Private Tyranny Entrenched Under Labour an interview with David Cromwell

By Mike Phipps

MP: You say in the book you used to work in the corporate sector. To what extent did this shape your current views?

DC: That’s difficult to say. I already considered myself quite ‘green’ when I joined Shell in 1989. The big issue vis-à-vis Shell then was South Africa and apartheid. I recall vividly discussing this on the Shell training course with some of the other raw recruits from university. Many of us agreed Shell was wrong to be working in South Africa and we approached personnel there and then and said that we would like it noted on our records that we very much preferred not being given a South African assignment for that reason. My concerns about climate change, Shell’s operations in Nigeria and so on came later.

Working for a large company showed me how difficult it is for an individual to challenge the status quo, and how much more comfortable it is to just ‘go with the flow’. We tend to justify to ourselves what we do in terms of ‘At least, I’m not doing something as nasty as working on weapons production’.

MP: In your book you distinguish between the ideas of ‘standard of living’ and ‘quality of life’. In the light of the impact of the broader environmental movement, do you think socialists need to re-examine not just their language and methods but also their traditional aims?

DC: Actually, that distinction was made by the economist Richard Douthwaite in his excellent book The Growth Illusion. I think environmentalists and socialists are increasingly recognising that their aims are mutually interdependent. In the last few years Friends of the Earth have made the links between environmental protection and tackling poverty. For example, they did some good work recently showing that polluting factories are far more likely to be located in areas where poverty is prevalent. There are 662 polluting factories in the UK in areas with average household income of less than £15,000, and only five in areas where average household income is £30,000 or more. The more factories there are in a given locality, the lower the average income.

The overriding concern in evaluating language and methods – for socialists and others – should be how best to engage with fellow citizens in order to build a true grassroots movement. Different ‘constituencies’ of activists must see that their own success is intimately connected to the successes of all the other constituencies that are resisting economic globalisation. US economist and leftist Robin Hahnel talks of the ‘Lilliput strategy’: each constituency does its best to tie its own string to contain the ‘Gulliver’ of global capital, fully aware of ‘how weak and vulnerable that single string is without the added strength of tens of thousands of similar strings’. The best hope lies in building a bottom-up movement based on grassroots organisations, trade unions, independent institutes and coalitions.

MP: You mention attending a SERA [the Socialist Environment Resources Association, affiliated to the Labour party] meeting in the book – how far do you think it’s possible to pursue a green agenda through the structures of the Labour Party – especially in these days of corporate sponsorship – and the trades unions?

DC: I don’t think there’s much hope of pushing a green, or people-centred, agenda while the current lot are in charge. The corporate lobby certainly have the ear of the Labour Party who are only too eager to please, so it’s no surprise that there has been an entrenchment of private tyranny since Labour came to power in May 1997. When the state ideology is the pursuit of global capitalism, it’s hardly surprising that the two major parties are essentially barely distinguishable wings of the Business Party. I hope that trades unions – decimated though they are after decades of Thatcherism/Majorism/Blairism – can find increasing confidence to dissociate themselves from what passes for Labour policy. Hopefully, there are enough committed people inside the Labour Party and trades unions who will pursue a green agenda, which after all, is as much about social justice as well as a healthy environment.

MP: After Gothenburg and Genoa, do you think that anti-corporate activists and the new social movements need to modify their tactics, and if so, how?

DC: I think that the same tactics of non-violent protest and making trouble for authority have to continue and be strengthened. I worry for the personal safety of those who are brave enough to participate in future demonstrations. Tyrannical authority will attempt to crush dissent in the usual time-honoured fashion: by brutality, intimidation and fear. There needs to be effort on many varied fronts. Boosting ‘alternative’ media; campaigns to raise the issue of the massive public subsidies, benefits and tax loopholes doled out to transnational corporations and international investors; education to counter state-corporate propaganda; consumer pressure on companies to adopt measures that promote sustainability. Perhaps we should be encouraging more people to boycott elections, just as many people did earlier this year. Tony Blair was re-elected on only 25% of the vote. What if it had been only 10% or 5%? What does it take to make the government’s ‘power’ so obviously illegitimate? Now there’s a challenge for activists.

Green activist Helena Norberg-Hodge talks of the twin approach of peaceful resistance and renewal. She’s right. We’ve seen some of the resistance at the big demos – even more so at even bigger demos in countries of the South such as Brazil, Mexico and India. ‘Renewal’ means developing alternative grassroots structures, building coalitions that promote democracy, accountability, equity and so on. Developing local networks for production and consumption of fresh, wholesome food, for instance. Campaigning for empty and dilapidated properties to be converted or renovated into affordable homes for the homeless. Demanding reform of land ownership – a hot topic in parts of Scotland.

More people have to get involved in engaging with these issues. We need to challenge the status quo, question authority at all times and promote compassion for our fellow creatures, human and otherwise. How we best do all that is an age-old problem to which there are no easy answers.

Private Planet by David Cromwell is published by Jon Carpenter, price £12.99.