From Resisting Property Developers To Making Ecosocialist Strategy

From People And Nature, a guest post by Gordon Peters a socialist and community activist, who is currently representing StopHDV, a community-based campaign, in its legal challenge to Haringey Council, which wants to hand control of most of its property to HDV, a property development company. Gordon was both a local government chief officer and a long-time trade unionist, and in 2015 stood in the general election for the Green Party.

How can ecosocialism respond to the operation of power in capitalist accumulation and reproduction? Does ecosocialism help provide answers to struggles taking place in the local state and in sites of contest?

I want to suggest that it does provide such answers – in four broad ways:

1. The refusal strategy

This has a long lineage in class struggles in many different ways, but came to be articulated by the Italian Autonomists. Here I can only draw together some links from very different places in recent times, which all have as their distinct characteristics a refusal to yield to the capitalist logic and to say no to displacement.

StopHDV protesters in Haringey, north London, Photo from the StopHDV web site

For instance, indigenous struggles in Latin America particularly against mining, deforestation and land grabbing demand an anti-capitalist sustainability, and in Bolivia were enshrined in the Cochabamba Declaration and the Rights of Mother Earth.

The “boycott, divestment and sanctions” movement, when applied to fossil fuels; the principle of “leave it in the ground”; anti-fracking protests in southern England and in Lancashire and Yorkshire; and campaigns on housing rights against estate demolition – all are increasingly confronting the demands of corporate capital and, in their own sites of struggle, reframing demands in terms of rights to land, community, place to live, clean air and water, and freedoms, which are essentially ecosocialist.

Housing struggles in London are having to resist speculation, and the maximisation of value from land, which depends on further debt creation and the actual immiseration of working class people by displacement of social housing, and in some cases the further polarisation of class relations by building blocks with separate entries for “affordable” and higher price housing.

I am involved with the StopHDV campaign in Haringey, where the local state and the multinational corporation Lendlease aim to establish a financial nexus worth several billion pounds as a “development vehicle” – and in the process re-make Tottenham and Wood Green, thereby displacing thousands of people. As the plaintiff in a Judicial Review I have taken this struggle into the High Court, along with a broad coalition of people on the ground.

Marching and protesting against the Council we refuse to accept the Haringey Development Vehicle, and in the court our final submission to the Council/corporate argument is “we say not so”. This is the refusal strategy, and it echoes to some degree the methods of the In and Against the State movement in the 1970s, where workers were employed by, but refused to be co-opted by, the local state. It is however broader, and puts much more emphasis on the protection of place and the right to a decent environment, mobilising residents as well as trades unionists.

2. Social protection, community and natural rights

My contention is that these are being more necessarily inter-weaved. In the Haringey struggle for instance the role of the local state and capital become more intertwined. Debt accumulates on a promise of returned profit for company and authority, with the risk of default held by the public purse (the local authority), and demolition of estates required for revaluation. Debts for supposedly affordable housing also accumulate. In the free market, transfer of value to companies and to richer buyers and renters. The fight to preserve a “no go” area for demolition – as distinct from locally agreed refurbishment – becomes a vital demand: this is our place, this is our land.

We are fighting, amongst other things, against a new debt spiral (to use the phrase of David Harvey, the Marxist geographer), not a debt cycle. The fight against both social cleansing as it has come to be known, and local despoliation, tends then to unify the issues of social protection, community and natural rights, in this case in an urban setting. Urban density is a further issue at stake in the case of Northumberland Park estate in Tottenham. which is adjacent to the Lea Valley Regional Park in London.

The human world is also the natural world, and the natural world contains the human world, in cities all the more so. The campaign for London as a National Park City is one way of recognising this, but unfortunately not much linked to community issues and social exploitation, to date.

3. Place-based collective alternatives and the “partner state”

Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel, in a recent article in Red Pepper on “the dawn of commons politics”, talk about the partner state as “a fluid facilitator to assist and emancipate the bottom-up counter power that keeps it in check”. In other words, there is some kind of dialectical tension between the demands of “the commons” – sometimes through open source, sometimes through organising and devising more horizontal power structures from below which make more sense for local infrastructure – and the hierarchically-inclined and generally pro-capitalist structures of which they are part.

There are traditions of municipalist participation to build on from an ecosocialist perspective, including that espoused by Murray Bookchin, who called himself a social ecologist and drew in part from the Vermont town halls experience. In an altogether different setting, the political experiment in Kobane and Rojava in war-torn Syria draws on municipalism and eco-feminism while fighting both for survival and for a non-hierarchical, non-exploitative future.

Closer to home, I would cite examples that show the potential of transformative power, such as: the Isle of Eigg Community Trust in Scotland; the Peoples Plan in Lambeth, allied to the fight to retain Cressingham Gardens local estate; the Our Tottenham movement and local planning initiatives in Haringey; and demands that have arisen to set up Community Land Trusts.

I see no reason why such initiatives cannot be allied to demands for the restoration of council housing, with participative management, not Arms Length Management Organisations such as the one which went so wrong at Grenfell Tower.

Radical municipalism may be due a rebirth, and another indication here is that offered by Plan C (see Radical Municipalism: Demanding the Future by Plan C and Bertie Russell, 30 October, 2017 in Bella Caledonia). I was a chief officer in Hackney in the 1980s, when the “radical socialist borough” had a Redprint for localisation – which ground into the dust, mainly because of an inability of the council to deal with trade union demands. That is a lesson for any partner state.

There are probably better examples of place-based collective alternatives in Germany than in the UK, particularly with regard to municipalised energy production, ownership and distribution. Participatory
budgeting is more advanced in Brazil than the UK, but it is another example of reframing what we want and what is needed from below.

StopHDV protesters at Haringey Civic Centre. Photo from the Two Billion Pound Gamble facebook page

My contention is that the nature of the current struggles to resist corporate takeovers of whole communities, and the fight for social protection and environment, require place-based collective alternatives to be put forward and linked to other similar struggles, framed as an ecosocialist challenge to the further creation of debt and capitalist social relations.

4. A Just Transition

Here I am suggesting that as well as knowing how and when to refuse, how and where to protect, and where and what to re-organise, an ecosocialist praxis needs a strong sense of a direction to something better. It in a way turns utopia on its head as the utopians are the capitalists, the big corporates and those who run local states who go into partnership with them in a constantly re-branding drive for new wealth which in fact trickles up, not down.

In looking at “transitional demands” (a phrase redolent of another tradition) towards something achievable and recognisable, I have found the Just Transitions and Energy Democracy document, produced by the Public and Commercial Service Union, as relevant as anything. The first of their ten demands is for “worker involvement through their trade unions in building the public services of the future in a worker-public partnership based on social need and not private greed”. It also includes a national plan for renewable energy, frameworks for democratic control and energy democracy at different levels, transition process to zero carbon, and new statutory rights.

There is of course much more to be said on this: on climate action and trade union involvement now coming together more; on banks and green investment; on the “one million green jobs” proposals; on the TUC’s 2017 commitment to action on climate change; and for what must be demanded of a Corbyn government for that matter. My unifying point is that an ecosocialist praxis examines what has to be tackled, acts on it, and learns from practice while informing a better theoretical understanding of what is necessary and possible.

The four elements set out here do not pretend an answer universally applicable. Rather, they may provide a framework for contesting the spaces and places occupied by capitalist dynamics, and a way of bringing together forces of the commons and harnessing popular demands for openness, fairness and sustainability in the actual living circumstances of people. And the aggregation of these amounts to an ecosocialist alternative. When we demonstrate that capital is at the root of the disturbance of the metabolic interaction between humanity and nature then we are far from being an academic, or utopian, or any other sideshow.

This article is based on a talk Gordon Peters gave at the Historical Materialism conference in London in November. It also appeared on the Green Left’s ecosocialist network site.

■ Also by Gordon Peters: The metabolic rift and ecological value: the ecosocialist challenge (on the Climate and Capitalism site)

■ More on the fight in Haringey on the StopHDV web site here, the Two Billion Pound Gamble facebook page, and in the Guardian here.

Moving the trade unions past fossil fuels – People & Nature, August 2017

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