The environmental movement and right wing extremism

Tord Björk | Uncategorized | Friday, April 9th, 2010

A contribution to the ESF mobilization conference in Prague 27-28 March 2010
Alternatives to Right Wing Extremism in a Time of Social and Ecological Crisis

The author discussing environmental networking in the ESF process with Judith Dellheim during the Prague spring conference

How to address the issue of “Alternatives to Right Wing Extremism in a Time of Social and Ecological Crisis” from an environmental movement perspective? As such the environmental movement is not necessarily always easy to place on a left-right political axis. The Left has been sometimes as ignorant or more of environmental issues as the right wing. In Sweden the first party to launch en environmental program was the Nazi party in 1963. In general the Nazi party in the 1930s had some environmental concerns especially when it comes to agriculture that were more progressive than the left who with a dogmatic view on science and development of the productive forces as socially neutral for a long time ignored environmental issues. Or worse, when quite a few believed as in the 1960s and early 1970s that environmental concerns was a conspiracy made up by the right to marginalise the all-important social issues and the left.

Theoretical arguments building on the the qualities of left or right ideologies is with other words not enough to judge how to relate to different political forces from an environmental movement point of view. A movement cannot only relate to the inner qualities of ideologies but must also relate to the actual content of the politics brought forward by different actors in society. Historically we can see that this support have been shifting. In some countries in Western Europe we can today see that relatively better environmental policies have been the result of social democratic governments rather than conservative. We can also see that at times right wing and especially right wing extremism but maybe mostly right wing populism plays the role of aggressively attacking environmental concerns. In Russia fascists even kills environmental activists as happened in 2007 in a camp near Irkutsk protesting against a planned uranium processing plant.

As starting point from an environmental movement perspective on right wing extremism is thus good to use something else than ideological analysis of right wing extremism. This in spite of that the dominating view in society and among NGOs is to address the issue of right wing extremism as mainly an issue of ideology and tolerance. More useful is to start by defining what is at the core of the environmental movement and from this analyse how right wing extremism is related to environmental concerns.

Material relationships

At the core of the environmental movement lies the material relationship between human beings and nature. This relationship is defined socially, culturally, religiously, politically, economically or however one chose to present it. But in the end it is the material relationship that can motivate the environmental organizations to go beyond conventional limitations and act to change a system.

One example is that the environmental movement in quite a few central and Eastern European countries during the 1980s were among the forces that brought down the communist party rule by mass mobilization for environmental concerns or using international conferences in their countries as a space in time when freedom of expression could not easily be repressed. At the same time the environmental movement was the first movement that confronted the new regimes with mass civil disobedience on the nuclear power issue in Poland and in general soon started to criticize the rule of investment bank in the CEE countries. When a environmental degradation is severe enough and there is social opportunities for change it does not matter whether the degradation is caused by actors from the right or left. What matters is if such risks for the environment and health is caused to such a degree that it is not negligible.

This does not mean that the environmental movement never is ideologically biased and never a tool for the present regime. As any movement the environmental movement is stretched between what is pragmatically possible and what is necessary if the concerns of the movement should be put as the primary value. In the case of the environmental movement this choice between pragmatism and radicalism sometimes develops according to other rules than that of lets say the workers movement.

The reason for this is that the environmental movement do not only address the issue of the relationships between different social groups in society but also between the society and nature. This makes it possible and sometimes necessary to base environmental struggles on broad class alliances rather than classical antagonism between capital and worker. To a certain degree it is even true that environmental concerns is a concern for everybody. Furthermore is it not the industrial worker, often male, that is necessary at the core of the environmental conflict. It is as often if not more often the class struggle between direct producers in agriculture, fisheries and forestry and the capital as índustry workers. It is also between those that work to maintain reproduction in society, often women.

Thus at times also the most radical and one would guess least pragmatic mind of the working class can be used against environmental concerns. A clear expression of this is when the Anarcho-syndicalist trade union in Mexico in the 1910s set up armed militia to terrorize the Zapatista peasants and make a halt to the environmentally and socially very important land reform movement, a struggle as important today as then. As the Anarcho-syndicalists were industrial workers they believed themselves to be more advanced then the perceived more backward peasant who often as well were Indians. Furthermore the Anarcho-syndicalist trade union had been promised by the liberals possibilities to have a function in the coming liberal regime. When the Anarcho-syndicalists had taken part in the successful terror against the peasant they were of no use anymore and did not receive the rights they had been promised. The fate of the peasant revolution in Russia from 1902 and onwards tells an even more tragic history.

Thus both class struggle of importance to environmental conflicts and possibilities for broad class alliances looks often different for the environmental movement compared to many other movements. This poses both risks and opportunities that can be a trap or an opening of avenues both for ecological and social concerns.

Public health and conservationist roots

As such modern environmentalism in the industrial society can be claimed to be the result of the concerns for public health and conditions at the workplace and housing in the workers movement and the concern for nature in the upper classes as well as the workers movements interest in healthy recreation. From this era we have in Europe the Friends of Nature with its roots in the working classes and the Conservation Societies mainly based in upper and middle classes. These movements were able to contribute to public health and conservationist regulation in the welfare state era both in the West and the East. Thus the environmental concerns was to a large degree made into something socially neutral of concern for the whole society with the state as perceived neutral regulator. At the highest point of this development was the International Union for the Conservation of nature, IUCN, established in 1947 with its typical lack of distinction between state and independent organizations. Here governmental authorities together with conservation societies still today work side by side as if they all have the same interest. In the early 1950s environmental concerns that radically questions the existing development model was marginalized and carried forward by groups as vegetarians, pacifists, feminists, Anarchists, Gandhians and right wing extremists. The believe in progress and science was totally dominating both among liberals, the left and the right. As such the  model for public health care and nature conservation worked to make improvements for people in common and for the nature at some spots.

The limitations of the welfare state was challenged both in the West and the East by a system critical anti authoritarian movement of movements with concerns for how health and nature was the same environmental issue. The earlier state centred system for solving the environmental problem was not able anymore to cope with growing problems of wide spread pollution.

This movement was especially strong in building local class alliances in many parts of Europe against state or corporate environmentally destructive projects and created during the 1970s and 1980s strong mass mobilisations in conflictual environmental issues as against the building of dams, nuclear power, motorways and the use of pesticides in forestry and agriculture to name a few.

There was one big strategic difference between the East and the West. The development model in the East built upon exploitation within countries belonging to the Soviet Union dominated countries which meant that environmental destruction at places in the East could be very intense. The development model in the West built upon global exploitation outside the communist bloc and could then successfully export a lot of the environmental problems to places were it was as intense as inside the Soviet dominated countries, but easier to explain by propaganda in Western Europe as something to ignore.

Global governance for sustainable growth

With the fall of the Berlin Wall the capitalist development model became the only regime in all of Europe and globally it seemed as if capitalism and liberalism was the only still existing models for the future. In this era once more the environmental movement becomes very much integrated into the system, this time in a model for global governance were busíness, governments and so called non-governmental organizations, NGOs, together should find win-win solutions to promote environmental awareness and solutions. What happened to a large part of the trade unions 50 years earlier now happened also to the environmental movement. The door was open for influencing policy to the price of adapting to the role in the social partnership propaganda for stability and trust in the existing system. Some environmental movements shifted their earlier strong criticism of economic growth and the prevailing development model to appraisal of sustainable growth as it was presented by the Brundtland commission and the UN Conference in Rio 1992.

This new model proved in the beginning as successful in a number of fields. At the same time seemingly unrelated right wing extremism started to grow in Europe after being repressed in both the East and the West since the victory of anti fascism during Word War II and the welfare state gains for people in common in Europe.

Offensive environmentalism and social concerns on the defensive

Today the model for win-win solutions building on an alliance between so called stakeholders from business, government and NGOs have lost its appeal as the totality of environmental destruction still is growing. This is expressed in such issues as water, energy, art extinction and biological diversity, climate change etc.

While the ecological issues becomes more severe the social cleavages in society are growing both within and between countries. The difference is that seemingly social issues in Europe is not the basis for movements that are on the offensive. On the contrary in spite of historically huge problems for the trust in the capitalist system it is the right rather than  the left that so far have gained from the financial crisis. Trade unions, anti racist movements, movements against war are all on the defensive and right wing extremism is gaining more influence both in the East and the West.

The environmental issue has not been as easy to present as possible to solve by the system in spite of many efforts. Contrary to movements addressing only social issues movements addressing environmental issues are more on the offensive.

From  this one could conclude that it is most successful to avoid combining the ecological and social issues. Instead of becoming a movement addressing every issue and get linked to movements primarily addressing social issues in an unsuccessful way it is more useful both for environmental politics and for other movements to focus upon on environmental conflicts without putting them in a social context. In this way one could argue it is easier to win victories good for the environment and in this way also inspire other movements with results rather than proclaiming and focusing upon ideological unity. This would also mean to avoid the issue of right wing extremism as not only marginal to the environmental movement but directly contraproductive to take into consideration.

Global material realities makes social connections necessary

The problem with this seemingly correct way at looking at the present realities is that the environmental concern is a matter of material circumstances. At the moment there is a concern that these material circumstances have reached global dimensions. That environmental problems no longer can be solved by longer pipes and sewers in larger and larger recipients. Some are of course still local in their character but we now have a global production and consumption system that puts a total burden on the ecosystems that has for future human generations a negative effect on the whole biosphere.

This makes it necessary to take into consideration the social causes of the environmental degradation and possible solutions. And then the issue of right wing extremism becomes necessary to relate to.

There are at least two aspects of the relationship. One concerns the defensive aspect, the other the necessity under the present circumstances to be offensive when addressing the the present ecological crisis.

At the basis of the defensive relationship towards right wing extremism lies a need to start from a material understanding. As the material effect on human possibilities for well being as living beings in nature is the final judgement it is possible to see why right wing extremism when it turns up inside the environmental movement at times gets problems. The idea to reduce the world population by forced sterilization of men in the third world which belonged to the main stream Anglo-American environmentalism in the beginning of the 1970s had from this perspective one contradiction on its own terms. If one at all should except that environmental destruction can be reduced to the issue of number of people there still is the need from an environmental point of view to look at how much each individual in different groups actually puts a burden on the environmental. It then becomes obvious that  the growth of the consumption pro capita in rich parts of the world is having a considerable higher impact on the environment than that of population changes in impoverished countries. Thus the environmental effect of reducing the number of people in impoverished countries is a way to disguise the need to focus on the main problem of reducing negative environmental effects among the populations that puts a lot higher burden on the environment.

The Anglo-American environmentalism recognized that the over population issue was actually more of a problem in the rich world as the pro capita environmental destruction here was a lot higher than in those parts of the world they proposed forced sterilization. Behind this political understanding was the claimed fact that although this was the case the environmental movement have to focus upon the achievable. So even if forced sterilization or other population control measures would be more needed according to the ideas of over population as the biggest environmental problem in rich countries this was not pragmatically possible to achieve here so instead it was proposed to implement the ideas in other parts of the world were the effect would from an environmental points of view have lot less effect and even be contrapoductive as it disguised the more important factor behind global environmental problem, the over consumption among the rich classes. Once Third World Network emerged as a central actor in global environmental politics and Friends of the Earth International became a global democratic organization with a leadership representing the majority of countries on earth environmental concerns became central to the movement and right wing extremist ideas was completely marginalized.

Right wing extremism a tool for anti-environmental and repression interests

In the same way it is necessary to address the issue of right wing extremism external to the environmental movement. As the material relationship is at the centre right wing extremism must be put in context. As such right wing extremism in today’s world is not much connected to environmental destruction as it has very little direct governmental power. But we can see in countries like Denmark that modern right wing populism is at the frontline of opposing solutions to climate change and other globally important environmental issues while also supporting extremist positions towards refugees and immigrants. We can also se how this right wing populism with its extremist chauvinist ideas is an integral part of broader political groups which in Denmark is the basis not only of the right wing government but also have influenced the social democratic party and even the Socialist people party. Right wing extremist positions is in today’s Europe not a marginal phenomena but can at times have an effect on the whole political culture.

This was clearly visible during the recent climate summit in Copenhagen when the Danish People’s party easily could influence the whole parliamentary party system to adopt ever growing repressive measures against climate protesters so that in the end even social democratic and Socialist party spokes persons supported the police after the mass arrest of 2000 protesters.

Right wing extremism can be influential when it is an integral part of political forces in society that have the same interests. The Danish People’s Party have the same point of view at global environmental issues as climate change as quite a few corporations. The right to continue to pollute for those with global consumer power to do so regardless of the social and ecological consequences as long as the burden is located among impoverished nations or local settings. That such unbalanced relationships in the long run is a threat to both the biosphere and human relationships is not of concern. The way of thinking promoted by some right wing populism today together with corporate interests and their allies is in the way of addressing global environmental crisis.

Put Europe in a global context exposing also the role of liberalism

But this cannot be addressed only as an issue of right wing extremism. To point at the right wing extremism dimension is necessary for both a defence against repression and to show how some dominant solutions to the global environmental crisis are linked to right wing extremism and racist ideas. But it is also necessary to address the whole material circumstances in which the right wing extremism can promote their environmentally destructive politics.

Thus it is necessary to confront the dominating NGO way of addressing right wing extremism as caused by ideological intolerance of a nature that is fundamentally different from that of the dominant forces of today’s society.

In the European context the defensive side of this approach makes it necessary to put the material conditions in Europe in a global context. The understanding of right wing extremism have a dominant position of the political culture of Europe today. It is defined as something defeated in the past and yet necessary to stay alert to recognize as a ideological phenomena today that has its roots in extremist ideas different from that of the dominating political ideas of today. The situation is furthermore complicated by the different situation in Eastern and Western Europe after de facto Soviet occupation and a Nazi occupation in the East and cold war military US camps and strong influence in the West. Thus left wing ideologies have been to a large extent put into the same category as right wing extremist ideologies as something equally dangerous, separate from today’s dominating political thinking and above all separate from material conditions.

From an environmental point of view this is problematic. It is in the first place historically untrue. European fascism came to power with the help of the first world war which was the result of a period dominated by liberal ideologies. The result of this conflict in the liberal world was a polarization in Europe that brought fascism to power with the help of liberals in Italy. This while liberal ideology still ruled the colonial world and secured cheap natural resources for Europe as well as a racist ideology as the basis for this exploitation. The problem was that Germany and Italy was late comers in this struggle for dominance of other countries and their natural resources so more drastic methods to come in similar positions as the liberal countries were promoted. In the case of Italy in the unsuccessful dream of a new Roman empire and colonial victories, in the case of Germany by colonializing Eastern Europe.

Today the same liberal ideology that supported corporate interests in the 1930s and brought fascism to power tries to claim that politics should be separated from economy and thus ecology. Ideologies should be seen as isolated phenomena and not in their historical or material context. In this way a European identity is constructed built upon an enemy image that the threat against our well being comes from right wing and left wing extremism. In this way material relationships and especially those with global economic and ecological impact gets out of sight.

This is a threat to environmental concerns. Thus it is necessary from an environmental point of view of addressing the issue of right wing extremism from a material perspective and looking at which right wing extremist ideology and practice is linked to what kind of environmental concerns.

Address immediate threats as well as write a global history of Europe

At one level it is of course a need to unite a broad opposition in society against the most explicit expression of this right wing tendencies whether in the field of populistic simplistic politics, repression or racism and xenophobia. But of more vital concern to the environmental problems of today is the need to address the necessity of putting Europe in a global context.

What is necessary is to write a European history from a global historical point of view based on material realities. As environmental problems have no boundaries. Such a history will put the right wing extremism into the context of European exploitation that was started primarily by regimes underpinned with liberal ideology. This was expressed quite openly in the war to force China to open its population for selling opium grown in the East India territories in India to make England rich twice, first by forcing Indian labour to grow the opium and then forcing Chinese to open its market for making people drug addicts. This kind of war in the name of liberal ideologies to claim that the natural resources and markets in the third world belonged to European interests to do whatever they liked with as they had the economic power was the same as the Nazi regime promoted. Contrary to the propaganda today that Nazi ideology was only directed against Jews and democracy in reality it was equally or more directed against both the worker’s movement and populations outside Western Europe. Colonial Bolshevism was one of the main enemies that threatened the claimed Europe’s right to natural resources from the rest of the world. To not talk about the red army soldier who was in the way of colonializing Eastern Europe and the natural resources in Central Asia.

Only by challenging the present dominating way of building a European identity through separating politics from economy and ecology is it possible to build an understanding of the material realities of how the future of Europe is part of the fate of the biosphere. An understanding that puts liberal ideology as the unquestionable only way of looking at societal concerns is blocking such placing of Europe in its global context. It is also a way of promoting a false polarization in European between EU and Russia were on both sides more authoritarian tendencies can gain influence blaming extremists as the cause of instability while glossing over the role of now dominating ideologies in the East and the West. A Europe put in its global material context is a prerequisite for the environmental movement to be able to make its concerns for the biosphere seriously taken. It is also a necessary contribution to challenge right wing extremism.

Rural and urban sustainable transition

To be on the offensive when addressing the the present ecological crisis in relationship to right wing extremism it is even more important to put the ideology into the context of material concerns. As the ecological crisis today is of such a magnitude it is necessary to put it into its social context. The main focus must here be how to formulate and struggle for a sustainable transition of our societies both in rural and urban areas. A transition that puts direct producers in agriculture, forestry, fisheries and industry at the centre of transition of production and gives local communities a central role in addressing the cultural, political and economic concerns. A sustainable transition based in a material understanding of global realities which comes from the ability to not only have but also use freedom of expression and organize popular movements that enables us to develop scientific and cultural understanding of our lives and the planet we live upon.

Tord Björk

Active in Friends of the Earth Sweden

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