Greenman's Occasional Organ

Ecosocialist. Syndicalist. Critical Techno-Progressive.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Green Sacred Cows #1: Romanticism

I blogged a short while ago about a series of posts on green "sacred cows". The first of these follows. It is worth re-stating what I said when introducing this series of posts at this point : "I do this not because I want to be iconoclastic or argumentative, but because I believe that these positions seriously handicap the Green movement in the short term and might potentially have disastrous effects in the longer term.
My position is clear. I am a progressive (in the technological and social rather than narrow political sense), a libertarian socialist as opposed to a statist or authoritarian, and a green seeking sustainability and protection compatible with an advanced and advancing technological civilisation rather than regression to an earlier mode of production."

My first sacred cow up for slaughter is Romanticism.

Now you might ask "how is this important to some greens?" , and you would be right to do so. Romanticism here is used in the sense of both calling upon the work and stance of the romantic movement in art and literature to bolster environmentalist confidence and also in terms of sloppy thinking and that excessive reverence for the past which is all too common in some quarters. The mystification of nature is something that usually causes me some unease - Lovelock's use of terminology such as the 'Gaia' concept has something of this about it, whether originally intended as a convenient metaphor for material realities or not, Schumacher also went down this path. I am not here about attacking the undoubted poetic, musical and artistic achievements of the Romantic movement. They bequeathed some great and beautiful creations. But as critical and analytical people in the 21st Century we should be able to look beyond these to the roots and nature of the present day influence of this 19th Century current in Western thought.

From the Wikipedia on Romanticism:

Many intellectual historians have seen Romanticism as a key movement in the Counter-Enlightenment, a reaction against the Age of Enlightenment. Whereas the thinkers of the Enlightenment emphasized the primacy of deductive reason, Romanticism emphasized intuition, imagination, and feeling, to a point that has led to some Romantic thinkers being accused of irrationalism.

That right greens see the romantic movement as precursors is no surprise, some of them see themselves as aristocratic, cultured rebels like their 19th Century idols. Like those of the artistic and poetic circles of early 19th Century Britain the right greens move to steadily more reactionary positions as well. The fear of the rising working class created by the industrial revolution and the experience of the bloody French Revolution and its treatment of 'sensitive artistic aristocrats' like themselves drove the likes of Wordsworth to reaction and conservativism. Likewise, Zac Goldsmith and his cohorts are now the "green" shock troops of the Conservative Party, running scared of the growing global conflicts, the global justice movement in the streets and the perceived threats to cosy English rural life. Goldsmith's Ecologist Magazine published a leading article a few years ago which hailed the Romantic movement as the great precursors and anticipators of the Ecologist's brand of environmentalism.

The left is not immune from the negative legacy of romanticism either though. Whilst the work of William Morris in wedding a socialist framework of thought to a concern for the natural environment and healthy living is rightly lauded, the medievalist-romantic element of his thought far too often goes uncritiqued on the left. This was not a unique failing as the Guild Socialists of GDH Cole also could be criticised on these grounds. However, whereas Cole is now seen as a mildly interesting diversion from the main socialist line of development Morris is sometimes elevated to guru status. This reverence for the 'great man' could be seen as another outbreak of romanticism.

Romanticism can also be found in the idealisation of heroic individuals and their power to alter history. With the Romantics like Beethoven and others it was the idealisation of Napoleon that the facts of history forced them to reconsider - with some romantic-minded greens today it is Chavez, Al Gore, or more farcically on the right, Dave Cameron. While the Romantics invested unreasonable hopes in the French Revolution, 20th Century Western socialists romanticized the Russian revolution and there is a worrying trend of romanticizing the Bolivarian 'revolution'. This is not to fall in line with reaction and condemn the very idea of radical social change as many of the Romantics ended up doing, but to take a rational and historicist view of these events, progressive elements, authoritarian warts and all. It does not help the progressive cause to give the impression that many of us are starry-eyed idealists, wilfully blind to the flaws in 'anti-imperialist' movements and regimes. Still less does the unsocialist elevation of the importance of individual leaders help the understanding of the historical dynamic and balance of forces.

The anthropomorphising of animals, the "cute" factor in conservation and animal rights is another aspect of this. Often, Nature and individual living things are not seen as they are in the light of what science reveals about them, but in either an aesthetic sense as something that must be preserved due to intrinsic "beauty" or in a mystical sense as worthy or reverence and worship for expressing the "wholeness" and unity of creation - and I use the word creation deliberately. (See Emerson and Thoreau) This is not to deny that many creatures are beautiful, nor that the natural world is awe inspiring in its complexity and variation - who can deny this after seeing one of David Attenborough's films like the gorgeous "Saving Planet Earth" pilot broadcast the other evening. However, it is to say that quasi, or not so quasi-religious reverence for nature and sentimentalising of animals and plants are not particularly useful when contemplating the huge social and economic issues that underlie our current environmental predicament.

It is not surprising therefore, that many of the more reactionary and anti-human elements of the broader green movement have come to their views through conservationism or animal welfare. This is not to deny that there are those who have stated out as conservationists or animal liberationists who have come to a more fully rounded social ecologist or ecosocialist position, nor that many in the conservationist and animal welfare movements have a scientific outlook and do a lot of good work - but it is to point out the dangers of unreformed naturalist romantics.

It is from these quarters that one is most likely to hear unpleasant views about humanity as a "plague" and the "cleansing" virtues of war and disease. The tragic trajectory of Rudolf Bahro and those who followed his lead is indicative of where the kind of mystical natural absolutism can lead even those with originally useful and innovative ideas.

Without in any way condoning other elements of his thought, the opinions of one of the greatest modern authors upon Romanticism have resonance beyond the literary framework in which he originally addressed them -

In realism you are down to facts on which the world is based: that sudden reality which smashes romanticism into a pulp. What makes most people's lives unhappy is some disappointed romanticism, some unrealizable or misconceived ideal. In fact you may say that idealism is the ruin of man, and if we lived down to fact, as primitive man had to do, we would be better off. That is what we were made for. Nature is quite unromantic. It is we who put romance into her, which is a false attitude, an egotism, absurd like all egotisms. In Ulysses I tried to keep close to fact.

(James Joyce, quoted in Arthur Power, Conversations with James Joyce, ed Clive Hart, 1974, 98.)

As Lowy and Robert Sayre have noted (in Romanticism Against The Tide of Modernity) socialism, Marxism, anarchism, feminism, environmentalism and a range of humanistic movements all owe a debt to, and have incorporated elements of the Romantic critique of industrial civilization and bourgeois society. The point is not to deny the undoubted influence of Romanticism in the evolution of social and political movements, but to be aware of that influence and negate the regressive elements of it.

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At 2:44 pm, Anonymous Nick said...

Hey, really interesting post and I like your blog in general. It's good to see some insightful ecological thinking coming from a materialist viewpoint. Basing green thinking and activism in the day to day experiences of people at work and in their communities is absolutely vital, central to this has to be waking up those elements of the green movement stuck in wishy washy idealism.

At 4:11 pm, Blogger Dave Riley said...

You stretch a long bow --so long you tried to include EVERYONE under the same heading such that your argument begins to falter.

YOU:"With the Romantics like Beethoven and others it was the idealisation of Napoleon that the facts of history forced them to reconsider - with some romantic-minded greens today it is Chavez, Al Gore, or more farcically on the right, Dave Cameron..."

ME: Thats' nonsense because it's not substantiated. You pull this shifty by equating Napoleon with Chavez as though because you say so it's a parallel for "romantic-minded greens" who are "romantic minded" I gather because they admire Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan process.

Thats' what's called a straw man.

You also truncate the excellent point about the use of 'Gaia' terminology but then fail to explore in detail the regressive elements of romanticism except to point out that ex romantics end up turning Tory.

Great quote from James Joyce though.

However, you miss the core motor of so much green thinking by relying on the "romantic' label to carry your argument. The core divide is between materialism and idealism rather than this romanticism to which you prefer as though this movement were a literati excursion into the Lake Country.. But so much green thinking is buoyed up by idealism and so many utopian notions which are mostly libertarian in their make up.

So while the issues are so BIG the solutions are supposedly individual...Thats' the trajectory.

So playing this "romanticism" game is a bit of a cop out because it obscures more than it unveils.

This is one of the problems that the ecosocialism current faces -- in that it concedes to green idealism by embracing some of the trends you touch on so well. But in its rushing to prove its green credentials it makes all these concessions when it it claims a hodge podge of diverse precursors as its own.

At 8:42 pm, Blogger greenman said...

Thanks Nick and Dave, one of the main motives behind these "sacred cows" posts was to stimulate debate and analysis!

In my defence on the Chavez point I myself can quite easily admire the social and economic achievements in Venezuela and the boldness of the man himself, what I am criticising is the elevation of the man to hero status seen in some parts of the left. Sometimes this is just an impression that is given by those keen not to show any gap in the ranks as we face the forces of reaction and imperialism, other times it is a more deep seated flaw reflecting a more general tendency towards hero-worship. The romantic-mindedness comes in identifying with leaders, "great men" changing the world rather thandevelopment of productive processes, socio-political structures, classes and ideas as identified by a more materialist outlook. I take your point about idealism versus materialism completely. The reason I identify the variety of idealist thought known as romanticism as a particular problem in the green movement is because of its ideological relationship with regressive and backward looking approaches.
On the nascent ecosocialist movement I think the eclectic nature of influences and claimed antecedents is inevitable at this stage. However, I do not think this necessarily a bad thing (at this stage) either as the ideas/antecedents put forward can be examined and critiqued and out of this process can come growing clarity.
Anyhow, thanks for your comments.

At 10:56 pm, Blogger Jim Jay said...

Really thoughtful post. good stuff.

At 1:08 am, Blogger Dave Riley said...

I agree with Jim:keep up the posting in like mode to stimulate debate. But you are still very wrong on this crude caricature you've invented for Chavez and the Venezuela process.

So you wanna imagine a process in Venezeula without him? So that "productive processes, socio-political structures, classes and ideas " can proceed without his over bearing interference?

Let's be materialist by all means but let's also deal with political facts and not try to concertina them into an exercise on your part that is a bit forced in places.

As for the question of "ecosocialism" -- I've argued elsewhere about the problems I have with the term as well, I guess, as the exercise. As you don't have to be "ecosocialist" to be green AND socialist.

And to share a core element of "materialism" from LT paraphrased and remodeled: "Materialists believe that in the beginning was the deed, the Word followed in its phonetic shadow."

So I'm more interested in doing green stuff than constructing a new branch of socialism. You see, the proof of the green socialist pudding is in the eating.


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