Radical politics was the primary guiding force for a great deal of social transformation during the 20th century. People find it hard to believe right now, but up until the Second World War, there were very active Communist parties throughout the Western world----even in the United States and Canada.  There were also various flavours of Nationalist, Fascist, Socialist parties with vast followings that had huge impact on the day-to-day life of many people.  Since the demise of the Fascist powers and the collapse of the Soviet Union, all this activity seems to be passe, if not down right incomprehensible.

The problem is that these grand experiments in using politics to reconfigure society all ended very badly.  Fascism in Germany, Italy and Japan, and Communism in Russia all culminated in dictatorships that either left their nations as occupied piles of rubble despised by the rest of the world, or couldn't even guarantee that their citizens would be able to find any soap when they went shopping.   All of them created police states and committed crimes against humanity.   These terrible past examples have created a “brand” so poisoned that anyone involved in any sort of radical or activist politics immediately risks being labeled a “Communist” or “Nazi”.

At first glance, this would strike most greens as being profoundly unfair.#  I would suggest, however, that there is a grain of truth to these accusations.  The point is that once one steps outside of “social convention” in politics, the unconscious popular sentiment is that we risk opening a Pandora’s box or stepping onto the slippery slope.  This is because what holds society together is the fact that the overwhelming majority of citizens hold onto pretty much the same worldview and honour a set of conventions about what issues are and are not “on the table”, and, what does or does not represent a “reasonable” demand for change.  Once one leaps over these unspoken boundaries to suggest, for example, things like an end to economic growth, the radical redistribution of wealth, or, mandatory birth control, this fragile consensus risks being shredded.

       Policy planks like these three, if they seriously have any hope of being implemented, would radicalize opposition to the point of violence between different factions of society.  At this point, political differences cease to be settled through stylized political activity (i.e. voting) and instead get worked out with guns.  That is politics the way the Nazis and Bolsheviks did it.  So while it is unfair to call the pacifist Green candidate a “Nazi” or “Communist”, the “kook” heckler does actually have something of a legitimate point.   If political goals become radical for large numbers of people, the citizenry will become polarized, and if taken far enough,  it is inevitable that the means of politics will become violent.

The popular imagination understands this on some sort of inarticulate level, which is why most people have a horror of radical solutions.   Instead, most ordinary folks want to see change that comes in incremental or evolutionary steps instead of being through radical or revolutionary programs.  This inclination flows from two springs.  First, there is the idea that “revolutions devour their own children”.  That is to say, that once society gets turned upside down the social forces that sweep away the old order sooner or later get turned on the revolutionaries themselves.  The examples of the terror of the French revolution and the purge of the old revolutionaries from the Soviet Union and China come to mind.  Secondly, there is a feeling that when the revolutions devour their children, the people who end up on top seem to be the same sorts of people who were in power before.  The cliche for this process comes from the 1960’s rock band the Who, who coined the phrase “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.   Absolutist monarchs in France, Russia and China all ended up being replaced by absolutist dictators, namely Napoleon, Stalin and Mao.  Ordinary folks might have some sympathy of the ideals espoused by radical activists, but they generally have grave suspicions about what would happen if these particular people ever got any real power.

A lot of people who are attracted to one type of green politics or another will find my position hard to accept.  But I think, however, that if they really work at trying to understand what politics really is, they will find the above assertions make a great deal of sense because one situation follows from the other almost like a geometric deduction.


Kerry Brian Davidson said...

At the risk of being labeled, I agree

Trey Smith said...

After Marx & Engles, the Socialist movement splintered. There were factions typified by Luxemburg, Lenin, Kautsky and Bernstein (the subjects of my Master's thesis years ago).

Of this group, Bernstein took the most cautious approach -- what many termed as Evolutionary Socialism. I think Bernstein realized -- as you do -- that incremental change was the most effective because it was less prone to violence.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...

Kerry and Trey:

Sorry to take so long to respond. I've been visiting my fiance in my other, St. Louis, home and I've yet to totally work out the logistics of writing while living, travelling and sharing my life with other people. :-)

I'm not a huge fan of violence, but I'm not a pacifist either. I have a lot of support for the notion that sometimes institutional violence is far worse than revolutionary violence.

I suppose my response is that I need to have some strong evidence that violence has some utility before I will support it. Replacing Tsar Nicholas with Tsar Stalin, or, the Qing dynasty with the Communist dynasty doesn't seem to have much utility.

Taking a cue from Daoism, I suspect the real problem isn't revolution versus evolution, but rather a dogmatic belief in a "one size fits all" approach to existence. I'm a big fan of letting the "medicine" fit the patient rather than looking or panaceas.