Ecology of Socialism

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Source: Monthly Review, Ecology of Socialism / John Bellamy Foster Interviewed by Solidair/Solidaire

Solidair/Solidaire: Many green thinkers reject a Marxist analysis because they think that the Marxist approach to the economy is a very productivist one, focused on growth and seeing nature as "a free gift" to mankind. You contradict that idea.

John Bellamy Foster: Productivism has of course been the dominant perspective for the last two centuries or more, cutting across the ideological spectrum. In many ways, though, Marx, who was hands down the most sophisticated social analyst of the environmental predicament in the nineteenth century, constituted an exception. He argued that what was needed was the rational regulation by the associated producers of the metabolic relation between human beings and nature in such a way as to promote the highest levels of individual and collective human fulfillment at the lowest cost in terms of the expenditure of energy. This was the end point of his critique of capitalism and at the same time a crucial part of his definition of communism. He pointed to the "irreparable rift" in the metabolism between humanity and nature caused by the capitalist production. Marx presented the most radical vision conceivable of sustainable human development, arguing that individuals didn't own the earth, that all the countries and peoples on the planet did not own the earth, that it was our responsibility to maintain and if possible improve the earth for succeeding generations (as good heads of the household). Some later Marxists (e.g. William Morris) followed Marx in these ecological views. Others adopted a narrow productivism reminiscent of capitalist society, reinforcing a tragic legacy in the Soviet Union from the late 1930s on. Nevertheless, Marxists, and socialists more generally, played pioneering roles in the development of the modern ecological critique. All of this is explained in Marx's Ecology and in my more recent book The Ecological Revolution.

The claim that Marx believed that nature was a "free gift" to humanity is a statement that one hears over and over, but is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. All the classical economists -- Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, Say, J.S. Mill, Marx -- referred explicitly to nature as a "free gift." It was part of classical economics and was inherited by neoclassical economics. Neoclassical economists, even mainstream environmental economists, still include this same notion in their textbooks. Marx, however, was distinctive in that he was writing not about economic laws in general but about the laws of motion of capitalism as a historically specific system, and from a critical standpoint. He therefore argued, quite correctly, that nature was treated as a "free gift" for capital. Its non-valuation was built into capitalism's law of value. He argued that while under capitalism only labor produced (exchange) value, that this merely reflected the distorted character of the system, since nature, he insisted, was just as much a source of real wealth (use values) as was labor. Indeed, labor was itself at bottom a natural agent. This was not a minor matter for Marx. He started off the Critique of the Gotha Programme with this very point, criticizing those socialists who failed to recognize that nature and labor together constituted the sources of wealth, with nature as its ultimate source. Marx argued that capitalism promoted private profits in part by destroying public (natural) wealth. I have written repeatedly on this, most recently in "The Paradox of Wealth: Capitalism and Ecological Destruction" (coauthored with Brett Clark) in the November 2009 issue of Monthly Review.

On the one hand you say that "slow growth or no growth is a disaster for working people." People will lose jobs. Indeed, how can one be against growth given hunger, poverty, and unemployment in the world? But, on the other hand, you seem to accentuate the need for a zero growth. You write: "What needs to be reduced is not just carbon footprints, but ecological footprints, which means that expansion on the world level and especially in the rich countries need to be reduced, even cease." That is not a very pleasant message for the working people in those rich countries. How do you reconcile those two viewpoints and in which way your viewpoint is different from environmentalists that are pleading for "décroissance," negative growth, blaming the production and not the system of production?

Well, this is certainly a contradiction, but it is not a contradiction of mine, but one engendered by capitalist society. In capitalism you have an economic crisis whenever there isn't economic growth or it slows down significantly (more specifically when the growth of profits and accumulation turns negative or stagnates). It is a grow-or-die system. Whenever there is an economic crisis it poses, like I said, "a disaster for working people," since they are ultimately forced to bear the cost. We are experiencing that right now in a very big way. But it is also true that the ecological footprint of humanity is now too big, and we are crossing all sorts of physical boundaries of the system. This too is a reality, and one that will only worsen with continued exponential growth.

How do we deal with this double economic-ecological contradiction, which is built into capitalism? I think the answer should be obvious: we need to struggle against the system itself. People need jobs and security, as well as all the basic requirements of life. They also need opportunities for human development. But this cannot be accomplished any more by doing everything possible to expand the total level of production endlessly, with the promise (almost invariably not kept) that significant crumbs will fall to those below. Instead we have to focus on essential needs, on equality, and on human development.

The critique of the labor of "getting" as the nature of human existence goes back to Epicurus (who Marx deeply admired) in ancient times. "Nothing is enough," Epicurus wrote, "for those for whom enough is little." Socialism arose originally as a view emphasizing an egalitarian approach to the satisfaction of human needs, through rational production, and collective human development. In contrast to capitalism, there is no inherent conflict between socialism and a concept of "enough."

Isn't it possible that capitalists will become conscious of the urgency of the climate problem and put pressure on governments for green policies? After all, they are not helped with increasing energy costs, rising prices of raw materials, losses from ecological disaster, social upheaval, etc.

Some capitalists are becoming conscious of it. But of course as actual capitalists, that is, as personifications of capital (the system of self-expanding value), their task is to expand their profits, capital, wealth. It is the fiduciary responsibility of a corporate CEO to promote the interests of stockholders above all else, which means expanding the company. One could of course imagine a case in which a corporate head became so deluded as to think that the environment came before profits in the operations of his/her firm. As long as this delusion was confined to the realm of thought probably no one would care, but the moment that executive went so far as to act on the basis of such a delusion he/she would be removed by angry shareholders. Corporations are machines for accumulation. It is as simple as that. There is nothing in the nature of rising ecological costs that will alter this in the slightest. The system can profit off of high resources costs (e.g. rising oil prices). Faced with increased costs corporations will undoubtedly shift their things around to ensure continued profitability. But the idea that they will reduce their overall ecological footprints goes against everything we know about the nature and logic of capital." (

More Information

JB Foster writes:

" A transition to a carbon-free economy is simply not possible under present-day capitalism, i.e. with anything like the given composition of output and economic growth/profit requirements of the system. Technology alone can't accomplish it within the current parameters set by capital/private property. This has been demonstrated, I think quite definitively, by economist Minqi Li in a number of publications, most recently in a 2009 article in the journal Development and Change. Social relations (the mode of production) would have to change. What we need to promote instead is an ecological revolution aimed at sustainable human development and protecting the planet, making it clear that if capitalism can't save the earth -- and in fact continues as the main driver destroying it -- then capitalism itself must go. One has to remember that climate change is only one small part of the current overall threat to the earth system. It is accompanied by many other threats, such as ocean acidification, soil depletion, desertification, freshwater shortages, mass extinctions, toxic chemical pollution, the rifts in the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, etc. All of these find their common cause in our current mode of production."