In his book Ecolo, Democracy as a Project, Benoit Lechat embarks on a fascinating journey in time retracing the birth and first steps of Belgium’s Green Party: Ecolo. Through his exciting story-telling, replete with testimonials, historical perspectives and comparisons with other European Green parties emerging in parallel at the time, we come to understand that the originality of the Green movement and party lies primarily in the way in which it designs, develops, and implements the principle of democracy. Democracy, presumed from the outset as a means and an end of policy-making, stood as a veritable obstacle course for the founders, as much within the party as outside it, and presents us with a key to reading history, packed with valuable lessons for contemporary political ecology.

This first volume covers the first two eras of Ecolo’s history.  Going through the first era (1970-1979), one discovers how Ecolo’s precursors transitioned from “federalism to ecology” through the successive creation and coexistence of various political and not-for-profit membership-based organisations, namely Démocratie Nouvelle (New Democracy) and Amis de la Terre (Friends of the Earth).  Originally, before political ecology found its political embodiment in Ecolo, the idea of democratic renewal and the doctrine of integral federalism motivated environmental activism. Despite it being at the core of the anti-nuclear movement and opposition to industrial society’s impact on nature, environmental awareness did not constitute the basis of environmental activism coming together as a structured political force.

The second era, entitled “On the verge of rupture and institutionalisation”, begins with the creation of Ecolo in 1980 and the party’s progressive internal structuring up to 1986, including its ideological and platform development.  This period recounts the hard-won battles of early Green parliamentarians and local representatives.  From the outset, internal tensions arose within the young structure, seeking to strike a difficult balance between system participation and opposition, between participatory democracy and policy efficacy, between ideological radicalism and political realism.

Federalism at the source of doing politics differently

Ecolo and its Flemish counterpart, Groen, currently support federalism and national solidarity.  It may therefore come as a surprise to learn that Belgian ecologists were originally regionalists.  One of Ecolo’s ideological centrepieces and a number of its precursors stem from Rassemblement Wallon (RW – Walloon Gathering Party). Born at the end of the 1960s, out of an institutional and industrial crisis, RW intended to defend Walloon workers against the national Government because its short-term and conservative policies were unable to address the structural changes taking place within Belgian society.  RW developed the idea of integral federalism as a means of reinstating the decision-making autonomy of ‘democratised cell-like structures’, such as schools or businesses, on issues that affect them.  In addition, integral federalism was conceived as a method of promoting community development and diversity.  As a result, this doctrine called for the dissipation of national structures and the rise of a Europe of regions.

In 1973, a few outcast members of RW, created Démocratie Nouvelle, which adopted the principle of integral federalism and extended it to the movement’s internal organisation and operations. This idea was then adopted by DN’s successors, Amis de la Terre, before giving birth to Ecolo.  However, DN combined it with the principle of self-rule, which was already perceived at the time as the key to propelling an ecological transformation of the economy and society.

Consequently, integral federalism came naturally to Ecolo as a source of inspiration for policy-making and, more fundamentally, internal organisation. In short, this principle implies creating a structure that allows the most egalitarian distribution possible of responsibility and power among all of its members.  Thus, at the time of its creation and during its first years of existence, the party’s operational structure constituted the object of numerous debates aiming to achieve a balance between policy efficacy and the risk of a few monopolising party power and ideology.

At the beginning, “doing politics differently” meant, first and foremost, redistributing power internally, a sine qua non condition for society’s transformation. It is only after Ecolo’s first elected representatives made it to Parliament in 1981 that this notion also took on an external meaning.  At this later stage, “doing politics differently” came to signify renewing democracy.  This renewal required initiatives designed to improve the ethical standards of political practices and to cultivate civic engagement in politics, namely via symbolic and entertaining activism.

Is Ecolo Environmentalist?

Contrary to what one may imagine, despite the growing awareness at the end of the 1960s of society’s environmental impact and environmental degradation’s global consequences, Ecolo did not stem directly from the environmental protection movement. The movement against nuclear energy was at the heart of the struggle for environmental protection.  Similarly, numerous local initiatives were organised to oppose industrial projects that were destroying or disrupting daily life.  In 1971, Inter-Environnement (Inter-Environment) was created as a pressure group in French-speaking Belgium.

Progressively, environmental awareness became closely associated to a criticism of the economy and the power structures that support it.  Among Ecolo’s precursors, namely within DN, integrating human societies into their natural environment was more of a priority than nature conservation. In 1976, the creation of Amis de la Terre brought together individuals (namely from DN) with democratic and environmental affinities.  Its manifesto was anti-capitalist, federalist, and advocated self-rule. As a result of regularly castigating environmentalists for being apolitical and lacking global vision, the association’s social critique of the establishment became an integral component of political ecology in French-speaking Belgium.

Within the Green universe, tension began to emerge between, on the one hand, the ideal of self-rule and the development of an autonomous sphere and, on the other, the reality of representative democracy and socio-cultural constraints.  Adhesion to democracy and self-rule at all costs can at times conflict with environmental necessities and vice versa.  From Ecolo’s very inception, its members knew that their efforts to transform reality risked “clashing sooner or later with consumerist society”.

All in all, ecologists believe that a radical change of systems and values is necessary to settle human life harmoniously in its natural setting. However, they are well aware that the need for global change can quickly clash with individual choice and liberty, as well as with the existing cultural context. In order to avoid falling into authoritarian solutions, democracy works as a safeguard across all of their decision-making processes, even if it is at the expense of efficacy or of slower and less radical change.

Is Ecolo leftist?

Contrary to what some may believe, Ecolo had a global platform from the very beginning. Among its precursors, criticism of environmental destruction was coupled with, or even preceded, the will to restructure Wallonia’s industrial development and the global economy. Then, in its early years, Ecolo’s socio-economic proposals touched on themes such as industrial restructuring, reducing working time, taxation, town and country planning, energy savings, and economic relocation. On social issues, by advocating solidarity on a global scale, Ecolo became the first party to discuss immigration and immigrant rights issues.

But what characterises Ecolo’s platform above all is its radically democratic disposition, notably through its development of an ‘autonomous sphere’ under self-rule, cut off from market consumerism and state centralism. The reduction of working time, the development of common goods, alternative measures of wealth, and basic income were at the centre of Ecolo’s platform – not without its share of internal debates or misgivings. If DN and Friends of the Earth were openly anti-capitalist, Ecolo does not define itself in terms of this notion, nor along the classical left-right divide.

Despite its unifying and innovative platform, by situating its program outside of the classical political framework, Ecolo struggles to make itself understood by ‘real’ people. Similarly, although Ecolo recognises that its platform for sustainable lifestyles and environmental protection cannot result from the enterprise of a privileged few, the profiles of its advocates and elected officials do not reflect a substantial likeness to the oppressed masses they want to defend.

The more structural question that arises is thus, “where are the emerging movements which should be adopted politically?” This applies to environmental battles (see above) as well as social ones, especially those that don’t have institutional pillars (like the Socialists) or class consciousness (like the Communists) to rely on.  The objectives are more diverse, the contexts more complex, and the opponents less clearly identified. In addition, by placing autonomy and freedom of choice at the core of its platform and identity, Ecolo makes it more difficult to connect to the actors that it is supposed to represent.

Challenges and contradictions: Ecolo, a party like the others ?

To carry out solutions, Ecolo will have to overcome its reputation for being “preachy”. Unfortunately, the ecologist alternative at first comes off as off-putting and paternalistic. Above all, deepening democracy is therefore the key to Ecolo resolving the tension between its call for radical societal transformation and the respect of individual choice and liberties.  Nevertheless, it would be naive to believe that redistributing power to the people would automatically turn people into instruments of change. In addition to popular disinterest in, or general disgust for, politics, a salient feature of post-industrial society is that “capitalist domination no longer expresses itself exclusively through class struggle, but through a universally shared creed in an imaginary cycle of growth, consumption, and technical progress”. Consequently, the real challenge today is articulating Ecolo’s platform with emerging social movements, civic education, and the rebuilding of civic trust.

Although portrayed as incompetent dreamers, ecologists developed a global platform from the get go. But “it is probably precisely because they have the audacity to criticise a system in full decline that their opponents will continue to disparage them as protectors of small birds”. Today, the parody goes on, but one wonders whether there is any evidence left for it. As the external obstacles are many, the first step to strengthening and expanding Ecolo is for it to rediscover the meaning of ‘doing politics differently’. This entails an internal redistribution of power and an opening up of the debate in order to rediscover the radicality of the project and identify a new way of bringing it out.

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