You have made popular Marx’s concept of metabolic rift through your famous 1999 article, “Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift”, and your 2000 book “Marx’s Ecology”. What actually did Marx and Engels write about nature? Are those ideas still relevant?
As materialists, Marx and Engels saw the materialist conception of history as inherently intertwined with the materialist conception of nature. Moreover, their dialectical perspective meant that this was doubly important. Marx’s doctoral dissertation was on Epicurus’ ancient materialist philosophy of nature. His first article as editor of Rheinische Zeitung was on the law on the theft of wood, related to primary accumulation. His Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts dealt with the alienation of nature as well as the alienation of labour. Grundrisse provided a fundamental critique of the Baconian ruse (that nature can be conquered by obeying her autonomous laws). Capital introduced the concept of social metabolism.
As Kohei Saito has shown in his Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism, ecological issues became more and more important to Marx later in his life. Engels, of course, wrote his great, unfinished Dialectics of Nature. Marx’s use of the concepts of “the universal metabolism of nature”, the “social metabolism” and the metabolic rift to understand the connection between society and nature anticipated modern systems ecology, which developed along a similar basis. Likewise, Marx defined socialism as the rational regulation of the metabolism between human beings and nature so as to conserve energy while fulfilling human potential. No one owns the earth, he said, not even all the people on the planet own the earth; they simply hold it in trust for future generations and need to sustain and even improve it as good heads of the household. No other analysis, I would argue, provides as powerful a dialectical framework for understanding the relation between capitalism and the ecology in what are essentially scientific terms.
Of course, this is only a method of critique, and we have to add to it taking into consideration what we know of new ecological and social relations, new ecological crises, and the expansion of human knowledge and capabilities, reflecting the historical specificity of our own times.
During the high days of industrial capitalism, a number of Western thinkers, with their anger against the system, romanticised nature. They were actually making a “go back to nature” argument. How did Marx’s views differ from such criticisms of capitalism and its “evils” with respect to the environment?
It is true that the Romantic revolt—one thinks of Rousseau’s idea of the return to nature and the Romantic poets like Shelley and Wordsworth or early conservationists like Thoreau—evoked a kind of “back to nature” argument. This should not be taken too literally, though, since this was mainly a point of emphasis, in response to the extremes of bourgeois society, rather than an actual call to revert to some earlier form. Indeed, the Romantic critique of the bourgeois destruction of nature was something to take seriously in the sense that they [the Romantics] were protesting against the Gradgrinds of Dickens’ Hard Times, who saw nothing but cash value when they looked at the world.
Nevertheless, you are right that Marx’s approach to ecology owed much less to the Romantics than to the materialist science of his day, which was beginning to develop ecological notions and to perceive the destruction in the impact of the capitalist economy on the environment. As a historical materialist, Marx took this issue seriously, exploring capitalism’s systematic degradation of the natural conditions of existence in his theory of metabolic rift. In this respect, he utilised the concept of metabolism as an overarching critical concept, anticipating the later development of systems ecology. Marx’s ecology was thus not derived primarily from the Romantic tradition, even though he admired Shelley, for example, but rather from science, materialism and dialectics. Marx recognised, as Paul Burkett has shown, the necessity of sustainable human development as the defining feature of socialism.
Marxist scholars like you point out that climate change and environmental destruction are part and parcel of the capitalist economic system. How does capitalism produce such havoc, making the possibilities of human survival bleak?
The fact that our present economic and social system, namely capitalism, is threatening not only all the ecosystems in the world but the entire planet as a place of human habitation is not in question today—this is recognised by all of contemporary science. In 2017 November, 15,000 scientists from 184 countries issued a renewed “Warning to Humanity”. The question then becomes, is there something in the laws of motion of capitalism that makes this tendency towards extermination inevitable within the system? The answer is “yes”. As Marx put it, the rule under capitalism is “Accumulate, Accumulate! That is Moses and the Prophets!” Under this system, nothing else really matters except the accumulation of capital on an ever-increasing scale, which requires unlimited exponential economic growth. This also requires the commoditisation of everything in existence, reducing the world to the logic of the cash nexus. The result is ruptures or rifts in the biogeochemical processes of the planet—a problem that Marx conceived, much like system ecologists do today, as a metabolic rift.
Capitalism has been bringing about many technological innovations with unprecedented speed. Do you not think that technological developments and advancements could bring a solution to the environmental crisis?
I think there are a lot of misconceptions and mystifications in relation to technology. It is not capitalism, in the sense of a system of private accumulation, that is mainly responsible for the major technological innovations of our time. Nor are they occurring at an unprecedented speed, though they are certainly dramatic enough. The biggest innovations of our epoch are in communications and information technology, now extending to robotics. The breakthroughs in these technologies, like the Internet or drones, were a long time coming and were primarily the products of military research under conditions entirely insulated from private accumulation.
Today we can do a lot of things more accurately, more remotely and more automatically. For example, the United States is modernising its nuclear weapons because the innovations of our times allow more accurate targeting so that nuclear weapons, designed as so-called counterforce weapons, can be more precise and can destroy their targets more effectively with smaller warheads. Some think that this even makes nuclear warfare thinkable for the first time—one of the most dangerous and naive notions ever developed. For most, probably the biggest technological change is the smartphone they carry around with them at all times, which allows them to stay perpetually “connected”.
Yet, when it comes to addressing the ecological rift in the Earth System, none of these technological advances help very much. Production technology is implemented on a capitalist basis, so if it increases efficiency in inputs (or outputs), this is simply used to expand the scale of the system as a whole in line with accumulation (the source of the Jevons Paradox). The Soviet climatologist M.I. Budyko first raised the alarm about accelerated climate change more than half a century ago, and the problem has only got worse since. We have all the technology we need to solve the climate crisis. What we cannot possibly solve technologically is a way of safely perpetuating the goal of the present system, which is to promote unlimited exponential economic growth within the finite limits of the planet for the purposes of the accumulation of capital. Some say we can build carbon sequestration plants, which will pull the carbon out of the atmosphere and allow us to go on as before. But to do this globally at a level that would cut even 20 per cent of global emissions would require a worldwide carbon-sequestration infrastructure about 70 per cent bigger than the current fossil fuel complex that took generations to build—and that would put it on top of the current energy complex.
Even the expansion of solar and wind power—which is one thing we ought to be doing very rapidly—doesn’t solve the problem unless solar power and wind power actually displace fossil fuels—and even then immeasurable problems are created for any attempt to increase the throughput of energy and raw materials on this basis. Nuclear power has its own inherent dangers. In many ways, we are up against the second law of thermodynamics, which limits what we can do. In other ways, we are up against the very narrow logic of capitalism which treats all natural boundaries as mere barriers to be surmounted. Marx called this the problem of “insuperable natural limits”. If we are to shift society massively in the direction of substantive equality and ecological sustainability—something both freedom and the human future require—it will be necessary to change our social relations. And that is the one thing the system cannot accept.
For Marxism, a higher stage of development of productive forces is a necessity in a socialist society. Will it not result in large-scale destruction and exploitation of nature? If that is the case, then what is the ecological concern in Marx and others as claimed by people like you?
Unless one is completely doctrinaire in how one approaches these issues, one has to ask what is meant by the higher development of productive forces and for what purpose. The most important productive force, Marx made clear, is human beings themselves and the development of productive forces is about the development of the division of labour. Ultimately, Marx argued that the associated producers under socialism would need to rationally regulate their metabolism with nature such that they conserved energy and promoted the fullest development of the human potential. This cannot be interpreted as production for production’s sake, or industrialism for industrialism’s sake.
Moreover, as quantitative development occurs at a certain stage, qualitative development must take over. The object is one of sustainable human development. All of this is part of Marx’s vision and of Marxism but was distorted in some circles and, mimicking capitalism, made into a goal of promoting industrial gigantism. In contrast, Marx insisted again and again on sustainability, with the earth as a measure of development.
Though the existence of climate change is being established scientifically all over the world, there are a number of climate change deniers. The current President of the United States holds such a view. They believe that nothing is going to happen to the environment. Why are they not convinced about climate change?
Outright climate change denial, except for religious fundamentalists and those among the wider populace who are uneducated, is mainly a right-wing phenomenon promoted by economic interests. In the U.S., it is heavily funded by the ultra-wealthy and giant corporations, which often put economics first and foremost. It has no basis in science, and the ersatz-scientific views expressed are quite transparently a mere ploy designed to engender “scepticism” blocking any action.
Science itself is as strong on the issue of climate change as it is on the theory of evolution, if not stronger. I think Naomi Klein was correct in This Changes Everything to say that climate change denial on the Right is entirely, and indeed quite openly, the outgrowth of a position that sees any attempt to mitigate global warming, or to place limits on the fossil fuel industry, as a threat to capitalism and on a whole way of life centred on the fossil fuel industry. In this respect, Naomi Klein declared that “the Right is right”, that the movement to stop climate change is necessarily a movement for radical change and anti-capitalist. Her real target, though, was not so much the Right, but the liberal centrists who promote a different kind of climate change denial, equally unrealistic, which pretends that the market and technology can magically stop global warming without a change in social relations.
Donald Trump, of course, has not only denied climate change outright, but the Trump administration has done everything it can to prevent action in this area and to obstruct the science. The motives are quite openly economic. (I wrote about this in my book Trump in the White House, Monthly Review Press, 2017, in a chapter entitled “Trump and Climate Catastrophe”.) And while liberals are uncomfortable with his position, they easily fall into a kind of acquiescence, refusing to fight fire with fire and to go on an all-out attack because they recognise that Trump’s position is that of the system and benefits the capitalist class, to which they too are attached.
Sharing responsibility for climate change is an issue of debate among countries. From the point of view of developing countries, the advanced capitalist countries are historically responsible for the alarming stage of climate change and hence should shoulder the burden. But developed countries demand a check on the development pattern of developing countries like China, which causes increasing pollution. These opposite stands make it impossible to work out any concrete measure to avoid the imminent dangers. What kind of amicable solution is possible?
We are talking about competing capitalist nation states here and a division between the global North and the global South, rooted in imperialism. So “amicable solutions” are almost impossible unless social forces rise up from below. The centre countries of the capitalistically advanced world are responsible for most of the cumulative carbon build-up in the atmosphere; they are the nations with the largest ecological footprints per capita; and they are the countries with the highest standards of living and the ones able to reduce carbon emissions most rapidly and with the least effect on their populations.
There is no doubt that from a moral standpoint, and also from a practical standpoint if we want to save the earth, the biggest reductions per capita have to start there, and they need at this point to be double-digit reductions. But it is also true that this is a worldwide problem and that China and India and other emerging economies have a role to play—given that carbon emissions have to reach zero worldwide very quickly, with immeasurable global catastrophic effects if the world fails to accomplish this. Many scientists now believe that with the U.S. refusing to take a leadership role, the main hope lies in China.
But China is still a poor country in per capita income terms and has a much smaller ecological footprint than the rich countries in the West. Its primary concern is economically catching up with the West and not climate. The unfortunate reality that faces us all is that we will break the planetary carbon budget—that is, reach the trillionth tonne of carbon emissions—in around 18 years under business as usual, according to trillionthtonne.org. Everyone has heard how Nero fiddled while Rome burned.
How do you view the Gandhian approach towards the environment and lifestyle? It is highly critical of capitalist greed and environmental destruction. It advocates a simple lifestyle without harming nature at a personal level by each individual. In India, some major environmental movements are inspired by the Gandhian philosophy. Does Gandhism offer any hope?
I think a lot can be learned from the Gandhian philosophy, which certainly is ecological in many ways, though the solutions that it offers are not adequate for an industrial society. Still, we have to learn from a lot of different traditions opposed to hyper-industrialism and emphasising more rational forms of existence. I live in a country where people have the highest ecological footprint by far of any major country on earth. A strong dose of Gandhism would certainly help in many places.
I studied Gandhi’s writings in college, and I now feel that maybe I have done a disservice to my own students in not introducing them in turn to this thinking as an important tradition. In my research on the great geneticist and Marxist J.B.S. Haldane, I was struck by how he spent his final years in India and how his encounter with Gandhism and Indian philosophy in general affected his Marxism, pushing him further in what we would now call an eco-socialist direction.
Are you optimistic about the environmental efforts and struggles of various environmental movements all over the world? And also the government-level international efforts?
There are no physical or technological obstacles to avoiding the environmental catastrophes that are approaching. But it is impossible to solve these problems under business as usual, that is, in accordance with the logic of capital accumulation. The entire ecological problem is in reality a social problem with social solutions. For example, there is nothing, other than current power relations, to stop the world from carrying out the sharp reductions in carbon emissions that are necessary to mitigate climate change. And it could be done while also improving the conditions of the vast majority of people throughout the planet. But it would require enormous changes in the mode of production (and consumption) and in the social relations of production. And there is the rub.
The obstacle is monopoly finance capital and its day-to-day operations. There are all sorts of realistic solutions. We know hundreds, even thousands, of things to do that are within our capabilities, but they almost all go against the logic of capital accumulation. In the U.S., more than a trillion dollars is spent every year in persuading people to buy things that they don’t want and need, and most of this is frankly junk. More than a trillion dollars is spent every year on the military in what is the most environmentally destructive sector of the entire world economy—and aimed at destruction. I could go on with further examples. None of this is necessary. But to change it necessitates going against the logic of capital.
That does not mean that the capital system needs to be overthrown immediately in order to save the environment—that is simply not possible. But we do need to be uncompromisingly revolutionary in political, economic, cultural and environmental ways and to understand that we are necessarily engaged—if civilisation (in the broad sense) and humanity itself are to survive—in a conflict with the exterminism which constitutes, as E.P. Thompson said, the last phase of imperialism. The world needs to move to zero carbon emissions by 2050, and on top of that we have to find a way to pull a further 150 billion tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere. And that is only the beginning of our problems because we are simultaneously crossing numerous planetary boundaries.
Right now, we have to turn the carbon faucet off and rely on other forms of energy and conservation, creating a more rational society. But this means out-and-out warfare with the logic of capital accumulation. I would not say that I am optimistic, but neither am I pessimistic. Pessimism under these circumstances, moreover, is something humanity cannot afford. A revolutionary response means that we have to change the rules. As Bertolt Brecht said, we have to seek to leave the present “burning house”. And it is in this very struggle that our main hope for the future is to be found.
Inequality is increasing to an alarming level all over the world. Scholars like Thomas Piketty capture its magnitude. How does this process happen in capitalism? Professor Piketty suggests progressive wealth taxation as the solution that would reduce the increasing inequality. What is the impact of this inequality?
Michael Yates and I wrote an article for Monthly Review in November 2014 entitled “Piketty and the Crisis of Neoclassical Economics”. Piketty is interesting for a number of reasons, especially his role as a principal figure in the development of the Top Incomes Database, the largest historical database on income inequality in the world, extending over centuries. The importance of his analysis is related to what this database tells about the unprecedented levels of inequality that are being seen in the world today. Piketty’s argument is that this is because of dynasties in wealth concentration transferred over generations. His solution is a global wealth tax. This is certainly interesting, and the issue of a wealth tax has been raised in the past in Monthly Review. But Piketty, though his work is called Capital in the Twenty-First Century, deliberately mimicking Marx, avoids all the real questions of social and economic power and the need to transcend the system of capital accumulation.
Meanwhile, inequality continues to grow by leaps and bounds, with six men now having as much wealth as half the world’s population, or over 3.5 billion people. Many are going hungry in the world while the results of human productivity and social labour are being concentrated in a very few (a mere handful) hands.
FASCISM AND THE CRISIS OF CAPITAL
The emergence of right-wing fascist forces poses great challenges before progressive and democratic forces all over the world. Thinkers like Slavoj Zizek point out that this right-wing growth creates greater opportunities for a Left revival and the strengthening of Left forces as people at large are really dismayed and looking for an alternative. Can the Left seize the opportunity?
A lot of this is taken up in my book Trump and the White House. Fascism is a definite political structure, with a class basis, that emerges from a capitalist system in crisis. It represents the crisis of the liberal-democratic state and the substitution of a state structure in the fascist genus. The critique of fascism in the 1930s and the 1940s mainly developed within Marxism but was quite widely upheld. It was understood that fascism was a way in which the capitalist ruling class continued to rule without the limits of the liberal-democratic state (though still with the facade of constitutionality). One work I would recommend is Franz Neumann’s Behemoth. Later liberal theorists worked hard, though with endless inconsistencies, at reinterpreting fascism to remove any suggestion of a connection to capitalism—mainly by reducing it to a kind of psychological aberration or conflating it simply with racism minus the historical specificity in which it arose. It is important that we take fascism seriously as a political class structure in order to be able to combat it effectively. As Brecht said, you can’t challenge fascism unless you are willing to challenge capitalism.
In the U.S. and Europe, the resurgence of fascism has to do with the structural crisis of capital within the centre economies. The reappearance in India at the same time is not something on which I am competent to comment, though it is serious and is occurring in other places in the global South on quite different bases. All of this seems to reflect the wider, global structural crisis of capital. I would recommend, for a general view, Amin’s “The Return of Fascism to Contemporary Capitalism” published in Monthly Review in September 2014.
Zizek could be right that the rise of movements in the fascist genus is favourable to a Left revival. One might look back to the Popular Front movements in Europe. What is certain is that history shows that only the Left can effectively fight fascism. Liberals tend to fall prey to the Gleichschaltung (bringing into line) of the Right. Today I think that the anti-fa (or anti-fascist) movements, which are an international phenomenon and have arisen on the Left, need our support.
As a socialist do you see any immediate transcendence of capitalism? Have we reached a new revolutionary conjuncture? What sustains your belief in socialism?
What ultimately sustains my belief in socialism is a love of humanity and the example of hundreds of millions of people who are fighting this barbaric system every day—not to mention those who have given their lives combating it in the past. We owe it to all of humanity, including all future generations, to continue the struggle. To be sure, the capitalist system is not going to be transcended in a day. It took centuries for the bourgeois class to triumph over the feudal class. We need to think in terms of a long revolution. But it needs to be revolutionary at every step of the way since the main lesson of our time is that we have to go against the logic of capital, continually seeking to curtail that logic—if we are even to survive.
Once we could talk about socialism or barbarism; now the choice is between socialism and exterminism. The movement towards socialism has become a necessity—not simply for human freedom but for human survival. More and more of the world’s population are coming to this realisation.
THE OCTOBER REVOLUTION
This is the centenary of the October Revolution in Russia. It actually heralded a new era in world history. What is the legacy of socialist Russia?
The October Revolution was one of the great breakthroughs in human history, representing the first major socialist victory against capitalism. The leadership of Lenin in the first few years of the revolution cannot be underestimated. The October Revolution created a whole new era of human progress and demonstrated how much was possible for humanity. Yet, there were grave problems, too. The Stalin era with its purges took an immeasurable toll on wide swathes of the population, had a negative effect on the course of the revolution itself and promoted internal developments with respect to bureaucracy, authoritarianism and inequality that were all enormously corrosive over the long term.
Nevertheless, looking back, what the Soviet Union achieved was great, given that Russia at the time of the revolution was still an underdeveloped country, and the fact that it had to fight a world counter-revolution. It was invaded numerous times, was compelled to fight a bloody civil war, and had to counter the Nazi onslaught, losing 20 million people in the war. It was the Soviet Union that defeated Nazi Germany, head to head, though at enormous cost. In comparison, the Western allies contributed little to the defeat of Germany in the war.
Following the war, the Soviet Union was faced with the Cold War led by the U.S. as the new world hegemonic power. It was confronted with what in the West was called “containment”, but which was really a policy of squeezing and crushing Soviet-type societies. The Soviet Union had to face a debilitating arms race. Yet, despite that, it was able to promote the education of its people to an astounding degree, to improve living conditions, and to make enormous technological breakthroughs. Its developments in science and technology were remarkable.
For decades, during the post-Second World War period, the Soviet Union played a positive role worldwide in providing support for revolutions around the globe. For us today, the Soviet Union has many positive lessons to teach, not excluding the virtues of economic planning. No less important, it also showed us where a workers’ revolution could go wrong, the mistakes that could be made, the defeats that might have been avoided—lessons that need to be learned today—and one of the reasons for distinguishing 21st century socialism. In the long course of history, I think, the October Revolution will be seen as the first, extraordinary, incomplete, but heroic attempt at the creation of socialist revolution. Its legacy will be fully appreciated only when the next round of world revolution breaks out and when new, lasting victories are achieved.
Now we are in the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of “Das Kapital”. How do you read “Capital” after 150 years?
Marx’s critical-dialectical method and his historical researches into capitalist society make his work unique and indispensable, dwarfing all other contributions to social science over the last century and a half. Rosa Luxemburg once said that as the socialist movement developed in response to changing historical conditions, it would discover new scientific elements in Marx’s thought, going beyond the needs of the movement in his day. This is proving to be the case.
Today those struggling with the central issues of our time are once again finding inspiration in Marx, whether it is the discovery of his value-form analysis; his ecological critique; his explorations (even if limited) into social reproduction; his concept of primitive [primary] accumulation; his investigations into money and finance; his analysis of the concentration and centralisation of capital; his concept of the reserve army of labour; or his notions of precarious labour.
In many ways, Marx set the foundations of critical praxis, and although struggles in our time necessarily take new forms, reflecting the historical specificity of our age, his method endures.
You are the present editor of Monthly Review magazine. The magazine is renowned for its firm commitment to political-economic analysis of the Marxian framework without any new Left approach. How do you evaluate its history and contribution?
Monthly Review’s history and its role in the movement are tied to its origins. It was founded in 1949 (the same year as the victory of the Chinese Revolution). At the time, world revolution was expanding. But in the U.S., the Left had been defeated, with former U.S. Vice President Henry Wallace’s campaign for the presidency (representing the Left within the New Deal) destroyed by Red-baiting. This marked the beginning of what was to become known as the McCarthy era of virulent anti-communism and domestic witch-hunts. For Leo Huberman and Paul M. Sweezy, Monthly Review was initially established as a kind of holding action for the Left at a time of defeat after defeat. Proudly subtitled “An Independent Socialist Magazine”, MR deliberately chose to go against the tide of history in the U.S. in the 1950s.
Albert Einstein wrote his “Why Socialism?” for the first issue of the magazine. Although there were discussions about building a wider cooperation on the Left in the U.S., it was soon decided that there could be no cooperation with Cold War liberals. Hence, the magazine took the stance, articulated by Paul Baran (developing on Lenin’s famous slogan), of “Smaller But Better”. The first three editors, Huberman, Sweezy and Harry Magdoff, were all called up before McCarthyite committees in the 1950s and defied the inquisition at the time. The Sweezy case (Sweezy vs New Hampshire) went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (which eventually decided in his favour) when he refused to name names, to turn over lecture notes (of a lecture at the University of New Hampshire), and insisted on defending himself on the basis of freedom of speech—the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution.
Monthly Review was subsequently to focus on anti-imperialist struggles, especially following the Cuban Revolution in 1959. It became a centre for the economic critique of the system, with the publication of works like The Political Economy of Growth by Baran, Monopoly Capital by Baran and Sweezy, The Age of Imperialism by Magdoff and Labor and Monopoly Capital by Harry Braverman. In the last couple of decades, MR has become known for its contributions to eco-socialism. It is this great independent socialist tradition of uncompromising resistance to the status quo and unswerving support for the revolutionary struggles of humanity that continues to inspire those associated with MRboth in the U.S. and around the world down to the present day.
Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M. are independent journalists based in New Delhi and are associated with the People’s Archive of Rural India. They contribute to Malayalam, national and international publications, including The Indian Express, The Wire and Monthly Review. Their latest published work is a long interview with the renowned historian Irfan Habib. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.