Archive for November, 2013

Green Syndicalism vs. Anti-Civ: Social Revolution or Primitivist Reaction? A Polemic

November 21, 2013


This is a written version of the talk I presented on 11 November at the Boston Anarchist Bookfair

First published on the Industrial Workers of the World Environmental Union Caucus (IWW EUC) website

I will begin concretely by acknowledging the undoubtedly dire environmental situation of (post)modernity—to consider the most devastating facet of the crisis, let us consider catastrophic climate change. In May of this year, the global atmospheric carbon concentration was found to be 400 parts per million, or about 1.5 times that which prevailed in preindustrial human history. This is a level that has not been seen since the Pliocene geological epoch some 3 to 5 million years ago, when average global temperatures were 2 to 3°C higher than they are today, and no sea ice existed in the Arctic. Climatologists have determined that, since the onset of industrial capitalism, the Earth has warmed 0.8°C, and they estimate conservatively that the planet will experience an average warming of 4 to 6°C by the end of the twenty-first century. This is likely an underestimate, given that scientists find it difficult to integrate the observed and projected contributions of the various positive feedback loops which global warming gives rise to within their models.

If we contemplate contemporary history, we can very clearly see the profound effects catastrophic climate change has wrought on the world: consider Super Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) in the Philippines, which is said to have killed more than 10,000 people last weekend—the strongest tropical cyclone to ever make landfall, Haiyan was an an intensification and repetition of sorts of Typhoon Bopha, which struck the archipelago nation last year. Similarly, we can think of Cyclone Nargis (2008) in Burma, Cyclone Phailin in South Asia just a few weeks ago, Superstorm Sandy last year, Hurricane Katrina (2005), the Horn of Africa drought and famine of 2011, the two major droughts which have struck the Amazon in recent years (2005 and 2010), the 2010 fires in Russia, the unprecedented flooding events seen in Pakistan in 2010 and India in 2011, the record-shattering Arctic summer-sea ice extent in the years 2007 and 2012….

To examine these admittedly disconcerting realities, I will disclose my own political bias, that of an anarchism influenced greatly by Marxist political economy. I take catastrophic climate change to result from the second contradiction of capitalism, whereby the move from M to C and M’ (money → commodity → money prime [original M plus profit])—or what is the same, the ceaseless imperative for economic growth—leads the capitalist class to undermine the very material basis on which its exploitation of nature and humanity depends. Given such a disclosure, you can already see that I do not accept this outcome as the inevitable result of “civilization”—indeed, as I will explain, I find such a claim to be intellectually lazy, disingenous, and rather dangerous.

Anti-Civ Reaction

First, I will consider the “anti-civ” tendency, as represented principally in the writings of Derrick Jensen, Aric McBay, and Lierre Keith, all of whom advocate an approach known as “Deep Green Resistance” (DGR)—with the exception of McBay, who recently abandoned the group. I will not consider John Zerzan or the Green Anarchy magazine which came out of Eugene, Oregon starting in 2000. Though I claim the anti-civ line to be most authoritarian, I will not here discuss the scandalous transphobia of Jensen and Keith, which has recently come to light in the wake of the controversies which surfaced at the Law & Disorder Conference in Portland this May.

So, then, what are the basic philosophical positions of the anti-civ tendency? As Jensen explains in his Endgame volumes 1 and 2, today’s ecological crisis is taken to be the inexorable result of the establishment millennia ago of cities, as follows from the onset of domestication and the rise of agriculture. For Jensen, “civilization” is a “culture […] that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities.” Clearly, this is not a very materialist sort of analysis. Jensen asserts that civilization is “irreedemable,” as it can never be sustainable, for, on his account, cities require the ceaseless expansion of inputs (or imports) from landbases that are not their own—with the result that the “civilized” engage in conquest and imperialism, using force to robs others for their own benefit. Jensen’s thought is also inspired by a veritable animism, as in his posing of the question of what trees and stones say, or his recommendation that those interested in sustainability ask the land how it views different social arrangements… Given these assumptions, Jensen concludes that the only truly sustainable level of technology is that of the Stone Age, or Neolithic Era, which predated the first cities of Mesopotamia: in practical terms, humanity today must elect—or be forced to “elect”—to abolish agriculture, abandon all technologies developed since the Neolithic, and undergo a massive population decline (a “corrective”) in accordance with Jensen’s conception of a “sustainable carrying capacity” of the Earth, which he claims grossly to have been overshot under conditions of civilization. In Endgame, Jensen defensively asserts that he is no Pol Pot or genocidal madman—but his positions should speak for themselves.

In his view, all environmental strains of thought other than his are hopelessly deluded, for, as he argues, they do not question the “death culture” of civilization, nor do they frame the question in a way that would prepare action aimed at overturning this death-society—that is, through the destruction of civilization. Another major premise of Jensen’s is that, the longer civilization is allowed to live on, the greater the damage will be to the world’s ecosystems and peoples.

In the abstract for this talk, I claimed Jensen’s environmental philosophy to be “undialectical, highly inegalitarian, and even reactionary in its assumptions and recommendations.” Why might this be the case? If it is not already glaringly obvious, allow me to elucidate my point.

Let’s take Jensen’s discussion of “industrial medicine” as an illustration of my argument. He makes a fair point in asserting that, on the one hand, medical doctors and the medical system in general can treat certain debilitating conditions which arise well, but they then contribute to these very maladies through the production of mass quantities of medical waste which are then incinerated. While this is a legitimate criticism, there is no sense in Jensen’s argumentation that anything meaningful could be done to vastly reduce the production of medical waste—say, through the practice of sterilization of implements rather than the mass-employment of disposable ones. Moreover, in responding to the charge that his position is “heartless” in its call for the abolition of civilization together with life-saving medicines (pharmacology), he retorts by blaming victims in an undialectical fashion: the drugs which are prescribed to treat diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, for example, are “integral to an economic system that exploits workers, degrades the environment, and increases the suffering of indigenous peoples,” he says. This sort of assertion is standard fare for Jensen—it is not capitalism or class society but civilization that is the problem. This dubious line of reasoning is seen also in his claim that modern medicine only or overwhelmingly benefits the rich—with this, he effectively naturalizes capitalist U.S. society and completely obscures reasonable alternatives to such, as in the socialized medicine of Europe.

In essence, my claim is that Jensen’s philosophy is monolectical—he dogmatically conflates capitalism with civilization, when the two are far from the same. It is for me entirely unclear that the mere fact of agriculture leads inevitably to the “radiant calamity” we see in postmodernity. Rather obviously, it is not the campesin@s of Mexico who are destroying the world. In this sense, I agree with Takis Fotopoulos of the Inclusive Democracy Project when he speculatively implies that, had the Industrial Revolution and capitalism not been imposed on the peoples of the world, they conceivably would have developed their technologies in a less destructive fashion than what we have seen in fact. I accuse Jensen of being ahistorical in the extreme, as well as highly disingenous: his entire thought is permeated by false dichotomies, as in the claim that we either have computers, pharamacology, catastrophic climate change, and genocidal imperialism or we live in egalitarian and harmonious social relations like those arguably instituted in prehistorical times. For Jensen, there is little sense that the development of civilization could have been different than what it has been. He is no revolutionary thinker inspired by the Enlightenment’s desire to overthrow oppression—instead, his philosophy serves extremely obfuscatory ends.

It should come as little surprise that Jensen has nothing to say about the revolutionary history of humanity—yes, under conditions of “civilization”—from the helots of Sparta to Spartacus, the French and Haitian Revolutions, the Spanish anarchists, the Hungarian Revolution, May 1968—or 1968 throughout much of the globe, as in Mexico, the U.S., and Japan, in additiont to France—and he in no way engages with such emancipatory social philosophies as anarchism or autonomous Marxism. For him, resistance is limited to the struggles of the Lakota, Geronimo, Tecumseh, and other militant indigenous individuals and groupings. While such forms of resistance are obviously important, they are far from comprehensive.

In sum, I view Jensen as a reactionary: his claim is that the peoples of the world must accept—or be forced to accept—their own mass-death in order to serve the mad schemes he conjures up by means of poor theorizing. For him, as the First of May Anarchist Alliance notes critically, the overwhelming majority of “civilized” peoples—including the working classes, though they make little explicit appearance in his writings—are “insane” and therefore to be written off entirely. With this assertion is seen Jensen’s effective Leninism, as I personally saw most clearly at the “Earth at Risk” conference at UC Berkeley in November 2011: according to the conversation he had with McBay on DGR strategy, the idea is that small groups of anti-civ militants will work to take down civilization themselves, given that we “can’t wait” for the people to intervene radically themselves. This is a rotten philosophy of authoritarianism.

Social Revolution through Green Syndicalism

As an alternative, let’s examine green syndicalism, which I take to be a combination of proletarian self-management—as in anarcho-syndicalism—with ecological concern, as is reflected in the philosophies of eco-socialism, social ecology, and ecological anarcho-communism. All these modes of thought aim at overcoming class society, social domination, and the domination of nature by breaking radically from the grow-or-die imperative of capitalism. These viewpoints do not take the extreme anti-technological position of Jensen and company but rather dialectically see promise in certain types of technology—for example, in labor-saving technologies, which at minimum seek to reduce the unpleasurable burden of toil and at maximum (as in communism or post-scarcity anarchism) intend to effectively abolish labor altogether by means of automation; in life-enhancing technologies, such as antibiotics and other helpful means of extending the human lifespan; as well as nature-protecting technologies, such as renewable energy sources that do not emit carbon. It should be said here, as against the fatalism inspired by undialectical primitivism, that a transition to solar and wind energy would not necessarily demand a massive expansion of the obviously problematic practice of mining, given that the rare earths needed for such a transformation are already contained within existing infrastructures, such that they can be recycled without need to resort to further extraction. Such a socio-political course is one to be adopted by a conscious, empowered humanity that has taken control of the means of production, thus shattering capitalist domination and disproving primitivist defeatism.

Having overthrown capitalism and the State, a future eco-syndicalist humanity would be able to observe various ecological practices which have been developed from within the context of capitalist modernity yet never within that context observed due to the hegemony of mindless growth economics. I am thinking here of the precautionary principle, whereby a given action (say, in production) is not to be allowed if there is reason to believe such a move would cause harm to humans and/or nature, in addition to systemic recycling, the overturning of planned obsolescence, generalized vegetarianism, economic contraction, and the re-orientation of production toward need and use rather than luxury and exchange.

Though it is to be imagined that the realization of such critical socio-economic transformations would greatly reduce the burden humanity has imposed upon the environment within the history of capitalism, it is also true that such an overhaul would not absolutely do away with the exploitation and domination of nature altogether. In this sense, Herbert Marcuse is arguably right to assert that the idea of a total reconciliation between humanity and nature “belongs to the Orphic myth, not to any conceivable historical reality.”1 Taking an analogy from Marcuse, one he develops in his revolutionary interpretation of Freud in Eros and Civilization, I should here like to distinguish between the “basic domination” and “surplus domination” of nature. On Marcuse’s account, basic repression is required for the continuation of everyday life within civilization, but surplus repression is not: the latter corresponds to a socially unnecessary level of unhappiness which accords with the interests of dominant groups, such as capitalists. (Marcuse takes his account of basic and surplus repression from the distinction Marx made between necessary and surplus labor.) By overthrowing capitalism and the surplus-repression which it demands, humanity can come to experience a far more liberated existence, claims Marcuse. In my argument, the case is similar with the domination of nature: a significant proportion of the domination humanity exercises with regards to nature under conditions of capitalism can certainly be overturned by means of the exercise of mind and the embodiment of a political praxis which accords with such—as in social revolution—but a basic level of domination will likely live on even in a global post-capitalist civilization, particularly in light of the considerable size of the total human population, the vast majority of whom must be allowed to live in more materially favorable contexts than currently prevails.

I argue that this dynamic is far preferable to the alternative advanced by Jensen and company: that is, for billions to be murdered in conformity with the genocidal fantasies of primitivism. I here accept that any defensible notion of politics will provide for the health and well-being of the world’s human population, present and future; I certainly agree with Theodor Adorno when he claims the “notion of redemption” to be inextricably linked to the “happiness of unborn generations.”2 To demand a mass die-off of humanity as a precondition of sustainability should self-evidently be ethically unacceptable to all. Beyond this, however, in practical terms it is far from evident that mass-death is necessary at all, given the reasonable alternatives in terms of socio-ecological practice open to a conscious humanity that has transcended the horrid capitalist system. Once again, to naturalize “civilized” humanity as being inevitably capitalist is an untenable position.

Strategically, green syndicalism seeks to integrate class struggle into environmentalism: to overthrow the capitalist class and do away with productivism, both materially—as in production—as well as ideologically—in culture and social relations. Granted, this struggle would likely entail the abandonment of many capitalist technologies and, as Richard Smith has argued cogently in his “Six Theses” on “Capitalism and the Destruction of Life on Earth,” entire sectors of the capitalist economy—as examples, he mentions “not just fossil-fuel producers, but all the industries that consume them and produce GHG emissions – autos, trucking, aircraft, airlines, shipping and cruise lines, construction, chemicals, plastics, synthetic fabrics, cosmetics, synthetic fiber and fabrics, synthetic fertilizer and agribusiness CAFO operations, and many more.” Arguably, the overwhelming majority of consumption engaged in by the overdeveloped societies should also be jettisoned—besides having terrible effects on nature and workers, such consumer goods truly contribute little to human happiness, after all. It should be obvious that, though perspectives on industry and development such as these remain highly critical, they have exceedingly little to do with the primitivist rejection of all technologies other than those which were on hand in the Neolithic.

Concretely, we can point to several tactics with which to move toward a green syndicalist future for humanity: workplace militancy, social antagonism, agitation, indignation, direct action, occupation (or decolonization), blockades of capital, general strikes, and particularly ecological general strikes. I see a militant transitional period as including two critical moments: one which would work to interrupt the drive of the death-economy that is capitalism, and another which would seek to construct a participatory and inclusive counter-power as an alternative to regnant barbarism.

Differently from orthodox Marxism—and, indeed, Jensen himself, who claims delusionally that he is entirely convinced that his dream of abolishing civilization will come to pass—I subscribe to no blind sense of optimism here. I believe we must think again of Super Typhoon Haiyan, and what horrors such as this portend for the future, whether it continues to be capitalist or rather somehow becomes democratic, syndicalist, and ecological. As Murray Bookchin argued famously, anarchism provides humanity with the ethical option of choosing to intervene and overcome capitalism and domination. This end is far from assured, yet little alternative exists other than radical struggle.


1Herbert Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), 68.

2Theodor W. Adorno, “Progress,” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith (1962; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 85 .

Ecology and Empire in Marx, Adorno, and Marcuse

November 20, 2013


NB: This is a slightly revised version of the paper I presented at the Fifth Biannual International Herbert Marcuse Society Conference at the University of Kentucky 

In essence, I wish to examine the treatment of imperialism and ecology in the thought of Karl Marx, Theodor W. Adorno, and Herbert Marcuse precisely because of the continued dire relevance of both such issues in our own day, some three decades now after Marcuse’s death. The importance of the philosophies of these three thinkers to my own development aside, I believe their critical-dialectical perspectives to hold great promise in positive and practical terms with regard to the ongoing struggle to overturn capitalism and so resolve the threats to oppressed humanity and non-human nature taken together. 

On Empire, or Imperialism

Marx’s views on imperialism are variable: though they generally can be said to be humanistic, they are also at times vague and outright problematic. For example, in The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels note that

“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian [sic] nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”1

Similarly in Capital, Marx notes that the “more industrially developed country only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.”2 Thus is seen the modernist progressivism which underpins a great deal of Marx’s thought, from its early stages in 1848 to maturity some twenty years later. However, providing an alternative perspective in Capital, Marx definitively identifies the original brutality through which the capitalist system arose, as in his concept of primitive accumulation:

“The discovery of gold and silver in America; the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population; the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies; the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”3

This insurrectional sort of humanism previously had informed some of the journalism Marx had engaged in for the New York Tribune from 1853 to 1858, when he examined from afar the dialectical processes taking place in British-dominated India. Though Edward W. Said famously included Marx’s articles on India within his condemnation of Orientalism, he seems indeed to have overlooked the humanism which pervaded Marx’s analyses in part: as Aijaz Ahmad notes, Marx was entirely precocious even compared with Indian nationalists in his call for an independence struggle against Britain in 1853, and he certainly welcomed the 1857-1858 Sepoy Mutiny.4 Indeed, as noted Indian Marxist E.M.S. Namboodiripad argues, in light of the putatively ongoing stagnation of Hindu society in the centuries before the Raj, British colonialism served as an “unconscious tool of history” which might have accelerated the dialectical negation of class and caste—this being a perspective he takes from Marx.5 In his writings on India, Marx was clearly influenced by Hegel, given his claim that life in India was “stagnatory and vegetative,” and that “Indian society has no history at all.”6 With regard to developments in India, Marx favorably welcomed the British introduction of the telegraph, the “free press,” “private property in land,” modern science, and railroads; moreover, he applauded the actions taken by individual British governors to suppress the sati custom, whereby Hindu wives were forced to commit suicide upon the death of their husbands.7 Elsewhere, though, Marx compared Britain’s victimization of Indians to that of the Irish under the British boot, and he claimed the “misery inflicted by the British on Hindostan [to be] of an essentially different and infinitely more intensive kind than all Hindostan had to suffer before.”8 Even before largely inverting his uncritical take on the Raj with the coming of the Sepoy Mutiny four years later, Marx would already see confirmed in British colonial rule in India the “inherent barbarism of bourgeois civilization.”9 Later in life, moreover, Marx committed himself to engaging in extensive anthropological and historical investigations of different regions of the world—Russia, India, Algeria, Indonesia, and ancient Greece, among others.10 In a famous exchange of letters with Russian militant Vera Zasulich (1881), Marx in fact endorses an alternative path to communism different from the seemingly deterministic model he had previously favored—that is, capitalist industrialization as pre-requisite for communism—in light of the regard in which he held the Russian mir.11 With Engels, Marx writes in the 1882 preface to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto that, to truly “pass directly to the higher form of Communist common ownership,” the Russian people must be aided by proletarian revolution in Western Europe.12 Given this comment, the two were rather prescient in forseeing the future of the Russian Revolution 35 years later, given the suppression of the German Revolution and numerous other antagonistic social movements in Central Europe in the years following WWI. On this point, whether Marx would have welcomed the ideology and tactics of Leninism and the course of the Russian Revolution before Stalin’s ascendancy is a debatable question, though I tend to hold that the anarchism which permeates Marx’s work—from the 1844 Manuscripts denouncing Hegel’s accommodation with State and capital to his libertarian analysis of the Paris Commune in The Civil War in France (1871)—would likely have led him to have some trepidations about the Bolshevik line.13

Adorno, though greatly marked by Marx’s work and Marxist critique, does not share the humanism which led Marx to take a dialectical view of imperialism, nor is it evident that he integrated much concern for the exercise of domination over non-European peoples in his day from other critical sources, such as Rosa Luxemburg. In general terms, it would seem that Adorno concerned himself principally with the question of anti-Jewish prejudice and violence amidst the evidently traumatic experience of the Nazi regime and the Shoah. If we consider Adorno’s psychological and sociological studies of prejudice and racism, moreover, his revolutionary contributions should not likely be doubted: with Horkheimer, he frames the fascist hatred of Jews as emanating from pre-existing liberal-capitalist society in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), and his later investigations into the Authoritarian Personality (1950) are similarly radical in anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist terms. Hence it is somewhat strange that Adorno never extended his concern for racism and prejudice to analyses of global capitalism, material inequality, and the clearly brutal exercise of Euro-American power against non-European peoples in the two and a half decades following WWII, a timeframe corresponding to the remainder of Adorno’s lifetime. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, the continent of Africa is mentioned in a thoughtful reflection on the domination exercised against non-human animals—under imperial capitalism, herds of elephants and giraffes are reduced to mere “obstacles to the landing of bombers in the latest war”—yet Adorno and Horkheimer make no direct mention of Africa’s humans here.14 In a less than liberatory fashion, Adorno begins his 6 June 1967 lecture by mentioning the “terrible threat to Israel” and the “countless Jews [there] who have fled a horrifying fate” as posed by the beginning of the Six-Day War; it does not seem to occur to this critical theorist par excellence that the war in fact began with Israeli aggression against Egypt.15 But perhaps such a culturally nationalistic perspective could already be seen in his and Horkheimer’s denunciation of Gamel Abdel Nasser as the “fascist chieftain who conspires with Moscow” following the 1956 Suez Crisis.16 In less reactionary terms, though, two years after the Six-Day War Adorno discusses the “horror of the napalm bombs” dropped by the U.S. military in Vietnam, and in his lectures on metaphysics he clearly locates the U.S. devastation of that country and its people as being a crime which belongs within the fascist continuum responsible for Auschwitz.17 Such statements on Adorno’s part demonstrates the profound disregard in which he held U.S. militarism, and his position here is undoubtedly more legitimate than that of Horkheimer, who defended the U.S. war effort as a means of inhibiting the expansion of Maoist influence in the world. This is not to say that Adorno expressly supported the Vietnamese resistance, given his criticism of the “unspeakable Chinese-style tortures” performed by the Vietcong, as communicated in correspondence to Marcuse in 1969; unlike Marcuse, Adorno never translated his repulsion at the war in Vietnam into concrete resistance or activism.18 This marked failure on Adorno’s part may well have had to do with the tumultuous relationship he and Horkheimer were experiencing at that time with contemporary radical-left movements in Germany, which for their part overwhelmingly seem to have aligned themselves with the Vietnamese Communists. Then, in August 1969, Adorno died unexpectedly.

As is well-known, Marcuse for his part considered many of the national-liberation efforts of his day to be principal factors in the revolutionary struggle against capitalism. A number of his most famous books and addresses positively cite the revolutionary developments in Cuba and China as encouraging signs of progress—in this sense, it would be interesting to see how Marcuse might have reacted to the increased Stalinist/Maoist bureaucratization of those societies. Another question is to what extent Marcuse was aware of highly negating developments such as massive famine under Mao, or how well-known such realities were at the time—for this I have no answer. Self-evidently, Marcuse is very famous for his passionate activism against the Vietnam War during his tenure as professor at UCSD—an effort for which he suffered considerably, given the numerous death-threats directed against his person, which in fact led his graduate students to rotate shifts as his protection detail.19 On the question of Israel, Marcuse may well be termed a Zionist, though not in the fascist-aggressor sense we see today: for him, the foundation of Israel, which he felt sought to “prevent a recurrence of the concentration camps [and] the pogroms,” forms “part of the struggle for liberty and equality for all persecuted racial and national minorities the world over.”20 Marcuse visited historical Palestine with his wife Inge in 1971 to expressly study the Arab-Israeli conflict at first hand, and rather than limit themselves only to engaging with Israel and Israelis, the pair traveled to Nablus to discuss matters with Palestinian intellectuals under occupation.21 Raymonda Hawa Tawil, a Palestinian who observed these interactions, paraphrases Marcuse as saying that, though he “had always felt sympathy toward Jews suffering persecution,” he “could find no sympathy for Jews who persecute others.”22 Indeed, in the article which he composed for the Jerusalem Post after his visit, entitled “Israel is Strong Enough to Concede,” Marcuse clearly acknowledges the great “injustice done to the native Arab population” in the founding of the Israeli State: born through the “displacement of the Palestinian people,” the power of settler-colonial Zionism “proceeded without the rights and interests of the native population” in mind.”23 In this sense, Israel’s genesis was “not essentially different form the origins of practically all states in history: establishment by conquest, occupation, discrimination.”24 Moving forward in practical terms, Marcuse in this essay calls for a peace treaty between Israel and the United Arab Republic (Egypt & Syria) which would entail the latter’s recognition of Israel and a “settlement” of Palestinian refugees, whether that be in pre-1948 Palestine or in a Palestinian State existing alongside Israel.25 Though his terms for peace include full Western access to the Suez Canal, Marcuse’s recommendations are not the standard liberal-colonialist tripe of his day (or our own), for he argues that the shape and direction of a future Palestinian state must be decided through Palestinian self-determination. Marcuse sees his recommendations as “interim solutions,” and he ultimately expresses hope for an “optimal solution” whereby Arabs and Jews would live together as “equal partners” in a Middle Eastern “socialist federation.”26 Finally in these terms, one of Marcuse’s very last lectures in life was given in the Mexican bordertown of Mexicali—a destination which the septuagenarian Marcuse reached with his Mexican assistant after a “trip which few Norteños of any age would have made,” according to George Katsiaficas.27

Ecology and Nature

In recent years, a great deal of focus has been placed on Marx’s supposedly critical insights into environmentalism, his humanistic exposition of capitalist alienation and its dialectical transcendence through communism aside. The main theorist pushing this alternative reading of Marx has been John Bellamy Foster, author inter alia of Marx’s Ecology (2000), The Ecological Revolution (2009), and The Ecological Rift (2010). In my view, Foster’s argumentation is far from convincing in terms of claiming Marx as an ecologist. Notwithstanding the critical importance of the anti-capitalist analysis of environmental destruction which Foster advances, his assumptions seem greatly to exaggerate the extent to which Marx concerned himself with ecological questions. Most of Foster’s elucidations of Marx’s supposed contributions to environmentalism are composed of a few passing comments the communist theorist makes regarding the adverse effects capitalist agricultural processes have on soils—yet no attempt is made to supply more varied and consistent utterances on Marx’s part which concern themselves with environmental matters, because such an effort would prove largely fruitless.28 True, the young Marx does favorably cite Thomas Münzer’s declaration that, under the rule of private property, “all creatures have been turned into property,” while they must “become free”—he even argues that the capitalist “view of nature” implies “real contempt for, and practical debasement of, nature.”29 But this statement is rather peripheral to the argumentation in the essay in which it is found, “On The Jewish Question.” While Marx evidently defines communism in his 1844 Manuscripts as “the genuine resolution of the conflict between [humanity] and nature” as well as among humans, one should likely make a distinction between the young Marx and his mature self in these terms, for references to environmental issues account for only a tiny fraction if we consider Marx’s ouevre as a whole.30 In my view, communist humanism vastly outweighs concern for ecology in the primacy of Marx’s social philosophy. Instead of an ecologist, on my account, Marx was largely a Promethean who held a relatively positivist—that is, uncritical—view of industrialism; I believe Adorno was right to declare that Marx wanted to “turn the whole world into a giant workhouse.”31 It is not for nothing that Marx condemned the “brutalizing worship of nature” he claimed as being evident in the traditional village life of pre-Raj India; he was clearly offended that in Hindu society, “man, the sovereign of nature” would “f[a]ll down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.”32 It is important not to confuse Marx’s modernist progressivism with the utopian romanticism of Charles Fourier or Friedrich Schiller.

Adorno’s philosophy is manifestly permeated with concern for the destructive effects capitalism and civilization have had on non-human nature. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer claim the effort to dominate external nature to have been central to the very emergence of human reason: subjected to the exercise of reason, nature is degraded to “mere material, mere stuff to be dominated.”33 The result is that the animal comes to “know only irrational terror and the urge to make an escape from which he is cut off”; subjected to human dominion, “[t]he whole earth bears witness to the glory of man [sic]”:

“Unreasoning creatures have encountered reason throughout the ages—in war and peace, in arena and slaughterhouse, from the lingering death-throes of the mammoth overpowered by a primitive tribe in the first planned assault down to the unrelenting exploitation of the animal kingdom in our own days.”34

Adorno and Horkheimer clearly express their disgust with vivisection, consumption of animal flesh, zoos, and loss of biodiversity; using the example of captive circus lions who perish in a fire, they denounce the instrumentalization of animal life, noting prevailing bourgeois standards to consider such deaths as mere “capital losses to their owners.”35 Adorno will carry on such critical animal-liberationist perspectives throughout his lifespan, coming to endorse vegetarianism in his 1963 summer lectures.36 Indeed, in his celebrated 1962 lecture “Progress,” Adorno presents a revolutionary definition of historical progress, whereby this is to be attained only once humanity experiences an “awakening” which allows it to “becom[e] aware of its own indigenousness to nature” and so “brin[g] to a halt the domination it exacts over nature.”37 Lastly, in his posthumously published Aesthetic Theory (1970), Adorno continues with these utopian socialist musings, noting that the experience of natural beauty “recollects a world without domination”; moreover, he notes that, “under transformed relations of production,” technology could be employed to “assist nature” by reversing its destruction and even “on this sad earth [to] help it to attain what perhaps it wants .”38

As Michael Löwy notes, Marcuse undoubtedly shares the “romantic revolutionary” perspectives of his comrade Walter Benjamin, and Adorno to a degree—for he expresses a “nostalgia for precapitalist Kultur” as a cipher which rejects industrial-capitalist technology and the destruction of nature.39 This concern can be clearly seen in Marcuse’s earliest written work, his dissertation on the German Artist Novel (1922). Though Marcuse seems to have suppressed environmental concern in some of his work in the 1930s—his treatment of the nature-domineering philosophy of René Descartes in “The Concept of Essence” (1936) is far from critical—it is very clearly evident in Eros and Civilization (1955), wherein Marcuse integrates Kant’s aesthetic theory with the mythological figure of Orpheus to suggest that, in a future emancipated society, nature and the non-human should be taken not as objects of exploitation and manipulation but rather as intrinsically valuable: they are simply to be treated as “’just what they are,’ ‘being-there,’ existing.”40 Marcuse is famous for his advancement of such a romantic image of liberation as advancing sensuousness and tranquility; it is indelibly linked to his concern for humanity’s reconciliation with nature. Like Adorno, Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man (1964) argues for overthrowing human cruelty to animals, naming their “ill-treatment” as part of the capitalist “Hell.”41 In Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972), Marcuse dedicates an entire chapter to the question of “Nature and Revolution”: here, he advances the puzzling idea that “to campaign for universal vegetarianism” would seem misguided amidst the depth of suffering “inflicted by man [sic] on man.”42 Yet he argues reasonably that “no free society is imaginable which does not […] make the concerted effort to reduce consistently the suffering which [humanity] imposes on the animal world.”43 Generally, Marcuse in “Nature and Revolution” comes to identify the non-human world as an “ally” in the struggle against the triple domination exercised by capitalism: that over self, other humans, and nature.44 Endorsing the concept of the “liberation of nature,” Marcuse joins Adorno in arguing for the re-orientation of science and technology toward the end of assisting it, and, though he clearly prefers the Marxian concept of a “human appropriation of nature” to capitalism’s destruction of it, he nonetheless criticizes Marx for reflecting a “hubris of domination” in considering nature as an object to be controlled.45 He here restates his Kantian alternative of a nonexploitative relationship with nature, as originally formulated in Eros and Civilization.


1Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848), available online at

2Karl Marx, “Preface to the First German Edition,” Capital Vol. 1 (1867), online at

4Aijaz Ahmad, In Theory (London: Verso, 1992), 236.

5Ibid, 238.

6Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, vol. 12 (New York: International Publishers, 1974-2004), 132, 217.

7Ibid, 218, 181.

8Ibid, 126.

9Ibid, 221.

10Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 196-236.

11Teodor Shanin, Late Marx and the Russian Road (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983).

12Marx and Engels, “Preface to the 1882 Russian Edition,” online at

13Maximilien Rubel, “Marx, theoretician of anarchism” (1973), online at

14Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), 251.

15Qtd. in Stefan Müller-Doohm, Adorno: A Biography (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2005), 452.

16Ibid, 413.

17Theodor W. Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, “Correspondence on the German Student Movement,” New Left Review 1, no. 233 (January–February 1999): 127.; Adorno, Metaphysics: Concepts and Problems, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (1965; repr., Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 101.

18Adorno and Marcuse, op. cit, 127.

19Herbert Marcuse, Collected Papers Volume 3, 93.

20Ibid, 54.

21Raymonda Hawa Tawil, My Home, My Prison (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1979), 231-2.

22Ibid, 232.

23Marcuse, Collected Papers Volume 3, 54.

24Ibid, 54.

25Ibid, 56.

26Ibid, 56.

27Herbert Marcuse, Collected Papers Volume 3, p. 197.

28John Bellamy Foster, “Marx and the Global Ecological Rift,” MRZine, 28 November 2007, online at

29“On the Jewish Question” (1844), available online:

30Qtd. in Lawrence Wilde, “The creatures, too, must become free: Marx and the Animal/Human Distinction” (2000), available at

31Martin Jay, The Dialectical Imagination (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1973), 57.

32Marx and Engels, op. cit, vol. 12, 132.

33Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), 97.

34Adorno and Horkheimer, op. cit, 245-6.

35Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 208-9.

36Adorno, Problems of Moral Philosophy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002)

37Adorno, “Progress,” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith (1962; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 90-91.

38Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Continuum, 1997), 66, 68.

39Michael Löwy,“Under the Star of Romanticism: Walter Benjamin and Herbert Marcuse,” in Revolutionary Romanticism, ed. Max Blechman (SF: City Lights, 1999), 209.

40Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955), 165.

41Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1964), 237.

42Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), 68.

43Ibid, 68.

44Ibid, 59.

45Ibid, 61, 69.

Illustration of Revolution, By Light Alone

November 16, 2013


Originally published on Counterpunch, 15 November 2013

Adam Roberts, By Light Alone (London: Orion House, 2011)

NB: This review examines most of the plot of By Light Alone, and thus some (but not all) major events of the text are revealed—as fair warning.

The opening of By Light Alone anticipates the book’s fascinating and shattering developments and conclusion only negatively. For nearly the first hundred pages, Roberts focuses his attention almost exclusively on a satirical depiction of the indulgent excesses of the bourgeoisie of the future: specifically, the family of George and Marie Denoone, wealthy Manhattanites whose daughter Leah is abducted while on holiday in Doğubayazit, located in mountainous Kurdistan near the borders with Armenia and Iran. Roberts’ characterization of the Denoones is intentionally unsympathetic and distasteful; indeed, while reading this first section, I distinctly recalled Franz Kafka’s The Castle. Given his writing style and the subjects he considers, Roberts can likely be to said to share Kafka’s anarchist proclivities: George and Marie are shown to be Rapunzels. Before their daughter’s kidnapping, they had “lived a childlishly spoilt existence in which every whim was indulged and which no actual hardship had interrupted.” In their life in New York, the Denoones have friends fly over in their supersonically exclusive “flitters” to have lunch together, only to cross the Atlantic once again after the meal is finished; in Kurdistan, the family employs an iCar Armoured in its search for Leah. Privileged and parochial, George and Marie have no evident understanding of the extreme social inequalities which grip the contemporary humanity Roberts considers in his future sci-fi account. It is not until Leah’s capture near Mt. Ararat that the couple has “first contact” with the other side of late, “advanced” capitalism: the life of the world’s social majorities, who in large part must toil to survive.

Compellingly, Roberts shows the future world’s proletarians as benefiting from a technological breakthrough discovered by scientist Nic Neocles, one that makes human hair capable of performing photosynthesis, such that the need for nourishment from external sources—i.e., diet—is nullified. Naturally, such an innovation has much liberatory potential, for it truly allows for the subordinated to free themeslves from dependence on lords or capitalists for income and sustenance. Indeed, Roberts explains that Neocles’ life work was greatly influenced by his reading of Percy Shelley’s poem “The Mask of Anarchy,” in particular its following famous lines:

“Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.”

Fortunately and unfortunately within the confines of established capitalism, the results of applying such new technology proves variable: on the one hand, many light-hairs are shown to enjoy a tranquil existence, freed from the necessity of production and representing an embodied utopian socialism—in the text, Roberts depicts multitudes of light-hairs as taking to the seas and living there indefinitely—while many female light-hairs find themselves continuing to perform feudal labor in exchange for provision of the extra nutrients they require in states of pregnancy. Though it can provide for much of human life, photosynthesis from the “New Hair” seemingly does not yield enough for mother, fetus, and infant, in Roberts’ vision.

Considered alongside other important examples of sci-fi exploration—including Andrei Tarkovsky, Octavia Butler, and Ursula K. Le Guin, to name only a handful of luminaries—By Light Alone can be said to be similarly stimulating in its effect on the socio-political imagination. Through his inspired examinations of the radically different lifestyles of the world’s light-hair social majorities, Roberts presents alternatives to the horrors of hegemony, which in his text are in no short supply: there are a number of passing references made in the book’s first three bourgeois chapters to the brutal repression meted out by the State against light-hairs. At Triunion (precise location unknown), a mass-protest by light-hairs is seen to be put down by military quad-pods suggestive of the AT-ATs of Star Wars, and another massacre of marine-residing light-hairs is prosecuted off the coast of Florida. Readers learn about this latter atrocity by encountering the fascistic new partner Marie takes after separating from George, Arto, who previously had been discharged from the military for psychiatric reasons after participating in the Florida “operation.” Joining with Arto, Marie takes on the hobby of tending to her expansive “Queens Gardens,” located in New York’s Queens district, which had apparently been cleared of light-hairs some time ago by capitalist security forces. Queen Marie’s eco-fascist “green” colonization project is swiftly put to an end through a mass land-occupation performed on the grounds of the Gardens by light-hairs. This reappropriation coincides with street-fighting throughout much of New York.

In positive dialectical terms, Roberts’ relatively uninspired focus on the Denoones gives way in the book’s final third to an marvelous “Odyssea” undertaken by a young female light-hair named Issa. Issa is first encountered as she burns down and flees the effective jail-residence in which she is held by a local village waali (governor), Abda. Escaping into the surrounding environment and surviving by means of her New Hair, Issa travels on foot, coming to reach the Black Sea in time. As a feminist and a refugee, she there links with members of a Spartacist political movement which seeks to involve subordinated light-hairs in revolutionary direct action against the super-wealthy profiting from the oppressive capitalist system. On the Black Sea, Issa joins a large barge of migrant light-hairs heading west through Istanbul and the Mediterranean Sea. Like many of their real-life counterparts today, however, the participants of the light-hair refugee barges suffer various disasters in the Mediterranean, given outbreaks of infectious disease and outright targeting for destruction by statist military flitters. Hence do Issa’s comrades encounter setbacks before the dominance of hegemony.

Nonetheless, following the barge’s passage through the Strait of Gibraltar and its successful crossing of the Atlantic, Issa joins with a coordinated multitude of millions of fellow light-hair Spartacists who reverse their fortunes by converging on Manhattan in a flotilla. With this massive move, the Spartacists seek to neutralize one of the principal bourgeois capitals of the world—this characterization of New York’s world-historical positioning being one which fits the social environment of both the novel and actual reality. While light-hairs advance a land-based insurrection which readers previously see mentioned at the end of the section on Queens Gardens, the seafaring refugee armada—true decolonial pirates—bombard the retaining wall that had previously been erected around New York in order to shield it from the increased sea levels which had already affected the rest of the world. Succeeding in such a truly revolutionary objective, the Spartacists let loose the waters of the Atlantic and so devastate the capitalist citadel, thus opening a major world-wide campaign to depose the capitalist hangers-on and overthrow class oppression together at a stroke—both, hopefully, for all time.

“Six Theses on Capitalism and the Destruction of Life on Earth” by Richard Smith

November 14, 2013


Super Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda), Eumetsat

This is an excellent, lengthy essay by economic historian Richard Smith on the severe environmental crisis induced by capitalism and radical solutions to such.  It first appeared in issue 64 of the Real World Economics Review (July 2013), and was just recently republished on Truthout.

Some excerpts from Smith’s practical call for dealing with the profound ecological predicament include the following tasks:

“[to] drastically retrench and in some cases shut down industries, even entire sectors, across the economy and around the planet – not just fossil-fuel producers, but all the industries that consume them and produce GHG emissions – autos, trucking, aircraft, airlines, shipping and cruise lines, construction, chemicals, plastics, synthetic fabrics, cosmetics, synthetic fiber and fabrics, synthetic fertilizer and agribusiness CAFO operations, and many more.”

  1. [To] Put the brakes on out-of-control growth in the global North – retrench or shut down unnecessary, resource-hogging, wasteful, polluting industries like fossil fuels, autos, aircraft and airlines, shipping, chemicals, bottled water, processed foods, unnecessary pharmaceuticals and so on. Abolish luxury-goods production, the fashions, jewelry, handbags, mansions, Bentleys, yachts, private jets etc. Abolish the manufacture of disposable, throw-away and “repetitive consumption” products. All these consume resources we’re running out of, resources that other people on the planet desperately need and that our children and theirs will need.

  2. [To] Discontinue harmful industrial processes like industrial agriculture, industrial fishing, logging, mining and so on.

  3. [To] Close many services – the banking industry, Wall Street, the credit card, retail, PR and advertising “industries” built to underwrite and promote all this overconsumption. I’m sure most of the people working in these so-called industries would rather be doing something else, something useful, creative and interesting and personally rewarding with their lives. They deserve that chance.

  4. [To] Abolish the military-surveillance-police state industrial complex, and all its manufactures because this is just a total waste whose only purpose is global domination, terrorism and destruction abroad and repression at home. We can’t build decent societies anywhere when so much of social surplus is squandered on such waste.

  5. [To] Reorganize, restructure, reprioritize production and build the products we do need to be as durable and shareable as possible.

  6. [To] Steer investments into things society does need, like renewable energy, organic farming, public transportation, public water systems, ecological remediation, public health, quality schools and other currently unmet needs.

  7. [To] Deglobalize trade to produce what can be produced locally; trade what can’t be produced locally, to reduce transportation pollution and revive local producers.

  8. [To] Equalize development the world over by shifting resources out of useless and harmful production in the North and into developing the South, building basic infrastructure, sanitation systems, public schools, health care, and so on.

  9. [To] Devise a rational approach to eliminate or control waste and toxins as much as possible.

  10. [To] Provide equivalent jobs for workers displaced by the retrenchment or closure of unnecessary or harmful industries, not just the unemployment line, not just because workers cannot support the industry we and they need to save ourselves.”