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The Left in Left-Biocentrism

By David Greenfield

Many deep ecologists, and ecological thinkers in general, have over the years declared that the politics of ecology transcend the traditional categories of left and right. In the early 1980’s the slogan, “We are neither left nor right but forward” became a popular cliché of some Green political parties and movement groups. There were those in the mix who referred to themselves as biocentrists or ecocentrists, who also described their position in one way or another as being beyond Left and Right, or neither Left nor Right. By putting the word ‘Left’ in front of biocentrism, we are bucking the trend among Deep Ecologists, and clearly indicating that there is more to be said about the social aspects of Deep Ecology.

The Left-Right Spectrum

Before examining what we mean by the Left in Left-biocentrism, it will be useful to examine what is meant politically by Left and Right, and what is meant by calling oneself neither Left nor Right. Left and right is a spatial metaphor, and as a metaphor, it is not perfect. It is, however, the primary metaphor that we have, to describe something very profound. Left and Right emerged as a political metaphor from the seating arrangement in the French National Assembly at the time of the French Revolution. The more radical parties were seated to the left of the Speaker, with the more conservative groups seated to the right. This choice of seating arrangement may have emerged out of a deeper, more ancient sense of the right hand representing power, respectability, and the establishment, and the left hand representing non-respectability, those outside the establishment, the great unwashed.

Left and right is a spatial metaphor, and as a metaphor, it is not perfect. Over the past two hundred years, both the Left and the Right have had many political incarnations, and have been interpreted by both their respective advocates and their critics as meaning many things. Because the Right has tended to be the social group in power, the mistakes of the Left been used to taint the definition of the entire Left. The Left-Right spectrum is, however, the primary political metaphor that we have, and it describes something quite profound. Broadly speaking, we can divide the Left-Right spectrum into five distinct sections. They are the:

  • Far Right
  • Centre-Right
  • Centre
  • Centre-Left, and
  • Far Left.

The far right signifies forms of domination which pre-date the industrial capitalist era: patriarchy, the military state, feudalism, monarchy and aristocracy, religious fundamentalism, racial supremacy, and so forth. These forms pre-date capitalism and, though they still exist today, tend to have their grounding in situations that pre-date the modern industrial era.

The centre-right signifies the predominant secular capitalist society in which we live. Its primary form of oppression is that of class power, but it will make use of forms of domination from the far right, (such as patriarchy or racism), when it serves its purposes.

The centre generally accepts the capitalist system with all its oppressive qualities, but tries to moderate capitalist realities, ever so slightly, with such liberal individualist instruments as elections, charters of rights and freedoms, moderate environmental legislation and half-hearted attempts at corporate accountability. The centre also tends to stress the role of the individual, and personal change, in bringing about social and environmental improvement.

The centre-left tries to go a few steps further than the centre in countering the raw oppressive nature of capitalism. The centre-left would include historical movements for “a social safety net ”, adequate social assistance programs, pensions, progressive labour legislation, minimum wages, universal healthcare, and so forth, as well as moderate moves toward government ownership and consumer and worker cooperatives. The centre-left accepts the existence of capitalism, but tries to counter-balance capitalist power with such popular initiatives as mentioned above.

The far left signifies those sections of the Left which go beyond trying to reform capitalism, to advocating the overthrow or replacement of capitalism with some type of worker or community-owned, classless, egalitarian, cooperative system. The far left should not be thought of as being synonymous with state centralism or the Leninist and Stalinist tradition. The strand that includes Lenin and his successors is only one strand of the far left. The far left also includes socialist anarchism, revolutionary syndicalism, and more decentralist Marxists like William Morris. What all strands of the far left have in common is a revolutionary anti-capitalism and a vision of a just, egalitarian post-capitalist world.

Based on the above definitions, where you stand on the Left-Right spectrum signifies where you stand in relation to the capitalist and pre-capitalist power systems. Are you part of the problem (far right or centre-right)? Are you bargaining with the power system (centre or centre-left)? Or are you working for a world beyond the power system (far left)?

Not ‘Neither Left Nor Right’

The idea that ecology, and an ecological politics, is “Neither Left nor Right” seems to come from two different starting points: one somewhat valid, and one very much over-simplified.

The first starting point acknowledges, correctly, that both the corporate agenda and the working class movements opposing it, are essentially human-centred and require the increased exploitation of the Earth in order to accomplish their goals. All of the main stream forms of social democracy as well as Marxism and anarchism, have assumed that humanity could keep on using the Earth at an unsustainable rate. It does not follow, however, that a truly Green alternative must exist, on neither the left nor right, but in some newly-imagined, mystical centre.

The second starting point for the “Neither Left nor Right” slogan, is a simplistic idea that associates the Right with big business and pro-capitalist militarism, and associates the Left with large centralized state ownership and state planning. Since some ecologists in the 1970’s came to identify with decentralism, and such concepts as “Small is Beautiful,” some came to see this decentralist alternative as being neither Left nor Right, but a centrist ‘foreward.’ This stereotypic definition of the Left obviously does not include some of the Left’s greatest thinkers, who often envisioned a future in very decentralist terms.

Whether or not this was the original intent, one of the effects of the “Neither Left nor Right ” slogan was the increasing tendency to gloss over questions of class power, and other related forms of domination, in human society. The belief was increasingly expressed that everyone — bankers and beggars, company presidents and peasants — could walk along together and help build a new ecological world, without any conflict or inequality between them. While it can be argued to a point that from an ecological perspective we are all in the same planetary boat, it is also true that the capitalist class and the labouring classes will be effected to vastly different degrees by any ecological crisis or even by ecologically-sound technological change, and that these different classes will certainly tend to view ecological issues differently.

It may even come to pass that the top three to five percent of human society will find a way to survive a planetary ecocide, perhaps in steel-domed cities, while they allow the rest of humanity to die a slow and painful death outside. Whatever your prognosis, it should be clear that ecology cannot move forward without a strong analysis of class oppression. As a friend of mine once commented, “Neither Left nor Right” is a dangerous slogan to have, regardless of its original intent.

The Left in Left-biocentrism

Having examined the political meaning of Left and Right, and the inadequacies of a “Neither Left nor Right ” slogan, it is time to turn more directly to the question of the meaning of Left in Left-biocentrism.

If we define all the strands of the far left as having in common a revolutionary anti-capitalism and a vision of an egalitarian post-capitalist society, then Left-biocentrism can certainly fit into this space. However, Left-biocentrism differs from most forms of Marxism and anarchism in that it does not place the worker or the labouring classes at the centre of the picture, either when envisioning the new society or the means of getting there. Instead, it attempts to place the entire ecosphere at the centre, and is primarily concerned with human beings not as workers, but as Earth-dwellers. Left-biocentrism understands the capitalist system and the other faces of the right (patriarchy, militarism, colonialism, racial oppression, religious fundamentalism, etc.) as oppressing both human beings and the Earth. But it is particularly concerned with the way these systems exploit other species and destroy the Earth’s ecosystems.

For Left-biocentrists, the battle is not capital versus labour, but private power versus bio-community. Left-biocentrists reject capitalism and the other forms of oppression mentioned above, envisioning a world both of equity and cooperation among human beings, as well as deep ecological awareness and well-being. The models of worker, producer and consumer cooperatives, and community-based self-governance that have come primarily from the more decentralist and communitarian strands of the Left, are seen as being helpful in discerning possible models for a new ecocentric society. It is also understood that, moving to such a society will require confronting the corporate and capitalist state power structures in ways not unlike how some of the better grass roots movements of the Left have confronted capitalist power over the years. Movements such as the Spanish workers’ revolution of 1936, the Cuban Revolution from 1959 onward, the Nicaraguan Revolution from 1979 to 1990, and the Chiapas resistance from 1994 to the present, may have much to tell us about how to organize and retain a grass roots resistance to tyranny and empire.

‘Left’ for good reasons

In short, we are Left-biocentrists rather than simply biocentrists, for several key reasons:

  • We understand that the capitalist class power system, and other forms of oppression are real, and that they are an impediment to building a just and ecological society;
  • We understand that capitalism must be replaced by systems of social organization which allow human beings to live well within the boundaries of ecological balance;
  • We look to models of human equity, cooperation and mutual aid, to provide the building blocks of a possible new ecological society; and
  • We believe that it is not enough to simply think and theorize about a biocentric future, but that biocentrism must be a vibrant and relevant political movement that confronts the power system and creates viable alternatives.

In acknowledging that the Left-Right spatial metaphor is still relevant, but that there is a whole new set of questions we must confront around humanity’s relationship with the rest of the ecosphere, it is probably most useful to think in terms of a two dimensional spectrum, with a Left-Right axis representing equity versus empire within the human species, and an up-and-down axis representing anthropocentrism versus ecocentrism in how humanity relates to Nature and the Earth. In this two-dimensional spectrum, different perspectives, policies, historical periods and cultures can be measured and compared in a more complex way, than on a one dimensional Left-Right axis.

Left-biocentrism is a result of acknowledging the importance of both the pursuit of human equity and the pursuit of ecology, and that one is not possible without the other. In the light of all we have come to know, the Left in Left-biocentrism seems both appropriate and necessary. While it is true that there is no justice on a dead planet, it is also true that there probably isn’t much of a living ecological future without a Deep Ecology that embraces social justice.

David Greenfield

Dave Greenfield is an activist and thinker from Saskatchewan who has been involved in peace, ecology and social justice concerns since the mid 1980s. His analysis of the reality of corporate and state power and its role in human oppression and ecological destruction has led him to combine non-violent, social anarchist philosophy with deep ecology to tackle the ecological implications of living on a finite planet.

Other posts by David Greenfield

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1 comment

1 Anna-Maria Galante { 04.07.09 at 8:38 am }

I just haven’t figured out yet how we get out of the capitalist system, and do it in time

Our democratic systems are tools – we have to use them to sow seeds, I think, for a completely revisioned and decentralized economy that is not based on expansionism.

Perhaps utter collapse will speed this along.

If we’re lucky we might have several collapses to give us a space to adapt.