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Karl Marx

The Long Ecological Revolution

By John Bellamy Foster - Monthly Review, November 2017

Aside from the stipulation that nature follows certain laws, no idea was more central to the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, and to the subsequent development of what came to be known as modern science, than that of the conquest, mastery, and domination of nature. Up until the rise of the ecological movement in the late twentieth century, the conquest of nature was a universal trope, often equated with progress under capitalism (and sometimes socialism). To be sure, the notion, as utilized in science, was a complex one. As Francis Bacon, the idea’s leading early proponent, put it, “nature is only overcome by obeying her.” Only by following nature’s laws, therefore, was it possible to conquer her.1

After the great Romantic poets, the strongest opponents of the idea of the conquest of nature during the Industrial Revolution were Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, the founders of classical historical materialism. Commenting on Bacon’s maxim, Marx observed that in capitalism the discovery of nature’s “autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs,” particularly the needs of accumulation. Yet despite its clever “ruse,” capital can never fully transcend nature’s material limits, which continually reassert themselves, with the result that “production moves in contradictions which are constantly overcome but just as constantly posited.” Its treatment of natural limits as mere barriers to be overcome, not as actual boundaries, gives capital its enormously dynamic character. But that same refusal to recognize natural limits also means that capital tends to cross critical thresholds of environmental sustainability, causing needless and sometimes irrevocable destruction.2 Marx pointed in Capital to such “rifts” in the socio-ecological metabolism of humanity and nature engendered by capital accumulation, and to the need to restore that metabolism through a more sustainable relation to the earth, maintaining and even improving the planet for successive human generations as “boni patres familias” (good heads of the household).3

In his Dialectics of Nature, written in the 1870s, Engels turned the Baconian ruse on its head in order to emphasize ecological limits:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first…. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature—but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.4

Although key parts of Marx and Engels’s ecological critique remained long unknown, their analysis was to have a deep influence on later socialist theorists. Still, much of actually existing socialism, particularly in the Soviet Union from the late 1930s through the mid-1950s, succumbed to the same extreme modernizing vision of the conquest of nature that characterized capitalist societies. A decisive challenge to the notion of the domination of nature had to await the rise of the ecological movement in the latter half of the twentieth century, particularly following the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. Here criticism of the ecological destruction brought on by modern science and technology and by unbridled industrialism—associated with a simplistic notion of human progress focusing on economic expansion alone—led to an alternative emphasis on sustainability, coevolution, and interconnection, of which ecology was emblematic. Science was said to have been misused, insofar as it had aided in the violation of nature’s own laws, ultimately threatening human survival itself. Through the development of the concept of the biosphere and the rise of the Earth System perspective (in which Soviet ecology played a crucial role), science increasingly came to be integrated with a more holistic, dialectical view, one that took on new radical dimensions that challenged the logic of the subordination of the earth and humanity to profit.5

Recent years have brought these issues renewed relevance, with the climate crisis and the introduction of the Anthropocene as a scientific classification of the changed human relation to the planet. The Anthropocene is commonly defined within science as a new geological epoch succeeding the Holocene epoch of the last 12,000 years; a changeover marked by an “anthropogenic rift” in the Earth System since the Second World War.6 After centuries of scientific understanding founded on the conquest of nature, we have now, indisputably, reached a qualitatively new and dangerous stage, marked by the advent of nuclear weapons and climate change, which the Marxist historian E. P. Thompson dubbed “Exterminism, the Last Stage of Imperialism.”7

From an ecological perspective, the Anthropocene—which stands not just for the climate crisis, but also rifts in planetary boundaries generally—marks the need for a more creative, constructive, and coevolutionary relation to the earth. In ecosocialist theory, this demands the reconstitution of society at large on a more egalitarian and sustainable basis. A long and continuing ecological revolution is needed—one that will necessarily occur in stages, over decades and centuries. But given the threat to the earth as a place of human habitation—marked by climate change, ocean acidification, species extinction, loss of freshwater, deforestation, toxic pollution, and more—this transformation requires immediate reversals in the regime of accumulation. This means opposing the logic of capital, whenever and wherever it seeks to promote the “creative destruction” of the planet. Such a reconstitution of society at large cannot be merely technological, but must transform the human metabolic relation with nature through production, and hence the whole realm of social metabolic reproduction.8

The Meaning of Work in a Sustainable Society

By John Bellamy Foster - Monthly Review, September 2017

Fie upon this quiet life. I want work.

William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part I, Act II, Scene IV

Living Well is the Best Revolution

By Seth Sandronsky - Progressive Populist, September 15, 2017

Review of - CREATING AN ECOLOGICAL SOCIETY Toward a Revolutionary Transformation by Fred Magdoff and Chris Williams, Monthly Review Press, 2017

A book for a future society of buen vivir, or living well, with nature and other people? Yes.

How to achieve sustainability with humanity and the planet? Start with context and vision to transcend the status quo of bio-sphere destruction.

Reform is a part of the revolutionary process, according to the authors. It is not an either-or binary.

The vision thing matters when it comes to the false consciousness of blaming other people for the system’s baked-in flaws. Dividing the working class to weaken it is elites’ go-to tactic.

We see that now. Look no further than President Trump directing whites’ class resentment against Mexicans and Muslims.

Memo to the Democratic Party. Move progressively or empower neo-fascism, a product of neoliberalism.

In Magdoff and Williams’ view, “systemic environmental and social problems are caused by and are intrinsic to capitalism.” To this end, they review the science and history of horticultural societies and climactic changes.

Ideas matter. “If we can’t even imagine a different way of interacting with one another,” write Magdoff and Williams, “the economy, and the resources we use and depend upon, then the struggle for a just and ecologically sound world recedes into utopian fantasy.”

How? In the final of the book’s four parts, the authors see nascent revolutionary stirrings such as Black Lives and the Standing Rock resistance against the Dakota Access pipeline as a revolutionary way forward.

De-personalizing social relations in an era of identity politics run amuck is on our to-do list of how to get to a more ecologically balanced way of living and working. About 40% of the book unpacks the causes and outcomes of our socio-economic order.

Magdoff and Williams contribute to a growing body of eco-socialist books. Two of note are The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (2010) and Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (2016).

To buttress the case that post-capitalist alternatives are possible, the authors share examples from nature and history to help us to grasp competition and division are peculiar to capitalism. The authors’ command of the science of ecology is not limited to Marx’s concept of capitalism causing a rift in the human metabolism with the earth.

The book’s second part explores the obstacles to creating an eco-society. The authors examine the ideas underpinning the rule of capital over people, e.g., that oppression and exploitation along the color, ethnic and gender lines are hard-wired into human nature.

The authors’ voice is measured. They lay out the facts of the eco-crisis and potential cures, minus cant and jargon.

This is no mean feat, given the current bleakness and darkness of the present moment. If anything, Magdoff and Williams understate ruling elites’ capacity to co-opt and oppress systemic resistance.

They write: “Ultimately, we need to create a movement large and formidable enough to challenge the entire power structure of capitalism, one that is capable of winning the army and large portions of the population that up to that point had been passive, ambivalent, or even antagonistic.” Such a herculean task merits extended attention and discussion, to which Creating an Ecological Society contributes.

A Resistance Movement for the Planet

By Ethemcan Turhan and Cem İskender Aydın - Entitle Blog, July 7, 2017

Juan Cruz Ferre (JCF): There is overwhelming evidence that demonstrates how anthropogenic climate change is out of control and will lead to global environmental catastrophe – without a major overhaul of energy production. In the February 2017 issue of the Monthly Review, you point out that although we have been presented with precise and indisputable estimations, science and social science institutions have failed to come up with effective solutions. Why do you think this is the case?

John Bellamy Foster (JBF): We are in an emergency situation in the Anthropocene epoch in which the disruption of the Earth system, particularly the climate, is threatening the planet as a place of human habitation. However, our political-economic system, capitalism, is geared primarily to the accumulation of capital, which prevents us from addressing this enormous challenge and accelerates the destruction. Natural scientists have done an excellent and courageous job of sounding the alarm on the enormous dangers of the continuation of business as usual with respect to carbon emissions and other planetary boundaries. But mainstream social science as it exists today has almost completely internalized capitalist ideology; so much so that conventional social scientists are completely unable to address the problem on the scale and in the historical terms that are necessary. They are accustomed to the view that society long ago “conquered” nature and that social science concerns only people-people relations, never people-nature relations. This feeds a denialism where Earth system-scale problems are concerned. Those mainstream social scientists who do address environmental issues more often than not do so as if we are dealing with fairly normal conditions, and not a planetary emergency, not a no-analogue situation.

There can be no gradualist, ecomodernist answer to the dire ecological problems we face, because when looking at the human effect on the planet there is nothing gradual about it; it is a Great Acceleration and a rift in the Earth system. The problem is rising exponentially, while worsening even faster than that would suggest, because we are in the process of crossing all sorts critical thresholds and facing a bewildering number of tipping points.

JCF: If conversion to renewable energy could halt or reverse the march of environmental crisis, why aren’t we moving in that direction at the right pace?

JBF: The short answer is “profits.” The long answer goes something like this: There are two major barriers: (1) vested interests that are tied into the fossil-fuel financial complex, and (2) the higher rate of profitability in the economy to be obtained from the fossil-fuel economy. It is not just a question of energy return on energy investment. The fossil-fuel infrastructure already exists, giving fossil fuels a decisive advantage in terms of profitability and capital accumulation over alternative energy. Any alternative energy system requires that a whole new energy infrastructure be built up practically from scratch before it can really compete. There are also far greater subsidies for fossil fuels. And fossil fuels represent, in capitalist accounting, a kind of “free gift” of nature to capital, more so than even solar power.

Capital’s Destruction of the Environment: Marx’s Inadequate Response

By Ignacio Guerrero - Black Rose Anarchist Federation, June 4, 2017; image by William Morris (1834-96)

This piece engages claims around Marx’s legacy as a thinker and his relation to ecology. A promotional blurb for a volume recently published by Haymarket Books on the subject, Marx and the Earth by John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, goes so far as to claim that the authors are the “founders of Eco-socialist thought.” This narrative is taken to task in detail here by the author, who concludes with some brief reflections on an alternative vision of ecologically oriented socialism. 

Kohei Saito, writing in Monthly Review in February 2016 on Marx’s “Ecological Notebooks” (1868), distinguishes between “first-stage” and “second-stage” eco-socialists, with the former, an earlier wave, recognizing Karl Marx’s passing references to environmentalism but considering him overall to be a Promethean, and the latter instead claiming Marx to have been a profound ecological thinker. The main theorist presenting this alternative reading has been John Bellamy Foster, author of Marx’s Ecology (2000) and The Ecological Revolution (2009), co-author of The Ecological Rift (2010) and Marx and the Earth (2016/7), and editor of Monthly Review.

Foster bases his argumentation for second-stage ecosocialism on Marx’s statement at the end of “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry” in Capital, vol. 1, in the section on industrial-capitalist agriculture, where Marx states that, besides “concentrat[ing]” the proletariat—the “historical motive power of society”—in the cities through the enclosure of the commons and the dispossession of the peasantry, capitalism “disturbs the metabolic interaction between man [sic] and the Earth” in the sense that it exhausts the soil by demanding unsustainable extraction from it (637-8). Capitalism thus proceeds by “undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker” (638). Marx even states that “[t]he more a country proceeds from large-scale industry as the background of its development, as in […] the United States, the more rapid is this process of destruction” (638, emphasis added). Yet he views such environmental degradation as dynamically “compel[ling the] systematic restoration [of the metabolic interaction] as a regulative law of social production.”

Marx isn’t very specific here about what a movement to restore the “natural metabolic interaction” between humanity and the rest of nature would look like, and he doesn’t clarify whether environmental sustainability would be assured in a post-capitalist society, or whether the question of the domination of nature goes beyond the humanistic struggle for the liberation of the proletariat. Initially, it must be said that a passing comment on the capitalist degradation of the soil does not make Marx a radical ecologist, especially when juxtaposed with many of his more Promethean statements. In this sense, the first-stage ecosocialists make a convincing argument. Let’s not forget that this famous statement on the soil comes in the same volume wherein Marx effectively endorses the very dispossession of the peasantry for “dialectically” giving rise to capitalism and thereafter socialism and communism, per the stages theory of history. In “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry,” Marx explicitly calls large-scale industrial-capitalist agriculture revolutionary, “for the reason that it annihilates the bulwark of the old society, the ‘peasant,’ and substitutes for him the wage-labourer” (637), while in “The Communist Manifesto,” Marx and Engels deploy similar reasoning in lauding the bourgeoisie for having destroyed the putative “idiocy of rural life.”

Review: The Anarchist Roots of Geography

From Notes toward an International Libertarian Eco-Socialism - Originally posted at Marx and Philsophy*, March 28, 2017

In The Anarchist Roots of Geography, a “proverbial call to nonviolent arms,” Simon Springer discusses some of the past, present, and future relationships between anarchism and geography. He mobilizes the thought of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Peter Kropotkin, Elisée Reclus, and Lev Tolstoy to denounce global capitalism and oppression—declaring, with Kropotkin, that anarchism is “what geography ought to be”—while also affirming the more contemporary approaches of Saul Newman and Todd May, who have advanced the idea of “post-structuralist anarchism” in opposition to classical approaches through a turn to thinkers like Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Jacques Derrida, and Judith Butler, among others. Springer therefore presents his own perspective as amounting variably to “anarchism without adjectives” or “post-anarchism,” neither of which is the same. The former refers to the synthesist approach favored by Voline and others in opposition to the anarcho-communist Platformism advanced by Nestor Makhno, Peter Arshinov, and other exiled militants following the defeat of the Russian Revolution. Post-anarchism, a more recent development, integrates the nihilism, irrationalism, and defeatism of postmodern analyses in expressing opposition to social revolution and universalism as “totalizing narratives.” In this way, while The Anarchist Roots of Geography provides many compelling insights, it itself presents a synthesis of a number of anarchist or anarchistic approaches that cannot so readily be melded together.

Springer’s main project in this volume is to bring geography back to its radical anarchist roots, thus issuing a course correction of sorts beyond those set by the hegemonic presence of Marxists within academic geography departments starting in the late 1960s. The author presents the works of Kropotkin and Reclus as luminous alternatives to the ethnocentrism and state-centricity that has plagued the discipline since its origins. Springer wishes to wield anarchism, defined as the practice of mutual aid with the concern for universal geography in mind, to undermine statism, capitalism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, imperialism, and speciesism (or anthroparchy). For him, anarchism is the “only meaningful form of postcolonialism” (38), as the State-form effectively continues colonization even after formal independence, and—following Reclus—it must centrally express concern for the integrity of the planetary system by means of nature conservation, vegetarianism, and opposition to animal cruelty. Springer here traces the philosophical arc linking Reclus with social ecology and the animal-rights and animal-liberation movements. The author holds that direct action, cooperation, and prefigurative politics can allow humanity to affiliate by free federation, reestablish equality among humans, rebuild the commons, and overturn the domination of nature. Taking after Proudhon (1840), who analyzed property as originating in the Roman concept of sovereignty, or patriarchal despotism, Springer defines property as violence and calls for insurrection—but not revolution—against oppression. Echoing Reclus, he emphasizes the place of beauty in the struggle, citing Albert Einstein’s view that “[o]ur task” must be to “wide[n] our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty” (137), and he declares the importance of unity for anarchy, in parallel to the teachings of Taoism, Buddhism, and Baruch de Spinoza.

Metabolic Rift and Ecological Value: the Ecosocialist Challenge

By Gordon Peters - Climate and Capitalism, November 29, 2016

In this short paper I am taking as a starting point the ecological rift, or metabolic rift in Marx’s own phrase, at the heart of the way in which capitalism appropriates the natural world and alienates humanity from its species being and from nature in the process. This is elaborated at considerable length by John Bellamy Foster and Brent Clark (but not exclusively by them) and what I hope to do here is while accepting their recovery of ecological balance and its disturbance in Marx, give an overview of an ecological praxis related to that theorization. What does restoring ecological value look like?

In their article in Monthly Review, Bellamy Foster and Clark mention—although they do not explore—two useful concepts to challenge the metabolic rift and the separation of humanity from nature, accelerating as it is with capital accumulation and reproduction.[1]  One is metabolic restoration and the other is sustainable co-evolutionary ecology. I think it is worth exploring the social and political interventions which are called for by these concepts. To do so we need to see clearly what is happening, what processes are taking place, what is irreversible, what can be refused, what can be overcome.

I want to look at four important tendencies in modern capitalism and what can constitute ecological challenges which are not themselves already determined by capitalist relations, or are likely to be re-shaped in managing capitalism to maintain its power or hold.  These are:

  1. Automation and precarity
  2. Despoliation and species reduction
  3. Commodification and fetishism –reification
  4. Ecological debt and unequal exchange

They are discussed only in broad outline as there is vast empirical evidence now in many places, and the point here is to orientate a praxis.

Food, Labour and Ecology

By "Lucy Parsons" - Vancouver IWW, July 28, 2016

Separating food production from the global commodities market is a key component of, and a crucial first step towards achieving both social and of course ecological sustainability. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba had been relying on sugar cane as a cash crop which they used for trade with Soviet bloc (and a few other) countries in return for food and consumer goods. After the collapse of the USSR, Cubans had to radically reimagine their food production strategies which in the end resulted in possibly the most sustainable food production systems on earth – all this without relying on global trade networks and the flawed logic of comparative advantage and structural adjustment which plagued so many of Cuba’s neighbours during the 80’s and 90’s.

From a western, urban perspective however, this means establishing an inclusive and secure culture of urban agriculture and perhaps most importantly, a culture of local eating. Beyond the obvious (hello, climate crises!) steps in this direction help to A) resolve what Marx described as the town/country antithesis and B) develop a sense of social capital among workers who can reconstruct themselves as something like urban farmers (key links in the food and sustainability chain), rather than underutilized wage labourers – alienated from both the process and product of their labour.  

For some perspective on this issue, we need to take a step back into the 19th century, where Marx observed that cities and rural communities had between them a kind of metabolism – wherein cities consumed food and other raw materials produced in towns and villages (which despite their importance in the creation of wealth, remain much poorer than cities) and indeed consumed people insofar as peasants were being separated from their means of subsistence by the enclosure movement and advances in agricultural technology etc. and forced to find work in the growing industrial centers of England. While this metabolism is less stark now than it might have been in Marx’s day, it still very much exists: much of the food that is consumed in our cities comes from abroad, and agricultural regions remain an important source of immigration into Canadian cities (e.g. the Punjab and other Asian agricultural regions).  

As it stands, the relationships many people have to food production is often mediated through the lens of the McJob which thrive on alienating workers from the process of production through an at times breathtakingly sophisticated division of labour. Equally breathtaking, is of course the veritable omnipresence of fast food advertising and the ubiquitous presence of many of these bands in our collective cultural psyche. All this together goes a long way in terms of deepening unhealthy misconceptions commonly held around food (misconceptions which are of course very profitable!); and indeed the immediate relationships between food, ecology and the environment. Establishing at least some measure of local (and ideally) worker control over what we eat is important and will require the cooperating and coordination of workers at every level of the supply chain – from farms (urban or otherwise) to the grocery store stock room right to the restaurant floor.

There are however a number of organizations which are working to address some of these issues from both the rural, and the urban perspective:

This post was informed in large part by Paul Burkett’s book “Marx and nature: a red and green perspective”.

Kill King Capital

By Paul Street - CounterPunch, February 9, 2016

“If you’re going to shoot the king, don’t miss,” Niccolò Machiavelli wrote in The Prince (1505). “The injury that is to be done,” Machiavelli added, “ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote something similar in his journal in September of 1843: “Never strike a king unless you are sure you shall kill him.”

I first ran across a version of this sentiment many years ago (exactly where I do not recall) while I was researching some U.S. Black and labor history.[1] As I recall it was more class-specific, something along these lines: “if a peasant takes up arms against the king, he’d better well kill him.” The idea was that a high noble might be able to get away with challenging the king but a peasant certainly could not. If peasants and artisans were going to rebel, they’d better make a full revolution of it.

“No Desire to Get Rid of the Profit Motive”

Nowadays I think the aphorism applies to capital and the capitalist class. Take Bernie Sanders. He has called himself a “democratic socialist” and campaigns against “the billionaire class,” drawing large and approving crowds. He has taken more than a few at least rhetorical shots at the king, which in the U.S. is big capitalist and corporate-financial power – what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson have called the “the unelected dictatorship of money.”

In reality, however, Sanders, for all his sloganeering about “revolution,” has not remotely proposed that we figure out how to kill the king of capitalism. Sanders is at most a social democratically inclined New Deal liberal. His vision for America is one in which commanding heights economic decisions and ownership remain firmly in private, profit-taking hands while the government intervenes to a limited extent with the purpose of partially regulating some business activities and distributing income and wealth and social benefits in a more egalitarian and humane – less neoliberal – way. And as Bill Blum recently argued:

“Social democrats and democratic socialists [like Bernie Sanders] have no desire to get rid of the profit motive. Last November, Sanders gave a speech at Georgetown University in Washington about his positive view of democratic socialism, including its place in the policies of presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. In defining what democratic socialism means to him, Sanders said: ‘I don’t believe government should take over the grocery store down the street or own the means of production.’”

“I personally could live with the neighborhood grocery store remaining in private hands, but larger institutions are always a threat; the larger and richer they are the more tempting and easier it is for them to put profit ahead of the public’s welfare, and to purchase politicians. The question of socialism is inseparable from the question of public ownership of the means of production. The question thus facing ‘socialists’ like Sanders is this: When all your idealistic visions for a more humane, more just, more equitable, and more rational society run head-first into the stone wall of the profit motive … which of the two gives way?” (William Blum, “Is Bernie Sanders a Socialist?”)

Answer: the profit motive. The “private sector” (I use quote markets because Big Business draws heavily on public subsidy and protection while wreaking monumental and multi-dimensional havoc on public experience) still rules under Bernie’s recommended “political revolution.” He can call himself a socialist but he says nothing about the need for a social revolution to expropriate the expropriators and remove the masters of wealth and property from the disastrous private ownership and control of economy, society, politics, and culture – from private/corporate ownership and control of the means of production, finance, distribution, and communication.

The vast global U.S. military Empire – intimately bound up with American capitalist class power at home and abroad – also continues under Sanders’ “revolution.” He doesn’t even take rhetorical shots at King Capital’s evil twin imperialism. Sanders is strikingly mute on the Pentagon system, no small silence given the devastatingly destructive impact of the nation’s giant military industrial complex on social and environmental well-being within and beyond the U.S. “homeland.”

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