Sunday, February 14, 2010

Arm A Gettin’ -- Out

“Ecological Revolution,” by John Bellamy Foster, 2009

Marxist theory has been crossing the desert. Recent Marxist theorists either make contributions so minuscule as to go unnoticed, or make academic ones that barely register in the real world. Anyone who can point to a major contribution by a recent theorist, other than the group around Monthly Review, gets a free drink from me.

Foster, on the other hand, has made a massive breakthrough. Essentially Foster illustrates the strong environmentalism in the work of Marx and Engels; and Foster uses these insights to show that the present environmental crisis cannot be solved under capitalism.

Bourgeois ecologists like Al Gore, petit-bourgeois ‘deep-ecology’ theorists and crude productionist Marxists inspired by the Soviet Union in the 1930s all oppose the idea that Marx cared about sustainability.

Who said this?
“The private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all existing societies taken together are not owners of the earth, they are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias {good heads of the household}.”
-- Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. III. This is not the ‘young Marx’ but the mature Marx speaking.

Or this?
“…it {is} intolerable that ‘all creatures have been made into property; the fish in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth – all living things must also become free.’ ” Black Elk? Some hippy? No, Marx, approvingly quoting the peasant revolutionary Thomas Muntzer.

Marx observed that capital introduced alienation, not just of labor, but between the earth and society. Both the soil and labor were exploited for essentially private profit. Marx, basing his work on Liebig, a German soil chemist, wrote extensively about how soil was exhausted in order to feed the cities, and then the human waste of the cities, instead of being recycled, was thrown in the Thames, polluting the water. He pointed out that the soil of Ireland had been used up for the profit of London. Capitalists scoured the battlefields of Europe for bones, and islands in Peru for guano, until they discovered how to make artificial agricultural fertilizer. And this chemically-based fertilizer, Foster points out, is a non-renewable resource. As is the oil used in the agricultural machines. Foster illustrates how Marx observed that capital creates a ‘metabolic’ rift between society and nature.

Marx again, Capital, Vol. 1:
“All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in raising the fertility of the soil for a given time is progress toward ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility... Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques … undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker.” Soil condition was the key environmental issue of the day, as it directly related to the issue of food. However, according to Foster, Marx did not just concern himself with soil issues, but deforestation, desertification, climate change, the elimination of deer from the forests, the commodification of species, pollution, industrial wastes, toxic contamination, recycling, the exhaustion of coal mines, disease, overpopulation and the evolution and co-evolution of species.

Foster then lists the contributions of dozens of other Marxists and socialists to environmentalism, showing that the socialist tendency made the original environmental critique. William Morris, Henry Salt, August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, VI Lenin, Nikolai Bukharin, VI Vernadsky, NI Vavilov, Alexander Oparin, Christopher Caldwell, Myman Levy, Lancelot Hogben, JD Bernal, Benjaming Farrington, JBS Haldane, Joseph Heedham were all Marxists and socialists that made contributions to environmental theory. The dedicated environmentalist Lunacharskii was appointed by Lenin to be in charge of conservation for the USSR. In 1919 Lenin set aside in the southern Urals the first nature preserve in the world for the exclusive study of nature. Conspicuously missing from this list is Leon Trotsky, and this author will attempt to see if this is a political omission or a factual one. Foster indicates that in the 1930s in the USSR, Lysenkoism and bureaucratism throttled the dialectic as applied to nature, and environmental thought died out among those influenced by this strand of Marxism.

Even today, it is nations and areas with a strong socialist currents – in Cuba, Venezuela, Kerala in India, Curitiba & Porto Alegre in Brazil, and Evo Morales in Bolivia – that are making the largest strides towards sustainability. Even China – which was built on a ‘productionist’ view of development – has decreed almost a trillion dollars be spent on wind farms and solar production, and they are now the leading solar producers in the world. The government shut down 100s of coal mines at the drop of a hat. They outlawed plastic bag production by decree. They made it mandatory that every new office building now built be LEED certified. While these steps alone cannot stop global climate change, they indicate what an economy not thoroughly controlled by capitalists and the 'market' can do.

Right now bourgeois environmentalism consists of finding a technological ‘silver bullet’ to ‘solve’ the environmental crises of global warming, dying species, non-sustainable agriculture and fishing, peak oil, chemical contamination, water and nitrate shortages, among others -all within the confines of the market. Bourgeois economists interested in the environmental crisis, all advocate a ‘go slow’ approach, so as not to injure capitalist profitability. This is the approach of the Obama administration and the Democratic Party. This was their position at Copenhagen. This is what is behind the ‘cap & trade’ system they advocate, which will make carbon a commodity, affordable to wealthy corporations, but do little to slow climate change. And who is behind this new form of derivatives? Goldman Sachs is already operating a carbon-trading desk. They want to make everything in the world - water, air, the weather - a commodity. And if this does not work, their plan is to build 'fortresses' around their centers of wealth - on a national, regional or even a local basis, when ecological deterioration gets too great.

To give you an idea of where these people are coming from, here is a quote from Larry Summers, Clinton’s former Treasury Secretary, World Bank chief economist, and one of Obama’s chief economic advisors: “The economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.”

Building on Mike Davis' investigation of this "Planet of Slums" (reviewed below) you could even say that the health of the environment is measured by the size of capitalist cities. As capitalist agricultural methods like mechanization, chemicalization and monopoly increase; water, air, soil conditions deteriorate; and pollution spreads - more and more traditional farmers and peasants see their livelihoods destroyed, and are forced to move to the cities. In the U.S., small farmers were ruined in the depression and Dust Bowl, and continuing corporatization of farming has done the same to American agriculture, ruining small farmers and depopulating the rural areas - though perhaps without the same dire conditions as faced in Bangladesh, Mexico City or Kinshasa. In contrast, Marx always advocated spreading the population and solving the contradiction between town and country. Instead, the contradictions are getting worse.

For bourgeois environmentalism, the health of immediate capitalist profits is primary over the environment. And this will never change, up to and including any ecological collapse. I quote from Foster: “We should not underestimate capitalism’s capacity to accumulate in the midst of the most blatant ecological destruction, to profit from environmental degradation and to continue to destroy the earth to the point of no return…because the system does not have an internal (or external) regulatory mechanism that causes it to reorganize. There is no ecological counterpart to the business cycle.”

Foster’s work provides a revolutionary tool to undermine the capitalist system, and restore the earth. Capital cannot survive without profiting from 'growth.' It literally cannot live in a finite world - a limit which it has reached. Without seeing the intimate and undying link between capital accumulation and non-sustainability, no environmental movement can succeed.

And I bought it at MayDay Books!
Red Frog, 2/14/2010

1 comment:

CrisisMaven said...

"China – which was built on a ‘productionist’ view of development – has decreed almost a trillion dollars be spent on wind farms and solar production, and they are now the leading solar producers in the world." Yes, but let's not get too excited at China's sustainability: There will be much more hardship soon with a looming Chinese collapse bigger than the Soviet Union's.