Workers Vanguard No. 1033
1 November 2013
John Bellamy Foster & Co.: Ecosocialism Against Marxism
Part One of this article appeared in WV No. 1032 (18 October).
In Marx’s Ecology, John Bellamy Foster contends that green ideologues mistakenly ascribe to Karl Marx positions he did not in fact hold, including that Marx “had an extremely optimistic, cornucopian view of the conditions that would exist in post-capitalist society due to the development of the forces of production under capitalism.” Foster goes on to state: “In this interpretation Marx relied so much on the assumption of abundance in his vision of a future society that ecological considerations such as the scarcity of natural resources and external limits to production have vanished.”
Focused as he is on transforming Marx into a proto-environmentalist, Foster completely misses the mark in assessing what these critics got wrong. Marx did maintain that a future communist society would be based on the elimination of economic scarcity. But he certainly did not think that the forces of production developed under capitalism were sufficient for this purpose. Quite the contrary!
The transition to communism requires a planned, socialized economy to facilitate the development and application of new technologies and thus raise the level of labor productivity far above that inherited from capitalism. It is simply outside Foster’s framework that a future socialist society would utilize the most advanced technology in order to redress environmental degradation. But that’s not all; he falsely attributes a similar pessimism to Marx, who, he writes, “demonstrates a deep concern for issues of ecological limits and sustainability.”
In polemical writing, what is omitted is often just as important as what is explicitly discussed, if not more so. By far the best-known exposition in Marx’s writings of the transition from the overthrow of capitalism to a fully communist society is in the 1875 Critique of the Gotha Programme. Yet despite two passing references to this work in the 250-plus pages of Marx’s Ecology, the relevant passages are not taken into consideration.
In the Critique, Marx explained that in the initial phase of a socialist society “bourgeois right” would still persist. In other words, the means of consumption allocated to individuals would be proportional to the quantity and quality of their labor:
“The individual producer receives back from society—after the deductions have been made—exactly what he gives to it.... He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such and such an amount of labour (after deducting his labour for the common funds), and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labour costs. The same amount of labour which he has given to society in one form he receives back in another.”
Marx proceeds to describe the conditions enabling society to transcend the principle “to each according to his labor”:
“In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and thereby also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of common wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!”
In this work, Marx also indicates how the productivity of labor is to be increased during the transition period. He criticizes the Lassallean program, which holds that the entire social product will be available for the consumption of the direct producers. Instead, a portion of it must be deducted for other purposes, not least the “expansion of production,” that is, the construction and utilization of additional means of production embodying the most advanced (labor-saving) technology.
How can Foster reconcile the Marxist vision of a communist society, in which material resources are freely available to all, with his own contention that the existing level of production and consumption is rapidly destroying the environmental basis for human life? He can do so only by projecting an eco-socialist society in which “to each according to his needs” is substantially less than “to each according to his labor” in today’s advanced capitalist countries! This program was spelled out by Foster at a gathering of Occupy protesters in New York City in 2011. As reported in Monthly Review online (MRZine.org, 29 October 2011), he implored his audience:
“Move away from a system directed at profits, production, and accumulation, i.e., economic growth, and toward a sustainable steady-state economy. This would mean reducing or eliminating unnecessary and wasteful consumption and reordering society—from commodity production and consumption as its primary goal, to sustainable human development. This could only occur in conjunction with a move towards substantive equality.”
What Foster is projecting is a reactionary utopia—the equality of poverty on a global scale. A “steady-state economy” would condemn the hundreds of millions of people in Third World countries to continued impoverishment. This vision of the future is like a right-wing caricature of communism—what used to be derided as “barracks socialism,” similar to the condition of uniform equality imposed on conscripts in an army.
Nonetheless, some left-wing activists may respond sympathetically to Foster’s argument that working people in the U.S. and other “rich” capitalist countries have to accept a lower standard of living to avert a supposedly looming ecological catastrophe. Yet they are virulently hostile to the right-wing ideologues of the Tea Party, who contend that the American people have to reduce their expenditure on consumption, especially in the case of social programs, to avert a supposedly looming fiscal catastrophe. That Foster denounces capitalism while the Tea Party types extol the “free market” system does not make his program less reactionary, only more seductive.
Capitalism Is Not a
“Treadmill of Production”
The basic argument in Foster’s Ecology Against Capitalism can be stated briefly. Capitalists seek to maximize profits. They therefore produce more and more commodities that embody surplus value, which is extracted through the exploitation of labor. The expansion of production in turn causes the ever-worsening degradation of the environment. Foster writes:
“Capitalist economies are geared first and foremost to the growth of profits, and hence to economic growth at virtually any cost—including the exploitation and misery of the vast majority of the world’s population. This rush to grow generally means rapid absorption of energy and materials and the dumping of more and more wastes into the environment—hence widening environmental degradation.”
Why is it, then, that throughout the history of capitalism there have been periods in which production and the employment of labor contract and consequently the volume of profits decreases? For example, between 2005 and 2009 the gross (before tax) profits of U.S. corporations declined by 10 percent, from $1.610 to $1.456 trillion. Profits in manufacturing fell especially steeply, from $247 to $125 billion.
The answer is that capitalists seek to maximize not the volume of profits but rather the rate of profit, or return on capital. Using Marxist terminology, this rate is the ratio of surplus value over the value of the means of production (plant and equipment) necessary to set labor into motion at the prevailing level of productivity. The rate of profit is the main regulator of capitalist production in both its expansion and contraction phases.
During a period of expansion, the rate of profit tends to fall. Increased demand for labor pushes up wage rates. The effects of increasing labor productivity through investment in new technologies gradually diminish. Increased investment drives up the market price of capital goods. Financial speculation further inflates the market value of capital, contributing to much faster increases in the price of corporate stocks compared to the earnings of the underlying firms.
At a certain point, capitalists therefore cut back on new investment. The overall economy then enters a period of contraction. As Marx explained in Volume III of Capital:
“Not too much wealth is produced. But at times too much wealth is produced in its capitalistic, self-contradictory forms.
“The limitations of the capitalist mode of production come to the surface:
“1) In that the development of the productive power of labour creates out of the falling rate of profit a law which at a certain point comes into antagonistic conflict with this development and must be overcome constantly through crises.
“2) In that the expansion or contraction of production are determined by…profit and the proportion of this profit to the employed capital, thus by a definite rate of profit, rather than by the relation of production to social requirements, i.e., to the requirements of socially developed human beings.”
Keynesian Economics in Pseudo-Marxist Garb
In The Endless Crisis, Foster purports to provide a Marxist analysis of the post-2008 global economic downturn and, more generally, the contradictions of present-day capitalism. While using some Marxist terminology, his analysis actually corresponds to the main current of liberal reformism in the U.S. associated with the doctrines and policies of the late British economist John Maynard Keynes. Foster maintains that the income of the lower classes is insufficient to purchase the output of goods under capitalism. He writes:
“The system is confronted with insufficient effective demand—with barriers to consumption leading eventually to barriers to investment. Growing excess capacity serves to shut off new capital formation, since corporations are not eager to invest in new plant and equipment when substantial portions of their existing capacity are idle.”
In the terminology of bourgeois economics, this view can be categorized as an “underconsumptionist” theory of cyclical downturns.
In outlining his argument, Foster makes no reference to the rate of profit. As we have seen, during a period of expansion this tends to fall. Therefore, capitalists can sell the increased volume of commodities only at a price reflecting a lower rate of profit. From the capitalists’ standpoint, this condition appears to be one of “over-production” or “over-capacity.” They cut back on new investment, plunging the economy into a period of contraction until a higher rate of profit is restored by factors prevailing during the downturn—wage rates tend to fall, likewise the market value of capital.
The theory that the basic cause of cyclical downturns is a dearth of consumer demand relative to productive capacity did not originate in the era of monopolistic capitalism. The crux of this theory can be traced back to certain leading exponents of classical British bourgeois economic doctrines in the early 19th century, notably Thomas Malthus. Anticipating Foster by two centuries, Malthus argued: “No power of consumption on the part of the labouring classes can ever alone furnish an encouragement to the employment of capital” (quoted in Mark Blaug, Economic Theory in Retrospect [Cambridge University, 1997]).
In Volume III of Capital, Marx rejected all underconsumptionist/over-productionist theories then current. He stated:
“There are not too many necessities of life produced, in proportion to the existing population. Quite the reverse. Too little is produced to decently and humanely satisfy the wants of the great mass….
“Too many means of labour and necessities of life are produced at times to permit of their serving as means for the exploitation of labourers at a certain rate of profit.”
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the underconsumptionist theory was revived and popularized by Keynes, who claimed Malthus as an intellectual forerunner. The root cause of the contraction of production was, according to this doctrine, a lack of “effective demand.” Keynes and his followers advocated that the shortfall in effective demand be made up by increased government spending on public works and social programs beneficial to working people (e.g., unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, socialized medicine, income transfers to the poor). This old-line Keynesian program is propagated in the U.S. today by the liberal economist Paul Krugman in his New York Times columns. If, as Foster (in line with Keynes and Krugman) contends, the cause of the economic downturn is a lack of effective demand, then expanded deficit spending would be effective in restoring production to full capacity, with full employment of labor.
However, throughout the capitalist world, government policies are moving in just the opposite direction. Fiscal austerity is the order of the day from Obama’s America to Cameron’s Britain, Merkel’s Germany and the entire euro zone. Krugman explains the drive for fiscal austerity as a triumph of right-wing ideology over economic good sense. In a piece in the New York Review of Books (6 June) titled “How the Case for Austerity Has Crumbled,” he asserts: “The case for austerity was and is one that many powerful people want to believe, leading them to seize on anything that looks like a justification.”
In fact, fiscal austerity does serve the interests of the capitalist class. Cuts to government-provided social programs reduce the overhead costs of production broadly defined and therefore contribute to a higher rate of profit. It is crucial for the working masses to wage class struggle to beat back this austerity offensive. In the course of such struggles, workers must be won to the understanding that the tendency toward immiseration of the proletariat will be ended only with the expropriation of the expropriators through socialist revolution.
Climate Change in Perspective
As Marxist opponents of the capitalist order, our role is not to serve as economic advisers to the bourgeoisie. Rather, we strive to educate the working class about its historic interest in sweeping away capitalism and establishing its own class rule. The reformist “socialists” are die-hard opponents of this program. With the destruction of the Soviet Union—a catastrophe that was hailed by the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and many others—they have increasingly junked even a hypocritical posture toward the goal of getting rid of capitalism. And now they have latched on to the cause of “climate justice” to urge the capitalist exploiters to moderate their behavior. As ISO climate-change guru Chris Williams baldly put it: “Uniting social and ecological demands into one unified movement independent of mainstream politicians has the power to change state policy at the national level” (Socialist Worker, 26 June). This is the calling card of the System Change Not Climate Change (SCNCC) coalition, in which the ISO is a driving force.
It is true that the Earth as a whole today is hotter than it was a century ago, and human activity—e.g., the combustion of fossil fuels—is largely responsible for the growing atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. One authoritative scientific review noted: “Through his worldwide industrial civilization, Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment. Within a few generations he is burning the fossil fuels that slowly accumulated in the earth over the past 500 million years. The CO2 produced by this combustion is being injected into the atmosphere; about half of it remains there.” It continues: “The climatic changes that may be produced by the increased CO2 content could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings.” This report, “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment,” was submitted to the Johnson administration in 1965.
The experiment continues to this day. For environmentalists, the answer is to cut industrial civilization down to size and keep fossil fuels in the ground. For Marxists, it is to replace the unwitting conduct with conscious and informed planning. One must also keep in mind that the ultimate impact of the current warming trend, which encompasses a wide range of possibilities and could vary significantly from place to place, is not much more definitively known today than it was a half century ago.
The eco-socialists, though, hold aloft the most calamitous projections as scientific gospel. At the Left Forum held in New York City this June, several speakers referred to climate change as the worst crisis humanity has ever faced. Foster’s comments at its closing plenary were titled “The Epochal Crisis.” Nation writer Christian Parenti even invoked the runaway greenhouse effect that transformed Venus into the hottest planet in the solar system. Far from a clarion call to uproot production for private profit, such fear-mongering has one purpose: to sell various schemes for rolling back the use of hydrocarbons under capitalism.
Current climate change may or may not pose a sustained, long-term threat to human society. As long as the capitalist masters call the shots, it truly is a roll of the dice. Environmental degradation is just one of a host of problems, many far more pressing, linked to the workings of the capitalist system: unemployment and extreme poverty, mass starvation, imperialist military adventures and conquest, the reinforcing of social backwardness (interethnic bloodletting, the subjugation of women in the family, etc.), to name a few. Without a doubt, the gravest threat to mankind is the nuclear arsenal in the hands of the U.S. imperialist overlords. Even a regional nuclear war, say between India and Pakistan, could wipe out many millions of people while making the Earth a colder, hungrier planet.
To elevate climate change above all else is a convenient excuse for joining hands with the bourgeoisie—the very class behind all these crimes. Counting carbon as a measure of progressive policy is its corollary. For the 800,000 years preceding recorded human history, the atmospheric carbon dioxide level never exceeded 300 parts per million (ppm); today it is around 400 ppm. By comparison, in the Jurassic period when the dinosaurs reigned supreme, the concentration was likely in the neighborhood of 2,000 ppm. According to Foster:
“We need to go down to 350 parts per million, which means very big social transformations on a scale that would be considered revolutionary by anybody in society today—transformation of our whole society quite fundamentally. We have to aim at that, and we have to demand that of our society. Forget about capitalism, forget about whether the system can do it. Don’t let that be your barometer. Say this is necessary for the planet, for human survival, for justice, for environmental justice, and we just have to do it.”
—MRZine.org (30 October 2008)
One of the more active climate-justice groups based in the U.S. today is named 350.org. Despite the popularity of this numerology, decades of scientific probing of the extremely complex climate system have yet to pinpoint a carbon threshold that, if surpassed, would trigger an insoluble crisis.
By the carbon barometer, Superstorm Sandy was a blessing in disguise when it turned out the lights in the Northeast U.S., as is the Great Recession that has brought empty pockets to countless working people around the world. Likewise, capitalist Germany should be widely lauded for the more than 20 percent drop in its carbon dioxide emissions over the last two decades. Today, a quarter of the country’s total energy on average comes from so-called renewable sources—and nearly half on especially sunny days. But it still has a ways to go to match the per capita “carbon footprint” of France, where nuclear fission is the primary source of energy. These two mainstays of the imperialist European Union have in recent years squeezed the working class of Europe dry and put dependent countries like Greece through the wringer.
Some eco-socialist activists might blanch at the more distasteful implications of judging everything by carbon content. But support to reduced living standards is a part of that framework. A case in point is the carbon tax. By the ISO’s estimation, proposed legislation from Senators Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders that would impose a carbon fee on fossil fuel enterprises at the source (the mine, wellhead or port of entry) in order to fund renewable energy and similar technology “points in the right direction.” The bill proposes to return some of the revenues to consumers to offset the higher prices that would result when companies pass on the cost of the tax to the public. Even so, this dividend would not cover the difference, bringing an increase in the cost of living for working people and the poor. Meanwhile, the corporations producing energy, no matter the source, will keep on rolling in money. No less an interested party than ExxonMobil has recently announced support for “a well-designed, revenue-neutral carbon tax.”
We are far from indifferent to climate change, whatever its timetable and consequences. But our primary concern is human civilization, and we are implacably hostile to its greatest enemy: the U.S. capitalist ruling class. Nothing good will come from advising these plunderers of the world on how to best generate energy. Instead, the proletariat must expropriate capitalist industry and put it at the service of society as a whole.
As we wrote in Part One of “Capitalism and Global Warming” (WV No. 965, 24 September 2010):
“When the workers of the world rule, energy will be generated and used in the most rational, efficient and safe manner possible, including by developing new energy sources. We do not rule out in advance the use of fossil fuels or any other energy source—nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, wind, etc. Simply to promote modernization and all-round development in the Third World, where today billions are locked in desperate poverty, would almost certainly involve far greater energy production on a global scale.”
Even if fossil fuels have not been completely phased out, a world liberated from the profit motive will have many arrows in its quiver to exert a positive influence on the climate. For example, a concerted effort could be undertaken to retool energy production and other industries and transform their operations to minimize greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate the impact of warming.
Fossil Fuels and Pressure Politics
The politics of the ISO’s eco-socialist gaggle boil down to run-of-the-mill environmentalism. The “system change, not climate change” slogan was appropriated from the direct-action wing of the environmental movement. First popularized at the December 2009 protests outside the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen, it is purposely ambiguous in order to draw in the greatest number of activists under its banner. In the green milieu, the proposed “system change” runs the full gamut of environmentalist remedies, from curbing economic growth and discouraging the “culture of consumption” to “leaving fossil fuels in the ground” and abandoning automobiles.
The SCNCC has opted to focus its activity on “the struggle for a fossil fuel-free world,” that is, pressuring the capitalist Democratic Party to wean the U.S. economy off of hydrocarbons. To much fanfare, President Barack Obama in June unveiled his “climate action plan” to curb greenhouse gas emissions, which included ordering the Environmental Protection Agency to work out new standards to limit the carbon dioxide dumped into the atmosphere by coal-fired power plants. In response, Republicans in Congress and industry magnates decried the supposed “war on coal” and warned of higher electricity costs for the mass of the population. Unions such as the United Mine Workers were angry that the plan did not even give lip service to the hardship and suffering in store for coal miners, utility workers and their families.
Although many mainstream environmentalists were jubilant, the SCNCC did not “celebrate President Obama’s speech.” In a July 4 statement titled “We Need a Real Plan for the Planet,” the SCNCC lamented that the proposed measures “do not go nearly far enough” and counseled the White House: “Instead of an ‘all of the above’ energy policy, we should direct massive and exclusive funding toward renewable energy sources like wind and solar.”
To argue that one source of energy is more sensible than another under the profit-driven capitalist system and its anarchic relations of production is playing with fire. Touted as a means to reduce carbon emissions, the U.S. corn ethanol biofuels racket provoked a shortfall in the food grain harvest five years ago, helping trigger a global food crisis. Solar is not without its own risks. Both the mining and processing of rare-earth metals for solar panels, and the very process of their manufacture, produce tremendous amounts of toxic sludge and contaminants that have poisoned water supplies, while the chemicals involved in making the panels pose additional hazards to workers.
A current hobbyhorse of the eco-socialists is the northern leg of the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from the Alberta tar sands in Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast. President Obama has yet to grant approval for the section crossing the border. Supporters of Keystone consider the project key to U.S. imperialism achieving “energy independence” from Near Eastern oil; environmentalists portray it as a doomsday device.
A February anti-Keystone rally in Washington, D.C., organized by the Sierra Club and 350.org attracted tens of thousands of protesters. The week before, the ISO’s Socialist Worker (12 February) held out hope that this “historic event” would “send a message to the Obama administration that the time has come for real action on environmental issues.” The White House welcomes such messages, as the Commander-in-Chief made clear in his June speech on climate change: “What we need in this fight are citizens who will stand up, and speak up, and compel us to do what this moment demands.” And there you have it: the presidential seal of approval on the latest “grassroots movement.”
As to the Keystone XL pipeline, there is no reason for Marxists to either support or oppose it. In general, oil pipelines serve a socially useful function of transporting fuel. But cutting corners to boost profit margins—the name of the game for the energy barons—is deadly business. Some Native Americans oppose the pipeline out of legitimate concern that a spill would contaminate water sources that supply their reservations. By all accounts, shoddy construction, poor welds and substandard materials are features of the existing Keystone pipeline. What’s needed are fighting unions that can exert control over safety standards and practices (see “Lac-Mégantic Industrial Murder,” page 4).
Our position on the Keystone XL pipeline reflects a norm for matters relating to bourgeois energy policy. But it is not universal. In the case of the Northern Gateway pipeline, which is to run from Alberta to the British Columbia coast, our Canadian comrades rightly oppose the project, although not due to the arithmetic of greenhouse gas numbers or other environmental considerations. Rather, the proposed construction brazenly flouts the land rights of the Native peoples who are the predominant population in the remote regions that the pipeline would traverse.
Going Green on Wall Street
To the delight of the eco-socialist crowd, a gimmicky “Do the Math” speaking tour by 350.org founder Bill McKibben last year popularized calls for divesting from coal, oil and gas producers. The divestment effort has since spread to over 300 campuses around the country and found a hearing among a range of city mayors. To date, six campuses and 18 U.S. cities, including Seattle and San Francisco, have pledged to liquidate holdings in such companies.
In its article “Divest to Save the Planet” (Socialist Worker, 13 March), the ISO enthuses: “The struggle for divestment is part of a shift among activists away from calls for lifestyle changes and marks a new focus on the systemic nature of climate change.” In fact, this “struggle” consists of the very same strategy of moral suasion, only now directed at campus administrations and city governments. In the name of “movement building,” the ISO & Co. have thrown in their lot with a corporate-funded effort to greenwash capitalist exploitation.
The divestment campaign was orchestrated in consultation with the “progressive” Wall Street investor group Ceres. This standard-bearer of green capitalism has recently garnered support from nearly 700 companies, including General Motors and Microsoft, for a declaration that “climate change is one of America’s greatest economic opportunities of the 21st century.” Among its suggestions to fund managers is to move money into natural resources and infrastructure in “emerging markets”—i.e., promoting imperialist capital penetration into and control over the semicolonial world. Small wonder that McKibben was given a place of honor at the 2013 Ceres Conference, which drew the likes of JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citi, Con Edison, Bloomberg, Sprint and Ford.
Amid a recent spate of criticisms of McKibben within the green milieu, the ISO’s Williams rushed to his defense in a three-part commentary titled “Questions for the Movement” (socialistworker.org, 24-26 September). Although mainly preoccupied with rationalizing the active participation of ostensible socialists in selling capitalist investment strategies (the answer has something to do with “the internal dynamics of social movements”), Williams does allow that “McKibben continues to vacillate as to whether Barack Obama and the Democratic Party can be part of the climate solution.” He then proceeds to lament the six years of “hot air of no real consequence” coming from the White House, whose current occupant urged in his June speech: “Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.”
It was not so long ago that Williams himself was full of hope for Obama. In the “Real Solutions Right Now” chapter of his book Ecology and Socialism (Haymarket, 2010), Williams sketched “a government action plan on the environment” and offered: “A program such as this could even get couched as ‘a Green New Deal for the Twenty-First Century—good for the planet, good for people, good for profits.’ These proposals could theoretically be carried out under capitalist social relations through governmental regulation, particularly by a proactive and forward-thinking Obama administration” (emphasis in original). Reflexively, Williams adds, “Reforms that are theoretically possible under capitalism won’t be made because they ‘make sense,’ but because the politicians are forced to implement them.”
That’s the ISO (and other reformists) in a nutshell: seeking to pressure the capitalist government through the agency of the Democratic Party. Or, as in the ISO’s SCNCC activity, embracing Green Party politicians to the same effect. The fact that its Green Party allies eschew even paper-thin pretensions to socialism never mattered much to the ISO, which has even run candidates on the ticket of this bourgeois party.
“Green” Jobs and
the Labor Movement
Green radicalism grew out of the New Left’s counterculture wing, which was deeply hostile to Marxism and the organized labor movement. These environmental activists advocated a dismantling of modern industrial society while expressing nothing but disdain for the working class. One prominent outfit was Earth First!, which at its 1980 founding pledged, “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth!” Its efforts included driving spikes into trees to break chain saws, a practice that put the lives and limbs of lumberjacks at risk. In road blockades outside pulp mills, eco-radicals would confront truckers and chant: “There are no jobs on a dead planet!”
This sentiment, if not the slogan itself, is today given a “worker friendly” spin by some green apostles looking for converts in the labor bureaucracy. In a September 8 letter to AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka on the eve of the union federation’s convention, 350.org and over 60 like-minded groups pleaded: “We must shift from Jobs vs. Environment, to Jobs for the Environment.” The “Green New Deal” promulgated by the ISO’s Williams and other SCNCC eco-socialists is cut of the same cloth. Its purpose is to mask the fact that they would have jobs slashed in entire industries, even as they seek more employment in favored areas.
Extracting and processing fossil fuels is dangerous work. But a “green job” is not inherently preferable. Reflecting fears within the American ruling class that it stands to lose out in innovation and cutting-edge manufacturing to China, the Obama administration has devoted tens of billions of dollars of stimulus money to renewable energy and projects to increase energy efficiency. As a result, employment in the solar industry and the rest of the “green economy” has steadily climbed. Poor wages, benefits and working conditions prevail in these industries, with wages at many solar panel and wind turbine plants below the national average for manufacturing. Few of the workers are unionized.
One group of 62 black workers on the front lines of the “green economy” filed a racial discrimination lawsuit in 2008 against their employer, a General Electric subsidiary. The work team traveled the country, changing air filters that capture toxic particulates at power plants and other industrial sites. They were forced to work extra hours, denied adequate protection from the dangerous matter they handled and heaped with racist abuse. If the crew tried to take a break when the heat or soot became unbearable, they were derided as lazy “n-----s” and threatened with firing.
Making a “Green New Deal” with America’s bourgeois masters will do nothing to reverse the devastation of working people. Rather, it will take hard class struggle against the rapacious exploiters, including a vigorous campaign by labor to organize the mass of unorganized workers in the “green economy” and elsewhere in industry.
If “capitalism is killing the planet,” as the SCNCC proclaims, then the ISO and its associates are doing their small part to set up the hit. We value the wonders of the natural world; however, we do not deify nature. Marxists approach the issue of climate change from the standpoint of its potential impact on human society, not preserving some imaginary natural order. Indeed, the climate, with or without humans, is constantly changing, sometimes more rapidly, sometimes less so.
From the dawn of man, our ancestors have left an imprint on the natural world, as it has on mankind. In his book Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum (Princeton, 2005), climate scientist William Ruddiman notes:
“Advocates for the environment often frame their positions with high-minded, preachy appeals to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s notion of the ‘noble savage,’ the concept of a primitive but wise people who once lived lightly on the land and in complete harmony with the environment. They contrast this supposedly once-pristine world with the evils of heavy industrial development during the last two centuries. They portray industrial development as the first, and only, real human assault on nature....
“The concept of a pristine natural world is a myth: preindustrial cultures had long had a major impact on the environment.”
Basically, it all started with agriculture.
Although John Bellamy Foster does not openly invoke the “noble savage,” in his version of socialist society “it will be necessary for us to live lightly on the Earth,” as he commented some years back. But precisely what separates humans out from other animals is our capacity to perform work and transform the world around us to serve our ends. In the 1883 Introduction to Dialectics of Nature, Friedrich Engels cogently observed: “Man alone has succeeded in impressing his stamp on nature, not only by shifting the plant and animal world from one place to another, but also by so altering the aspect and climate of his dwelling place, and even the plants and animals themselves, that the consequences of his activity can disappear only with the general extinction of the terrestrial globe.”
Nature certainly would not reciprocate if mankind were to suddenly “live lightly.” Disease and pestilence, droughts and wildfires, floods and tsunamis, hurricanes and tornadoes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, meteor showers and gamma-ray bursts: all these features of life on Earth and more would remain. A human society that scales back technological development in the name of protecting the environment will be placed at nature’s mercy.
The way forward is a qualitative development of the world’s productive forces in an international federation of workers states. Only then can scarcity be eliminated—the precondition for the disappearance of classes and the withering away of the state. With the mass of the population no longer struggling day-to-day to survive and with modern technique, science, culture and education available to all, there would be an explosion in human creativity. Man’s stewardship of the Earth would grow by leaps and bounds.
When production is planned and directed at satisfying human need and not the profit motive, environmental considerations can be given their proper due. The vast expansion in knowledge, technologies and resources will put mankind in position to anticipate and prepare for whatever curveballs the natural world throws at it. Increasing abundance would also eliminate the material factors—and backward social values, such as those expounded by religions—that fuel population growth. No longer will poor peasants and agricultural workers be compelled to have more children in order to ensure enough manpower to work the land. The division between town and country as well as economic dependence on the family will be overcome.
To bring about a communist society, the rule of capital must first be broken, in this country and beyond. Engels elaborated in Anti-Dühring (1878): “To accomplish this act of universal emancipation is the historical mission of the modern proletariat. To thoroughly comprehend the historical conditions and thus the very nature of this act, to impart to the now oppressed class a full knowledge of the conditions and of the meaning of the momentous act it is called upon to accomplish, this is the task of the theoretical expression of the proletarian movement, scientific socialism.”