The Robbery of Nature raises important questions about means and strategy for solving the ecological crisis, and the role of work in society, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh

John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, The Robbery of Nature. Capitalism and the Ecological Rift (Monthly Review Press, 2020), 384pp.

Capitalism, as Marx stated in Capital, is based on the expropriation of the earth. All progress in capitalist agriculture, he pointed out, ‘is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil’ (p.12). John Bellamy Foster established in Marx’s Ecology the centrality of the theory of the metabolic rift created by capitalist production to Marx’s critique of capitalism. The essays here similarly centre on the theme of capitalism’s expropriation of both the natural world and human labour.

That capitalism is based in the expropriation both of nature and of human bodily existence, what Bellamy Foster and Clark call ‘the corporeal rift’ (p.23), is worth restating, as is the point that this is an inherent part of how capitalism works. The capitalist system cannot be reformed out of this tendency to expropriation and ecological destruction. As Murray Bookchin put it, ‘capitalism … can no more be “persuaded” to limit growth than a human being can be “persuaded” to stop breathing’ (p.248).

Recognising this reality gives us two choices. The first is the despairing position which Bellamy Foster and Clark imply is held by most mainstream green thinkers:

‘The implication is that modern Green thinkers, by definition, see ecological devastation as “unconditional” and hence wholly insurmountable, and are inherently pessimistic and apocalyptic, conceiving of no way forward for humanity – at least if this requires a break with the existing social order. This is no doubt an accurate description of the views of most mainstream environmentalists today, who categorically refuse to consider any solution that involves going beyond capitalist relations of production’ (p.34).

The second is, of course, to accept the need to overthrow the capitalist system. This is however not the end of the debate. Some of the sharpest essays here in fact are taking on other revolutionary currents. We may agree on the necessity of replacing capitalism, but what the ecological post-capitalist society could or should look like, and how we might get there, is still in dispute.

Techno-optimism versus green austerity

A particularly interesting example of this debate is the essay dealing with Jacobin magazine’s ‘Earth, Wind and Fire’ issue from 2017, which focused on the climate crisis. In Bellamy Foster and Clark’s view, it did this by ‘[espousing] a techno-optimism in which ecological crises can be solved through a combination of non-carbon energy (including nuclear power), geoengineering, and the construction of a globe-spanning negative-emissions energy infrastructure’ (p.273); imagining that a commodity society could continue, just with the addition of some apparently socialist planning and redistribution.

What the writers in Jacobin are setting out is the Good Anthropocene: the idea that we can accept that human society will continue to shape the natural world, but that we can do it in positive ways. For Bellamy Foster and Clark, though, embracing the Good Anthropocene is simply a failure to appreciate the depth of the social change required. While positioning itself as revolutionary, in their view the Jacobin issue failed to appreciate that ‘revolutionary changes in the existing relations of production are unavoidable’ (p.286). These revolutionary changes will in their view be the ‘long ecological revolution’, which will be brought about by ecological and economic crises and will be fought primarily by the young in the Global South.

It is difficult not to feel that Bellamy Foster and Clark are being a little unfair to Jacobin here. Much of the discussion in ‘Earth, Wind and Fire’ centres around the recognition that we need to deal with the climate crisis now, as well as, not after dealing with capitalism. As Alyssa Battistoni put it in the editorial, ‘we can’t shortcut the long-term project of building socialism – but nor can we sideline climate action along the way. Otherwise, even in the best-case scenario, the Left will win power only to manage a state of increasing climate breakdown.’i A globe-spanning negative-emissions energy infrastructure would not, as Bellamy Foster and Clark make clear, solve the tendency of capitalism to destroy its environment, but it would reduce CO2 emissions in the short term. The climate crisis is an area where there is a plethora of transitional demands which would be reasonably achievable even within the current capitalist system. Ruling these out because they rely on the existing relations of production would seem perverse, and unlikely to win people concerned about the ecological crisis to a Marxist understanding of the nature of the problem and how we should respond.

Visions of post-capitalism

Beyond this question of what we can fight for within capitalism, Bellamy Foster and Clark’s criticism of Jacobins eco-modernism shows a profound difference in visions of what post-capitalist society could look like. In the eco-modernist view, no technology is inherently good or bad, but its usefulness or dangerousness depends on the system within which it is deployed. Thus, for example, Peter Frase argues in defence of socialist geo-engineering that ‘what matters is ultimately less the techniques of geoengineering than how they are implemented, and by whom.’ii We wouldn’t trust Elon Musk or Bill Gates with an ecological reconstruction plan, but we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of a socialist society being able to come up with one through democratic means which would have a chance of being beneficial rather than destructive.

It isn’t necessary to embrace geo-engineering to see here an expression of Marx and Engels’ view that the human ability to learn the laws of nature and apply them correctly meant that, in a non-capitalist system, it would be possible to overcome environmental problems and produce enough for everyone sustainably. This is a distinctly different position from the sort of green thinking which holds that even without capitalism, living standards in the Global North would have to be levelled down to enable everyone to have a fair share of production within planetary boundaries.

The implication in this latter view is the other way to interpret the green pessimism which Bellamy Foster and Clark lambast in the first essay here, but in the essay against Jacobin come close to embracing: that even a non-capitalist society would be environmentally destructive unless restrained, because humans are just made that way. If humanity rather than just capitalism is an ecological problem, then, as George Monbiot once argued, we would indeed be in the position of expecting people, in the Global North at least, to struggle against themselves. Fighting for a sustainable society would be fighting against our material interests.

The perspective of the eco-modernists is generally that this sort of green pessimism is an unpromising basis on which to build a mass movement. Who, as they ask in Jacobin, will march for green austerity, particularly at a time when we are facing enough non-green austerity already? Bellamy Foster and Clark are unspecific about how they feel the long ecological revolution can be built. Their formulation that it will come about through a new environmental proletariat ‘formed by the convergence of economic and ecological crises’ comes close, however, to implying that they think that it will happen spontaneously as a result of immiseration. This seems an underestimation of the role of organisation in any successful revolutionary movement. Given that they are envisaging the revolutionary class to be predominantly based in the Global South, it also raises the spectre of the ‘environmental proletariat’ pitted against working people in the Global North; hardly a prospect we can view with equanimity.

Problems of eco-modernism

This is not to say that the eco-modernist viewpoint is without its flaws. The techno-determinism demonstrated by writers like Aaron Bastani, for example, is itself hardly a realistic portrayal of how we might envisage getting to any sort of post-capitalist utopia. The technologically-advanced post-capitalist society portrayed in eco-modernist imaginings also has problems, as Bellamy Foster and Clark show here in their discussion of labour.

It has become a commonplace for discussions of how society would work without capitalism to focus on the expansion of leisure time, with work time either strictly limited or, for eco-modernists, eliminated entirely by automation and other technological developments. This, of course, reflects earlier twentieth-century expectations that technology would dramatically reduce the need for workers. Keynes, for example, thought that the working week would be down to fifteen hours within a hundred years of when he was writing in 1930. In the 1960s, worries about ‘the problem of leisure’ when work was done by machines were frequent. That this same expectation turns up in considerations of both capitalist and post-capitalist futures is a clue that it is based in an essentially capitalist understanding of the nature of work.

Marx pointed out that Adam Smith’s idea of freedom as freedom from work, ‘far from being an immutable truth, was the product of specific historical conditions, associated with exploited wage labor’ (p.177). The alienation that results from wage labour is not inherent to labour per se but to the capitalist system in which that labour is performed. In industrial capitalism, this public commodity-producing labour, performed outside the home, is separated from the invisible household labour which is needed to reproduce that labour power, still largely performed by women, although increasingly for pay in someone else’s house.

Techno-utopian visions deal with the exploitative nature of wage labour and the oppressiveness of work to reproduce that labour simply by limiting it or imagining it replaced by machines. For Marx, however, creative labour is fundamental to human society: it is our capacity for purposeful labour which makes us human. Humans’ ability to shape the world around us is also an important expression of how we are part of nature, the natural world being for Marx, ‘man’s inorganic body.’ A future society in which human society was separated from the natural world would be the culmination of the alienation from nature caused by capitalism. ‘A world in which most people are removed from work activities’, Bellamy Foster and Clark argue, ‘…would be little more than a dystopia’ (p.188).

The vision here of a society of ‘creative and socially productive work within a world of ecological sustainability and substantive equality’ (p.189) is an attractive one, and not really much more difficult to sum up on a placard than ‘fully automated luxury communism’. Bellamy Foster and Clark are correct to identify that a future based on ‘the maximisation of leisure, luxury, and consumption’ (p.189) would simply mean the continuation of capitalist commodity production, regardless of the window dressing. The key though is to ensure that this does not simply become code for the all-too-common green argument that we will all have to be poor to save the planet, but it’s OK, because we’ll be happier without all this stuff. The fact that it is probably true that in a post-capitalist, sustainable society, we would all have less stuff and probably wouldn’t miss it, does not make this an effective basis to build the anti-capitalist struggle in the here and now.

The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that capitalism’s ecological destruction is not an abstraction but an urgent reality. It has also provided an opportunity for employers to make swingeing attacks on workers’ jobs, pay and conditions, as shown by rising unemployment and practices like fire and rehire. I write this on the day that more than 500 British Gas workers have lost their jobs for refusing to accept new contracts on worse terms. As workplace struggles again become centre-stage, the sort of green politics which focus on reducing consumption at best look like out-of-touch pronouncements from people secure in the knowledge that they have been comfortable enough to amass enough stuff already. At worst, they can appear positively anti-working-class.

There is no dispute here that the ecological revolution is necessary, but it will only be built through mass organisation of working-class people, in the Global North as well as in the Global South. Bellamy Foster and Clark have much here that is valuable in building that, but the optimism of the eco-modernists has something to commend it as well. We are not struggling against ourselves, but against the system that exploits us and the natural world, and we do so in the understanding that without the destructive system, we could live sustainably and well.

i Alyssa Battistoni, ‘Within and Against Capitalism’, Jacobin 26 (summer 2017), pp.9-10, p.10.

ii Peter Frase, ‘By Any Means Necessary’, Jacobin, pp.73-81, p.81.

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Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.