Posts Tagged ‘John Bellamy Foster’

Marxist-Anarchist Dialogue: Partial Transcript

March 20, 2017

Baku map

Please find below the partial transcript of the “Marxist-Anarchist Dialogue” that took place on February 12, 2017, at the Sepulveda Peace Center in Los Angeles.  This event featured a Black Rose/Rosa Negra member presenting on anarchism in dialogue with a member of the International Marxist Humanist Organization (IMHO) who preferred for his comments not to be reproduced publicly.

I’d just like to begin with a quote from Bakunin in Statism and Anarchy (1873):

“To contend successfully with a military force which now respects nothing, is armed with the most terrible weapons of destruction, and is always ready to use them to wipe out not just houses and streets but entire cities with all their inhabitants—to contend with such a wild beast, one needs another beast, no less wild but more just: an organized uprising of the people, a social revolution […] which spares nothing and stops at nothing.”

As Ukrainian revolutionary Nester Mahkno and his comrades point out in their “Organizational Platform for a General Union of Anarchists,” written in exile in Paris in 1926, it was in the life of the toiling masses, particularly the Russian practices of mir, obshchina, and artel, or the agrarian commune and cooperative labor, that Alexander Herzen and Mikhail Bakunin discovered anarchism.  Yet, as Paul McLaughlin (2002) observes, Bakunin’s anarchism is also one with his atheism and anti-theologism, or atheistic materialism.  Bakunin (1814-1876) extends Ludwig Feuerbach’s exposé of the mystification of religious authority by illuminating the reification of political and scientific authority while summoning the negative Hegelian dialectic to sweep away feudalism, capitalism, despotism, and the State.  Bakunin famously expounds on this view in “The Reaction in Germany” (1842), where he stipulates the existence of an “either-or” dialectic demanding the victory of either the Negative (Revolution) or the Positive (the State or the status quo).  Yet instead of a battle between two opposing forces leading to a synthesis, as Hegel imagined, Bakunin envisions a dyadic conflict leading to the full victory of the Negative, yielding “democracy” in 1842, or “anarchy” 25 years later.  Bakunin views history as a gradual evolutionary progression that contains episodes of revolutionary acceleration—hence his famous conclusion to “The Reaction,” where he professes his faith in the “eternal Spirit which destroys and annihilates only because it is the unfathomable and eternal source of all life.  The passion for destruction is also a creative passion.”

For Bakunin, history progresses through the principle of revolt, which together with the principles of human animality and reason for him express the human essence; reason is the emancipatory force of history, as it illuminates freedom.  Besides Herzen, the anarcho-Populist “father of Russian socialism” with whom Bakunin worked closely in favor of Polish independence from tsarism, developing the slogan “Zemlya i Volya” (“Land and Freedom”) as a summary of their visionary program that would resonate around the world (perhaps most famously, indeed, as Tierra y Libertad in the Mexican Revolution), his philosophical and political influences are many: there is Hegel; Feuerbach; Konstantin Aksakov, a notable anti-Statist figure within the Stankevich Circle in Moscow; Johann Fichte, from whom Bakunin took the emphasis on action and the vision of a conscious, collective movement striving to institute reason, freedom, and equality in history; Bruno Bauer, who sees in Hegel a radical critique of the State and religion; and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, from whom Bakunin took anarchism and atheism.  In stark contrast to Proudhon the sexist, however, Bakunin is a militant feminist who was called “Hermaphrodite man” by Marx in 1868 for demanding the “equalization of classes and individuals of both sexes” in the Program of the International Alliance for Socialist Democracy, or “the Alliance.” The roots linking Bakunin’s atheism or anti-theologism with anarchism were established by 1842, though Bakunin wasn’t explicitly anarchist until 1866, when he declared the goal of the International Brotherhood, forerunner of the Alliance, as being the “overthrow of all States and at the same time all […] official Churches, standing armies, centralized ministries, bureaucracy, governments, unitary parliaments and State universities and banks, as well as aristocratic and bourgeois monopolies.”

Now I’d like to come to some of the differences between Bakunin’s thought, or anarchism, and Marx and Marxism, and illuminate this through a few issues. For one, there is the matter of Prometheanism and productivism. Marxism has been accused for a very long time of being both: that is to say, that Marx and Marxism are obsessed with progress and the development of productive forces, equating human liberation with the domination of nature—despite the considerable efforts that have been made in recent decades by eco-Marxist to rescue Marx on these two grounds. So the question arises: is anarchism any better?

Bakunin adheres to naturalism, a post-Enlightenment philosophical movement associated with materialism and atheism, which lay the foundations for modern science while criticizing its excesses and abuses. As such, Bakunin takes aim at René Descartes and Immanuel Kant for their anthropocentrism. Therefore, Bakunin’s naturalism can be said to be associated with ecology.  Indeed, it was through anarchism that Murray Bookchin developed the philosophy of social ecology decades before John Bellamy Foster and others “discovered” Marx’s questionable environmentalism.  Bakunin considers Cartesian anthropocentrism to be anti-naturalist.  For these reasons, naturalism arguably holds greater ecological potential than historical materialism.

Now, coming to the question of history, racism and imperialism, anarchists disagree, as McLaughlin notes, principally with Marxists over the usefulness of historical materialism and the stages theory of history,  whereby history inevitably progresses from primitive communism to the slave societies of antiquity, feudalism, capitalism and then communism in the end.

Instead of the determinism set forth by Marx as early as 1847 in The Poverty of Philosophy, a volume that presents a devastating (if opportunistic) critique of Proudhon, where Marx argues that socialism can only be achieved after the full development of critique, Bakunin and the anarchists believe in spontaneity. Plus, anarchists do not consider the industrial proletariat necessarily to have more revolutionary potential than the peasantry, as Marxism does; instead, anarchists seek to unite both proletariat and peasantry against capitalism and the State.

To illustrate the difference between the two approaches, consider how Engels responded to Bakunin’s “Appeal to the Slavs,” which sought to mobilize the concepts of justice and humanity to unite the Slavs in a federated struggle against Russian and Austro-Hungarian imperialism in the wake of the failed 1848 Revolutions.  In “Democratic Pan-Slavism,” Engels declares that, other than for the Poles and Russians, “no Slav people has a future” outside of subordination to centralizing Prussian and Austrian imperialist “civilization.”  In addition, reflecting on the recent Mexican-American War, which had just ended that year, Engels trolls Bakunin, asking, “will [he] accuse the Americans of a ‘war of conquest,’ which […] was […] waged wholly and solely in the interest of civilization? Or is it perhaps unfortunate that splendid California has been taken away from the lazy Mexicans, who could not do anything with it?”

Bakunin was not dominated by the questionable reasoning that leads Marx and Engels to express uncritical opinions about capitalism and colonialism (per the stages theory).  Instead, he espouses a decolonizing perspective that initially supported national-liberation struggles but then came to understand the need for coordinated global revolution—hence his popularity in the more agrarian Mediterranean and eastern European countries (Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Russia) within the International, as well as in India, Mexico, and much of the rest of Latin America after the First International.  This is not to overlook Marx’s late revisions of his deterministic, callous reasoning, especially after his study of the Russian mir, nor is it to ignore the fact—as Kevin Anderson reminds us—that Marx was among the first Europeans to call for India’s independence from British domination!

There is also the issue of Marx’s own anti-Semitic comments against Ferdinand Lasalle and himself and his family, as in On the Jewish Question (1844), which nonetheless cannot compare to Bakunin’s far more wretched Jew-hatred, based on conspiracy and the “anti-Semitism of fools.”

Politically, Marxism and anarchism diverge principally on the questions of the State, religion, tactics, and strategy.

Robert Graham, author of We Do Not Fear Anarchy; We Invoke It, has identified 6 principles by which Bakunin distinguished anarchism from other approaches: anti-authoritarianism, anti-Statism, anti-parliamentarianism, federalism, libertarianism (that is to say, the consistency of means and ends),  and social revolution as means to emancipation.

We see conflict with Marxism on all of these questions. But the primary contradiction is really between statism and centralism, which is on the Marxist side, and the anti-state or federalist position, which accords with anarchist principles.

So to illustrate the distinction, I just want to quote a couple of things by Marx and Engels.  In their 1850 address of the Communist League, they argue that the German workers’ movement must strive for the “most determined centralization of power in the hands of the state authority.  They must not allow themselves to be misguided by the democratic talk of freedom for the communities, of self-government, etc.” There’s also a letter that Engels sent to Carlo Cafiero, who was an Italian Alliance member, in 1872: “Bismarck and Victor Emmanuel had both rendered enormous service to the revolution by bringing about political centralization in their respective countries.”

And so, as an alternative, the International Alliance for Socialist Democracy (“the Alliance”) was a specifically anarchist organization through which Bakunin sought to deepen the revolutionary struggle of the International.  The Alliance “stands for atheism, the abolition of cults and the replacement of faith by science, and divine by human justice.” In addition, it sought to collectivize means of production via the agricultural-industrial associations rather than through the State.

To conclude here, I want to illustrate this conflict very practically in a historical way by analyzing the conflict between Marx, Bakunin, and their followers in the First International, or the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), which was founded in 1864.  Their conflict really happened between 1868 and 1872.  This conflict really revolves around the incompatibility of the anarchist and protosyndicalist emphasis on direct action with the Marxist electoralist or statist strategy.

And just as a background to this conflict, it bears mentioning that Marx and Engels slanderously accused Bakunin of being a tsarist agent, first in 1848.  These charges were resurrected by Marx’s allies in Spain and Germany in the runs-up to the Basel (1869) and Hague (1872) Congresses of the International. In fact, curiously, this echoes the World Socialist’s Web Site’s denunciation of the Antifa protesters against Milo Yiannopoulos at UC Berkeley, condemning them as agents provocateurs.

So, just to go briefly around some of the highlights of the International and its Congresses: at the Brussels Congress of 1868, the Belgian federalists introduced a principle whereby European workers would launch a general strike in order to either prevent or respond to the declaration of war in Europe, whereas at the Basel Congress of 1869, the IWMA’s “most representative congress” (Graham), the IWMA’s majority voted in favor of revolutionary syndicalism as the preferred strategy for the International.  In Basel, the Belgian internationalists argued for each local of IWMA to become a commune or “society of resistance” (a union), whereas Bakunin and other federalists were hailing collectivism in the form of cooperatives, mutual aid societies, credit unions, and the tactic of the general strike.

Then, of course, the Paris Commune of 1871 showed the brutality of counter-insurgent suppression and demonstrated Proudhon’s error, in fact, in believing that the transition to socialism or anarchism could come about peacefully. And during this time, Marx and Bakunin more or less did converge for a short time in their analysis of the Commune. Karl Marx believed that the experience of the Commune demonstrated that the workers cannot “simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for their own purposes.”  However, at the London Conference of 1871, Marx tried to reverse the Basel Conference consensus by imposing an electoral strategy through the General Council, despite the fact that the majority of the International did not agree.  Marx was actually prepared to ally with the Blanquists to do this. And thereafter, at the next Congress in the Hague (1872), Bakunin and his Swiss assistant James Guillaume were expelled from the International so as to uphold the London precedent on parliamentarianism, and the General Council was transferred to New York—leading the Blanquists who in fact had allied with Marx to have this done to resign from the International.

In this way, the First International was reduced from being a multi-tendency platform to an exclusively statist one, and then reconstituted as the Second International in 1889.  From 1896 on, the Second International excluded anarchists altogether for not agreeing with the same electoral strategy.

However, the anarchists did go off in 1872 right after the expulsion of Bakunin and Guillaume and founded their own Congress in St. Imier, Switzerland, where they had a series of different conferences that led to the creation of a rather significant anti-authoritarian, anarchist international movement that reaffirmed syndicalism and the social revolution. This gave way to the dominance of anarcho-syndicalism within the international labor movement from the time of the Second International up to World War I.

And so I just want to conclude here, because we are talking about the time now being under Trump, and I want to share some of the continuities between the history and theory that I’ve been telling you about and what Black Rose/Rosa Negra tries to glean from that in the current moment. While we haven’t discussed this very profoundly, we can glean some points from the statements that we have published:

We must actively shut down fascists as we saw happen at UC Berkeley with Milo and in opposition to people like Richard Spencer and so on.

We should also be engaging with people who are becoming increasingly mobilized recently. Rather than be dismissive of them, we should be building popular power, and we should be coordinating with other revolutionary groups.

We also reaffirm Bakunin’s idea of anti-electoralism. We believe that the struggle against Trump and Trumpism should not bring us closer to the Democrats but rather to the social revolution, and we think specifically that we should be organizing and participating in revolutionary social movements, such as the asambleas populares or popular assemblies that have been sprouting up around the city and around the country. In fact, some of our comrades are involved in these asambleas, which are trying to bring together resistance to the deportations with building popular power through the theory of libertarian municipalism or communalism, which are more or less anarchist ideas.

Then there’s also of course the Standing Rock struggle, which is a great challenge to Indigenous autonomy and also ecology.

And we also have the question of feminism as our comrades have written recently in an analysis of the current moment with regard to feminism: in fact, they are saying that the Women’s March represents an opening for revolutionary materialist class struggle feminism to gain some ground.

There’s also the antimilitarist and syndicalist struggle for workplace autonomy as well as the general strike. There’s a very recent piece by the Shutdown Collective published on Truthout about the general strike which I recommend highly.

Furthermore and lastly, we are trying to expand our presence geographically and engage with the white working class, which we understand as having been a very clear contributing factor to the current situation we have with Donald Trump as our president. Thank you very much for listening.

Internal Panel Discussion

Thank you, [anonymous Marxist]. I think you began by saying that anarchism is seen on the streets but not on the home or workplace. And I mean, as I was mentioning in my presentation, with regard to the Basel Conference and protosyndicalism, the entire opposition between the Marxists and anarchists in the original break within the First International is very much about that question—anarchism being in the workplace—and Marx and Engels’s centralist opposition to this due to their interest in presenting a statist or electoral strategy.

Also, I don’t think it’s true that anarchism isn’t found in the home, either. Bakunin had a very militant feminist critique of the Russian Commune and of society in general; it wasn’t just his opposition to capitalism and the State. I push back on that.

I think I understand what you mean by the Marxist critique of anarchists—that they have an abstract conception of liberty—but I don’t think it’s very abstract at all. I mean, if you look again at the history I was just retelling about the struggles that anarchists have been involved with, both at the individual and collective level, there’s nothing abstract about it. So I’m a little puzzled what you meant by that. I would just comment to say that it did remind me a bit of Engels’s critique of utopian socialism, saying that only scientific socialism has the correct insight, and that all the other schools that are revolutionary and socialist in fact are nothing.

And then your comments about Antifa are interesting.  I completely disagree that Antifa has “empty content”! I think that that was completely contradicted by what we saw at UC Berkeley. This was a neo-Nazi agitator and a Trump agitator who was planning on publicly outing trans* and undocumented students at UC Berkeley, and that was shut down by the coordinated action of anarchists and Antifa.  I don’t think there is anything empty about that at all.

Nor do I think that anarchists lack future vision. As I was saying of Bakunin, anarchism is all about the liberation of humanity. There is nothing…  It’s not a present-oriented type of thing; it’s not lacking a future vision in any sense.

You know, there is a lot of debate among anarchists about what is the meaning of anarchism, with regard to the variety or heterogeneity which you pointed to in terms of the development within anarchism. You cited “anti-civilizational” anarchism as an example. There is some debate regarding the question of whether that can even be considered a form of anarchism. I personally would say that it’s not a form of anarchism: it’s actually not interested in abolishing hierarchies, but more simply interested in abolishing technology, agriculture, and things like that. That’s not very much consistent with the anti-statist and anti-hierarchical critique that anarchism brings about. In fact, I think it’s very important not to reduce the anarchist or green or eco-anarchist position to that; that’s very reductive. There is Murray Bookchin’s philosophy of social ecology, which is a very profound, rich, Hegelian tradition that develops the critique of the destruction and domination of nature with the critique of social domination as well.

And the last thing: toward the end of your comments, you suggested that anarchists deny that humans are dependent on each other, but that is completely false. If you look at Peter Kropotkin, he theorized the idea of mutual aid being a major factor of evolution, both within the animal world as well as in social evolution. His entire volume is dedicated to that. He studied biology in Siberia for a great number of years. […]

I think to some degree within the socialist tradition, with its anarchist, Marxist, and other wings, there is a lot of miscommunication and so on. So I think that what you are suggesting about the science of society being before the revolution is actually very consistent with the naturalistic approach that I was mentioning to you about Bakunin and the way you have to certainly analyze society first, and nature first—nature first, then society—and from there you progress to critique and action. […]

Actually, within the debate or the conflict between Marx and Bakunin or Marxism and anarchism within the First International, there was a back-and-forth about this very same question [Marxism as a statist form of capitalism]. And you know, I did mean to get to a discussion of the Russian Revolution, but there was no time. There is certainly an anarchist tradition from the time of the conflict in the First International as well as during and after the Russian Revolution that did identify the Bolsheviks, even before Stalin, as State capitalists, according to what Lenin was writing—advocating for the creation of State capitalism as a transitional strategy in Russia. Bakunin very clearly identified that even if you had a statist power that was proclaiming itself as anti-capitalist, it would be composed of a small elite, as all States are, and would necessarily be reproducing these systems of domination of hierarchical authority. Bakunin was very visionary in this sense; he very much anticipated what happened in Russia.

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John Bellamy Foster: “The Great Capitalist Climacteric”

November 6, 2015
Ongoing Indonesian fires clearly visible from space. NASA/DSCOVR satellite, 25 October 2015.

Ongoing Indonesian fires, worsened by this year’s El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), are clearly visible from space. NASA/DSCOVR satellite, 25 October 2015.

This is a link to John Bellamy Foster’s new essay on “The Great Capitalist Climacteric: Marxism and ‘System Change not Climate Change,'” published in the November 2015 issue of Monthly Review.  While we disagree with Foster’s endorsement of Naomi Klein’s criticism of capitalism–in the sense, that is, that Klein is not in fact critical of capitalism as such, as Paul Street discusses–and do not accept the MR editor’s defense of “second-stage ecosocialism,” which distorts Karl Marx’s record on industrialism, Prometheanism, and the domination of nature, the issues of climate destruction and exterminism are self-evidently severe enough to merit reproduction of the analysis and recommendations Foster sets forth this month.

‘The 2°C “guardrail” officially adopted by world governments in Copenhagen in 2009 is meant to safeguard humanity from plunging into what prominent UK climatologist Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change has called “extremely dangerous” climate change. Yet, stopping carbon emissions prior to the 2°C boundary, Anderson tells us, will at this point require “revolutionary change to the political economic hegemony,” going against the accumulation of capital or economic growth characteristics that define the capitalist system. More concretely, staying within the carbon budget means that global carbon emissions must at present be cut by around 3 percent a year, and in the rich countries by approximately 10 percent per annum—moving quickly to zero net emissions (or carbon neutrality). For an “outside chance” of staying below 2°C, Anderson declared in 2012, the rich (OECD, Annex I) countries would need to cut their emissions by 70 percent by 2020 and 90 percent by 2030.

Yet, despite the widespread awareness of the planetary emergency represented by global warming, carbon emissions have continued to rise throughout the world. The failure of capitalism to implement the necessary cuts in carbon dioxide can be explained by the threat that this poses to its very existence as a system of capital accumulation. As a result civilization is faced by a threat of self-extermination that over the long run is as great as that posed by a full nuclear exchange—and in a process that is more inexorable. The present reality of global capitalism makes it appear utopian to call for a revolutionary strategy of “System Change Not Climate Change.” But the objective of stopping climate change leaves the world with no other option, since avoiding climate-change disaster will be even more difficult—and may prove impossible—if the global population does not act quickly and decisively.

[…] conventional thought, with only minor exceptions, has virtually no serious social scientific analysis on which to rely in confronting today’s Great Capitalist Climacteric. Those who swallow whole the notion that there is no future beyond capitalism are prone to conclude—in defiance of the facts—that the climate crisis can be mitigated within the present system. It is this social denialism of liberal-left approaches to the climate crisis, and of the dominant social science, that led Naomi Klein to declare in This Changes Everything that “the right is right” in viewing climate change as a threat to capitalism. The greatest obstacle before us, she insists, is not the outright denialism of the science by the far right, but rather the social denialism of the dominant liberal discourse, which, while giving lip service to the science, refuses to face reality and recognize that capitalism must go.16

If conventional social science is crippled at every point by corrupt adherence to a prevailing class reality, the postmodern turn over the last few decades has generated a left discourse that is just as ill-equipped to address the Great Capitalist Climacteric. Largely abandoning historical analysis (grand narratives) and the negation of the negation—that is, the idea of a revolutionary forward movement—the left has given way to extreme skepticism and the deconstruction of everything in existence, constituting a profound “dialectic of defeat.”17

Although some hope is to be found in the Green theory or “ecologism” that has emerged in the context of the environmental movement, such views are typically devoid of any secure moorings within social (or natural) science, relying on neo-Malthusian assumptions coupled with an abstract ethical orientation that focuses on the need for a new, ecocentric world-view aimed at protecting the earth and other species.18 The main weakness of this new ecological conscience is the absence of anything remotely resembling “the confrontation of reason with reality,” in the form of a serious ecological and social critique of capitalism as a system.19 Abstract notions like growth, industrialism, or consumption take the place of investigations into the laws of motion of capitalism as an economic and social order, and how these laws of motion have led to a collision course with the Earth system.

It is therefore the socialist tradition, building on the powerful foundations of historical materialism—and returning once more to its radical foundations to reinvent and re-revolutionize itself—to which we must necessarily turn in order to find the main critical tools with which to address the Great Capitalist Climacteric and the problem of the transition to a just and sustainable society.’

In his conclusion, Foster also sets forth strategic recommendations, particularly with regard to a “two-stage theory” of transition that incorporates an “ecodemocratic” and then “ecosocialist” phase.  His characterization of the former phase bears reproduction here:

‘In the ecodemocratic phase, the goal would be to carry out those radical reforms that would arrest the current destructive logic of capital, by fighting for changes that are radical, even revolutionary, in that they go against the logic of capital, but are nonetheless conceivable as concrete, meaningful forms of struggle in the present context. These would include measures like: (1) an emergency plan of reduction in carbon emissions in the rich economies by 8–10 percent a year; (2) implementing a moratorium on economic growth coupled with radical redistribution of income and wealth, conservation of resources, rationing, and reductions in economic waste; (3) diverting military spending, now universally called “defense spending” to the defense of the planet as a place of human habitation; (4) the creation of an alternative energy infrastructure designed to stay within the solar budget; (5) closing down coal-fired plants and blocking unconventional fossil fuels such as tar sands oil; (6) a carbon fee and dividend system of the kind proposed by Hansen, that would redistribute 100 percent of the revenue to the population on a per capita basis; (7) global initiatives to aid emerging economies to move toward sustainable development; (8) implementation of principles of environmental justice throughout the society and linking this to adaptation to climate change (which cannot be stopped completely) to ensure that people of color, the poor, women, indigenous populations, and third world populations do not bear the brunt of catastrophe; and (9) adoption of climate negotiations and policies on the model proposed in the Peoples’ Agreement on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2010. Such radical change proposals can be multiplied, and would need to effect all aspects of society and individual human development. The rule in the ecodemocratic phase of development would be to address the epochal crisis (ecological and economic) in which the world is now caught, and to do so in ways that go against the logic of business as usual, which is indisputably leading the world toward cumulative catastrophe.’

Foster’s close is as bleak as it is true:

‘In 1980, the British Marxist historian E.P. Thompson wrote a cautionary essay for New Left Review entitled “Notes on Exterminism, The Last Stage of Civilization.” Although directed particularly at the growth of nuclear arsenals and the dangers of global holocaust from a nuclear exchange in the final phase of the Cold War, Thompson’s thesis was also concerned with the larger realm of ecological destruction wrought by the system. Rudolf Bahro later commented on Thompson’s ideas in his Avoiding Social and Ecological Disaster, explaining: “To express the exterminism-thesis in Marxist terms, one could say that the relationship between productive and destructive forces is turned upside down. Marx had seen the trail of blood running through it, and that ‘civilisation leaves deserts behind it.’”63 Today this ecologically ruinous trend has been extended to the entire planet with capitalism’s proverbial “creative destruction” being transformed into a destructive creativity endangering humanity and life in general.64 […]

Turning this economics of exterminism around, and creating a more just and sustainable world at peace with the planet is our task in the Great Capitalist Climacteric. If we cannot accomplish this humanity will surely die with capitalism.’

Burn! at the NYC Anarchist Film Festival

May 15, 2014

burn post

I will be screening a shortened version of Gillo Pontecorvo’s epic, radical film Burn! (1969) this Sunday at the New York City Anarchist Film Festival for day two of the Eighth Annual NYC Anarchist Bookfair.  A “sequel” of sorts to Pontecorvo’s 1966 Battle of Algiers, Burn! stars Marlon Brando as a British agent sent to a fictional Caribbean island colonized by the Portuguese (“Queimada”) who foments a slave insurrection against the colonial masters only to have Queimada’s white plantation-owner class declare formal independence on terms favorable to the British Crown.  Brando’s character, Sir William Walker, is then called back to the island ten years later to put down a revolution led by the same ex-slave he originally had used to displace the Portuguese from rule.  The film clearly was an allegory for the Vietnam War, and it bears the strong imprint of Frantz Fanon’s writings on decolonization, in addition to recalling the course of the Haitian Revolution–with the difference that Napoleon’s failed attempt to recolonize the republic and enslave its citizens succeeds in this version.  Moreover, Pontecorvo’s work has much to say about the present environmental crisis, for Queimada (“Burnt”) had originally been entirely burnt down by the Portuguese in an attempt to eradicate the resistance of the island’s indigenous inhabitants.  In this sense, as John Bellamy Foster writes cogentlyBurn! can also be taken as an extended metaphor for global warming, given that this increasingly fatal tendency bears its origins and is undoubtedly perpetuated and exacerbated by the totalitarian need of the capitalist class to hold onto power.  

As Adorno notes, “The bourgeoisie live on like specters threatening doom.”

Monthly Review Editors vs. Christian Parenti: The depth of climate catastrophe demands mass-mobilization from below, even if this is unlikely!

April 22, 2014

 2014_0224jamailsmb

@Jared Rodriguez, Truthout

This is the concluding paragraph from the Monthly Review editorial board’s response to Christian Parenti’s reformist vision for addressing catastrophic climate change, as published in the April 2014 issue of the magazine.  Parenti, it should be noted, has been advocating a utopian-incrementalist strategy on climate change for some time now–the value of his Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (2011) notwithstanding.

“Is it possible for collective humanity under current historical conditions to intervene to save the planet? The answer is Yes. Is it likely? At this point we would have to say No. Yet, simply because this is the case we cannot afford to give up one inch in the struggle but must endeavor to unleash it on a far more massive scale. We are in an unprecedented global situation with the future of humanity (and innumerable other species) ultimately in question. Whatever legitimacy capitalism previously obtained from its capacity to meet the growing needs of the population has long since departed, and the result is waste, wreckage, exploitation, inequality, poverty (accompanied by absurd levels of wealth in very few hands), and a looming planetary emergency. Under these circumstances for humanity to hesitate is to threaten the loss of all. We do not know if the planet as a place of human habitation will be saved. What we do know [sic] is that hundreds of millions, even billions, of people will join the struggle to save it.”

Ecology and Empire in Marx, Adorno, and Marcuse

November 20, 2013

cultural-marxists

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 http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm.

2Karl Marx, “Preface to the First German Edition,” Capital Vol. 1 (1867), online at http://marxists.anu.edu.au/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/p1.htm#1b.

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 http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/preface.htm#preface-1882

13Maximilien Rubel, “Marx, theoretician of anarchism” (1973), online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/rubel/1973/marx-anarchism.htm.

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 http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2007/foster281107.html

29“On the Jewish Question” (1844), available online: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/jewish-question/

30Qtd. in Lawrence Wilde, “The creatures, too, must become free: Marx and the Animal/Human Distinction” (2000), available at http://marxmyths.org/lawrence-wilde/article.htm

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.

Radical Political Economy of the Environment

October 17, 2013

Libres&Salvajes800

Libres y Salvajes, (“Wild and Free”) by Santi Armengod

Originally published on Counterpunch, 15 October 2013

On Saturday, 5 October, the Union for Radical Political Economics (URPE) held a conference on the “Political Economy of the Environment” at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. As should be obvious, any application of a “radical political economic analysis to social problems” such as the devastating present environmental crisis should likely be welcomed at this late stage; thus, the URPE’s twin strategy of advancing a “continuing critique of the capitalist system and all forms of exploitation and oppression” and “helping to construct a progressive social policy and create socialist alternatives” should prove an attractive one to self-identified militants.  It it thus with militant desire that I attended the conference.

Fortunately, I consciously missed the morning plenary, entitled “Confronting Capital in Defense of the Environment,” given that Christian Parenti was slated to speak—while I liked his 2011 book Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, I had been rather disappointed by his presentation just months prior at the 2013 Left Forum, where he presented a totally reformist—hence inadequate—vision for combating the specter of catastrophic climate change, one which I felt served to foster illusion and delusion with regard to the willingness of the U.S. ruling elite to act swiftly to redress climate breakdown. As far as I understand, Parenti presented very similar notions at the URPE morning plenary, side-by-side with his co-panelist Prof. Robin Hahnel, who in his comments regarding “Left Unity” on “Climate Change Policy” apparently cast carbon-trading mechanisms in a positive light. Less problematically, Sean Sweeney of Cornell’s Global Labor Institute reportedly advanced more legitimate perspectives than the other two plenary speakers in his arguments for a “Progressive Labor Agenda on Work and the Environment.”

As against what could be taken to have been a rough start, the first afternoon workshop I attended, “Environmental Issues for Developing Countries,” was quite excellent. The session began with the intervention of Fabián Balardini, who took a critical view of “Extractivism and the Governing Left in South America.” He opened his presentation by citing Karl Marx’s famous reformulation of G.W.F. Hegel’s observation that history repeats itself over time tragically, noting such repetitions to transcend tragedy for farce: in essence, the “pink-tide” governments advancing “Twenty-First Century Socialism” in Latin America are resorting to the same resource-intensive, environmentally destructive modes of “development” that had been advanced by the twentieth-century neo-liberal governments which they have replaced.

As has been theorized both by Rosa Luxemburg and David Harvey, this model is one of “accumulation by dispossession”: whereas previous Western-oriented governments in the region promoted extractivism in conformity with the neo-classical theory of “comparative advantage” (essentially, specialization), the new “progressive” governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador continue in this tradition by arguing that its perpetuation is necessary toward the end of decreasing material poverty and gross social inequality. As Balardini showed, however, citing the work of Ecuadorean economist Pablo Davolos, recent declines in poverty rates in these countries may have more to do with remittances from migrant laborers abroad than increased governmental spending resulting from taxes on increased natural-resource exploitation: indeed, Davolos infamously finds that a great deal of the income gained from “progressive” extractivist schemes has—rather than be transferred to the people through social spending—instead been invested in major international banks!

In light of such considerations, Balardini’s comical summarization of the political philosophy of the late Hugo Chávez is particularly adept: “Oil producers of the world, unite!” and “Two, three, many OPECs!” Similarly, Balardini showed the government of Evo Morales to be rather hypocritical, given its posturing on the one hand in the international arena against the undoubtedly terracidal climate-inaction regimes pushed by the U.S., Europe, and China, as juxtaposed with his mandated expansion of hydrocarbon and mineral exploitation in Bolivia, particularly on indigenous lands. Also farcical in Balardini’s estimation is the rule of Rafael Correa in Ecuador, who transformed the original indigenous proposal to without question leave the petroleum reserves discovered within the Amazonian Yasuní reserve undisturbed into a money-making scheme. As is well-known, Correa’s proposal was for the international community to provide for an estimated half of the projected market value of the Yasuní oil deposits (estimated at 840 million barrels), as based at least in part in the principle of constraining future carbon emissions, in exchange for his government’s observance of the indigenous and popular desire not to “develop” Yasuní—a region of the Amazon believed to possess in a single hectare more species than exist in all of North America.

Given that international donors only came up with $13 million of the estimated $3.6 billion Correa had demanded, the deal has been cancelled, with the country’s parliament voting ten days ago to authorize oil drilling in Yasuní. First tragedy, then farce… Beyond Chávez, Morales, and Correa, Balardini showed even the new government of José Mujica in Uruguay to favor the orthodox economic policies upheld by his allies, this despite his iconoclastic support for such social measures as gay marriage and marijuana legalization.

As should be obvious, then, this “progressive” economic model provides no real alternative to mainstream capitalism, instead merely mirroring its brutal and thoughtless legacy. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise, as Balardini revealed, that the percentage of primary products in export revenues has in fact increased under the “left-wing” governments, as compared to their neo-liberal predecessors; in this sense, Morales, Correa, and co. are merely following the money—according to data presented by Balardini, the extractive industries have in recent years proven more profitable than pharmaceuticals themselves! Similarly unsurprising, for all its horror, is the increase in the criminalization and repression of environmental protest in these countries, given the 150 ecologists murdered in Ecuador in recent years and the unleashing of police forces on indigenous protestors expressing their opposition to Morales’ plans to build a highway through the TIPNIS nature reserve (September 2011). But apologists of these “socialist” regimes can take pride in the fact that, like Prof. Hahnel, Correa too supports carbon markets!

The next speaker on “Environmental Issues for Developing Countries” was Paul Cooney, a Marxist economist working at the Universidade Federal do Pará in Brazil, who spoke on the “re-primarization” of national economies in Latin America—that is to say, the relative de-industrialization experienced in recent decades by countries such as Brazil and Argentina which has led them to regress into becoming major agro- and mineral-exporters. This historical process, which has followed from the existence of relatively high interest rates and, in the case of Brazil, the overvaluing of currency, has led these two countries to focus heavily on large-scale mining and capital-intensive agricultural production, particularly of soy crops. Indeed, on the global market, Brazil and Argentina have joined the U.S. as the largest soy exporters in the world.

In Brazil, growth in soy production has greatly accelerated the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, thus exacerbating this worrying trend which previously had been driven by the demand to massively expand the number of cattle to be reared and slaughtered for export. In Argentina, soy has become something of a monoculture, with Cooney claiming 95% of the crop to be genetically modified. One result of this process—the threat to domestic food security aside—has been the effective alliance with Monsanto and the massive use of its herbicides which have destroyed a great deal of the microbial life in the soils of Argentina. As highly capital- and land-intensive enterprises, soy megaprojects in both countries come to parallel the expansion of mega-mining in Brazil: the world’s single-largest iron ore open-pit mine is located in Carajás in the Brazilian state of Pará, and much of the recent impetus to erect hydroelectric dams in the country—think of the proposed Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River, a major tributary of the Amazon and home to tens of thousands of indigenous peoples—in fact corresponds to the energy demands of planned mining projects, noted Cooney.

The final speaker for this session was Sirisha Naidu, who discussed forest-management policy in India. Naidu contrasted the imposition of the “scientific management” forestry model during the British Raj and its perpetuation after formal independence in 1947 with the community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) model practiced at the grassroots and theorized by scholars such as Elinor Ostrom. As against the profit-based extractivism favored by the postcolonial State, Naidu explained that the coming of the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992 explicitly opened space for community management of resources, leading eventually in 2006 to the Indian Forest Rights Act which recognizes the rights of so-called “encroachers” to the forests in which they may reside. Naidu welcomed the fact that the increased respect for CBNRM policies have in some cases successfully blocked the expansion of mining projects in Indian states, yet she expressed concern that it may also increase the risk of land being employed for less savory ends; moreover, she noted the problematic tendency to consider communities as monolithic entities, an approach which effectively papers over the very real social inequalities and oppressions experienced in such settings.

During the second afternoon session, there was a workshop on “Grassroots Initiatives against the Theft of Resources by Multinationals” on the continent of Africa. First to speak was Milton Allimadi, editor of Black Star News, who spoke on grassroots resistance in Uganda to the U.S.-backed dictator Yoweri Museveni, particularly as coalescing around the proposed deal between the Mehta Group and Museveni’s government to clear 30% of the Mabira rainforest to make way for a sugar plantation (2006-2007). Against this proposal, mass-popular demonstrations were organized, coupled with boycotts of Mehta sugar, leading Museveni to order violent repression, a move that only intensified the opposition movement, ultimately leading the government to suspend negotiations for the project—which would have greatly enriched the ruling elite, as Allimadi argued. He also mentioned that millions have been dispossessed of their lands in Uganda in recent years, given the introduction by foreign investors of commercial farming on lands that have been effectively expropriated in cohoots with the Museveni government.

After Allimadi spoke Maurice Carney, from Friends of the Congo, who presented a comprehensive overview of the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo/Zaire. A country approximately the size of Western Europe, the DRC is the site of vast mineral wealth—one estimate claims the sum of its geological resources to amount to $24 trillion—while its peoples have suffered the world’s most devastating war since WWII in recent decades, leading the UN consistently to locate it at the very bottom of the Human Development Report. Indeed, Carney revealed that it was from Congo that the U.S. military extracted the very uranium it would employ in the atomic bombs it dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. So in addition to the 10-15 million Congolese killed by the imposition of Belgian rule in the person of Leopold II at the turn of the nineteenth century, some 6 million have lost their lives in the wars which began with Museveni and Paul Kagame’s invasions to depose Mobutu Sese Seko (1996)—another kleptocrat backed by the U.S., one who in fact replaced anti-colonial Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who in turn was overthrown and murdered by the CIA in 1961 out of fear that the U.S. would “lose the Congo” and all of Africa if Lumumba were “allowed” to continue with his autonomous policies following Congo’s formal independence from Belgium (1960).

It is the U.S. “darlings” Museveni and Kagame, noted Carney, who constitute the “godfathers” of the mass mineral-exploitation of the eastern DRC that has sustained the genocide experienced in the region. Nonetheless, of course, both Western consumers and the world’s militaries remain entirely complicit in these massive crimes: as should be well-known, the coltan mined in eastern DRC constitutes a critical component of most if not all current electronics devices (cell phones and computers) as well as jet-fighter systems, while cobalt similarly serves many functions for the military-industrial complex. In conclusion, Carney noted that the international corporate media focuses far more on Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe than on the astronomically larger social devastation in DRC—mostly because Mugabe resists Anglo-American political designs, while the culprits in the DRC are entirely supported by the West. However, Carney expressed hope in the oppositional potential of the presently developing Congolese youth movement.

Lastly in this session, Tseliso Thipanyane of the South African Human Rights Commission spoke on the situation in his home country as well as in Nigeria. At the outset of his comments, Thipanyane observed that the historical trajectory of these two countries shows clearly the extent to which the interests of transnational capitalism have captured indigenous African elites, tying them indelibly into the perpetuation of the system. Optimistically noting that it would take 30 years and $1 billion dollars to remediate the Niger Delta following the extreme devastation wrought on the region by Royal Dutch Shell, Thipanyane noted a similar tendency in South Africa, especially given the shocking Marikana massacre of striking platinum miners in August 2012—a show of force, he claimed, which no one in South Africa would have expected from Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC), which of course overturned formal Apartheid in 1994.

Nonetheless, Thipanyane observed that even at the Davos Forum in 1992, Mandela was threatened by powerful transnational economic interests, leading him to drop his previous advocacy of the nationalization of South Africa’s mines following the coming fall of Apartheid. In an analysis reminiscent of John Pilger’s recent denunciation of Mandela’s effectively capitalist economic policies, Thipanyane observed that since 1994 many ANC insiders have become major shareholders in the country’s large mining operations, leading inexorably to State capture by oligarchical interests. In environmental terms, Thipanyane mentioned the worrying tendency by which the sulfuric acid produced in mega-mining has penetrated the country’s water supply, forcing its government to begin to import water from Lesotho. In more systemic terms, he noted that, while Africa south of the Sahel famously stands to bear the worst impacts of climate change, the governments of the region can pay no more than lip service to the struggle against this horror, given their total integration into global capitalism.

Next and last for the day came the closing plenary on “Capitalism, Environmental Crises, and the Left.” First to address the audience was Prof. Joan Hoffman, who condemned hydrofracking as a proposed alternative to the petroleum-based economy (the idea of natural gas as a “bridge fuel”). She noted the fracking industry to act typically, as in the mantra of “come, harm, take, and go,” and she warned of the serious risks of large methane leaks from fracking sites, as well as the real threat of explosions. Against the “vampire economics” represented by hydrofracking, Hoffman proposed stewardship economics, which would be based on cradle-to-cradle production and powered by renewable resources such as solar and wind. Next spoke Salvatore Engel di-Mauro, editor of the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism, who warned of the problems posed to left-wing environmental politics by over-reliance on the findings of “bourgeois scientists.”

Arguing soil pollution and degradation to represent an ecological problem equal to climate change in severity, Salvatore noted that the employment of soil-quality indicators derived from the aforementioned scientists often leads to an increase in use of fertilizers, and he warned that the historical bioaccumulation of heavy metals in urban settings may pose a serious problem for the recent emergence of urban agriculture. Indeed, he observed that one approach favored by bourgeois soil scientists has been to engage in bioremediation schemes which aim to extract heavy metals from the soil so as to allow them to be liberated and reused in production! Salvatore clearly declared that the “neutrality” and “objectivity” which are mainstays of mainstream science must be broken with radically in the struggle for emancipation.

Finally, Paul Cooney spoke once again, this time on globalization and the second contradiction of capitalism, which he took from the work of Marxist economist James O’Connor. While capitalism’s first contradiction is better-known—referring to the class struggle between labor and capital—the second postulated contradiction has to do with the conflicts between relations of production and conditions of production, particularly in ecological terms, such that capitalism effectively “fouls its own nest,” as John Bellamy Foster writes, through the destruction of the life-world it prosecutes via its endless pursuit of profit. Invoking the spirit of (anti)catastrophism theorized by Sasha Lilley and comrades in their 2012 PM Press book on the subject—which was, incidentally, severely criticized by Ian Angus in last month’s issue of Monthly Review—Cooney argued that we still have two fronts with which to confront capital: labor and the environment.