Social Ecologist Profile: Mark Restall of London, England





Please introduce yourself (What kind of work you do, Where you live, etc.)

Somehow – I blame the inescapable tyranny of linear time – I appear to have reached the age of 38. For the last 10 or so years I’ve lived in London. For the moment I can’t imagine living anywhere else (though I did fall in love with New York a few years back).

To pay the rent I freelance as a trainer/consultant on volunteer management, working with voluntary and public sector bodies to improve the way they recruit, work with and treat volunteers. I share a house with 3 humans and one cat, Rosa. Owning Rosa is as close I’ve I’ve ever gotten to adult responsibilities.

I fill my time with shouting in anger at radio phone-ins, finding new music genres to obsess over and reading and writing fiction. And drinking.

This is straying dangerously close to personal ad territory…

How did you become introduced to the ideas of social ecology? How do you define social ecology when asked about it?

I have a feeling I first saw the name Murray Bookchin when I was about 17 and exploring anarchism/libertarian socialism. I read some of his work when I was at University, though from memory this would have been some of his better known pamphlets/articles from the late 60s/70s rather than anything substantial, so I didn’t have an overview of social ecology until much later when I started reading some of his longer works. But anyway, who (of a libertarian socialist bent) wouldn’t enjoy reading Listen Marxist! for the first time? Having chosen a fairly radical degree (Peace Studies) my dissertation supervisor was an admirer of Bookchin, so his name and the vague knowledge that there was a broad concept of social ecology out there was firmly planted in my mind, even if it took a while to percolate through.

It was much later (maybe 10 years ago) that I started reading works such as The Ecology of Freedom. At the time I was quite disillusioned with much of the ‘anarchist’ movement (or at least the more visible aspects of it) in this country, so it felt good to find something coherent and along the lines I viewed things. And of course the critique of individualist and primitivist currents (what I think of as ‘anarchyism’) warmed my heart. I had spent some lost years in the ‘anti-capitalist’ movement, Reclaim the Streets and that type of thing. It seemed exciting and relevant at the time, though like many graduates of the movement I’m quite critical of it now.

In conversation I’d always define social ecology as being based around 3 core ideas:

  1. You can’t separate our ecological crisis from the social conditions that led to it.
  2. It’s not sufficient to locate these problematic social conditions in some form or combination of hierarchies (class, gender, race, power etc) – we must look deeper and address hierarchy itself.
  3. Social ecology goes beyond critique to offer a positive vision of a democratic ecological society.

I think there’s a lot to argue/disagree with in this brief description, but we’re talking about a chat here…

How does social ecology and/or your experience with the Institute for Social Ecology influence your current work?

I’m not doing much politically at the moment. I kind of backed away from things a few years ago, depression and related anxieties leading me to be fairly useless (and undoubtedly believe I was much more useless than I was). These days I’m much better, but I guess I want to find a niche where I can feel that I’m contributing without putting myself in a position where I’d worry about letting people down.

To be honest I’m not sure where I fit into the social ecology world anymore. I don’t accept the whole scale rejection of anarchism, as if anarchism is a monolithic entity. I’m quite happy to critique many aspects of many anarchisms, just as much as I am to take from the better aspects/currents. The same applies to other forms of libertarian socialism such as council communism or those around Aufheben magazine, and of course to variants of feminism and so on.

Facetiously I’ve sometimes referred to myself as a class struggle social ecologist. Over the last few years I’ve been looking more and more at the nature of capitalism, and I can’t see how you can truly come to terms with it without referring to class. There can be major misunderstandings in terms of language and description. By class I mean economic/political class rather than a sociological description – that is, what is your relationship to capital? Do you have no realistic option other than to sell your labour?

This doesn’t mean that class composition isn’t an important area, and there are lots of issues around the amorphous/permeable edges of class, but nevertheless this central production relationship has to be part of the mix in my opinion.

At the same time of course a crude workerism has to be avoided. Excuse the large quote, but this does sum up to a degree where I stand:

“If one identifies proletarian with factory worker (or even worse: with manual labourer), or with the poor, then one cannot see what is subversive in the proletarian condition. The proletariat is the negation of this society … The proletariat is the dissolution of present society, because this society deprives it of nearly all its positive aspects. Thus the proletariat is also its own destruction. All theories (either bourgeois, fascist, stalinist, left-wing or “gauchistes”) which in any way glorify and praise the proletariat as it is and claim for it the positive role of defending values and regenerating society, are counter-revolutionary. Worship of the proletariat has become one of the most efficient and dangerous weapons of capital. Most proles are low paid, and a lot work in production, yet their emergence as the proletariat derives not from being low paid producers, but from being “cut off”, alienated, with no control either over their lives or the meaning of what they have to do to earn a living.”
(Gilles Dauvé , Eclipse and Re-emergence of the Communist Movement)

You describe not knowing if you “fit in” with social ecology; what sort of development in the theory of social ecology would need to take place to make you feel more comfortable identifying with social ecology?

One issue for me has always been that I’m not even sure what it is to be a social ecologist. Does one have to accept all the elements that have been brought into its remit – dialectical naturalism? The history/anthropology within The Ecology of Freedom?

Then there are tactics and activity. I don’t agree with the strategy of localised electoralism. I don’t discount it as a tactic – and it certainly made more sense to me when I visited Vermont and learnt of its tradition of town meetings than it does when I look at my local London borough – but this seems to be held up as ‘the’ way forward. What’s wrong with a more pluralist approach?

It’s felt a little like there’s an unspoken version of the infamous (well, in certain circles) ‘hostility clause’ of the Socialist Party of Great Britain(1). I still don’t understand the absolute break with ‘anarchism’, as if anarchism was ever a single cohesive movement. I personally think social ecology has more to gain through active engagement with the best of anarchism, marxism, feminism and so on. I’d feel more at home in social ecology if it was more clearly identified as tendency within libertarian socialism.

(1) The SPGB is a libertarian Marxist party, founded in 1904. Clause 7 of their Declaration of Principles states:

“That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party which seeks working class emancipation, must be hostile to every other party”

They’re not as bad as the clause makes them sound.

What do you see as the greatest opportunities and greatest challenges for achieving a sustainable relationship between humanity and the wider world?

The greatest challenge really is the dominance of capitalism, allied with the idea that humanity is somehow separate from nature.

There does seem to have been an erosion of even the idea of an alternative. To use a crude example, the notion that Obama is a socialist or even a Marxist is completely laughable, yet has a certain traction in tea party circles. This is interesting on several levels. Firstly, the complete ignorance of what socialism actually is. Then that clearly such labels are being used as almost content free terms of abuse. Calling Obama a Marxist seems to be simply a way of saying you don’t like him, in much the same way that if I call someone a bastard I’m not actually expressing an opinion on their parentage. On top of that, most of the people getting together under these banners seem to have most to gain from even the mildest social democratic reforms. From the distance of an ocean away it seems bewildering.

In this country the new Labour Party leader Ed Miliband has been referred to as Red Ed. Again, laughable – especially when you have the clear contrast between his politics and those of his father, Ralph.

I worry that the opportunities for change in ecological terms will arise only when the impact of global warming becomes so clear that it’s too late to avoid serious consequences. Opposition movements seem distressingly apolitical (eg Transition Towns in this country).

Opportunities may well arise out of resistance. I’m always cheered by the presence of occupations and assemblies in the midst of what at first might seem like unfocussed anger (Argentina a decade ago, Greece a couple of years ago, even to a small degree here in the UK students fighting raised tuition fees or previously workers fighting closure). Small victories can also lead to an increase in both confidence and horizons.

Any great stories about being around the ISE?

Only fond memories of attending the colloquium a few years back! Had a great time, met some interesting and friendly people, stayed in Brian Tokar’s lovely house, discovered that (thank God) beers in the US go way beyond Coors and Budweiser.