Manifesto falls short in addressing the socio-ecological crisis

Book cover

Living Democracy: An ecological manifesto for the end of the world as we know it
By Tim Hollo
NewSouth, 2022
296 pp., $32.99  

In a highly readable book, Living Democracy: An Ecological Manifesto for the End of the World, Tim Hollo, who was an advisor to former Greens Senator Christine Milne and is the present executive director of the Green Institute, takes readers on a journey that seeks to address three key issues.

In Part 1, the author explores where humanity is at the present time and how it got there. Part 2 attempts to set out a vision for the future based on existing examples and Part 3 examines how transformative change occurs — often quickly.

Hollo seeks to make “big political ideas accessible and useful to anyone by linking them to practical projects we can all do”.

Hollo begins by juxtaposing a capitalist perspective that is “guided by the accumulation and control of wealth” and a socialist perspective that “implies a prioritisation of collective human society” with an ecological perspective that “conjures a political philosophy emerging from and valuing living systems”.

He defines ecology as a “complex adaptive system of life as well as of each individual and recombinant being which is part of the web of life”. As opposed to Indigenous societies, state societies, including modern ones, are hierarchical social orders based upon classes, castes and other social inequalities.

Hollo maintains that recorded history has entailed a struggle between farming and the enclosure of the commons. He maintains that humanity needs to replace hierarchy with horizontality, in which people work together in an ecological system, as equal but different partners, in order to co-create their common humanity.

In terms of shaping his own ecological perspective, Hollo draws from Indigenous thought — albeit not extensively — anarchism and Elinor Ostrom’s the work on the commons. In terms of anti-ecology, he identifies capitalism, communism (using the former Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China as examples) and fascism.

Hollo grants that Marx recognised that capitalism is in a metabolic rift with nature, and — in contrast to some early Greens who declared themselves “neither left nor right” — asserts that an authentic ecological politics is “definitively of the left in that it seeks to distribute power and resources rather than concentrate them in a few hands”.

While Hollo concedes that there is much value in socialist thought in terms of cultivating ecological politics — an assertion he fails to elaborate on — he argues that socialism is incapable of solving the numerous crises faced by humanity.

A glaring omission in Hollo’s book is an effort to grapple with the growing literature on ecosocialism that has emerged since the 1980s, if not earlier. While I would be the first to admit that ecosocialists need to draw from Indigenous and ecoanarchist thought, ecoanarchists need to grapple with ecosocialism more than they generally do — Hollo being a case in point.

In Part 2, Hollo finds inspiration in the efforts of the Rojava experiment (officially termed the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria) to create a multi-ethnic, feminist, environmentalist and democratic society.

Ecosocialists have also drawn inspiration from the Rojava project.

Hollo argues that the primary task in developing a “living democracy” is to “create as many spaces as we can collectively imagine for people to get involved in their own communities”. Most of the living democracy efforts he identifies exist at the local level — community gardens, food co-ops, cooking groups, community kitchens, “Buy Nothing” groups, repair cafes, and little street libraries — rather than at the national and global levels.

While Hollo is a fan of a Universal Basic Income and advocates the abolition of “extreme wealth through a maximum wage and maximum wealth”, he expresses ambivalence about nationalisation of the means of production and fails to provide any specifics on how to confront corporate power — which he acknowledges drives extractive industries that engage in anti-ecological ventures. On the positive side, Hollo is a proponent of the urban agriculture movement, re-wilding cities, and participatory, polycentric environmental planning.

Part 3, on how humanity will achieve a living democracy based upon ecological principles, constitutes the weakest section of Hollo’s book. He advocates the amorphous concept of panarchy based upon an “appreciation of cooperation, complexity, and group dynamics”.

While clearly an admirer of Antonio Gramsci’s neo-Marxist views about hegemony as form of non-coercive cultural control and his notion of the interregnum as the moment “when the old world is dying and new is struggling to be born”, Hollo expresses ambivalence about many reform efforts because they entail “working within a system of centralised, dominating, adversarial power”. Ironically, the Australian Greens — as a largely green social democratic party operating within the parameters of federal and state parliamentary structures, as well as city councils — are engaged in a reformist project, by and large, opting to tweak capitalism rather than transcend it.

Hollo admits to being even more skeptical of revolution because he asserts that it “creates scorched earth”, but does not elaborate on this in detail. While this may have been historically true at times, it does not have to be the case. Even in the early days of the Soviet Union, the Bolsheviks engaged in some efforts to achieve an ecological society by creating nature reserves, largely undermined with the advent of Stalinism.

While Hollo is no fan of capitalism and finds inspiration from anarchism — from Peter Kropotkin in the era of the Russian Revolution to Murray Bookchin, a well-known American ecoanarchist — he appears to be somewhat timid in taking on capitalism front and centre.

Perhaps this stance reflects the ambivalence about capitalism characteristic of the Australian Greens?

Over the past decade or so, the Greens leadership has, by and large, been hostile to anti-capitalist factions within the party. Particularly under the leadership of former party head Richard Di Natale, the Greens mainstreamed even more than they had in the past. Unfortunately, Left Renewal, an explicitly anti-capitalist venture in New South Wales, ran its course, having been successfully squashed by the national Greens leadership. However, in the May Federal election, three new Greens MPs based in Brisbane joined current Greens leader Adam Bandt in the House of Representatives. One of these is Max Chandler Mather, a key figure in an anti-capitalist current that has appeared in recent years in Queensland.

For the moment, Bandt — aside from his earlier flirtations with socialism and Marxism — has chosen to operate within capitalist parameters and explore possibilities for a yet to be clearly defined Green New Deal. Perhaps in time, spurred by the “Greenslide” in Queensland, the Greens will revisit the anti-capitalist — including ecosocialist and ecoanarchist — currents within their party and adopt a more radical stance.

[Hans Baer is author of Climate Change and Capitalism in Australia: An Eco-Socialist Vision for the Future (Routledge, 2022).]