By Louis Proyect, The Unrepentant Marxist, October 10, 2016
Earlier this year I was startled to discover that a debate had broken out between supporters of John Bellamy Foster on one side and Jason Moore on the other over how to properly theorize ecology from a Marxist standpoint. Since Moore’s scholarship was influenced by Immanuel Wallerstein, I wondered what the problem could be. Weren’t they all on the same wave-length with Monthly Review having provided a platform for the dependency theory/World Systems schools that included Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin and others?
As it happens, ecology is a topic that lends itself to debate since except for Marx’s relatively brief discussion of soil fertility and Engels’s observations on the despoliation of the Alps, there was very little analysis until the Green movement took off in the early 1960s. Rachel Carson’s article on DDT helped to create an awareness that pollution was not just an annoyance but a threat to human existence. This led to Marxist scholars trying to anchor the new movement theoretically even if they spoke in a hundred different voices. Unlike analyzing imperialism, there was no theoretical continuity to build upon. Basically ecosocialism had to be created from scratch.
For me it meant dumping some of the baggage I picked up in the Trotskyist movement. After all, Trotsky embraced nuclear power in “If America Should Go Communist” and Joe Hansen, who was Trotsky’s bodyguard in Coyoacan, lauded the Green Revolution (the term for chemical-based farming rather than ecology) in a 1960 pamphlet titled “Too Many Babies?: The Myth of the Population Explosion”.
When I began reading and writing about Marxism and ecology nearly 25 years ago, I soon became aware that it was a highly contested field with almost as much acrimony as you could find in the Leninist left over how to build a revolutionary party. Although almost everybody except Frank Furedi could agree that fracking and industrial farming were threats to the environment, there were disagreements over how to theorize the nature/society nexus.
Initially there was a strong tendency to view Marx and Engels as inadequate guides to understanding the environmental crisis. In a November-December 1989 New Left Review article, Ted Benson was generally sympathetic to M&E but considered them to be susceptible to the “productivism” that reigned supreme in the 19th century when capitalism was transforming the world. Benson viewed this as overly optimistic, finding fault with Marx’s statement in V. 3 of Capital that the “Development of the productive forces of social labour is the historical task and justification of capital” since it didn’t consider the problematic of natural limits.
In the early 90s I had occasional email contacts with James O’Connor who had launched a journal titled “Capitalism, Nature and Socialism” (CNS) in 1988 that provided a platform for people like Benson. O’Connor was one of the first scholars working in the field who attempted to ground his ecosocialism on Marxist theory or at least his own interpretation of the theory. He posited something he called “the second contradiction of capitalism” that described a capitalism that undermined the conditions needed to reproduce itself:
An ecological Marxist account of capitalism as a crisis-ridden system focuses on the way that the combined power of capitalist production relations and productive forces self-destruct by impairing or destroying rather than reproducing their own conditions (“conditions” defined in terms of both their social and material dimensions).
Although I eventually moved away from O’Connor’s theory and toward those developed by John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett that I considered better grounded in Marxism, I remain indebted to his insights that I credited in articles on Hurricane Sandy and Flint, Michigan.
In 1998 I wrote a brief critique of David Harvey’s “Justice, Nature & The Geography of Difference” on the Progressive Economists Network (PEN-L) that took note of what I considered his wrongheaded take on American Indians that echoed Shepherd Krech’s mistitled “The Ecological Indian”, a book that had the usual junk about bison being driven off of cliffs, etc. I suspected that O’Connor, who was a PEN-L subscriber at the time, had ideological differences with Harvey since he asked me expand on my brief post and submit it to CNS. After working a couple of months on it, I was shocked to discover that O’Connor felt his readers would not find it useful.
At the time, I was fairly close to John Bellamy Foster and asked him why my article could have been rejected. After reading it, he told me that it was far too “materialist” for the prevailing editorial outlook at CNS.
Before long I would discover that O’Connor also resented Foster likely because of a somewhat critical review of his “Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism” in the February 1999 Monthly Review by Paul Burkett that described his “second contradiction” theory as “hampered by the artificial lines he draws between capital’s exploitation of labor and capital’s destructive use of natural and social conditions.”
O’Connor got the chance to retaliate against Foster, who he likely blamed for publishing Burkett’s article, in the June 2001 issue of CNS that contained critiques of Foster’s “Marx’s Ecology”. I loyally defended Foster against the attacks as did Jason Moore in the very next issue of CNS where he wrote: “The idea that nature has its own laws of motion that can be bent but not controlled by human society runs like a red thread through Marx’s Ecology. In so doing, Foster makes a signal contribution to the renewal of an activist materialist outlook that is at once historical and geographical, social and ecological.”
It turned out that David Harvey had his own problems with Foster who he had labeled as a “neo-Malthusian” in the book I had reviewed for CNS. I guess in the world of celebrity Marxism, being a “neo” is a favored insult considering Robert Brenner’s labeling of Paul Sweezy as a “neo-Smithian” in NLR. So you can get the idea by now. In this small world having theoretical differences over how to theorize ecosocialism can lead to some really bad blood.
Despite being upset with how MRZine became an outpost of pro-Assad propaganda, I have had no issues with Foster’s writings on ecology as well as those of Paul Burkett who was on the same wave-length. The two had made important contributions to highlighting the “green” component of Marx’s writings especially the passages that dealt with the “metabolic rift”, a term that referred to the growing gulf between city and countryside with human waste polluting the Thames rather than fertilizing wheat fields. For Marx, the soil fertility crisis of the 19th century was as big a threat to society as global warming is today.
So when I first learned that there were rival camps supporting either Foster or Jason Moore, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Now that I have just finished Moore’s “Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital”, I am in a much better position to comment on the differences between two of the most respected ecosocialist scholars.
To start with, despite having met Jason Moore in person for only the first time this year, I have exchanged email with him over the years mostly to show my appreciation for his contribution to the Brenner thesis debate in articles such as “Sugar and the Expansion of the Early Modern World-Economy” that showed the influence of Sidney Mintz who had argued that sugar plantations in Jamaica were far more advanced than any factory in Europe in the 17th century despite being based on slave labor.
When I discovered that Moore’s 2007 dissertation was titled “Ecology and the Rise of Capitalism”, I was eager to read it especially since it included an epigraph by one of my favorite musicians: “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”
I had long believed that the origins of capitalism had more to do with the European colonization of the Americas than tenant farming in Britain, especially since Marx was quite explicit about that in chapter 26 of V. 1 of Capital: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”
My attention was primarily focused on the genocidal wars against native peoples but secondarily on how it was connected to environmental despoliation as I pointed out in an article on the Blackfoot Indian that Foster published in “Organization and Environment”, a journal that he lost in a hostile takeover. When the high plains were purged of the bison in order to serve the profit motives of cattle ranchers, the end result was the same kind of metabolic rift that Marx diagnosed:
Modern capitalist society has no use for the advice of Engels or for the Blackfoot philosophy. It regards nature as simply something to be dominated. It builds cities in the desert and drills for oil in the rainforest. The dire consequences of these actions are now staring us in the face. Cities like Phoenix, Arizona and Los Angeles are ecological nightmares as water from the surrounding states is diverted from its proper use in agriculture. The cities might have pleasant looking shrubbery in air-conditioned shopping malls, but meanwhile the surrounding countryside is rapidly being turned into a desert.
What Moore did in his dissertation was connect the dots between the rise of capitalism in Europe and the transformation of nature in the New World into a source of natural resources critical for the growth of industry in the Old World. Without sugar and cotton plantations, silver mines and the like, Europe would have remained a backwater. It was not just Columbus’s arrival that made this possible; Western Europe also marched eastward and carried out similar predations in China, India and Eastern Europe. In essence, it was all part of an evolving World System that viewed nature useful only as a substratum for commodity production.
Moore described the process thusly:
We can now state the matter simply. The principal spatial expression of endless capital accumulation is the endless conquest of the earth. Limitless economic expansion premised on the rising productivity of labor is limitless geographical expansion premised on the low-cost exploitation of human and extra-human nature. Because the system has been ruthlessly competitive, there is an inescapable temporal counterpart to this geographical tendency – not only the endless conquest of the earth but the conquest and incorporation of the earth in the most rapid way possible.
Essentially, “Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital” is an attempt to extract a theoretical framework for ecosocialism based on the research contained in his dissertation. It is part a restatement of some of the essential historical findings in the dissertation with an attempt to ground them philosophically by breaking with a Cartesian dualism that has ostensibly hampered Marxist theorization of the nature/society nexus. Indeed, the aim of the book is to remove the slash between nature and society and view them as dialectically related.
Cartesian dualism is a peculiar creature. These abstractions of Nature/Society separate symbolically what is unified practically in the history of capitalism: the life activity of the human species in the web of life. On the one hand, the binary is clearly falsifying and confused. It presumes an ontological separation that animates historical narratives in which relations between human (“social” relations) are theoretically independent of relations between humans and the rest of nature. The binary, moreover, confuses particular natures that are objects of capitalist development with nature as the matrix within which capitalism develops. Nature/Society forms a binary of violent abstractions in Sayer’s sense of the term—removing constitutive relations from the historical phenomena under investigation. One can no more extract “nature” from the constitution of capitalism than one could remove law, class struggle, the modern state, science, or culture.
I will return to how this rejection of Cartesian dualism led to the current ideological conflicts between Foster’s supporters and Moore after giving you a sense of the erudition that distinguishes Moore’s book from any I have read in the literature of ecology. The grasp of historical, geographical, scientific and cultural strands and how they interact with each other can be breathtaking.
For example, in chapter eight, titled “Abstract Nature and the Limits to Capital”, Moore explains how critical the metric system was to the rise of capitalism. Adopted by the French republic in 1799, it served as the modern mechanism of exchange. It arose to facilitate trade across borders, a key ingredient for undermining feudal economies that relied on distinct measuring systems.
Maps were also a sine qua non for world capitalism in its early stages. The skilled mapmakers of the Dutch East India company were necessary for helping its colonizers identify which piece of territory were ripe for conquest.
Accurate measurement was not only necessary for the conquest of land. It was also how human beings could be commodified as well, particularly in the slave trade. Traders had defined the “standard” slave: male, thirty to thirty-five years old and between five and six feet tall. Referred to as a pieza de India (piece of the Indies), the slave so designated could be used in economic planning for the colonist.
Is it possible that such a necessary integration of world systems and ecology could be accomplished without being committed to the “web of life” perspective defended by Moore? I for one cannot be positive that this is the case but can only say that if it enabled him to write such a powerful account of how we have ended up in such an intractable and ongoing environmental crisis today, this practically justifies it.
Turning now to Moore’s criticisms of Foster, they are contained in chapter three titled “Towards a Singular Metabolism: From Dualism to Dialectics in the Capitalist World Ecology” and are relatively brief—no more than a couple of pages—and begins with a tribute to Foster’s writings on the metabolic rift that integrated capital, class and metabolism as an organic whole.
The criticism, as far as I can tell, rests in these few words:
Foster’s insight was to posit capitalism as an open-flow metabolism, one that requires more and more Cheap Nature just to stay in place: not just nature as input (e.g., cheap fertilizer) but also nature as waste frontier (e.g., greenhouse gas emissions). Many of the most powerful implications of metabolic rift thinking, however, remain fettered by the very dualisms that Foster initially challenged. Not least is an unduly narrow view of accumulation as an “economic” process (it is surely much more than this) and an undue emphasis on the rarely specified “destruction” of nature.” Historical natures are subject to broadly entropic processes—the degradation of nature—but these are also reversible within certain limits. Much of this reversibility turns on capitalism’s frontiers of appropriation.
However, a more extensive critique of the theory of the metabolic rift can actually be found in an article titled “Transcending the metabolic rift: a theory of crises in the capitalist world ecology” that appeared in the January 2011 Journal of Peasant Studies. There Moore writes:
Surely part of the answer is directly given in Foster’s reading of Marx himself. In this interpretation, Marx’s critique of capitalism emphasized how ‘bourgeois society’s . . . domination of humanity’ rested on its ‘domination of the earth’, especially in the form of large-scale landed property. The endless accumulation of capital is, in other words, the endless commodification of nature. But rather than corral accumulation crisis in one pen, and biospheric crisis in another, might we instead begin from the relations that connect the two? I am therefore concerned that the particular distillation of the metabolic rift into ‘general properties’ loses sight of the whole as a ‘rich totality of many determinations and relations’.
In other words, back in 2011 and now in his latest book, Moore’s criticism is not that Foster’s reading of Marx on the metabolic rift is wrong but that it does not go far enough. The first inkling I got that Foster was stung by Moore’s criticism was in an article titled “Marx’s Ecology and the Left” that was mostly a polemic against the kind of Frankfurt-inspired analysis that could be found in James O’Connor’s CNS. But I had trouble figuring out why Moore would be included as he was toward the end of the article when Foster and co-author Brett Clark referred to “some thinkers” who invert the Frankfurt School’s domination of nature thesis and turn it into an “uncritical production of nature notion” that effectively “de-naturalizes social theory to an extreme, imposing ecological blinders.” When I went to the end notes, I discovered that Moore was one of those thinkers:
Moore presents a social “monist and relational” view, rooted in a metaphorical concept of “singular metabolism,” and defined in terms of “bundled” society-nature relations, in which he equates capitalism and “world ecology,” rejecting Marx’s own theory of metabolic rift.
With all due respect to John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, there is no evidence that Moore rejected Marx’s theory of metabolic rift or Foster’s scholarship that rested on it. He accepts it totally but only faults Foster for not going far enough in its application.
Subsequently Foster and Clark wrote an article titled “Marxism and the Dialectics of Ecology” that sounded as if Moore might have been included in the woeful Sasha Lilley collection titled “Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth”, a book that warned against warnings that capitalism was destroying the planet:
In a turn away from ecological science, Moore warns against the “fetishization of natural limits.” Directly contradicting some of the world’s leading climate scientists, members of the Anthropocene Working Group, he asserts: “The reality is not one of humanity [i.e., society] ‘overwhelming the great forces of nature.’” Rather he suggests that capitalism has an apparently infinite capacity for “overcoming seemingly insuperable ‘natural limits’”—hence there is no real rift in planetary boundaries associated with the Anthropocene, and, implicitly, no cause for concern. At worst, the system’s appropriation of nature ends up increasing natural resource costs, creating a bottom-line problem for capital, as “cheap nature” grows more elusive. Capitalism itself is seen as a world-ecology that is “unfold[ing] in the web of life,” innovating to overcome economic scarcity whenever and wherever it arises. (emphasis added)
This attempt to paint Moore as a neoliberal Green could only have been written by ignoring his chapter ten titled “The Long Green Revolution: The Life and Times of Cheap Food in the Long Twentieth Century” that has the same basic message as Foster’s “The Vulnerable Planet”, namely that we are facing catastrophe unless capitalism is abolished.
This chapter hearkens back to the soil fertility crisis of the nineteenth century that was never really resolved by the Green Revolution hailed by Joe Hansen. It describes a stark failure to sustain a working class that benefited from Cheap Food historically all to the advantage of a ruling class in need of Cheap Labor. The chapter also alludes to the mounting crisis of climate change that while threatening the utter destruction of cities on the seacoasts also impacts food production since drought undermines the possibility of feeding the working population. The final page of the chapter can hardly be mistaken as endorsing the idea that capitalism has an “infinite capacity” for overcoming natural limits:
Capitalist agriculture today is headed towards an epochal transition: from contributing to capital accumulation by reducing the costs of labor-power undermining even the middle-run conditions necessary for renewed accumulation. This is signaled by the rise of negative-value. At the point of production the superweed effect shows our future in the present: more energy- and chemical-intensive strategies to discipline agro-ecologies as these evolve into forms of work/energy hostile to the law of Cheap Nature. At the scale of the biosphere the energy-intensive character of capitalist agriculture now feeds a spiral global warming that increasingly limits capitalism as a whole.
Global warming poses a fundamental threat not only to humanity, but, more immediately and directly, to capitalism itself. This inverts the usual line of radical critique, which overstates the resilience of capitalism in the face of these changes—an overstatement that derives from a view of capitalism as a social system that acts upon nature, rather than a world-ecology that develops through the web of life. The condition for maintaining negative-value in its latent state was the possibility for moving entropy out of commodity production. Today, such latent negative-value can no longer be moved out, as biospheric changes penetrate global re/production relations with unusual power and salience. Global warming will, in the coming two decades, so thoroughly mobilize until-now latent negative-value—fed by capitalist agriculture and in turn undermining the Cheap Food model—that it is difficult to see how capitalist agriculture can survive. (emphasis added)
As I understand it, Moore has been trying unsuccessfully to have a public debate with Foster. I would hope that one can be organized before long since it would be of keen interest to activists and scholars alike. While some of the issues might appear abstruse, they ultimately affect us on the most basic level, namely the possibility of human life to continue. Facing what many scientists call a Sixth Extinction, the stakes of such an exchange are very high.
I would like to conclude this post with some of my own reflections on the issues raised by Moore’s book.
To start with, I am not convinced that Cartesian dualism is exactly the obstacle to understanding and resolving the environmental crisis. To begin with, the Cartesian dualism is much more about the individual and nature rather than society and nature, and in particular the individual mind as the famous dictum “Cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am) would indicate.
In fact, the philosophers of modernity who are in many ways nothing more than discussants on Descartes’s “Meditations on First Philosophy” had little interest in society as such. They were preoccupied with epistemological questions revolving around whether the mind can truly perceive the real world. As reported by Boswell, Samuel Johnson had this to say about George Berkeley, a radical idealist:
After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that everything in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.”
The Cartesian tradition is basically a restatement of the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic, one that prioritizes the mind philosophically. As such, idealism influenced the way in which social scientists, including historians, explained the world past, present and future. It is the philosophy that serves as a handmaiden to capitalism since it predicates progressive social change as the outcome of good ideas rather than revolutionary action by the masses. You can see this most clearly in electoral politics where candidates promising reform have managed to hoodwink working people for the past three centuries at least.
Marx and Engels broke with idealism as part of the generation of post-Hegelians who had finally come to terms with the priority of the real world over ideas. As a materialism, Marxism constitutes the end point of Cartesian idealism as Engels explained in “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific”:
The new facts made imperative a new examination of all past history. Then it was seen that all past history, with the exception of its primitive stages, was the history of class struggles; that these warring classes of society are always the products of the modes of production and of exchange — in a word, of the economic conditions of their time; that the economic structure of society always furnishes the real basis, starting from which we can alone work out the ultimate explanation of the whole superstructure of juridical and political institutions as well as of the religious, philosophical, and other ideas of a given historical period. Hegel has freed history from metaphysics — he made it dialectic; but his conception of history was essentially idealistic. But now idealism was driven from its last refuge, the philosophy of history; now a materialistic treatment of history was propounded, and a method found of explaining man’s “knowing” by his “being”, instead of, as heretofore, his “being” by his “knowing”.
If Marx and Engels were correct in defending a dialectical and materialist approach to understanding and then changing the world, might it be said that they continued to operate on the basis of a kind of dualism? In the passage above, Engels refers to the superstructure that develops out of the “real basis” in society, the class relations between worker and boss being of supreme importance. Isn’t base/superstructure a fundamentally dualist conception? Needless to say, there have been many Marxists who were troubled by this formula that slid easily into economic determinism and that was capable of being turned into a state religion by Stalin. That being said, Marx’s writings are replete with references to a kind of duality between society (referred to usually as man) and nature. For example, in chapter 48 of V. 3 of Capital, which deals extensively with the problems of soil fertility, Marx writes:
Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature.
Now I would be the first person to defend the right of anybody to question something that Marx or Engels wrote. They were products of their age and could hardly be untouched by the dynamism of capitalism that was at its height when they were trying to build a revolutionary movement. Keep in mind that Marx was an unabashed admirer of Abraham Lincoln, who was the quintessential bourgeois revolutionary even to a dyed-in-the-wool Political Marxist like Vivek Chibber. If Marx ever took note of Marx’s waffling on abolition, it never came to my attention.
Despite my reservations about Cartesian dualism being a key obstacle to developing an ecosocialism adequate to the task of saving the planet, I am sympathetic to the idea of a Marxist research project that is monist in spirit. Specifically, I would identify a program for resolving the environmental crisis that synthesizes scientific research and political strategy as urgently needed. Currently, there are disparate efforts usually based on one’s professional training either as biologists, climate scientists, historians, sociologists, etc. that amount to the story of the blind men and the elephant. Is it a tusk (climate change) or is it a trunk (soil fertility) or is it a tail (assaults on the poor such as in Flint) or is it an ear (biodiversity)?
The lack of a synthesis on the science side seems particularly glaring. You have an entire panoply of environmental threats growing out of the commercial exploitation of the Amazon rainforest that requires an analysis that spans water and soil chemistry, public health, and climate science. And all of this is connected to the plight of native peoples who are like the canaries in the coal mines, the first to face extinction by the capitalist system’s inexorable drive for profits.
To identify, confront and finally abolish the system that threatens humanity and nature, it will require a movement of scientists, scholars and workers that functions as a subset of a larger world movement that in the final analysis is the only one capable of moving toward a future based on the common good rather than private profit. As daunting as that sounds, it will eventually become possible because it is the capitalist system itself that will drive people into common struggle.