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Karl Marx

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.

An Ecologically Sound and Socially Just Economy

By Fred Magdoff - Monthly Review, September 2016

Two weeks ago I returned from my fiftieth class reunion at Oberlin College in Ohio. The brief discussions I had there with environmental faculty and students left me feeling a bit dazed. So many good and intelligent people, so concerned, and doing what they think and hope will help heal the environment—this college has one of the best environmental education programs in the country. However, I was left disappointed and profoundly discouraged by the lack of discussion—or even interest in having a real continuing discussion and debate—regarding the root causes of our environmental disasters. Not just climate change, but also pollution of the air, water, soil, and living organisms, the loss of biodiversity both aboveground and in the soil, the extinction of species, and the overuse and misuse of both renewable and nonrenewable natural resources.

It is as though there is a flat tire with perhaps a thousand holes and people are working on the best way to patch this hole or that one. No one there seems to consider that the problem might be the tire itself—that the design and materials utilized are not appropriate to the way it is being used. And, if that is the case, then no amount of patching can solve the flat tire problem. It is of the utmost importance to be able to distinguish between symptoms (that most people call “problems” or “crises”) and underlying causes.

I ran into this confusion between symptoms and underlying causes time and time again in agricultural science and farming practices. Soils may be prone to erosion, store little water, grow crops that are susceptible to diseases and insect attack, become compacted, or have low fertility. Farmers (and extension specialists), usually think of and deal with these as individual problems—using pesticide applications, lots of commercial fertilizers, irrigating more frequently, using heavier equipment, and so on. In fact, I spent a significant portion of my career as a soil scientist helping to deal with the negative side effects of one of these responses—excess fertilizer use, especially nitrogen and phosphorus.

(As an aside, as I was preparing this talk, an unbelievable thirty-five tons of nitrogen in the nitrate form, worth approximately $35,000, flowed down the Raccoon River past Des Moines, Iowa, on the way to the Mississippi and the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. This flushing of nitrate out of the soil by prolonged spring rains, partially the result of nitrate left over after last year’s drought [2012], was mainly a consequence of an ecologically damaging, but profitable, emphasis on growing corn and soybeans without an ecologically sound crop rotation.)

However, what I learned over time was that in reality these are symptoms of an unhealthy soil and a simplified approach to soil and crop management. The same is true of never-ending unemployment, inequality and poverty, the systemic necessity of perpetual growth, and pollution of air, water, soil, and organisms. As harmful as each of these is, they are all only symptoms—of an economic system that is essentially unmanaged. Of course large corporations and politicians that represent them try to manage national and international laws, regulations, and markets in such ways that it becomes easier for them to make more money. But with individual corporations and other private capital making decisions which consider only their own interests, the system as a whole alternates between periods of growth (that nowadays are pretty lackluster) and periods of recession. Addressing individual symptoms alone is not sufficient for the tasks we need to undertake—either to create healthy soils or to create an ecologically based and humane society.

One of the neglected issues regarding thinking and acting about the environment—perhaps the most critical of all—is, to borrow a phrase from the first President Bush, the vision thing. The environmental movement is lacking any kind of meaningful vision as to what a truly ecologically sound and socially just society would look like and how it might operate. I am not talking about a blueprint with all sorts of details, but rather an agreement on essential characteristics of such a system. Without a vision—including some conception of the essential parts of such a system, the chances of actually getting to such a society are essentially zero. Or, as James Baldwin put it in a commonly cited but still very appropriate passage, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” It is my contention that we are not facing the root cause of our problems, and until we do, there is no hope of solving the social and ecological problems confronting the world.

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”.

Towards Workers' Climate Action

By Traven Leyshon - Solidarity, March 2016

Workers and Trade Unions for Climate Solidarity:
Tackling climate change in a neoliberal world
By Paul Hampton
Rutledge, 2015, 211 pages, $54.95 kindle.

For Workers’ Climate Action:
Climate Change and Working-Class Struggle
By Paul Hampton
http://tinyurl.com/hl86nm4, 54 pages, £4.

[The workers had] “done more for the future of green energy and green jobs in the UK in two weeks than the government has done in 12 years.” — National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers President Bob Crow speaking of the Vestas factory occupation.
“The myth that the environment movement is the preserve of the do-gooding middle class must be exploded. It is, in fact, the workers who are most affected by the deterioration of the environment and it is therefore up to the trade union movement to give it a higher priority to fighting to improve it.” — Builders’ Labourers Federation Secretary Jack Mundey.

“The AFL-CIO Executive Council therefore calls upon the President to refrain from signing the proposed Kyoto Protocol to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.” — AFL-CIO Executive Council statement, January 30, 1998.

IN THE FACE of capital’s ecocidal embrace of extreme energy, unprecedented numbers of people are mobilizing in climate marches, bravely engaging in direct actions to stop the expansion of fracked gas pipelines. There is also a growing anticapitalist, climate justice wing, including an ecosocialist current.

While workers are participating in these “inter-classist” protests, we are told that “they do not participate as workers, with a consciousness of their specific role…the working class is now in the rearguard of the struggle over the climate, while peasants and indigenous peoples are in the front line with anticapitalist demands.” (Daniel Tanuro, Confronting the Ecological Emergency, http://www.solidarity-us.org/node/4521)

Paul Hampton, a trade union researcher in Britain, addresses these issues offering a Marxist perspective on the potential role of the working class in climate politics, as well as the tasks of revolutionaries, in this pamphlet and book (which originated as a PhD thesis on climate change and employment relations).

In his introduction Paul poses key questions for climate politics:

“Whether workers organized in trade unions possess the interest and power to tackle dangerous climate change, and whether unionised workers can become strategic climate actors.”

“Whether trade unionism in the twenty-first century can succeed in reinventing itself as a social movement capable of tackling climate change.”

Workers and Trade Unions for Climate Solidarity focuses primarily on the interrelation of climate and class politics; on union climate debates, policies and practices worldwide and in the United Kingdom; on UK workplace green reps; and on the 2009 Vestas occupation, in which workers at a wind turbine factory occupied the workplace to try to stop closure.

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.”

The Great Capitalist Climacteric: Marxism and "System Change Not Climate Change"

By John Bellamy Foster - Monthly Review, November 2015

Humanity today is confronted with what might be called the Great Capitalist Climacteric. In the standard definition, a climacteric (from the Greek klimaktēr or rung on the ladder) is a period of critical transition or a turning point in the life of an individual or a whole society. From a social standpoint, it raises issues of historical transformation in the face of changing conditions.1 In the 1980s environmental geographers Ian Burton and Robert Kates referred to “the Great Climacteric” to address what they saw as the developing global ecological problem of the limits to growth, stretching from 1798 (the year of publication of Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population) to 2048, 250 years later. “Applied to population, resources, and environment throughout the world,” the notion of a Great Climacteric, they wrote, “captures the idea of a period that is critical and where serious change for the worse may occur. It is a time of unusual danger.”2

I will use the term the Great Capitalist Climacteric here to refer to the necessary epochal social transition associated with the current planetary emergency. It refers both to the objective necessity of a shift to a sustainable society and to the threat to the existence of Homo sapiens (as well as numerous other species) if the logic of capital accumulation is allowed to continue dictating to society as a whole. The current world of business as usual is marked by rapid climate change, but also by the crossing or impending crossing of numerous other planetary boundaries that define “a safe operating space for humanity.”3 It was the recognition of this and of the unprecedented speed of Earth system change due to social-historical factors that led scientists in recent years to introduce the notion of the Anthropocene epoch, marking the emergence of humanity as a geological force on a planetary scale.4 As leading U.S. climatologist James Hansen explains, “The rapidity with which the human-caused positive [climate] forcing is being introduced has no known analog in Earth’s history. It is thus exceedingly difficult to foresee the consequences if the human-made climate forcing continues to accelerate.”5

With the present rate of carbon emission, the world will break the global carbon budget—reaching the trillionth metric ton of combusted carbon and generating a 2°C increase in global average temperature—within a generation or so.6 Once we reach a 2°C increase, it is feared, we will be entering a world of climate feedbacks and irreversibility where humanity may no longer be able to return to the conditions that defined the Holocene epoch in which civilization developed. The 2°C “guardrail” officially adopted by world governments in Copenhagen in 2009 is meant to safeguard humanity from plunging into what prominent UK climatologist Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change has called “extremely dangerous” climate change. Yet, stopping carbon emissions prior to the 2°C boundary, Anderson tells us, will at this point require “revolutionary change to the political economic hegemony,” going against the accumulation of capital or economic growth characteristics that define the capitalist system. More concretely, staying within the carbon budget means that global carbon emissions must at present be cut by around 3 percent a year, and in the rich countries by approximately 10 percent per annum—moving quickly to zero net emissions (or carbon neutrality). For an “outside chance” of staying below 2°C, Anderson declared in 2012, the rich (OECD, Annex I) countries would need to cut their emissions by 70 percent by 2020 and 90 percent by 2030.7

Socialist Internationals in History

By Richard Greeman - Institute for Social Ecology, October 4, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

This study is based on the premise that any profound social transformation in our era of globalized capitalism would have to take place on a planetary scale. History has shown that revolutionary movements, when geographically isolated, are inevitably either crushed or assimilated into the capitalist world system. This internationalist conclusion first became apparent to working people during the 19th century as capitalism and the Industrial Revolution spread across Europe, and it was first elaborated theoretically by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in their 1848 Manifesto of the Communist League with its ringing conclusion: “Workers of the world, unite!”

SIDEBAR

In point of fact, the French socialist and feminist Flora Tristan (1803-1844), ahead of her time, was the first to call for a “universal union” of workers. Moreover, Tristan’s “union” was truly “universal” because she proclaimed the necessity of uniting “workers of both sexes” – in Working Class Unity (L’Union Ouvrière). It took two years before the International Workingmen’s Association, of which Marx was a founder, began to admit women as members and it was three years before a woman, the feminist Harriet Law, was added to the General Council.

Green Capitalism: the God That Failed

By Richard Smith - World Economics Association - 2015

This book is a collection of five essays that deal with the prime threat to human life on Earth: the tendency of global capitalist economic development to develop us to death, to drive us off the cliff to ecological collapse. It begins with a review of the origins of this economic dynamic in the transition to capitalism in England and Europe and with an analysis of the ecological implications of capitalist economics as revealed in the work of its founding theorist – Adam Smith. I argue that, once installed, the requirements of reproduction under capitalism – the pressure of competition, the imperative need to innovate and develop the forces of production to beat the competition, the need to constantly grow production and expand the market and so on, induced an expansive logic that has driven economic development and overdevelopment, down to the present day.

In successive essays I explicate and criticize the two leading mainstream approaches to dealing with the ecological consequences of this over-developmental dynamic – décroisance or “degrowth”, and “green capitalism”. I show that the theorists and proponents of no-growth or de-growth – like Herman Daly or Tim Jackson – are correct in arguing that infinite economic growth is not possible on a finite planet, but that they’re wrong to imagine that capitalism can be refashioned as a kind of “steady state” economy, let alone actually “degrow” without precipitating economic collapse. There are further problems with this model, which I also investigate. I show that the theorists and proponents of “green capitalism” such as Paul Hawkin, Lester Brown and Frances Cairncross are wrong to think that tech miracles, “dematerialization”, new efficiencies, recycling and the like, will permit us to grow the global economy – more or less forever – without consuming and polluting ourselves to death. I show that while we’re all better off with organic groceries, energy-efficient light bulbs and so on, such developments do not fundamentally reverse the eco-suicidal tendencies of capitalist development, because in any capitalist economy the environment has to be subordinated to maximizing growth and sales, or companies can’t survive in the marketplace. Yet infinite growth, even green growth, is impossible on a finite planet.

In the final essays I argue that since capitalism can only drive us to ecological collapse, we have no choice but to try to cashier this system and replace it with an entirely different economy and mode of life based on: minimizing not maximizing resource consumption; public ownership of most, though not necessarily all, of the economy; large-scale economic planning and international coordination; and a global “contraction and convergence” between the North and the South around a lower but hopefully satisfactory level of material consumption for all the world’s peoples. Whether we can pull off such a transition is another question. We may very well fail to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a viable alternative. That may be our fate. But around the world, in thousands of locations, people are organizing and fighting against corporate power, against land grabs, against extreme extraction, against the incessant commodification of our lives. Here and there, as in Greece and China, ruling classes are on the defensive. All these fights have a common demand: bottom-up democracy, popular power. In this lies our best hope. This little book is intended as more ammunition for that fight.

Read the report (Link).

Socialism And Workers’ Self-Directed Enterprises

By Richard D Wolff - Monthly Review, September 14, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Global capitalism has huge problems coping with the second worst collapse in its history. Its extreme and deepening inequalities have provoked millions to question and challenge capitalism. Yet socialists of all sorts now find it more difficult than ever to make effective criticisms and offer alternatives that inspire.

Part of the problem lies with classic socialism as it evolved over the last 150 years. Positions and strategies that once mobilized the victims and critics of capitalism are no longer, by themselves, effective. Not only has capitalism changed, but its celebrants also developed powerful critiques of socialist theory and especially of actually existing socialisms such as the Soviet Union (USSR). Socialism has not responded well to capitalism’s changes nor to its critiques; it has not made the necessary strategic and tactical shifts. Nonetheless, socialism retains the means to overcome its problems with some long-overdue self-criticism and innovation.

By classic socialism I mean the tradition that differentiated itself from capitalism chiefly in terms of macro-economic institutions. Classic socialists defined capitalism as (1) private ownership of means of production and (2) distribution of resources and products by means of market exchanges. The socialist alternative entailed (1) socialized or public ownership of means of production (operated by the state as agent of the people as a whole) and (2) distribution of resources and products via state planning. Socialists attacked capitalism for the injustices, cyclical instability, and gross productive inefficiencies (e.g. unemployment, stagnation, etc.) that they traced to private enterprises and markets. In the socialists’ alternative, a workers’ state would control or own enterprises and plan the distribution of resources and products – in the democratically determined interests of the majority.

Such criticisms of capitalism and that transitional program to an alternative system rewarded socialists in their political, economic, and cultural work. Socialist movements spread across the countries of the world during the nineteenth and to the last third of the twentieth century. Socialists effectively challenged capitalism, often took and held political power, and influenced many academics, intellectuals, popular organizations, artistic projects, and so on. But now socialism’s growth in many places has stalled or reversed.

The Karl Marx Tree: How Southern Pacific Railroad killed a socialist colony in the name of creating Yosemite National Park

By Marc Norton - 48 Hills, August 27, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

It’s called the General Sherman tree today, but the settlers of a socialist colony named it for Karl Marx

There has been considerable hoopla this summer around the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln putting his signature on the Yosemite Grant Act of 1864. Lincoln set aside Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias for public use and preservation. Yosemite subsequently became a national park in 1890.

Missing from this commemoration are the machinations of corporate power brokers, specifically the Southern Pacific Railroad, in the founding of Yosemite National Park. The very same legislative act that created the park in 1890 also destroyed a socialist experiment in collective living and enterprise – the Kaweah Colony – that had been organized socialists and labor activists based in San Francisco.

The Kaweah Colony posed a political and economic challenge to the dominance of capital in general, and to Southern Pacific in particular. With the support of Southern Pacific, the act that created Yosemite National Park was amended in secret at the last minute to expand the newly created Sequoia National Park, in order to expropriate lands that the Kaweah Colony had settled.

Southern Pacific had its way, and the days of the Kaweah Colony were numbered. The road that the colonists had hacked out of the wilderness with their collective labor was stolen by the park service, without compensation, and served as the main route into Sequoia National Park for decades. The giant sequoia that the Kaweah colonists had named the Karl Marx Tree, by volume the largest known living tree in the world, was renamed the General Sherman Tree.

The power of capital triumphed over the power of the people.

We may celebrate the existence of Sequoia National Park, but the fact remains that the park is, in the words of Jay O’Connell, the foremost historian of the Kaweah Colony, “the incidental beneficiary of a giant corporation’s less than benevolent actions.”

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