Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 15, 2016

Debates within ecosocialism: John Bellamy Foster, Jason Moore and CNS

Filed under: Syria — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

John Bellamy Foster

Jason E. Moore

It has been well over 15 years since I paid much attention to John Bellamy Foster’s writings on Marx and the metabolic rift or his 1999 quarrel with James O’Connor, the editor of the journal “Capitalism, Nature and Socialism” whose Frankfurt School leanings became a bone of contention between the two big-time academic Marxists. At the time I had much more interest in getting involved in these debates than I do now. When O’Connor invited me to write an attack on David Harvey for his journal, I relished the opportunity. After submitting it, however, O’Connor changed his mind since I erred too much in the direction of the kind of historical materialism that Foster promoted. Around the same time, I got the same invitation from Immanuel Wallerstein who had his own beef with Harvey. Once again, after submitting something to the ganzer macher of World Systems, I got a runaround with Wallerstein requesting changes that I had no patience to work on. After all, I wasn’t trying to get tenure somewhere.

Without much enthusiasm I return to controversies that will have very little impact outside of the world of journals and academic conferences. This time it is round two of Foster versus the Frankfurt School and a new dust up between him and Jason Moore, the author of the well-received “Capitalism in the Web of Life”. I was particularly interested to read the critique of Foster in Moore’s book that Foster responded to on Ian Angus’s blog. I consider myself to be strongly influenced by Foster’s ecosocialist theories even though I’d like to wring his neck for allowing MRZine to function as an extension of RT.com, PressTV and SANA—a toxic dump whose editor Yoshie Furuhashi once advised her readers: “Moreover, the president of Syria has a weapon in the obligatory media war accompanying any protest in a geopolitical hotspot these days, which neither any other Arab regime nor the Islamic Republic of Iran can claim: his undeniably charming wife Asma.” Disgusting.

In John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark’s 11,700-word article “Marx’s Ecology and the Left” that is accompanied by 121 footnotes, there is almost no possibility of the layperson understanding much of it unless you are familiar with Foster’s “metabolic rift” writings, the Frankfurt School and Neil Smith, who was influenced by the Frankfurt School. Although I am pretty familiar with Foster and the Frankfurt School, I found the discussion of Smith difficult to follow. For example, I have read this paragraph several times and still do not understand what Foster and Clark are driving at:

Hence, in Smith’s inverted Frankfurt School perspective on the domination of nature, nature as a whole was envisioned in almost Baconian terms as increasingly produced by human beings for their own ends. It was possible, he argued, to speak of “the real subsumption of nature” in its entirety within human production. The late twentieth century, he proclaimed, marked the infiltration of society into the last “remnant[s] of a recognizably external nature.” Indeed, there was no longer any meaningful nature anywhere apart from human beings: “Nature is nothing if it is not social.” “The production of nature,” in Smith’s words, was “capitalized ‘all the way down.’” From this perspective, the historical production of nature represented “the unity of nature toward which capitalism drives.”

I had some of the same difficulties with Moore’s critique of Foster that revolved around his supposed embrace of Cartesian dualism. By positing the “metabolic rift” as a result of the estrangement of society from nature (specifically through the growth of cities and the depletion of soil nutrients that attends capitalist farming), Foster is charged with failing to conceive of the dialectical unity of the social and the natural.

In Ian Angus’s interview with Foster, he defends himself from this charge:

The constant references to Cartesian dualism, or what Moore calls the Cartesian binary, are extremely misleading. In his seventeenth-century rationalist philosophy, Descartes distinguished between mind/spirit on one hand, and matter/mechanism on the other. Human beings were generally associated with mind, and animals with machines. This was quite different from the distinction between society and nature that Moore calls a “Cartesian binary.”

I have to agree with Foster. For Descartes, dualism was all about the mind-body dichotomy, having little to do with social relations. He was dealing with an epistemological quandary that had vexed philosophers going back to Plato. Ultimately, Descartes’s purpose, even if he didn’t fully grasp it, was to break the hold of organized religion on the Enlightenment that reflected the class interests of the emerging bourgeoisie.

In order to diminish the role of the Church and the feudal aristocracy, a totally new view of the universe had to be constructed. Instrumental to this was a new view of nature, which was seen as transcendent and outside of humanity, but not sacred. Scientists would replace priests in this new world-view, since they alone had the ability to explain the natural order. Newton becomes a key figure in the general assault on the old order.

If nature is conscripted on behalf of the rising bourgeoisie, the natural tendency is toward a kind of bourgeois materialism. Against this generally progressive philosophical current, he posits historical materialism. The difference between bourgeois and historical materialism is that the latter mode of thought does not see nature as transcendent but as something that society interacts with dialectically. Nature is always being transformed through labor. Furthermore, science in bourgeois society is always qualified by its social role, as Thomas Kuhn argues. The purpose of socialism is to liberate science from its class ties and make it available for the transformation of society.

In a very real sense, Descartes’s philosophy was the foundation stone of the French Revolution.

I will hold off saying anything more about Moore’s ideas until I get a chance to read his book from cover to cover but can say this much now. His main contribution to ecological thought has been his ability to weave together the origins of capitalism with Europe’s ability to displace its environmental contradictions through colonialism. In an article titled “The Capitalocene”, Moore presents an analysis that should serve as a lantern for young scholars hoping to integrate history, politics and environmental thought:

The rise of capitalism after 1450 was accompanied, and made possible, by an epochal shift in the scale, speed, and scope of landscape transformation across the geographical expanse of early capitalism. The long 17th century forest clearances of the Vistula Basin and Brazil’s Atlantic Rainforest occurred on a scale, and at a speed, between five and ten times greater than anything seen in medieval Europe. Feudal Europe had taken centuries to deforest large expanses of western and central Europe; after 1450, comparable deforestation occurred in decades, not centuries. To take but one example, in medieval Picardy (northeastern France), it took 200 years to clear 12,000 hectares of forest, beginning in the 12th century. Four centuries later, in northeastern Brazil at the height of the sugar boom in the 1650s, 12,000 hectares of forest would be cleared in a single year. These are precious clues to an epochal transition in the relations of power, wealth, and nature that occurred over the course of the long medieval crisis and the expansion that commenced after 1450.

It is the same kind of rigor displayed in Anievas and Nisancioglu’s “How the West Came to Rule” and just one more indication that Marxist scholarship is finally returning to the principles enunciated in Chapter 27 of V. 1 of “Capital”–“The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist”. While Marx identified slavery and colonialism as key, he did not (and probably could not) document the  the devastating impact of colonialism on the natural world (does that sound like I am lapsing into Cartesianism?)

Turning to Foster and Clark’s very long article criticizing a wide range of thinkers mostly associated with James O’Connor’s journal, it would probably be useful to provide some background.

In February 1999 Monthly Review published an attack on James O’Connor by Foster’s close associate Paul Burkett. Titled “Fusing Red and Green”, it was a pretty sharp take-down of O’Connor’s new book “Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism”.  In keeping with Foster and Clark’s article, it defended Marx against charges that he was indifferent to capitalism’s assault on nature as described in Moore’s citation above:

Surprisingly, O’Connor does not systematically address the extent to which Marxism’s historical neglect of the conditions of production is rooted in partial and/or distorted interpretations of the work of Marx and Engels. Instead, Natural Causes merely recites the standard accusations of ecologically incorrect thinking against the founders of Marxism, with no real consideration of the evidence for and against these charges or of alternative interpretations, in which Marx and Engels assign a central role to natural conditions and ecological themes.

As is the case in all of these debates in the academy over theoretical questions (Kliman versus the URPE editorial board, etc.), it can get pretty nasty. Two years after Burkett’s article appeared, O’Connor organized a symposium on Foster’s “Marx’s Ecology” that amounted to revenge—a dish served cold in this instance. All the contributors dumped on him in the same fashion that Burkett dumped on O’Connor. When Foster requested space in CNS for a 3000 word rebuttal, O’Connor turned him down. Paul Burkett did reply, however.

As you can probably gather, the CNS issue is behind a paywall. When I read it fifteen years ago, I was a lot closer to Foster and even considered him a friend. So when I wrote about it (this was long before I began blogging—actually there was no such thing as a blog back then), I held the Foster banner aloft. Ironically the first article I trash was co-authored by Salvatore Engel-DiMauro who somehow got me to write for CNS two years ago after convincing me that the bad old days of O’Connor runarounds were over.)

The first article in the June symposium is so banal that one wonders why O’Connor bothered to include it. Titled “Failed Promise” and co-authored by Maarten de Kadt and Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, it makes the startling revelation that Marx’s ecological analysis revolved around the problem of soil fertility and failed to address such problems as nuclear weapons or PCB’s. One wonders why de Kadt and Engel_Di Mauro did not fault Marx for not living into the 1980s. Too much red meat, cheap wine and cigars, one supposes.

Alan Rudy’s “Marx’s Ecology and Rift Analysis” gets to the heart of Foster’s study. For Foster, the question of a “metabolic rift” is key not only to understanding Marx, but in developing ecosocialist solutions for today’s world. Basically, the metabolic rift was created as a result of the development of cities under capitalism, when the source of organic nutrients in the form of animal or human waste was separated from the soil. It led to “guano wars” in the 19th century, open sewers in the streets of London and a host of other social problems. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx proposed the abolition of the distinction between town and country as a first step toward mending the metabolic rift. Moreover, in the absence of a socialist transformation of the world, every chemical advance to compensate for the loss of soil fertility has led to further contradictions, including the seepage of fertilizers into bodies of water like the Gulf of Mexico, cancer epidemics due to pesticides, etc.

For Rudy, “[T]he concept of metabolic rift…has a far greater affinity for natural resource economics than the dialectics of ecological Marxism.” In contrast, Rudy would shift the discussion away from scientific considerations of natural resource usage altogether–either Marxist or bourgeois. Why? Because, to put it bluntly, he is committed to the kind of anti-scientific prejudices that characterized the Frankfurt School. Foster supposedly subscribes to the “the Baconian conception of an atomized nature.” Such a conception “undergirds the assumption that there is one scientific method because, at root, all of nature is comprised of discrete piles of differently arranged, hierarchically organized, though fundamentally similar things.” That’s odd. In my reading of “Marx’s Ecology,” I found a steadfast defense of the kind of dialectical understanding of science that you find in Lewontin and Levins.

After having declared his affinity for the kind of science spoofed by Alan Sokal in “Social Text,” Rudy attempts to refute the concept of metabolic rift by referring to England at the time of the Enclosure Acts. He writes, “The metabolic rift argument suggests that the movement of human and animal waste from the country to the city leads to the accelerated depletion of agricultural soils. However, the increase in rural livestock suggests that the problem may have been as much related to the maldistribution of rural wastes as the separation of rural from urban wastes. The scientific or cultural or infrastructural incapacity to engage in this redistribution of animal waste then would need to be explained.”

This distinction is next to useless. Marx’s concern was not just with the separation of town and city, but the failure of capitalist farming in general, which tended to put short-term profits over long-term social considerations. Maldistribution of rural wastes simply suggests that the English gentry’s verbal commitment to “improvement” was at odds with the mode of production. What else is new?

Perhaps Rudy’s biggest problem is his tendency to assume that the concept of metabolic rift rests upon some kind of binary opposition that was not present in 19th century Europe at all. He writes:

“The imagery of rift suggests a chasm between country and city, nature and society, and agriculture and industry. Yet the 19th century is the era of massive road, canal and railroad construction; of extraordinary scientific and technological innovation (only exceeded by the following century); and of phenomenal introductions and migrations of non-native crops, peoples, diseases, and invasive species all multi-directionally across the increasingly accessible globe.”

What can one say? Rudy simply doesn’t get Marx’s argument, nor Foster’s very effective presentation of that argument. All of the sweeping changes described by Rudy, and which constitute the first part of the Communist Manifesto as well, are simply mechanisms to facilitate the development of the modern urban-based capitalist economy that is the root of our problem. Railroad construction made and makes it possible to separate livestock from their feed sources. The consequences are pig feces filling the rivers and lakes of North Carolina and monoculture production of corn in the Midwest with all the attendant problems. The idea is to reorganize society, not stand breathless in the face of capitalist transportation “miracles.” (Unfortunately, Foster has not explored the connections between metabolic rift and the consequences of farming based on nonrenewable energy. More about that anon.)

Nothing has occurred in the past fifteen years to make me want to take back a single word. In the ideological battle between Foster/Clark and a variety of Frankfurt-inspired thinkers, I continue to identify with the Monthly Review authors even though I find the magazine’s failure to understand the nature of the conflict in Syria a tragic mistake.


  1. I think you (and Marxism, if you will) would be better served to spell out directly what you see as the relationship between a socialist view of development (industrial, rural, ecological) and “nature”. Most of the article involves demonstrating what you “know” of the arguments in “ecosocialism” (probably because you wanted to establish your credentials with the likes of all the names you dropped, Foster, Clark, Moore, Rudy, etc. a rather typical approach found in much of the very imprecise academic discourse that feigns scholarship). It illuminated very little except that you at one time had the ear of some of these writers, but no longer. You do, somewhat, get to the point at the end, but I have to agree with you when you say you have lost interest in these people’s academic pertur(or mastur)bations.
    I, at least, would be interested in a more direct (modern) analysis of these issues. I bet you could do it.

    Comment by mtomas3 — June 15, 2016 @ 7:02 pm

  2. I have written 91 articles on ecology. They can all be referenced here: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/my_ecology.htm

    Comment by louisproyect — June 15, 2016 @ 7:06 pm

  3. I was rather surprised you did not address the John Bellamy Foster / Ian Angus interview in more depth. I have deep respect for both of their contributions to ecosocialism and especially Foster’s efforts to rehabilitate Marx and Engels as ecological thinkers. Thus I was all the more disappointed in the hatchet job they performed on Moore. Foster outrageously charges that Moore “essentially rejects all Green thought, including ecological Marxism or ecosocialism, for talking about ‘what capitalism does to nature’ instead of ‘how nature works for capitalism.’ For him, the central ecological problem is not the disruption of the Earth System, but the fact that natural resources have become more expensive, creating problems for the capitalist economy.”

    To the contrary, Moore incorporates and builds upon Green thought, but critiques it along three axes: “the reduction of humanity to a unified actor; the reduction of market, production, political, and cultural relations to ‘social’ relations; and the conceptualization of Nature as independent of humans, even when the evidence suggests the contrary.” (Capitalism in the Web of Life, Kindle edition, position 197 – hereafter CWL/K) He proposes “a view of humanity as natural force [that] allows us to see new connections between human nature, global power and production, and the web of life. In an era of tightly linked transformations of energy, climate, food and agriculture, labor markets, urbanization, financialization, and resource extraction, the imperative is to grasp the inner connections that conduct flows of power, capital, and energy through the grid of capital accumulation — and in so doing, to shed new light on the limits of that very grid.” (CWL/K 232-237)

    Foster also charges that Moore reduces capitalism’s “disruption of the Earth System” to “problems for the capitalist economy.” To the contrary, Moore shows how intimately these two moments are related, how all capital’s efforts to resolve its problems – historically and in the acute crisis now under way – lead inexorably to just such disruption. Foster ascribes to Moore the view that “ecological problems are reduced to the tap (or resource problem) for capitalism, downplaying or ignoring the larger problem of the sink, that is, how capitalism degrades and disrupts the entire Earth System, and imposes its wastes on it.” Hardly – indeed one wonders if Foster even read Moore’s book to the end. The following from chapter 10 thoroughly refutes this charge, albeit at some length:

    “The cumulative and cyclical dimensions of nature-as-tap … are now meeting up with the cumulative dimension of nature-as-sink. Every great movement of appropriating new streams of unpaid work/energy implies a disproportionately larger volume of waste. That disproportionality has grown over time. The dimension of waste is therefore a crucial relation missing— to this point— from our simplified model of accumulation and crisis. Value and waste are dialectically bound, in a cumulatively disproportionate relation. … Urbanization, mining, and industry had been generating a rising volume of wastes since the sixteenth century, when contemporaries observed poisoned streams and befouled air amid the mining boomtowns of central Europe. … Agriculture has now moved to the pole position in the race to pollute the earth— in part because of its energy- and chemical-intensity, but also because its role in land clearance removes forests which would otherwise lock up carbon.

    “Capitalism’s … wastes are now overflowing the sinks, and spilling over onto the ledgers of capital. Climate change, once again, is our most expressive instance of this phenomenon. Hence, the connection between biospheric ‘state shifts’ and accumulation crisis is more intimate than usually recognized. But I think there is another, deeper, historical-geographical problem that has not (yet) been sufficiently considered: the temporality of nature-as-tap differs significantly from the temporality of nature-as-sink. New primary production regimes, until now, could develop much faster than did waste-induced costs. Outrunning these contradictions was possible because there were geographical frontiers— not just continents, but bodily, subterranean, and atmospheric spaces— from which ‘free gifts’ could be extracted, and into which ‘free garbage’ could be deposited.

    “There is, then, a fantastically non-linear dynamic at play. Capitalist technological advance not only produces a tendency for industrial production to run ahead of its raw materials supply— Marx’s ‘general law’ of underproduction. It also produces a general law of overpollution: the tendency to enclose and fill up waste frontiers faster than it can locate new ones. Thus the non-linear slope of the waste accumulation curve over the longue durée, with a series of sharp upticks after 1945, 1975, and 2008. As ‘resource quality’— a wretched term— declines, it is not only more costly to extract work/ energy, it becomes more toxic.” (CWL/K 6304-6334)

    Comment by Fred Murphy — June 15, 2016 @ 8:20 pm

  4. Fred, I have tremendous respect for Moore but I am not persuaded that Cartesian dualism describes Foster’s work. For that matter, Foster’s problem is not theoretical but political. His article hailing the Chinese Communist Party’s commitment to ecosocialism was preposterous.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 15, 2016 @ 8:49 pm

  5. True dat. I prefer to avoid the dualism debate – too philosopho-academic. But the substance of Moore’s work is as dialectical, Marxist and ecosocialist as anyone’s and he should not be read out of the movement or the conversation.

    Comment by Fred Murphy — June 15, 2016 @ 9:06 pm

  6. I think that Foster went way overboard, btw. My theoretical inclinations are with Moore but I just can’t accept the Cartesian dualism charge. It makes no sense. Plus that term has been thrown around much too much. Christian Parenti used it also, something I had a problem with as well:


    Comment by louisproyect — June 15, 2016 @ 9:59 pm

  7. Louis, what is your critique of David Harvey? My understanding is that some think that he develops the notion of “accumulation by dispossession” with too broad a brush – http://isreview.org/issue/95/accumulation-dispossession.

    “However, the way Harvey frames the argument also has its weaknesses. As Robert Brenner noted in a symposium in Historical Materialism devoted to Harvey’s work, Harvey includes in his concept of accumulation by dispossession “a virtual grab bag of processes—by which claims to assets are transferred from one section of capital to another, exploitation of the working class is made worse, or the state moves to privilege its own capitalists at the expense of others—that are quite normal aspects or by-products of the already well-established sway of capital.”28

    By expanding the boundaries of the concept so widely as to include such things as “[throwing] workers out of the system at one point in time in order to have them to hand for purposes of accumulation at a later point in time,” the theory risks undermining Marx’s central argument that these things were fundamental consequences of the functioning of a capitalist economy.”

    Comment by David Green — June 16, 2016 @ 2:13 pm

  8. Climate & Capitalism has published a longer version of Fred Murphy’s criticism of the John Bellamy Foster interview, together with my reply:

    “Two Views of Marxist Ecology and Jason W. Moore.”

    Comment by Ian Angus — June 23, 2016 @ 8:09 pm

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