Where there's Brass there's Muck

(Ecology and Anarchism)

£1.80 from the Anarchist Communist Federation
c/o 84b Whitechapel High Street,
London E1 7QX,
England.


At the end of June this year a United Nations General Assembly convened to review progress since the "Earth Summit" five years ago. This so-called 'Earth Summit plus five' was branded by environmental activists as Earth Summit minus five.

According to its own assessment, 20% of the world's population are still consuming 80% of its resources (Irish Times June 24th). "Gaps between rich and poor continue to grow", it says, "over 1.1 billion people - 20% of the world's population - live in absolute poverty, on the equivalent of less than one dollar a day". Meanwhile rain forests continue to be decimated with an area the size of Nepal cut down or burned every year, much of Eastern Europe is an industrial wasteland, the hole in the ozone layer ain't gettin' any smaller and global warming is no longer in the future.

In this context the publication of 'Where there's Brass there's Muck' (great title by the way!) couldn't be more timely. This pamphlet is fairly short at 64 pages, but packed with information and a good hard anarchist refutation of many of the badly thought out ideas on why the environment is under threat.

If I was to have any small criticism it is in the order of the essays (the pamphlet is a series of essays on various themes which all stand on their own). I personally would have put the last chapter "Ecology and Class" first as it explains the class struggle anarchist position extremely well and puts everything else into context. This aside however I would thoroughly recommend this pamphlet and advise reading the last chapter first!

 

Is ecology a 'class' issue

The pamphlet firmly roots the problems of poverty and environmental destruction in the operation of the world capitalist system and shows how they have arisen along with capitalism's development. It shows how science and technology aren't neutral, as they exist in the context of an unequal class society.

The type of technological development supported by capitalism is backed because it leads to greater profits and control. The ruling class develops and modifies certain technologies in order the weaken the ability of workers to fight back or communities to organise.

Historically this can be seen in the development of the industrial revolution in England. The capitalists, initially, were extremely slow to adopt new inventions like power looms and steam engines. According to Samuel Smiles (an Eighteenth Century writer and commentator) manufacturers did not adopt many of the new inventions until forced to do so by strikes. In the early 18th century strikes in midlands factories led the owners to commission a set of machinists to build a self-propelled "mule" which cost an incredible (for the time) sum of £13,000, but avoided conceding higher wages.

Technology was and is used to smash or de-skill organised workers. Over time the length of the spinning mules was increased which decreased the number of skilled spinners. The factory apprentice system was weakened which again weakened the organisation of the spinners. Workers knew what was happening and reacted against it by attacking the new machines.

Between 1811 and 1813 the government was forced to deploy 12,000 troops to attack "luddites". These workers knew exactly what they were doing and weren't anti-technology as such, for example Lancashire machine wreckers between 1778 and 1780 spared spinning jennies (weaving machines) of 24 spindles or less (which were used for small scale domestic production) but destroyed larger factory machines.

This is the context in which capitalism evolved and the pamphlet illustrates how the same dynamic wreaks havoc on a larger scale today. For example, successive English governments pour money into nuclear power which is large scale and amenable to control by state and/or big business. Tiny funds are put into technologies to generate energy by wind, tide, solar or geothermal means.

They are left to "fail" or be tiny and underfunded Cinderella projects so the government can be seen to be "doing their bit". This is because these technologies are amenable to local control and don't involve massive building or other contracts to award to their friends. These technologies which are environmentally friendly, locally controllable and extend human capabilities will never be supported by the bosses.

 

Workers take action

The pamphlet goes beyond making abstract calls on "the labour movement" and shows how groups of workers have opposed the bosses on these issues and won. As the pamphlet says "in the 1970s a number of groups of Australian workers instituted Green Bans through which they boycotted environmentally destructive projects". The Franklin river project - a plan to flood Tasmanian National Park (including Aboriginal land) for a hydro electric project was smashed by a boycott of all the workers associated with its construction. Similarly workers blacked all work connected with Amax's attempt to drill for oil and mine diamonds at Aboriginal land at Noonkanbah. They also supported Aboriginal occupations to defend their land.

Unfortunately the ACF subscribe to a position that trade unions are more of an obstacle to progress than an aid. This seems to have blinded them to the fact that the 'green bans' were the official policy of a major union in Australia's construction industry, the Builders Laborers' Federation. Is it not all the more impressive that the membership of an entire union was won to a policy of "bans on demolitions, and also bans on certain constructions - to preserve history, peoples' homes and whatever remnants survive of a gracious and natural environment" [quoted from 'Taming the Concrete Jungle', the BLF's official history].

In Brazil rubber tappers forged an alliance with native peoples and environmentalists to oppose Amazonian deforestation. Their success was such that the ranchers murdered union activist Chico Mendes in 1988 but this struggle continues.

The whole pamphlet, I think, works around this basic analysis of capitalism. Other essays reject calls for population control or returns to nature. There is a very long section on roads and cars in England, mainly, I presume, as the ACF is involved in the Anti-Roads struggle. There is also a good section destroying the argument that natural selection and the survival of the fittest justifies the capitalist system. Overall much food for thought and highly recommended.

Conor McLoughlin