Monday, December 17, 2018

A discussion between Jonathan Porritt and the Socialist Party (1987)

Many activists in the green movement have not realised that the Socialist Party has long been focussed on the problem and has been offering its analyses for a long time.

This is an interview conducted with Jonathon Porritt, a prominent and respected spokesperson within the environmentalists. The interview is dated from August 1987, over thirty years ago. We maintain that our argument remains even more relevant for today.

Green Reform or Socialist Revolution

Socialist Standard: Can I begin by saying that the Socialist Party, which we’re representing, differs from other political parties and organisations on what you call the left, by advocating something different: a non market society, a society of free access to goods and services. with production for use and not for profit. Now a number of things you're on record as saying ring a fair number of bells with people in the Socialist Party and people who are sympathetic with the Socialist case. For example, you're on record as saying that you favour the transition from production for profit to production for need. Now how do you envisage this can come about within the context of a society based on buying and selling and wages and salaries? The Socialist Party wants that as well, it wants production for need, but we don't think this is possible within the context of a society where you've got a means of exchange, where you've got buying and selling, where you've got the need built into it — regardless of the will of individuals — to make profit.

Jonathon Porritt: It depends what level you're talking about. If you're talking about an improvement in the existing situation, which is what essentially Friends of the Earth is talking about, it is quite conceivable to imagine patching the system up and improving it and making it more responsive to environmental considerations, so that the appalling damage that's being done and the appalling waste and the abuse of people and earth is mitigated. ameliorated. At that level, one can argue quite conventionally about the ways in which the existing system can be adapted or reformed to do a slightly better job than it's doing now. At another level, which concerned me most before I came to Friends of the Earth, the level of deep Green politics rather than light Green politics, which is what we here at Friends of the Earth are primarily about — at that deeper level, there isn't any way of fudging with this existing system. It is not amenable to reform in such a way and to such a degree as to allow for fundamental ecological priorities to come to fruition.

Socialist Standard: What follows from that, then, if you say it's not amenable to reform?

Jonathon Porritt: What follows from that is that the system absolutely has to go. The nub of it for us, for me as a Green, is that the productivist system that we have now, the system that depends upon an expansion of the process of production and consumption as a good thing in itself but is primarily geared towards exchange rather than anything else, as a way of generating "wealth' — that system is not compatible with a finite planet and it doesn't matter how often technology steps in and seems to persuade us that we can overcome some of this finite nature. It doesn't matter how many times one resource seems to substitute for another if one is running short. It doesn't matter how often there seems to be a technological fix that persuades us that we human beings don't have to change our ways. Ultimately, the nub of the reality for Greens is that we have only a certain resource base to use; you can either use that resource base to promote the kind of appallingly inequitable and destructive system that we have now. or you use the resource base to meet the needs of all people on earth.

Socialist Standard: What stands in the way of our doing that then?

Jonathon Porritt: So much that I can't help but sometimes get depressed. What stands immediately in the way in terms of political perceptions and political realities is a very strong feeling that we have, and I suspect that you may have, that there isn't a great deal to differentiate between what is on offer from the Labour Party and what is on offer from the other parties. This is largely because their area of autonomous operation within the existing international and economic order is tiny and it doesn't actually matter very much whether they talk about wider distribution of ownership in this country, or whether they talk about more production for need in this country. They are still locked into an international economic order which demands of all its participants that the resources they have at their disposal, both human and physical, are converted into a form of wealth that is not directly geared to meeting needs, but is directly geared towards creating profits. When I read the learned and wise, so-called radical, words of opposition parties in this country — not your party, I agree, but the people who call themselves the opposition in this country nowhere is there a perception that they are the slaves of that system, as much as the Conservatives are the willing protagonists of the system. That is a very, very important point of principle for me as a Green. Therefore, to end this point, when one talks about production for use or production for need, it is far more than what it has become in the Labour Party. To them it is essentially a bit of history, which needs to be trotted out from time to time because that is the way many of the ideas in the Labour Party develop, but it is not a meaningful concept when you actually look at the Labour Party's economic and industrial policies.

Socialist Standard: But we've been saying that a revolutionary change is the only way to solve the problems that arise under capitalism since 1904 and movement after movement, reform campaign after reform campaign, has arisen over those years. If in fact attention had been paid to the fundamentals, then maybe we'd be nearer a solution.

Jonathon Porritt: I don't dispute that. I'm fairly well aware of that and obviously I live with that reality day to day myself. To answer the question from a personal point of view, I would not myself dismiss the work of people who are in the reform area as worthless. But I also know the forces that we're up against and I know that we cannot sit around waiting for a Green society to happen, or indeed pit ourselves against some of those forces, unless we are at the same time attempting to do something about the most pressing problems that we're up against at the moment. And there are a very large number of people involved in reformist work of one kind or another which does not rule out awareness on their part, and a commitment on their part, to an extremely radical change in the system But their perception is — and this is a question of personal judgement — that their energy and their efforts are, given the existing status quo, better used, in the short and medium term, on doing that kind of work, rather than on committing themselves to a political revolution as you call it, which, a lot of people have come to accept, will never come about in this country. Unless, that is, there is some desperate, juddering, ghastly collapse of the system. that brings people head-on against reality.

Ideology of Money

Socialist Standard: But even so. revolution is conceived in people's minds normally as a change of government. Now in relation to this, if I can come back to something which you said a little bit earlier, what it seems to me you said is that there's an ideology which embraces all the well-known political parties whether right or left. This is an ideology of growth: they're locked into this international economic system and there's no way out of it for them. Can I ask you about an ideology that is equally all-embracing? That is the ideology that we've got to base our relationships, personal and economic, on money, on this money-bound mode of thinking, the idea that we need a society in which buying and selling is paramount, a society in which we've got to work for wages, in which there have got to be employees and employers. It seems to me that this is a super-ideology which in a way goes far deeper than the ideology of growth. What would be your reaction to the suggestion that we should do away with the ideology of buying and selling and working for wages, as well as the ideology of growth?

Jonathon Porritt: The idea of wages, and the notion that every working person has a price, as it were, or a monetized value, is something which I personally do not find a lot of sympathy with. If you look at the way in which work patterns are emerging in the future, there is just as much of a potential for a complete revolution in work attitudes, and what work is all about, as there is for a tightening of the existing capitalist system.

Socialist Standard: How close are the trade unions to recognising that? Do you say you've moved a little bit nearer or there's a little more sympathy within trade union circles to Greens?

Jonathan Porritt: I've got no false expectations there. When it's a question of wages, salaries etc. then my feeling is that there is scope for a tremendously exciting shift in attitudes, so that work ceases to be the debased way in which people assess someone's merit or someone's value in society merely according to how much they can earn. And work becomes again what I have always felt it should be — probably from a hopelessly old-fashioned point of view — an essential part of the way in which a human being expresses his or her ability to serve other people, to enrich their lives, to improve their community and so on. You can't talk about Green attitudes towards employment and the economy unless that shift of attitudes towards work is at the back of it. On the question of buying and selling things: I don't feel confident enough about how alternatives to that might come about to argue that as part of Green politics. We would have to look very carefully at barter economies and the way in which they developed up until the point where local scale markets developed, quite organically, in a quite different way from what "the market" means today (which is a real non-word — it isn't a market at all).

Socialist Standard: Can I interrupt to say we're not talking about barter; what we're talking about is production directly for use.

Jonathon Porritt: Ah. but then you're coming back to something that I think we have already agreed on — the concept that the resources of a society could be so geared that they were primarily directed at meeting need rather than creating money through salaries or wages, or creating surplus through profits or whatever else it might be. Now that is a different way of looking at it, but money might still be involved.

A Society of Free Access

Socialist Standard: Well, what is the objection to free access to what is produced, without the intermediary of money, or barter? Money is simply a sophisticated form of barter. If one excludes barter altogether either in the form of goods or of money, what is the objection to people producing what they need in the quantities that they need and simply taking those things as necessary? The objection people often put — that people arc naturally greedy — I presume would not be put by people in the Green movement because it would be quite a damning one. Our argument is that people are made greedy by the circumstances in which they find themselves. But what's the objection to that kind of arrangement?

Jonathon Porritt: The objection, which I'm sure you've encountered just as often as we have, is your interpretation of need and the extent to which one person's interpretation of need might be another person's interpretation of greed or simple want, rather than need. A lot of work in the Green movement, particularly in terms of international economics and developing world economics, has gone into the whole definition of need. How can you use that word with any sense of it being applicable objectively to every person in a country, let alone to every country on this earth? How can one actually use that word as an absolute standard, where you can lay down what a person's needs are?

Socialist Standard: We're talking about self-determined need. I don't think you can talk about it in any other way. because you can't lay down what somebody else's needs are.

Jonathon Porritt: But are you talking about that? Because I honestly feel that that's questionable.

Socialist Standard: Yes. that is our conception, that that is the proper basis of human society meeting needs.

Jonathon Porritt: Right, but then your point about human nature becomes not only important, but all-important. Unless one is able to see human nature as a totally different potentiality from what it is now. It would be fine if, expressed and articulated in a different society with a different set of values and a different set of priorities, human nature allowed for self-determined need to flourish as a principle. But then I would have to put it to you — and this is, I feel, more on the basis of ten years' experience as a teacher, rather than three years' experience as Director of Friends of the Earth — the reality of it is that every single one of the major shaping influences in our society at the moment, from top to bottom, tends to reinforce a concept of need which is not self-determined, which is culturally and socially determined in the most destructive way. destructive both of human dignity and of the planet.

Class Society

Socialist Standard: We hold that the shaping influences can be lumped together as the influences emanating from one class — those people who take the decisions that production shall proceed on the basis of profit. So it is that class which shapes ideas and therefore we see a class-divided society. It's not a social or an emotional thing. It's a rational analysis and until that class, who are in a position of power and can determine what production is undertaken and so on, and until that social system with that kind of minority authority is altered, nothing will change.

Jonathon Porritt: I don't hold to that view, and I personally believe that some of the things that are holding back a change in the nature of the debate, the political debate in this country, are the way in which we get hooked on the class issue before we are able to move through to what I consider to be the real issue, which is that of who holds power. I don't share your perception that the only people who hold power in our society are those from a certain class and that they use that power permanently to keep other people disempowered. From my perception of it, from the perception of an ecologist, there is no justification for that theory when one looks at patterns of damage and the ways in which different economies, left and right, are able to put people into positions of power in such a way that they use that power against the interests of the majority of people and against the interests of the planet. When you look at the power base in Eastern Europe, it's obviously structured in a different way than it is in the West, but it shares so many points in common that although you may not be able to spot a class system emerging in quite the same sense . . .

Socialist Standard: Oh, but we do.

Jonathon Porritt: I would have some difficulty about that. 1 would call it a caste system, rather than class. I would say you're using the concept of class in an inaccurate way. What you're talking about is those who are allowed in these different political systems to dominate others through the power that they have and through their capacity to disempower others. That I would share with you; I don't actually believe that that's any longer the sole prerogative of any one class. And if you look at this country, at the extent to which not just the upper classes are involved in this continued oppression of people but others, other people who don't necessarily fit into that category, one has to raise the notion that the so-called leaders of the working class have actually done as much to destroy the potential for a genuine liberation of politics in this country as the so-called leaders of the upper classes.

Socialist Standard: Trade union leaders are in the business of maintaining the price of labour, as an element in the capitalist system, so of course they're locked into the system as well.

Jonathon Porritt: But if the word class means anything, one would have to say that they feel an affinity with that class of people. Now that's why to a certain extent your own analysis may be suggesting that we may need to move beyond the very simplistic way in which class is used as a concept in British politics, and get back to the thing that underlies class, underlies privilege, caste, all the rest of it, whatever the determinant may be that puts one person in power over another, and get back to that issue of power.

Socialist Standard: Can I say that we argue that a class is a group of people that has economic interests in common, and therefore we define the owning class, the capitalist class if you like, as those who own and/or control the means of production. And in Britain you've got maybe 10 per cent of the population who are in the position of being able to survive without having to work, because they have the means to do so through dividends or whatever other unearned forms of income come to them. In Russia the situation is not one of people owning in a legal way but in a de facto way, of controlling the means of production and in so doing having privileges which in effect make them into an owning class, into a capitalist class, even if they're not called that

An Alternative Value System

Socialist Standard: But perhaps I could come back briefly to one thing you said earlier, and that was basically "the world's in a mess", that people's values are on the whole fairly negative, and people are being encouraged to move in directions which all ecologically-minded people would deprecate, and this comes from values which we'd essentially be against. Now what we'd advocate would be a society of self-determined need. Now if at present what we've got is a society where people aren't capable of determining their own needs because of the pressures upon them, surely the logical answer to that is for those who are in favour of a society of self-determined need to advocate that. They should do as much as possible to make people see that it would be in their interest and in the interest of the community as a whole to have that kind of society, rather than the kind of society we've got at present where people are at one another's throats and encouraged to have values which are not in their own individual interests and not in the social interest.

Jonathon Porritt: I couldn't agree with you more, but what lies behind your question is the suggestion that unless you're doing that full time everything else which you do is going to be second-best. Now I wouldn't agree with that because I feel very strongly that there are so many different ways in which one can encourage people to come to that perception. I don't believe that the only way in which you can do that is by beating them over the head with a different political ideology. And I actually believe that there may be many more indirect ways of eroding that value system, by holding it up to inspection so that people begin to question whether or not it's any longer valid for them. And that's what I meant when I said that Friends of the Earth is not just a reformist organisation, not just a single-issue campaigning pressure group, but actually has a deeper goal behind it. namely to suggest that today's environmental problems are symptoms of a system that is suffering a profound breakdown or malaise, and that system is in the state of crisis it's in because of the values that dominate our society. As an ecologist, one is then able to touch upon alternative value systems, which would give greater priority to things like: concepts of inter-generational equity, how one generation is responsible for the well-being of the next by the use that it makes of the resources available to us; how one can talk about the distribution of wealth North and South, not just in a charitable syndrome. i.e. we owe them more because we're rich and they're poor, but in terms of the way in which the earth's wealth has been ripped away from them by us and is still being done so, so much to their detriment that it's now impossible for many of those countries even to contemplate the beginnings of a sustainable future. And all of those ways of talking about equity and justice, which start from ecological underpinning, and yet still lead through to the same point that you started out at, namely that today's value system is both immoral and unsustainable — that is something that Friends of the Earth can do.

I'm sure that one of the things we would have in common is a grave concern about the level of political debate in this country, which in my opinion is a source of genuine despair. So many people see it as a kind of abstract thing up there, "let the politicians get on with it, it's nothing to do with us, well live our life" — that is a real problem.

But you're quite right to call organisations like Friends of the Earth to book and say, How can what you do be more effective than going out there and pitching the challenge absolutely directly and not in the faintly mealy-mouthed way — which I would acknowledge — that we sometimes use. I wouldn't necessarily defend our line to the hilt, but I would say, from our experience, that it is a question of finding the most effective way of reaching different kinds of people

Reform or Revolution?

Socialist Standard: Many people have said to us: we agree with your ideas, and we think as a long term goal they're very laudable, and we want to work towards them. At the same time, there are lots of other things that need to be done in the meantime, and we're going to do those as well. In other words we re going to engage in 50/50 activity — 50 per cent reform, short-term activity, 50 per cent long-term, revolutionary activity. In actual practice, what happens is that within a very short time those people are thoroughly, 100 per cent engaged in the reform activity because it takes all their time and all their energies, and the long-term revolutionary activity gets completely forgotten. The German SPD Party once had these revolutionary aims of the abolition of the wages system and a society of free access; they were finally removed but these date back to the end of the nineteenth century; people in the nineteenth century actually had these ideas. So the reason why we in the Socialist Party say. No, we've got to keep our ideas in clear, logical focus is that otherwise they get lost completely. Not only do we not advance the idea of Socialism as a wageless, moneyless society, a marketless society. with self-determined needs, but we actually put it back; there's not even anybody there to put the case.

Jonathon Porritt: I'm certainly not critical of you and indeed the party for the position that it takes there. I've always said this, that there is a need for that kind of expression, a very important need. What I'm trying to put to you is that it's a bit of a vicious circle because you are dependent upon so many people making that their priority that the thing assumes a different status in society, it assumes a different level of credibility. Until that threshold is reached, an awful lot of us say. "Yes. but it isn't possible psychologically and personally endlessly to go on re-motivating, re-committing, spending literally 18 hours of every single day of the year putting one's heart and soul into doing the kind of thing you're doing. You must have attainable, shorter-term goals than the longer-term revolutionary change. I couldn't have gone on much longer in the Green Party, at the level of involvement I had there, because there wasn't any short-term achievable goal; it was all very much pitched at the same level that you're talking about. I'm still obviously very committed to the goals and the ideals of the Green Party, and I feel I'm still working for those goals and ideals by working here. Everything I do here, however short-term, reformist, opportunistic. and pragmatic it may sometimes be, I justify because all of the shorter-term things that we do I see as very humble, but nonetheless extremely important, steps on the path towards achieving that broader, more revolutionary framework.

Socialist Standard: And the things that in a revolutionised society would be done as a matter of course, without having to apply pressure to achieve them.

Jonathon Porritt: Precisely. But it's become impossible for me to work in any other way, because of the pain that we cause by so abusing each other and so abusing the earth, that we're incapable of seeing how different it could be. I can't claim any major revolutionary breakthroughs in Friends of the Earth over the last three years, but I can claim on behalf of the organisation some small improvement in things that would otherwise be worse than they are. And I personally feel that's better than not having done it. It's not much of a difference — I don't deny it. In terms of moving the world forward to some of those goals that we might have in common, I don't have any pretensions that I've achieved very much over the last three years.

Socialist Standard: We'd argue that this vicious circle does exist, and unless we break out of it by a sufficient number of people espousing the more long distance course, we're always going to be in a position where people say, 'Well I'll do something else in the meantime', and we'll never reach the position where the thing can really take off.

Jonathon Porritt: I agree. I can't get through that one myself. I'm not being despairing or fatalistic about it, but I can't deny the reality of what you're saying. I can't actually see a solution to it.

Howard Moss
Pat Wilson


Tim Hart said...

A very interesting discussion. Thanks for digging it out.

ajohnstone said...

Credit should go to DarrenO at