Sunday, 12 November 2017

Ecosocialism - The Dynamics of Capitalism’s Destructive effects on the Biosphere

Written by Kris Forkasiewicz and first published at Capitalism Nature Socialism


Ecosocialism is a radical social theory and variant of red-green politics. It documents the connections between the dynamics of capitalist relations and their destructive effects on the biosphere, including human life. Given the ecosocialist commitment to Marxian analysis, it is also dubbed ecological Marxism.

Ecosocialism is constructed through a series of critiques: critique of “green” economics, liberal environmentalism, and other “within-the-system” remedies to ecological degradation; critique of deep ecology and bioregionalism; critique of classical socialist politics and of “actually existing socialisms” etc. (see, e.g., Kovel 2007). But it is capitalism―in its multiple, interwoven expressions―that is the ecosocialist’s primary focus and starting point of conceptualization and praxis.

Capitalism and Ecological Devastation

For ecosocialists, capitalism is an irremediably expansionist, productivist order responsible for the emergence of a fundamental rift in the metabolic relation between human society and the rest of the natural world (Foster, B. Clark, and York 2010). Originally parts of a complex whole, the two come to be increasingly separated with the maturing of capitalist relations as the driver of a socio-ecological crisis.

By the force of capital, all external boundaries―be it ecological, economic, cultural, geographic, biological, even ontological―are reconfigured as mere barriers to be overcome new jumping-off points for expansion are established: In Marx’s words, “capital is the endless and limitless drive to go beyond its limiting barrier“ (334). Capital is “caught in the cycle of ‘grow or die’ that characterizes accumulation under the terms of relentless competition” (Kovel 1995: 32). If capital ceased to increase, it would cease to be capital, i.e., money used to make more money.

Commodifying the natural world, capitalist relations reduce the variegated richness of its forms into mere stuff for appropriation and exploitation. This violation proceeds by squeezing the multidimensional complexity of the world into a one-dimensional fodder for capital. Intrinsic value (wealth unconnected with the efforts of labor) and use-value (nature transformed by labor) are forcibly erased and replaced with exchange value (with money established as the measure of all things).

In addition to the sea of individual and collective misery this brings about, capitalism causes severe ecological disarticulations, which are brushed aside for as long as possible, leading ultimately all the way up to ecosystemic breakdown of planetary proportions (Foster, Clark, and York 2010).

In one sense, capital may seem like an alien force, wholly autonomous and external to human/natural activity―and it is, in the sense that it alienates humans and other beings from their lifeworlds in myriad ways. More importantly, however, it is through the life activity of human and non-human bodies that capital propagates itself. Capital is, in essence, a nexus of exploitative social relations whereby the surplus produced by labor is appropriated by owners/managers of the means of production.

The Contradictions of Capitalism

Capitalist development produces a complex of interrelated structural contradictions leading to accumulation crises, where capital stumbles on its own destructiveness (O’Connor 1997; Kovel 2007). The first contradiction, theorized by Marx, consists in capital being pitted against labor which it must systematically exploit as a prerequisite for continued accumulation.

The rising rate of surplus value thus extracted puts barriers in the way of future accumulation which depends on the sale of goods and services back to producers in a system of unequal wealth. This leads to a crisis of overproduction. In addition to this “first” contradiction of capitalism, ecosocialists have theorized a second, in which capitalism undermines itself by destroying the ecosystem―including human society―upon which it depends, i.e., degrades the conditions of its own reproduction. This, in turn, is said to lead to a crisis of underproduction (O’Connor 1997).

The way capitalism overcomes accumulation crises does not eliminate its essentially contradictory character; it merely enables further expansion by modifying and adapting the social and physical infrastructures necessary for accumulation to continue (transformations of labor and other social relations, technological innovation, and public bailouts of failed capitalists are good examples). It thus sets in motion processes that lead to more extensive and deeper future breakdowns.

Thanks to its immense elasticity, capital is able to turn vice into virtue and can profit from the ecological destruction its operations cause. This happens in myriad ways: through invention of new financial instruments like carbon emissions trading which provide new spaces of speculation and profit; through profitable increases in efficiency of energy use that allow for increased extraction and use of energy (the so-called “Jevons Paradox” [see Foster, Clark, and York 2010]); and through the development of whole new industries working on technological fixes to mitigate pollution resultant from past economic activity and to facilitate further growth.

With these processes firmly in place, “the overall result [of the system’s operation is] additive and combinative” (Kovel 2007: 287, n. 12). While the appearance of the system (the particular solutions and forms it assumes, also in terms of infrastructure) changes, the root of capitalism in the processes of accumulation persists. In this way conditions are created for the crises to follow, and for ever more of the biosphere to be sacrificed in the process. Instead of being combated, global warming is adapted to, with new opportunities for growth sought in the changing climatic conditions (Foster 2002).

Ecosocialism, Carnality, and the Animals

Capitalism does not exhaust the formula for systematic objectification, commodification, oppression, and exploitation―neither that of whole ecosystems, nor that of nature’s countless sensuous beings, including humans. That is to say, it cannot be equated with the condition of unfreedom as such, in which the sentient beings of the world are presently caught, a condition which precedes capitalism both chronologically and substantively.

However, capital does provide a central if elusive nexus through which that condition is maintained and proliferated, and constitutes arguably the single most powerful alienating force shaping daily life (see, e.g., Kovel 2007). It is this feature of the capitalist world-system that increasingly gathers numerous critics, activists, and social movements―including, in a progressively overlapping manner, workers, aborigines, ecologists, feminists, and anarchists―around a vision of a more egalitarian, sustainable, and fulfilling post-capitalist form of life.

Unfortunately, ecosocialists have been slow to accommodate an animalist perspective into their outlook. The concrete, live body is easily lost in a globalized system of exploitation which pulls at the very roots of life, manipulating its tiniest building-blocks, or eradicating it wholesale, forming a global mess which seems to call for an antidote of abstract theorizing and schematic generalizations. The latter may offer comprehension of the crisis in a general way, but it is the vulnerable, animal body―sometimes a horse, sometimes a human, sometimes a sow―that encounters the capitalist juggernaut and registers its full, crushing impact.

It is to their credit that some ecosocialists acknowledge the recuperation of free sensuous experience as crucial to a sane life: one group of authors recently remarked that “to recapture the necessary metabolic conditions of the society-nature interaction what is needed is not simply a new social praxis, but a revived natural praxis―a reappropriation and emancipation of the human senses and human sensuousness in relation to nature… [a] natural praxis… that encompasses human activity as a whole, that is, the life of the senses… [where] the senses ‘become directly theoreticians in practice'” (Foster, Clark, and York 2010, 230 emphases in original). An ecosocialist future is possible only if the human survives as an animal.

From an animal liberationist standpoint, these hints of reclamation of the naturalness of the human animal for its free expression constitute significant progress over the age-old devaluation of earthly life. As such, they are a stepping stone towards a full-fledged materialism that ecosocialists professes to endorse. This insight into the centrality of embodiment will remain incomplete, however, so long as the human is perceived in isolation and the ideology and practice of human species-imperialism is not overcome.

Human uniqueness, itself internally differentiated, has nothing particularly unique about it, and constitutes but one mode of world-making among many equally unique others. But a sense of species-humility, implicit in the ecological insight that Homo sapiens is merely a piece of a much bigger puzzle, is mostly lacking in ecosocialist literature and discourse. And yet, it is only when ecosocialists perceive other, non-human earthlings as equally deserving of an opportunity to develop their specific potentialities in free rapport with one another and with the surrounding ecologies, that ecosocialism will assume a proper liberatory scope. For this to happen, much ecosocialist theorizing will have to overcome the humanist-speciesist bias that has lingered over socialism since its inception as a modern movement in the Enlightenment.

[Originally published in Ferrari, Arianna, and Klaus Petrus, eds. Lexicon der Mensch-Tiere-Beziehungen. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2015.]


Foster, J. B. 2000. Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature. New York: Monthly Review Press.

———. 2002. Capitalism and Ecology: The Nature of the Contradiction. Monthly Review 54        (4), September.

———, B. Clark, and R. York. 2011. The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Kovel, J. 1995. Ecological Marxism and Dialectic. Capitalism Nature Socialism 6 (4),        December, 31-50.

———. 2007. The Enemy of Nature: The End of Capitalism or the End of the World?         London and New York: Zed Books Ltd.

Marx, K. 1993. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, translated by Martin Nicholaus. London: Penguin Books.

O’Connor, J. 1997. Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism. New York: Guilford    Press.

Pepper, D. 1993. Eco-socialism. From Deep Ecology to Social Justice. London and New   York: Routledge.

Further Reading

Benton, T., ed. 1996. The Greening of Marxism. London and New York: Guilford Press.

Capitalism Nature Socialism. Quarterly Journal. London and New York: Taylor & Francis.

Monthly Review: An Independent Socialist Magazine. New York: Monthly Review Press.

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