Commentary on Marxism and Ecology: Common Fonts of a Great Transition
I would like to begin by complimenting this excellent essay. It summarizes with an economy of words and simplicity of language the considerable work of John Bellamy Foster in developing the concept of “metabolic rift,” advancing an ecological Marxism, and providing rigorous theoretical foundations for the politics of ecosocialism. Marx’s concept of the social metabolism is indeed crucial for analyzing socio-environmental change. Alongside Foster’s theory of metabolic rift, I would add the path-breaking work of Marina Fischer-Kowalski and the Vienna group on material flow analysis and the long durée of civilizational metabolic transitions; Joan Martinez-Alier’s work with our group in Barcelona on ecological distribution conflicts at the frontiers of an expanding global metabolism; and the work of Maria Kaika, Erik Swyngedouw, and other geographers in Manchester and beyond on how capitalism and its power asymmetries shape the metabolism of cities.
I am fully on board with the politics of the essay, summarized under the slogan “system change not climate change.” I agree that “a system of meeting collective needs based on the principle of enough is obviously impossible in any meaningful sense under the regime of capital accumulation.” As Serge Latouche has often argued, degrowth—on which I have written in this platform—is an ecosocialist idea (though it has also heavy doses of communalism, cooperativism, and anarchism, I would hasten to add).
I subscribe also to the call of the essay for a mutual cross-fertilization of Marxian and ecological thought. I was trained as an environmental scientist and ecological economist, but I find Marxian concepts increasingly useful for framing my arguments. These include not only the concepts of social metabolism and metabolic rift, but also Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism and the notion of primitive accumulation, i.e., accumulation not by production but by enclosure and dispossession of the “commoners” from their means of production and subsistence. This process of “accumulation by dispossession” did not happen once at the beginning of capitalism but, as Silvia Federici and David Harvey have eloquently shown, is a recurrent and integral feature of it, from water and land grabbing to enclosures of the intellectual and digital commons or privatizations of public education and social security. Another useful Marxian idea (with some caveats and elaborations) is Neil Smith’s “production of nature” thesis, according to which humans constantly refashion nature both materially and conceptually, and this is done in ways that reflect and embody in nature asymmetrical power relations.
Having said that, there are three elements in the essay that I would have loved to see more developed, understanding, though, the difficulty of this given the word limits.
First, to the reader unfamiliar with Marxism and current socialist politics, the essay might leave the false impression that ecosocialism is dominant within socialism and Marxism. Unfortunately, it remains marginal. Within the broader scholarly community of Marxists and historical materialists, green thinking is as marginal as ecological economics is within the field of economics. And, unfortunately, this is reflected in the political arena as well, as my limited experience from Greece and Spain and political parties and movements there suggests. The leaders and members of parties like Syriza or Podemos profess in Marxian theory, but unfortunately only few of them would follow Foster on his call for a “steady-state economy…one that stays within the solar budget.” Growth has been a keyword for Syriza, and its intellectuals recourse to notions of underconsumption or dependency theories, advocating nationalizations to relaunch industrial and agricultural growth. The old modernizing Marxian idea of developing the forces of production to their full is unfortunately not a relic of the Soviet past, but alive and kicking in the New Left. The increasingly dismal record of the socialist regimes in Latin America, which were elected with the struggles of indigenous, ecosocialist grassroots movements, but increasingly turn their fire against them as they put obstacles to extraction-based growth, is another case in point.
Many socialist intellectuals with whom I have conversed have rejected my (and John Bellamy Foster’s) claim that growth should come to an end. Oversimplifying, the common argument I encounter is that capitalist growth is indeed bad because it destroys the planet for the needs of profit, without serving the needs of people. However, a different “socialist growth” could satisfy human needs and would not have to be limited. Instead, it would have to be pursued as much as possible, as it will benefit the collective and not the capitalists. The greener among such socialists would concede that such growth should be made ecologically sustainable. But for this, they do not find necessary any restriction of economic activity. Instead, like other eco-modernizers, they recourse to better use of technology (be it through conservation, renewable energies, or nuclear energy). Their difference is that they believe that only a socialized economy can rationally develop such technologies and protect the environment; a capitalist economy is bound to irrationally destroy it in the pursuit of profit.
And I think this dominant view has strong roots. Unlike Foster’s own theory, the quotes of Marx given in the essay do not suggest a fundamental critique of growth as such or an intuition of an intrinsic incompatibility between economic expansion (capitalist or non-capitalist) and ecological balance. Marx talks about “restoration,” governing the “human metabolism of nature in a rational way,” and reducing the use of energy as much as possible. No capitalist eco-modernizer would disagree with any of this (although they would disagree, of course, with Marx’s thesis that these are possible only with a collective control of the means of production). Leaving aside the political dimension, I do not see the difference in what Marx wrote and current mainstream calls for a “circular economy” with more recycling, more ecological restoration, and more efficiency in resource use.
Did Marx envision a restriction of economic activity in the future as a way of healing the rift? From what I read in this essay, no. His critique was not of the rift per se, but of the fact that the forces of production were not put to ‘rational’ use to close the loops. In essence, this was a criticism of capitalism for bad use of technique, hinting that a different system, one not driven by profit, would put technique to better use. Also, for Marx, according to my limited reading of his work, human needs are in principle unlimited. Unlike John Stuart Mill, for example, there is no notion of sufficiency or “enough” in Marxism, nor an expectation of a stage whereby the development of the forces of production will reach a steady state. Of course, this is understandable since Marx was writing in a very different time and context, when industrial revolution was just beginning and when our knowledge of environmental problems and of the limits of technology in solving them was still at its infancy.
In this respect, I would like to hear more from the author about the competition of ideas among contemporary Marxists and his struggles for making fellow socialists more “eco.” How likely does he see a hegemony of ecological ideas among socialists, at the academic and the political realms? What gives him hope, and what despair? And do all ecosocialists agree on the need for degrowth and a steady-state economy, or do some among them think that an “angelic,” green growth is plausible under a planned socialist economy? What did Marx get wrong, and what parts of subsequent Marxian theory pose obstacles to convincing fellow Marxists about a steady-state socialism?
Second, I would like to see a more critical reflection of dogmatism within Marxism and the obstacles this puts in creating a common front with ecology (and other social and intellectual movements). My own experience is that, unfortunately, the plural and open Marxism promoted by writers like John Bellamy Foster, David Harvey, and my many Marxist friends with whom I have the luck to converse and collaborate, is not the only one—nor the dominant one—in academia (or in political and social movements). I sense sometimes as strong a dogmatism among orthodox Marxist political economists as among their neoclassical peers.
Along these lines, I find it hard to understand sometimes the preoccupation of Marxist scholars with what Marx himself thought or wrote, unearthing obscure correspondences and exchanges of his. I have seen so many fights over whether Marx said this or that, whether he was green or not, or whether he liked or hated cooperatives, etc., the usefulness of which escapes me. Marx was a human like all of us, and in the thousands of pages he wrote, I am sure one can find elements that make him a proto-ecologist as well as others that make him an ardent productivist. The point is not what Marx thought or believed, but what theories can be developed today, inspired from the (contradictory) ideas that one can find in his work. Indeed, Foster does precisely this, i.e., he develops a new theory of metabolic rift inspired from a few sentences Marx wrote on it. For reasons though that I do not fully understand, he attributes his theory to Marx himself. Marx’s acute observations about fertilizers and soil erosion at his time, or the concerns about pollution he exchanged here and there with Engels, far from constitute a “theory of metabolic rift,” or an “incorporation of thermodynamics” in political economy (to use Foster’s words). And this is fine: I don’t mean it as a criticism of Marx. Marx has said so many important things, so why is it so crucial to prove that he was also the first ecological economist or the first to integrate thermodynamics into economic analysis?
I would not put too much emphasis on this point if I was not worried that this tendency in the Marxian tradition to recourse to “the original scriptures,” akin to that of religious scholars, is not independent from the dogmatism that I have sometimes encountered among some of them. I have come across situations whereby criticizing a Marxian concept or a political action derived in its name, I am called upon from a Marxist friend for not having read the whole opus of Marx, or for not being fully familiar and competent with his vocabulary and concepts (which reminds me of neoclassical economists asking me first to master the math and then dare to question their theories). I feel much more comfortable with “neo-Marxists,” like those of the first wave of ecosocialism to which the essay refers (Andre Gorz for example), who take many ideas from Marx but also discard other ideas of his that are outdated or outright wrong and meriting correction. I am more easily convinced by Marxists who tell me that Marxist also got something wrong. And I would prefer if Marxian theory were not named after a man, but after the essence of its thought (economics is not called Smithianism), and if instead of going always back to the original source, it built up on its cumulative progress (a neoclassical economist who wants to do growth or trade theory does not have to cite the relevant paragraphs from Smith or Ricardo, or scratch them for their hidden meaning). The starting premise that Marx has said it all, and nothing that he said is possibly wrong, becomes problematic per se and puts obstacles to interdisciplinary dialogue, including with ecologists. To have a dialogue and build an alliance, one has to start from the stance that his or her worldview is partial and limited, unavoidably wrong in some, if not many, respects.
My final point is more conceptual and substantial. Foster writes that “capitalism as a system is intrinsically geared to the maximum possible accumulation and throughput of matter and energy” and that continued “economic growth (in its more abstract) or capital accumulation (viewed more concretely)…cannot occur without expanding rifts in the Earth system.” I am afraid that three different concepts are being used as equivalent here: capital accumulation, GDP growth, and growth in the throughput of matter and energy. Experience and history suggest that these three move together, but one can, at least in theory, conceive their decoupling. We have to do more theoretical work to substantiate our intuition that there is an inextricable link between them.
First, it is plausible to conceive of GDP growth without growth in material and energy throughput (and this is indeed what some socialists or even ecosocialists believe can be the case under socialist growth). I believe it is unlikely, but I did not find strong arguments in the essay why this is so from a Marxian (or not) perspective.
Second, it is not true that capital accumulation requires GDP growth. Austerity and regressive redistribution can squeeze more out of the workers and ensure aggregate capital accumulation in the absence of growth. It is also not clear to me why capitalism requires aggregate accumulation in the abstract; even within a trajectory of reduced or negative accumulation, you may have firms that make profits and accumulate and others that do not. I can understand a concrete, political and historical argument: economic growth eases redistributive pressure and hence reaction against capital; aggregate accumulation makes it more likely for any individual firm to have profits. So it is extremely unlikely that the elites and the vested corporate interests that hold economic power will voluntarily concede to degrowth, as, other factors equal, this would make their profits much harder to sustain and their political supremacy more vulnerable. But this is no a priori, theoretically necessary relationship between throughput, growth, and accumulation (and hence capitalism). Capital accumulation can well continue without growth, and the current crisis is an example; it is political agency and collective action that threaten continued capital accumulation in the absence of growth.
Third, in socialist economies, capital accumulation came to an end (since there were no longer any capitalists to accumulate), but economic growth continued. One may as well argue that these were, in effect, “state capitalist” economies, the state accumulating and investing for further accumulation (and this would be consistent with Foster’s definition of capitalism). Is then a genuine socialist economy one that stops accumulation (state or private) all together? And if so, do we agree that then the idea of socialist growth is an oxymoron?
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