Socialism and a Natural Contract

For many years I regarded myself as a socialist – and part of me still does. I only joined the Green Party in 2010 because, having read their election manifesto, I realised that they were more socialist in their outlook than Labour had been for many years. So, now that Corbyn is leading Labour and socialism is no longer a dirty word, an obvious question to ask is: Why do I not re-join Labour? The short answer is that during my time in the Green Party my eyes have been opened to a vitally important aspect of politics that Labour at best pays lip service to, and often ignores. It’s a dimension of politics that has been largely ignored over the centuries, and certainly one that has not fed into the theoretical base of either socialism in general or the Labour Party in particular. This dimension, following the French philosopher Michel Serres, I call the need to develop a ‘natural contract’. Without it the long term survival of homo sapien is at risk.

Serres’ basic argument is that throughout our history we have focussed, almost exclusively, on our relations with each other, and, in so doing, have largely ignored our relations with nature – to the serious detriment of the natural environment upon which we are all totally dependent. There are obvious exceptions to this gross generalisation, but in terms of the most influential theorists and centres of power, this is undoubtedly true. Our historical focus has been on establishing a social contract, not just formally by way of some social contract theory by the likes of Rousseau, Hobbes or Rawls, but by default in our struggles for political power, control of resources, and alleviating the social injustices and hardships that have dominated these histories. Traditional conservatism, for example, argues for the maintenance of ‘traditional’ social relations and institutions, whilst modern ‘conservatism’ has totally embraced the economic relations of neo-liberalism as a means of problem solving. Liberalism argues the case for the liberty of the individual to pursue a life of their own choosing, whilst socialism focuses on the need for social solidarity and co-operation. In general, none of these approaches comments on our relationship with our natural environment. If they do it is purely as a resource to be used, as a licence for us to “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

If we are to survive on this planet, Serres argues, we now need to develop a natural contract to sit alongside our social contract – a ‘contract’ that makes explicit our relationships with our planet and non-human life as well as with each other, with our ecosystem as well as with our social system.  However, I have come to realise that we need to go beyond this, that we don’t so much need a natural contract to sit alongside our social contract as a social contract to be embedded within it, in the same way that our social systems are embedded within our ecosystem. Within the socialist tradition there has been some acknowledgment of this. Marx, for example, noted in his Economico-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 that “Nature is man’s inorganic body…Man lives by nature. This means that nature is his body, with which he must constantly remain in step if he is not to die.” However, this understanding was either lost or ignored by later Marxist theorists, and has certainly been ignored by modern day social democratic parties. Up until the election of Corbyn the British Labour Party had progressively fallen under the spell of free-market economics, and since then only seems to refer to ‘environmental issues’ because it’s polite to do so. There is absolutely no indication that the current Labour Party recognise the need for such a contract.

A natural contract of the type I’m calling for needs to be developed around an understanding of complexity science, around an understanding of how dynamic and complex systems (as all human social systems are) are embedded within larger dynamic and complex systems, and how all these systems are part of a highly complex and inter-dependent eco-system. In effect this means that any social contract we adopt needs to be symbiotic in its relationship with our ecosystem, not (as it currently is) parasitic. Having adopted such a natural contract, a contract that is non-negotiable in as much as its terms are revealed by science, all changes to our social contract, all policy decisions, will need to consider: their likely effect on the ecosystem; their likely effect on other global communities; and their likely effect on future generations. And all these considerations need to be calculated in terms of probability, not certainty. A fundamental feature of complexity science, one that politicians are grossly negligent in ignoring, is that all complex systems (all natural systems, including human social systems) are inherently uncertain. There is, and cannot be, certainty regarding any decision – we can only act on probability.

The political adoption of such a contract means much more than having environmental policies and accepting that climate change is an issue we need to consider. It requires that all policies start from an understanding of the embeddedness of the particular social system within the ecosystem, and that the outcomes of any decision are assessed in the same manner. In terms of socialist policy, this means that mitigating the worst effects of climate change and environmental degradation is more important than protecting jobs in manufacturing industries (especially if those industries use non-renewable resources to generate power, are energy intensive, or produce nuclear weapons). It also means: adopting a completely new economic model (such as Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics); taking the concept of subsidiarity seriously by aiming to decentralise power and the economy (and therefore allow communities to tailor strategies to their own locality) rather than increasing the power of the state; and increasing the involvement of all citizens in the decision making process by ensuring that all levels of government are as inclusive of the plurality of perspectives as possible through the adoption of some version of proportional representation.

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