Nicolas Graham’s book on forces of production and fossil-fuel capitalism gives an important analysis of why fundamental change is needed to solve the climate crisis, finds John Clarke

Nicolas Graham certainly didn’t intend this book, first published in 2020, to be a ‘popular’ depiction of the climate crisis or a strident call to action for potential climate-justice activists. As he puts it in his Acknowledgements, his detailed and scholarly contribution to the ecosocialist perspective ‘grew out of my dissertation and is therefore the final step in a research and writing project that has spanned several years’ (p.ix).

As the outcome of this process, Forces of Production contributes to an understanding of capitalism’s assault on the natural world. It uncovers much about the climate vandalism of a powerful section of the capitalist class in Canada. It also challenges the view that the foundational works of Marxism take us in the direction of an ecologically destructive ‘productivist’ approach while, at the same time, showing that Marx’s analysis must be developed today in the context of an ecological threat that was not conceivable in the nineteenth century. In challenging positions with which he disagrees and drawing on work that supports his arguments, the author employs a very wide range of sources throughout the book.

Graham also grapples with the responses to the climate crisis that are demanded. In doing this, he considers how we must stay the destructive hand of capitalist interests and win measures that alleviate ecological degradation. However, he also shows that society must change in ways that are at odds with the needs of profit making, if we are to develop a sustainable relationship with the planet on which we live. In doing this, his arguments around the transformation of society and state power follow lines of disagreement on the left that are of great importance in developing a clear ecosocialist understanding and approach.

Relation to nature

The first paragraph of the introduction offers the fundamental proposition that the climate crisis reflects ‘a particularly flagrant form of “mismanagement” of our metabolic relation to the rest of nature [that] makes clear the need to transform productive practices, processes and relations in a fundamental way’ (p.1). He stresses the urgency of such a societal change and points out that, as of 2018, we had ‘twelve years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by half and get on target to reach zero emissions by 2050’ (p.1).

In assessing this dire situation, Graham contends that ‘Marxist approaches have contributed powerfully to understanding the roots of ecological crisis’ and that these enable us to understand ‘how capitalism works through and degrades planetary ecosystems.’ Moreover, such approaches reveal ‘possibilities for radical political economic and ecological transformation.’ He indicates that, with this book, he seeks to contribute to a ‘a reinterpretation of the concept of forces of production, from an ecological standpoint’ (p.2).

Graham sets out the basis for this reinterpretation by defining the forces of production as ‘the practices, objects, techniques and knowledge through which we are purposefully link to and transform the rest of nature’ (p.2). He contends that this ‘leads us to consider how under capitalism, forces of production substantially take the commodity form and are embroiled within its (ecological) contradictions’ (p.2). In turn, this ‘points to the need for a green socialism that would, in decommodifying the forces of production, detach them from capital’s growth imperative, and highlights the ecological use-value aspect of their development’ (p.2).

Taking this further, Graham explains that: ‘I argue that ecological knowledge, including recognition of the need to restore and maintain the indispensable metabolism between humanity and nature, represents an advancement of the productive forces’ (p.3). His argument that a crying need exists for forms of productive organisation that are in harmony with the natural world is most certainly a compelling one in the present context.

In the first chapter, Graham responds to arguments that Marx, due to his ‘optimism in the emancipatory potential of developing productive forces’ was guilty of support for ‘an energy and resource intensive future “automated paradise”’ (p.17). While acknowledging tensions in Marx’s writings and accepting that he lived well before the full implications of ecological degradation were fully apparent, the author points approvingly to Marx’s ‘prescient ecological critiques of capitalism, which have been illuminated by recent eco-Marxists’ (p.17). The view that the historical materialist perspective is entirely valid but that it must be developed and applied in the context of the present climate crisis, is argued convincingly (p.28).

In the second chapter, an ‘ecological conception’ of the forces of production is further developed. Graham suggests that these forces ‘can be understood as expressions of manifestations of historically developed capacities and powers to transform the rest of nature’ (p.42). However, he asserts that the issue before humanity is to pursue this in such a way as to ‘maintain, restore and improve ecosystem health …’ (p.42).

At this point, the author introduces the notion of a ‘transition society … entailing a long process of transformation that is not free from contradictions, and within which a great deal of the capitalist mode of production survives’ (p.54). Countering ‘dismissal and disdain for the technologies, forms of knowledge and infrastructures that sustain much of modern life,’ he points out that it would be ‘difficult to imagine … how we can immediately shut down the vast productive networks, infrastructural configurations and built environments … that currently support swaths of human life’ (p.54).

Graham is correct, of course, to maintain that our goal must be to create a technologically advanced society that is, at the same time, based on a sustainable relationship with the natural world. He also, quite rightly, suggests that, while immediate and vital changes are quite possible, the reshaping of ‘vast productive networks’ will take significant time. However, as we shall see further on, his concept of just how a transition to a socialist society can take place raises questions and debates that are of considerable importance in developing an ecosocialist perspective.

Graham counters the idea that an ecologically viable socialist society will simply be a matter of ‘a more efficient planning and advancement of the technological forces of production directly inherited by capital’ (p.59). He stresses that the ‘technological mixes (including forms of knowledge, work organization and divisions of labour) that are inherited from capitalism will need to be significantly transformed …’ (p.60). This will have to include a rejection of ‘the growing output of useless and wasteful commodities, the proliferation of environmentally damaging technologies and the role of science in these developments’ (p.63).

Robbery system’

In the third chapter, the ecological implications of the Marxist critique of political economy are further explored. Graham considers how the process of expropriation that defines capitalism involves continuing forms of ‘primitive accumulation’. ‘The violent expropriation of land continues throughout Africa, and the dispossession of peasant populations … is still with us’ (p.70). With regard to the course of capitalist development, he contends that ‘Marx subsequently refers to capitalist production as a “robbery system”, taking from human labourers more than it returns in wages, and taking from non-human nature more than it replenishes in usable energy and biological life’ (p.97).

The accelerating process of ecological degradation is starkly revealed in the present period and Graham notes that: ‘Neoliberal capitalism has also deepened fossil capitalism’ (p.99). He stresses that ‘the exhaustion of conventional fossil fuels has recently provoked resort to “extreme oil” – tar sands, fracked oil and gas, deep-water drilling – carrying yet greater emissions and ecological risk’ (p.100).

To Graham, this collision course with the natural world is also ‘a conflict with the working masses who are driven to exhaustion and … a conflict with science … insofar as the latter demonstrates the metabolic rifts generated by capitalist development, and points to the need to realize an alternative sustainable form of production’ (p.102). This scientific knowledge provides the basis for ‘the eventual resolution of environmental degradation under socialistic conditions’ (p.102). The creation of those conditions will require a transformative political struggle that is informed by such a body of knowledge.

The book goes on, in the fourth chapter, to uphold a view of ‘ecological Marxism’ in opposition to some radical strands of de-growth theory, especially as advanced by Serge Latouche. Graham doesn’t only challenge such thinking because it proposes the catastrophic notion of a ‘broad contraction of the economy (or exit from it, whatever that might mean)’ (p.105), but because of mistakes ‘in identifying the drivers of the growth society’ (p.106) that lead to an exaggerated focus on consumption without a clear analysis of how capitalist forms of production drive the ecological crisis.

This failure to appreciate the primacy of the production side of the question also leads to an inability to develop an understanding of how the forces of production might be developed differently in a society not driven by the profit motive. Such currents of de-growth theory are often linked to the notion that locally based solutions are ‘the exclusive scale where solutions to environmental problems should be found’ (p.107). As Graham points out, when it comes to ‘grand changes and global redistributions … it is hard to see how this could take place without some sort of a planned large-scale economy’ (p.107).

Graham goes on to consider further the ‘ecological history of capitalism’ (p.110). Drawing from the work of Jason Moore, he looks at how the pursuit of surplus value is accompanied by a ‘law of cheap value’ that is expressed as ‘the ongoing, rapidly expansive, and relentlessly innovative quest to turn the work/energy of the biosphere into capital (value-in-motion)’ (p.111). This drive to utilise the capacities of the natural world as a freely available means of setting labour in motion and generating profit remains a defining feature of capitalism that is at odds with the need for environmental sustainability in the productive activity of human society.

At this point, the book moves from an ‘abstract-simple … reconceptualizing of productive forces’ (p.117) over to a ‘concrete-complex analysis of fossil capitalism in action’ (p.118). The fifth chapter offers ‘a networked and metabolic analysis of the infrastructures that surround, process and move mined carbon in Canada’ (p.123). It also explores in detail ‘the networks of corporate interest and power’ (p.123) that have been created in order to undertake this massive operation.

‘Canada is currently the fourth largest producer and third largest exporter of oil (and natural gas) in the world’ (p.136). Graham leaves no doubt as to the implications for the planet that are posed by the ‘entrenched oligarchy’ (p.147) of fossil capitalism and the importance of mass social action against ‘the financial enablers … producers and transporters … that support ecological destructivity and relations of colonial domination’ (p.152).

The sixth chapter considers the emergence of corporate initiatives and strategies, including tactical investment in ‘renewables’, that have been put in place to defend vast investments and sources of profit, even as conditions of climate catastrophe intensify. Graham shows that any major hopes in corporate social responsibility, as a salvation, would be severely misplaced and ‘it is vital to again recognize the contradiction between the quest to valorize massive, fixed capital investments and the requirement to decarbonize energy in a rapid and socially just manner’ (p.175). Therefore, he contends, ‘rapid energy transition is intimately linked to the radical anti-capitalist question of corporate power, which is a problem not defined or restricted to the carbon sector’ (p.176).

The book’s seventh chapter offers a fascinating and detailed look at just how fossil capitalism is advancing the ‘greening of carbon extractive development’ (p.177). Bodies like ‘Canada’s Oilsands Innovative Alliance (COSIA), a collaboration of thirteen of Canada’s largest oilsands companies’ (p.177), have taken up the task of legitimising and furthering the notion of ‘clean growth’. This approach suggests that fossil-fuel extraction can be rendered less ecologically damaging while, at the same time, an incremental process of transition from carbon unfolds. To this, Graham retorts that: ‘Such an approach simply does not square with the scientific consensus on the scale and time frame for transition beyond carbon’ (p.188).

Graham shows that this approach is not only a dangerous stalling tactic, but that it also represents a ‘fettering’ and diverting of ecological research. The very capitalist interests that are poisoning the planet are setting the agenda with regard to the pursuit of the knowledge that could and should be devoted to the means of generating a sustainable future for humanity.

Green socialism

In the concluding chapter, having powerfully demonstrated the destructive proclivities of capitalism, Graham seeks to nail down his case for a green socialism. In order to stake out his notion of what this might mean, he highlights an essay written by Christian Parenti in 2013, in which he argues that the climate crisis is so acute that a resolution of it must be sought under capitalism. This leads him to conclude, as Graham characterises it, that: ‘Reformist state-led climate mitigation and adaption actions, undergirded by social movements,’ while they would not challenge capitalism fundamentally, would be enough to ‘vastly reduce emissions and possibly “solve” the climate crisis’ (p.205).

Graham counters this argument by asserting that, ‘Parenti is right to argue that climate mitigation must entail reformist politics and that reforms conceivable within the system to slow climate change are needed. However, to suggest that climate change can be solved without systemic change, misunderstands the relationship between capital and carbon emissions and the drive to accelerate fossil fuel extraction’ (p.206).

The author then develops his own ideas on a ‘more dialectical, green-Marxist approach to forces of production’ (p.207). Certainly, much of what he puts forward here on immediate steps and socialist goals is important and valid, but his notion of transition to a socialist and ecologically viable society reflects major differences on the left on the role of the capitalist state and what can be won from it.

Graham sets out proposals for ‘transforming and democratizing the state’ (p.211) and ‘the socialization of banks’ (p.213) that, in my view, suggest he has not moved as far away from Christian Parenti as he imagines. We must, indeed, immediately reduce the damage being inflicted by capitalism’s ecologically ruinous course through united working-class action. This certainly means challenging the conduct of the ‘oligarchy’ of fossil capitalism and broader corporate interests on their lethal emissions, destructive supply chains (p.218) and much else.

However, the fundamental issue that must be decided is whether a green socialism is to be attained by incremental modification of capitalism and its state, or the taking of power by the working class. In truth, Rosa Luxemburg’s differences with Eduard Bernstein, on the matter of ‘Reform or Revolution’ and the nature of he capitalist state are still very relevant in the development of an ecosocialist project.

Graham’s book, as I said at the outset, isn’t intended as a guide to climate activism. It is a thorough and painstaking effort to show the misalignment between humanity’s productive capacities and the economic and social system under which we live. It sets out a detailed case for bringing the forces of production under the control of a rational and just socialist society. In this regard, the book’s concluding words seem entirely fitting.

‘Establishing democratic control over productive forces and unfettering them from capital’s profit and growth imperatives is vital for addressing the climate crisis, and for the development of a new paradigm based on human flourishing within sustainable and thriving ecosystems’ (p.225).

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.