Interview mit Ted Benton

Im August 2010 führte Moritz Mattke ein Interview mit dem Britischen Ökosozialisten Ted Benton, Professor für Soziologie an der University of Essex und einer der Pioniere der ökologischen Bewegung. Die Aufnahme ließ sich leider nicht entrauschen, so dass das Gespräch noch einmal per Mail nachgezeichnet werden musste:

Moritz: Could you introduce yourself?

Ted: I’m semi-retired as professor of sociology, University of Essex. My early work was concerned with the philosophical basis of social science, including an attempt to develop a critical realist philosophy that would serve as an aid to the further development of Marxian analysis. I have also had a strong interest in the history of the life-sciences, and the links between the biological and social sciences. This led me into thinking about the relation between humans and other animals, and from the 1980s onwards I have been most concerned with developing Marxian social theory in ways that addressed the increasingly urgent challenge of ecological degradation. Politically I was actively involved in the UK Trade Union and Labour movement from the late 1960s, close to the Trotskyist left in the labour Party, but eventually left the Party with the rise to power of Tony Blaire and ‘New Labour’. Since then I have been working with others in the ‘Red-Green Study Group’ in trying to develop common ground between socialist and green political outlooks and action. We are linked to the international journal Capitalism Nature Socialism. I am currently a member of the UK Green Party.

Moritz: If we regard the current situation the question arises if a reformist approach to the climate crisis can be successful? Ecosocialists like John Bellamy Foster declare that only a revolutionary approach is the only solution, which can make the nessessary changes within the appropriate amount of time. What do you think about this?

Ted: On the question ‘reform or revolution’, I think this is much too simple. On the one hand, I see no prospect of a resolution of the deep crisis in the relation between contemporary socio-economic practice and the ‘life support’ systems on which we and other species depend, so long as capitalism remains the dominant mode of production and distribution. On the other hand, I do not see anything approaching the ‘classic’ Marxian-Leninist development of international working class militancy as emerging in the near future. Also, if we look at the past record of that model of revolutionary transformation, it isn’t very promising either for human emancipation, or for ecological sustainability. So, I think the perspective of any movement for eco-social transformation has to be anti-capitalist, but the vision of how transformation is to occur, what combination of social forces may come together to bring it about, and what the future society will look like are all questions that demand new thinking and new kinds of practice.

Moritz: Many people regard the social-, financial,-and ecological i.e. Climate crisis as phenomenons which can be regarded separately. Do you agree with this opinion?

Ted: I think it is really very dangerous that those currently in power, and most of the forces of opposition, are united in having completely split consciousness on these questions. We have opposition politicians, often with a past record of ecological concern, celebrating the successes of the car industry or complaining about the price of oil in the new context of supposed ‘recovery’ from recession. Most of our media-coverage of social and political issues is similarly schizoid: we have often quite serious discussions of the impending global food crisis, of water-shortage, biodiversity loss and, of course, climate change, but the treatment of economic and financial policy carries on with ‘business as usual’. Everything we do is ultimately dependent on the health of our ecological life-support systems, and this can no longer be assumed. All social, economic and political thinking has to start from recognising this basic fact if there is to be any hope of a ‘sustainable’ society – let alone one fit for a fully human life.

Moritz: How do you think that ecology and capitalism are interact with each other?

Ted: This is a big question! My approach is a modified version of the ‘two contradictions’ argument pioneered by Jim O’Connor in the USA. Essentially, vital conditions for production (infrastructures, human reproduction and ecological cycles, material, energy, carbon etc) are degraded by capitalism because they are treated as ‘free goods’, or as commodities but they aren’t produced or reproduced as commodities. Orthodox economics treats the resulting irrationalities as instances of ‘market failure’ to be corrected by rigging markets to produce desired effects. O’Connor argues that capitalism can’t do without state intervention to protect/ restore conditions of production, and he thinks there is a roll for the environmental movement in parallel with the labour movement in moving beyond mere reformist state intervention. This argument can be taken further, to show that once capital becomes globalised, it degrades its own conditions not just locally or regionally, but on a global scale. At the same time, there exists no global-scale equivalent of the capitalist national state with the global authority/ power, to restrain economic destruction of the conditions for continuing capital accumulation. The result is a global profit-driven and self-destructive dynamic, which could only be addressed by powerful and internationally coordinated grass-roots social and political movements from below.

Moritz: I deliberately formulated the upcomming question a bit provocative: How do we have to depict a ecosocialist revolution?

Ted: How to depict the eco-socialist revolution? I have no clear answer to this. The last sentence above implies a few tentative suggestions. To have any hope of success there would have to be internationally coordinated movement-building. The world social forum and related anti-globalisation protest movements maybe point to future possibilities. The movement would have to be internally very diverse culturally and politically, and ways have to be found to enable constructive dialogue, mutual respect and practical cooperation across quite big differences of perspective. By no means all of the genuinely concerned and committed activists (yet) see the issue as one of overthrowing capitalism. I think a strong commitment to non-violent protest, including civil disobedience, as well as ‘experiments’ in practical alternatives, mounting of transitional demands etc. would all have a part to play. I think the Leninist model of a direct frontal assault on the forces of the state is simply inconceivable in the context of well-armed and politically/ morally entrenched state structures in the ‘developed’ world. Gramsci is a valuable source for thinking about strategy, but is liable to be misread!

Moritz: Within the current debate – at least the one I know- there are many answers on this last question. I would like to present some of those to you and ask you for your opinion:
1.The green industrial revolution: a  new industrial  revolution that seeks almost entirely by technological means, such as a more efficient energy system, to create the basis for a sustainable capitalist development. (quote I read out, as an example)
2.The second approach would be a more eco-social approach like Foster advances in his book „the ecological revolution“, which draws on alternative technologies where necessary, but emphasizes the need to transform the human relation to nature and the constitution of society and its roots within the excisting social relations of production.
From what I know you have some problems with Foster’s approach. Could you shortly explain those?

Ted: You present me with two opposing views – green tech revolution, and Foster’s notion of an ecological revolution. Of course, I have much more in common with Foster’s view than the technological view. As you describe it, Foster accepts within his vision that technological innovation will a part to play, though within transformed social and economic relations. I have two main reservations about what Foster has suggested so far. First, he seems to retain the view that the agency for change will be the internationally organised working class. I would hope and expect that labour movements will be key participants in change, but there are internal contradictions and limitations in this old model of revolutionary agency as applied to today’s conditions. As expressed above, my expectation would be the formation of very broad and diverse coalitions. My second concern it that Foster tends to speak of the future society as one in which our relation to nature is managed in a ‘rational’ way. Of course, we would want this! But I think that change can only come about on the basis of deep cultural shifts in many peoples’ feelings for one another and for nature. In short, I think the rational exploitation of nature, though better than what we have, does not provide a sufficient motivation for profound social transformation, and is not sufficiently open to alternative sources of pleasure, happiness and fulfilment. I think green philosophers and activists have much to teach the ‘traditional’ left in this respect. I feel Foster has not read them, or, perhaps, not taken them sufficiently seriously.

Moritz: Niles Eldredge stated in his book „Life in Balance“ : „we need the concept of enough“. The idea behind this phrase is that capitalism as a world economy divided into classes ans driven by competition, embodies a logic that accepts no boundaries on its own expansion and its exploitation of environment. The earth as a planet, incontrast, is by definition limited. This is an absolute contradiction.  Would you agree with this approach? Especially since societies which agree on „the principal of enough“ often have a social darwinistic tendency and start quoting Malthus…

Ted: the question of whether we should have the concept of ‘enough’ in our politics, and the dangers of Darwinism. There are, of course, some difficult areas here. I have tried to present interpretations of Darwin and his collaborator (and socialist) Alfred Russell Wallace that show how valuable their ideas are for us now. Darwin established our kinship and interdependence with the rest of living nature. Wallace emphasised the ways in which capitalism, already in the 19th century, was destroying nature, and at the same time imposing massive injustices on the people. There is a legacy of racist and reductionist ‘social’ Darwinism, which distorts Darwin’s thought, but what is of value needs to be protected against this.

Moritz: To finish I want to talk about Marx. Can you shortly explain your opinion of Marx’s role for the eco-socialist debate?

Ted: I am sure that many activists have reached radical conclusions without ever reading Marx. I can only say that I have found Marx’s writings an unending source of insight and inspiration. Das Kapital is the most penetrating analysis of the nature of capitalism and its dynamics that I know of. The 1844 manuscripts present a philosophical vision of a future for humanity at peace with itself and with nature. It is open to criticism, of course, but it is a great and inspiring work. I would also put in a word for Engels: his ‘Condition of the English Working Class’ is the founding text of ecological socialism. Having said all of that, we have to remember that now more than a century separates us from Marx and Engels. A lot has changed (though much has not changed!) and we cannot excuse ourselves from the responsibility to think for ourselves.

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