Part Two: ‘Ecology and the Labour Movement’ by Raymond Williams

Part Two of our special feature on ‘Raymond Williams and Ecosocialism’ is the transcription of a talk titled ‘Ecology and the Labour Movement’ given by Williams to the Socialist Environment and Resources Association (SERA) in Letchworth on 2nd June 1984. It was first uploaded to YouTube by Richard Wise who, along with the Williams Estate, has given the society permission to publish its transcription. The lecture – parts of which are drawn from Towards 2000 (1983) – has been transcribed by Peter Hill who has also written a response to Williams’s writings on ecology and socialism which will be published tomorrow on the blog.

by Raymond Williams

Comrades and friends, no political development is now more necessary than a convergence of the labour movement and the ecology movement. If in the next ten years we could get really effective practical policies of convergence where ecologists and socialists are able to work together on these issues – not just in Britain but as is increasingly the case, internationally, often with more enlightened policies coming in international socialist groups than in national ones, because people see how interactive the problems are – if we could get that done, the next ten years would be sweeter, cleaner, in human terms actually more productive.

IMG_20200427_161104The labour movement emerged out of the chaos and the directly inflicted suffering of the first phases of both agricultural and industrial capitalism. It had connections with much older movements but it was formed in that very specific environment in which certain things had happened: above all, the applications of new kinds of power to every kind of production. It was first in agriculture itself: the enormous transfer of earth-moving machinery into reorganising the land, building the canals, reshaping, for production. It may look [a] very minor affair by comparison with what is being shifted now, but all through the eighteenth century that earth moving, that digging, that water redirection, was a positive and, in terms of its power, unprecedented intervention in the natural world. And at the same time, movements towards new kinds of landownership and new kinds of management of production were reducing the areas of common land and the mixed livelihood which had been the majority experience until that time.

Behind that wave, and in part supported by the fortunes which were made in it, in that agrarian capitalism, came new extractive industries, new chemical industries, the iron and steel industry, and suddenly with steam, the whole expansion – with a qualitative difference – of the power that could be applied to all natural resources. The transformation became a regular work experience, and although you can go back four or five thousand years from that and find people learning actively and with skill to intervene in their environment, to reshape it to the needs of their livelihood – which we’ve been doing since we began to live in social groups – there is a qualitative change at the point where the power to do it is suddenly so magnified that literally you can transform. You can transform not only a land but you can transform the materials you take from it, you can produce new products. Out of that chaotic, dynamic experience, a labour movement was formed which was primarily defensive.

The labour movement, then, formed itself around the notion of remediable poverty. And the answer to the question of poverty that was on offer, primarily on offer from the whole social order, preached everywhere as it is still preached today, was: produce more and we shall no longer any of us be poor. Work harder – including of course in brackets always, don’t make any more wage demands – but work harder, produce more. There was a terrible moment of damage to the national mind when somebody invented the phrase ‘the national cake’. Because somebody had the idea that you had only to expand this cake – it was seen as a very simple kitchen process – and then there would be more slices for everybody, the problems of poverty would be cured. And still today, you can almost get into a fight with convinced socialists and labour movement people if you say: there is no necessary connection between increased production and the reduction of poverty. No necessary connection: of course it would be stupid to deny any relationship. On the contrary, this process of increased production which comes from these changes I’ve discussed has vastly increased the material resources of the society. But what was seen by socialists – there was always a very distinctive socialist position as distinct from simply the labour interest – was that the way in which you produced, the social relations you set up in the course of production, determined a large part of the distribution of the product as well as determining what was being produced. The decisions about production, the decisions about the distribution of the product, were really deeply inherent in the relationships you set up in the process of production itself.


I never know how to argue best against this. I could do it in a long theoretical argument or I could simply say: go to California. When I was teaching political economy in California, which sounds like a joke in itself, we didn’t go anywhere around by car, we went on the buses and on the trains, and I have never seen such poverty, at least in any comparable country. You have to go to the back rooms of the railway depots, you have to go to the bus stops, you have to go to the back streets, where you don’t go if you’re a proper Californian on the freeway, moving into your shopping centre, your housing sector. And that’s the richest place in the world, there’s no way in which anyone’s ever going to be richer than California. And right in the middle of it – although conveniently not seen by the people who say, ‘oh, it’s a terrible life but it sure produces the goods’ – right in the middle of it are desperately poor people, desperately poor and unhappy and stressed people. And this is not an accident, any more than it is an accident that in a rich society like this one still is, there are people desperately poor. Any more than, if you take a wider perspective, there is enough food in the world and there are people starving. It is never a matter which can be settled in this convenient quantitative way of saying: you have poverty, you have shortage, therefore produce more. The argument is not against producing more but about what you produce, who makes the decisions about what you produce, what relationships of production are set up which determine the distribution.

Now, there have been people saying this inside the labour movement, and as friends on its edges, all through the last hundred and fifty years. And on the whole, except for certain short periods, the labour movement has in majority not listened to them. And I wholly understand this. I was born into the labour movement. My own life perspective was entirely formed by this sense of an avoidable poverty and therefore of the need for the remedy, the justice, the correction of proportion which was the labour movement’s own definitions of itself. And I think that if you come from outside that, as with part of my mind I now can, and simply say: this is a social order which is going to reproduce poverty inside growth; this is a social order which in substituting production, the notion of production, for the notion of livelihood, is going to find that in the end it cannot serve all its people – you do sound like a visitor from another planet sometimes.

But actually you’re a visitor from this one. Because the other thing that had happened, in the extraordinary success of this new social and economic order, which we call in shorthand industrial capitalism, is that certain ways of looking at the world had become so deeply embedded that it really requires a positive effort of mind or spirit to break from them. One of the ways was the habit of looking at everything as raw material. And what it in fact also includes, of course, that way of looking, is the idea of most people as raw material. This is not so often said, but Beatrice Webb a hundred years ago was puzzled to hear at her father’s dinner table – a rich family – ‘labour and water plentiful’, you know, as a note on some particular site which was going to be exploited. The phrase gets it exactly, ‘labour and water plentiful’ – the labour is like the water, both are raw material. The majority of human beings are raw material which are going to be taken up, trained in certain ways, offered certain bargains, shifted around, given this kind of incentive, given this kind of reward if it is necessary for the particular transforming process. But in the end, that is what they are: most people are raw material, in that perspective.

But although it has been said repeatedly, most people have not listened. And this is the importance of the present period, because now the wholly predictable end of that process is in its early stages and it is cruel. It was always cruel but it is now openly cruel, because what is being said about most of the raw material is that it is redundant, it’s surplus to requirements. To the degree that this very same process, which is not really a second or third industrial revolution, it is a new phase of the same basic social and economic order – what is being said, as there is this prolonged statistical crowing by every expert in sight at the number of men that have been got rid of, the number of jobs that have been reduced, the labour demand that has been minimised – that the people are still there, but if you see them as raw material, well, that can be left in the ground.

And at this point, the labour movement faces its great crisis: a crisis of ideas. Because as I said – and I say it absolutely, as someone born into the labour movement, an inalienable friend of it – if it continues to see more production, in a sense damn the consequences, as the way it has got to take out of avoidable poverty, it is simply going to produce its own general redundancy. I mean, it is a process which has a certain iron law about it. That the very things which are being fought out now in industrial battles are continually – the argument is about – whether you will continue to accept the predominant capitalist model of production, which the labour movement has had from its position of weakness and exposure to accept. Or whether you can begin – and this is where the convergence with the strongest kind of ecological thinking can begin – whether you can begin to think of a different social order.

Raymond Williams addresses SERA, Letchworth, 2nd June 1984

Now, it is one thing to look at the past and say: it was the notion of production as the necessary and sufficient answer to poverty which misled the labour movement, the notion of wage labour as an indefinite condition, the acceptance of private ownership of common resources. It’s one thing to look back at that historically. It’s another thing to bring it into the very confused present situation full of all its short-term pressures. The fact that this level of unemployment is said by so many of the unemployed to be inevitable is a very terrifying social consequence. Not in the sense of blaming the people who say that: that would be impertinent. But in the sense of the failure of the very models that we have been presenting, to the degree that the labour movement has merely competed with the frankly capitalist parties, in saying that it can run the same system better: produce more, and produce more for separate benefits. To that degree, we have arrived in this situation with a few generations neglect of the basic case which, now, would begin to make sense. Now, precisely, in the period when the long-term consequences of that choice of priorities is coming through, and hitting hard and hitting permanently.

What would that kind of case be? Well first I think we would go back to the simpler questions, like the matter of pollution and traffic jams and so on, and say one thing about production which is never said, because a capitalist can’t say it: that there are no by-products. There are no by-products, there are no side-effects. By-products are part of the process of production, most of them wholly foreseeable. Side-effects, in any informed situation, are effects, not side-effects. So, we challenge the notion of production as it has been presented, and start with a different conception. And the conception actually is an old one, it is one that preceded this extraordinary dynamic phase, and it is the conception around which I think the convergence between the socialist and ecology movements will take place. This is the idea of livelihood, which is a much deeper concept, and a much more human concept, than production. Because if you start from production, which is nearly always a gross quantity, undiscriminated as to what you produce, what quality you produce, what effects that kind of production has on others and other kinds, then you cannot get into the broader human and social issues except as secondary effects. Whereas if you start from the notion of livelihood, you’re starting with something wholly practical. I don’t blame people in the labour movement who are suspicious of people who propose for this crowded island an immediate crash programme of return to subsistence agriculture and crafts. I mean, I am not patient with that kind of proposal either – deeply as I like subsistence agriculture and crafts, but it is just not on for a population of this size which has been created precisely by this social order. It is not that; it is the idea of livelihood. Because if you start from the idea of livelihood, you are starting from a human place and from the interests of all the human beings involved. It is a way of life and not a way of producing.

Now it is precisely because the ecology movement has always been questioning – starting from the other end, of what is being done to the earth, what’s being done to people – always been questioning the priorities of what it wasn’t willing to call capitalist production for a long time. It called it industrial society or modern society, and while it only called it those soft names it didn’t get to the hard political choices, it could be a kind of elegant regret for a vanished, innocent, greener, more peaceful world. It’s because the ecology movement can get to the point where what it identifies is not just the modern world and not just industrial production but very specifically a capitalist social order, that it can find – if people in the labour movement are prepared to move, and the movement will have to be considerable – a basis for discussion which could resume the argument which began a hundred and fifty years ago. When people said, in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth centuries ([William] Cobbett is the greatest voice among them): what is being disrupted is an ordinary and natural livelihood of people.

What will happen if that succeeds will be something more than a convergence. It will be a qualitative alteration of socialism, which I think is now historically inevitable. But equally, it will be a significant political transformation of ecology and environmentalism, which has often supposed that if it could identify a danger, and address the leaders of the world or public opinion in some generalised way, it would get sufficient response to get the dangers cleared up. It is not going to be like that. The only force which can carry through these issues is the force which is rooted in the majority interest and in the indispensable livelihood of all the people in the society, and that ideally, though not yet, is the labour movement. I don’t know how long it will take, but if something’s going to take a long time, the sooner it’s started the better.