Friday, 13 September 2019

Marx’s lessons for today’s climate rebels


Written by Peter Boyle and first published at Green Left Weekly

Imagine you came across a 150-year-old message in a bottle that predicted the world would face a catastrophic crisis as a result of profit-driven capitalism.

Imagine that prediction also explained why capitalism — sustained for generations through the exploitation of nature and human labour — would push aside all moral, rational and scientific objections in the blind pursuit of profit.

And imagine that prediction said it would come to a point where the majority of people would have to choose between capitalism or a new democratic, rational and socially just system capable of maintaining a sustainable relationship with Earth.

Such a message would have summed up humanity’s predicament today — and it is precisely what 19th century socialist rebel Karl Marx wrote.

Marx not only named the enemy — capitalism — but explained why this system is the cause of the existential crisis facing humanity and the planet.

“Capitalist production,” Marx explained, “only develops the technique and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the worker.”

According to Marx’s analysis of capitalism, there is a double contradiction at the heart of the capitalist system’s transformation of everything into a commodity.

Under capitalism, everything is a commodity for sale. The exchange value of a commodity is worked out on the basis of the average amount of human labour required to create or extract the commodity.

The first contradiction is that workers who create or extract the commodity are only paid the average cost of reproducing their labour power. All value above that is appropriated by the capitalists as profit.

The second contradiction is that nature is viewed as something that has no value; something that can be robbed indefinitely and for free.

Capitalism’s progress, as such, is a process “not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil”.

Metabolic rift

Marx saw humanity as being, like all other living species, in a metabolic relationship with nature. However, capitalism systematically disrupts this system, causing ever greater and multiplying metabolic rifts.

In Capital Volume 1, Marx wrote: “Capitalist production disturbs the metabolic interaction between humans and the Earth, that is, it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by humans in the form of food and clothing.”

Climate and Capitalism editor Ian Angus, one of several ecosocialists who have pointed out the invaluable insights that Marx offers to those confronting the climate emergency today, explained: “The only way life has continued on the planet for 3 billion years is by constantly recycling and re-using resources.”

But metabolic rifts have disrupted this recycling and “a million species are about to go extinct if we don't change our way of interacting with nature, because rifts in nature's metabolisms are expanding too fast for many species to adapt.”

“For millions of years, natural processes kept the amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stable but in the past century or so, especially in the last 20 or 30 years, more carbon dioxide has been put into the atmosphere than all the natural processes can take out.”

Ecologist Barry Commoner, who wrote The Closing Circle, was strongly influenced by the ideas of Marx. He argued: “The first law of ecology is that everything is related to everything else.

“To survive we must close the circle. We must learn to restore to nature the wealth we borrow from it.”

Commoner’s conclusion, one shared by millions of today’s climate emergency rebels, was that: “Our options have become reduced to two: either the rational and social organisation and distribution of the Earth's resources, or a new barbarism.”

Imperialism

Marx did much more than name capitalism as the enemy. He carried out a forensic study of how capitalism operated in his time and worked out the dynamics of the system.

He found that the fierce competition between various capitalists for profits would cause regular crises in which the weakest capitalists would either go to the wall or be swallowed up by the most profitable.

Competition would give way to monopoly and, in the process, millions of workers would be thrown onto the army of the unemployed, entire communities and ecosystems would be destroyed, nations enslaved and the world torn asunder by war.

The cleaving of the world into imperialist robber nations and economically enslaved and impoverished colonies and semi-colonies flowed from this dynamic and shapes the global climate emergency today.

As US Marxist John Bellamy Foster explained in “Imperialism and the Anthropocene” in The Monthly Review: “There can be no ecological revolution in the face of the current existential crisis unless it is an anti-imperialist one, drawing its power from the great mass of suffering humanity.

“The global ecological movement must thus be a movement for the unification of the oppressed, emanating from innumerable Extinction Rebellions, and leading to the first true International of the world’s workers and peoples.

“The poor shall inherit the Earth or there will be no Earth left to inherit.”

Zombie-like drive for profit

The “robbery of nature” was taken as “free” by the capitalists from the start and “surplus labour” is appropriated from the workers as the capitalist’s “right”. The profit gained is then reproduced as capital to begin another cycle of robbery of Earth and labour.

By definition, the search for the highest profit is at the heart of all economic activity by capitalists because, by its own dynamic, capital either gets a higher profit return or is destroyed or swallowed up by more profitable capitalists.

This drives capitalism towards chronic crises of overproduction. Commodities are produced that people cannot afford and often do not need.

To “fix” this problem, out-of-control advertising and financial industries grow. Not content with making the 99% wage slaves, capitalism also turns us into debt slaves.

Marx’s study of history convinced him that the periodic crises that capitalism produced could be compared to a “sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells”.

Capitalism’s crazy profit drive is beyond the rationality of individuals. Capital demands the highest return and the corporate CEOs who are prepared to kill, destroy or do whatever it takes to get that return will exist as long as this system continues.

Gravediggers

However, Marx also predicted that capitalism would “create its own gravediggers” by relentlessly driving an ever greater section of the population into the ranks of those who have only their labour to sell to survive — the modern working class, or “the 99%” as the Occupy generation of rebels described it eight years ago.

Under capitalism:

Labour is increasingly socialised, but its product is privatised and concentrated in the hands of fewer people.

The working class not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated and its strength grows.

Sections of the middle class, and even some capitalists, are forced to become workers.

The various interests and conditions of life within the working class are more and more equalised as machinery obliterates all distinctions of labour and nearly everywhere reduces wages to the same low level.

The competition of worker against worker is reduced in the process of uniting in struggle against the capitalists.

Consciousness shift

Marx predicted a profound and qualitative shift in consciousness of the 99% as constant upheaval and capitalism’s war against people and nature force it into greater and more profound struggles.

Rebels and revolutionaries have long realised that working together in struggle is the best teacher.

This was certainly the message driven home by Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin. He argued that revolutionaries should draw to the fore and share as widely as possible the broadest lessons of the struggles against capitalism and burst out of the narrow focus of trade union struggle for better wages and conditions.

In his famous book What Is To Be Done?, Lenin argued: “Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse.”

The shift in consciousness could only happen if the oppressed learned “from concrete, and above all from topical, political facts and events” the behaviour of the different classes and apply in practice this understanding in a struggle against “all oppressions”.

The “struggle against all oppressions” today is unavoidably focused around the climate emergency because of the existential threat it poses.

We can see this played out in the challenge that the September 20 Global Climate Strike has posed to trade union leaders. They are forced to confront the false dichotomy promoted by the capitalist class (which is hooked on fossil fuels) between jobs and facing up to climate change.

Socialism

Today’s rebels and revolutionaries argue that trade unions must concern themselves not just with creating and saving jobs, but also with what sort of jobs society and the environment need.

Leaving this to the market is out of the question. The market (that is, the powerful vested interests of coal, gas and associated financial partners) got us into this mess. We cannot count on the market to get us out of it.

We cannot even allow the shift to renewables to be “left to the market”. We do not have the luxury of time to try this course and, moreover, the market will never produce good jobs. Significant sections of the renewables industry share with other capitalists the nasty tendency to resort to exploitative and dangerous labour practices.

For these reasons, and more, the economy must be taken out of the hands of the capitalists and democratised if it is to be re-synched with nature.

In its place we need a different system in which, as Marx argued, “the associated producers govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control … accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature.”

Call it "socialism" or something else — but that is the future we need.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Getting lost on the road to Communist Utopia


Written by Gabriel Levy and first published at People and Nature

A response to Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto by Aaron Bastani (Verso Books, 2019)

Communist utopias are the stuff of life. They have given hope, widened horizons and fired imaginations, from Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done (1863) and William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) through to Woman On the Edge of Time (1985) by Marge Piercy.

So when my copy of Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto arrived, I had high hopes. They were not all realised.

There were things in Bastani’s book I really liked: his optimism, and his conviction that any communist society – that is, any society free of exploitation and hierarchy – will be based on material abundance. But his ideas about how this might be achieved were unconvincing.

Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC), he writes in the concluding chapter, is

a map by which we escape the labyrinth of scarcity and a society built on jobs; the platform from which we can begin to answer the most difficult question of all, of what it means, as [the economist John Maynard] Keynes once put it, to live ‘wisely and agreeably and well’ (p. 243).

Bastani writes that FALC, unlike the world of actually existing neoliberalism,

will not demand constant sacrifices on the altar of profit and growth. Whether it’s ‘paying down the debt for future generations’, as our politicians are so keen to repeat, or growth and rising wages always coming ‘next year’ it’s becoming ever clearer that the good times aren’t coming back. What remains absent, however, is a language able to articulate that which is both accessible and emotionally resonant.

Bastani aspires to provide that language – by identifying political principles for a movement beyond capitalism; by returning abundance to a central place in socialist thought; and by pointing to technological change as the basis for social change. I will comment on these three aspects of the book in turn.

Politics and transitions

To put society on the road to a communist future, “a populist politics is necessary”, Bastani writes (p. 187). A politics that

blends culture and government with ideas of personal and social renewal. One that, to borrow a term, invents the future.[1] Anything less will fall short.

This politics includes elements widely shared by the left wing of social democracy (i.e. “Corbynism” in the UK): a break with neoliberalism; “relocalisation of economies through progressive procurement and municipal protectionism”; “socialising finance and creating a network of local and regional [state] banks”; and “a set of universal basic services which take much of the national economy into public ownership” (p. 208).

On an international level, Bastani suggests a tax of $25/tonne on carbon emissions from high-GDP countries, to channel resources from rich countries responsible for climate change to poorer ones (p. 222).

Where Bastani completely loses me is with his vague suggestions about how we might move from these social-democratic reforms of the capitalist state towards communism, and about who might be the motive forces of such a movement.

“The return of ‘the people’ as the main political actor is inevitable”, he writes (p. 191) – but sees this less as the active participation of people in changing society as an appeal (by who? politicians? activists?) to the people.

“Many” understand that the problems are large and unprecedented, and that the solutions must be, too, Bastani writes. So, given the possibilities afforded by technological change, “promise them what they deserve – promise everything” (p. 192). But who is making these promises?

Not a party based on the model of the 1917 Russian revolution, he argues. I don’t want one of those either, but the alternative Bastani offers – a focus on electoral politics – is equally unattractive. He writes:

The majority of people are only able to be politically active for brief periods of time. To an extent this is regrettable, the outgrowth of a culture that intentionally cultivates apathy and constrains a wider sense of popular power. […] The problem is not, therefore, that most people do not care about politics but rather they can not afford to care [in the face of work commitments, family, and so on]. […] it is often only around elections when large sections of society – particularly the most exploited – are open to new possibilities regarding how society works […]

This seems to me a dismal, conservative perspective, based on a misunderstanding of how social change happens. The most significant political shifts of recent decades – the fall of the Stalinist regimes in the former Soviet bloc in 1989-91, the “Arab spring” of 2011, the Greek revolt against austerity policy imposed by the EU – have all been initiated and carried through by mass movements on the streets and in communities. The defeats and setbacks, most obviously in Egypt and Syria after the revolts, do not alter that reality.

In the rich countries too, many of the greatest changes in our lifetimes have been brought about by movements in society – trade union movements, the women’s movement, struggles around environmental protection – that originated outside parliament and only found reflection there subsequently. In all these cases, people engaged in social movements outside parliament with little regard for electoral process.

I cannot imagine an earth-shaking social transformation – the movement towards communism – that does not have at its centre the active participation of millions of people. This was a core belief of 19th century communists, and it is one we should retain.

In the 1840s, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote about the working class doing away with labour and doing away with the whole idea of classes and nationalities; for the “production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness”, “a practical movement, a revolution” is necessary; to achieve it, not only would the ruling class have to be overthrown, but the class doing the overthrowing would have to “rid itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew”.[2]

I agree with Bastani that a “revolution” taking us towards communism can not and will not be a re-run of Russia in 1917. It can only be something completely different. But I can not envisage it without the active participation of millions of people. It’s not about politicians “promising them what they deserve”. They must become the historical subject of a process in which politics as a way of doing things would be superceded. As Marx and Engels put it in The Communist Manifesto, “when […] class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character.”

Obviously, there is a long, complex discussion to be had about this. I thought Bastani could have paid more attention to the piles of books by communist writers who have considered this transition to communism.

Even the utopian fiction writers imagined not only communist futures, but also the paths by which people might get there. Think of the characters in The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin, who recall the bitter struggle to establish an anarchist commune on one of the planets depicted. When it comes to prefiguring the social character of this transition, Bastani’s book is pretty light.

Scarcity and abundance

The future will be shaped by the rapid development of computers, robots and other forms of automation, Bastani writes, which mean that there will be “extreme supply” of both information and labour (p. 37); this abundance will form the basis for FALC.

Capitalism, Bastani argues, operates with “a central presumption” that “scarcity will always exist” (p. 137). Twentieth-century “socialism”, in the Soviet Union for example, was also based on scarcity. Now a “tendency to extreme supply” in energy, labour and resources undermines this presumption. In the present technological revolution, which Bastani defines as the “third disruption”,[3] “the ‘fact’ of scarcity is moving from inevitable certainty to political imposition” (p. 243); now, the market imposes “artificial scarcity” (pages 154-156).

We are moving into a post-scarcity age, Bastani believes; information wants to be free; labour wants to be free; these driving forces will not only overcome what he calls the “five crises” of our times – climate change, resource scarcity, aging population, a “surplus of the global poor” and the “new machine age which will herald ever-greater technological unemployment” – but also bring the possibility of FALC (pages 22-23).

Here, again, Bastani loses me. I do not believe we live at a historical turning point between past scarcity and future abundance. And I do not believe the dividing-line between scarcity and abundance is as clear-cut as he thinks it is.

Firstly, it all depends on what you mean by scarcity. Radical scholars long ago took a hammer to this concept. Nicholas Xenos showed how the emerging capitalist class in 18th century Europe “invented scarcity”, at the same time as they accumulated unprecedented wealth. Lyla Mehta and other researchers long ago dissected the way that politicians, development agencies and international financial institutions use the idea of “scarcity” to justify the imposition of hardship and misery across the global south.[4]

So when Bastani writes that capitalism has always been characterised by scarcity, I can not agree. Capitalism has manufactured “scarcity” throughout its history. The Irish potato famine of the 1840s started as a potato harvest failure that was real enough, but was turned into a catastrophe by social structures and trade policies. Mike Davis’s powerful, and frightful, book Late Victorian Holocausts shows how this cruelty was reproduced across the world in the late 19th century.

Both real scarcity and manufactured “scarcity” are to a large degree socially constructed; they are not caused by the lack of the right technology. There were no natural or technological barriers to feeding the world’s population in the twentieth century, but it was not fed. As the Indian economist Amartya Sen showed over a life’s work, famines were caused not by shortages of food, but by the food being in the wrong place, controlled by the wrong people, and having its supply disrupted by wars.

Nor is it so obvious that the 21st century will be a time of “post-scarcity”. The expansion of the capitalist economy in its late-20th-century form produced a new set of tensions between humanity and nature, often referred to as “planetary boundaries”, that could also be called “scarcities”. What is the global warming effect, the main cause of climate change, if not a “scarcity” of atmosphere into which the economy can pour endless quantities of carbon dioxide and methane? What is the global “fresh water crisis” if not a shortage of water resources caused in the first place by the unplanned plunder inherent in capitalist industry and urban infrastructure? But these “scarcities”, too, are essentially produced by the social and economic structures in which we live: they are not the natural or inevitable outcome of human population.

The technological transformations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the invention of electricity, motorised transport and agricultural fertilisers, did not – given a world economy and social structure dominated by capitalism – prevent famine or other so-called “scarcities”. Indeed the most cutting-edge technology was used to visit disaster on society in the form of war. And there is plenty of evidence that the technological transformations of our times will – again, given capitalist domination – be turned against humanity by aggravating the climate crisis.

Technology and society

Technological innovation, rather than social change, is the central driving-force towards communism, in Bastani’s view. Under capitalism, a “tendency to perpetually innovate as a result of competition, to constantly supplant work performed by humans and maximise productivity” has produced the “third disruption” (p. 37); this has tended to make information the basis of value under modern capitalism; technologies “now paradoxically tend towards destroying the scarcity of information, and therefore its value” (p. 49); the law of “extreme supply” is in full swing; this is the basis for “a world beyond jobs, profit and even scarcity” (p. 49).

(Bastani incorrectly attributes the view that “technological innovation is an inherent feature of capitalism” to Karl Marx. Actually, Marx’s view was far more complex: he saw in 19th century capitalism not only a tendency to push technologies forward, but also the way in which, in capital’s hands, they towered over humanity, feeding into the tyranny of dead labour over living labour. I wrote about this here and here.)

Having set out his claim that capitalist competition inevitably pushes technology forward, Bastani gives us chapter after chapter on the progressive potential of automation; of “post-scarcity in energy” thanks to renewables; of asteroid mining; of gene editing to transform health care; and for synthetic food to replace meat consumption.

Only after this relentless hymn to technology’s virtues, in the very last chapter, does Bastani comment that “how technology is created and used, and to whose advantage, depends on the political, ethical and social context from which it emerges” (p. 237). And, without considering a single example of the corrosive, poisonous impact of 21st century capitalism on the technologies emerging within it, cites only examples to show that technologies have “developed alongside news ideas of nature, selfhood and forms of production”, e.g. synthetic meat came alongside environmentalism and renewable energy alongside concern about climate change (pages 238-239).

Once again, Bastani has lost me.

Firstly, the idea that the relationship between capitalism and technology can be summed up as a “tendency to perpetually innovate as a result of competition” is a gross over-simplification. As historians of technology have shown time and time again, innovation is shaped – pushed forward but also constrained – not only by competition between capitalists, but by all the other forces at work in capitalist society.

How many examples do you need? In medicine, the corralling of cheap and generic treatments by multinational corporations, to make them a means for looting state budgets rather than for healing the sick, has long been an international scandal. In agriculture, the privileging of monocultures fed by fossil-fuel-produced fertilisers has for decades been weaponised against technologies that support small farmers in the global south. In the field of energy, some crucial innovations in electricity generation from wind and solar came in the early 20th century, others in the 1980s; in first-world electricity markets dominated by big corporations, these technologies (together with heat and electricity co-generation techniques) were starved of funds and stopped from diffusing, to protect the domination of fossil fuels and the hopelessly expensive (and ultimately not so successful) expansion of nuclear power.

I could go on. In Bastani’s book, closer attention to such examples might have helped. But that would have spoiled the picture he paints, of technology as a fundamentally progressive force, nurtured by the capitalist market and requiring only “appropriate politics” to free itself from that market. Here are three examples of technologies where this approach leads him to absurd conclusions.

Information technology, robotics and automation, Bastani argues, will produce “technological unemployment”; if only neo-liberalism can be superceded by a welfare state providing universal basic services, FALC beckons. It seems not to have occurred to him that one of the first obstacles to be overcome in a movement to supercede capitalism is the use of information technology by multinational corporations and governments, to reinforce repressive social control on one hand and the individualising logic of consumer society on the other. (I recommend Shoshana Zuboff’s frightening and detailed discussion of these processes in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, or James Bridle’s journalistic descriptions in The New Dark Age.)

For Bastani, capitalism drives technology forward by the law of competition; if this can only be suppressed, the technology will drive forward social change. So he takes no account of the fact that social structure shapes technology and changes the way that it develops. The transformation of the internet from the global collective its pioneers dreamed of, to a tool for state and corporate power, is a lesson.

With regard to energy, Bastani focuses on the sharply falling costs of solar electricity generation, which, he says, will make possible a transition away from fossil fuels. The internet of things and electric cars mean that “in just a few years” saving energy “will be entirely automated” (p. 111). Most electricity will be produced by renewables – indeed “this is already starting to happen”, he claims, noting that in 2016 in the UK wind farms generated more electricity than coal for the first time (p. 112).

This very poor passage reads like a National Grid corporate brochure. For producing electricity in the UK, it’s true that wind is used more than coal – but it’s also true that gas, a fossil fuel, is used far, far more than both. What’s more, only about a quarter of all the fuels used go to producing electricity; the rest are for transport, for industrial processes, for heating, and so on. These are the harder bits to decarbonise, and almost no progress has been made. As for electric cars storing energy: that will not reduce carbon emissions by much as long as the steel for the cars is produced with coal (and that’s a really tricky technology to change) and the electricity is produced with gas.

It is entirely possible to move away from fossil fuels. But it will mean changing whole technological systems, remaking urban infrastructure, confounding consumerist culture, rethinking the way we live – and, above all, challenging the power of oil companies, electricity companies, car manufacturers and all the rest who dominate the current system.

For Bastani, technological change inevitably provides an impetus to social change. I think he’s looking at it the wrong way round. In my view, only radical social change will make possible the technological transformations needed to move away from fossil fuels.

Asteroid mining is another of Bastani’s enthusiasms. Competition between technology companies will drive down the costs of space travel, he claims, and free humanity from shortages of the rare metals needed for computer technologies. He doesn’t comment on the dangers that an industry controlled completely by a handful of companies working closely with the military will move in nefarious, even destructive, directions. Post-capitalism will be forever released from “conditions of abiding scarcity”, he writes; “the limits of the earth won’t matter any more – because we’ll mine the sky instead” (p. 119).

This gave me that corporate brochure feeling again. There are any number of capitalist adventurers out there on line, promising investors a new gold rush. But journalists and academics who cover this stuff make clear that, if asteroid mining has any significance in the next few decades – and it might not do – it will be for providing tiny quantities of material from near-earth asteroids for use in space, e.g. on long-range missions, space stations, and so on. (See a quick, sceptical overview here or a detailed, more optimistic academic paper here.)

Shipping substantial quantities of metals back to earth is just not on the horizon of even the most imaginitive researchers, given the laws of gravity, economics, and so on.

But there’s no telling Bastani. He writes that the asteroid 16 Psyche, between Mars and Jupiter is “the most instructive example”, which shows that “mining space would create such outlandish supply as to collapse prices on Earth” (p. 134). And to underline this point, he cites a figure of $10,000 quadrillion for the value of iron on 16 Psyche. It’s a shame he didn’t also cite Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the space researcher who came up with that number, who said: “I calculated it for fun. […] But of course it’s an irrelevant number because (a) if you brought it to Earth it wouldn’t be worth that any more and (b) there’s no way to bring it to Earth. It’s a complete fantasy.”

I have no clue whether someone will be mining asteroids in a hundred years’ time. But I do know that, in that time frame, humanity will damn well have to have tackled climate change, or it will have more things to worry about than ferrying rare metals around in space. Asteroid mining will not solve the problem of mineral resources to supply the renewable energy industry. The time scales are all wrong. Other solutions will have to be found.

This is one more example of the reality that Bastani avoids: that 21st century technologies, and the ways they are used, are shaped by the relations of power and wealth that dominate society. Without social change, these technologies will be mobilised, now and maybe in future, for the interests of power and wealth against humanity.

Bastani’s one-sided view of technology, as a force that inevitably drives towards a communist future, is far less than the forces fighting for radical social change deserve. We can do better. 

[1] Inventing the Future: postcapitalism and a world without work is the title of a book, by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, that Bastani cites. You can read my response to the book, prepared prior to a debate with Nick Srnicek, here
[2] This is a key passage of The German Ideology (1846), a book in which Marx and Engels worked out many of their communist ideas in detail for the first time
[3] According to Bastani, the first disruption was the start of agriculture in the Neolithic era, the second was the 18th century industrial revolution, and the third is the current technological revolution.
[4] See Nicholas Xenos, Scarcity and Modernity (Routledge, 1989), and Lyla Mehta (ed.), The Limits to Scarcity (Earthscan, 2010)

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Eco-Fascisms and Eco-Socialisms


Written by Max Ajl and first published at Verso Blog

Garrett Hardin, the biologist who aged into alignment with white nationalist politics, had the dubious honor of having confected one of the most addlepated and incorrect theories in the natural sciences. Hardin argued that amidst human tendency to overbreed, societies would run rampant over common resources amidst a Hobbesian-style resource grab: this is the “tragedy of the commons.”

His solution to this conundrum: individual property rights.

Yet, Hardin was dead wrong. From the rainbow-hued historical skeins of Peter Linebaugh to the heterodox institutional economics of Elinor Ostrom to the historical ethno-botany of Kat Anderson, we know scientifically and historiographically something long known by populations that for eons had managed their commonwealths, including the indigenous peoples of these lands: the problem is not collective mismanagement of resources. They can handle that just fine. The problem is claiming otherwise to justify theft.

Hardin drew on a strain of “overpopulation” theory which harkened back to the arch-ideologue of hatred of the destitute, Thomas Malthus. What Malthus wrote had no connection to reality. It was a simple attack on the poor, blaming them in this way and that for their own poverty.

Marx aimed considerable artillery at Malthus, seeing in his work a distilled contempt for the needy. A later Marx turned his attention to town-country rifts manifest in lack of nutrient recycling. He saw imperialism magnifying and stretching those rifts, displacing capitalism’s ecological consequences to the world’s weak and poor – notably in Ireland and, as he would come to see, the Americas.

Political ecology, born in the 1980s, carried this insight further. Physical ecologies, if sufficiently damaged by capitalism, could have diminished capacities to support good lives for those who lived on them. And damage to the ecology worked through class. Ecologically unequal exchange reminds us that class also has a national aspect: the core-periphery divide. Some national ecologies get more damaged than others.

The Fascist Political Ecology of Climate

With IPCC reports landing like forecasts for Armageddon on rare-earth powered laptops world-wide, there is now widespread generational and civilizational concern over anthropogenic climate change. Ecological arguments are back on the agenda.
But ecology is not politics. Politics, as political ecology taught us, appears in diagnoses and prescriptions for solutions.

From nativist conservationist grassroots eco-fascism; modernizing authoritarian eco-fascism; eco-socialisms based on environmentally unequal exchange and livelihoods and social reproduction; eco-socialisms putting center-stage smallholders and forest dwellers; modernization-curious eco-socialisms; and eco-modernist manifestoes targeting moonshots, asteroid mining, factories in the stars, and cascades of techno-fixes for the industrial capitalist socio-ecological catastrophe, there is many a solution to the climate crisis and the ecological crisis in which it is nested.

Each proposed solution maps social power and powerless. Each offers a way to assess culpability and innocence. And each, in zeroing in on social subjects for a just – or unjust – transition, implies a politics.

Let’s start with the bad politics. In just the most recent of a long list of manifestoes written by eco-fascist mass murderers, the El Paso shooter’s manifesto welded together Great Replacement Theory with concern over limited resources, aggressive settler-nativism with concern with the environment. It represents one “solution to environmental crisis: localist-curious eco-fascism based on ethnic cleansing. This idea is not new, as the scribblings of Hardin attest. Like a wraith, Malthus is back.

Such grassroots eco-fascism has to be confronted. But it is far from likely to be the form in which eco-fascism will come to the United States as an institutional phenomenon.

It is good to remember here what fascism is and is not, how it is like and unlike the day-to-day crimes of non-fascist capitalism. As Aime Césaire reminded us, it was run-of-the-mill European civilization, its “respectable bourgeois,” which extirpated 90,000 in Madagascar, three million in Indochina, and colonized the US, pillaging and killing across the continent.

Fascism is an extension and intensification of liberal capitalism. As Césaire reminded us, and as Modi’s moves against Kashmir should further remind us, fascism has historically had a colonial or expansionist edge.  

My bet is on eco-fascism coming in the shape of a new socio-technical machine, a kind of Fortress Eco-Nationalism: a zero-carbon-dioxide emitting way of life in which either the wealthy or the entire population of the wealthy states will laager up behind militarized seawalls and sea-lanes.

This is the hellscape that the El Paso shooter imagines as a dreamscape: resources hoarded for residents of the US – their numbers diminished via the violent expulsion of Latin Americans. Perhaps bio-fuels swapped in for petroleum, lithium batteries swapped in for internal combustion engines, all occurring at a pace too slow and with too much carbon dioxide spent on the transition to avert the transformation of much of the formerly colonized world into barely-habitable sacrifice zones. 

And as forests and fields become dead-zones, people will flee, and as the trophic sphere shudders amid Silent Spring-levels of bird, bee, and insect die-off, even more will flee. And they will flee to the wealthy North.

Populations may also flee because the physical resources for industrial renewal will rest on ripping up chunks of the rest of the world through open-pit and strip-mines alongside slurry ponds brimming with toxins. 

They will also flee as drought spreads across countries already hammered by Western sanctions, like today’s Zimbabwe, or metropolises desiccated by unplanned sprawl like Chennai, or the 25 percent of the world suffering water stress. Fortress Eco-Nationalism is already in play. Some nations suffer political-ecological distress and some can buffer it.

The foretastes of such a future are right in front of us. Look at our southern border. Huge numbers of the displaced are from Honduras, suffering under historic drought, where a right-wing US coup d’état murdered environmental activist Berta Caceres.

Right-wing think-tanks have noticed this “threat.” They converge on a militarized approach to socio-economic transformation, an obsessive interest in maintaining industrial capitalism, disdain for sustainable and restorative agriculture, and worry over immigration flows they consider unmanageable.

It goes without saying that the right-wing Fortress Eco-Nationalists have no interest in theories like that of environmentally unequal exchange (EUE). EUE teaches us that prices, capitalism, and current technological packages are not easily untangled. 

Prices are the politically enforced symbolic system through which environmental toxicity, hand-in-hand with current technologies, concentrates in the periphery whereas the “benefits” concentrate in the core. Because accumulation occurs on a global scale, populations in the core vastly out-consume populations in the periphery.

Yet, bastardized notion of EUE, even if inchoately perceived, animates the El Paso manifesto. The author is entirely aware that the US “way of life” relies on large quantities of resources, a pattern which cannot be shared globally.

The ecological crisis will not stop at human-made borders. The consequences of biodiversity loss and extinctions and the rising seas will care little for the concrete walls and automated drones which may stop the human tide and even stem rising waters – at least until they don’t. The multiplication of avian and porcine flus, multi-drug-resistant bacteria, and fatal super-funguses heed human-made border posts even less, and the idea of quarantines to keep out viruses and fungi is a chimera.

Eco-Socialism as a People’s Green New Deal

And what of eco-socialism? Recent months have seen the idea of the Green New Deal become widespread. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez laudably jumpstarted discussion of a political response to climate changes amongst sectors that had previously not been discussing it. 

But reducing eco-socialism to the GND, or more to the point, her GND, letting it blobbily envelop all conversation in the core, comes with costs. Once everything has been absorbed in the gelatinous mass, we will lose important distinctions between different brands of eco-socialism.

For example, eco-socialism mixed with notions of climate apartheid are good slogans, but they do not tell us about what needs to change and how, nor do they seem to effectively remind people that some of the countries suffering under climate-linked drought are also suffering under politically-driven sanctions – imperialism.

Pasting the label eco-socialism onto plans for state-business partnerships and clean-tech export – which, after all, are in the Ocasio-Cortez draft legislation – does not clarify the distinction between a people’s GND and that which Congress, pressured and pulled here and there by money, will try to implement.

This is a distinction worth drawing, since a state-business partnership based on industrial renewal will likely end up having quite a lot more in common with eco-fascism than internationalist eco-socialism.

It is here that we should think about analytical tools like environmentally unequal exchange. This is not a theory demanding castigation of northern consumerism. It is a battle-map which reminds us that social change has to account for location in order to include the most dispossessed. 

And it is a reminder that programs for eco-socialism should begin with the demands of the most dispossessed lest they be left out of plans devised elsewhere, or more simply should such plans rest on continued extraction and exploitation of the world’s poorest.

Following that, EUE also points towards alliances. On the one hand, the environmentalism of the poor in the global periphery: agro-ecological smallholders who produce much of the world’s food on relatively smaller amounts of the world’s land, and who, alongside forest-dwellers, conserve wildly disproportionate amounts of the world’s biodiversity. City-dwellers and slum-dwellers in the Third World who wish to breathe air and drink water free from the waste issuing from the kinds of development which have failed to produce First World – 

Third World convergence. The periphery as a whole, which still needs low-cost infrastructure and good homes, which need not imply massive CO2 increases. On the other, people living in the First World (including its internal periphery).

Almost no one seriously denies the need for such an alliance, although many fruitlessly try to nibble away at its socio-ecological logic, imagining the poorer world can somehow mimic the Western path to “prosperity.” But if fighting eco-fascism means eco-socialism, that means a program must allow unity-in-diversity.

Against the eco-modernizers, it means taking as axioms and not debating points La Via Campesina’s rejection of bio-fuels. Against the re-born modernization theorists, it means taking seriously the Third World’s need for massive agrarian reforms. Against those who think agriculture does not matter, it means accepting that the fruits, vegetables, and spices which people in the First World have gotten used to would either have to be grown here or be bought at fair prices. 

And against those who think metals come from a philosopher’s stone, it might mean that demands for stopping mining, as has happened in El Salvador, could send metal-intensive GNDs back to the drawing board.

Nor does the burden of transformation stop there. We as political subjects should not be guilt-ridden consumers but also frustrated and open-minded producers. People in countries like Canada and the US who wish for open borders need to seriously reconsider the “way of life” (or way of death) which induces massive migrations. Shifts in the Third and First Worlds are interwoven and iterative.

The US has a farm movement, and it could grow. There’s plenty to do – restoring ecologies and working attention-intense poly-cultures, investing in perennial replacements for soil-sapping monocultures, supporting multi-paddock carbon-dioxide-seeding grazing and efforts in Black and indigenous communities where food sovereignty and community gardens are fights for survival, and replacing unsustainable industry with sustainable manufacturing. All of these are components of turning global agriculture from a carbon-dioxide emitting sector to one which absorbs CO2.

Retooling core production also paves the way for material-use convergence between wealthier and poorer countries – the basis for a just world. Luckily, development indicators are breaking free from energy use, which means such convergence could mean a good life for everyone. This is not a call for an Arcadian fantasy, but for sustainable cities, fit neatly into their bio-regions, alongside convergent and controlled industrialization, and embedded in a planet of fields.

Defeating eco-fascism means things will have to change. That should be welcome to anyone who understands mass eco-fascism as a psycho-social commitment to a certain “way of life” at any cost. Many would be willing to surrender the fool’s gold of a car-centric suburban capitalist modernity for a life with less gewgaws and less alienation, but more clean air, more green spaces, more walking, and maybe more, but not too much more, hard work, as well, of course, as a planet in decent shape for the future. That is a future worth fighting for.

Max Ajl has a PhD in Development Sociology at Cornell University, and writes on the Tunisian national liberation struggle and post-colonial development. He is currently working on a book about ecological planning in the Anthropocene.