Socialism and Ecology
A presentation given by Franklin Dmitryev, Chicago, December 5, 2018, as part of a series on “What Is Socialism?”
“Capital…allows its actual movement to be determined as much and as little by the sight of the coming degradation and final depopulation of the human race, as by the probable fall of the earth into the sun….‘After me the flood!’ is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation.” –Karl Marx
“Experts point out that our [coal] supplies run for another 200 years, and it would be hard not to use them.” –Polish President Andrzej Duda, in his opening remarks two days ago at the UN’s 24th annual climate change conference
No doubt we’ve all heard the latest reports from large bodies of scientists, one from the UN and one from within the Trump administration, which is twisting and turning every way to try to deny its own report. Unable to derail the report, Trump lackeys tried to bury it by releasing it the day after Thanksgiving when we would all presumably be too stupefied from an orgy of consumerism to notice. When this stratagem backfired, they settled on a line that the report reflected an “extreme” scenario. They did not realize that they were telling the truth for once, to the extent that the reality of the matter is an extreme scenario. As the Lead in the Sept.-Oct. 2018 N&L points out:
“Even many scientists shy away from confronting the extremity of risk faced by humanity, while the extreme risks are unthinkable to leaders of governments, corporations, media, and educational institutions. But unthinkable events keep happening, just as the 2008 economic crisis was unthinkable to most economists, politicians and business leaders.”
Both reports concluded that climate change is already wreaking havoc; that it will get worse and be very damaging to human health and the economy; that we can stop it from reaching a catastrophic level but that will take urgent, drastic action, far more than what governments and companies are taking now.
By the way, the N&L article specifically mentions how the administration of the sainted George H.W. Bush in 1989 sabotaged an international conference that had been intended to come up with a treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Over the last three decades, N&L has covered how, at one international conference after another, from the 1992 Earth Summit to the 2015 Paris Agreement, “key corporations and governments, with the U.S. at their head, downplayed information about a looming catastrophe and blocked any binding action as greenhouse gas emissions keep climbing.”
As the article details, “the current political and economic systems dominating planet earth—all of which are founded on capitalist production—have utterly failed….Over the last 40 years capitalism has again and again shown itself incapable of adequately, or even rationally, confronting climate change.”
This is not just an accident caused by the Supreme Court ordering an end to the recount in Florida in 2000, inconveniently preventing Al Gore from claiming the White House. Rather, real action on the climate has been blocked by the very nature of capitalism, a system of production for production’s sake, accumulation of capital for its own sake, as Marx showed. As our article takes up, this has been manifested in a number of interlinked ways, all of which have been exacerbated by the systemic crisis world capitalism plunged into in the mid-1970s, which has strongly shaped events since then.
Some of those ways include:
- Economic and political enslavement to economic growth, without which capitalism falls into recessions, job losses, impoverishment, wars and political instability.
- The exigency of focusing on short-term problems, enforced by competition in markets; domestic politics such as elections; wars and international relations.
- The overwhelming influence of the fossil fuel industries on politics, and not only of one major party.
- The untouchable status of the military, which by some accounts is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.
- The cult of climate denial, which, as our Lead article showed, well-funded and politically connected organizations and media entities have been cultivating for decades, and which forms an important part of the sabotaging of truth and the push toward fascism in the U.S., Brazil, Russia, and Europe.
The influence of the right wing comes from both ideology and the political might flowing from economic power, and the ideology flows from not only the class structure of society but the alienation inherent in capitalism, in which the machine and the economy are masters of humanity and not the other way around.
It is not only the particular ideology of the Right that poses a barrier. It is the general ideology that flows from the very nature of capitalist society, compounded by the failures and transformation into opposite of so many revolutions. The hopelessness of the many, the reticence of scientists, the denialism of economists and other ideologues—none of this can be separated from the underlying toxic ideology that there is no alternative to capitalism.
Capitalism’s abject failure to confront climate change makes urgent the sense that another world is possible. A world where workers’ control of production halts the built-in destructive direction of capitalism—and overthrows its seemingly unbreakable law of value—can in fact be built by transformative movements from below. Now we see only the tip of that transformative iceberg but its potential to erupt is fermenting. Only that sense can merge with the inevitable eruptions from below and set the stage for a unity of philosophy and revolution that can set afoot a whole new society with a new direction away from the self-destruction of humanity and toward total liberation.
What kind of socialism could set that new direction? Clearly, it must be based on the self-activity of the individuals, including the workers, Black masses and other people of color, women, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities. And that can truly happen only on the basis of a revolutionary change in which that very self-activity is the driving force, and in its very nature drives to break down the division between mental and manual labor. Only that can halt the direction toward ever more accumulation of capital, ever more alienation, ever more destruction of the environment and people, and endless manipulation of policies and misinformation by vested interests.
The history of so-called Communist or socialist or social-democratic states shows clearly that that cannot be accomplished by means of market strategies, state planning, or nationalization, including “public ownership” or “democratic control” of corporations. There is scope within the existing system to shift toward renewable energy and environmentally sound land use and away from greenhouse gas emissions. And those kinds of steps are urgent and necessary. But none of that can reverse the fundamental direction of capitalism’s production for production’s sake.
Let’s dig into this more by looking at Marx’s analysis, as comprehended by Marxist-Humanism. (See the analysis in Marxism and Freedom by Raya Dunayevskaya.) The character of the labor process is crucial. In the capitalist factory, the machine dominates the worker, and the worker acts as an appendage to the mechanism. Marx calls it the dialectical inversion of subject and object, where the object dominates the subject.
This dialectical inversion is inscribed in a hidden form in the phenomenon of value. We are not talking about value in a moral or psychological sense but in the capitalist economic sense. Under capitalism, the driving motive of decisions about production, its speed, its technology, even its location, is maximizing production of value–or, to be more precise, maximizing the procurement of surplus value.
Marx shows that value is the form of appearance of objectified labor under the capitalist mode of production. It is the objectification of alienated abstract labor, pounded down to one quantitative dimension of socially necessary labor time, and abstracted from all other aspects, including material aspects. It is not a theoretical construct but rather the actual basis of capitalism’s functioning. Value takes on a life of its own as the driving force of society and stands in opposition to workers, the subjects of labor.
Industry’s output of waste, including greenhouse gases, is determined by its process of production, where the needs of the subject, the worker, are subsumed by the drive of value to expand itself. The trajectory of this historical period is determined, not by humanity’s growing productive powers as such, but rather by human power in an alienated form that stifles human development as much as it creates the potential for development by expanding productivity.
The “Communist” USSR of the past and China even today have had some of the worst environmental records and by no accident subordinated themselves to the law of value. Social-democratic Norway has long been a major oil exporter. The “21st century socialism” of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador never turned away from reliance on extraction and export of fossil fuels as a path to capitalist development, as a substitute for real human development.
The fact that these countries, especially the USSR, were passed off and widely accepted as “socialist” economies led to serious illusions and deformations of theory. Green theory in general proceeds from the assumption that socialism is just as guilty as capitalism and therefore the blame lies with “industrialism,” which is abstracted from the social relations of production. In the same move it abstracts from the counter-revolution that came from within the revolution, and its transformation into opposite into state-capitalism.
Contemporary radical theory is shaped by an overwhelming consciousness of defeat, and a loss of confidence in the human power of transformation of society. That theory is grounded in the actual history of revolutions that have failed or transformed into opposite, as in Russia, China, Iran, Egypt, and so forth. However, those failures are theorized as the universal essence of human nature, so that the radical agenda becomes defined less by the need for human development than by the need to limit human activity. This retreat from revolution is developed in theory as the impossibility of any transformation that results in true liberation.
This departure from Marx is the basis of attempts like the theoretician Ted Benton’s to “green” Marxism as well as the current trend that calls itself degrowth. Whether this view is held in green theory or in ecosocialism, it is based on an uncritical identification of human power with the alienated, capitalist form of human power, as manifested in capitalist industry–and again that is reinforced by the fetishism of industry and science promulgated by official Soviet theory and echoed by theoreticians like Louis Althusser.
From this vantage point, Ted Benton argues that Marx’s philosophy adequately theorizes natural limits to human powers but that his economic theory does not. Benton is correct in seeing “transformative, productive powers of associated human beings” as central to Marx. But why pose them as the cause, rather than the solution, of social ecological problems? To Marx, the reappropriation of human powers is “the true solution of the strife between humanity and nature,” but to Benton it is just another form of “domination of nature.”
Radical theory thus places itself in stark opposition to Marx’s concept of “the development of human power as an end in itself” as the very definition of “the true realm of freedom.”
The fallacy at the heart of Benton’s concept of human powers–a concept shared by many activists and theorists–is the recognition of those powers only in an alienated shape, that is, as powers embodied in capital, as a “hostile force.” Such a theoretical concept skips over the contradiction within human power itself: human beings struggling against their domination by their own products and by the process of making these products.
Therefore, the domination of object over subject is posited as natural and eternal, rather than a social form of a specific historical stage, capitalism. What Benton has achieved is the articulation of that theoretic principle. That makes his theory represent far more than just one individual’s misinterpretation of Marx.
Paradoxically, the reaction against the destructive effects of human power out of control would only doom us to be unable to halt that destructive trajectory. That is so because the only way to take control of the consequences of human production is to wrest it from its subordination to the drive of value to reproduce itself in the rampage of production for production’s sake. That can only be accomplished by the most daring and thorough act of social revolution and abolition of capital. In this society, we do not freely control our actions, and renouncing the expansiveness of human power in its unalienated development would block the way for achieving such control. So we need to recapture Marx’s philosophy of revolution with its focus on freedom as the opposite of today’s social reality.
Crucially, as Raya Dunayevskaya pointed out, Marx had “…a conception of a new society based on expanding human forces, during a century in which the whole cultivated world thought of expanding material forces as the condition, activity, and purpose of all liberation.” (Philosophy and Revolution, p. 65.)
All this must be kept in mind when we look at the “green new deal” that has been talked about for over a decade. Now the self-described democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is its standard-bearer in Congress and Naomi Klein is one of its biggest cheerleaders. More and more people, especially young people looking at a possible nightmare future in their own lifetimes, understand the urgent need for radical action both to mitigate emissions and to adapt to climate change in a human way that is not oriented toward sacrificing many people’s well-being in favor of the rich and powerful. Their demands are reflected in the fact that the green new deal project can now get a hearing.
On the other hand, let’s recall what the original New Deal really was: an alternative to revolution. Just when the system was threatened by the unrest of workers and their disbelief in the rationality of the system, the New Deal was put forward to ameliorate the people’s suffering through state intervention and planning without changing the relations in production. The green new deal represents exactly that kind of diversion from the needed revolution.
The ideology of “no alternative to capitalism” can trap even some who intend to reject it, such as Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Many of today’s socialists reject revolution and put forward a “democratic socialism” that is really a wish to democratize capitalism. Klein writes with an ambiguity that appears to oppose capitalism but in reality opposes neoliberalism, as if that had been a contingent political choice, and accepts the fundamental relationships of capitalism.
Just look at her Nov. 27 article in The Intercept titled, “The Game-Changing Promise of a Green New Deal.” It is a paean to the “leadership” of newly elected members of Congress, “a critical mass of politicians in power” who have supposedly created a “clear and credible political pathway that could get us to safety” based on the proposal for a Congressional committee to put out draft legislation in early 2020 to influence that year’s elections.
Similarly, this week The Nation posted an article touting the green new deal as the way to capture the youth vote. It was written by one of the young organizers of the Sunrise Movement, which held the Nov. 13 sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office demanding that Democratic Party leadership back the green new deal committee and pledge not to accept campaign contributions from fossil fuel industries. The piece makes very clear how much Sunrise has tied its hopes to the Democratic Party’s elected officials.
As long as we are stuck trying to tinker with the capitalist system from within, we will always run up against problems like its need for never-ending economic growth, and the way capitalists use threats to jobs to blackmail workers and communities who would try to organize against them or even regulate them. Look at how Trump exploited coal miners’ unemployment. Never mind that automation and competition from cheaper energy sources like natural gas, wind, and solar are the main reasons for the slashing of coal jobs, and environmental regulation is a relatively small factor.
Obviously Trump does not have the power to bring back coal jobs. He only has the power, amplified by the media and the social network of reactionary lies, to pretend that he will and to fool some of the miners. The absolute opposite to this manipulation is seen in the elicitation of the profoundest thoughts of coal miners in revolt against automation, in the events in West Virginia that led to the birth of Marxist-Humanism.
When automation in the form of the continuous miner was introduced in coal mines in 1949, it became one of the central issues for miners in their 1949-50 strike. (You can read all about it in The Coal Miners’ General Strike of 1949-50 and the Birth of Marxist-Humanism in the U.S. Dunayevskaya’s essay in this pamphlet is included in the new book, Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution in Permanence for Our Day.)
In that battle, the miners themselves raised the totally new question: “What kind of labor should a human being do?” With that question, according to Dunayevskaya, a new stage of cognition appeared in the economic sphere. She writes in the new book:
“…by being concerned not just with the unemployment that is always caused by new machinery, but with the unbridgeable gulf between manual and mental labor, which the continuous miner widened, they were pointing to new directions. I had for some years been developing the theory of state-capitalism, and to me the Miners’ General Strike seemed to touch, at one and the same time, a concept Marx had designated as alienated labor and the absolute opposite to it, which Marx had spelled out as the end of the division between mental and manual labor.”
What is needed today is that kind of elicitation from and listening to the workers, not just selling them a green agenda. The movement needs activity in both theory and practice that recognizes the movement from practice that is itself a form of theory and that has the vision of a totally new human society in view at all times.
The fact is that the normal functioning of capitalism involves what its ideologues call “creative destruction,” or today’s self-promoting Silicon Valley moguls call “disruption.” Jobs are destroyed as a matter of course; whole industries and communities, even regions, are devastated. Scapegoats are targeted: immigrants, other countries, unions, environmentalists. But that is how capitalism normally works, and if we allow it, its destructiveness will be turned, not against capitalism, but against those who aim to overcome it, against those who raise the question of what kind of labor human beings should do.
Consider the “gilets jaunes” or yellow vest movement in France. It was sparked by the way France’s inadequate efforts to combat climate change are basically on the backs of working people—in the first instance by raising the gasoline tax, which hurts most the people who live in rural areas or who have been forced out of the cities by high housing prices and have to commute in from the exurbs. That is, it’s being done the usual way.
There is no path to a new society or away from climate chaos as long as countering climate change is planned at the expense of working people, instead of posing the liberation of working people from capitalist exploitation and the release of full human development as the way to break the anti-environmental direction of modern society. And more than “not at the expense” of workers but, as with the coal miners’ general strike and the birth of Marxist-Humanism, with workers as thinking and acting subjects of revolt, with the full recognition of the movement from practice that is itself a form of theory and on that basis a totally new relationship of theory and practice.
Nothing less can solve the problem, and nothing less should satisfy us. We need a vision of liberation and climate justice that grasps human development and real unalienated wealth as the absolute opposite of the inhuman law of motion of capitalist accumulation. Or, as Marx put it:
“[In] the modern world…production appears as the aim of humanity and wealth as the aim of production. In fact, however, when the limited bourgeois form is stripped away, what is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces, etc., created through universal exchange?…the development of all human powers as such the end in itself, not as measured on a predetermined yardstick?….[Where the human being] Strives not to remain something he has become, but is in the absolute movement of becoming?”