Book Reviews

An Essential Ecological Interpretation of Marx

John Bellamy Foster: Marx’s Ecology.

I always thought Lucky inWaiting for Godot was about as comprehensible as your average Marxist, and that you could prise about as much insight from those feverish ramblings as from The Grundrisse – if you had the mind to try.

Turns out I was wrong, and following John Bellamy Foster through this broad, ecological interpretation of Marx’s ecological thought made that obvious. The sizable task of dispelling this ignorance was the first virtue of the book and most of my past prejudices were squarely challenged by the general overview of Marx’s thought. But more immediately, Foster’s ecological spin features a Marxism that’s useful for understanding present anxieties about capitalism on our fragile planet.

By now, such anxieties have become common fare with blockbusters like Klein’s This Changes Everything and its equally unbashful subtitle, Capitalism vs the Climate. The story is familiar: the profit-motive of capitalism transfigures our natural environment into a pile of commodities and abstract market values – all that is solid melting into the air – and exploits that very environment beyond the point at which it can recover.  So we get outfits like The Nature Conservancy tapping oil wells and killing off the endangered Atwater chickens which they were tasked to protect, and we get the continued consumption of fossil fuels, killing everything else.

No doubt, Marx would agree with this fable as far as it goes. But the Marx which Foster presents would disagree with a standard assumption of this story: that there is an essential difference between humanity and nature; that one inevitably and unilaterally exploits the other.  This perceptual shift is subtle, but it refocuses our imagined place in the environment and reprioritizes the kinds interventions we think are appropriate for managing it.

To make this shift more perceptible, Foster foregrounds the philosophies for two of Marx’s biggest inspirations: Epicurus and Darwin. Both of them emerge as uncompromising materialists, but it’s Darwin (along with a strongly modified Hegel) who more clearly explains why that material world has come to take the structure that it does. Crucially, these evolutionary explanations are anti-teleological – which means the refusal to believe there is any privileged final end towards which things are travelling; there is no plan. For these thinkers, the deepest truths about the world are the ones which happen to emerge historically, not ones dictated from above by natural laws or the will of God.

These various commitments stitch together: if you believe that everything that exists is made of the same stuff (materialism) and you believe there are no final ends or plans for that stuff (anti-teleology), and you think that the kinds of things which emerge have evolved historically and are continually evolving (anti-essentialism), then it will be very difficult to claim that there’s some special privilege which separates humans from the rest of the natural world. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is still the consensus of the scientific worldview today; Marx was just on the leading edge of it.

But what do these commitments do for us, or for Marx? It’s complicated, but the most basic switch is that humans start looking like equal and active ecological participants, unified more deeply with the rest of the natural world. On this view, we are ‘associated producers’ who mix our labour with the labour of nature to produce a surplus by which we continue to grow.

(I’m sure the bells are going off in your head at seeing shibboleths like ‘labour’, ‘surplus’, and ‘producers’ but this is the virtue of Foster’s Marx – his canonical economic concerns and the ecological ones are unified in that familiar language. Marx’s capitalism exploits and alienates workers in the same ways as it does the soil.)

But keeping focus on the ecological side of the union, this associated production of both humans and the natural world results from what Marx calls a ‘metabolic exchange’. Think of this in terms of energy: the sun provides the most basic form but it is then exchanged and transformed in different ways: plants feed animals, animals fertilize plants, animals feed people (other animals), and those people transform that energy into labour to nurture plants. To appropriate Martin Luther King: “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men [beings] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Marx’s metabolic exchange is this process whereby energy is constantly converted and passed back and forth among the different co-producers, making things grow.

It’s seeing this kind of association which allows Foster’s Marx to point directly to cases where that exchange was broken – where a ‘rift’ was created. The central case here involves the deterioration of soil quality on agricultural land. At a time when economists thought that the fertility of certain soils (their ‘latent power’) was fixed by natural law, Marx saw the unsustainability of nutrients being taken from the countryside soil as crops, shipped into big cities like London, and then sloughed off through toilets into the Thames rather than being returned to the land as fertilizer.  To him, this was a disruption in the natural metabolic exchange which involved people as active ecological participants or co-producers.

(Unsurprisingly, concern about this rift doesn’t only apply to the contradiction between town and country but more generally to the logic of capital and private ownership.  The mid-19th century bore witness to dramatic failures of soil quality in certain parts of Europe, volatile markets for replacement fertilizers, and economic-imperial conquests for fertilizers abroad – all quite consistent with the more familiar stories of Marxist economics.)

Things get dicey, however, when Foster repeatedly refers to this rift as a form of alienation from nature. Now, my grasp on Marx is tenuous but I’m pretty sure this was a term he only used early on, abandoning it for most of his work. Whether the term is fair to Marx or not, it marks a snarl of problems. For starters, doesn’t ‘alienation’ suggest an estrangement from some kind of essential natural state? Doesn’t seeing an essentialized state of nature from which we are alienated also entail that humans are different kinds of beings entirely?  But both this natural essentialism and the dichotomous opposition of nature and society are moves which Foster’s Marx elsewhere opposes, so it’s hard to see how this ‘alienation’ could ever be consistent.

Another possibility, however,  is that the rift alienates us, not from some state of romanticized harmony with the outside natural world, but from our own nature as producers.  This is an intriguing suggestion and it finds support in the ubiquitous Marxist reduction to ‘labour’ relations, but I suspect those who aren’t already dyed-in-the-wool Marxists will find this essentialism about ‘our own nature’ just as implausible as essentialized claims about an external nature.  It is a metaphysical indulgence to say that – deep down – we are really just Homo faber (producers and tool-users) and that modern capitalism alienates us from that essence. Like any metaphysical foundation, this is beyond the realm of public criticism; it’s just a blunt and basic truth we are asked to accept so we can get on with the rest of the project. Foundations like this will obviously never be enough for people who don’t already agree – the claim needs to be argued or demonstrated.

Of course, this objection to specious essentialism applies to a lot of projects, not just Marx’s. Classical and neoclassical economists who postulate that humans are really just homo economicus should be criticized for their metaphysical balloons just as much as their opponents who claim that we’re actually homo politicus. In contrast, the historical and evolutionary insight of Darwin – which Marx otherwise praises – leads us to a much more nuanced view of ourselves: that we have no essence. To be sure, we are dappled with parts of each – part economicus, part faber, part politicus – but our composition at any given time is a contingent historical matter and there’s no deep reason why we couldn’t become more economicus than the others. If anything, that is the apparent trajectory of history for the time being; as we market our ‘personal brands’ and make ‘educational investments in our human capital’, we become different kinds of people.

If Foster is so keen to present a Marx who was scientific in all the right ways – materialist, empiricist, anti-teleological, and anti-essentialist – then talk of ‘alienation’ along with its metaphysical baggage about our essential nature will have to go. Unfortunately, this demand would undercut many of the project’s practical ambitions since the desirable ‘productive forms of association’ lose their sheen if we doubt that humans are essentially producers. But if that’s the cost of eliminating specious essentialism, so be it. For any philosophy to be useful and publicly acceptable there can be no spooks, no unquestionable metaphysical foundations.

So it seems like there is still some serious work to be done to make this scientific, Darwinian, and anti-essentialist Marx consistent with his practical program, but Foster’s account takes laudable steps in that direction. If for no other reason, seeing the details of Marx’s philosophical background and his ecological concern shows that he still has much to tell us about our current environmental crises. Foster deserves enthusiastic praise for bringing this to our attention.


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