You are here


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.

The World Needs Big Ideas — Here are 10 from the Far Left

By Mary Lorax - Medium, March 4, 2017

The world is in crisis — socially, economically, and environmentally. The world needs big ideas, people want big ideas, and the Democratic Party doesn’t have any. That’s why Hillary lost — she offered nothing.

Bernie offered some narrative, and some solutions, too — like free college — and that’s why he gained a following, and why he was polling ahead of Trump. But Trump offered explanations for our crises too. And not only that, he offered ideas, BIG IDEAS, as terrible as they may have been.

The radical left has a lot to offer. We have new, innovative, and necessary ideas. However instead of promoting them and developing them, we often get caught up in reacting to an increasingly far-right, neoliberal political landscape — always on the defensive. We need to be developing our own ideas, and creating and sharing visions. We can’t be afraid of presenting bold proposals for fear of them sounding too far-fetched in an extremely right-wing media and political climate. People want big, revolutionary ideas.

So here’s a list of some of the left’s coolest ideas.

RMT union puts anarchist in charge of London

By anonymous - Freedom, January 15, 2017

Freedom has received the following, written by an anonymous railway worker with the RMT union

At the beginning of this year the RMT elected Andy Littlechild (pictured right), a longstanding anarchist and member of the Solidarity Federation (Solfed), to the RMT union’s National Executive Council as its London transport representative.

The role, which lasts for three years, takes responsibility for the entire battlezone of London Underground including trains, stations, engineers, all ancillary staff and contracted companies, along with Transport for London, Docklands Light Railway, Black Cabs and even Boris Bikes.

Andy, who’s worked for many years as a Tube track worker and union rep, stood unopposed for the position and was duly elected after receiving nominations from every RMT branch in the constituency. His unopposed win was generally linked to Andy’s perceived militancy and non-sectarian approach to organising, which endeared him to RMT’s London activist base and gave him a clear run.

Being elected in this way is not without its downside as it meant there was no election involving the members; and is equally controversial given a general trend of anarchist disdain for full-time union positions, not least within SolFed itself, which bars full-time union officers from membership.

Ed’s note: SolFed, and other anarchist groups, see trade union bureaucracy as taking agency out of the hands of workers and transferring it to people who are not at the site of, or affected by, the struggle taking place. The full-timer’s wages and community ties are linked to a national-level body removed from direct struggle, and their role is therefore based on what’s best for the institution, rather than the workers.
(For more on SolFed and anarcho-syndicalist thinking, try Fighting For Ourselves online|book)

Whether Andy’s decision to engage with the RMT’s executive will be productive or not is yet to be seen. The test will be in how and whether he manages to preserve his class-based anarchist politics in practice against the relentless industrial and political warfare in London, especially on the Tube where he has walked straight into the bitter, escalating dispute and strike activity around staffing stations, as well as several smaller skirmishes which are developing there as I write — and how Andy preserves his politics likewise in his dealings within the hierarchy of the RMT.

One thing we can say is only the RMT would put a known anarchist in charge of London.

Edit: There is one other union which has elected an openly anarchist member to a major position in recent times — Donnacha DeLong was president of the National Union of Journalists from 2011-12 and still sits on its NEC.

The power of the movements facing Trump

By Michael Hardt and Sandro Mezzadra - ROARMag, November 16, 2016

It is much too early to say to what extent President Trump will enact his campaign promises as government policy and, indeed, how much he will actually be able to do in office. But every day since his election demonstrations have sprung up throughout the United States to express outrage, apprehension and dismay.

Moreover, there is no doubt that once in office Trump and his administration will continually do and say things that will inspire protest. For at least the next four years people in the US will rally and march against his government, regularly and in large numbers. Protesting against threats to the environment will undoubtedly be urgent, as will be the generalized atmosphere of violence against people of color, women, LGBTQ populations, migrants, Muslims, workers of various sorts, the poor — and the list goes on.

One of the potential pitfalls for social movements, however, is that activism goes no further than protest. Protest, of course, can bring a city to a halt, can block temporarily the action of the government, and can even play the crucial role of opening up spaces for political alternatives. But on its own, protest is never enough to create lasting social transformation.

The significance of the Trump presidency and, moreover, the keys to developing protest against it become clearer, we think, when posed in a global context. Before coming back to the questions for social movements, then, let us frame some of the basic aspects of the global context into which Trump’s government will enter.

Collapsing the levels, Consolidating Our efforts

By SN Nappalos - Recomposition, December 11, 2015

Recomposition Introduction: Approximately 5 years ago work began on something called the intermediate analysis. A few members of the Recomposition editorial group contributed pieces, worked in groups, and tried to shape their work around the issues raised in the analysis. Between 2010 and today stand a lot of changes and a different landscape for radical action. The maturing of the world financial crisis, series of popular protest movements, and conservative responses have shifted the field from where we stood just a short time ago. Today we present a piece by Scott Nicholas Nappalos exploring what was useful and harmful in the intermediate analysis, and what lessons can be drawn for revolutionary unionists in North America specifically and for the libertarian left more generally. 

The intermediate level first confronted me after the 2004 bicoastal wildcat strike where the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had attempted to organize a national coordination of the various autonomous local groups of truckers who have come together. That followed a series of debates within the Portland IWW branch, where I was a member, over the role of revolutionaries in building a union. I began a draft on the intermediate analysis during the period of 2004-2006, but returned to it more seriously a few years later in Miami when things had calmed down and in dialogue with other comrades there. In 2010-2011, I contributed to a series of pieces on the intermediate level as part of group discussions within Miami Autonomy & Solidarity, an anarchist communist political organization I was a member of. These reflections came out of years of rumblings, discussions, and experiments by anarchists trying to find ways to apply their ideas to workplace and community organizing in the North American . Nearly as soon as the words hit the page a series of struggles began to test our ideas; first the Madison protests, then Occupy, and later others.

The three or so years that followed the publishing of pieces on the intermediate level led to more discussion and distribution than anyone likely imagined. In a couple cases other groups consciously adopted the terminology and the debate spread outside North American circles through libertarian networks. In today’s environment of unstable quietness, many are looking around, taking stock, and picking up old debates to help sort out the events of the past years beginning with the crisis in 2008. It’s obvious that there’s been a spate of protests that set the decade apart from the past 30 years, though they’ve remained short-lived and largely localized so far. Vast changes are afoot with sections of the public more open to our politics than any time in recent history, though that hasn’t yet translated into any real sustained advances. Some years and modest experiments behind us, it is a good opportunity to re-evaluate the strategy and analysis.

There is no need to beat the drum and reiterate the arguments bit by bit here, but instead interested folks can look to pieces I wrote: Defining Practice: the intermediate level of organization and struggle[1], the three-part piece called Towards a Theory of Political Organization for our Time[2], and also somewhat related the co-authored article with Adam Weaver Fighting for the Future: The necessity and possibility of national political organization for our time.[3] The quick summary is that there are two frames to the analysis. The first, the intermediate level, is a tool for looking at the social world and categorizing different types of activity to understand them better. The mass level is an idealized space where all the struggles of all the social actors take place like giant unions or community organizations that encompass entire classes. The political level takes place where specific ideologies, strategies, and politics are coordinated in that larger field. The intermediate level is where people come together based on shared strategy and experiences to coordinate their activity within struggles; more broad than the ideological unity of the political level, and more narrow than the mass level it is working within.

The second framing of the analysis deals specifically with intermediate organizations, which is to say organizations that occupied the space roughly between unions and political parties/organizations. Intermediate organizations are ones constructed with distinct tasks from mass or political ones, and unlike the first aspect of the analysis are physically and actively separate. In the first we are talking about activities that can co-exist alongside others in a variety of formats, the second is specific organizations that imperfectly reflect those activities.

The simplest examples of intermediate organizations are tendencies within social movements. These groups organize militants around a shared platform of various sorts to take action within an organization such as a union or community group. This spans from relatively ideologically broad such as Soldiers of Solidarity[4] in the UAW, to groups for action with broader political orientation such as the communist party’s Trade Union Education League and later Trade Union Unity League’s unions[5] or the Unemployed Councils of the Great Depression[6], and overtly political tendencies such as the Federacion Estudiantil Libertaria[7] in Chile today which organizes anarchists on specific proposals for action and demands within the student unions. Many organizing projects however tend to act as intermediate organizations of militants without having another overarching social organization they work within.

Controversially I’d argue that projects of the anarcho-syndicalist variety in fact act like intermediate organizations. Really there’s two ways to look at it: our concept of unions is too narrow, or revolutionary unions/projects represent something altogether different from parties and unions. One way to come at the intermediate level is to question all of this, and say the idea of non-political mass organizations is utopian, they’re inherently involving all levels of activity: political, mass, and intermediate. In one sense the dominant idea of what unions and organizing projects are (for left thinkers anyway) has become incredibly narrow; essentially apolitical groups that try to win demands for the whole of the class or some section of the class.

This scenario is far from universal in fact, because historically it was rarely if ever the case. It has been common for unions to fight around a range of issues from housing, immigration, and the oppression of ethnicities and women with examples in the IWW, FORA, CNT, and FAU but also reformist unions.[8] The meaning of union is interpreted as about the workplace narrowly defined. However in South America, to take an example, unions came out of resistance societies which were unions of workers and proletarians organized around a variety of different collective needs and projects. Resistance societies were a militant off shoot of mutual aid networks that included things like women’s issues, housing, workplace, and political issues that affected the class like militarism, anti-clericalism, immigration, and health. [9][10] This was perhaps always the norm for revolutionary unions, but not unheard of for reformist unions growing out of the environment of working class communities of past generations. Lately SEIU and other recuperative unions have started funding non-workplace organizing with non-members often with the goal of electoral victories, begging the question.

The focus of unions only narrowed in the US with their institutionalization after the NLRA when they became more fully integrated into capitalism. Political and social struggles overlapped with workplace activities, and unions were often grouped around political outlook. Outside the US, most of the world has a parliamentary system for unions where workers choose between them based on their political ideology. Moreover American unions and non-profits are largely ideological organs of the Democratic Party in terms of their activity, funding, and vision. So even today the idea of neutral mass organizations is a bit utopian.

Another way to think about these projects is that certain groups play a special role. They are different from run-of-the-mill unions, community groups, etc. While it’s true all groups are political in some sense, anarcho-syndicalist unions, revolutionary community groups, and solidarity networks have a unique relationship between their ideas and practices. They all use activity to build movement and have a connection between their goals, ideals, and actions in a way that political organizations and more broad unions don’t. In this way maybe they don’t fit neatly into any of the levels and occupy space between them all. Whether we widen the concept of mass organization, or we alter how we understand groups like the IWW, CNT, Solidarity Networks, or other such projects, the outcome is the same in practice. Intermediate organization tried to capture some of that nuance.

Towards a New Anti-Capitalist Politics

By Jerome Roos - ROARMag, December 15, 2015

Humanity finds itself at an inflexion point. On the one hand, global capitalism is producing and aggravating a series of existential crises that may well undermine the very preconditions for a dignified human life—or any form of human life—on this planet. On the other, the only political force that could possibly do something to counter this inexorable drive towards catastrophe—the international left—has long since been run into the ground by a four-decade neoliberal offensive, leaving its social base fragmented and atomized, its organizational structures in tatters.

In the wake of this world-historic defeat, we are confronted on a daily basis with the devastating consequences of our contemporary powerlessness. Far from retreating in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008-‘09, neoliberalism has intensified its war on democracy and doubled down on the structural violence of austerity and dispossession. Meanwhile, we look on helplessly as wealth and power continue to be concentrated in ever fewer hands, while common goods and public services are mercilessly sacrificed at the altar of the marketplace.

We stand defenseless as high finance and big business mount an all-out offensive against the last-remaining vestiges of the welfare state, while mass surveillance and state control are expanded across the board. We are powerless as barriers to capital are knocked down in secretive trade deals while national borders are militarized and new walls erected everywhere to keep out the unwanted other. We feel paralyzed as families are evicted from their homes, protesters brutalized by police, and the bodies of refugees continue to wash up on our shores.

Amidst the growing uncertainty of a hyper-competitive 24/7 information economy, in which indebtedness, unemployment and precarity are rapidly becoming the generalized conditions of life for the majority, we are overcome by exhaustion, depression and anxiety. At the same time, a sense of existential gloom is settling in as global temperatures and sea levels continue their seemingly unstoppable rise, while planetary life-support systems are being destroyed at a truly terrifying pace.

From Hollywood blockbusters to best-selling books, late-capitalist culture knows all too well how to wax poetics about the collapse of civilization—yet its critics seem to have lost all capacity to imagine even the most moderate reforms to prevent this dystopian fiction from becoming reality.

We may continue to speak of a crisis of capital, but what really confronts us is a crisis of the left.

For all its tragedies and failures, at least the old left was once driven by hopes and visions of a better future. Today, all such aspirations seem to have been abandoned. As Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi has astutely put it, the future has been cancelled—and the left, unmoored from its post-capitalist imaginary, has been cast hopelessly adrift in the process. In this conjuncture, we may continue to speak of a crisis of capital, but what really confronts us is a crisis of the left.

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.