The spectre of eco-socialism

Submitted by cathy n on 13 August, 2007 - 2:59

Charlie Salmon reviews “An Ecosocialist Manifesto” by Joel Kovel and Michael Löwy

“The twenty-first century opens on a catastrophic note, with an unprecedented degree of ecological breakdown and a chaotic world order beset with terror and clusters of low-grade, disintegrative warfare… In our view, the crises of ecology and those of societal breakdown are profoundly interrelated and should be seen as different manifestations of the same structural forces.”

An Ecosocialist Manifesto, Kovel and Löwy

The word “manifesto” has a particular resonance for class-struggle socialists. In 1848 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels published the Communist Manifesto — a defining moment in the history of our movement — proclaiming “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Communism”. So when a document claiming to be ‘an ecosocialist manifesto’ emerges, it deserves to be taken seriously. Kovel and Löwy proclaim that their manifesto “lacks the audacity of that of 1848, for ecosocialism is not yet a spectre, nor is it grounded in any party or movement”. This is quite true, but this admission stands in contrast to the urgency of their message. Given the authors’ high profile positions in the American Green Party and the Fourth International respectively, the energy with which their ideas are being promoted and plans to initiate an ‘Ecosocialist International’ it seems that more than a declaration of principles are afoot.

An Ecosocialist Manifesto forms an ‘activist element’ of a growing body of political theory attempting a principled and rational fusing of Marxist and ecological ideas. The issuing of a manifesto is a call for action — the question is “what kind action and on what basis will it be taken?”

Kovel and Löwy see ecological crisis and societal disintegration as closely connected phenomena, tied together by “the expansion of the world capitalist system”. Specifically they see the former as a result of rampant industrialisation and the latter stemming from “the form of imperialism known as globalisation”. The dominant world dynamic is no longer that between labour and capital but is framed as an interrelation between “ecological costs” and “human costs”, with both subject to the whim of capital. The descriptions given to these costs are fairly standard ecological and anti-capitalist rhetorical points. For example “the regime … exposes ecosystems to destabilising pollutants, fragments habitats … [and] squanders resource” and “[i]t has invaded and undermined the integrity of communities through its global mass culture of consumerism and depoliticization.” The ultimate crisis for capitalism is its inability to deal with either of these problems through adaptation, there can be no reform: “It cannot solve the ecological crisis because to do so requires setting limits upon accumulation … It cannot solve the crisis posed by terror and other forms of violent rebellion because to do so would mean abandoning the logic of empire”.
The choice for humanity (and ecology) is between socialism or barbarism, “where the face of the latter now reflects the imprint of the intervening century and assumes the countenance of ecocatastrophe, terror, counterterror, and their fascist degeneration.” A very stark choice indeed.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the document is the very brief explanation of ecosocialism. In dealing with “first-epoch socialism” — which I take to mean specifically the workers’ revolution of October 1917 and the historic disaster of Stalinism — they see ecosocialism “not as the denial but as the realisation” of this socialism, newly framed in terms of ecology. “Ecosocialism retains the emancipatory goals of first-epoch socialism, and rejects both the attenuated, reformist aims of social democracy and the productivist structures of the bureaucratic variations of socialism”. Here is the potential value of the ‘ecosocialist’ concept: ecosocialism is revolutionary. But what social forces are the agents of revolutionary change? Reference to another of Löwy’s works is necessary to fully understand what he means by ‘rejecting productivism’ and to see, perhaps, who he thinks the agents of ecosocialist change are.

Löwy’s essay ‘What Is Ecosocialism’ (in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, June 2005) is — by virtue of being a submission to an academic journal — a much fuller exposition on the subject. Whilst it repeats some of the material in the manifesto in justification for the need of ecosocialism, it clarifies some of the worrying omissions from the manifesto itself.

One common disagreement between Marxists and those in the ‘ecology movement’ is that Marx and Engles concentrated solely on the development of productive forces as directing the progress of history. Ecologists argue that Marxism is essentially productivist and therefore blind to the destruction wrought upon the planet by industrialisation. They point to the example of Stalinist Russia and the environmental destruction wrought upon the country. This issue has already been taken up in previous articles in Solidarity but it bears repeating that whilst some of the criticisms of Marxism are — on the surface — valid, for Marx “the supreme goal of technical progress is not the infinite accumulation of goods … but the reduction of the working day and the accumulation of free time”. This interpretation is complemented by the fact that Capital, Marx’s correspondence and notebooks are full of references to ecological matters.

The argument around productivism is an important one. It is true to say that much of the labour movement is understandably concerned with the preservation and expansion of industry, regardless of environmental cost. It is also true that the idea of material ‘abundance’ is seen by many socialists as a precondition for the development of a fully liberated, democratic society. There have been a number of scientific studies that give reason to believe that with current technology there are inherent natural limits to growth. For instance in the October 2005 edition of Monthly Review, John Bellamy-Foster cites a study by the National Academy of Sciences to the effect that “the world economy exceeded the earth’s regenerative capacity in 1980 and by 1999 had gone beyond it by as much as 20 percent. This means that ‘it would require 1.2 Earths, or one earth for 1.2 years, to regenerate what humanity used in 1999’”. Another worrying example comes from how capitalism ‘accounts for’ (i.e. records the cost of) natural resources. For example, if all costs are factored into the production of a hamburger — maintaining or regenerating the material assets used up in its production — you’d have to pay around £100. This suggests two things (1) that an economy organised around producing exchange-values has limits and (2) that in regulating and accounting for production, the ‘total cost’ must be factored in to maintain stability — or at least honest accounting. An economy organised on use-values would substantially deal with these problems.

Löwy also manages to clarify other questions left open or unanswered in the manifesto itself. Understandably for such a statement of purpose, An Ecosocialist Manifesto appears to be a rather ultimate political statement. It rightly criticises the destructive nature of capitalism but implies — in its urgency to call people to action — that capital is incapable of ‘holding off’ of ecological disaster. Alone, Löwy manages to identify a number of reforms that an ecosocialist movement could fight for within capitalism. These include free public transport, restructuring the international debt system, “defence of public health” and the reduction of work time. Nothing is mentioned of the possibility that capitalism could reduce or fairly distribute carbon emissions (perhaps the most pressing environmental concern).

The working class is not mentioned once in the original manifesto but in his essay Löwy states “Whilst criticising the ideology of the dominant sectors of the labour movement, ecosocialists know that the workers and their organisations are an indispensable force for any radical transformation of the system” (my italics). This is a curious way to put it. Indispensable how? Returning to the paradigm outlined above where the world is driven by the dynamic between eco-crisis and a crisis of ‘humanity’, what role do workers play? In the struggle to achieve ecosocialism workers are “indispensable” but are they central? Kovel and Löwy have no direct answer but one is implied at the end of Löwy’s individual work where he details movements based around an “ecology of the poor”. Although these forces should not be discounted and are significant where they interact with workers movements are Kovel and Löwy saying that they are key?

In conclusion, Kovel and Löwy’s Ecosocialist Manifesto suffers — from a Marxist point of view — on a number of levels: its barely justified re-writing of the driving force of history; the maximalist strategising; and its seeming rejection of the working class as the agent of revolution. Some of these issues are dealt with by Löwy elsewhere but not with sufficient detail or force to be convincing. It’s as if large chunks of Marxism have been dispensed with to more easily fit the sensibilities of the ‘Green movement’. This is worrying when you consider plans to unite left-Greens and Green-socialists in an international effort at a time when so many Marxist organisations have lost their political bearings. The manifesto is of value only insofar as Marxists actively engage with its criticism of productivism (a necessary process of clarification, of which more needs to be written) and are able to forge a more coherent call to arms.

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