'The cause of labour is the hope of the world'

Dr Aaron Smith discusses Murray Bookchin and the union of Green and Red. Dr Smith is an English teacher, NEU and IWW rep, Assistant Secretary of Ealing Trades Council and Green Party member in Ealing, West London.

Murray Bookchin
Murray Bookchin

Image credit: 'Bookchin in Italy, 1988' by Janet Biehl (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED)

Dr Aaron Smith

It’s common in left-of-centre politics to consider oneself pro ‘environment’ and pro ‘worker’, without considering how the two are linked. Previous Green iterations have threatened jobs (in oil and gas, etc.) without providing workers viable alternatives - the necessary social support - to be either redeployed or retrained, never mind redirect the company toward renewables. Trade unions, for their part, have resisted divestment from fossil fuels for fear of their member’s livelihoods.

We can complain that these decisions are myopic, but a mixture of rational self-interest and Keynes’s observation that ‘in the long run we’re all dead’ can explain the behaviour of labour’s sleeping giant. But how to wake it? How are strikes over pay related to environmental issues? How are work stoppages related to direct action by JustStopOil? How can green policies improve the bargaining position of ordinary workers?

These are questions that Murray Bookchin, former anarchist and trade union activist with the UAW, can help us understand. Not least through his formulation connecting environmental and labour struggles: “My views could be summarised in a fairly crisp formulation: the very notion of the domination of nature by man stems from the very real domination of human by human.”

Bookchin’s identification of the link between environmental and labour struggles helps unearth the labour movement’s roots in the Enlightenment. Unless human activity is freely chosen, and self-directed, it is dehumanising, or as Wilhelm von Humboldt declared, when a human acts under compulsion (be it whip or hunger): “We may admire what he does, but we despise what he is.”

An impossible standard? Under Capitalism perhaps, where a worker’s only means of resistance to the employer’s autocratic control is also the oldest: to collectivise into an alternative site of power – a trade union. To follow Bookchin’s logic, every contest between worker and employer decided in favour of workers not only loosens the bonds of dependence but simultaneously provides space for nature to evade profit’s grip and breathe unencumbered.

For all their flaws, trade unions are precious sites of sustained, organised revolt: from the anti-sectarian Edwardian dock strikes in Belfast, Liverpool and Glasgow, to the Dutch general strike against Nazi Jewish policies in February 1941, to the NUM’s Glorious Summer of ‘72 (Who governs Britain? We do!), to the NEU’s refusal to return to dangerous classrooms in January 2021, to Unite’s refusal to unload Russian oil in Liverpool last year, every contest increases worker consciousness of the power to be had in an organised group.

Anyone knowledgeable of the 1976 Grunwick dispute will not be surprised by Tony Hardt and Antonio Negri’s observation that trade union bureaucracy can ossify, which is why the energy of social movements like JustStopOil and XR rebellion should be channelled, organised and disciplined into what Hardt and Negri term ‘Social Unionism’ if only to prevent the latter burning out and the former calcifying.

Reading Bookchin, our collapsing climate and the cost-of-living crisis can be understood as symptoms of a set of exploitative social relations, the power dynamics – or ‘hierarchies’ in Bookchin’s phrase – that Capitalism requires to reproduce itself. To paraphrase Mick Lynch, speaking at an Ealing Trades Council rally in Ealing Green Church last year, the climate crisis will come for us [working people] first, and to deal with it we will need a revolution in worker power.

Although the impetus and strategy must come from below, there is a need for codification from above if we are to move as quickly as possible – both unions and the organising power of the state, much to the horror of anarchists and libertarians. Bookchin moved away from anarchism’s laser focus on the state as ‘the ubiquitous source of social coercion’, focussing instead on everyday domination (at home and at work) toward the creation of ‘liberatory institutions’ such as Gramscian/Pannekoekian worker’s councils, sortitive processes for municipal positions, citizens assemblies, and the democratic experiments such as that in Rojave and 1930s Barcelona.

If this sounds utopian – it is, but to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, any map without Utopia is worthless, being the only land on which humanity keeps landing. Bookchin’s vision of an ecological society is based on a highly participatory, grassroots politics where municipal communities plan and manage their affairs through democratic assembly. This is not an addendum to labour struggles, but the expression of socialism in wider society: if socialism is where – as it was to the factory girls of 19th century Massachusetts – those who work in the factories own them, democracy at work (where you spend most of your life) will give new impetus to democratic participation in a country that seems perennially black-pilled.

Bertrand Russell may have considered such a sane society to be for the angels, but it is clear to anyone familiar with Bookchin that he would have applauded any tentative step toward sanity. Citizen assemblies (such as those formed to consider abortion in Ireland, 2016), municipal models such as that in Preston, state-backed purchasing agreements for workers enduring wage restraint to buy out their employers during periods of inflation (the Swedish Meidner plan), as well as the cultivation of Green councillors and MPs promoting strike action and local democratic/worker supervision of local economies, may sound far-fetched, but they are ideas already lying around, and – to invoke Milton Friedman – there to be picked up in a crisis.

The climate crisis requires change on a scale that will feel like a revolution, and even if we are successful, we will need to cultivate a democratic culture where domination seems as alien as chattel slavery if it is to be protected. The question is how to get there. The state can be pointed in the right direction; even if the long-term goal is to dismantle such coercive power, we need space for the labour and social movements to be unshackled by anti-protest and anti-strike laws.

A Green Party dedicated to said unshackling (and fully accountable to its members), repealing anti-union laws and increasing the social dividend (having a comfortable social safety net to take power from the employer, and providing incentives for employers to improve conditions by investing in productivity), offering incentives to divest from fossil fuels and toward a green transition of cheap public transport, would find itself with a powerful ally in the trade union movement to force green change in the teeth of organised money.

For it is a tiny minority of corporations and the wealthy who resist Green policies, an anti-democratic domination that threatens us with barbarism – the public, where their livelihoods are protected, want the earth to live. A 2022 UK Ipsos poll found 52 per cent of people thought net zero targets should be brought forward, while 66 per cent thought Energy should be nationalised (and thus made democratically accountable as a Government body). This won’t happen as long as vested interests in the energy sector can neuter the Government response (see the Labour Party).

The Green Party is a broad church, and there will be many who consider the theories of an eco-anarchist, Jewish intellectual from Brooklyn too heady a brew. That’s fine. Any step toward sanity is an improvement. The problem is that those steps will have to break into a run if we are to prevent the ice cube sliding off the stove. We have a world to win, a responsibility to make hope possible rather than despair convincing; or, to give Bookchin the last word: “If only because this planet’s history, including its human history, has been so full of promise, hope, and creativity, it deserves a better fate than what seems to confront it in the years ahead."