Well, Brendan O’Neill is still a Marxist, even if the rest of Spiked have abandoned ship

By skepticlawyer

This evening, the Oxford Libertarian Society hosted Spiked Online‘s Brendan O’Neill to speak on the topic ‘Why Environmentalism is the Enemy of Liberty‘.

I think that O’Neill scored some good hits on the green movement: picking out the strong strains of misanthropy, paternalism and privilege attached to much environmental debate (and, it has to be said, George Monbiot provides rich pickings in this department). However, much of the power of his critique of environmentalism comes from his Marxism, not the later colourings of libertarian thinking that many of the Spiked authors have acquired.

Unlike Mick Hume (also at Spiked), O’Neill doesn’t seem to get around with volumes of Hayek and Nozick under his arm. He supports the NHS, and doesn’t seem to grasp the concept of moral hazard. Although, after explanation, he did understand how socialised medicine makes it easier for paternalists to police other people’s lifestyle choices, using a concern with individual well-being as a figleaf for their real concern with externalities (roughly translated here as ‘oh shit, we may have to pay for your obesity/smoking down the line!’). He also (quote unquote) ‘loves Lenin’, and spent half a pint’s talk time attempting to disassociate Lenin from Stalin and all his works and all his ways. He also tried to make an argument for the necessity of authoritarian rule immediately after a revolution, including a weird justification for The Terror.  

Now my view of people who admit to Marxism in public has always tended to be ‘don’t touch that, it’s concentrated evil!’, so I did make some rather unkind remarks about Mr Lenin, and also suggested that there’s only been one good revolution. But that’s by the by.

One of the nicest bits of arguing he did concerned the conflation of environmental concerns with what would — in times gone by — have been seen as religious morality (‘Catholic guilt on stilts’ he called it, in a line that brought the house down). Some of his best commentary for Spiked has been on the shrill tone that much environmentalist rhetoric takes on resource-depletion, exemplified by the panicked reaction to the birth of octuplets in California (intersecting, as he notes, with with some very peculiar catastrophizing about class and gender). Some of his ideas are also fruitfully discussed on the Oxford Libertarian Society’s blog:

Porritt [senior government green mandarin] is not objecting to population growth because he fears it will lead to a diminution in human living standards, but because the impact of an increased number of individuals will harm the earth – whose preservation he treats as an end in itself. By some unexplained metric, Porritt has decided that 2 children (conveniently the number that he himself has) is an acceptable burden for the earth, but that 3 is intolerable and deserves ostracism.

All that aside, the real power of O’Neill’s Marxist (and it is Marxist, not Marxian) critique of environmentalism has its origins in an unashamed use of Marx’s optimism. Marx was optimistic about technology, about the capacity of human beings to overcome setbacks and difficulties through ingenuity and progress. Marx passionately wanted everyone to live good, fulfilling and agentic lives: lives over which they had control. He was statist, but only in the sense that the state was the initial vehicle to facilitate human progress. The point of life is to live it. Much environmentalism — which in its extreme forms denies human agency, suggesting that we are at the mercy of ‘mother nature’ — conflicts directly with Marx’s dynamism and hope. Of course, Marx’s pious belief that the state would wither away — would prove only temporary — turned out to be just that. As Milton Friedman suggested, there’s nothing so permanent as a temporary government programme.

O’Neill turns Marx on environmentalism, not as some sort of global warming skeptic, but as a believer in human progress. ‘Who says human beings won’t figure this out? Are you going to fall into the same trap as Thomas Malthus and assume that population grows while everything else stays the same? And are you asking me to abandon liberty in favour of the environment? I won’t, because it’s liberty that will give human beings the freedom to find their way out of all (or at least most) environmental thickets’. He has also — as one would expect of a Marxist, especially a British Marxist — been searing in his critique of the class basis of much environmentalism, and its tendency to want to police the pleasures of the lower classes:

Again and again, almost despite themselves, despite their defensiveness about coming across as wealthy snobs – the real privileged – attacking those chavs and slags who fly abroad on the cheap, Plane Stupid and its supporters return to the ‘scandal’ of cheap flights. They cannot help themselves. It really is cheap flights that they find most foul and offensive. Before yesterday’s closure of Britain’s ‘chief chav airport’, Plane Stupid forced the HQ of easyJet in London to shut down, on the basis that ‘binge-flying’ – a phrase that sounds deliciously like ‘binge-drinking’, that other famous pastime of ‘cheap people’ – is ‘choking the planet to death’.

Plane Stupid has also spent thousands of pounds taking out a newspaper ad attacking Ryanair; it was a spoof advert with Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary saying: ‘Let’s beat the climate to death. Book Ryanair today to ensure a real climate disaster.’ The dripping snobbery of Plane Stupid’s campaign comes through in its attacks on the kind of uncultured oiks who take Ryanair and easyJet flights from Stansted: ‘There’s been an enormous growth in binge-flying with the proliferation of stag and hen nights to Eastern European destinations chosen not for their architecture or culture but because people can fly there for 99p and get loaded for a tenner.’ [Footnotes omitted].

O’Neill calls himself a ‘Marxist Libertarian’, and his conflation of the two philosophies does involve some fairly serious cherry-picking. However, his Marxism also lets him see very clearly when a movement is ‘progressive’ in a genuine sense. I’ve always found it significant that ‘conservation’ and ‘conservative’ share a Latin root: there is often a broad hostility to change and progress, and the ‘watermelon’ greens — those who try to combine various forms of democratic socialism with environmentalism — are particularly vulnerable to O’Neill’s criticism.

Of course, conservatism/conservation is sometimes legitimate: I am a libertarian, but when it comes to the ‘majors’, I vote Conservative. This is partly because New Labour have utterly trashed the country (the Tories could not possibly be any worse), but it’s also partly because I accept the Tory argument that change for the sake of change often does more harm than good. As Hayek argues, custom has its uses.

And, it would seem, so does Karl Marx.

30 Comments

  1. Posted February 8, 2009 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    It was part of a great piece on Dickens, Koestler and the ‘English Working Class’, broadly construed. It was one of the best things Rafe has written and I did a little footstomping dance to ensure it went into BBP2007. More here.

  2. Posey
    Posted February 8, 2009 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    I don’t know that Marx ever considered or called himself a Marxist. And if Brendan O’Neill fancies himself one then he would do well to use Marxist philosophy in the way Marx meant it to be used, which necessarily involves, to use his expression, being “ruthlessly critical of everything existing”. This would include, needless to say, being critical of itself.

    Marxism today can have no greater role than the criticism of Marx’s technological determinism, his instrumentalist view of nature, in light of that history to which he had not been exposed: today’s ecological crisis.

  3. Posted February 8, 2009 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    I don’t know that Marx ever considered or called himself a Marxist.

    Well that would be a tad egotistical of him. 🙂

    He repudiated Marxism in its proto-social democratic form. He didn’t live to see what Lenin would do which is probably just as well.

    And if Brendan O’Neill fancies himself one then he would do well to use Marxist philosophy in the way Marx meant it to be used, which necessarily involves, to use his expression, being “ruthlessly critical of everything existing”.

    But Marxism is a religion so being critical’s out.

    This would include, needless to say, being critical of itself.

    (Sorry to everyone who already heard me say this three thousand times)

    When Marx finally turned up with the manuscript for Das Kapital he recommended that Engels read a story by Balzac entitled The Unfinished Masterpiece. In the story an artist is possessed of sublime vision which he struggles to realize on canvas but the idea is too big. He can’t do it and instead produces a mess. Marx thought Das Kapital was a mess.

    As a most intimidating Roman Senator of a professor of mine used to say: You know Das Kapital is not a good book. Look how long it is. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon now that’s a good book.

    Unfortunately Engels was Marx’s first High Priest and didn’t take him seriously in the way he should’ve thus establishing the Marxist tradition of being too serious and not serious enough simultaneously.

  4. Posey
    Posted February 8, 2009 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Adrien, I found Das Kapital (only read Vols 1&2) was best downed with top-grade kif.

    Marx was always whinging to Engels about how everything in his life was a mess. He just wanted Engels to keep forking up the dosh to support him and his brood and Engels being the top-notch gentleman and loyal Marxist that he was, always did.

    Can’t say that Marxism was a religion. In fact I think Marx misunderstood and was too hard on religion. Some self-described Marxists are often religious-like in their (mis) use of Marxism and Brendan O’Neill, I agree, would appear to be of the true believer, stopped thinking ilk.

  5. Posted February 8, 2009 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Das Kapital unt zer grossen schpliffe!!! Mein Gott!

    Posey there’s better things to read when you’re shitfaced. Try some pornographic un-American trash. There’s an excellent political system described therein where politicians are only allowed to manage the indigenous population of highly obnoxious baboons.

    Here in Australia, conversely, our politicians are the indigenous population of highly obnoxious baboons.

    I wish the Commies would come back. It’d be like religious education classes at boarding school. 🙂

  6. Posted February 8, 2009 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    Thanks SL but I thought the best thing I ever wrote, apart from my Honours thesis on the penetration of clay by root hairs was this piece on the early international cricket tours http://www.the-rathouse.com/Revivalist4/cricketessay.html
    or this one about the off-spinners’s take on reductionism in the social sciences
    http://www.the-rathouse.com/EvenMoreAustrianProgram/OffspinneronReductionvsExistence.html

    Eat your heart out Warnie!

  7. Posey
    Posted February 8, 2009 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    “A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.” Volume I, Chapter 7

    Now I’ve always loved this. But I’m not so sure it’s entirely true. We don’t know for sure whether other animals pre-imagine, or pre-plan, as we do.

    It’s said that Rosa Luxemburg was perhaps the only Marxist philosopher who evinced – in writing – any fellow-feeling for non-human animals. Not that this ecological sensibility was reflected in her politics. But in a letter to Sophie Liebknecht upon witnessing the beating of some buffaloes from her prison window, Rosa wrote:

    “The other day one of these lorries was drawn by a team of buffaloes instead of horses. I had never seen the creatures close at hand before. … They are black, and have huge, soft eyes. The buffaloes are war trophies from Rumania. The soldier-drivers said that it was very difficult to catch these animals, which had always run wild, and still more difficult to break them in to harness. … Unsparingly exploited, yoked to heavy loads, they are soon worked to death. The other day a lorry came laden with sacks, so overladen indeed that the buffaloes were unable to drag it across the threshold of the gate. The soldier-driver, a brute of a fellow, belabored the poor beasts so savagely with the butt end of his whip that the wardress at the gate, indignant at the sight, asked him if he had no compassion for animals. “No more than anyone has compassion for us men,” he answered with an evil smile, and redoubled his blows. … The one that was bleeding had an expression on its black face and in its soft black eyes like that of a weeping child—one that has been severely thrashed and does not know why, nor how to escape from the torment and brutality of treatment …. I stood facing the animal and it looked at me: tears were running from my eyes … they were *his* tears. The suffering of a dearly loved brother could hardly have moved me more profoundly than I was moved by my impotence in face of this mute agony. … Poor wretch, I am as powerless, as dumb, as yourself; I am at one with you in my pain, my weakness, and my longing.”

  8. Posted February 8, 2009 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    # 19 on capitalism producing situations where pursuit of quick profits causes expoitation of resources. You can’t legislate to eliminate dumb acts and going for immediate profits rather than long-term gain is dumb, because the value of the asset is trashed. Exploitation is much more likely where the resource is not privately owned, and so people (even reasonable people) have no great concern about running down the asset. Compare the scale of care in (a) public housing (b) rented housing (c) owner-occupied housing.

    In the USSR of course nobody had a stake in anything, exccept for small plots of private farmland which were immensely more productive than the collective farms.

    There is now a huge literature on free-market environmentalism and the likes of Monbiot need to read some of it.

  9. Posted February 8, 2009 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Some self-described Marxists are often religious-like in their (mis) use of Marxism and Brendan O’Neill, I agree, would appear to be of the true believer, stopped thinking ilk.

    It should be clear from the post I’ve written that he’s not. He just refuses to take environmentalism seriously. Now he may be wrong in that, but that doesn’t mean all his criticisms miss the mark, either.

    Kindliness (if not actual efficacy) when it comes to ‘greens’ and ‘green politics’ are the common coin of much modern political discourse, and this kindliness and lack of scrutiny allows Monbiot (among others) to make some extraordinarily illiberal proposals. He is addicted to a good deal of command and control, and Marxists who have (largely) renounced command and control are often best able to spot it.

  10. Posey
    Posted February 8, 2009 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Fair enough, SL. I’m an environmentalist (deep green tending towards mystical pantheism, but only in private and with other consenting adults) who also has time for a lot of Marxist theory. But I confess I haven’t much time for Marxists who think environmental politics and concerns are unnecessary and well, anti-Marxist. I think that is anti-Marxist, so guess it’s a stalemate between me and the Brendan O’Neill’s of this world..

    Capitalist states too have always incorporated major command and control methods and structures. Indeed today the global (capitalist) economy is increasingly marked by a worldwide decentralisation and fragmentation of the production process alongside a growing centralisation of command and control through the operations of transnational capital.

  11. Posted February 8, 2009 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Monbiot (among others) to make some extraordinarily illiberal proposals. He is addicted to a good deal of command and control…

    Yeah I’ve read two of Monbiot’s books. One Captive State is a really good journalist’s rundown of corporate collusion to create mono-markets plus a great description of the Skye Island scam and campaign to stop it.

    The other, the name of which I forget, had to do with creating a democratic world state. It was a lot more realistic than many such polemics but still well within la la land. Apart from the widespread reluctance to relinquish sovereignty, the absence of any really solid realpolitik rationale for a world-state, the problem of allocation of seats in a world parliament and the sad fact that most nation-states are still working on getting democracy right there’s the, um, fact that the UN’s in the way and it works about as well as a ten year old Trabant.

    Often people are good at criticism and analysis, designing solutions? Another matter. Especially if they’re all-encompassing grand solutions.

  12. Posted February 8, 2009 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Especially if they’re all-encompassing grand solutions.

    Ahh yes, les grands projets as the French say. Heat is the horribly illiberal one — you can quote mine it and he comes out sounding like a less efficient Stalin (Mugabe, maybe). Horrible stuff, and O’Neill’s puncturing of many of its proposals was both amusing and necessary.

    ‘Transnational Capital’ and its movement is not an instance of ‘command and control’. What people do with their own money is their business. Deciding that henceforth everything of type p will be taxed at rate q is an example of command and control, and is not a stunt even very powerful corporations can pull.

    Now taxing may be the right solution (not very often, but it can be). John Humphreys at the CIS has made a very strong case for a carbon tax as opposed to a carbon trading scheme, although if the latter goes on line I suspect there will be a few magnificent shorts to be had (as there was with the European carbon trading scheme — the price tanked in days).

  13. Posted February 9, 2009 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    Especially if they’re all-encompassing grand solutions.

    Should not even be attempted, cannot be done. Humans have a remarkable capacity for imagining just how much they understand and incredible hubris in ignoring our ignorance.

    Why Most Things Fail: Evolution, Extinction and Economics
    Paul Ormerod
    221

    “These limits are a fundamental feature of the systems we have discussed, whether biological or whether in the realm of human social and economic organization, in which the individual agents are connected through networks which evolve over time. These limits can no more be overcome by smarter analysis than we are able to break binding physical constraints, such as our inability to travel faster than the speed of light. This is why things fail.”

  14. pedro
    Posted February 10, 2009 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    “Capitalist states too have always incorporated major command and control methods and structures. Indeed today the global (capitalist) economy is increasingly marked by a worldwide decentralisation and fragmentation of the production process alongside a growing centralisation of command and control through the operations of transnational capital.”

    Que?

  15. Posted February 10, 2009 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Capitalist states too have always incorporated major command and control methods and structures.

    Well that’s not true but there are command and control techniques being used in capitalist societies in the private sector.

    For example advertising has long adopted the propaganda techniques of totalitarian societies, used them for their own ends and surpassed them. In fact Goebbels and Beria would be in awe of a humdrum performance of a reasonably successful PR firm.

    Additionally consider the control of markets deployed by corporations who systematically exclude competition both from outside and inside. There are myriad examples of systematic efforts to close and control competition.

    One of the reasons I find the usual debate between ‘liberals’ and ‘socialists’ so frustrating is that while they rehearse the same old lines economic activity is being increasingly concentrated by technocrats who tend to evade all scrutiny let alone accountability.

    Have a look some time at the supermarket. Forget the brands and look at who supplies the products that come on to the shelves. Our choices are more restricted than you think they are. We think we have a lot of choice but it’s smoke n’ mirrors courtesy of people like me.

  16. Lizzie
    Posted February 10, 2009 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    “Forget the brands.”

    Hah. Many of us are congenitally and in passing proudly oblivious of brands. I never remember a brand name on principle. And it is the easiest principle to observe than any other I can think of. Memorising brand names takes up far too much mental space as well as being polluting.

    Who needs it?

  17. Posted February 10, 2009 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    I never remember a brand name on principle.

    Consciously.

    We are developing techniques – this is not bullshit – to deliver favourable associations between logos and warm and fuzzy feelings to you when you are an infant.

    But my point viz brands is that they create the illusion of choice where none such exists.

  18. Lizzie
    Posted February 10, 2009 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Well, take me as sample one, Adrien. If you tortured me, mined my subconcious and married it to a orgasm machine, I would never, repeat never remember a brand name. I just can’t. Go figure.

  19. John Greenfield
    Posted February 11, 2009 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    Reactionary politics? What could be more reactionary than poorly-educated Luvvies currently embracing Keynes as their next messiah!?

  20. Posted February 11, 2009 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Lizzie/L’eagle – This reminds me of my Dad. He was a civil engineer – very literal. When I was a graphic designer I found it inmpossible to explain to him what that actually was.
    .
    I said “Y’know you’re car?”

    He said: ‘Yes”

    “Well it’s a Mitsubishi. There’s these three diamonds on the hood yes. Have you noticed?”

    “No.”

    “Well TIME Magazine, y’know how ‘TIME” is always presented in the same typeface?”

    “No.”

    🙂

  21. Posted February 11, 2009 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    What could be more reactionary than poorly-educated Luvvies currently embracing Keynes as their next messiah!?

    Well jackboots down the street and attached clenched fists and mouths shouting unison syllables viz Race War come to mind.

  22. Posted February 11, 2009 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    I’ve never really noticed the “TIME” magazine thing until you said it just then. Now that you mention it, yeah, it is always the same typeface.

    Goddamitt! L’eagle people like you are disrupting the Saatchi and Saatchi plan to rule the world!

    Did you seriously just notice?

  23. Lizzie
    Posted February 12, 2009 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    No idea what either of you are talking about. In fact the dissonance is more than a little disturbing (not).

  24. Posted February 12, 2009 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    If a thread stays on topic for 50 comments, then it’s done pretty well.

    Now people are just propping the bar up, having a few quiet ones and a bit of a chat.

  25. Vaemar
    Posted March 10, 2009 at 1:42 am | Permalink

    I don’t know if it’s part of the same syndrome, but O’Neil has a revoltingly anti-Israel piece in the latest “American Conservative,” almost a new low even for that disgraceful – and utterly mis-named -sump of ratbaggery.

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