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Ecologism and the Relegitimation of Socialism

Ecologism and the
Relegitimation of Socialism
Andrew Dobson

Ever since 1974 – at least – and the publication of Hans
Magnus Enzensberger’s ‘A Critique of Political Ecology’, I
the relationship between socialism and ecologism has been
a source of contention. Sometimes this relationship has
been one of outright hostility as the differences between the
analyses and aspirations of the two ideologies have been
deployed as evidence of lasting incompatibility.

concretely experienced must have a class dimension (money
can soften the blow), and that the creation of a sustainable
society will only be possible through the organisation of
majorities in favour of it – majorities which will have class
characteristics and which may involve, crucially, the
organised labour movement.

Moves towards rapprochement
Against rapprochement
On the face of it the chances of rapprochement seem slim.

Centrally, socialism and ecologism appear to be talking
about two entirely different problematics. Socialism (or at
least the so-called ‘democratic’ type) has traditionally been
concerned with bringing about a fairer and more just
distribution of power and wealth in society, while ecologism
argues that a precondition for distribution of any sort (fair
or unfair, just or unjust) is a sustainable human relationship
with the environment. Socialists have not usually been
much worried about the non-human natural world, 2 while
ecologists place it at the heart of their concerns.

Similarly, Greens identify industrialism (orproductivism)
as the source of our malaise, while socialists generally claim
that it is a particular form of production – capitalism – that
is at fault. In line with a remark made above, the issue for
socialists has been not so much what is produced or how it
is produced, but how justly to divide up what is produced.

Greens, on the other hand, are sensitive to questions
concerning the desirability of certain products, both in
terms of what they are and in terms of the damage their
production might do to the environment.

Further, Greens and socialists seem to disagree
fundamentally over the issue of class. Greens pride
themselves on being beyond class or, as they like to put it,
‘beyond left and right’ . The appeals they make are universal,
in the sense that they seek to persuade us that environmental
catastrophe is class-blind and will affect us all equally. It is,
then, in everyone’s interest, regardless of class, to work
towards a sustainable society.

Socialists, on the other hand, will consistently remind
Greens that ‘we still live in a class society, in which the rich
have lately been getting relatively richer’.3 This means both
that an analysis of how environmental degradation is
Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

This brief survey of three of the critical differences between
socialism and ecologism lends weight to the contention that
the two ideologies are, and will remain, incompatible. More
recently, though, there have been attempts to find common
ground in the two traditions. This, I think, is partly because
of socialism’s difficulties during the 1980s, and the
reappraisal of doctrine that took place in the wake of attacks
from the New Right necessarily included reference to the
one challenge to its radical hegemony on the progressive4
wing of politics – the environmental movement.

Similarly, the environmental movement itself has been
sensitised both to socialist critiques of its position and to the
idea that it is not a movement without a history. Significantly,
that history can be shown to be one with socialist resonances
(with the reservations pointed out in note 4), and in this
respect there is more common ground between the two
traditions than might appear at first sight.

For these reasons most of the work that has been done
recently on the relationship between socialism and ecology
has focussed on minimising their differences and maximising
their similarities so as to find a meeting point of relative
compatibility somewhere in the middle. Pretty quickly it
was discovered that the centre of gravity of compatibility
was to be found somewhere in the utopian socialist tradition,
so when Greens and socialists have engaged in constructive
debate they have usually ended up in territory occupied by
(say) William Morris. 5
Given the terms of reference outlined above, this seems
entirely sensible. Morris’s work responds to Green appeals
for sensitivity towards, and an aesthetic regard for, the nonhuman natural world. Class analyses take second place to a
universal-humanist appeal, and the character and quality of
production are essential criteria for judging the acceptability
of the society in which it takes place. At the same time as

Greens can comfortably accept William Morris as ‘one of
them’, socialists obviously recognise him – and the utopian
tradition he represents in general- as a part of their heritage.

In this way the gap between Greens and socialists narrows
to the point of extinction.

This process of rapprochement has been a necessary
one; not only because there just are points of common
interest, but also because it has been felt that the vacuum in
the space vacated by progressive politics in the wake of the
New Right onslaught needs to be filled by something more
than diverse and divided groups and movements bickering
over territory. In this respect the search for common ground
has performed a useful healing and cohering function as
groups and individuals seek to rebuild their political

Beyond rapprochement
I want to suggest that this should be seen as a beginning and
not an end. The search for common ground or for reasons for
rapprochement is essentially a defensive and nontransformative strategy. It is defensive in that it reads like a
withdrawal into the stockade – necessary, but ultimately a
journey to nowhere. It is non-transformative in that the
rapprochement pushes neither ecologism nor socialism into
new theoretical or practical territory. The meeting is
minimalist: themes and practices on both sides are dropped
as a lowest common denominator of mutual acceptability is
sought, and both sides emerge from the engagement
fundamentally unchanged.

My argument here is that radical and progressive politics
need not (and, from an activist point of view, should not)
rest content with such an achievement. One of the most
striking features of the New Right ascendancy has been the
pilfering and deployment ofleftist vocabulary by the forces
of the right. Prime Minister John Major’s claim to be
seeking a ‘classless society’ was remarkable enough for its
mere utterance, but more remarkable still for its going
almost wholly unnoticed and unchallenged. This silence
was eloquent evidence not of a lack of resistance, but of the
lack of a vocabulary with which to express it. Virtually the
entire rich crop of political speech has been harvested by the
right and invested with meanings which suit its intentions.

Like a ventriloquist’s dummy, the left now does not speak
but, rather, is spoken. The intention here is to begin to
reconstruct a language for the left.

The second and third stages:

relegitimation and transformation
In these respects socialists and Greens need to emerge from
their stockade and look to creation rather than conservation.

If rapprochement was the necessary first stage, then there
are second and third stages as well, and both of them involve
a creative relationship between socialism and ecologism one which eventually takes them (and particularly socialism)
into the new territory demanded by a progressive politics
suited to the late twentieth century.


The anatomy of this new politics has many dimensions
but having begun to speak o.f language I want to continue to
do so, not least because it anticipates postmodern themes
developed later. Postmodernists argue that reality is
irreducibly ‘linguistic’, or that we are constituted by
discourse, or that our experience is only as rich as our
conceptualisations of it allow. I do not want to defend these
positions here, and nor am I wholeheartedly in favour of
them. For one thing they have no room for political economy
or for an analysis of the material conditions for social
change. These are serious lacunae – and particularly in the
context of the political and social transformations which I
want to speak about here.

I am persuaded, though, that it is wrong to relegate
language and the power that resides in it to superstructural
irrelevance. Politically, it is worth spending time thinking
about how language that is important to a movement, and
which has been lost to it, might be recovered. We would be
wrong to underestimate not only the symbolic but ultimately
the material force of John Major’s appeal to a classless
society. There is a battle to be fought on the terrain of
language, then, that is worth fighting in its own political and
material right, and what follows is written in that vein.

First I would like to show how, in the second stage of the
relationship between socialism and ecologism, ecologism
can contribute to a relegitimation of the language of
socialism. This amounts to reinvesting socialist political
language with socialist meanings and intentions, and thus
wresting back some or all of that language from those who
have appropriated it.

If the second stage is about relegitimation, then the third
stage concerns the deployment of ecologism with a view to
creating a new vocabulary with which to legitimise a
contemporary progressive politics. This will involve speculatively, tentatively, all too briefly – taking the old
(and hopefully relegitimised) language of socialism and
investing it with new meanings inspired both by the
ecological critique and by the informing principles generated
by our post-Fordist and postmodern material and cultural

In this way, ecologism becomes the necessary condition
for the reinvention of a radical and progressive politics. It is
both that which will breathe new life into the language of an
old project, and that which can turn the old project into a
new one. On the terrain oflanguage, this will mean providing
a vocabulary with which to speak a new world – a language
as yet untainted and unappropriated and therefore confident
of its transformative potential. I shall refer to the second
stage as one of relegitimation, and to the third as one of

I think that these processes of relegitimation and
transformation could probably be applied to the whole of
the political language of socialism, but I shall restrict myself
here to the central themes ofliberty, equality and ‘fraternity’

(to which I shall refer from now on as ‘sociality’). Some will
object that these are not specifically socialist words, and of
course listed so bluntly they are not. But as we know, there
are specifically socialist inflections and understandings of
Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

them, and it is these that I shall explain and defend.

Schematically, then, the second stage involves taking these
themes whose socialist meanings have been maligned and
delegitimised and which have been invested with meanings
helpful to socialism’s opponents, and relegitimising them
with the aid of politico-ecological insights. The third stage
involves taking up these themes once again and showing
how they can be transformed (without being wholly
abandoned) into a new vocabulary. Again, this will be done
by investing them with meanings inspired by the ecology
movement, and I shall hint at how these meanings also
accord with the aspirations generated by our post-Fordist
and postmodern context.

exercise of liberty has come into disrepute and negative
conceptions of liberty have been dominant. Now, though,
there may be a chance to relegitimise the provision of
concrete conditions for positive liberty by mobilising the
ecological imperative. The notion of ecological security as
a precondition for the exercise of liberty cannot be dealt
with within the confines of currently popular notions of
negative liberty. The imperative of ecological security both
finds such notions wanting (because abstract), and also
provides new ground on which to argue for public provision.

In this way the contemporary legitimacy of the political
dimensions of ecology might be mobilised to relegitimise
the positive dimensions of liberty.

Liberty: relegitimation

Equality: relegitimation

Liberty is an expansive concept and has been interpreted in
many ways by different political traditions. The most
common and familiar distinction is that between ‘negative’

and ‘positive’ liberty. A signal change took place sometime
in the nineteenth century in this respect. The classical liberal
tradition relied on a notion of liberty that had to do with
freedom from restraint or intervention. This negative notion
was mobilised as a means of arguing against, specifically,
restraint and intervention by the state, beyond that which
was necessary to preserve internal and external peace, and
to provide for works and institutions which would not be
profitable for private enterprise.

Social liberal and other theorists reacted to this prospectus
by advancing a positive conception ofliberty which involved
not so much freedom from restraint, but rather being in a
position to do things that were considered desirable or
worthwhile. This positive notion of freedom was, in turn,
mobilised to aid arguments in favour of that which classical
liberals had wanted to minimise: state intervention. The
argument ran (and runs) that only the state could provide the
conditions within which positive liberty could be exercised.

Put differently: the exercise of freedom now involved not
only a guarantee of ‘legal’ security from molestation by
other people, but also a ‘social’ security from which, and
within which, positive freedom could be pursued. This
social security was to be provided by the collectivity with
the state as its agent.

The move from negative to positive liberty can be seen
as a widening of the preconditions for the exercise ofliberty
– more particularly, a widening from abstract to concrete
conditions. In the beginning the preconditions have an
almost exclusively legal dimension, and then they come to
include a social one. Now we need to understand that a
further concrete dimension is required: an ecological one.

No exercise of liberty of any sort is possible without
ecological security. In the same sense in which it is said that
there is no point in being free to have tea at the Ritz
(abstract) if you don’t have the money to pay the bill
(concrete-social), so it is true to say that a Nepalese is not
really free to eat (abstract) if the nearest source of firewood
is two days’ walk away (concrete-ecological).

In recent years the idea of concrete conditions for the

There was a time not so long ago when equality (in some
form or another) seemed as secure a political aspiration as
democracy. The onslaught of anti-egalitarians, though, has
been so fiercely successful that equality is now a word to
utter, sotto voce, behind the bike sheds. Arguments in
favour of inequality have shifted: it used to be argued for by
the right in terms of its naturalness, and in terms of its being
attached to disparities generated by historical and inherited
tradition. Now the stress is on ‘earned’ inequality in the
context of a meritocracy, but either way, inequality as
political aspiration is now a piece of political furniture that
the left seems unable to shift. Is there, though, any way of
relegitimising equality by mobilising political-ecological

John Baker writes in Arguingfor Equality that ‘Some of
the central political issues of our time are only indirectly
connected with equality’,6 and goes on to suggest by way of
example that ‘there is no essential conflict between equality
and either peace or ecology or feminist values. How strongly
they reinforce each other is a question I leave open.’7 One
way in which I believe political ecology and equality do
reinforce each other is in the former’s focus on ‘needs’.

Political ecologists have employed theories of need in order
to counter what they see as industrial society’s reckless
wastefulness. A basic tenet of deep green politics is that, in
view of the limited nature of the planet’s resources, rates of
consumption among the relatively well-off in ‘developed’

countries will need to be reduced. The distinction between
needs and ‘wants’ is then used to argue that we could reduce
consumption without compromising the satisfaction of
needs. Needs should be satisfied, they suggest, but greed
should not.

This has had the effect of reintroducing the concept of
need to the political debate at the same time as many have
become acutely aware that the 1980s was a bad decade,
judged by the satisfaction of basic needs. Globally, the
proportion of people in absolute destitution increased during
the 1980s, and in Britain, at least, beggars have appeared on
the streets for the first time in my living memory. But from
the point of view of equality the mere reappearance of need
as a legitimate topic of political conversation is not enough.

We have also to know whether this can be pushed towards

Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994


an obligation to satisfy basic needs (an aspiration which rather than a prescription for the way things ought to be, and
unites all egalitarians). Further, the meeting of basic needs my point is that consistent deployment of the equality/
only satisfies a weak egalitarianism. This might keep beggars scarcity relations would make two-tier health services harder
off the streets but it would do nothing to counteract vast to justify.

disparities of wealth. Can we find another element in
In this way, the political-ecological resurrection of
political ecology which, combined with the notion of basic scarcity makes possible not only the reintroduction of
needs, allows us to press towards a stronger sense of equality as a topic for debate, but also begins to provide a
equality of outcome?

context within which it can be argued for. This is the basis
It is a fundamental maxim of Green politics that the for the relegitimation of equality.

planet is of finite size and that, therefore, both resources and
the space in which to dispose of our waste are limited. 8 This
Sociality: relegitimation
finitude and these limits combine to place scarcity at the
heart of Green politics, thus distinguishing it from the Sociality is presently an uncomfortable word from a New
implicit or explicit cornucopian contexts of most other Right point of view because it runs counter to the accepted
modem political ideologies. In these latter contexts, equality wisdom that ‘there is no such thing as society; there are only
need not be of particularly pressing moment because there indi viduals and their families’ . 10 Moreover there is evidence
is a sense in which there is more than enough for everybody, that the mud has stuck, and that people are increasingly
and everybody will get something. On the other hand, in a inclined to construct their social identities on the ground of
context of scarcity there is a stronger intuitive sense (and it a primordial sense of individuality rather than sociality.

may be no more than that) that equal distribution is the Assuming we can agree that sociality as description and
prescription runs through most traditions of socialist thought,
fundamental point of departure.

political-ecological concerns provide a ground on which
Of course, people will always be able to produce
‘compelling reasons’ against equality, and one of the most it can be reasserted?

In recent months there has been much talk of employing
potent would involve distribution according to merit. But
economic incentives or ‘command and control’

the point is that by placing scarcity in the foreground and
to encourage sounder environmental behaviour.

asking us to consider social and economic relations in that
involve modifying the market, to a greater or
context, Greens can say that the onus of justification in
to promote those activities which are less
respect of arguments over egalitarianism has shifted. To
environment than others. Command and
explain: normally (and especially nowadays) inequality is
on the other hand, involve governments
the ‘rest point’ from which such discussions begin. Thus the
onus of justification is placed on those who would want to in deciding on a desired end and enacting legislation in
argue in favour of equality. Once scarcity becomes the .order to bring it about.

This is not the place to enter the debate as to the
ground on which the debate takes place, however, the onus
merits of economic incentive vs. command and
ofjustification is reversed, i.e. equal unless proved otherwise.

but I would like to say something about
It might be objected that in a country or community
of sociality. In the absence of a
where, on most accounts, basic needs had been satisfied for
we might call’ environmental
the majority, this kind of argument has no purchase. Yet
to view new environmental
needs are largely historically and culturally determined,
tax laws, and most do
and as long as scarcity can be demonstrated – even if it is
‘relative’ scarcity, as in a wealthy country – then there may their very best to get round them. It is important to see that
this does not amount to a criticism of command and control
still be an intuitive dispensation in favour of equality.

For instance in Britain the standard of health care has as such, but more of the culture into which it is introduced.

risen to the point where the ability of the medical profession There is reason to suspect that in a culture boasting an
to deliver health care has outstripped (on some readings) environmental citizenship component, command and control
society’s ability to pay for it. In other words there is a would work better because people would embed their
perceived scarcity of resources in the health service – even personal decisions in a widely-accepted collective enterprise.

in a wealthy country like Britain. While this has led to This, then, is the political-ecological contribution to the
suggestions that we should not expect the health service to resurrection of sociality – the notion that in the absence of
provide everything that it is in principle capable of providing a sense of environmental citizenship, measures to halt the
(e.g. hip replacements for everyone who needs them within degradation of the environment aimed at unreconstructed
six months of asking), only very rarely has it led to individuals will be found wanting. In other words if there
suggestions that some should have access to treatment are only individuals and their families, then the environment
while others should not. 9 This may be an unarticulated as a target of public policy will always come off second best.

example of the intuitive sense of equality in conditions of This argument needs to be made not only for the sake of the
environment, but also in order to relegitimise the third term
scarcity to which I referred above.

Of course our society allows for the buying of plenty in in the socialist triad: sociality.

The objection to this is that unreconstructed individualism
the midst of scarcity, and expensive health insurance is a
its economic and political accoutrements – e.g. wellcase in point. But this is a description of the way things are

Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

defined and enforceable property rights – just are the best
way of halting environmental degradation. People are more
likely to look after their own property than property held in
common, and especially when they realise that long-term
profitability depends on running a clean environmental

There are too many objections to such a view to be dealt
with here but it is clear that fully-fledged versions of this
argument cannot do the job required of them. For example,
some pieces of property are in their nature environmentally
damaging – such as the car – and no amount of care and
attention will stop them from being so. In this context, and
in many others, individualism needs embedding in the
collective enterprise that I have called environmental

The tentative and sketchy programme for the
relegitimation of three socialist principles is thus complete.

The present popularity, or legitimacy, of political-ecological
concerns can be mobilised in order to reinvest these principles
with meanings which are recognisably socialist. Put
differently: they can be mobilised to argue that socialist
interpretations ofliberty, equality and sociality are relevant
(indeed necessary) to the construction of a society which
would meet certain political-ecological demands.

Put differently again: contemporary rightist meanings of
these words (or their wholesale rejection) cannot meet
widely-accepted environmental demands and conditions.

Negative liberty fails to take account of the need for
ecological security as a precondition for the exercise of
liberty. The finite nature of the planet as the ground for
discussions of social and economic relations propels us
towards an egalitarian sensibility. Finally, the apparent
need for the development of an ‘environmental citizenship’

calls the bluff of unreconstructed individualism ..

In the sense that socialism and ecology work together
here, the present paper is a contribution to that school of
thought which holds that there can be a constructive tension
between the socialist and ecologist traditions. However, I
would not want this to be read as suggesting that either
partner can be seen as the dominant one, and certainly not
that ecologism’s role in the contemporary world is limited
to kissing socialism back to life. Beyond legitimisation, in
any case, there is a third stage: transformation.

Transformation – some general remarks
The need to consider transformation derives from the
changed and changing nature of the social and cultural
contexts within which political projects are presently
constructed. Broadly speaking, the French Revolutionary
triad ofliberty, equality and ‘fraternity’ have been interpreted
and deployed (on the left) in the context of an industrial
society with largely ‘modern’ aspirations. Residual but
powerful images of sameness and uniformity dominate our
intuitions both of industrial society and the universalising
projects of modernity. These images, in turn, are reflected
in the freight that equality and sociality (in particular) have
come to carry: equality is popularly associated with
Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

sameness, and sociality is rejected as a totalising project that
stresses what is common at the expense of suppressing what
is different. As well as being unpopular, these images do not
suit the changed material and cultural conditions within
which a progressive political vision must now be forged.

The process of relegitimation carried out above hardly calls
these images into question, but now it is time to do so.

Again broadly speaking, the changed conditions to which
I refer revolve around post-Fordism and postmodernity.

Progressive politics must respond to these new conditions
and the aspirations that they engender. There are myriad
ways to characterise post-Fordism and postmodernity, but
both seem to be associated with changes in ‘advanced’

societies from homogeneity and mass production to more
flexible, segmented and differentiated production. In terms
of political aspirations one characteristic of what have come
contentiously to be called ‘New Times’ stands out: the
substitution of difference and particularity for uniformity
and universality. My suggestion is that a transformative and
progressive socialist politics, intent on a project of selfconscious emancipation, will have to take the incorporation
of the former pair of terms extremely seriously.

Indeed, it is striking to note how far some feminisms
have already proceeded down this road. Much contemporary
feminist thinking is not now organised around egalitarian
demands aimed at what would turn out to be (in one form or
another) an androgynous society, but around the mobilisation


of sexual difference both as description and as an organising
principle of aspiration. Feminism should not be isolated in
this, but should rather be seen as located at the centre of a
debate which the progressive left needs to catch up on. In
view of this, I shall try to hint at how liberty, equality and
sociality, born in the modem age, might be transformed and
put to work in a postmodern one. The principal agent of
transformation is, once more, the political-ecological

Liberty, equality and sociality – transformation
At one extreme of the Green spectrum of pictures of the
sustainable society lies ‘bioregionalism’. As the coiner of
the term, Kirkpatrick Sale, explains: ‘A bioregion is a part
of the earth’s surface whose rough boundaries are determined
by natural rather than human dictates.’ 11 As far as social
relations between people in a bioregion are concerned he
writes that ‘truly autonomous bioregions will likely go their
own separate ways and end up with quite disparate political
systems’ .12 Of course not all Greens will subscribe to the
letter of such a programme, but they will all note and
support the strong sense of self-determination at work in it.

This is an understanding of liberty which involves not only
freedom from restraint and/or the positive freedom to do
things considered worthwhile, but also the idea that
emancipation must be self-emancipation, developed and
acted out primarily by the community and individuals

This might sound more like the reactivating of an old
liberal notion of liberty than the developing of an entirely
new one, but the response to difference suggested by
political ecology is other than this. If the liberal attitude to
difference is characterised by tolerance, then the politicalecological attitude is characterised – in principle – by
celebration. This response to difference is the one demanded
by compelling contemporary feminist arguments, and can
no longer be ignored by leftist politics.

Many postmodernists suggest that the desire to erase
difference has been at the heart of the dark side of the
modem project. Greens themselves derive the celebration
of difference from the scientific-ecological maxim that
diversity in an ecosystem is a source of sustainability, and,
increasingly, movements in the developing world argue for
development that respects local cultures and traditions.

Even the rise of the ‘new social movements’ themselves
suggest a desire to pursue forms of particularity for which
political parties are particularly unsuited. It seems that any
progressive politics in the contemporary world that fails to
take account of this insistent demand for the recognition of
difference does so at its peril.

It needs to be stressed that this is not to recommend a
thoroughgoing relativism, but merely (yet significantly) to
ask that difference be a factor in (for example) theories and
practices of political development. A politics of difference
might appear to allow the practice of ‘undesirable’ politics,
but the celebration of difference provides its own policing,
in that only those politics which do celebrate difference are

legitimate. This is the meaning of the following observation
from Jean-Fran~ois Lyotard: ‘Absolute injustice would
occur if the pragmatics of obligation, that is, the possibility
of continuing to play the game of the just, were excluded ….

Thus, obviously, all terror, annihilation, massacre etc., or
their threat, are, by definition, unjust. The people whom one
massacres will no longer be able to play the game of the just
and the unjust. ’13 So, for example, if a regime allows a
fascist political presence it would appear to be celebrating
difference, but it does so at the cost of denying life and
legitimacy to that which fascism defines itself against. This
is the suppression of difference, not its celebration.

Liberty, then, must be conceived as concrete selfdetermination, or as the emancipation of particularity – and
equality (to take the second term) must be seen as the
enabling of it. Once again, a formal liberty of selfdetermination makes no sense unless it is reinforced by the
possibility of actually practising that liberty. In this new
context of transformation, equality plays the same role as it
does in the old contexts oflegitimisation and relegitimation:

it provides the concrete conditions for the fulfilment of the
promise of liberty. At its simplest, this can be read (for
example) as a justification for the funding of those
‘alternative’ groups and organisations for which some
London boroughs are so famous, and which are the butt of
the popular press.

Earlier, I suggested that the relegitimation of sociality
could involve the development of a notion of environmental
citizenship. The transformation of sociality might mean
mining this notion for its various implications and focussing
on one in particular: the international dimension. The
experience of environmental degradation has left us in no
doubt as to the transnational nature of its disruption. Almost
more importantly, we are in no doubt, either, as to the
interdependent nature of both intranational and international
relations. Such interdependence constitutes the skeleton on
which the flesh of difference, or particularity, is hung.

Interdependence is important too in avoiding the flattening
effects of old-fashioned internationalism while retaining its
sense of community. In this role it can act in concert with
Lyotard’s principle (above) to check the possibly centrifugal
tendencies of a politics of difference.

In this way we can see how the transformed terms of
liberty, equality and sociality support and inform each other
in a manner analogous to that of the original set. Roughly,
the exercise ofliberty presupposes the existence of equality,
and sociality constitutes the web into which the practice of
liberty i’s woven. The difference, in circumstances of
transformation, is that the three terms speak to new demands
and new conditions: the political-ecological imperative,
postmodernity and post-Fordism. In meeting these demands
and confronting these conditions the terms take on new
resonances while remaining recognisably a part of a lengthy

Radical Philosophy 67, Summer 1994

Working on the twin assumptions that it is essential to have
a language to speak an alternative politics, and that such a
language is presently only dimly visible, I have tried to
show how socialism and political ecology can act together
to begin to provide one. The argument assumes, and seeks
to benefit from, the widespread concern for environmental
problems and the legitimacy they therefore have as objects
of political discourse. This legitimacy can be mobilised as
a means of reinvesting key concepts in the socialist tradition
with recognisably socialist meanings. This is done by
showing that confronting the environmental problematic
involves employing socialist understandings of liberty,
equality and sociality.

B ut the development of a radical and progressive politics
for the next century will involve more than the relegitimation
of an old tradition. The signs are that such a politics will
revolve around the central concept of difference. Political
ecology is just one example of a contemporary politics that
stresses difference, and perhaps it can be put to work with
socialism to help develop the language with which to speak
such a politics.

Either way, for both academics and activists, the debate
between socialism and ecologism needs to be pushed beyond
the search for common ground.








Hans Magnus Enzensberger, ‘A Critique of Political Ecology’,
New Left Review, 84, 1974.


Of course there are traditions within socialism that do not
conform to this stereotype, as I point out below, but the general
thrust of socialist concerns is as I describe it. For a useful recent
discussion ofthe relationship between Marxist, Frankfurt School
and New Left socialism and emergent political ecology. see



Robyn Eckersley, Environmentalism and Political Theory:

towards an ecocentric approach, London, UCL Press, 1992.

Martin Ryle, Ecology and Socialism, London, Radius, 1988, p.


The political history of ecologism is of course more chequered
than this adjective would seem to suggest, and it has become
fashionable recently (on both the left and the right) to say so; see,
for example, Anna Bramwell, Ecology in the 20th Century, New
York and London, Yale University Press, 1989; Andrew
McHallam, The New Authoritarians: Reflections on the Greens,
Institute for European Defence and Strategic Studies, Occasional Paper No. 51, 1991; and John Gray, Beyond the New
Right: Markets, Government and the Common Environment,
London, Routledge, 1993.

For a particularly detailed and provocative presentation of this
argument see Keekok Lee, Social Philosophy and Ecological
Scarcity, London, Routledge, 1989.

John Baker, Arguing for Equality, London, 1987, p. 150.

Ibid., p. 151.

Indeed the very idea of ‘disposal’ in a more or less closed system
is problematic.

The furore surrounding the recent case of the patient refused
immediate treatment because he was a smoker reveals two
things: first, an increasingly inega1itarian culture helps to legitimise such a refusal; and second, all the more need to reverse the
legitimising trends of such a culture.

Margaret Thatcher’s aphorism is a neat and ideologically successful attempt to bridge the gap between libertarian forms of
the new right (individuals) and conservative forms of the new
right (the family).

Quoted in Andrew Dobson (ed.), The Green Reader, London,
Andre Deutsch, 1991, p. 78. From Kirkpatrick Sale, ‘Mother of
All’, in Satish Kumar (ed.), The Schumacher Lectures Volume
2, London, Blond and Briggs, 1974.

Ibid., p. 81.

Jean-Franc;ois Lyotard and Jean-Loup Thebaud, Just Gaming,
Manchester, MUP, 1985, pp. 66-7.

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