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Paul O’Flinn

Freedom for a few

(September 1978)

From Socialist Review, No.5, September 1978, p.23.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Ernest Callenbach
Pluto Press £3.60 hardback, £1.20 paperback

One of the best things in recent years has been the development of Pluto Press to the point where its publications now get regular attention from the national media, an advance made without any sacrifice of political principle. Its newest move – into the fraught area of novel publishing – is a welcome venture.

But one of its first attempts in this direction – Ernest Callenbach’s novel Ecotopia – is in my view a mistake, though probably a mistake worth making.

Superficially, Ecotopia is one of the most challenging texts to have emerged from the American underground in recent years. Published at the author’s own expense in California in 1975, it sold 32,000 copies on the grapevine before being ‘discovered’ and re-issued by Bantam Books.

The novel is made up of the diary entries and newspaper articles of Will Weston, first US journalist to visit the breakaway state of Ecotopia, formerly the west coast of America. He’s writing in 1999, nearly twenty years after independence, and in a series of reports he describes the radical society that has evolved, touching on everything from the design of belt buckles to the recycling of sewage.

In the end, he’s won over by the place. He decides against a return to grubby old New York and its complications – wife, kids, mistress – and settles down with the delicious Marissa and the good vibes of San Francisco.

I know it’s considered bad form to give away the ending like that in a review, but it’s necessary here if we’re to grapple with the politics of the text because it is as a political text that, rightly, the book offers itself. As the blurb puts it: ‘In a blending of socialist and anarchist ideas Callenbach creates the most dramatic vision of a possible future since William Morris’s News from Nowhere.’

Looked at in that way, the book certainly has things to offer, and the reader is reminded of the debt that Marxism in recent years has owed to the convulsions of American radicalism – the civil rights marches, the women’s movement, gay liberation and so on.

Of course Marxists ‘knew’ about (for example) the exploitation of women – it’s all been there in Engels’s Origins of the Family since 1884. But that knowledge was dormant and peripheral, and only jerked into analysis and activity a decade ago when a few American women started making bloody nuisances of themselves.

Similarly here, Callenbach’s novel presents a series of bold insights into the way a society could actually be organised round recycling and pollution-free production, and in those areas is years ahead of some European socialists, still blindly planning growth without a thought to the consequences.

But ... and it’s a but, I’m afraid, that wipes out most of the earlier compliments. Ecotopia also has many of the weaknesses and gaps of American radicalism. Central here is the book’s sense of the evils of capitalism being a matter of size rather than system. Break it all into little bits, Callenbach suggests, and there’d be few problems.

‘Small is beautiful’ is the watchword, and so Ecotopia is a mass of tiny private enterprises – schools, fisheries, farms and so on – all competing away cheerfully through TV advertising. It’s the illusion of populist frauds the world over.

With that issue missed, the novel is free to spend much of its time devising ingenious ways of avoiding the use of plastics and turning goat shit into methane gas – the life style, in short, of the BBC’s Good Life. How much of a threat that sort of thing is to civilisation as. we know it may be judged from the fact that it’s the Queen’s favourite TV programme.

A final point. How, you ask, does the west coast manage to secede? Surely the rest of the US wouldn’t let them? Answer: by planting atomic bombs secretly under major American cities and threatening to set them off as soon as the US Government attempts to intervene.

It’s here that the book stops being just wrongheaded and becomes plain nasty. It offers not even socialism in one country but a kind of freedom in a bit of one country, a kind of freedom that within its own boundaries is ecologically deeply sensitive but is quite ready to secure itself by turning the rest of the continent into a nuclear desert.

Since the novel invites comparison with Morris it’s worth pointing out that it’s exactly a hundred years ago that Morris said: ‘I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.’

But it’s freedom for a few that this book is all about. At the end of Morris’s News from Nowhere, the hero leaves his dream of the socialist future to return to struggle with the rest of us in the messy present, where the future is made.

But at the end of Ecotopia, Will Weston lazes significantly in a womb-like hot bath and decides to drop out of the difficulties of his life in New York and hang around in San Francisco, safe behind the nuclear screen and working only at achieving the ultimate fuck with Marissa. Bully for Weston.

Meanwhile the rest of us might enjoy this as a holiday read but will have to look elsewhere for inspiration as we grapple with that messy present.

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Last updated: 11 March 2010