Month: March 2019

From Marx to Ecosocialism

Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism. Capitalism, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy By: Kohei Saito New York, Monthly Review Press, 2017 and Red-Green Revolution: The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism By: Victor Wallis Toronto, Political Animal Press, 2018 reviewed by Michael Löwy

There is a growing body of ecomarxist and ecosocialist literature in the English-speaking world, which signals the beginning of a significant turn in radical thinking. Some Marxist journals, such as Capitalism, Nature and Socialism, Monthly Review and Socialism and Democracy have been playing an important role in this process, which is becoming increasingly influential. The two books discussed here—very different in style content and purpose—are part of this “Red and Green” upsurge.

Kohei Saito is a young Japanese Marxist scholar and his book is a very valuable contribution to the reassessment of the Marxian heritage, from an ecosocialist perspective. It justifiedly polemicises with those authors (mainly but not exclusively German) that denounce Marx as “Promethean,” productivist, and partisan of the industrial domination of nature. But Saito also criticises, in the introduction, what he defines as “first stage ecosocialists,” who believe that Marx’s 19th Century discussions on ecology are of little importance today: this would include, among others, Alain Lipiez, Daniel Tanuro, Joel Kovel and…myself. This seems to me a bit of an artificial construction… Lipietz calls to “abandon the Marxist paradigm,” the three others consider themselves to be Marxists, and whatever their criticism of (some of) Marx views on nature, do not comsider his views as “of little importance.” Since this issue is mentioned, but not really discussed in the book, let us move on….

One of the great qualities of this work is that it does not treat Marx’s work as a systematic body of writing, defined, from the beginning to the end, by a strong ecological commitment (according to some),or a strong unecological tendency (according to others). As Saito very persuasively argues, there are elements of continuity in Marx’s reflection on nature, but also some very significant changes, and re-orientations.

Among the continuities, one of the most important is the issue of the capitalist “separation” of humans from earth, i.e., from nature. Marx believed that in pre-capitalist societies there existed a form of unity between the producers and the land, and he saw as one of the key tasks of socialism to re-establish the original unity between humans and nature, destroyed by capitalism, but on a higher level (negation of the negation). This explains Marx’s interest in pre-capitalist communities, both in his ecological discussion (for instance of Carl Fraas) or in his anthropological research (Franz Maurer): both authors were perceived as “unconscious socialists.” And, of course, in his last important document, the letter to Vera Zassoulitsch (1881), Marx claims that thanks to the suppression of capitalism, modern societies could return to a higher form of an “archaic” type of collective ownership and production. This is a very interesting insight of Saito, and very relevant today, when indigenous communities in the Americas, from Canada to Patagonia, are in the front line of the resistance to capitalist destruction of the environment.

However, the main contribution of Saito is to show the movement, the evolution of Marx reflections on nature, in a process of learning, rethinking and reshaping his thoughts. Before Capital (1867) one can find in Marx writings a rather uncritical assessment of capitalist “progress”-an attitude often described by the vague mythological term of “Prometheanism.” This is obvious in the Communist Manifesto, which celebrates capitalist “subjection of nature’s forces to man”and the “clearing of whole continents for cultivation”; but it also applies to the London Notebooks (1851), the Economic Manuscripts of 1861-63, and other writings from those years. Curiously, Saito seems to exclude the Grundrisse (1857-58) from his criticism, which is not justified, considering how much Marx admires, in this manuscript, “the great civilizing mission of capitalism,” in relation to nature and to the pre-capitalist communities, prisioners of their localism and their “idolatry of nature”!

The change comes in 1865-66, when Marx discovers, by reading the writings of the agricultural chemist Justus Von Liebig, the problems of soil exhaustion, and the metabolic rift between human societies and the natural environment. This will lead, in Capital vol. 1 (1867)—but also in the two other, unfinished volumes—to a much more critical assessment of the destructive nature of capitalist “progress,” particularly in agriculture. After 1868, by reading another German scientist, Carl Fraas, Marx will discover also other important ecological issues, such as deforestation and local climate change. According to Saito, if Marx had been able to complete volumes 2 and 3 of Capital, he would have more strongly emphasised the ecological crisis, which also means, at least implicitly, than in their present unfinished state, there is no strong enough emphasis on those issues.…

This leads me to my main disagreement with Saito: in several passages of the book he asserts that for Marx “the environmental unsustainability of capitalism is the contradiction of the system” (p.142, emphasis by Saito); or that in his late years he came to see the metabolic rifts as “the most serious problem of capitalism”; or that the conflict with natural limits is, for Marx, “the main contradiction of the capitalist mode of production.”

I wonder where Saito found, in Marx’s writings, published books, manuscripts or notebooks, any such statements…they are not to be found, and for a good reason: the unsustainability of the capitalist system was not a decisive issue in the 19th Century, as it has become today: or better, since 1945, when the planet entered a new geological era, the Anthropocene. Moreover, I believe that the metabolic rift, or the conflict with natural limits is not “a problem of capitalism” or a “contradiction of the system”: it is much more than that! It is a contradiction between the system and “the eternal natural conditions” (Marx), and therefore with the natural conditions of human life on the planet. In fact, as Paul Burkett (quoted by Saito) argues, capital can continue to accumulate under any natural conditions, however degraded, so long as there is not a complete extinction of human life: human civilisation can disappear before capital accumulation becomes impossible.…

Saito concludes his book with a sober assessment which seems to me a very apt summary of the issue: Capital remains an unfinished project. Marx did not answer all questions nor predict today’s world. But his critique of capitalism provides an extremely helpful theoretical foundation for the understanding of the current ecological crisis.

Victor Wallis agrees with the ecosocialists such as John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett who emphasize the ecological dimension of Marx. But he also acknowledges that there are illusions in the “technological neutrality” of the capitalist productive forces in some of his writings.

In any case, the object of his outstanding book is not Marx as such, but the Marxist perspective of a Red-Green Revolution. Being a collection of essays, the chapters do not follow a precise order, but one can easily detect the main lines of the argument.

The starting point is the understanding that capitalism, driven by the need to “grow” and expand at any cost, is inherently destructive of the environment. Moreover, through ecological devastation and climate change—the result of fossil-fuel emissions of CO2 gases—the capitalist system undermines the conditions of life itself on the planet. “Green capitalism” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms: it offers only false solutions, based on corporate interests and a blind faith in the “market,” such as “biofuels,” the trade in “emission rights,” etc. A typical exemple of “green capitalism”: the monitoring of global environmental measures has been entrusted, by the ruling class, to the World Bank, which invested 15 times more on fossil-fuel projects than on renewables.…

Radical measures are the only realistic alternative: a revolution is needed to overcome the environmental threat to our collective survival. The aim is an ecosocialist society, without class domination and with life in balance with the rest of nature. Of course there are risks involved in any revolutionary enterprise, but the risk of keeping things as they are is much greater…Long term species survival is contingent upon a nearly 90 percent reduction in the burning of fossil fuels. This requires to a sharp break with capitalist priorities: accumulation, profit-making, commodification, “growth.” A key component of the ecosocialist project is conscious democratic planning, reorganizing production and consumption around the real popular needs, and putting and end to the waste inherent to capitalism with its artificial “needs” induced by the advertising industry, and its formidable military expenditures. Democratic planning is the opposite of the Soviet model of top-down directives: the identification of planning with Stalin is a dangerous relic of Cold War demagogy, which could obstruct ecological conversion.

Ecosocialism requires also some key technological choices, for instance privileging renewable energies (wind, solar, etc.) against fossil-fuels. But there is no purely technical solution: energy use must be reduced, by sharply reducing wasteful consumption.

Victor Wallis insists, and this is one of the most valuable insights of his book, that ecosocialism, as a long-term objective, is not contradictory with short-range measures, urgent and immediate ecological steps: they can, in fact, reinforce and inspire each other. Similarly, to oppose local ecological communities to the global political struggle is pointless and counterproductive: both are necessary and provide mutual support.

Which are the forces that will lead this struggle for social and ecological change? In one of the essays, Wallis insist on the centrality of the working-class—in spite of the present anti-ecological position of most union leaders (in order to “protect jobs”). Is the working-class the “implicit embodiment of ecological sanity” (unlike its present leaders)? Is it the only force capable to bring together all constituencies opposed to capitalism? I’m not so sure, but I think Wallis is right to emphasise that class oppression concerns the vast majority of the population—and therefore a radical change cannot take place without its support.

But there are also other social forces engaged in the process of resistance to the capitalist onslaught on the environment: for instance, the indigenous communities. This is another very important contribution of this book: to show that indigenous communities—direct victims of the capitalist plunder, a global assault on their livelihoods—have become the vanguard of the ecosocialist movement. In their actions, such as the Standing Rock resistence to the XXL Pipeline, and in their reflections—such as their Declaration at the World Social Forum of Belem in 2009—“they express, more completely than any other group, the common survival interest of humanity.” Of course, the urban population of modern cities cannot live like the indigenous, but they have much to learn from them.

Ecological struggles offer a unifying theme around which various oppressed constituencies could come together. And there are signs of hope in the United States, in the vast upsurge of resistance against a particularly toxic racist, mysoginist and anti-ecological power elite, and in the growing interest, among young people and African Americans, in socialism. But a political revolutionary force, able to unify all constituencies and movements against the system is still lacking.

International Viewpoint

Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism

Kohei Saito Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy. 2017. New York: Monthly Review, reviewed by Ted Benton.

This exceptionally clear and well-researched book is based on Saito’s dissertation, originally in German, and incorporates the results of his study of as-yet unpublished manuscripts and excerpt notebooks compiled during the last fifteen years of Marx’s life. Saito’s approach is closely aligned with that of Paul Burkett, John Bellamy Foster and their associates (Burkett 1988, Foster et al. 2010), well-known advocates of a view of Marx as an ecological thinker, who developed the concept of ‘metabolic rift’ to explain the contradictions between capitalism and external nature.

Saito uses the results of his own research to strengthen and extend the claims made by those writers. His key argument is that his predecessors in the ‘metabolic rift’ school of thought were able to demonstrate Marx’s ecological critique only through occasional passages of text. Saito’s research into Marx’s later writings, and, most especially, unpublished notebooks reveals the developing pattern of his reading of contemporary natural science, especially agronomy. Ecology was always central to Marx’s thinking, Saito argues, it was integral to his critique of political economy, and was understood by Marx as ‘the’ contradiction of the capitalist mode of production.

Context

It might be necessary to set Saito’s important contribution in the context of the fairly arcane and technical debates among rival positions on Marx’s work and its relation to our own current attempts to understand the connections between socialism and ecology. First, there is a very widespread and long-standing interpretation of Marx’s view of history (shared by both admirers and opponents of Marx) that sees ‘progress’ as the long-run development of human productive powers and growing mastery of the forces of nature.

Capitalism is the culmination of this process, but also reaches its limits, resulting in its own self-destruction, to be followed by a communist future in which all are able to share in the abundance of wealth inherited from the advances of previous epochs. This is referred to by Saito and his associates as the ‘Promethian’ reading of Marx. They attribute this Promethean interpretation of Marx to other eco-socialists, who they refer to as ‘first stage’, by contrast with their own ‘second stage’ eco-socialism, which draws on an alternative reading of Marx as already an ecological critic of capitalism. For these ‘second stage’ eco-socialists, Marx can be drawn upon without critical revision as providing key concepts, and the methodological principles for addressing our own ecological crisis.

Promethianism?

Saito’s Introduction sharply opposes his reading of Marx to what he sees as ‘stereotypical’ versions of Marx’s Promethianism, and dismissals of Marx’s value for ecological politics that he takes to have been general among ‘first stage’ eco-socialists. It might be argued that his dismissal of them is itself somewhat stereotypical – see later. Chapter 1 focusses on Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts and shows that Marx was already putting the human relation to nature at the centre of his thinking, ‘alienation’ being rooted in a specifically modern separation of humans from nature.

However, the political economic aspects of the manuscripts are subsumed under a Feuerbachian philosophy which Marx quickly comes to abandon in favour of analysis of the dynamics of capitalism. Here, as chapter 2 explains, Marx continues to develop the key ‘formal’ concepts of political economy – abstract labour, value, capital, commodity, but always in recognition of the need to consider them in relation to the material processes and interactions involved in concrete labour processes and the production of use values.

In the Grundrisse and then in Capital itself, the key concept through which Marx designates this material dimension of capitalist political economy is ‘stoffwechsel ’, or ‘metabolism’. Saito points out that this concept, originally belonging to physiology, was widely used in Germany in the 19th century in a wider sense to characterise the interaction between living things and their material environments both at the level of individuals and species. Marx’s version of it was strongly influenced by Liebig (as already shown by Burkett and Foster), but Saito argues Marx develops the idea in a distinctive way – for instance in distinguishing the different reproductive rates of fixed and circulating capital.

Disruption

This metabolic interaction between economic dynamics and the forces of nature is necessarily disrupted as capital accumulation meets material obstacles (from nature and labour) which it strives to overcome by ever-advancing technological domination. In doing so, however, it becomes mired in ever deeper and wider contradictions. However, thus far the analysis just shows the germ of a contradiction between capital accumulation and the forces of nature.

Saito’s reading of Capital is that it provides the systematic analysis of the concrete character of this contradiction. Chapter 3 provides this analysis, which is based on a hitherto little-known Japanese interpretation of ‘abstract labour’ as not merely a social relation, but also as having material substance as an expression of the physiologically limited labour time available to any society.

On this interpretation, the drive for capital accumulation without limit predominates over, and cannot adequately take account of, the ‘concrete’ labour processes, materials and conditions upon which it depends. This necessarily results in exhaustion and degradation of the labour force and soil, as well as the living and non-living beings and processes that are drawn upon in the expansionary dynamic. Saito argues that the chapters in Capital on the working day and machinery and large-scale industry are places where Marx develops his analysis of the metabolism of capital and nature, but these have been over-looked by most commentators as of little theoretical interest.

Distinctive

Part two of the book, chapters 4 to 7, contains Saito’s distinctive contribution. Here he concedes that until the early to mid-1860’s Marx rejected the view of Ricardo, Malthus and others that investment in agriculture necessarily faces diminishing returns. Malthus had originally argued that the tendency of population to increase would always outstrip increments in agricultural productivity, making premature death from the ‘positive checks’ of disease and poverty inevitable. Though Malthus later moderated this view, both Marx and Engels continued to oppose its key premise, arguing that the potential for increasing agricultural productivity through scientific and technical progress was unlimited.

Saito shows that Marx’s reading of Leibig’s Agricultural Chemistry enabled him to recognise declining soil fertility, not as a general fact of nature, but, instead, as a result of the specifically capitalist form of division between town and country. This results in disruption of the cycles of soil nutrients, as the waste products of consumption are not returned to the soil, but cause disease and pollution in the urban centres. This can only be offset under capitalism by the application of artificial fertilizer, which not only increases costs, but leads to an escalating and ultimately unsuccessful scramble for material resources across the globe.

Intense engagement

Saito’s study of the notebooks compiled during the last 15 years of Marx’s life brings to light his intense engagement with agricultural science, geology and botany, so that from 1868 onwards he had become acquainted with critics of Leibig’s emphasis on inorganic nutrients, and in particular had become influenced by Fraas’s discussion of the role of climate, in the shape of warmth and moisture in the soil. This led him to an appreciation of the combined effects of deforestation through industrial development and intensive cultivation on local climates, and the reciprocal impact of climatic change on agriculture.

So, Marx was increasingly building a recognition of what we can now call ecology into his critical analysis of capitalism as a system whose inherent tendency is to disrupt its own naturally given and human-social conditions. There are passages in which Marx writes of the unsustainability of capitalism’s system of ‘robbery agriculture’ and calls for the rational regulation by the associated producers of human metabolism with the earth from the standpoint of the ‘chain of generations’.

Reservations

This is a remarkable book which makes its case. I have just a couple of reservations. One is that Saito’s generosity in his reading of Marx is not extended to his reading of the so-called ‘first stage eco-socialists’. His own reading of Marx finds much in the latter’s writing up to the mid-1860s to justify the Promethean reading which he condemns. At the same time, his reading of his opponents is over-generalised and one-sided.

The late James O’Connor, for example, combined a critical relationship to some aspects of Marx with his development of the important concept of a ‘second contradiction’, which has much in common substantively with the position Saito develops out of his reading of the later Marx (O’Connor 1988). Saito criticises my own work for accusing Marx of a Promethean ‘flight from recognition of natural limits’. In fact my argument was that despite the evidence for an un-ecological reading of Marx, there was also a basis for an ecological one which I endorsed: e.g. ‘…Marx quite explicitly advocates ecological sustainability as a ‘regulating law’ which would govern socialist agriculture, by contrast with its capitalist form. This complements and continues a central theme of Marx’s early writings…’ (Benton 1989:83). It is unfortunate that Saito seems to have been drawn into the rather polarising and even sectarian tendency of some in the ‘metabolic rift’ school to dismiss, rather than engage constructively with, the work of others whose analyses are often quite close to their own.

A second reservation I have is that the devotion to exegesis and defence of Marx’s political economy, while valuable in its own right, takes us only so far in thinking about the sorts of alliances that might be put together, and the transitional strategies and visions of a future sustainable and socially just society that might be feasible now. The ‘rational regulation by the associated producers of their metabolism with [the rest of] nature’ is a fine start – but maybe we need to add the material content to complement the abstract form?

None of this detracts from the standing of this book as a hugely valuable contribution to our understanding of the importance of Marx’s legacy for eco-socialist politics. It is a difficult read – but eminently worth the effort.

References
Benton, Ted 1992 Marxism and natural limits: an ecological critique and reconstruction. New Left Review 198:51-86.
Burkett, Paul 1999 Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective. New York: St. Martin’s.
Foster, John Bellamy, Clark, Brett & York, Richard 2010 The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York: Monthly Review.
O’Connor, James 1988 Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism. New York: Guilford

Farming, Food and Nature

As the US Ambassador tells Britain that a post-Brexit trade deal would have to allow chlorinated chicken and hormone beef into the country, Alan Thornett reviews Farming, Food and Nature: Respecting Animals, People and the Environment, edited by Joyce D’Silva and Carol McKenna (Routledge 2018)

This book brings together 35 individual contributions that were made, or planned, at a conference entitled Extinction and Livestock organised by Compassion in World Farming (CWF) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in London in 2017 in order to discuss farming and food production and its impact on the biodiversity on the planet.

It is a book that should be strongly welcomed. It looks not just at the problem of feeding the planet’s current 7.5 billion people but on the disastrous impact this is having on the biodiversity of the planet. It reflects an emerging wider debate on how to feed the population of the planet without destroying its biosphere in the process

Scale of problem

The scale of the problems we face is outlined in the Foreword:
‘Huge areas of habitat have already been devastated for growing soya and grain to feed billions of imprisoned farm animals. Vast quantities of water is wasted in transforming vegetable to animal protein and the methane gas produced during digestion is contributing to the green-house gases that have led to climate change. Massive amounts of fossil fuel are burned to transport the grain to the animals. At the same time forests are being cut down and pasture land desertified by the grazing and browsing of sheep cattle and goats…’[i]

The book has a very strong first chapter written by a naturalist who has made a major contribution to this subject in recent years – Philip Lymbery. He is the author of two game-changing books on this subject: Farmageddon (in 2014) and Dead Zone – where the wild things were (in 2017). He is also the Chief Executive of CWF and one of the most influential writers on the food industry and its environmental impacts.

Several processes

Lynbery starts with an important observation. This is that there is more than one ecological process taking place that represents an existential threat to life on the planet – and the issue of food production and consumption is one of them. He puts it this way: even if climate change were to be resolved there is another major challenge facing humanity ‘which is just as serious and with consequences that are far more permanent; and it’s on our plate’.[ii] In other words the industrialised production of and, current consumption patterns of, food. It is a situation, he argues, that is completely unsustainable.

He points out that industrialised agriculture ‘has swept the landscape in the UK, Europe, the US and beyond, leading to widespread declines in wildlife and the diversity of nature. It has also been exported across the world, not least to Asia and South America’.

Damage

The damage done, he argues, reflects two sides of factory farming. On the one hand farm animals are taken out of the fields and put into vast sheds and other forms of industrialised confinement. On the other hand feeding them is then hugely destructive. Vast tracts of land, often obtained by deforestation, along with chemical pesticides and fertilisers, are then necessary to grow the grain to feed them – grain that could be eaten directly by human beings. The green-house gasses produced by all this is one of the biggest sources of global emissions.

The most extreme consequence of this, Lynbery points out, is the creation of oceanic dead zones when these chemicals reach the oceans via the rivers – which is the subject of his book mentioned above: Dead Zone – where the wild things were.

Population

Tony Juniper, in chapter 4, adds another dimension into the mix. This is the issue of growth – both economic growth and population growth – which he rightly agues, are both major drivers behind the ecological crisis. He points out that in the early 19th century the world population was about one billion. By the late 1920s it had doubled to two billion and then three billion by 1960. By April 2017 it went past seven and a half billion. At the same time, he adds, people on average became richer and their consumption expectations rose accordingly, including in Asia. He also points to the rapid urbanisation that is taking place across the globe often creating populations with more disposable incomes which leads to increasingly meat-based diets.

Juniper offers no solutions to either economic or population growth (on population I would argue for the empowerment of women to control their own lives and fertility) but argues (rightly in my view) that the industrialised model of food production is now ‘literally unsustainable’.[iii]

Fish farming

Nor is it just the land. Chapter 8 (by Krzyztof Wotjas and Natasha Boyland) takes up the growing demand for fish – both wild fish and farmed – which is no less devastating on the environment, although less obvious. Global fish consumption, they point out, has reached record levels.

Aquaculture, these writers point out, is currently growing faster than the meat production sector, with output increasing from 5 to 63 million tonnes in 30 years overtaking wild fisheries as the main source of fish for human consumption. The average consumption of fish reached 20 kg per person in 2014, which is double that of 1960 and is set to rise further. Consumption on this scale, they argue, is unsustainable and is having a heavy impact on oceanic eco-systems.

Fish farming, they point out is a very dubious alternative. Overcrowded fish are vulnerable to disease and stress. Fish are crammed into sea cages with no consideration for their need for natural behaviour. Atlantic salmon, for example is a species that travels long distances at sea and lives a solitary life as an adult.

Weak on solutions

The book is unsurprisingly strong on critique and weak on solutions, not least because it is addressing a vast problem: how to feed 7.5 billion people without destroying the planet in the process. It is clear that feeding vast quantities of grain unnecessarily to cattle when it could be eaten directly by human beings makes no sense – but what is the alternative with billions of people globally existing at starvation level or beyond? The book looks at the marketisation of food and the massive waste that is taking place as a result if it – and there is no doubt that big improvements could and must be made – but is that ultimately a solution?

Bruce Friedrich in chapter 35 on plant-based food argues that: ‘There is no reason for anyone to go to bed hungry or worry about their next meal. We can feed the whole world, but to do it we must replace the current inefficient and destructive means of producing meat. Plant-based clean meat can give everyone what they want, whilst improving our health, environment and future.’

Food sovereignty

This goes some way but is limited. There does indeed have to be a big reduction in meat consumption, without which a solution is probably not possible. And indeed, we do have to bring an end to destructive forms of food production – most importantly industrialised farming methods. But this needs a more radical approach than is taken in the book – which lacks a radical edge.

There is no mention for example of the struggle for food sovereignty or the struggles for it conducted by mass organisation such as La Via Campesina. There is no mention of land redistribution or the struggles in the global South for the right of small farmers, who still produce a half of the world’s foods, to control their own farms and be protected against the multinational companies that supply the seeds and seek to control them.

The book, however, remains a contribution to a long neglected debate and should be widely read for the contribution it makes.

[i] Page xxi.

[ii] Page 15.

[iii] Page 37.