Saturday 1 February 2020

To Avoid Ecological Disaster Green Politics Must be Ecosocialist

I have recently been reading ‘The Emergence of Ecosocialism,’ a collection of essays written by the now sadly departed Joel Kovel. Edited by Quincy Saul, and published in 2018, the essays have all been published previously, albeit in subscription journals, mainly Capitalism Nature Socialism, which Kovel edited. One of the main themes that runs through much of the collection is for the need for green politics to fully embrace ecosocialism as its central philosophy, if it is to be effective in tackling the ecological crisis.

In Kovel’s essay ‘Ecological Marxism and Dialectic,’ first published in 1995, he begins by lamenting:

Marxism as it now commonly constituted appears as a stranger in ecological circles. This is not as it should be, but is a fact. It is a disastrous fact, if only because this keeps green movements from understanding the cause of ecocatastrophe, but it is fact nevertheless. I do not think the estrangement can be mended absent a major critique of current green and ecological thought for residual anti-communism, tendencies towards mystification, general social obtuseness, and latent reactionary potential. However, it is no less essential to criticise Marxism for its role in perpetuating the divide.

Having been a member of the Green party of England and Wales for almost fifteen years now, I can certainly confirm that greens all too often put individual ‘lifestyle’ actions, such as having a vegan diet or using and promoting renewable energy sources to the fore, whilst believing that our economic system, capitalism, can be made ecologically rational. There is nothing wrong with ‘doing the right thing’ in our individual lives, but in terms of making a significant difference to the ecological crisis, it has a very limited effect.

As for greening capitalism, the impact could be greater here, but will ultimately fail because of the nature of capitalism. It is a hopeless endeavour, and I think, the idea that this is possible, displays a lack of knowledge of political economy. For capitalism to thrive, even to survive, it needs to generate endless economic growth, or else is thrown into a crisis of recession or depression. Periodically capitalism does go into recession, caused by the system’s tendency to over produce, causing a collapse in the price of goods and reduced spending power (income) for consumers (unemployment).

To resolve these crises, the system needs to grow its way out, and it always has done so far, but at a cost to the environment through more exploitation of the planet’s resources and often accompanied by cuts to employee protection laws for workers. Once growth returns so too does the harm inflicted on the environment, until the next crisis. But logic informs us that this cannot go on forever, resources are finite, and will be exhausted at some stage. 

Making matters worse, this growth is generated by burning extra fossil fuels, releasing carbon into the atmosphere, and so increasing dangerous climate change.
Renewable energy will not provide enough power for the ever hungry system. Even though renewable energy production has risen over recent years, so has the extraction and use of fossil fuels increased. This in a period when economic growth has been pretty sluggish by historical standards. Green capitalism is a fantasy.  

Kovel is right to apportion some of the blame to traditional socialism for largely ignoring ecological politics in its critique of capitalism. Marx himself didn’t really fully incorporate ecological concerns in his writing, but there is some evidence that he may have developed this more fully had he lived longer.

In another one of his essays, ‘On Marx and Ecology,’ written for a speech in 2010, to a conference ‘Marxism and Ecological Civilisation’ in Shanghai, Kovel says:

My thesis is that an appropriation of Karl Marx in relation to ecology is necessary-though not sufficient- for this project. Marx of course never used the term, ecological crisis. The word ecology had just come into existence during his later years, and the generalized ruin of nature was not a looming threat. Nevertheless, in contrast to received opinion, Marx thought and cared deeply about nature and wrote brilliantly about many ecological problems, especially those relating to agriculture and the soil.

Further, Marx identified the dynamic responsible for the ecological crisis, although he did not do so directly, or all in the same place. In one of his earlier studies, ‘On the Jewish Question,’ Marx writes:

“The mode of perceiving nature, under the rule of private property and money is a real contempt for, and practical degradation of, nature….It is in this sense that [in a 1524 pamphlet] Thomas Munzer declares it intolerable ‘that every creature should be transformed into property- the fishes in the water, the birds of the air, the plants on the earth: the creature too should become free.’”   

Kovel goes on to suggest that Marx makes it clear that capital’s dominion has one overriding priority: its own accumulation prevails over all other goals and values ‘sacrificing nature and humanity to the gods of profit. Quantity rules over quality; and exchange value displaces use value’.

Kovel says, to restore use value to its rightful importance, labour should be freely associated, meaning that capital’s need to turn use-value into exchange value, and the accompanying need for ever increasing accumulation, will only be avoided by the removal of capital from our productive processes. Only then, socialism, what we call ecosocialism, will be able to replace this ecologically destructive capitalist system, with an ecocentric, ecologically rational economic system. Otherwise, we risk ecocatastrophe and possible extinction as a species. 

To coin a phrase from capital’s great champion, former UK prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, ‘there is no alternative’.     


  1. Familiar with John Bellamy Forster's work "Marx's Ecology" and his "Marx and the Earth - an anti-critique", I could not agree more with the point made about Green's misunderstand of marxism and its relevance to a better understanding of capitalism's destruction of our planet.

    There are however serious limitations in terms part of Kovel's analysis of capitalism which are now 24 years out of date and so much has changed since in terms of actual Climate Change, financial globalisation, robotics and the whole business of data collection.

    The problem with eco-socialism as defined in Paris in 2001 "An ecosocialist manifesto" and its subsequent 2007 version under the title " The Belem Ecosocialist Declaration" adopted in Brazil
    need precisely a good dose of dialectial materialist analysis and this, on a systematic and regular basis. If this is not done, all the manifestos in the world will not help us change the world. And capitalism will continue to extract surplus value and ruin the planet in the process.

    1. Of course I am familiar with JB Foster, but for my money, he is too obsessed with proving Marx was green, it doesn't matter, we take what we can from him.

  2. " For capitalism to thrive, even to survive, it needs to generate endless economic growth, or else is thrown into a crisis of recession or depression. Periodically capitalism does go into recession, caused by the system’s tendency to over produce, causing a collapse in the price of goods and reduced spending power (income) for consumers (unemployment)." We should also note that (a) the massive investenent needed to switch to ecological suystems of production and ways of life would be precluded by a recession - exactly what "zero growth" means under capitalism and (b) As for a Green New Deal, which aims to combine the greening of capitalism with planned economic growth, this is based on Keynsian economics which the capitalist class has abandoned since it definiteively ceased to work (even asuming it really ever did, and that its apparent success was not just a side effect of the permanent arms economy).
    This needs to be pointed out to anyone who separetes Green issues from socialism. But it also has implications for reformists like the Corbynistas in the UK and the Sanderites in the USA who present the capitalist, Keynsian Green New deal AS SOCIALISM and so cause confusion exactly where clairity is needed! At the same time, we should credit them with putting ecological concerns at the heart of their politics and correcly pointing out that ecology is a class issue, not a reason to turn away from working-class politics.

    1. Yes, I agree, but things like the GND can be seen as 'transitional demands'.

  3. Some people are credibly claiming that capitalism as such doesn't need growth to survive. After all, some capitalists do very well during a recession, and there seems to be shift in power within the capitalist class towards those who either don't care if the economy tanks or waht it to do so, wether in Venezuela (an extreme case) or in the UK and the USA. There is plenty of profit to be made from poverty and misery, and from te failures of iother capitalits. Ecological disaster could benefit some capitalists as well.

  4. David Harvey makes the point that it could have largely resource free growth, but growth it needs all of the same, it is the system's defining characteristic. Yes, there is money to made out of disasters, but the coming will be so large that it will be impossible to cure on any large scale basis. Capitalism will shrink.