Sunday, 25 February 2018

Reframing the Left Eco-Modernism vs. Orthodox Eco-Socialism Debate

This is an extract from a piece written by Emanuele Leonardi and first published at Entitle Blog

Jacobin‘s issue on climate change (especially its second part) and the Monthly Review‘s reaction to it (through an article by John Bellamy Foster) indicate a polarization within the eco-socialist debate, mostly due to different ways of accounting for the relationship between capitalism and nature. 

Simplifying a little: if virtually everybody involved in this discussion agree that the capitalist mode of production directly caused the ecological crisis, what remains controversial is the political answer to be given to the usual big question: what is to be done?

The eco-modernist Left endorsed by Jacobin – alt-growthers – argues that socialist (hence infinite), centrally-planned, innovation-led growth is desirable: once irrational capitalists are dealt with, nothing would stay in the way of placing sustainability at the very core of productive processes. 

The Monthly Review‘s Eco-Marxist hard-liners – no-growthers – praise instead a revolution in social relations aimed at overthrowing the profit-imperative so that production can finally be reconciled with biospheric realities and give rise to a steady-state economy. In a nutshell: you can’t have infinite economic growth on a finite planet.

Such disagreement is rooted in legitimate theoretical divergences concerning the role of technology in the transition towards eco-socialism, the so-called “civilizing mission” of capitalism vis-à-vis previous social formations, and the long-disputed issue of Progress. Yet my impression is that this polarization is both theoretically problematic and politically disempowering. 

Thus, what I propose in this post are a few embryonic elements aimed at reframing the debate so that an anti-capitalist strategy may be distilled in the following slogan: reduce entropic/industrial (wage) labor & liberate negentropic/reproductive labor (from its subjection to commodification).

As a starting point, the relationship between capitalism and nature is not a monolithic one. It changed historically and can be subdivided in at least two phases. To grasp the key rupture-event of this transformation – occurred between the social unrest symbolized by 1968 and the 1973 oil shock – it is important to critically assess the value-nature nexus, which is to say the categorial relation between economy and environment. 

Schematically: whereas in pre-capitalist societies nature is seen as a transcendent force, as an external normative entity – Marx’s wording is telling: “nature-idolatry” – in capitalism its function is from the very beginning mediated by surplus value as uncontested economic goal. 

Accordingly, classical political economists account for nature in a very particular way: it constitutes the border within which value-creation can occur, though it does not actively participate in the valorization process proper. If abstract social labor (i.e. the sphere of production) acts as the source of value, what Jason Moore defines as abstract social nature (i.e. the sphere of reproduction) acts as its necessary condition.

It is against this background – whose methodological assumption is an understanding of value theory not as a descriptive tool but as a historical agent, which, in its deployment, ceaselessly and violently imposes the conditions for its own reproduction – that wage labor in its industrial form can be considered an entropic factor. 

The hegemony of the deal-option, in fact, is represented in what Matthias Schmelzer calls the growth paradigm which lies at the core of Fordism (1930s-1970s; approximately 1945-1975 for Western Europe, hence the well-known French expression les trente glorieuses).

The growth paradigm is an institutional arrangement grounded on a social pact – working class obedience in exchange for protection guaranteed by the ruling class – which premised its solidity on perpetual (and environmentally destructive) growth. In this sense, at least until the mid-1970s, growth has represented the policy counterpart of wage as the institutional pillar of social mediation. Claus Offe named productivist nexus the twin societal goal of full employment and perpetual growth. 

It is only in this context that social antagonism could be displaced from the qualitative composition of production (what, where, when is to be produced, and how, by whom, for whom) to the depoliticized terrain of quantity. If each class’ proportional share of aggregate production is to be maintained, then a quantitative increase of economic output is the one best way to defuse social confrontation.

Furthermore, it is important to stress that the growth paradigm entailed the institutional inclusion of waged workers as predicated on a symmetrical exclusion of the sphere of reproduction. 

In particular, from an environmental perspective, the wage-growth dyad systematically downplayed the crucial role of what Ariel Salleh calls meta-industrial labour – which “denotes workers, nominally outside of capitalism, whose labor catalyzes [positive, negentropic] metabolic transformations, be they peasants, gatherers, or parents” – and metabolic value – which “denotes the value sustained and enhanced by this kind of worker in supporting ecological integrity and the social metabolism”.

We all know that the green economy – and, within it, carbon trading or Payment for Ecosystem Services schemes – does not work. But why? In my opinion the main issue concerns what kind of labor is mobilized by the green economy. For the internalization of nature within value to occur, in fact, a specific laboring practice needs to take place: the general intellect as the organizing principle of contemporary (re)production. 

If we look at the weird commodities exchanged in “green” markets – think of a Certified Emissions Reduction within the Clean Development Mechanism – we see that their value does not come from a tree or from the ocean, but rather from their sinking potential as politically calculated to fit financial markets’ accounting strategies; not from an actual seed but from the genetic sequence that, once modified, makes it resistant to biotech pesticides.

This is a manipulation of the general intellect, namely a form of labor which is potentially negentropic (precisely because it is rooted in reproduction) but completely loses its ecological potential once it is inscribed within commodity production, that is to say once it is subjected to the profit-imperative. 

This means that conflicts in defence of the community, its territory (and knowledge) and the environment against capitalist accumulation should be considered as instances of contemporary class struggle aimed at the liberation of the negentropic potential of cognitive/reproductive labor rather than oppositions that may or may not build alliances with the labour movement. 

In other words, “where we live, work, play and eat” is nowadays a fundamental stake of value production and exploitation. Thus, the working class should also be conceived of as a potential ecological agent, not only as an actor bound to support the wage-growth dyad.

If, as Stefania Barca suggests, the labor movement is to be a key element of a desirable degrowth scenario – where degrowth is not only about less, but also and more fundamentally about different – I believe it is important to assess the value-nature nexus and its contemporary transformation. This may help both in the search for an alternative politicization of limits and in the acknowledgement of social reproduction as the most solid basis for a the ecological revolution to come.

In particular, from the perspective of degrowth, the interplay between the classical and the new value-nature nexus allows for a strategic articulation of the “less” (smaller social metabolism) and the “different” (alternative social-ecology) that may be worth further exploring. In fact, there is no doubt all sectors belonging to the entropic model should shrink. In this context, accumulation by dispossession as proposed by Harvey and accumulation by contamination as elaborated by Demaria and D’Alisa constitute a proper horizon for indirect class struggle.

When it comes to structurally modifying (a reduced) social metabolism, however, an additional layer may be considered. It is composed by those sectors which could freely “flourish” once liberated form the seal of value and the growth paradigm. Reproductive work and the general intellect seem to me to be good examples of such potential, whose actualization requires in my opinion a form of direct class struggle in the hidden abode of contemporary production. 

In this sense, a few promising lines of further research-action emerge and mainly concern the need to articulate digital technologies (knowledge commons), sustainable re-localization of production (ecological commons) and democracy (civil commons).

Emanuele Leonardi is a Post-Doc Researcher at the Center for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra (CES/UC). His research interests include carbon trading and climate justice movements, working-class environmentalism, and André Gorz’s political ecology.


  1. I think this article is way too academic, how are working class people supposed to act on this? Each paragraph could do with an English tranlation just saying

  2. It is perhaps for the purist, but it is an interesting debate within ecosocialism, I think. It goes to the heart of the growth/degrowth paradigm.