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Response: A constructive dialogue for change

John Bellamy Foster's critique of capitalism's ecologically destructive nature is sound, writes Ted Benton, but we need to think less vaguely about bringing together a coalition for change

November 30, 2010
7 min read

Bellamy Foster has played a leading role in the US in arguing for the realignment of socialist and ecological politics. In a series of path-breaking writings he has demonstrated the centrality of Marxian materialism as a philosophical basis for this, and has provided readings of Marx’s own work that show not only its compatibility with radical ecologism, but also its crucial theoretical contribution to it. The central idea that Bellamy Foster and his associates derive from Marx is the ‘ecological rift’: a destructive dislocation between capital accumulation and the cycles and processes of nature that is endemic to capitalism. It is this dynamic that is driving the global economy to overshoot the boundaries set by the carrying capacity of the planet to sustain not only human but all life.

It follows that any politics that aspires to resolve the ecological crisis must be an anti-capitalist one, and to combine this with social justice must also be a socialist one. Consistent with this line of argument, Bellamy Foster in his Red Pepper article argues effectively against the single issue focus of much elite and popular environmental action on climate change. This is not to deny that climate change is a profound and urgent challenge. Rather, it is to show that climate change is just one dimension of a deeper, much more wide-ranging and potentially devastating crisis in the relationship of contemporary globalising capitalism and our nature-given life-support systems. Although not explained in this piece, policies currently proposed to deal with climate change in abstraction from the wider context are likely not only to be ineffective in relation to climate change, but run the risk of intensifying other dimensions of the ecological crisis and further entrench global inequalities. Displacement of agro-ecosystems and tropical forests in favour of biofuels and the renewed advocacy of nuclear power are obvious examples.

So far, Bellamy Foster’s arguments are very much to be welcomed and are sure to enhance the essential project of bringing together diverse sources of discontent and resistance to the prevailing socio-economic (dis) order. However, I do have a few reservations. First, the main burden of the article is a critique of the ‘degrowth’ perspective, and of the ‘green Keynesianism’ now apparently espoused, albeit provisionally, by Martinez Allier. Again, the content of his critique, in both cases, is one I’d broadly agree with. The key problem, however, is what I’ve elsewhere called its sectarianism. By this, I mean the insistence on drawing boundaries that set up oppositions with thinkers and activists who might otherwise be allies. One tactic is to pick on areas of vagueness or ambiguity in the writer you are critiquing, and sharpen your reading of them to make them better targets for your critique. Foster does this both to Latouche in relation to the possibility of a sustainable capitalism, and to Martinez Allier’s very provisional endorsement of green Keynesianism. Again, proposals for shorter working weeks and citizens income are taken as palliative measures to maintain family incomes while keeping ‘the underlying structure of capital accumulation and markets intact’. These measures are reduced, in his account, to provision of income and ‘leisure’, neglecting the human need for useful and creative work.

This essentially ungenerous reading of others who are struggling to develop critical perspectives and strategic ways to move towards an alternative way of social being is likely to corrode the possibility to form the broad coalitions that will be necessary if anything like the positive transcendence of capitalist power is to be achieved. A different way of criticising Latouche, for example, would be to start with his admission that though a sustainable capitalism is ‘conceivable’, it is ‘unrealistic in practice’. That might lead to a more constructive dialogue about what sorts of coalition and transitional policies might take us in the direction of both sustainability and transcendence of capitalist relations. Similarly with the shorter working week and citizens income. These are potentially transformative innovations, detaching livelihood from wage labour, and freeing time and energy not just for ‘leisure’ but also for all kinds of constructive, convivial and creative activities that might allow us find meaning and value outside the constraints of labour and consumerism.

Another casualty of the tendency to make enemies out of potential friends is the critical neglect of other Marxian and socialist attempts to bring together left and green perspectives. I have in mind especially the work of thinkers such as Jim O’Connor, Ariel Salleh, Joel Kovel, Joan Roelofs and others associated with the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism. The very insightful analysis of the capital/ nature metabolism given by Jim O’Connor in his notion of a ‘second contradiction of capitalism’, for example, is dismissed by Foster in a few brief paragraphs of his (in most respects brilliant) recent book Ecological Revolution. O’Connor’s analysis has the advantage of linking the degradation of the conditions of production (and of life) to endemic features of capitalist political economy, while at the same time bringing into the frame social movement activism, civil society and state responses. While the key idea of metabolic rift is powerful and necessary, it is more limited in its explanatory purchase than O’Connor’s approach – a constructive dialogue would be more useful than a quick demolition.

Finally, and most important, the negative focus of critical work such as Foster’s, necessary though it is, tends to cut against the urgent necessity to think positively and concretely about how to put together coalitions for change, what transitional policies to promote and endorse, what sort of feasible, just and nature-friendly society we might envisage as the inspiration of the movement. It has to be said that, though there is nothing fundamental to disagree with in Foster’s characterisation of the ‘principles’ for such a society, his statement remains no less abstract than the ‘degrowth’ perspective that he criticises.

Moreover, there is a real risk, in the absence of concrete thinking that contradictions, tensions and obstacles in the way of change will fail to be addressed. For example, Foster does acknowledge the need for new and broad coalitions: ‘..a “co-revolutionary movement”…that will bring together the traditional working class critique of capital, the critique of imperialism, the critiques of patriarchy and racism, and the critique of ecologically destructive growth (along with the respective mass movements).’ Again there is not much that I would disagree with in terms of the breadth of the coalition he advocates, but there are immense obstacles to its formation. For one thing, there is a great over-simplification in the reference to the ‘traditional working class critique of capitalism’ – especially if we bring into the picture the ‘actually existing’ movement that currently carries it. There have been many working class critiques, and most, including Marx’s, had at their core the improvement of working class living standards – meaning more consumption, more demands on over-stretched ecosystems. Sheer lack of even the most basic conditions of bodily integrity and health makes this an undeniable priority for policy in most of today’s world – but to address that stark fact in an ecologically sustainable way puts into question labour movement demands for ever-greater consumer power in the ‘rich’ countries.

It follows that qualitatively different values and priorities have to be argued for in at least some sections of western labour movements. And this means big cultural shifts of the sort that might come from collaboration among diverse social movements – it might include, for example, fighting for a shorter working week, better working conditions, and more public provision of spaces for non-destructive creative activity. In short, the Marxian heritage has an indispensible offering in terms of the critical analysis of capitalism, but those of us who share that heritage need to be more receptive than we have been to the thought and practice of greens and others who do not, or do not yet, share our understanding of the essential link between capitalism and the destruction of life.

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