Ecology & Marxism – Do they connect?
Most older Marxists – no matter what tradition – were brought up thinking that the ‘production’ of material goods was one of the only gauges to measure the well-being of the proletariat. Marxism developed against capital, but Marxism also developed in a world where resources were just being developed, or ‘exploited.’ Hence Lenin and Trotsky were for industrializing the primitive, mostly agrarian Soviet Union (quite rightly), and Stalin took this to the ultimate extreme, favoring giant industrial building projects over closing a ‘scissors’ of any kind – the 'scissors' being the relationship with the countryside and peasantry. Instead, it was widened. We can see this today in the deformed and even more degenerated workers’ state in China, which has become the productive marvel of the world under its’ mostly planned economy, while depopulating its impoverished rural areas.
However, a look back at the Soviet Union shows some of the niggling flaws in an approach that favors production over anything else. Visit Baku and see the devastation of dry holes, rusting oil derricks and poisoned soils for miles around the city. Watch the Aral Sea shrink, as it is used for irrigation across the plains – to the point where the lake is disappearing. And then there is Chernobyl, which continues to affect hundreds of thousands of citizens with the aftermath of radioactive poisoning. Regarding China, an excellent article in Mother Jones in 2007, "China's Pollution Problem Goes Global" by Jacques Leslie shows what pell-mell production has done to China and her people, exclusively from an environmental and health point of view. It is devastating.
As scientists first and necrophiliacs last, Marxists have to examine this new (actually not so new) phenomenon, and integrate it into our program. A good case can be made that environmentalism should be considered an essential part of an updated transitional program. Where environmentalism would fit into the bureaucratic/Stalinist model of the minimum/maximum ‘program’ conundrum, or the Maoist ‘mass’ line, I really do not know.
The most prominent synthesizer of Marxism and environmentalism in the U.S. is John Bellamy Foster, the editor of Monthly Review, a long running left-Marxist journal in the U.S. Foster wrote “Marx’s Ecology – Materialism and Nature” in 2000. This ground-breaking work looked at the works of Marx and Engels and how they noted environmental pollution and the ill-effects of capitalist production on the health of the working classes of England and Germany. Polluted water, leveled forests, smoke-filled air, work accidents, bad food, early death– it was all noted as part of the exploitation of the working classes. Environmental ‘racism’ would be no surprise to Marx or Engels. Foster has just come out with a new book called “The Ecological Revolution – Making Peace with the Planet.” I have not read the book yet, but his thesis is that human survival – and the survival of our class – is based on a revolutionary transformation of our relationship with the planet. He points out that capitalism cannot succeed at this task, as ‘profit’ demands the unending exploitation of people, plants, animals, air, water and land. So it has been from the beginning of the capitalist mode of production. Only socialism, which is based on scientific planning and not profit, can make the switch to a sustainable economy. Socialism is not based exclusively on the unthinking exploitation of nature.
We are all familiar with the position – from ostensible Marxists no less - that anything less than an SUV in every driveway, a 10,000 foot house on every lot, and a 4x4 in every woods is the due of the working class. Bicycling, growing your own food, shutting off the lights, eating organic, reusing and repairing, vegetarianism, grey-water systems, saying no to bottled water, getting rid of throw-away products, solar or wind power - you get the idea – are all expensive and ‘petit-bourgeois’ deviations from working class needs. This by the way is also the view of right-wing Republican populism. This interesting congruence should raise a ‘red flag’ in the best possible sense.
While it is true that many of these practices did not solely originate from the working class, it is also true that they did not originate from corporate America. American workers have been buying used goods, or repairing broken ones, or eschewing the ease of expensive throwaways since the class began. If one has been to Hanoi recently, bicycles outnumber cars or trucks – though small scooters are now the majority. Vietnamese food is not grown with massive inputs of chemical oil-based fertilizers, as this costs too much. It is fresh and organic – horrors - and is reputed to be the best food in the world, if you listen to people like Anthony Bourdain, or even your own stomach. Anyone following the development of Cuba since the collapse of the Soviet workers’ state will find out that the Cubans have developed organic agriculture to an extent not seen anywhere else in the world. Their army of scientists has been devoted to this issue. This was occasioned by the end of cheap Soviet oil imports. If Cuba had been a capitalist society, they would have gone into debt as a nation to buy more oil from OPEC or the United States. The Cubans refused to go this route. Interestingly, urban gardens in Havana now account for much of the fresh food in the city. North Korea also faced this situation in 1989 too. Instead of switching over to another mode of agriculture, hundreds of thousands or more died of starvation. This does not reflect well on the entrenched bureaucrats in Pyongyang in comparison to the cadres in Havana.
More importantly, an SUV in every driveway, a 10,000 foot house and a 4X4 actually impact the environment of the rest of the world. Internationalists do not consume in a state of oblivion. The constant flow of scientific data now indicates that global warming is past the point of no return, and that it is affecting the third world even more than the first world. Which is one reason the Republican Party pooh-poohs global climate change as an erroneous ‘theory’ – they couldn’t care less about people in Bangladesh. Or New Orleans. Unless Marxists can refute the science behind global climate change, Marxists are obligated to follow what it indicates. And by all indications, global warming is now farther alone than most thought only two years ago.
The other fact that will dominate future development in the world is peak oil. American capitalism was based on early and massive exploitation of oil – the most useful and powerful energy source ever discovered. To some extent, the immense growth in the Soviet Union was also based on drilling for oil. Oil is the key commodity for the recent development of capital. US imperialism cut off the oil supply to Japan, which was one of the sparks behind the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Battle of the Bulge was won because the Nazi tanks ran out of … gasoline from Rumania. The two wars in the Gulf were directly based on control of this most precious of commodities. Arguments can be made over the importance of oil to the wars in Afghanistan and in the former Yugoslavia. And as oil dwindles it will become more precious, more expensive, more destructive, but also more marginal. The oil age is over, and Marxists should read the handwriting on the wall.
I have to agree with Foster that without a Marxism infused with environmentalism, we will be unable to cope with the destruction of our biosphere, or the depletion of oil, and hence our ability as a class to lead the way to the future. As the saying goes, an unlimited appetite for ‘goods’ has now run up against the limited objective carrying capacity of the planet. The effect of bourgeois ‘globalism’ has created its opposite - a sense of a some world-wide alternative to a runaway cheap-labor, oil-war Dickensianism.
Enlightened Democratic capital thinks there is a purely technical fix to this – turbines, solar panels and a massive grid. And this project is indeed part of the solution. However, conservation is not a concept that is bankable, even under ‘enlightened’ capitalism. Nor is the need to control production, and eliminate anything that is unsustainable. Capital cannot do this – without moving towards social control.
Note my use of the word ‘enlightened’ – most capital is not enlightened and will fight the other wing of capital, and the working class, to the death. This is partly what we see in the battle between the Republican and Democrat parties – the clash of outmoded production, and an ostensibly ‘new’ production. Al Gore and Obama want to grow or transform a new generation of capitalists to meet this situation – witness what they are attempting to do with Chrysler and GM. However, they are also representatives of that whole capitalist class. Given this, they cannot carry through this battle to the end, and will instead protect all wings of capital. The collapse of the capitalist world economy is already hindering efforts to accomplish this transition in time. Money for a new grid is being dumping into warfare or the dead banking system by the Democrats. One of their solutions, the proposed market for ‘pollution credits’ will only create another unregulated gold rush in pollution derivatives – and, as has been proved in Europe, will not slow carbon production significantly. As "AA" points out in his reference to the declining dollar, this will make deficit financing even more difficult for U.S. imperialism - including infrastructure improvements related to a green economy.
Of course, China, which has created itself as the workhouse of world capital, has many of the same dilemmas. What they have as an advantage, however, is some centralized planning control. Overnight they shut hundreds of small coal plants. Overnight they ordered an end to the production of plastic bags. Overnight they decreed that all new skyscrapers built in Shanghai and Beijing would be ‘green.’ This is the benefit of a theoretically planned economy, not one dominated by a short-term market and millions of individual bourgeois decisions. Because global warming and peak oil are not ‘short term’ issues, the short term corporate shareholder is not the best judge of where an economy should go. Nor is a government theoretically and financially based on these same shareholders able to chart a real solution.
Both books by Foster are available at Mayday books.
Red Frog, 6/19/2009