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Two views (both wrong) on Marx, degrowth, and productivism

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Saito versus Huber and Phillips: Opposing views both promote the myth of Marxist Prometheanism

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The claim that Karl Marx advocated unlimited material growth has been revived recently, from two opposing points of view — one side claims that Marx abandoned such anti-ecological views late in life, and the other strongly supports his supposed Prometheanism. In this editorial, the editors of Monthly Review argue that both sides misunderstand and  misrepresent Marx’s views. Reposted, with format changes, from Monthly Review, June 2024.


The term Promethean, referring in this context to extreme productivism, first entered into the ecological debate as a censure aimed almost entirely at Karl Marx. It was adopted as a form of condemnation by first-stage ecosocialists in the 1980s and ’90s, who sought to graft standard liberal Green theory onto Marxism, while jettisoning what were then widely presumed to be Marx’s anti-ecological views.

However, the Promethean myth with respect to Marx was to be subjected to a sustained attack, commencing twenty-five years ago, in the work of second-stage ecosocialists, represented by Paul Burkett’s Marx and Nature, and John Bellamy Foster’s “Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift” in the American Journal of Sociology — followed soon after by Foster’s Marx’s Ecology.

Here it was understood that the outlook of classical historical materialism was not that of the promotion of production for its own sake — much less accumulation for its own sake —  but rather the creation of a society of sustainable human development controlled by the associated producers. The key analytical basis of this recovery of the classical historical-materialist ecological critique was Marx’s theory of metabolic rift.

On the basis of the recovery of Marx’s deep-seated ecological critique, ecosocialism has made major advances over the last quarter-century. One notable work, in this respect, was Kohei Saito’s Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism which brought additional evidence to bear on the critique of the Promethean myth and on the development of Marx’s theory of metabolic rift.

The result was the emergence of powerful ecological Marxist assessments of the contemporary planetary crisis provided by a host of thinkers, including such notable figures as Ian Angus, Jacopo Nicola Bergamo, Mauricio Betancourt, Brett Clark, Rebecca Clausen, Sean Creaven, Peter Dickens, Martin Empson, Michael Friedman, Nicolas Graham, Hannah Holleman, Michael A. Lebowitz, Stefano Longo, Fred Magdoff, Andreas Malm, Brian M. Napoletano, Ariel Salleh, Eamonn Slater, Carles Soriano, Pedro Urquijo, Rob Wallace, Del Weston, Victor Wallis, Richard York, and many others too numerous to name.

However, in the last couple of years, the myth of Prometheanism in Marx’s thought has been reintroduced in ghostly fashion by thinkers such as Saito, in his latest works, and by Jacobin authors Matt Huber and Leigh Phillips, representing two opposite extremes on the issue of the role of productive forces/technology. The result has been to erect a Tower of Babel that threatens to extinguish much that has been achieved by Marxian ecology.

In his two most recent studies, Marx in the Anthropocene and Slow Down ( originally titled Capital in the Anthropocene), Saito has gone back on his earlier contention in Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism that Marx was not a Promethean thinker, and now insists, drawing on the largely discredited work of the “analytical Marxist” G. A. Cohen, that Marx was a technological determinist for most of his life.

The about-face by Saito on Marx and Prometheanism is clearly designed to accentuate what Saito now calls Marx’s “epistemological break,” beginning in 1868. From that point on, Marx is supposed to have entirely abandoned his previous historical materialism, rejecting all notions of the expansion of productive forces in favor of a steady-state economy, or degrowth. However, since there is not even the slightest textual evidence anywhere to be found in support of Saito’s claim on Marx and degrowth (beyond what has long been argued, that Marx was a theorist of sustainable human development), Saito is forced to read between the lines, imagining as he goes along.

The thrust of his new thesis is that the “last Marx” concluded that the productive forces inherited from capitalism formed a trap, causing him to reject growth of productive forces altogether in favor of a no-growth path to communism.

Such a view, however, is clearly anachronistic. Naturally, the fact that planned degrowth is a real issue today (see Monthly Review July–August 2023) does not mean that the problem would have presented itself in that way to Marx in 1868, in horse and buggy days, when industrial production was still confined to only a small corner of the world. (On Saito’s analysis, see Brian Napoletano, “Was Marx a Degrowth Communist?”)

Ironically, Saito’s thesis that Marx was a Promethean up to and including the publication of Capital (viewed by Saito as a transitional work in this respect) receives strong backing from Huber and Phillips in their article “Kohei Saito’s ‘Start from Scratch’ Degrowth Communism,” published in Jacobin in March

Proudly holding up a “Promethean Marxism” banner, Huber and Phillips present themselves as belonging to a long tradition of well-known Prometheans, including not only Marx and Frederick Engels, but also V. I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Joseph Stalin. For the Jacobin authors, for whom Marxism = Prometheanism, Saito is thus to be faulted not for suggesting that Marx was Promethean up until the writing of Capital, but rather for his claim that Marx jettisoned his Prometheanism in his white-beard years, failing to carry it all the way to his grave.

Although they adopt a Marxist cover, the views of Huber and Phillips on technology and the environment are virtually identical to those of Julian Simon, author of The Ultimate Resource (Princeton University Press, 1981) and the leading anti-environmentalist critic of the ecological limits to growth within the neoclassical-economic orthodoxy in the 1970s and ’80s (see Foster’s “Ecosocialism and Degrowth.”).

The Jacobin authors thus adopt a view that is not so much ecomodernist in orientation as a form of total human exemptionalism from ecological determinants, in which humanity is presumed to be able to transcend by technological means all Earth System limits—including those of life itself. The metabolic rift, we are told, does not exist since it is dependent on a rift in a nonexistent “balance of nature.”

Here they ignore the fact that the notion of anthropogenic rifts in the biogeophysical cycles of life on the planet, raising the issue of mass extinction, extending even to human life itself, is central to modern Earth System science. It is not a question of a “balance of nature” as such, but rather one of preserving the earth as a safe home for humanity and innumerable other species.

Going against the current world scientific consensus, Huber and Phillips explicitly deny the reality of the nine planetary boundaries (climate change, biological integrity, biogeochemical cycles, ocean acidification, land system change, freshwater use, stratospheric ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosol loading, and novel entities). Rather, they insist in their total exemptionalism that there are no biospheric limits to economic growth.

Hence, “there is no need,” they tell us, “to move to a steady-state economy…to return to more ‘appropriate’ technologies, to abandon ‘megaprojects,’ or to critique…a ‘metabolic rift’ with the rest of nature which,” they say, “[does] not exist.” Words like “commons” and “mutual aid” are classified as mere “buzzwords.” All arguments for “limits to growth” are by definition forms of “Malthusianism.” Nuclear power is to be promoted as a key solution to climate change and pollution generally.

To cap it off, they contend, in social Darwinist terms, that capitalism itself is somehow integral to natural selection: “So as far as the rest of nature is concerned, whatever we humans do, via the capitalist mode of production or otherwise, from combustion of fossil fuels to the invention of plastics, is just the latest set of novel evolutionary selection pressures.”

Phillips has gone even further in his 2015 book Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff.  “The Socialist,” he declares, “must defend economic growth, productivism, Prometheanism.… Energy is freedom. Growth is freedom.” The ultimate goal is “more stuff.” What is required is “a high energy planet, not modesty, humility, and simple living.” With a brazen display of irrealism, Phillips bluntly asserts: “you can have infinite growth on a finite planet.” The earth, we are duly informed, can support “282 billion people”—or even more. Marxists who have questioned the nature of contemporary technology, such as Herbert Marcuse, are summarily dismissed as proponents of “neo-luddite positions.” Phillips openly celebrates Simon’s reactionary work, The Ultimate Resource, the bible of anti-ecological total exemptionalism.

Huber and Phillips’s bold advocacy of a “Promethean Marxism” in their Jacobin article was delivered with a panache that must have left the capitalist Breakthrough Institute green with envy. It has already led to a strong backlash in left-liberal environmental circles against the inanities of so-called “orthodox Marxism.”

This can be seen in an article by Thomas Smith titled “Technology, Ecology and the Commons—Huber and Phillips’ Barren Marxism.” Here we are told, in a further retreat from reason, that Huber and Phillips, in their total contempt for ecology, are simply “toeing the Marxist line,” promoting the “promethean Marxist dogma”—as if their views could be seen as representative of “orthodox Marxism” (which, as Georg Lukács famously said, is related entirely to method), or as if their outlook were one with that of Marxism in the world today. Neither is the case.

In twenty-first-century conditions, socialism is ecology and ecology is socialism. Perhaps the most important aspect of Saito’s own analysis, despite all of the contradictions in his most recent work, is that it recognizes that a deep ecological view was present classically within the work of Marx (and, we would add, Engels), and that this constitutes a theoretical foundation on which all those committed to the philosophy of praxis today can draw in their struggles to create an economically egalitarian and ecologically sustainable world.

 

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7 Comments

  • It’s a bit strange when debates are missing logic thinking and holistic understanding. A debate like this is too simplified and not able to grab the complexity of nature and economy (which is the disadvantage of all debates involving experts from philosophy or sociology). I propose to involve more mathematicians and physicists.

    The author the debate contribution above from June 13, 2024 is totally right: The planetary boundaries are real. Denying them simply is esoteric. Thus debating with such people, even considering them, is useless and wasting time. Think creative instead.

    That said, I guess that also “degrowth” is very short-sighted.

    Boundaries do not mean that there are limits to *economic* growth. However, degrowth is indeed not an answer to stay within boundaries or limits, it is not the answer to growth.

    The German climate researcher Anders Levermann, researcher in complexity science (and a fan of Tom Waits), showed that infinite economical growth on a finite planet with finite resources is indeed possible.

    He presented two mathematical representations: one through a time-dependent potential landscape and the other through an integro-differential equation. They can be used everywhere, thus also to describe economic growth on a finite planet.

    Illustrating parables:

    – We can only hear within a limited acoustic bandwidth (frequencies from 16 to 20,000 Hz) – but thanks to the creativity of composers and musicians we experience infinite variations of music.

    – Birds have the freedom to fly everywhere and draw ever new figures into the sky – but they know their boundaries: flying too high will end in thin air, flying too low will end in a crash.

    So, if societies define boundaries (eg. absolutely no CO2 emissions), producers will find a variety of ways to produce without emissions until the stage they meet other boundaries, where they will turn and find new ways. Like the composer approaching 16 Hz from above or 20,000 Hz from below.

    Levermann published a quite simple and understandable description of mathematical folding using the example of folding of arts in a finite space (i.e. visible colour spectrum): https://www.pik-potsdam.de/~anders/publications/levermann22.pdf

    There is also a book applying mathematical folding to an economy with unlimited growth within ultimate boundaries: “Folding the World”: http://www.foldingtheworld.net

    The book is complemented by soundtracks of some of Tom Waits’ songs, like: “You can drive out nature with a pitchfork [with degrowth /commenter], but it always comes roaring back again” or “The Earth died screaming, while I lay dreaming”. The book is in German, but AI translations (https://www.deepl.com) may help.

  • For some people, the theoretical struggle for historical and intellectual legitimacy in the debate on growth or degrowth of the future productive capacity of the human species seems to be orbiting around who best understands what the long dead character Karl Marx meant and when he meant it. Trying to recruit the assistance of a long dead individual for support in a modern debate under modern evidential circumstances  is at best a sterile endeavour which lacks no form of practical resolution. At best it’s a tussle of modern opinions about a socio- economic analysis during a  period long gone and with insufficient detailed evidence to make it valid for contemporary comparison  purposes.  

    To me this kind of polemical debating is sounding a lot like the early Christian sects who argued endlessly about who knew best what the character Jesus was alleged to have  said and meant, during a period when each sect was looking for legitimacy to convince the undecided alienated and oppressed punters in the Roman Empire to join their particular monotheistic tendency. Sectarians invariably orientated around polemical point scoring against each other rather than collective understanding and Marx objected to that most strongly
    “The sect sees its raison d’ etraand its point of honour not what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from the movement.” (Matx to Schweitzer. 1868)

    Furthermore, as Marx did notably remark, the point is not to endlessly interpret the world or history or the history of ideas but to change it by practical steps not expect to change it by ideas.  

    “Ideas can never lead beyond an old world order. Ideas cannot carry out anything at all In order to carry out ideas men are needed who can exert practical force.” ” (M/E Collected works vol 4 page 119)

    I suggest it does not matter how talented Marx was when he examined and judged the evidence available to him, during his life he was limited by its scope and detail – and knew he was.  The reality now in the 21st century,  is of a hierarchical mass society system harnessed to the capitalist mode of production in which the elite are orchestrating at a global level the consumption and/or destruction of  the organic material of the planet at a faster rate of production and consumption than its key organic species can reproduce themselves to replace the loss and the rest of nature clean up and recycle  the mess made during human production.  The fact is also that these same elites are prepared to go to extreme authoritarian lengths to not only continue to consume in order to produce, but to prevent any social or political opposition to the current system from emerging. If some on the left have effectively joined the ‘ let’s produce ever more  and hope that science and technology can reverse what it has so far accelerated’, then perhaps like many others they will have to be convinced by further catastrophic events rather than current evidence and the logic emerging from it. 

    Regards,

    Roy   http://www.critical-mass.net

  • Hi Ian,

    Leigh Phillips here, one of the two targets of your critique. Feel free to misrepresent our argument, present quotes taken out of context, bungle what the science says, and even engage in accusations of guilt by association (“You know who else doesn’t believe in limits to growth? Julian Simon! Booo! Hiss!”), but whatever you do, don’t slander us as Stalinists.

    “Proudly holding up a “Promethean Marxism” banner, Huber and Phillips present themselves as belonging to a long tradition of well-known Prometheans, including not only Marx and Frederick Engels, but also V. I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Joseph Stalin.”

    Errr Stalin? Where do you get that from? We’re democratic socialists, not tankies. I have zero sympathy for Stalin’s USSR, Mao’s China, or even Castro’s Cuba. Were I old enough to have done so, in the Cold War, I would have fundraised for Solidarnosc and other dissidents. I consider the Chinese Cultural Revolution to be the most murderous groupthink insanity. I long for the day that democrats in Hong Kong and on the mainland topple the authoritarian CCP, and for a similar victory in Cuba, finally delivering free trade unions, a free press and free elections.

    If you are looking for people to tar with the brush of Stalinism, but at least with some accuracy this time, you need look no further than your own beloved friends at Monthly Review, with their repeated apologetics for the atrocities of Maoist China over many decades, most recently including denial of Beijing’s repression of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang.

    Toodley-pip!

    • Where did the reference to Stalin come from? From your article in Jacobin, of course.

      In it you explicitly cite grain requisitions during the Russian Civil War, the New Economic Policy, and “Joseph Stalin’s forced collectivization and the resulting famines” as attempts to overcome low productivity. Proof, you write, that “regardless of what Marx thought about the mir, leapfrogging historical stages of development proved to be impossible.”

      Your opposition to Stalin’s methods is noted, but there is no question that you included him in, as the MR editorial says, “a long tradition of well-known Prometheans.”

      • You are confusing our description of what happened in the USSR with endorsement of what happened there.

        Saito claims that Marx said that Russia would be able to avoid passing through capitalist industrial development and head straight to communism on the basis of the mir agricultural communes.

        We respond to this claim by saying regardless of whether Marx actually made this argument (although he didn’t), history shows this analysis to be incorrect. What we wrote was:

        “Upon the 1917 revolution’s final release of the peasantry from feudal servitude, peasants had no incentive to produce a surplus sufficient to feed workers in the city. The grim prodrazverstka during the civil war, the return of markets under the New Economic Policy, and Joseph Stalin’s forced collectivization and the resulting famines were all different efforts at overcoming this underdevelopment. Evidence from history shows that regardless of what Marx thought about the mir, leapfrogging historical stages of development proved to be impossible.“

        As we have seen many countries since then economically develop without their own versions of Stalinist terror (eg Dengist China, South Korea) but not without passing through capitalism, it is clear that Stalinist terror was not the only path Russia could have taken to develop. My own opinion (I don’t know Matt Huber’s opinion on Soviet counterfactual history) is that a Bukharinite programme of continuation of the NEP (under which violent grain requisitions were ended) to establish fully developed market exchange between city and country would have raised agricultural productivity sufficient to feed urban workers without resulting in a Holodomor, and only later after sufficient economic development could socialization of agriculture begin to have been broached.

        But I cannot fathom how that paragraph can be read as an endorsement of Stalin outside poor reading comprehension or deliberate misrepresentation.

        A fortiori, Ian, you seem to be developing a theory that it was the prometheanism of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky that is what caused the horrors of Stalinism, instead of Stalin’s authoritarian response to Russia’s economic backwardness. Beyond this being a remarkably idealist and non-materialist reading of history, we really are galloping well beyond Saito’s tossing out historical materialism and demonization of Engels and now even throwing Lenin and Trotsky under the bus. If all that is left of Marxism after we have abandoned historical materialism, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky is Saito’s near-primitivist reading of the Zasulich letter and an idealist commandment to forswear Prometheus (whom Marx called “the most eminent saint and martyr in the philosophical calendar” by the way), can we really still call this marxism? I suggest that no, this is now in truth a species of romanticist anti-modernist utopianism, more in line with the neo-agrarian insanities of the Khmer Rouge.

        Certainly it offers no advice on how we can decarbonize the economy, the order of the day.

        • Methinks thou dost protest too much.

          No one accused you of being a Stalinist or of endorsing Stalin’s actions. The article simply says you present yourself as continuing a long tradition of productivist responses to economic backwardness. The paragraph you quote does exactly that.

          As for the idea that I blame Stalin’s crimes on Marx’s productivism, i can only sigh, since I strongly support the view that Marx’s supposed productivism is a myth.

          • How is one to overcome economic backwardness, i.e., engage in economic development, to use more modern language, without expanding the productive forces, i.e., the Malthusian sin of “productivism”? Put another way: expanding productive forces is what economic development *is*. These are the same thing.