On Contact: Ecosocialism with Victor Wallis
On the show this week, Chris Hedges talks to writer, teacher and activist Victor Wallis about the prospect and need for ecosocialism. Wallis’ book is entitled ‘Red-Green Revolution: The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism’.
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CH: Welcome to "On Contact." Today, we discuss socialism, capitalism, and ecocide with Victor Wallis.
VW: It'd be fine for everybody to have a car and go on producing everything as long as everything could just be done on the basis of a different kind of energy. But the point is that it's not enough just to run all our private cars with solar cells. The whole problem of how much is used up in the way of materials, how much space is taken up, and be--also the fact that if you don't change the social configuration of power, any progressive change that you might bring about can easily be undone by the same people who put them there in the first place. You can't use the same system to correct itself that created these problems in the first place.
CH: The struggle to prevent ecocide now taking place across the planet is, at its core, a battle against corporate capitalism itself. To save ourselves from environmental catastrophe and ultimately extinction, there must be a radical reinterpretation of our relations with each other and the planetary systems of life on which we depend. This will only happen when we embrace an alternative vision of human society, one where the natural world is not a commodity to be exploited and destroyed but honored and protected as the source of life itself. Time is running out. How, as we head towards ecological collapse, can we instill new values and a new ethic into human society? How will we wrest power from corporations? Is this even possible? Joining me to discuss the climate crisis is Victor Wallis, author of "Red-Green Revolution: The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism." Let's define ecosocialism to begin, which you do in the book.
VW: Well, the basic idea of socialism is the elimination of class divisions, is ultimately, and the basic idea of ecology is to restore some kind of balance, some kind of health in the environment, and what the two have in common is that both clash fundamentally with the idea that production decisions should be made on the basis of a search for profits. You have to get away from the search for profits, whether you're looking at it as an environmentalist or as a socialist, and I feel in a way, in terms of the convergence of the two, that the "eco" prefix is not really necessary. It's implied in socialism. However, I think it's important to add it just for political reasons, to show--to emphasize, to underscore the ecological dimension of the struggle for socialism, to show that it's really in everybody's interest.
CH: And what does it look like?
CH: Yeah. What does that world look like, which you do talk about the book, a vision?
VW: Yeah. Well, the vision is, as I said, one of a classless society in which there would have been a considerable reconfiguration of space. There would be less need for going long distances every day to get to work. There would be more restoration of natural space, green space, not only agricultural space but also forest space. Restoration of biodiversity. And, again, who knows how much--to what extent this is possible, but to the extent that it's possible, and it has been done. The whole idea of regenerative agriculture, which is an important one, but which to be applied on a large scale would require doing away with the agribusiness which levels whole areas and creates specialized monocrops and then gets the pests and the pesticides and so on. So, you'd restore biodiversity. That's the ecological vision [indistinct]. And the classless aspect is integral to that because part of the whole process of bringing this about is bringing about transformations in everybody's daily life.
CH: So, explain what you mean by that--classlessness.
VW: Mean--meaning no class of privileged people who own the overwhelming bulk of the wealth in the society and who, therefore, make all the basic decisions about how the society is organized. It doesn't mean that everybody's the same or uniform and all that, but it means that there's no--the kind of 0.01%, that doesn't exist anymore. Those--that extra wealth is diffused, spread out through the whole society and not in the sense of redistribution but in the sense of common control, social control over the kinds of decisions that are now made by these corporations and the people at the very top of them.
CH: You talk in the book quite a bit about technology.
CH: And you raise several points. Can you address that issue?
VW: Yeah. Well, one of the characteristics of capitalism, at the ideological level, is the idea that for every kind of problem, there's a technological solution. And so, when you apply it to ecological thinking, you have these strange science fiction-type ideas of shooting reflectors up into the stratosphere and so on, or even less dramatically, you have the idea that, well, it'd be fine for everybody to have a car and go on producing everything as long as everything could just be done on the basis of a different kind of energy. But the point is that it's not enough just to run all our private cars with solar cells. The whole problem of how much is used up in the way of materials, how much space is taken up, and be--also the fact that if you don't change the social configuration of power, any progressive change that you might bring about can easily be undone by the same people who put them there in the first place. You can't use the same system to correct itself that created these problems in the first place.
CH: Well, and I think you're critical of these--many of these ecological groups that think they can partner with corporations.
VW: Right. Right. Yeah. I mean, it's possible that particular corporations will take particular measures that are beneficial and to some extent even is--is compatible with their bottom line. They may save some energy expenses and so on. But the--but what we're talking about here is the overall configuration of power. You may have some solar enterprises but you still have what they call all of the above. You still have all the oil drilling and the destruction of the pristine wilderness and so on.
CH: It requires a very different vision of not only the society we construct but a very different vision for ourselves as individuals. How does one achieve that vision? What is the process by which--because doesn't the vision have to come before the change?
VW: Well, I think the vision and the change, they're mutually dependent. I mean, you can't get the kind of change unless people react against the current scene, which means that they have--they’ve changed themselves in a certain way, and then inversely, as you've changed the surroundings, it becomes more possible for people to change their behavior and their interactions. So, for example, I think--I wish I didn't have to use an automobile. I wish I didn't have to own an automobile. But in order for me to live without one, there would have to be a different configuration to the communities and different public transportation and so on and so forth. So, yeah, it's very much kind of a mutually dependent thing, that if you create environments--or social environments of cooperation, then that breeds an attitude that corresponds to that on the part of individuals. And, I mean, this is--this goes back to old arguments about human nature. You know, whether people are inherently aggressive and competitive and grasping. And we know from individual experiences that people act in a way and behave in a way that to some extent reflects their upbringing, and if they're brought up in a loving and a respectful way, they'll turn out differently from if they're brought up in a kind of abusive way. So, you can expand this to the larger canvas.
CH: But we've seen--but there's a corporate war on the very systems that you advocate, whether it's in agriculture, whether it's in transportation. It's not benign. They seek to destroy all of those efforts to rebuild an alternative.
VW: Yes, of course. They're not gonna give up power willingly. So, that's why there's an extreme urgency to develop a kind of popular understanding of the fact that these corporations are the enemy, in a way, and that's why I argue in the book that the environmental issue is a class issue, I mean, in the sense that on the one hand, it's true that everybody, without exception, has an interest in a healthy environment, but on the other hand, the capitalist class has an interest, as you say, in blocking the measures that are necessary to achieve it. And so, it does depend on everybody's getting--vast majority of people getting involved in order to contest and overcome this corporate resistance, which is inevitable, inescapable. It happens constantly.
CH: Well, you're watching the harsher forms of control--as the ideology of neoliberalism no longer has any credibility across the political spectrum, you're watching harsher militarized police, wholesale surveillance, militarized drones, facial recognition techniques on the streets, the brutality that is carried out against immigrants, undocumented workers. You're seeing, in essence, that corporate capitalist elite, with the collapse of its own ruling ideology, become quite violent and quite brutal in terms of stripping us of civil liberties and using coercion as a mechanism for control.
VW: Yeah. Yeah, I think that's true, but I think that people's ability to see this and to recognize that it's happening in every sphere of life does increase their--the likelihood that they will respond in a kind of constructive way to this. The things that corporations could get away with because it'd be papered over by some kind of public relations before, it's being stripped away, so, people have an opportunity, which is the challenge. They have an opportunity to act on a massive scale in response to this for the first time. It hasn't happened yet, but there are indications of it happening. The very fact that you can have, for example, in 2016, a presidential campaign that at least viewed the term "socialism" not as a negative thing. That represents a big change. I mean, it's not sufficient in itself, but it's an indication that there's more responsiveness to a kind of radical rejection of the established ways of doing things.
CH: But isn't it possible that that backlash that you describe, as we've seen in Europe, as we see under the Trump administration, may in fact be a right-wing backlash?
VW: Yeah, it's possible. I mean, in a way, both look to the same--the left and the right look to the same constituency.
CH: Well, they're often driven by the same issues.
VW: Yes. Right. I mean, I was impressed by what was shown, for example, in Michael Moore's recent film "Fahrenheit 11/9," where he read off--you saw at the Democratic convention, they're reading off the list of states whose populations had gone for Sanders, and then whose victory was given to Clinton, and those very same states went for Trump in the general election. So, that's an example. It's a real contest with that kind of focus.
CH: Well, he also, in the movie, exposed Barack Obama's betrayal of the people of Flint, Michigan.
VW: Yes, absolutely.
CH: Which is really, I think, gets to the kind of hollowness and inability of the Democratic Party establishment to carry out the kinds of reforms that, I mean, without being overly dramatic, will save us from extinction, which you propagate or hold out in your book.
VW: Right. Exactly. Yeah. Yeah, I mean, the Democratic Party leadership is absolutely a part of this--continuing this process, and it does it, as Glen Ford put it, it's not the lesser evil, it's the more effective evil. It keeps things going and soothes people with the sense that there's some responsiveness to their concerns.
CH: At least they carry out rhetoric that is reality-based, even though, of course, they are part of the very process of ecocide, and we just saw Barack Obama give a speech to the fossil fuel industry where he touted the expansion of drilling and fracking.
VW: Yeah, exactly, and that's what he was doing during his administration. The U.S. became self-sufficient and so on. That was held up as a great achievement.
CH: Right. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about ecological collapse and possible solutions with author Victor Wallis.
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CH: Welcome back to "On Contact." We continue our conversation about ecosocialism with Victor Wallis. Although it's not a central part of your book--in fact, you don't focus much on it--how do you see these corporate systems being dismantled?
VW: Well, it can only come through enormous popular movements. It does require political force, and I do talk about the different components of--socially that will have to make up this political force, but the exact way in which it can happen, it can't really be predicted. I mean, one of the things, I mean, right now we're witnessing the yellow vests in France, and it's this kind of outburst with a kind of recognition that all the parties are failing them. I don't see it quite taking this form in the United States, but nonetheless, I think that if each constituency of the population, each group within it, whether--whatever its initial concerns might be, whether it's racial discrimination or gender discrimination or misogyny or religious discrimination, all these various things, they have to come to understand that their struggles are interdependent, and that is something I talk about in the section of the book about intersectionality, which is a big current issue. How these--how each group really, by itself, will not be able to transform the situation even in terms of its own demands, only by coming together in a larger kind of class understanding, as a political force and, eventually, in some--something resembling a political party, but with a more thorough sense, an educational mission of transforming people's lives as well as just thinking in terms of elections. I think we need to go beyond just this purely electoral approach.
CH: Well, the capitalist class has done quite a good job of erasing class consciousness, even among the left, wouldn't you argue?
VW: It has indeed, although I think there's evidence that it's coming back, and, I mean, even--I think some of the movements that's taking place in the prisons, which are primarily among racial minorities…
CH: Are you talking about the work stoppages?
VW: Work stoppages. They're very much class-based. They're aware that they have to come together, and I think that--
CH: That's partly why they're in the prison.
VW: Yeah. Right. That is--or at least why, within the prison, they're subjected to especially harsh penalties. But they--you have this phenomenon that many of the administrators are black people, and so, you can see that the mere elevation of certain members of a minority group to a high status isn't what answers their concerns.
CH: But the left is still buying that stuff. You saw it with the midterm elections. You know, they were counting the number of women. It didn't matter whether they were proponents of American imperialism and neoliberalism and everything else, it mattered just their gender.
VW: Yeah. Well, you see, it's a complicated thing, but I think it--there's some justification for thinking that if one is directly represented, it will make a difference, but it's obviously not a sufficient condition. It's not enough to--it's important to have a lot of women in there, but beyond that, they also have to have an attitude, really, that corresponds to the original vision of feminism, which is a radically questioning vision.
CH: These people are selected by the--you know, they select the people they want.
CH: So, Cynthia McKinney…
CH: Woman of color, because she is a socialist and a radical and denounces U.S. imperialism, is pushed out, and Hillary Clinton, one of the architects of the expansion of imperialism in the Middle East, including the disastrous decision to attack Libya, is elevated. So, it's not that these--of course, diversity, gender diversity, racial diversity is a positive, but we can't forget that that, in the background, it's the Schumers and the Pelosis who anoint the candidates and fund them. They decide who runs.
VW: Yeah. That's very much the case. The--and that's why, whether we're speaking of women or black people who see that merely elevating someone of their demographic trait to a high position doesn't change the basic outlook. I mean, you can have women in the military and the invasion of Afghanistan and claiming to be liberating women, and this is nonsense. And so, one sees that--to the extent that one sees that, and I find it more apparent in the prison movement among black revolutionaries--once one sees that, then one is willing to think in class terms, that it's not enough to gather one's own group, and even in order to have proper policy to get away from the kind of culture of violence towards women, the culture surrounding male supremacy in militarism, that really, that requires more than having women in the high places, who, like the secretary of education now, are really reinforcing sexist standards and sexist behavior. So, to the extent that one sees that happening, it's possible to come to an understanding that you have to do more than just elevate your particular demographic group. You have to come together…
CH: But you know they're not even really elevating their demographic group, because they've redefined, for instance, feminism. Feminism is not about empowering oppressed women. Feminism becomes a woman CEO of Facebook or Hewlett-Packard or a woman president. And this is a complete inversion of what, you know, that first-wave feminism, Andrea Dworkin and others, were about, and I would say that's kind of--they've quite effectively redefined what--and most of these movements have their genesis in the 1960s--what most of these liberation movements were about.
VW: Yeah. Exactly. I agree totally, and that's a point that I make in my book, in the chapter about searching for mass ecological constituency, that the background of the women's--the feminism--the initial thrust of it was a revolutionary thrust. It did involve a kind of alternative conception of what society could look like.
CH: They were all socialists, like Dworkin.
VW: Yeah. Exactly. Sure. Absolutely.
CH: How do you…how do you see us grasping the consciousness that is vital? Because one can have, like, with the yellow vest protests, and they are reactive forces, they are reacting against Macron's tax hikes or even Macron himself, but those are still reactive, and the state can deal with reactive forces, especially if they're localized and disconnected. How do you see us offering an alternative, a vision, a new vision which, as Alexander Berkman and other writers have pointed out, is absolutely vital to propel a revolutionary movement forward?
VW: Well, this is really an educational function, and I think the immediate kinds of things that we need are a much greater expansion of the alternative media has to spread into every corner, and people have to bring it directly in person-to-person ways with groups, discussion groups that they form, and the alternative media is absolutely essential. Alternative types of schools. These are part of the process. So, from both directions, from above and from below, you have to have the structures that people can relate to, which are ultimately political forces, but in order to build the receptivity to those structures, you have to have this initiative taken at every level. And so, I think as people grasp the urgency of the situation, and as we continue sort of putting forward this message and reaching into every possible corner and reaching anyone who is discontented with the existing state of affairs, even if it's not initially focused on ecology, that that's the basis on which a larger movement of protest can be built up. An idea like the extinction rebellion that started in the U.K. and that's starting to spread into the U.S.
CH: Which is great. Explain what that is, 'cause it's a great--
VW: Well, it's just the idea--I don't--I'm not familiar with it in detail, but just the name itself is--underlines the urgency of the struggle that we all have to achieve…
CH: Well, they're organizing quite large mass protests.
VW: Yeah. Right. They have. And I think this could happen here. I mean, the U.S. has its whole set of problems because of the extraordinary scope and diversity in different states and so on and so forth, but nonetheless we do have networks that span across these differences, and I think also, we can learn something from looking at what people do in other countries and even latching onto some of the things they do.
CH: How do you see--very little time. I mean, the window is now, according to the last U.N. climate report, is a decade. And yet, of course, especially in the United States, we're rolling backwards in terms of environmental controls, you know, expansion of drilling on public lands. We're going in the other direction. And because climate--the climate crisis is kind of a slow-moving tsunami, and by the time it hits us, we're finished, and yet, it is not palpable in a dramatic way--on a daily basis, yes, you have the wildfires in California and this kind of stuff. How do you--and since the mass media won't even acknowledge, in many cases, global warming or climate change, how do we begin to impart this sense of urgency? Because it is--at this point, I think "crisis" is the right word.
VW: Yeah. I'm not optimistic about it. I mean, it--the obstacles are overwhelming. But I think that just the perception of the difficulty and the reaction that people have, and there are so many people who are fed up in certain ways, and we saw this indirectly in the 2016 campaign. So, there's a receptive audience, but there needs to be much more to give them in the way of explanation, analysis, bringing these issues together, which is what I try to do in the book, and creating these networks where everywhere--you can't go anywhere in the society without encountering people who are fully aware of the urgency and trying to do something about it, and, I mean, this is--it's frustrating because you can't pinpoint exactly, but there has to be some kind of organization, and I think the urgency of the situation now is increasing people's receptivity, and what I'm hoping is that it'll also generate, say, a proactive and not just a reactive thing as you describe. It has to be proactive, and as you become aware, as people become aware of the connection between whatever problem they have and this larger crisis, which is what I try to argue in my book, then there's at least the potential for building up the kind of political force that we need to make a difference.
CH: And yet poor people of color suffer most from climate degradation, pollution, poisoned water, air, etc., and yet, the environmental movement is largely a white phenomenon.
VW: Yeah, well, not entirely. I mean, for example, I know someone associated with "Prison Legal News" is very much interested in the environmental issue, and my book--I've sent my book into many prisoners with whom I'm in touch, and they're very concerned about it. They respond in a positive way. They recognize that this is an issue that's not just an elite issue, it's an issue that affects them.
CH: Well, of course it's not.
CH: But the environmental organizations are the domain of white liberals.
VW: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Well, the--
CH: Sierra Club and…
VW: Yeah. There are environmental justice groups. That's the alternative--looking at it from below, so to speak, that there has to be a…there is something of an environmental justice movement. The major spokesperson of that for a long time is Robert Bullard in Texas, and he was…
CH: Well, you see in Mexico--I mean, there are, but nevertheless, within in the United States, I think that one of the tragedies is that that very class divide has essentially separated those who are interested in environmental justice.
VW: Yeah, well, that's--should be a focus of our efforts, and it is indeed a focus of my effort and even what I talk about in the book, that the environmental movement is something that, on the proactive, positive side, doesn't involve everybody, and most of all the people who are worst affected by the current distribution of power.
CH: Great. Thanks. That was author Victor Wallis about his new book "Red-Green Revolution: The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism."
VW: Thank you very much.