Babylon and Beyond by Derek Wall 04.10.07
Derek Wall’s ‘Babylon and Beyond: the economics of Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Globalist and Radical Green Movements’ is a great romp through the various elements make up the anti-globalisation ’movement’- starting with the Keynesian type reformers like Soros and ending up with the eco-socialism, passing by autonomists, eco-feminism and of course anarchists.
In effect it is an enquiry into the various political, economic and philosophical elements that make up modern anti-capitalism- with Derek taking a bit from most of them to pull together a sort of coherent eco-socialist position- which takes the form of a re-reading of Marx/Engels, a good pull on the pint of anarchism, with the open source movement pulled in for a 21st century hot pepper spice.
His reading of Marx is particularly interesting. Marx can be read in as many ways as the reader has political opinions, and sadly too many people who claim to be influenced by Marx have not actually read him.
Certainly the traditional Marxist-Leninist position has been that capitalism essentially drives to open new markets in its constant search for maintaining and expanding profits. Rater than see this as a bad thing the standard line is that this is good as it spreads efficient (ish) modern production techniques round the world, and in doing so creats a global working class, which is the sole force capable of effectively challenging and destroying capitalism and build socialism. Increased production is seen as good thing as increases humanity’s ability to provide a good quality of life to it population- in fact the only problem with capitalism is not that it drives to produce more and more but that it shares out the benefits so poorly, socialism is therefore a way of taking this productivist power and controlling it for the benefit of all not just a small elite .
This has lead to Marxists welcoming globalisation in its economic form, if not in its American accented cultural form.
Derek, on the other hand, essentially strips out the key Marxist economic analysis that differentiates exchange value- the price a product can get in the market, from use value- the actual useful value of a product. At the moment we are in a world that focuses on the exchange value, a world full of marketing created Brands where the perceived social cache of a product is judged more valuable than its actual purpose and usefulness. The market he argues, far from being all powerful and the most efficient way of organising human life, is in effect a very inefficient system for valuing the real value of product or service, and for motivating people.
A good example of this is the socially essential service of giving blood. In the UK it is a purely voluntary system, people give blood because it is a good, social thing to do, and has a strong social cache. In the US on the other hand blood donors are paid. Result-it is the good burghers of middle England, as well as the working class that give blood, in the US giving blood is seen as demeaning and left to the extremely poor, homeless and drug addicts. Far from providing a motivation the cash payment is actually a disincentive for those in good health to give blood, whereas the social aspect is a much stringer motivation.
Economists would have us believe that only the market can produce results. In reality the market is not omnipresent, if it was why on earth would anyone choose to a mother or for that matter a nurse, teacher, carer?
There exists a social motivation that drives people just as strongly as a financial one.
Modern economics concentrates purely on the latter, and as capitalism seeks to ever expand its monetization of life it both pushes outwards, with its out sourcing of production to developing countries, and inwards through personal trainers, therapists, private sector heath care, Big Mac in school canteens, Second Life online.
However there is a wide range of resistance to this constant expansion, whether it be displaced Chinese peasants, Indian tea producers, Mexican separatists, Brazilian homeless, or anti-airplane campers at Heathrow, as well as the traditional trade union militants, leftists and anarchists.
Derek tries, with some success, to pull all the various forms of resistance into some form of broad groupings, highlighting the main components of each wing and drawing out the key points of connection and equally points to the various contradictions.
The book is a polemic as well as an analysis. Derek himself has been very influential in shaping the face of eco-socialism in the UK, although he would probably be too modest to admit it. His writing in Red Pepper, the column in the Morning Star and his contribution to Comment is Free in the Guardian are now required reading for the traditional left as it tries to have a more than fleeting engagement with the environmental movement.
This book is a great little primer on the different strands that make up modern green and anti-globalization politics, with a conclusion that avoids some of the backward looking primitivism of some of the back to the land greens. It concludes with a heady mix of localism where possible, centralism where unavoidable, a well argued rejection of market based economics and private property .
In a recent e-mail Derek told me he had great fun writing the book, this sense of humour comes across throughout, as does his deep engagement both intellectually and politically with the issues. At times it is not an easy read, particularly for someone like me that comes from a productavist, command structure (Leninist) left wing background, and there are parts of historical analysis I would take issue with, most notably his romanticism of the anarchist movement in the Spanish civil war, however overall I think the traditional left has more to learn from Derek than he has from them.
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