Marxist ecology

In: Uncategorized

7 Jun 2009

One of perhaps the saddest and most peculiar intellectual developments of recent years is the development of a “Marxist ecology” (for instance, in the work of John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett). Whereas Marxism, at least in its origins, was a theory of human liberation, the project of Marxist ecology is broadly to pose the case for natural limits in radical sounding language. In simple terms it could be said to be taking what are essentially the arguments of Thomas Malthus – to which Karl Marx was vehemently opposed – and expressing them in Marxist language.

Although Marxist ecology is not directly influential it does have an important indirect influence. Many contemporary green ideas are expressed in apparently radical, almost Marxist, terms. Think, for example, of authors who talk of powerful corporations subverting the state (for example, Noreena Hertz, Naomi Klein and George Monbiot). Anti-capitalism, at least of a sort, is in fashion.

For that reason I was particularly struck by the essay on Capitalism in Wonderland in the May issue of Monthly Review. The authors of the article in the self-styled “independent socialist” magazine attack economists and their supposed slavish devotion to economic growth. From their growth sceptic perspective the obsession with capital accumulation (that is economic growth) inevitably leads to environmental degradation. Orthodox economists are essentially lackeys of the capitalist system. The thinkers who figure most prominently in the attack are those who have most prominently criticised the environmentalist viewpoint: Bjørn Lomborg (who is not an economist by profession), William Nordhaus and Julian Simon.

However, it is only possible to sustain such an argument by misrepresenting both neo-classical economics and Marxism. In brief:

* Orthodox economics is much more wary of economic growth than the Monthly Review narrative suggests. Although it is cautious pro-growth its starting point is the allocation of scare resources. In this sense it shares common ground with environmentalism. It is also striking how economists have taken on board the notion of “sustainability” – in other words there needs to be limits on growth. This assumption has become thoroughly mainstream.

* Marx, who was writing at a time when economic growth was generally seen as welcome, was strongly in favour of increased prosperity. His concern was that the capitalist mode of production limited the scope of economic expansion. In other words, growth under capitalism tended to be uneven and crisis-ridden. It is possible to contest Marx’s ideas but to portray him as anti-growth is a gross misrepresentation.

As it happens its environmentalist ideas that are apologetic in character. They are what Georg Lukács, a Hungarian Marxist thinker, referred to as “indirect apologetics”. Rather than directly defend capitalism they argue that the damaging effects of the market system are somehow natural. For example, the current lack of economic growth is the result of natural limits rather than anything to do with the specifics of capitalism. For Lukács: “indirect apologetics crudely elaborated the bad sides of capitalism, the atrocities of capitalism, but explained them not as attributes of capitalism but of all human existence and existence in general” (The Destruction of Reason, Merlin Press 1980, p202-3).

Despite their radical rhetoric the ecological Marxists are deeply conservative.

Comment Form