Saturday, June 6, 2015

1876. On Michael Löwy’s Ecosocialism

By Kamran Nayeri, June 6, 2015

In its most general sense ecological socialism (ecosocialism) is a political movement for the solution to the present day crisis of society and nature.  While there is an increasing number of younger people who begin their political life as ecosocialists, in terms of theory and methodology ecosocialism finds its origins in various shades of socialism, in particular, those that identify themselves as Marxist (The term is more problematic today than it was in Marx’s time, see Michael Heinrich, 2015).  Although Marx and Engels were sensitive to environmental and ecological problems of their time and a number of notable socialists have shown similar sensibilities, ecosocialism as a self-conscious movement has emerged since the 1970s in response to the rise of environmentalism. As such ecosocialism is a movement in its infancy in philosophical, methodological, theoretical, and practical senses.  A welcome addition to the ecosocialist literature, Michael Löwy’s Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe reflects this fact about ecosocialism. 

However, the book is neither an introduction to ecosocialism in the sense of surveying the field nor a systematic discussion of it from Löwy’s own point of view. Rather it is a small book (120 pages, including 22 pages of appendices, four pages of notes and nine pages of index)  that in Löwy's own words  are “a more modest attempt to explore some of its theoretical aspects and proposals as well as some concrete experiences of struggle.” (p. xv)  

Although Löwy does not explain the logical structure of the book himself, it appears to me that it is centered on his decade-old “What Is Ecosocialism?” (Chapter One).  Chapter Two (“Ecosocialism and Democratic Planning”) and Chapter Three (“Ecology and Advertisement”) are a more detailed discussion of ideas raised in Chapter One.  These are followed by two chapters on Latin American indigenous struggles bearing on ecological and socialist concerns. The book includes four appendices that are ecosocialist statements Löwy coauthored.  Most of what follows pertain to the first and key chapter and their extensions in the next two chapters.  It is an essay in the critical understanding of Löwy ’s conception of ecosocialism and its logical development.  Also, I question Löwy silences when I feel they are important to ecosocialism.  Of course, my reading of Löwy’s book is colored by my own understanding of ecosocialism (Nayeri 2013a and 2013b). 

Ecosocialism and Marx’s theory
A key question in ecosocialism is continuity and change with respect to socialism. The history of socialism is largely one of neglect of the environmental and ecological issues and horrific destruction of the environment under “Really Existing Socialisms.” Given this, environmentalists and ecologists have criticized Marx’s theory as the root-cause. 

Some ecosocialists, notably John Bellamy Foster (2000 and 2010) and Paul Burkett (1999), have argued that not only Marx and Engels were sensitive to and provided insight into ecological and environmental problems of their time, their dialectical methodology and materialist philosophy provide the necessary and sufficient basis for overcoming the crises of society and nature; that is, for ecosocialism.  

Some other ecosocialists have broken with Marx’s and Engels’ teachings in favor of other perspectives. For example, Saral Sarkar (1999) has adopted the technocentric perspective of Limits to Growth of the Club of Rome as a new paradigm to develop his own view of ecosocialism.  

Still, others like James O’Connor (1998) and Joel Kovel  (2007) admit deficiencies and problems in Marx’s theory and have tried to develop synthesis incorporating insights from other sources to meet the intellectual and practical requirements for overcoming the ecosocial crisis. Löwy's theorizing is similar to these writers as he concedes that Marx’s writings include some support for “productivism.” (pp. 2-3)  And he challenges Marxists “to undertake a deep critical revision of their traditional conception of ‘productive forces’ and that they break radically with the ideology of linear progress and with the technological and economic paradigm of modern industrial civilization.” (p. 3)

Löwy approvingly notes Walter Benjamin’s denunciation of the idea of domination of nature and proposal for a new idea of technology as “mastery of relations between nature and humanity” (“One-Way Street”, 1928; quoted in Löwy, p. 3) and his embrace of Fourier’s vision of “labor, which, far from exploiting nature, would be capable of awakening the creations that slept in its womb.” (“On the Concept of History”, 1940; ibid)  I agree that Benjamin had a useful hunch but these formulations remain too general to be useful and as Löwy observes “Marxism is still far from having made up for its backwardness in this regard.” Moreover, regrettably, Löwy reduces Benjamin’s hunch to overcoming “productivism” or in Marxian parlance the explicit preference for continued “development of forces of production” even under socialism.  As we will see below, the quest for domination of nature has been a pillar of the human civilization and root-cause of the anthropogenic crisis of nature. 

To address the problem of “productivism,” in Marx’s theorizing Löwy’ cites two promising lines of development.  One is a recent suggestion by Italian “eco-Marxist” Tiziano Bagarollo to replace the notion of contradiction between forces of production and relations of production with “transformation of potentially productive forces into effectively destructive ones.” (p. 4)  This is a rather substantial revision of Marx’s and Engels’ historical materialism.  It is also an observation made by other Marxists, including Ernest Mandel, who long ago noted that many forms of production are at the same time acts of destruction and so are the forces of production also forces of destruction.  Also, let’s take note that non-Marxists scholars have contributed towards a better understanding of this problem. For example, Ronald Wright (2007) draws attention to “progress traps” in human history and in prehistory when technological progress turns into its opposite. An example he cites is the development of explosive material beginning with the Chinese invention of gunpowder.  Wright argues that when the nuclear bomb was developed a progress trap was reached because if employed it could annihilate the world.  As in the case of Wright, non-Marxist scholars are also more open-minded in terms of searching for such problems in “prehistory” as well as history.  Marxists, on the other hand, are limited by the requirements of historical materialism to look for this problem and solutions to it in class societies. This difference in scope has relevance for the development of ecosocialist theory and policy.  By focusing on class societies, Marxists leave out  95% of the history of Homo sapiens when organized as hunter-gatherers that have to bear on understanding of our relationship with the rest of nature.

Löwy seems to favor another line of thinking, one advanced by James O’Connor’s “Marxist-Polanyist” approach in his “Second Contradiction of Capitalism” thesis. As O’Connor writes: “In 1944, Karl Polanyi published his masterpiece, The Great Transformation, which discussed the ways in which the growth of the capitalist market and economic relations generally impaired or destroyed their own social and environmental conditions.” (O’Connor, 1998, p. 159).  

O’Connor contends this line of analysis is absent from Marx’s work. Such an absence is not surprising as Marx’s focus was on the social relations of production and how they could be revolutionized through the development of class struggle prompted by the laws of motion of capitalist mode of production that he and Engels hoped would lead to socialism in not too distant future.  They could not foresee that the capitalist civilization will survive into the twenty-first century creating the planetary crisis we face today.  But now that it has we need to develop philosophical, theoretical and practical basis adequate to comprehending and overcoming this crisis.  Marx’s and Engels’ brilliant nineteen-century contributions are still necessary.  But in the spirit of Marx himself, we need to find our own way out of this crisis basing ourselves on all necessary knowledge critically appropriated.    

But here is where Löwy’s exploration face difficulties.  He defines ecosocialism as “a current of ecological thought and action that appropriates the fundamental gains of Marxism while shaking off its productivist dross.” (p. 6)  With a slight of his pen, he drops Benjamin’s concern with the problem of the drive to dominate and control nature, which I will return to below.  At the same time, Löwy accepts the need to revise the very method of “Marxism,” historical materialism, with its emphasis on forces of production. How can one “appropriate the fundamental gains of Marxism” if the methodology of reaching them is in some fundamental sense is inadequate to our present day purpose?  The advantage of O’Connor’s approach that Löwy seems to favor is precisely in its attempt to revise historical materialism in ways that allow for a synthesis with Polanyi’s thesis in consideration of the impact of capitalism on nature.  But if we revise Marx’s method would it not be necessary to rethink his theory, including his critique of political economy? Also, Löwy’s definition of ecosocialism as “a current of ecological thought and action” is itself a fundamental revision of Marx’s and Engels’ theory of socialism (Communism, as they called it to differentiate their vision from the Utopian Socialists) as a form of consciousness reached by a current within the working class movement.  Of course, in principle, there is nothing wrong per se in revising Marx’s theory and method if such revision allows us to more effectively overcome the crises of society and nature and emancipate humanity.  However, it is untrue, confusing and sectarian to insist that this is still “Marxist.”  

For a humanist ecology? 
Löwy's conception of ecosocialism includes other notable tensions. A key tension is what I think is fair to call his “humanist ecology.”  In his allusion to O’Connor’s definition of ecosocialism, Löwy argues that O’Connor’s notion of “environmental protection” is a “humanist imperative because “the very survival of the human species” is threatened by the capitalist civilization. (p. 8)  Of course, this not a mere propaganda ploy or agitational tool but part of Löwy attempt at theoretical development of ecosocialism.  Add to this Löwy's  criticism of Deep Ecology for opposing anthropocentrism: a “rejection of humanism, which leads to relativist positions that place all living species on the same plane.” (p. 6)  He rhetorically asks: “Should one really maintain that Koch’s bacillus or the Anopheles mosquito have the same right to life as a child suffering from tuberculosis or malaria?”  (ibid.)

I will get back to Löwy’s criticism of Deep Ecology and his rhetorical question in a moment.  Let’s focus on the theoretical and methodological question that Löwy raises: anthropocentrism (or its humanism variety) or ecocentrism (which Deep Ecology embraces), which is the proper worldview for understanding and addressing the ecological crisis?  By definition, ecology as a branch of biology deals with the web of relationships among organisms and with their physical environment. We call this complex set of relationships an ecosystem. Thus, by definition ecological concerns are with ecosystems and are ecocentric by definition.  By contract, anthropocentrism or its humanist variety view humans as the apex of creation. They are a human-centered approach to reality, social or ecological. 

As a philosophical and literary movement, Humanism originated in Italy in the second half of the fourteen century and has come to be a pillar of modernity, including socialism.  Humanism has been a revolutionary movement where it has dethroned supernatural beings, gods, to liberate humanity from religious dogma and tyranny.  Yet, humanism has maintained a modified version of the anthropocentrism of the Church’s doctrine which in the Book of Genesis that claims God created Man in his own image and other species for Him.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution challenges anthropocentric views of humans as the apex of creation with its contribution to our understanding of life on Earth and our place in it.  Of course, Darwin did not deny that human mental capacities are greater than other animals. He acknowledged that humans far outdistance all other animals in linguistic ability, thought, and reason.  He only insisted that the difference, impressive as they are, are matters of degree, not of kind. At the same time, despite the prevalent practice of comparing other species’ capabilities to humans, the Darwinian evolutionary theory makes it clear that every species has capabilities adequate to the ecosystem niche it inhabits. Thus, a chimpanzee has arms much stronger than humans and a tiny gopher can dig a complex maze of tunnels with its tiny hands and sharp claws and an ant can carry 100 times its own weight.  It is anthropocentric and anti-Darwinian to expect other species to excel in capacities acquired by our species. In the Darwinian theory, there are simpler and more complex species. There are no superior or inferior species. 

The Darwinian heritage is an intellectual and spiritual pillar for the ecological movement and a guiding light for humanity to emerge out of its thousands-year-old crisis of society and nature.  Thus, it is essential to any ecosocialist theorizing that hopes to provide a solid ethical basis for any post-capitalist naturalist social formation.  

There is a growing literature on bioethics. Let me cite one example that directly uses Darwin’s theory.  Philosopher James Rachels (1990) has used Darwin’s theory to argue for moral consideration for all animals.  Before Darwin, he recalls, the doctrine of “dignity of man” which is the central tenant of humanism, was defended by the claim that “man is made in the image of God” or by the notion that “man is a uniquely rational being.” Rachels painstakingly debunks both of these arguments in light of Darwin’s theory. To replace the “dignity of man” doctrine, he proposes “moral individualism.”  
How an individual should be treated depends on his or her own particular characteristics, rather than on whether he or she is a members of some preferred group--even the ‘group’ of human beings...This means that human life will, in a sense, be devalued, while the value granted to non-human life will be increased. (Rachels 1990, p. 5) 
By “devaluation” of human life, Rachels means the process of dethroning human beings as the apex of creation in our anthropocentric culture. It should be understood in the sense of leveling of hierarchical value systems as in the case of the fall of Apartheid in South Africa.  It was not so much “devaluing” the lives of white South African as it was for equality of rights for all regardless of their race.   

It is also notable that for 95% of our existence when humans were hunter-gatherers some of whom still survive, they held animist beliefs and ecocentric cosmologies.  Archeological evidence suggests that transition to farming by some hunter-gatherer bands that occurred at the end of the last ice age about 10,000 ago was possibly facilitated by emerging anthropocentric worldview and certainly reinforced and institutionalized it with the emergence of class societies and civilization (Barker, 2006).  I have argued (Nayeri, 2013b) that this historical transition marks the onset of our alienation from nature.  Given its foundational necessity for class societies—without domination and control of other species the Agricultural Revolution would have never happened and economic surplus was not possible. Thus, anthropocentrism also served as the basis for social stratification and subordination, oppression and exploitation of all kinds. Therefore, human emancipation, postulated in Marx as a process of de-alienation (and not simply of having more free time as Löwy contends), requires not only a revolution to transcend the fossil fuel-based industrial capitalist civilization in the direction of an Associated Producers mode of production but also a cultural revolution to overcome anthropocentrism (also known as speciesism or doctrine of human superiority). 

Now we can return to  Löwy's rhetorical question and his criticism of Deep Ecology: “Should one really maintain that Koch’s bacillus or the Anopheles mosquito have the same right to life as a child suffering from tuberculosis or malaria?”  Löwy does not ascribe this perverse position to anyone or any source in Deep Ecology.  But holding an ecocentric worldview, Darwinian or Deep Ecology, does not entail disregard for human life or opposition to saving a child from tuberculosis or malaria. Point Three of the Eight Point Platform of Deep Ecology, drafted by two of its most influential thinkers Arnes Naess and George Sessions, clearly states: “Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity [of life] except to satisfy vital needs.” (my emphasis) This statement focuses on species in ecosystems and exempts humans to reduce its “richness and diversity” for the satisfaction of their “vital needs.” Would anyone fantom Naess or Sessions object to saving a child’s life from a life threatening infections?  Löwy rhetorical question posed as an attack on Deep Ecology is bogus.  The “relativism” of Deep Ecology is really its ecocentrism that dovetails Darwin’s and that of ecology.  Neither leads humanity into neglecting our vital needs. Both require us to give up our self-appointed position as the apex of creation and to embrace nature with love and empathy as we do for humanity. Thus, from the point of view of ecosocialism, the problem is not ecocentrism but humanism that is a variety of anthropocentrism. 

In his two chapters on Latin American indigenous peoples’ fight for the environment, Löwy discusses recent development in Bolivia in support of the rights of Mother Earth. Is this not a reflection of the native cultures in the Americas that held and in some cases continue to hold today ecocentric world views similar to those Deep Ecology promotes?

Questions of policy
Of course, the anthropocentric basis of Löwy’s theorizing frames his understanding of the root cause of the ecological crisis and his approach to ecosocialist policy.  In his discussion of democratic planning which he expands on in Chapter Two Löwy appeals to E. P. Thomson’s notion a “moral economy” founded on non-monetary, extra-economic criteria. The question is: does Löwy “moral economy” include an integral ethical approach to other species and the well-being of the planet?  

The answer is that it doesn’t.  I will cite three examples. 

The problem of human overpopulation 
Take Löwy’s silence on the population question.  It is estimated that during Jesus’s time the world population was about 300 million.  It took eighteen centuries for it to reach one billion by 1804.   But in the next 123 years, it doubled to two billion in 1927.  Just 33 years later, in 1960, it reached 3 billion.  Only 14 years later in 1974, it was already 4 billion.  It took 13 years for the world population to reach 5 billion in 1987. By 1999, 12 years later, it had reached 6 billion.  Just 13 years later in 2012, it had reached 7 billion.  It is projected that the world will have around 9 to 10 billions by 2050.  

How can anyone concerned with the ecological health of the planet ignore the size and fast rate of growth of human population especially when it is combined with a rapid rise in its consumption per head as suggested by the increase in the real per capita GDP since the Industrial Revolution in England (1)?  The ratio of real GDP in 1995 to 1950 was 3.1 in the “more developed areas” with 20% of the world population and 2.9 in the “less developed areas” with 80% of the world population. (Easterlin, 2000, Table 3)  Some 20% of the world population, mostly in the industrial capitalist countries, consume 80% of the world GDP.  

Just focusing on energy used Vitousek et al (1986) note that we “are now consuming about 12,000 times more as much energy per day as was the case when farming started; 90 per cent of this is a result of industrialization, 10 per cent to our huge growth in numbers…" (cited in Washington, 2013, p. 12).  According to their calculations, humans co-opt organic material equivalent to about 40% of the present net primary product in terrestrial ecosystems each year.  The vast majority of other species must subsist on the reminder.   “‘An equivalent concentration of resources into one species and its satellites has probably not occurred since land plants first diversified.’” (ibid.) Vitousek et al. add that “humans also affect much of the other 60% of terrestrial NPP, often heavily.” (ibid) But Vitousek et al. study is over quarter of century old and uses conservative methodologies.   

Washington who quotes extensively from Vitousek et al. remarks: 
Whichever figure one uses, this remains a huge percentage of the net primary productivity of the planet that humans are appropriating.  Of course this appropriation is also increasing as population, and possibly more importantly per capita consumption, continues to increase. The high and increasing appropriation of NPP by humanity is clearly a fundamental stress on ecosystem health. NPP is the foundation of all ecosystems, so if we pull out too many blocks from the foundation to put on the ‘human pile’ eventually other structures (natural ecosystems) collapse.  And indeed they are... (Washington 2013, p. 12-13).
Unfortunately, most ecosocialists are either silent on the problem of rapidly rising and sheer size of human population and our ever-increasing consumption per capita, or worse, attack ecologists and environmentalists and the few ecosocialists who raise it as “Malthusian.” But to cast the ecological implications of human population growth as a replay of the nineteenth-century argument involving Malthus and Marx is to show a lack of understanding of both.  The Malthus-Marx “debate” (Malthus died in 1834 before Marx learned of him) was really about class conflict and income distribution (Foster, 1999). While Marx was right against Malthus in the nineteenth century "population debate" that was not a discussion of the role of human population in today’s ecological crisis and the ongoing anthropogenic Sixth Great Extinction (Nayeri, 2014a). 

Thus, Löwy’s “humanist ecology” deprives him of the ability to register much less engage the real concern with a human population that environmentalists and ecologists he says he wants to reach correctly cite as cause for concern.  While a critic of economic growth ideology, Löwy vision is not ecological despite his own insistence that ecosocialism is (or ought to be?) a contributing current in the ecological movement. 

The problem of “preservation of ecological equilibrium”
Once Löwy sets out the framework for his vision of ecosocialism he focuses on the problem of planning in forging the future ecosocialist society, mostly in Chapter Two (“Ecosocialism and Democratic Planning”).  The literature on socialist planning is extensive which Löwy does not engage (except briefly in the case of Michael Albert’s “Participatory Economy”).  Rather he stresses a number of his preferred features of planning. First, “the plan concerns the main economic options” not small businesses while he expresses support for workers management of small businesses. (p. 26)  Second, he suggests that instead of “centralized” or “decentralized” dichotomy the “real issue is democratic control of the plan at all levels: local, regional, national, continental, and, hopefully international” levels.” (p. 27) Third, he argues that democratic planning should include consumers as well as producers.   To make these effective and functional Löwy argues for libertarian ecosocialism with a multi-party system and full democratic rights to ensure meaningful choices for the population.

Also, Löwy argues democratic planning of the economy should take into account “the preservation of the ecological equilibrium.” (p. 23)  As examples, he suggests elimination of “nuclear plants, certain methods of mass/industrial fishing…, the destructive logging of tropical forests, etc.” (ibid).  

However, he leaves out a key question: How would planners on each level from local to international approach the problem of “preservation of the ecological equilibrium?” 

Löwy’s humanist approach to ecology would leave him no choice but to rely on scientism and technocentrism to achieve and maintain “ecological equilibrium” from local to the planetary level. Of course, Löwy advocates for democratic planning based on grassroots. But ordinary people are no better in judging what is the proper “ecological equilibrium” than today’s environmentalist establishment which relies on scientists and technicians to figure it out.  Any anthropocentric (or humanist) ecology ends up being ecology by human design, of humans acting as managers of nature(2). As ecosystems are extremely complex and human ingenuity invariably prone to errors the law of unintended consequences will set in and odds of failure increase. And if history is any guide failure is guaranteed!  

Another approach based on ecocentrism is more in line with ecosocialism as it would be motivated by the culture of love and respect for Mother Nature/Mother Earth; take for example,  indigenous cultures, Deep Ecology’s philosophy and simple rules (The Eight Point Platform) or ethical stance of the theory of evolution and Big History (Christian, 2004) that view humanity as part of a vast and intertwined web of life pointing to a “do no harm” environmental ethics.  The ecosocialist society can supplement this ethical approach to nature with knowledge and know-how gleaned from science and technology, remembering that these are not value free enterprises. Science has been motivated by human curiosity and the anthropocentric desire to dominate and control nature and technology is in large measure ways of human domination and control of nature.

To illustrate, while as ecosocialists we appeal to the scientific consensus that there virtually certainty (95% confidence) that global warming is chiefly caused by human-generated emissions that knowledge merely gives urgency to our call for an immediate transition to sustainable sources of energy.  However a transition to sustainable sources of energy is an environmentally ethical choice that follows from our knowledge of possible dangers from fossil fuels to nature.  As ecosocialists we would not need to wait for scientific consensus to act on this question if we had the means to do so. 

How to decide which economic/human activities to eliminate? 
From this perspective, Löwy’s suggestions for elimination of certain economic activities and industries seem timid, insufficient and arbitrary. He is silent on a host of industries and economic activities that thrive on exploitation, misery and death of untold number of species and untold billions of individuals directly or through destruction of their habitat.  For instance would the future ecosocialist society maintain “recreational” and commercial hunting and fishing, zoos and animal circuses, international trade in wildlife and the “pet” industry, uses of animals in laboratory research and “entertainments” such as horse and dog racing, bullfighting, cockfighting, dog fighting to name just a few?  Would the meat industry meet Löwy standard of the ecosocialist “moral economy?” Some statistics can help: In 2011, more than 58 billion chicken (more precisely, 58,110,000,000), nearly 3 billion ducks (2,917,000,000), more than a billion pigs (1,383,000,000) were slaughtered worldwide. Other farm animals slaughtered for food numbered in hundreds of millions each: 654,000,000 turkeys, 649,000,000 geese and guinea fowl, 517,000,000 sheep, 430,000,000 goats and 296,000,000 cattle. (Heinrich Böll Foundation, 2014, p. 15) The extreme suffering of farm animals is well documented (see for example the following links from the Farm Sanctuary for chickens, pigs, cows, and sheep). 

 Of course, consumption of non-human animals as food is not limited to farm animals. In 2011, over 156 million tons of seafood (capture and aquaculture) was consumed worldwide (FAO, “World Fisheries Production,” accessed June 2, 2014). There is also “exotic food” that in the United States includes alligator, alpaca, armadillo, bear, beaver, bobcat, caiman, crocodile, camel, coyote, capon, dove, frog, iguana, kudu, lion, llama, monkey, muskrat, opossum, otter, ostrich, pale, quail, turtle, venison and zebra meat. (see, for example, this marketplace mail order for exotic food)  Other countries and cultures have their own choice of meat. In China, Korea and the Philippines cats and dogs are eaten.  Japanese prize whales as food.  The French eat horse meat. In Africa, bushmeat is treasured.  

In “How Veganism Can Help Save the World” (Nayeri, June 2014) I have argued ecosocialists would do well to fight for a radical transformation of our carnivores diet and the food system that supports it not only because the meat industry it is an essential part of modern day capitalism, not just because a carnivores diet is bad for our health and bad for the environment, but most of all because they are among the most horrendous manifestation of anthropocentrism that stands in the way of ecosocialism. 

In his discussion of democratic planning, Löwy is correct to argue that we need a revolution in values against “the prevalent type of consumption, based as it on conspicuous consumption, massive waste, mercantile alienation, obsessive accumulation of goods, and the compulsive acquisition of pseudo-novelties impose by ‘fashion.’” (p. 32).  I have just argued that one would need to radically transform this value matrix from an anthropocentric perspective to an ecocentric perspective.  In Chapter Three (“Ecology and Advertising”), Löwy focuses on the advertising industry, which expands commodity fetishism and economic growth, alas in anthropocentric terms.  First, Löwy limits his field of vision by dividing the literature into “pessimists” and “optimists” about growth.  The optimists are socialists that believe “technical progress and the use of renewable sources of energy will permit unlimited growth and abundance, so that all can receive ‘according to their needs.’” (p. 32)  Although “productivism” is the central theme in Löwy critique of “Marxism” he does not dwell on the “optimists” and their technology fetishism which is shared by a current among neoliberals who claim technology can fix or dispose of ecological problems (inclduing by colonizing other planets!) He is more worried about ecologist pessimists who believe “the only alternative to productivism is to stop growth altogether, or to replace it by negative growth…and dramatically reduce the population’s excessively high level of consumption by cutting energy expenditure by half through renouncing individual family houses, central heating, and washing machines, and so on.” Löwy points to an extremist minority he does not name who call for “ecological dictatorship” to enforce such “draconian austerity.”

In fact, spectrum of views on the problem of capitalism and growth is far more diverse and complicated and in important ways.  Let me illustrate by noting the case of Limits to Growth proponents of ecosocialism.  These include Saral Sarkar (1999) and Ted Trainer (2010; for a brief discussion of Trainer’s view see Alexander, 2012).  While neither is a Marxist, they are not the wild-eyed extremists that Löwy  warns us about.  Both Sarkar and Trainer are motivated by twin concerns of overconsumption, that they believe is largely responsible for the crisis, and with social justice. They both call for democratically decided scaling back of the economy and population to reach a steady state ecosocialist economy compatible with the “carrying capacity” of the planet.  Their idea of democratic planning is similar to Löwy’s.  Sarkar is explicitly anthropocentric and to my knowledge Trainer has not embraced ecocentrism.  While neither of these authors are acknowledged in Löwy’s discussions of ecosocialism, they share similar views with him on many issues. An exception is degrowth (shrinking of the economy and population).  

What I like to argue now is that Löwy’s own view of reorganizing the economy along the value matrix that he defines (see above) will result in negative growth and drastic reduction of the size of the economy (in individual countries where his prescription is adopted as well as the world economy), a form of unplanned degrowth (shrinking of the size and complexity of the economy).  Take for example, his critical view of advertising. If we get rid of advertising in the U.S.  economy we wipe out about 2% of the GDP in one stroke (that is more or less the share of advertising in the GDP in recent years). But if advertising has any real effect on consumption its elimination will reduce demand for goods and services of other industries causing further drop in the GDP.  Then there is the multiplier effect.  Income lost by the lay off of employees in advertising would be lost income for firms and industries that provide goods and services to these individuals. The same multiplier effect will shrink firms and industries that provide goods and services to those laid off from firms and industries affected by the disappearance of advertising capital investment.  Thus, there will be significantly less expenditure in the economy and further shrinking of the GDP.  Of course, some of those laid off in advertising and affiliated industries can be hired in industries producing goods and services to satisfy genuine unmet needs.  But capitalist wastefulness by far exceed unmet human needs and overall the economy is bound to shrink significantly  And, of course, advertising is not the only economic activity that will wither away under ecosocialism(3).

Thus degrowth—of economy—is inherent in ecosocialism in part for the reasons Löwy himself cites—there is much waste and harmful production that must be stopped as soon as possible.  Also, ecosocialist degrowth would not be “draconian” or “dictatorial.”  In fact, it can actually be a fun and liberating experience. (Alexander, 2014)  I would concur with Trainer that ecosocialism will be built on new sets of values consistent with finding joy and fulfillment in simplicity. (Trainer, 2015) 

On indigenous peoples’ struggle
Löwy's two chapters on the indigenous struggles in Latin America are fun to read and educational.  I regret he does not notice the underlaying ecocentrism of these cultures and why that matters in their attitude towards nature and ecological crisis we face.  In the section about the World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in 2010, he writes:
One can criticize the mystical and confused aspects of the concept of ‘Mother Earth’ (Pachamama in indigenous languages Aymara and Quechua), as some leftist Latin American intellectuals have done, or point out the impossibility of giving an effective legal expression to the ‘rights of Mother earth,’ as jurists have done. Yet this would be to lose sight of the essential point: the powerful, radically anti-systemic social dynamic that has crystalized around these slogans. (p. 71)
But to call indigenous ideas of Mother earth” “mystical and confused” is entirely anthropocentric and colored by the ethos of Western civilization.  Perhaps these “leftists” and the “jurists” should have consulted an anthropologist or an archeologist who could explain to them that these expression are based on cosmologies that view humans as a part of their natural surrounding and as its children not its masters.  Would not this way of thinking about nature be more in line with the Darwinian view of life and our place in the world and perhaps aid Westerners and the rest of us to overcome our delusion of mastery over nature that has been the root-cause of the ecological crisis for thousands of years? 

Löwy’s defense of the indigenous struggle also falls short. Of course, he is correct about “the powerful, radically anti-systemic social dynamic that has crystalized around these slogans.” But as I pointed above he misses the larger point.  It is us the civilized people who can learn from the indigenous cultures their ecocentric outlook and how to incorporate it into the fabric of the ecosocialist society we like to build.

The ecosocialist documents Löwy includes as appendices are historical records. It would have been useful had he also included an assessment of the Ecosocialist International Network which he cofounded and was disbanded without a discussion in 2013 (I belonged to it from 2009 to its demise).

It is a pity that the book is poorly edited.  As I explained earlier there is a certain internal logic to it that is appealing and helpful which Löwy somehow neglects to bring to his readers attention in the Preface. There are repetitious sections, sometimes verbatim, that distract readers from consideration of the author’s reflections on important theoretical problems. The Preface seems to have been written in a rush and includes an unfortunate error.  The opening paragraph reads: “The pursuit of ‘growth’ under the aegis to capital will lead us in short range—the next decades—to catastrophe without precedence in human history: global warming.” (p. vii, my emphasis) 

Global warming is a fact already— Löwy probably meant catastrophic climate change which he refers to repeatedly elsewhere in the book.  Also, both global warming and climate change have happened in human history before—in fact, most experts believe that the Holocene which began with warming of the atmosphere 11,700 years ago that ended the last ice age helped prompt some hunter-gathers to become farmers. As such it was responsible for civilization hence the crisis we face today. 

1. Of course, consumption in the capitalist world economy is highly skewed. While there is overconsumption and a lot of waste in the North and by higher income groups in the South, there is a lot of unmet needs in the South any by low-income groups in the North. Meanwhile, 2.8 billion people struggle to survive on less than $2 a day, and more than one billion people lack reasonable access to safe drinking water. United Nations reports that 825 million people are still undernourished; the average person in the industrial world took in 10 percent more calories daily in 1961 than the average person in the developing world consumes today (World Watch Institute, 2014)
2. The often used term “guardians” of nature is self-serving. Who are we protecting nature from if not some group of humans? 
3. To illustrate, consider the war industry and the health care industry in the U.S. economy.  With  $14.66 trillion economy in 2010, the budget of the Department of Defense budget was $862.2 billions in 2011 (the latest available figure) and the health care system cost $2.49 trillion in 2009 (the latest available figure).  A back of the envelope calculations show that if we get rid of the Department of Defense and reform the U.S. care system to be similar to Canadian system, the second most expensive system in the word but with better outcomes than the U.S. system, there would be roughly a 9.4% drop in the GDP (I am not considering the secondary effects and the multiplier effects of these changes which will make this drop much more pronounced). If those who lose their employment are re-trained and re-employed in ecology friendly and use-value generating economic activities that will guarantee everyone a job by reducing the work week say to 30 hours we will end up with a significantly smaller economy while moving towards a culture of being from the current bourgeois culture of having. 

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1 comment:

Michael A. Lewis said...

Thank you for this excellent review of Löwy's Ecosocialism.