Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Against (eco-)austerities, left and right

Reading this Ecomodernist Manifesto, I am reminded of the Accelerationist Manifesto. These tracts have little to nothing in common politically (besides a general commitment to a renewed modernism); however, they do to some extent have a common target: eco-austerity (or, traditional left-wing environmentalism).

I am tempted to draw a link between austerity on the right (as we find once again now in our regrettable General Election here in the UK, with both major parties competitively swingeing state budgets like there's no tomorrow) and left austerity or eco-austerity—in other words, the belief that foreseeably convergent environmental and economic crises require a radical reduction in the material expectations of both the already wealthy (in global terms) and the would-be wealthy (i.e. 'developed' and 'developing' countries).

Austerity in its neoliberal form is not going away any time soon. It has become engrained in British political discourse (and not only here) to such an extent that it seems almost incontestable—we are arguing only over rates, degrees and timetables.

I have profound reservations about neo-modernism in both its centre-right, third-way, neoliberal version (ecomodernist) and in its self-consciously radical left, techno-vanguardist version (accelerationist); however, their shared resistance to the austerity project that is traditional left environmentalism is to be commended.

There are deep problems with both sets of solutions but they are asking some of the right questions.

Furthermore, I wonder if one of the key political fissures in the coming years will be precisely this sense of a project of austerity—which, as I have suggested, does not exist only on the right. The distinguishing feature of rightwing austerity is that it is only the poor that are expected tighten their belts to assuage their hunger pains (and, of course, that this project concerns only the economic in ignorance of the ecological). The rich are the aristocracy who can splurge their hard-earned ill-gotten gains as they please—the more frivolously the better, it seems. The poor lap up their crumbs and must never forget to say 'thankyou.'

I do not believe that the distinction between left and right is any less vital now than it ever was. However, it is not the only political shibboleth/sorting hat that matters. If the left is to maintain (and further) the strength of this distinction in the years to come, years in which ecological politics will become ever more indistinguishably suffused into the general political fabric, it has to address its own austerity hangups.

In the long-term, there will be no countering neoliberal austerity without overcoming eco-austerity.


  1. "eco" austerity, or degrowth, is just an acceptance that there are physical limits to growth/resources and we can plan for such inevitabilities or we can ignore and therefore exacerbate them.

  2. In some versions yes but even these tend to think in terms of a zero sum game. There is also a train of thought that finds its most extreme expression in anarcho-primitivism but is evident more widely and, I think, deserves the pejorative label 'austerity.'

    The important challenge, as I see it, is to not so much roll back expectations of wealth and material well being as to transform what we take these things to be. That might not be what these movements are really doing (they tend to celebrate a Promethean escape hatch -- they say we just don't have to choose).

    In order to encourage the would-be wealthy to choose options other than carbon intensive industrialisation, the alternative has to be more than a kind of brow-beaten self-denial mixed with a Hessian-scented self-righteousness (okay, unfair caricature but I can't resist; the serious point is that the green-liberal lifestyle/subjectivity that finds pride in its self-restrictions will never be enough). It has to be something more positive. I think that's what these movements are gesturing towards, imperfectly but still.

    It's not that limitations can be ignored or that environmentalists are wrong to point to this, it's a recognition that no one will be persuaded of the need for this without some kind of positive alternatives. And that involves to a large extent embracing more technological creativity not less -- although not using it as a crutch, as the more Prometheanly-inclined would.

  3. "it's a recognition that no one will be persuaded of the need for this without some kind of positive alternatives" what's the basis for such wide-ranging claim?
    don't see that people will have a choice but to change how they live as we are hitting hard enviro/resource limits so we can try and reassemble what is at hand or just live with the lacks while fueling the problems.

  4. Okay, "no one" is a hastily scribbled overstatement. My point is that, while never having been burdened with an excessively optimistic disposition, even I feel that I need something more positive for the future, however dark the clouds over it may be, than 'this now, but less so.'

    In other words, convincing people to change their lives will take a carrot as well as a stick. Manifestos such as these, blunt instruments though they are, jut a little bit towards that kind of exercise of planning and imagination -- and I think that's useful.

    Of course people will ultimately assemble their own expectations and envisagements on the basis of their own unique milieus and their own particular circumstances. However, I would defend the role of political philosophy in investigating and extrapolating in these ways. I think that's also useful -- when it's allied to a close attentiveness to the ways in which concrete modes of living are actually being created, that is.

  5. For all my bluster, the UK Green Party manifesto just released doesn't look bad. Not read it yet though.