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Ecological Marxism? A very short history

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  • Just as everyone got tired of proclaiming the “end of history” and resigned to the global dominance of neoliberal capitalism, ecological crisis started accelerating to a pace where this phrase is acquiring an ironic and ominous re-semantization. Fossil-fuelled neoliberal capitalism is fast forwarding us towards an end of humanity “due to the increasingly barbaric socio-economic and environmental conditions the system creates” (Burkett 2017). While during the last 50 years an enormous amount of scientific evidence of the human impact on the planet has been accumulating, during the last decade climate change and various forms of ecological degradation have penetrated everyone’s immediate experience. Since 2008 scientists have marshalled conclusive evidence that we have entered the Anthropocene – a new geological epoch.

    The hallmark of Anthropocene is that humans “largely determine the make-up of the biosphere as well as the chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans, and this episode of the species’ dominion will one day be as legible in the fossil record as the advancing ice sheets, asteroid impacts or proliferation of new life-forms that distinguished other epochs” (Kunkel 2017). While some take the gravity of the current situation to be a rallying cry for action because “it changes everything”[1], others are resigned to the fact that it is already too late and the last challenge remaining is to grasp that our civilisation is already dead (Scranton 2013). However, irrespective of whether one is on the fighting-political or resigned-philosophical side of this issue, Marx’s writing is important in understanding the political economy of the ecological crisis.

    The environmental movement was born in the 1960s, from within various New Left and Green groups in the US and Europe, and, due to a considerable mix & match within Green political and economic thinking, its ideological boundaries became quite blurred (Eckersley 1992). The social ecology approach drew substantially from postmodernist writing, and it relied on Ronald Inglehart’s “post-materialist thesis” which emphasises individual value orientations (Foster 1998). The more radical formulation within the environmental movement of limits to growth[2] importantly accentuated the irreconcilable conflict between economic growth and the environment, but the principal focus was on cultural factors, such as the question of anthropocentric versus eco-centric culture (Foster 1998). In more recent times, various strands of green and left thinking in Europe are converging within the degrowth movement, encompassing strands from social ecology, across ecological economics to Marxian analysis (see D’Alisa, Demaria and Kallis 2014).

    The first Earth Summit, which was held in Stockholm in 1972, is considered the primary defining event of international environmentalism. At the time, the focus was on the negative environmental consequences of unregulated industrial development and the planetary interdependence of all life, and the event called for the adoption of global responses to environmental problems and massive changes in the over-consumptive lifestyles of the wealthy (Bernstein 2002). Between the 1972 Earth Summit in Stockholm and the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, international debate on environmental issues dramatically changed, adopting a neoliberal framing according to which solutions to environmental challenges lie in market forces, free trade and unfettered corporate freedom (Bernstein 2002). Today, the mainstream approach to ecological challenges, embodied in the policies of international organizations like the UN, the World Bank and the WTO is embedded in neoliberal economic thinking. Along these lines, public debates are dominated by a three-pronged neoliberal recipe: climate change denialism for immediate political effect of postponing solutions; instituting markets in carbon permits as the mid-range strategy for creating new profit opportunities; and geoengineering as the futuristic science fiction policy that inspires billionaires (Mirowski, Walker and Abboud 2013). Historically therefore, the environmental movement co-evolved with the rise of neoliberalism – starting with the 1970s Thatcher and Reagan, and culminating in end of history atmosphere of the 1990s (West and Brockington 2012).

    Against the dominant liberal environmentalism, left-oriented theory has over that period made considerable gains, initially incorporating (and more recently rewriting) a materialist, political economy of the ecological crisis. The first important inroads into merging Left and Green thinking happened within the social ecology approach. Already back in the 1950s Murray Bookchin argued that environmental problems constituted the issue where fundamental contradictions of capitalism were played out (White 2016). Bookchin’s influence evolved however primarily into libertarian thinking (O’Connoer 1988), which is currently experiencing a revival within the municipalist movement[3].

    Ecological Marxism[4] started developing in the 1980s. In 1988 James O’Connor initiated the academic journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism and the Guildford Press publishing house, both of which became primary outlets for the development of ecosocialism[5]. O’Connor (1988) proposed that the ‘capital-nature relation’ was no less fundamental than the capital-labour relation in analysing how capitalism reproduces and, ultimately, undermines itself. A few years later, in 1994, Martin O’Connor edited a volume entitled Is Capitalism Sustainable? Political Economy and the Politics of Ecology, featuring articles previously published in the journal. Other volumes followed, including Ted Benson’s edited volume The Greening of Marxism (1996), Paul Burkett‘s Marx and Nature: a Red and Green Perspective (1999), and John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology (2000). These volumes testified to the growing recognition that Marx’s political economy represented a valuable framework for dealing with the present ecological crisis[6].

    Since then, two decades of scholarship have accumulated, arguing that Marx and Engels embedded ecological thinking deep within their critique of capitalism (Williams 2017). After the first stage in ecosocialist writing in the 1970s, which was critical of and distant towards Marxism, the second stage from the 1990s onwards fleshed out a more comprehensive Marxist analysis of nature and sought a synthesis of red and green ideas (ibid.). The overriding motivation driving this scholarship was articulated by Foster in asking whether Marx’s critique of political economy plays “an essential part in the reconstruction of social theory in an age of planetary crisis” (p. 169).

    Foster (1998) initially saw the debate on Marx and ecology as forming three camps. In the first camp were those, like Clark (1989), who argued that although Marx occasionally points the way toward a truly ecological dialectic, he does not follow through, remaining instead within the mastery of nature paradigm. Similarly, Routney (1981) argued that in order to pursue ‘an environmentally sound non-capitalist society’ it was necessary to move beyond Marx. In the second camp were those who contended that Marx provided important insights on ecology, but that he was dominantly Promethean, i.e. committed to industrial progress irrespective of natural limits. Foster places Anthony Giddens, Ted Benton, Kate Soper, Robyn Eckersley, Murray Bookchin and David Goldblatt in this camp. Finally, those who insist that Marx approached ecological issues systematically, to the point that they entered into his basic conceptions of both capitalism and communism, fall in the third camp. Here Foster mentions Elmar Altvater, Paul Burkett, Michael Perelman, Michael Lebowitz, David Harvey, and himself. In a recent preface to Burkett’s book (2014), Foster reiterated this distinction between the first and second generation of ecosocialist scholars, the first being those that consider Marx valuable but incomplete and dated, and those who emphasize the contemporary methodological significance of Marx’s ecological critique of capitalism. Overall, however, the differences Foster draws seem ones of degree rather than kind, the primary distinction being in whether an author emphasizes Marx’s contributions or his limitations in the development of a political economy of ecological crisis.

    Characterising Marx’s thinking as Promethean originated from Giddens’ Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, where he argued that in Marx, “nature appears above all as the medium of the realisation of human social development” (1981: 59). Though Marx emphasises that social development must be examined in terms of an active interplay between human beings and their material environment, according to Giddens the “Promethean attitude is always pre-eminent in Marx’s writings” (ibid., p. 60). Within ecosocialist scholarship, Kate Soper is the one who in 1996 first writes about Marxism and ecology by applying the concept of “greening Prometheus”. After her, Foster (1998) discusses the Communist Manifesto as Promethean, agreeing that Marx, “in line with the Enlightenment tradition, placed considerable faith in rationality, science, technology, and human progress, and [that] he often celebrated the growing human mastery over natural forces” (p. 181). In Foster’s interpretation, The Communist Manifesto on its own indeed was inadequate, given that in this text ecological contradictions played no role in the anticipated revolution against capitalism. Marx and Engels erroneously thought that capitalism’s lifespan would be short, while today it is clear that ecological contradictions of capitalism “will inevitably play a large role in the demise of the system – with ecology now constituting a major source of anti-systemic resistance to capitalism” (1998: 186).

    Since the 1990s, careful research into Marx’s opus has been undertaken, analysing various aspects of his ecological thinking. Kohei Saito researched Marx’s natural-scientific notebooks (2016, 2017), providing new insight into Marx’s preoccupations before and after the publication of the first volume of Capital in 1867, when Marx intensively read into disciplines such as biology, chemistry, geology, and mineralogy. Though Marx did not integrate much of this into Capital, his natural-scientific research was extensive. According to Saito (2016), Marx’s critique of political economy, had he completed it, “would have put a much stronger emphasis on the disturbance of the ‘metabolic interaction’ (Ger. Stoffwechsel) between humanity and nature as the fundamental contradiction within capitalism”.

    At the same time, there remains a tension in Marx and Marxist writing, in the uncritical view of productive forces, as if revolutionaries only needed to replace private by collective ownership in order to make them work in the interest of the working class (Löwy 2017). Just like workers cannot take over the capitalist state apparatus, but must break it, the same applies to the productive apparatus, which “carries in its structure the imprint of its development at the service of capital accumulation and the unlimited expansion of the market” (ibid, p. 19). Instead, capitalism must be radically transformed – including the rapid abandonment of fossil-fuels, ending destructive agricultural industry, reshaping transport systems and consumption. In other words, ecosocialism implies a revolutionary break with the whole capitalist civilisation (Löwy 2017).

    Marx’s critique of political economy fell short of elaborating the ecological challenge as the fundamental contradiction, but it undoubtedly carries relevance and methodological significance today (Löwy 2017). Building on Marx’s writings, Foster (2000) developed the theory of metabolic rift between human societies and nature as a consequence of the destructive logic of capital (2000: 155–167). In Capital, Vol. I, Marx argued that while in pre-capitalist societies the metabolism between human communities and nature was assured “spontaneously”, in the future socialist society it will be re-established rationally (Löwy 2017). Prompted by Marx’s critique of the ‘unsustainable metabolism’, by which capitalist agriculture extracts from the soil more nutrients than it replaces, Foster defined the metabolic rift between capitalist humanity and nature as “the compulsion to accumulate ever more capital rules out the metabolic equilibrium that would allow a society to maintain indefinitely the environment from which it indefinitely takes its livelihood” (Kunkel 2017). Furthermore, Burkett (2006) elaborated links between a Marxian account of political economy and elements of ecological economics such as natural capital (natural resources considered as a capital asset, alternatively depleted or preserved), entropy (the depletion of energy-dense raw materials as an ultimate check on economic growth), and the possibility of a zero-growth economy.

    More recently, Ian Angus (2016) provides an ecological Marxist interpretation of the Anthropocene, arguing that the ecological crisis must be analysed using the tools of historical materialism. He sees “the Anthropocene project as an opportunity to unite an ecological Marxist analysis with the latest scientific research in a new synthesis” (2016: 23). On the other hand, Jason Moore (2015, 2017) is critical of the term Anthropocene for its assumption of a “homogenous” humanity, and proposes that we replace it with Capitalocene, since the rise of capitalism after 1450 “marked a turning point in the history of humanity’s relation with the rest of nature, (…) greater than any watershed since the rise of agriculture and the first cities” (Moore 2017: ). Andreas Malm (2016) is likewise critical of the term Anthropocene, again for the reason that it obscures class dynamics. While for Moore (2015) the problematic assumption behind the term is that it ‘makes us all equal’ and hence equally to blame, for Malm (2016) the problem is in the assumption that the Anthropocene is the outcome of ingrained human traits, implying resigned pessimism. Instead he proposes a materialist analysis of its genesis, and in his book Fossil Capital he details the close connections between the burning of fossil fuels and capitalism’s development of industrial production. According to him, fossil fueling of the economy was not driven by considerations such as scarcity or technical efficiency, but, in Burkett’s (2017) apt summary, by “requirements of exploiting wage-labour, class-monopolization of the benefits of production, and the system’s preference for private competition over social cooperation in the realm of energy use”.

    How the Anthropocene unfolds over the coming generations will be decided primarily by whether it remains the Capitalocene; that is, humanity’s ecological future must necessarily be posed as a question about capitalism (Kunkel 2016). If that is so, then it is not possible to confront the contemporary ecological crisis without a Marxist critique of political economy. Taking this on board, ecosocialists need to further develop Marx and Engels’ arguments to provide a materialist understanding of the dynamics of the ecological crisis and envisage a socialist society that will respect the “inalienable conditions” of life on Earth (Löwy 2017).

     

    References

    Agger, B. (1979) Western Marxism: An Introduction: Classical and Contemporary Sources, Santa Monica, California: Goodyear Pub.

    Angus, I. (2016) Facing the Anthropocene, New York: Monthly Review Press.

    Benson, T. (ed.) (1996) The Greening of Marxism, New York and London: Guilford Press.

    Bernstein, S. (2002) ‘Liberal Environmentalism and Global Environmental Governance’, Global Environmental Politics, 2:3, p. 1-16

    Burkett, P. (1999) Marx and Nature: a Red and Green Perspective, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Burkett, P. (2006) Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy, Leiden and Boston: Brill.

    Burkett, P. (2017) ‘An Ecorevolutionary Tipping Point’, Monthly Review, available at: https://monthlyreview.org/2017/05/01/an-eco-revolutionary-tipping-point/

    Clark, J. (1989) ‘Marx’s Inorganic Body’, Environmental Ethics, Vol 11, pp. 243-258.

    D’Alisa, G., Demaria, F. and Kallis, G. (2014) Degrowth. A Vocabulary for A New Era. London: Routledge.

    Eckersley, R. (1992) ‘Green versus Ecosocialist Economic Programmes: the Market Rules OK?’, Political Studies, Vol XL; p. 315-333.

    Foster, J.B. (1998) ‘The Communist Manifesto and the Environment’, The Socialist Register, p.167-189

    Foster, J. B. (2000) Marx’s EcologyMaterialism and Nature, New York: Monthly Review Press

    Foster, J. B. (2014) Preface, in Burkett, P., Marx and Nature, Chicago: Haymarket.

    Giddens, A. (1981) Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, London: Palgrave Macmillan

    Klein, N. (2014) This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, New York: Simon & Schuster

    Kunkel, B. (2017) “The Capitalocene”, London Review of Books, available at: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n05/benjamin-kunkel/the-capitalocene

    Löwy, M. (2017) “Marx, Engels and Ecology”, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, 28: 2, p.10-21

    Malm, A. (2016) Fossil CapitalThe Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, London: Verso.

    Mirowski, P., Walker, J. and Abboud, A. (2013) ‘Beyond Denial’, Overland, Vol. 210, available at: https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-210/feature-philip-mirowski-jeremy-walker-antoinette-abboud/

    Moore, J. W. (2015) Capitalism in the Web of Life. Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, London and New York: Verso.

    O’Connor, J. (1988) ‘Capitalism, nature, socialism a theoretical introduction’, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, 1:1, p. 11-38

    O’Connor, M. (ed.) (1994) Is Capitalism Sustainable? Political Economy and the Politics of Ecology, New York and London: Guilford Press

    Routney, V. (1981), ‘On Karl Marx as Environmental Hero’, Environmental Ethics, 3: 3, pp. 237-244.

    Saito, K. (2016) ‘Marx’s Ecological Notebooks’, Monthly Review, available at: https://monthlyreview.org/2016/02/01/marxs-ecological-notebooks/

    Saito, K. (2017) Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy, New York: Monthly Review Press.

    Scranton, R. (2013) ‘Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene’, The New York Times, November 10, available at: https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/10/learning-how-to-die-in-the-anthropocene/

    Soper, K. (1996) ‘Greening Prometheus’, in: The Greening of Marxism, ed. Benson, T, New York and London: Guilford Press.

    West, P. and Brockington, D. (2012) ‘Capitalism and the Environment’, Environment and Society: Advances in Research, Vol. 3: 1–3

    White, D. (2016) ‘Murray Bookchin’s New Life’, The Jacobin, available at: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/07/murray-bookchin-ecology-kurdistan-pkk-rojava-technology-environmentalism-anarchy/

    Williams, C. (2017) ‘Marx and Engels on Ecology: A reply to radical critics’, Climate & Capitalism, available at: http://climateandcapitalism.com/2017/07/31/marx-engels-on-ecology-reply-to-radical-critics/

     



    [1] Naomi Klein’s 2014 book is entitled This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

    [2] The debate was initiated with the enormously influential book Limits to Growth (1972), authored by Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, which published computer simulations that explored how exponential growth interacted with finite resources.

    [3] In recent years progressive political platforms across Europe have started establishing collaboration under the terms Rebel Cities and Fearless Cities. Prominent among them is the Barcelona en Comu platform, currently governing Barcelona.

    [4] According to O’Connor (1988) the term ecological Marxism was coined by Ben Agger, see Western Marxism: An Introduction: Classical and Contemporary Sources, Santa Monica (Cal.), 1979.

    [5] Other important outlets are the Monthly Review and The Socialist Register.

    [6] An important book that predates these was written by a German philosopher Alfred Smith (1962) The Concept of Nature in Marx (German: Der Begriff der Natur in der Lehre von Marx). It was first published in English in 1971, and reprinted in 2014 by Verso.

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