Noble Causes and Totalitarian Temptations
15.11.1992., From Il Mattino dell’Alto Adige, 15 November 1992There is no noble cause or idea in history that has not been, or has not the capability of being, perverted and turned into its opposite. Christianity has been used to justify genocide against indigenous populations overseas, pogroms against Jews and heretics, forced conversions at the point of the sword, and various forms of dictatorship, amongst which Francoism and the regimes of personalities such as Stroessner and Pinochet, are still fresh in the memory.
In the name of socialism, millions of men and women have been oppressed, deported and massacred, and not only under Stalin. Even Nazism defined itself as a type of “socialism”. The great national-libertarian ideals of the French revolution led to anti-religious persecution, Jacobin terror, suffocating centralisation and forced assimilation. In the name of the liberal concept of freedom of initiative and free enterprise the market has destroyed millions of human livelihoods, those of individuals and whole communities- and not just under Manchester capitalism, but right up to the present day.
One only has to look at the huge shanty towns of the southern hemisphere to become aware how much illness, misery and death can result from a system that is supposed to guarantee the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. Even Kant, the philosopher of the highest moral imperative rooted in the human conscience, ended up in the mouth of the Nazi torturer, Adolf Eichmann, who claimed to have exterminated the Jews on account of a supreme sense of duty taught him by the Königsberg thinker.
In the hands of some regimes Islam has become the basis and incentive for intolerant and aggressive laws, and the Old Testament is invoked to deny the Palestinians their rights to a homeland. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” led to the war in Vietnam, and a revolutionary agricultural policy imposed on the Third World which has destroyed the capability of these populations to feed themselves for generations. One could continue at length.
There is no limit to the abuse, degeneration and distortion. It is appropriate therefore to examine dispassionately, indeed suspiciously, what seeds of totalitarianism, intolerance, irrationality, violence and exclusivism can be hidden behind every great idea or cause which claims to be generous, humanitarian or even a means of salvation. In this sense, I accept willingly that in the case of the greens and the ideals of ecologists there should likewise be investigations into potentially bad masters, spurious forerunners, or unrecognised and even disreputable relatives.
Having said that, however, frankly, I find it weird to look for “Eco-nazism” in the current environmental movements, as the philosopher Luc Ferry has done recently in France, followed by some in Italy. One cannot deny that ecological ideas provide new nourishment for many currents of thought that need regenerating.
This applies to substantial sections of the social-democratic, Marxist and secular left. In the environmental emergency they can find new and not-discredited reasons for equality and solidarity, and perhaps new impulses for the struggle against the domination of capitalist profit - just as Christians can find new motives in it for efforts aimed at the “salvation of creation” - or humanists in general, reasons to emphasise a philosophy of limits and compassion.
Everyone can be green with varying degrees of intensity and conviction, just as everyone can and has drawn on other sources of ideal, philosophical or moral inspiration. This applies to the various groups on the right, which can find a strong criticism of industrialism, mass consumer society and the triumph of economic values, in the ecological movement. Some of their significant cultural fringes of the “New Right” have found in the increased ecological consciousness an opportunity to emerge from their old thought-patterns and, by now, sterile conflicts.
Certainly it should be thoroughly investigated whether there really is a danger of going adrift in the genetic inheritance of the ecological movement. Every effort should be made to prevent fundamentalism, which is no less dangerous in the green version than in other colours.
But the greatest danger which I see today is not so much in the vitalist irrationalism that can always develop around the concept of “life” or “nature”, but rather in two symmetrical and opposite degenerations that can both lead to the idea of “eco-cracy”, of ecological and authoritarian dirigisme. These are, on the one hand, technocratic scientism, which elevates science and technology to automatic sources of truth, and even social and economic norms, and norms for human coexistence; and on the other hand, a sort of “bio-cracy” which insists on elevating the idea of “bios”, life, to the central and most important place in a system and organisation “according to nature”.
Both these positions have a strong element of totalitarianism, even if the signs are the opposite. One thinks of the arrogant technocrats and scientists who would like to dictate to the Third World how many children they should have, or what types of seeds they should use, all in the name of compatibility with the environment, and who would not disdain to disguise the dictatorship of the big bureaucratic, techno-scientific and politico-administrative complexes with the cloak of ecology. On the opposite side of the fence we find the idea, which can be quite romantic, but also social-darwinist, that Life with a capital L should ‘per se’ be the legislator and source of inspiration for regulating human aspirations and coexistence.
One could continue at length and look for other possible degenerations in the green sphere (just as they exist in the red, Christian and market spheres...) but of the two dangers of going astray identified above, the technocratic one clearly appears the more concrete and threatening, despite the conspicuous appearance of certain rowdy groups (dangerous and not to be underestimated, but in no way representative of ecologists).
The totalitarianism of those who dominate the large economic, technical, scientific, administrative and information structures is far more frightening than the unrealistic and disorganised “eco-nazis” who are often cruel, but are basically impotent, isolated and isolatable because the democratic consciousness seems sufficiently aware and immunised in this direction. Ecologists are well aware of this and have no intention of falling into this trap.
From Il Mattino dell’Alto Adige, 15 November 1992