Written by Max Ajl and first published at Verso Blog
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.