Movement building

Marxist ecosocialism and the value debate

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Many socialists have contributed to the debate on Marxism, nature, and value, strengthening our common understanding of the enemy we face and the movement we must build.

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“What is called for today is not a radical revaluation of nature, but a revolutionary ecological and social transformation.”

Many socialists have contributed to the debate on Marxism, nature, and value, strengthening our common understanding of the enemy we face and the movement we must build.

by Ian Angus

For nearly two centuries, socialist theory has grown and tested itself through debates. Marx and Engels responded to other radical views in The Poverty of Philosophy, most of Capital, Anti-Duhring and other works. Rosa Luxemburg did the same in Social Reform or Revolution? as did Lenin in The State and Revolution.

In each case a negative critique had the positive result of clarifying socialists’ ideas and helping the movement to advance on a firmer basis.

In our time debates within red and green circles have also raised important questions of political theory and practice, particularly on whether Marxist theory requires major revisions to deal with environmental crises. A variety of critics have challenged Marxian value theory, claiming that Marx’s understanding of the use and abuse of labor and nature under capitalism is wrong or out of date.

Those criticisms have generated an impressive range of responses from Marxists around the world. We are pleased to say that Climate & Capitalism has played a role in ensuring that their contributions are available to ecosocialists everywhere. We would have liked more back-and-forth discussion, but the writers who initially called most loudly for public debate seem to have found actual debate not to their taste.

That’s unfortunate, but now it is time to move on.

This month, Monthly Review and the British journal International Socialism have jointly published a definitive statement on the value/nature debate. Value Isn’t Everything, by noted Marxist scholars John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, resolves the major issues in dispute, and provides a basis to further develop Marxist ecosocialism.

The editors of Monthly Review have kindly permitted C&C to publish their introduction to that article. We have reformatted it for the screen, and added links to the books and articles they mention.


Monthly Review, November 2018

The Review of the Month for this issue of Monthly Review, “Value Isn’t Everything” by John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett, was written for the Autumn 2018 issue of the quarterly journal International Socialism. Due to what we regard as the immense theoretical and practical significance of the questions the piece addresses, it is being published here (in slightly revised form) as well.

The Earth System crisis of the twenty-first century has resulted in a vast upsurge of ecological Marxism and of ecosocialism more generally, building on the environmental critique of capitalism embedded in classical historical materialism.

At the center of this new revolutionary ecological analysis is the recognition that the system of capital accumulation and valorization develops hand in hand with the alienation and expropriation of nature, in line with Karl Marx’s theory of metabolic rift.

As Foster and Burkett explain in this issue, the historically specific rift in the metabolism between humanity and nature has its source in the contradiction within capitalist production between what Marx called the “natural form” and the “value form,” such that the latter is promoted at the expense of the former.

In the mid-nineteenth century, when industrial capitalism was confined to a fairly small region, even within Europe, and many of the effects could be displaced on the rest of the globe, the robbery of nature entailed in metabolic rift could still be ignored to a considerable extent.

Today, however, when industrial production is truly global and operating on an immensely greater scale, the ecological destruction arising from the capitalist mode of production is affecting the biogeochemical cycles of the entire Earth System, threatening the survival of humanity, and is inescapable within the present system.

The retrieval and systematic elaboration of this analysis, already embedded in classical historical materialism, has greatly added to our understanding of the present world predicament.

Nevertheless, it would be naive to suppose that such theoretical advances would develop smoothly without resistance; and while there have been great gains from the standpoint of praxis, there have also been opposing tendencies, even within the left, including those associated with Green theory, Latourian posthumanism, production-of-nature analysis, left-ecomodernism, so-called natural capitalism, and other fashionable schools of thought.

What these approaches have in common is a reluctance to accept (or the actual rejection of) the need for a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large due to the ecological and social depredations of the system.

Rather, they tend to see the solution to the present planetary emergency in the form of the extension of value and commodity relations to all of existence, coupled with various technological fixes. Such analyses cannot be promoted on the left, however, without at the same time seeking to destabilize the Marxian value critique and questioning the theory of metabolic rift.

Similarly, left critics opposed to the critical thrust of contemporary ecosocialism commonly refer to its characterization of the contradiction between capitalism and the larger Earth System as a dualistic and catastrophic formulation.

The dialectic, we are told, deals not with contradiction, negation, alienation, crisis, and catastrophe — all of which are said to reflect dualistic thinking — so much as with integration, harmony, the bundling of natural and social qualities, and the conflation of all categories, the endless gray on gray.

The result in the last three years, particularly since the publication of Jason W. Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life (Verso, 2015), which served to ignite this wide-ranging debate, has been a developing conflict on the left over these critical questions.

Fortunately, this debate has engendered a set of powerful theoretical responses that have served to clarify many of these issues, enhancing our overall understanding, and leading to a fuller development of the ecosocialist critique.

Moreover, this has taken the form of a remarkable degree of cooperation among Marxian theorists — a closing of the ranks, so to speak — aimed at defending the basis of a rational critique of capitalism’s commodity-value fetishism, while highlighting the inherent contradictions associated with its creative destruction of the planet.

While Monthly Review itself has been pivotal in this respect, we would like to highlight here the leading roles played throughout this particular debate both by International Socialism in Britain and by Climate and Capitalism in Canada. International Socialism has published a series of enlightening pieces on capitalism and nature in the past two years, strongly defending the Marxian critique in this area, by such thinkers as Ian Angus, Martin Empson, Jean Parker, Ian Rappel, and Camilla Royle, along with Foster and Burkett.

Of signal importance, in our view, is Parker’s “Ecology and Value Theory” (a review of Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life) in the January 2017 issue of International Socialism.

Rappel’s essay on “Natural Capital: A Neoliberal Response to Species Extinction” in the latest issue of International Socialism warns against the neoliberal adoption of “natural capital” and “ecosystem services” approaches, which seek to extend capitalist value relations to all of nature, internalizing everything within the market. At the same time, it cautions against left approaches that have embraced many of the same liberal assumptions.

Climate and Capitalism has emerged as the central forum with respect to the overall debate on value, capital, and nature, including pieces by Angus, Burkett, Foster, and Parker, together with Hannah Holleman, Fred Magdoff, Andreas Malm, Kamran Nayeri, Gordon Peters, Richard Smith, and many others — thereby placing it at the forefront of the advances being made in this area.

A number of formidable books have come out in the last two years critically addressing these same issues, including: David Harvey’s Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason (Oxford, 2018); Andreas Malm’s The Progress of This Storm (Verso, 2018); Stefano B. Longo, Rebecca Clausen, and Brett Clark’s The Tragedy of the Commodity (Rutgers, 2015); and three works published by Monthly Review Press — Angus’s Facing the Anthropocene (2016) and A Redder Shade of Green (2017), and Kohei Saito’s Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism (2017).

Harvey’s Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason is particularly noteworthy in this context. It discusses how the “madness of economic reason” is now so pervasive that it threatens to penetrate the left itself.

“There currently is a widespread desire,” he writes, “to incorporate the hitherto ‘not valued’ into the regime of capitalist value production and circulation. This strategy is understandable (partly because of the positive connotations that a term like value has and the understandable demand for recognition of what is all too often ignored). But it gets things entirely the wrong way round politically” since it is the resistance to capitalist value relations from outside that is one of the key elements in the opposition to capitalism.

This misdirected strategy, he goes on to explain, includes “moves to integrate the free gifts of nature into the stream of value production by some arbitrary valuation devices (e.g. those proposed by environmental economists).” This, however, adds up “to nothing more than a sophisticated green-washing.”

Malm’s The Progress of This Storm provides a wide-ranging response to the charge of dualism in Marxian ecology presented by Latourian hybridists, production-of-nature theorists like Neil Smith and Noel Castree, and the world-ecology perspective associated with Moore.

Saito’s Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism recounts the origins and development of Marx’s theory of metabolic rift.

Facing the Anthropocene and A Redder Shade of Green by Angus, and The Tragedy of the Commodity by Longo, Clausen, and Clark, while engaging with these theoretical debates, are probably more significant for their application of the method of Marxian ecology to the analysis of the crises of the Anthropocene epoch.

Here we are reminded that the point is not simply to understand the capitalist depredations of the environment but to transcend them: System Change Not Climate Change!

[Click here to read Value Isn’t Everything online.]