Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 12, 2019

Why a factory farm and a car factory should not be confused

Filed under: Ecology,farming — louisproyect @ 7:52 pm

Do we want this under socialism?

Recently I commented briefly in two different blog posts about an article in the DSA magazine written by Matt Huber and titled “Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific” that was very close to the sort of thing that Leigh Phillips has written. In a nutshell, Phillips and Huber are “productivists” who tend to see the good in GMO, nuclear power, chemicals for agriculture, DDT, etc.

In a May 1st piece titled “Ecosocialist Debates”, I summed up Huber’s approach:

There’s not much else to say about Huber’s article except that it reads like Living Marxism circa 1985. He believes that nuclear power can be a part of the GND, just like Leigh Phillips who he quotes favorably: “Let’s take over the machine, not turn it off!”

Then, two days ago, I referred to him again along the same lines in a review of a film titled “The Serengeti Rules” hailing it as a strong statement in favor of biodiversity and the preservation of “keystone species”. Since his article came out against re-wilding, I saw it as inimical to the UN report that warned: “Ecosystems, species, wild populations, local varieties and breeds of domesticated plants and animals are shrinking, deteriorating or vanishing. The essential, interconnected web of life on Earth is getting smaller and increasingly frayed. This loss is a direct result of human activity and constitutes a direct threat to human well-being in all regions of the world.”

For some reason, Huber replied to my posts on a FB group called Marxism, Science, the Anthropocene where I posted a brief response to him in my customarily frank and sarcastic manner. This the group administrator found “uncomradely”. Guilty as charged. I will be referring to Huber’s post, which can be found at the bottom of this article. Since I don’t find FB useful for debates, prefer to use the same no-holds barred style I have been using for the past 28 years on the Internet, and seek to involve readers who are not on FB in this debate, I will be responding here instead.

To start off, I had the impression that Huber was new to Marxism and an undergraduate. I was probably right on the first impression but far off on the second. Huber is an Associate Professor of Geography at Syracuse University who got his Ph.D. in 2009. This would likely make him about 45 years old or so. His specialties are “Political economy, historical geography, energy and capitalism, climate politics, resource governance and social theory”. Quite the universal scholar. The articles on his university website are divided into “Public Writing” and “Peer Reviewed Journal Articles and Book Chapters”. Among the first, there is one for the Verso blog titled Building a “Green New Deal”: Lessons From the Original New Deal that hints at his unfamiliarity with key issues in environmentalism. Gazing worshipfully at FDR as most DSA’ers do, he writes:

They built dams to deliver cheap electricity to entire regions. Amazingly, they even hired Woody Guthrie to sing songs about Columbia River doing work for the people (“‘Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea, But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.”) Can we imagine Bob Dylan singing such a song about the carbon fee and dividend?

I wonder if this geography professor has been exposed to books written by the environmental historian Donald Worster whose “Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West” is a cautionary tale about mega-dams of the kind that the New Deal fostered. After referring to Woody Guthrie’s song that he found much more impressive than the dam itself, he debunked the New Deal mystique that so many DSA’ers swallow hook, line and sinker:

Dust-bowlers and tenement dwellers were, it must said, only a small fraction of the intended beneficiaries of the remade Columbia River, not important enough in themselves to justify the effort and expense, particularly in light of the parallel development going on to the east of the Rockies, which aimed at keeping many of them at home. No, the principal goal in the Northwest was something else, something not so very different from what it was in the southern latitudes, in California, Arizona, and Texas: to repeat from the Bureau’s own mouth, total use for greater wealth. According to that agency, “we have not yet produced enough . . . to sustain a desirable and reasonable standard of living, even if goods were equitably distributed; and . . . there is no limit to the human appetite for the products of industry.”

Let me now turn to Huber’s response. To start with, it appears that everything revolves around the ability of industrial farms to replace human labor with machinery:

I’m only making a much more narrow point that industrial agriculture has employed massive labor-saving technologies so that very few actual people/workers are needed to grow the food many of us consume. And, consequently, developing an agroecological system must take the question of labor very seriously – especially if one assumes it will take more labor to grow food than under the industrial system.

He does pay lip-service to the idea that industrial agriculture has “awful ecological effects” but it is not clear what accounts for them. I suppose that if I go through some of his JSTOR articles that touch on nitrogen fertilizer, I could get a better idea of whether or not he understands industrial farming deficits but perhaps it is sufficient to take him at his word that with chemicals doing the “work” of weeding, killing bugs, and fertilizing the soil, we are able to enjoy “abundance”. In fact, the words “abundant” or “abundance” appears no less than seventeen times in his article. In itself, this does not provide much of a handle to determine whether this is good or bad. For example, the USA produces abundant amounts of corn and soybeans but this is mostly used in junk food.

But more to the point, there is a fundamental inability in his article to distinguish between factories that produce cars and factory farms. In the industrial revolution, you had the replacement of human labor by machinery that made the mass production of clothing possible. But are there environmental consequences in producing a cotton shirt other than the greenhouse gases produced by coal-driven electricity to power the looms?

Economies of scale, division of labor and technology combined together to create consumer goods that became “abundant”. However, factory farms come at an environmental cost that dwarfs Ford’s factories beyond all measure. Let’s enumerate a few of them:

(1) Factory farms are based on monoculture. By growing wheat, cotton, corn, soybeans, exclusively, you are robbing the soil of the nutrients that come naturally when a farm has a mixture of crops. This is why chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides have become a plague in the Midwest. As Ben Watts observed in an article titled “The Dangers of Monoculture Farming”:

Chemicals leave traces on plants intended for consumption and are also regularly overused. Excessive use means that a large quantity of synthetic material is left in the soil after harvest. As the material is not organic it can cause great harm to the soil. Rather than being processed into organic matter by microorganisms, it will weave its way through soil polluting groundwater supplies. Pollution of groundwater will negatively alter neighboring ecosystems and even those at a great distance from the chemicals. Chemical substances will kill and deplete all manner of plants, and diversity of surrounding ecosystems.

(2) Factory farms producing chicken, pork and beef for the market are classic example of “economies of scale” but at what cost? You can certainly blame capitalism for how pig factory farms in South Carolina use lakes and rivers as a cesspool but if this came to an end under socialism, would we still want to eat meat that was far inferior to that produced on a traditional farm? The other question is probably not one that matters too much to “productivists” like Huber but as socialists do we abide the cruelty to hens, pigs and cattle that is by necessity associated with factory farms? That’s not going to be in any revolutionary program I would support.

(3) Factory farms are impossible to integrate with cities. As I pointed out in a brief reply to Huber on FB, the Communist Manifesto includes this in its goals: “Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.” Marx called for this in order to overcome the “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism” in V. 3 of Capital. The 1981 edition is quite clear in helping us make the connection to the Communist Manifesto: “Large landed property … produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.” This is a reference to the rift between natural fertilizer and agriculture.

As for Huber’s paragraph baiting me about wanting to see 7 billion people perish as if I were Pol Pot’s grandson, I will simply quote my friend Kamran Nayeri’s response to Huber on FB:

Fred Murphy suggested in a note above for me to comment on Matt Huber’s criticism of Troy Vettese’s “half-earth proposal taken from E.O. Wilson as the proper solution for the biodiversity crisis.” First, both of Huber’s points are misguided. Had he read Wilson’s Half-Earth he would have known that Wilson devotes an entire chapter (Chapter 10: The Best Place in the Biosphere) of his book to name the regions of the planet that he proposed should be set aside for wildlife. What is notable about these regions of the planet is that they are very sparsely, if at all, populated by humans.

Wilson explicitly emphasizes that in these small pockets of humanity, almost all indigenous people are part of the ecosystem and should remain there. What he is calling for is to declare these regions as wildlife preserves not open to “development.” Huber can immediately see that of both his criticisms are not warranted. There is no need to displace anybody and declaring these regions out of reach for development would not change the current status quo for the rest of the planet. Huber also criticizes Vettese’s call for “austerity” and his seemingly proposed “compulsory” veganism. I raised these concerns with Vettese in email communications while congratulating him for his original essay. He admitted that the use of the term “austerity” was a mistake–he meant scaling down of present day conspicuous consumption. He also advocates veganism as necessary for maintaining biodiversity.

He does not mean vegaism must become a law punishable by the state! Now, having disposed of Hubert’s concerns, let me say a few words about the framing of his critique of Vettese and his essay. In my reading of the essay, which I suggest deserves a detailed response, I find it at fault in some fundamental ways. First, the reading of Marx and Engels is questionable. Reducing their methodology (historical materialism) to “socialism given what exists” is not convincing, given the richness of Marx’s own employment of the method say in his writing on the French revolution or in his Capital and associated texts.

To be sure, there are strands of M&E thought that support a reading like Hubert’s. But there is far more in them than what Hubert makes of their method and their vision of socialism. For example, on the question of “population” Marx did not hold that “the more the better” or that there can never be “too many people” from an ecological point of view. In fact, in Grundrisse, he argues population is conditioned by the mode of production. Thus, our 7+ billion world population is not just a “given” that should shape the ecosocialist future. I have argued a number of times that human population can and should be reduced dramatically in the process of transition to ecosocialism through democratic family planning led by empowered women. Or take the present day food system based on industrial farming.

It is entirely the result of the anthropocentric industrial capitalist world economy in which cheap food is essential for cheap labor force, hence higher profits. Another example, the idea of “free time” in Marx does not preclude creative work including growing our own food. To call it drudgery shows how work in Hubert’s view is equated with alienated labor. The problem in Marx is not working but doing alienated labor. I can go on. But to me Hubert’s essay represents an anthropocentric, productivist argument, with affinity to ecomodernism. In contrast we need an ecocentric socialism. Here is my own proposal to contrast with that of Hubert.

https://knayeri.blogspot.com/2018/10/the-civilization-crisis-and-how-to.html

Let me conclude with some observations on where this “productivism” comes from. To some extent, I have seen it among sects with a far too orthodox understanding of Trotsky’s writings, which is typified by his “If America Should Go Communist” that sounds like it might have inspired Huber:

Here is where the American soviets can produce real miracles. “Technocracy” can come true only under communism, when the dead hands of private property rights and private profits are lifted from your industrial system. The most daring proposals of the Hoover commission on standardization and rationalization will seem childish compared to the new possibilities let loose by American communism.

National industry will be organized along the line of the conveyor belt in your modern continuous-production automotive factories. Scientific planning can be lifted out of the individual factory and applied to your entire economic system. The results will be stupendous.

Costs of production will be cut to 20 percent, or less, of their present figure. This, in turn, would rapidly increase your farmers’ purchasing power.

To be sure, the American soviets would establish their own gigantic farm enterprises, as schools of voluntary collectivization. Your farmers could easily calculate whether it was to their individual advantage to remain as isolated links or to join the public chain.

Although I remain strongly influenced by Trotsky, when it comes to “the dialectics of nature”, I find Bukharin’s approach far more convincing:

“We are a part of everything that is beneath us, and around us. Our past is our present, our present is our future, and our future is seven generations past and present.”

–Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) teaching

“No system, including that of human society, can exist in empty space; it is surrounded by an ‘environment,’ on which all is conditions ultimately depend. If human society is not adapted to its environment, it is not meant for this world.”

–Nikolai Bukharin, “Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology”, 1925


Huber’s FB Post

Louis N. Proyect has posted two blog posts here that criticize my piece (linked here again) – and I wanted to try to clarify a couple things (I hope this is an OK venue to do so).

First, he twice draws from this quote from my piece “Today, virtually every ‘input’ into industrialized agriculture is one that saves labor. Tractors plow and plant and chemicals do the ‘work’ of weeding, killing bugs, and fertilizing the soil.” In his first post, he says this quote shows I don’t understand the “metabolic rift.” In the second he claims it reads like a Monsanto commercial. He seems to think I’m fully endorsing industrial agriculture. But, I am not saying industrial agriculture is 100% good or ecologically unproblematic (I understand its awful ecological effects). I’m only making a much more narrow point that industrial agriculture has employed massive labor-saving technologies so that very few actual people/workers are needed to grow the food many of us consume. And, consequently, developing an agroecological system must take the question of labor very seriously – especially if one assumes it will take more labor to grow food than under the industrial system. Who is going to do that work? Under what conditions?

Second, in his latest, Louis claims my article, “dismisses the importance of biodiversity.” Nowhere in my article do I do this. Like any ecologically aware person (this week only confirming what we already knew), I think the biodiversity crisis is severe. What I do is criticize Troy Vettese’s “half earth” proposal taken from E.O. Wilson as the proper solution for the biodiversity crisis. Can we be clear on what this proposal means? One first could legitimately ask how 7 plus billion could survive if literally half of the earth must be “set aside” for nonhumans. (if you think that’s fine, I would ask which of the 7 billion you think should be allowed to perish?) Moreover, since most biodiversity exists in the tropical zones, this would require a massive (and likely neocolonial) “wilderness” preservation regime in the Global South. Given the already documented violence toward peasants and indigenous peoples across the globe to enforce existing parks and wilderness territories, this would entail massive displacement and dispossession of rural peoples in already impoverished countries.

Any ecosocialist program should not be based on “setting aside” nature to save it, but has to deal with the root of the problem: how we produce the material basis of our existence (this is what historical materialism is about right?!?). And, how we use land in the production process. We are not going to save biodiversity by “setting it aside.” We need to actually develop productive systems that don’t destroy it in the first place.

 

1 Comment »

  1. It is telling that Huber is enthralled by this fact about the New Deal: “Amazingly, they even hired Woody Guthrie to sing songs about Columbia River doing work for the people (“‘Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea, But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.”)”

    Another “amazing” fact about the New Deal, the Columbia River, and Guthrie can be found in this verse of Guthrie’s “Roll On, Columbia”:

    Tom Jefferson’s vision would not let him rest
    An empire he saw in the Pacific Northwest
    Sent Lewis and Clark and they did the rest
    So roll on, Columbia, roll on

    “work for the people” indeed

    Comment by alan ginsberg — May 12, 2019 @ 8:51 pm


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