Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 17, 2019

Trotsky, Bukharin, and the Eco-Modernists

Filed under: Bukharin,Counterpunch,DSA,Ecology,Jacobin,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 2:28 pm


Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing “on faith,” is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste. We have not the slightest fear that this taste will be bad.

– Leon Trotsky, “Literature and Revolution” (1924)

For some Trotskyist groups, these words have been interpreted as a green light to support all sorts of ecomodernist schemas. For those unfamiliar with the term, it simply means using technology, often of dubious value, to ward off environmental crisis.

For example, the Socialist Workers Party, when it was still tethered to the planet Earth, was a strong supporter of Green values but after becoming unmoored it began to publish articles that asserted: “Science and technology — which are developed and used by social labor — have established the knowledge and the means to lessen the burdens and dangers of work, to advance the quality of life, and to conserve and improve the earth’s patrimony.”  These abstractions have meant in the concrete supporting GMO: “The latest focus of middle-class hysteria in face of the progress of science and technology is the campaign against foods that have been cultivated from seeds that have undergone a transplant of a strand of genetic material, DNA, from a different plant species–so-called transgenic organisms, or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).”

A split from the SWP, the Spartacist League is just as gung-ho. In a diatribe against ecosocialist scholar and Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster, they position themselves as global warming skeptics: “Current climate change may or may not pose a sustained, long-term threat to human society.” Their answer is very much in the spirit of the Trotsky quote above: “Instead, the proletariat must expropriate capitalist industry and put it at the service of society as a whole.” It turns out that Indian Point et al would be put at the service of society based on an article titled “Greens’ Anti-Nuclear Hysteria Amnesties Capitalism”.

Of course, the granddaddy of this kind of crude productivism is the cult around Spiked Online that is correctly perceived today as a contrarian and libertarian outlet. But its roots are in the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain that defended GMO, nuclear power, DDT, etc. using Trotsky’s rhetoric. Today, there’s nothing to distinguish it from Donald Trump’s Department of Energy.

As it happens, Trotsky’s business about moving mountains through technology serves as the epigraph to Jacobin’s special issue on environmentalism that is permeated by ecomodernist themes. Among them is an article by Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworski titled “Planning the Good Anthropocene” that shares an affection for nuclear energy with the nutty sects listed above. They reason: “From a system-wide perspective, nuclear power still represents the cheapest option thanks to its mammoth energy density. It also boasts the fewest deaths per terawatt-hour and a low carbon footprint.” Their techno-optimism rivals that of Steven Pinker’s: “We patched our deteriorating ozone layer; we returned wolf populations and the forests they inhabit to central Europe; we relegated the infamous London fog of Dickens, Holmes, and Hitchcock to fiction, though coal particulates still choke Beijing and Shanghai.” As it happens, China is reducing coal particulates by displacing them geographically. The IEEFA, an energy think-tank, reported that a quarter of coal plants in the planning stage or under construction outside China are backed by Chinese state-owned financial institutions and corporations.

Continue reading

May 13, 2019

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 7:39 pm

An excerpt from the introduction:

In this book, we show how the modern world has been made through seven cheap things: nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives. Every word in that sentence is difficult. Cheap is the opposite of a bargain—cheapening is a set of strategies to control a wider web of life. “Things” become things through armies and clerics and accountants and print. Most centrally, humans and nature don’t exist as giant seventeenth-century billiard balls crashing into each other. The pulse of life making is messy, contentious, and mutually sustaining. This book intro-duces a way to think about the complex relationships between humans and the web of life that helps make sense of the world we’re in and suggests what it might become.

As a teaser, let’s return to those chicken bones in the geological record, a capitalist trace of the relation between humans and the world’s most common bird, Gallus gallus domesticus. The chickens we eat today are very different from those consumed a century ago. Today’s birds are the result of intensive post—World War II efforts drawing on genetic material sourced freely from Asian jungles, which humans decided to recombine to produce the most profitable fowl. That bird can barely walk, reaches maturity in weeks, has an oversize breast, and is reared and slaughtered in geologically significant quantities (more than sixty billion birds a year). Think of this relationship as a sign of Cheap Nature. Already the most popular meat in the United States, chicken is projected to be the planet’s most popular flesh for human consumption by 2020. That will require a great deal of labor. Poultry workers are paid very little: in the United States, two cents for every dollar spent on a fast-food chicken goes to workers, and some chicken operators use prison labor, paid twenty-five cents per hour. Think of this as Cheap Work. In the US poultry industry, 86 percent of workers who cut wings are in pain because of the repetitive hacking and twisting on the line. Some employers mock their workers for reporting injury, and the denial of injury claims is common. The result for workers is a 15 percent decline in income for the ten years after injury. While recovering, workers will depend on their families and support networks, a factor outside the circuits of production but central to their continued participation in the workforce. Think of this as Cheap Care. The food produced by this industry ends up keeping bellies full and discontent down through low prices at the checkout and drive-through. That’s a strategy of Cheap Food. Chickens themselves are relatively minor contributors to climate change—they’ve only one stomach each and don’t burp out methane like cows do—but they’re bred in large lots that use a great deal of fuel to keep warm. This is the biggest contributor to the US poultry industry’s carbon footprint!’ You can’t have low-cost chicken without abundant propane: Cheap Energy. There is some risk in the commercial sale of these processed birds, but through franchising and subsidies, everything from easy financial and physical access to the land on which the soy feed for chickens is grown—mainly in China, Brazil, and the United States—to small business loans, that risk is mitigated through public expense for private profit. This is one aspect of Cheap Money. Finally, persistent and frequent acts of chauvinism against categories of animal and human life—such as women, the colonized, the poor, people of color, and immigrants—have made each of these six cheap things possible. Fixing this ecology in place requires a final element—the rule of Cheap Lives. Yet at every step of this process, humans resist—from the Indigenous Peoples whose flocks provide the source of genetic material for breeding through poultry and care workers demanding recognition and relief to those fighting against climate change and Wall Street. The social struggles over nature, money, work, care, food, energy, and lives that attend the Capitalocene’s poultry bones amount to a case for why the most iconic symbol of the modern era isn’t the automobile or the smartphone but the Chicken McNugget.

All this is forgotten in the act of dipping the chicken-and-soy product into a plastic pot of barbeque sauce. Yet the fossilized trace of a trillion birds will outlast—and mark the passage of—the humans who made them. That’s why we present the story of humans, nature, and the system that changed the planet as a short history of the modern world: as an antidote to forgetting. This short book isn’t, however, a history of the whole world. It’s the .history of processes that can explain why the world looks the way it does today. The story of these seven cheap things illustrates how capitalism expanded to yield maps like the one below, showing how small a portion of the earth has lain outside the scope of European colonial power. We’ll explain precisely what we mean by cheap below. First we need to make the case that it’s not just some natural human behavior but rather a specific interaction between humans and the biological and physical world that has brought us to this point.

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.


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.


May 10, 2019

The Serengeti Rules

Filed under: Ecology,extinction,Film — louisproyect @ 8:45 pm

It would be difficult to imagine a more timely film than “The Serengeti Rules”, which arrived at the Quad Cinema in NY today and opens at the Laemmle in L.A. next Friday. Last Monday the UN released a report that made front page news everywhere. The Guardian led with these paragraphs:

Human society is in jeopardy from the accelerating decline of the Earth’s natural life-support systems, the world’s leading scientists have warned, as they announced the results of the most thorough planetary health check ever undertaken.

From coral reefs flickering out beneath the oceans to rainforests desiccating into savannahs, nature is being destroyed at a rate tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past 10m years, according to the UN global assessment report.

The biomass of wild mammals has fallen by 82%, natural ecosystems have lost about half their area and a million species are at risk of extinction – all largely as a result of human actions, said the study, compiled over three years by more than 450 scientists and diplomats.

“The Serengeti Rules” is a profile of a group of scientists that could be described as the most renowned of those who helped create the momentum behind the UN Report. Now in their seventies by all appearance, they were focused on researching biodiversity and formulating methods that could be used to preserve it. They sought to prevent species extinctions that was a sine qua non for preventing the extinction of the biggest threat to biodiversity on the planet today—us. It is a deep irony that homo sapiens can either destroy the planet or save it, all a function of its ability to grasp the need for a socialist victory over the ruling class that threatens every living thing.

The ecosystems being impinged upon today have been with us for millions of years. In each instance, there are animals that the scientists in “The Serengeti Rules” describe as a keystone species. Remove any one of them and life all around them can die. Bob Paine, a U. of Washington ecologist, is widely credited as the discoverer of their role in ecosystems. In a 1966 paper, he presented evidence that when a starfish is removed from a tide-pool, it rapidly becomes a dead zone of the kind that the Great Barrier Reef is turning into. When a starfish disappears, the mussels that are part of the ecosystem soon devour all the kelp and thus make it impossible for other marine life to feed and to reproduce.

Following in his footsteps, other scientists identified keystone species that tend to be predators. In the past, scientists looked at the creatures at the top of the food-chain as being dependent on life beneath it. At the bottom level, there was vegetation. At the middle level, smaller animals such as deer ate the vegetation. The lions, tigers and cougars at the top then ate the deer, and so on. Paine and the other ecologists we hear from in the film conducted experiments revealing that it was the other way around. Remove the predator at the top and everything beneath it dies. Since the predator at the top is most susceptible to human interference, the threat to biodiversity must be reduced by reducing in turn the murderous footprint of farmers, ranchers, miners, and logging companies in places like the Amazon rainforest.

On another topical note, the NY Times reported 4 days ago that one of the most emblematic predators in the world is in danger of extinction:

The Sundarbans, 4,000 square miles of marshy land in Bangladesh and India, hosts the world’s largest mangrove forest and a rich ecosystem supporting several hundred animal species, including the endangered Bengal tiger.

But 70 percent of the land is just a few feet above sea level, and grave changes are in store for the region, Australian and Bangladeshi researchers reported in the journal Science of The Total Environment. Changes wrought by a warming planet will be “enough to decimate” the few hundred or so Bengal tigers remaining there.

Toward the end of the film, one of the profiled scientists described the explosive, uncontrolled and largely counter-productive growth of algae and other plants or animals resulting from a keystone species absence as a “cancer”. I have no idea whether he was influenced by Joel Kovel’s writings but when I heard him draw this analogy at the Brecht Forum 30 years ago or so, it was an epiphany. Capitalism produces tumors, in effect. Fracking, pesticides, industrial fishing trawlers, plastics in the ocean, pig waste in the rivers of the Carolinas, palm oil plantations in Indonesia, and greenhouse gases. All this stuff that is associated with late capitalism will end up killing us by killing the biodiversity we ultimately rely on.

The Winter 2019 edition of Socialist Forum, the magazine of the DSA, is a special issue on ecology. Among the articles is one titled “Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific” by Matt Huber, which dismisses the importance of biodiversity. Since it is the only one that is so obviously alien to Green thought, it might be regarded as an outlier. However, Jacobin saw fit to publish an article in their special issue on ecology by Leigh Phillips that has the same “productivist” abuse of Marxism. Invoking Frederick Engels as his inspiration, Huber writes:

Last year in the New Left Review, Troy Vettese argued for austerity (or what he called “egalitarian eco-austerity”): the program includes energy rationing, compulsory veganism and turning over half the planet to wild nature (a proposal he takes from reactionary sociobiologist, E.O. Wilson).

I would urge you to read Vettese’s article, which thankfully is not behind a paywall. It is in the spirit of “The Serengeti Rules” and must-reading in order to understand the crisis we face. Here is the reference to Wilson. Despite the fact that his sociobiology is toxic, Vettese’s use of his research seems incontrovertible:

The principal cause of extinction is habitat loss, as underlined by the recent work of E. O. Wilson. Though notorious in the Reagan era as the genetic-determinist author of Sociobiology, Wilson is first and foremost a naturalist and conservationist. He estimates that, with a decrease of habitat, the sustainable number of species in it drops by roughly the fourth root of the habitable area. If half the habitat is lost, approximately a tenth of species will disappear, but if 85 per cent is destroyed, then half the species would be extinguished. Humanity is closely tracking this equation’s deadly curve: half of all species are expected to disappear by 2100. The only way to prevent this is to leave enough land for other living beings to flourish, which has led Wilson to call for a utopian programme of creating a ‘half Earth’, where 50 per cent of the world would be left as nature’s domain. Even though much has been lost, he argues that thirty especially rich biomes, ranging from the Brazilian cerrado to the Polish-Belarussian Białowieża Forest, could provide the core of a biodiverse, interconnected mosaic extending over half the globe.footnote10 Yet, at present only 15 per cent of the world’s land-area has some measure of legal protection, while the fraction of protected areas in the oceans is even smaller—less than 4 per cent.

Finally, with respect to Frederick Engels, Huber describes him as a likely supporter of his understanding of farming that might have been picked up by watching Monsanto commercials:

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.

One supposes that Huber has never read Engels’s “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” but those of us who have will understand the need for a film like “The Serengeti Rules”, the need to see it, and finally the need to become part of a movement to prevent the Sixth Extinction:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading scrofula. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.

Visit https://www.theserengetirules.com/ for resources on biodiversity.


May 1, 2019

Ecosocialist debates

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 11:25 pm

Edward Hicks, A Peaceable Kingdom

This is a report on debates within ecosocialism about the feasibility of a Green New Deal and other growth oriented perspectives that I obviously can’t pretend to be neutral about. As should be obvious from the articles I cite, there is a growing polarity between those who advocate policies identified with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the DSA and those who are far more pessimistic about the possibility of resolving the environmental crisis even within the context of a “democratic socialist” framework.


Recently Commune Magazine published an article titled “Between the Devil and the Green New Deal” by its managing editor Jasper Bernes that begins by identifying the “rare metals” that would be essential to the manufacturing of “alternative energy” generators that are critical to the Green New Deal. A mine in Inner Mongolia, China is the primary source of such ore that has contaminating the surrounding area. Bernes refers to “death villages” surrounding the mine that display “Chernobylesque” cancer rates.

Over on FB, Leigh Phillips, the Jacobin contributor who believes that the Green New Deal should include nuclear power, took exception to Bernes’s article, claiming that it “exaggerated” the environmental costs. When I asked him for a citation to back that up, he cited an article by a couple of Chinese scientists who concluded that there was only “a moderate potential ecological risk”. However, if you read their article, it only mentions soil samples and not the lake close to the mine that is clogged with toxic waste. Furthermore, it is focused on the presence of heavy metals in the soil near the mine when the bigger problem is the by-products of refining ore that uses huge amounts of carcinogenic chemicals.

Citing Vaclav Smil, Bernes states that replacing current US energy consumption with renewables would require at least 25-50 percent of the US landmass being devoted to solar, wind, and biofuels. Considering the encroachments on land by ranchers, farmers, timber companies, home developers, et al, it appears that capitalist growth—even made kosher by renewables—will hit a brick wall before long.

At the heart of the Green New Deal, there is a Sisyphean contradiction:

The problem is that growth and emissions are, by almost every measure, profoundly correlated. The Green New Deal thus risks becoming a sort of Sisyphean reform, rolling the rock of emissions reductions up the hill each day only to have a growing, energy-hungry economy knock it back down to the bottom each night.

My only quibble with Bernes’s article is the amalgam it makes between the Green New Deal and Leon Trotsky’s transitional demands:

Many socialists will recognize that mitigation of climate change within a system of production for profit is impossible, but they think a project like the Green New Deal is what Leon Trotsky called a “transitional program,” hinged upon a “transitional demand.” Unlike the minimal demand, which capitalism can easily meet, and the maximal demand which it clearly can’t, the transitional demand is something that capitalism could potentially meet if it were a rational and humane system, but in actuality can’t.

I wish that he had named the socialists that think the GND is something like a transitional demand. I suppose he is referring to an article by the anarchist Wayne Price whose critique of the Marxist Richard Smith’s article in defense of a Green New Deal hinges on its impossibility of being realized under capitalism. Since Smith doesn’t mention Trotsky in his article, it makes Bernes’s claim questionable. Between Bernes, Wayne Price and Richard Smith, the connection to Trotsky sounds like something that might have sprung from Telephone, the children’s game. In my view, Smith is a bit of an outlier on the GND. Most of its advocates are pretty settled on it being a policy not much different than those that have largely been accomplished in Western Europe and even in China, if you believe Dean Baker.

Without using the term “de-growth”, Bernes’s conclusion certainly is consistent with what Jason Hickel and others have written. I find it to be eminently reasonable:

We cannot keep things the same and change everything. We need a revolution, a break with capital and its killing compulsions, though what that looks like in the twenty-first century is very much an open question. A revolution that had as its aim the flourishing of all human life would certainly mean immediate decarbonization, a rapid decrease in energy use for those in the industrialized global north, no more cement, very little steel, almost no air travel, walkable human settlements, passive heating and cooling, a total transformation of agriculture, and a diminishment of animal pasture by an order of magnitude at least.


Thea Riofrancos, who co-authored an article for Jacobin titled “The Green New Deal’s Five Freedoms”, responded to Bernes in a “comradely” fashion on Facebook. (Since some of my readers are not on FB, I include her entire reply at the bottom of this post.)

Riofrancos does not get into the details of rare earth mining but does mention that she has “spent the past three months in Chile researching lithium.” I, for one, am looking forward to her insights from this excursion but in the meantime still wonder whether a trip to Chile would provide any overarching answer to the problem of the environmental costs of extracting the ore.

She also is not bothered by a Rorschach-like character that some might impute to the GND:

The central ambivalence running through the essay is whether the Green New Deal is too radical to be implemented (given the exigencies of capitalist growth, capital’s capture of our political system, and the balance of class forces) or, on the contrary, it is not radical enough, a mere ornamental reform that allows pretty much all of the aforementioned to continue uninterrupted. On the one hand, the Green New Deal “leaves growth intact”; on the other hand, in order to achieve the economy-wide decarbonization it proposes, it would elicit a ruthless response of the ruling class (“you should expect the owners of that wealth to fight you with everything they have, which is more or less everything”). But is the Green New Deal win-win green growth or all-out class warfare? Is it too reformist to meet the scale of the climate catastrophe or too radical to be thinkable let alone realizable in the current conjuncture?

This is a question for Bernes to answer but I would only venture my own. The GND is akin to the projection of a Swedish-style social democracy in the USA that the DSA/Jacobin milieu advocates. It is both not radical enough and too radical to achieve in the USA. In 2017, the Guardian reported that almost 90% of new power in Europe came from renewable sources in the previous year. This is happening because these nations have operated on a social democratic basis for decades and have powerful trade union movements. However, all of them are dependent on imperialist extraction of natural resources from Africa, Asia and Latin America that make such a relatively progressive system to function. If China had imposed the same kinds of regulations on mining that are typical of Sweden, for example, the transition to alternative energy might have been too costly. We are talking about capitalism, after all.

Even if the Western European GND standards were adopted by a majority of politicians in the USA, there would be overwhelming forces opposed to their adoption by energy, transportation, petrochemical, and banking interests. In fact, the same array of reactionary forces would block the evolution of the USA into a Swedish-style social democracy. Unlike Western Europe, the USA is an imperialist hegemon that would resist all attempts at a New Deal of any sort, either Green or FDR-redux. Those are the realities we are dealing with and the naïve hopes of the DSA/Jacobin left will crash up against them on day one of a Bernie Sanders presidency. And those who hope in neo-Kautskyist fashion that this will precipitate a general strike and other revolutionary measures are just kidding themselves.


In the DSA magazine for Winter 2019, Huber’s article “Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific” took aim at the “de-growth” current within the ecosocialist movement that he described as a dire threat “to scare us into action.”

Our dystopian future is seen as a product of industrial civilization. For many ecosocialists or left green thinkers, the science is so dire the only option is a wholesale rejection of industrialism This, I would argue, leads to some fanciful (even utopian) ideas of what comes next. Degrowth theorists imagine a “decentralized” future society, “where resources were managed by bio-region—a participatory, low-tech, low-consumption economy, where everyone has to do some farming…”  Richard Smith argues for a socialist program of “managed deindustrialization” without fully explaining what that would actually mean. Last year in the New Left Review, Troy Vettese argued for austerity (or what he called “egalitarian eco-austerity”): the program includes energy rationing, compulsory veganism and turning over half the planet to wild nature (a proposal he takes from reactionary sociobiologist, E.O. Wilson).

The Richard Smith mention above is, of course, the same Richard Smith that was described above as a crypto-Trotskyist. As for what he means by “managed deindustrialization”, I found his explanation fairly clear (it is too bad that Huber does not provide a link to what Smith wrote. It is something like this:

Take just one: Cruise ships are the fastest growing sector of mass tourism on the planet. But they are by far the most polluting tourist indulgence ever invented: Large ships can burn more than 150 tons of the filthiest diesel bunker fuel per day, spewing out more fumes—and far more toxic fumes—than 5 million cars, polluting entire regions, the whole of southern Europe – and all this to ferry a few thousand boozy passengers about bashing coral reefs. There is just no way this industry can be made sustainable.

Oh, don’t let me forget. Here’s the first cruise ship to be shut down after a socialist revolution:

As for Troy Vettese, his article is not behind a paywall at NLR and I urge you to read it. His take on E.O. Wilson does not provoke the same reaction in me that it does in Huber:

The principal cause of extinction is habitat loss, as underlined by the recent work of E. O. Wilson. Though notorious in the Reagan era as the genetic-determinist author of Sociobiology, Wilson is first and foremost a naturalist and conservationist. He estimates that, with a decrease of habitat, the sustainable number of species in it drops by roughly the fourth root of the habitable area. If half the habitat is lost, approximately a tenth of species will disappear, but if 85 per cent is destroyed, then half the species would be extinguished. Humanity is closely tracking this equation’s deadly curve: half of all species are expected to disappear by 2100. The only way to prevent this is to leave enough land for other living beings to flourish, which has led Wilson to call for a utopian programme of creating a ‘half Earth’, where 50 per cent of the world would be left as nature’s domain. Even though much has been lost, he argues that thirty especially rich biomes, ranging from the Brazilian cerrado to the Polish-Belarussian Białowieża Forest, could provide the core of a biodiverse, interconnected mosaic extending over half the globe. Yet, at present only 15 per cent of the world’s land-area has some measure of legal protection, while the fraction of protected areas in the oceans is even smaller—less than 4 per cent.

I happen to hate sociobiology but this has nothing to do with it. Instead, it is an urgent call to action against a looming extinction of wildlife that implicitly threatens us as well. After all, the incursion of mining and ranching companies into the Amazon rainforest will hasten climate change as well as destroy thousands of animals that are native to the region.

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!” As if such a technocratic formula has anything to do with socialism. Worst of all, he has a poor understanding of what John Bellamy Foster has referred to as “the metabolic rift”:

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.


Although Huber does not mention de-growth advocates Jason Hickel and Giorgios Kallis, who have written an important article titled “Is Green Growth Possible?”, Kallis took the trouble of answering him on the Uneven Earth website.

Kallis, like Bernes, has an entirely different notion of a feasible socialism than the Swedish-style socialism that has seduced so many of the Jacobin intellectuals. At the extreme pole, you have someone like Leigh Phillips writing a book about Walmart that makes the case that its mastery of information technology can help us achieve a growth-oriented socialism of the future. It is not computer control of inventory, however, that accounts for its success. It is it control, both automated and by threat of firing, that accounts for its vast economic empire.

For Kallis, the vision of a more carefree and human world is what socialists should help spread:

I live in Barcelona, and our mayor Ada Colau won the municipal elections with the support of a substantial fraction of the working class. Her program emphasized dignity and equality, not growth and material affluence. Colau wanted to stop evictions and secure decent housing for everyone, she did not have to promise air-conditions and cheap charter flights for all (I am not saying that Huber advocates these, but Leigh Phillips, a provocateur who Huber for some reason enthusiastically cites twice, does).

Third, Huber implicitly assumes that what workers want is fixed, and that desires cannot be shaped through reflection and dialogue. This leaves no space for new ideas or new desires and makes one wonder, how is it that workers come to want what they want, and how does this ever change in time? If we follow Huber’s logic then we can only cater to what exists, never shape the possible – this to me seems a quite restricted view of the political.

Let me conclude with a few words about the possible outcome of this debate in the future as economic reality will bring things to a head. In my view, there is an element of truth in Huber’s claim that workers will resist a ceiling on consumption. After all, with television ads 20 times an hour urging you to buy a car or a trip on Norwegian Cruise ship, it becomes a form of brainwashing. I suspect that a combination of ecological ruin, war, and deepening alienation of the kind that has produced an opioid crisis will eventually turn quantity into quality. Human beings are susceptible to baser temptations that an advanced capitalist economy can produce but the promise of a more peaceful life that offers leisure time and spiritual fulfillment will convince workers that giving up 5,000 square foot homes, SUV’s and meat every night of the week is worth it. A Peaceable Kingdom, so to speak.

Tia Riofrancos’s FB post:

A comradely critique of Jasper Bernes‘ “Between the Devil and the Green New Deal” in Commune Magazine.


First, let me start with where I agree with Jasper, beginning with the politically parochial and ascending to the systemic and global scales. First, “legislation,” narrowly conceived, is, on its own, insufficient as a response to the climate crisis. So is a “transition” that replaces hydrocarbons with low to zero carbon energy, without touching how much energy is used, what it is used for, and who controls the energy system. Second, the root causes of climate crisis can’t also be the solution to climate crisis. As I’ve written elsewhere, these causes are “profit-seeking, competition, endless growth, exploitation of humans and nature, and imperial expansion.” Third, and relatedly, the already occurring energy transition, unfolding under the logics of green capitalism and the enormous “clean tech” industry, reproduces and expands the extractive frontiers of capitalism. Carbon accounting that begins and ends at the electricity grid, or at the point of final consumption, is an ideological mode of profound mystification, a fetish akin to that of the commodity form. For precisely this reason, I’ve spent the past three months in Chile researching lithium.

It is from these broadly shared points of departure that our analyses of the political terrain–its contours, stakes, opportunities and limits–diverge quite sharply.

1/ Too Radical or Not Radical Enough?
The central ambivalence running through the essay is whether the Green New Deal is too radical to be implemented (given the exigencies of capitalist growth, capital’s capture of our political system, and the balance of class forces) or, on the contrary, it is not radical enough, a mere ornamental reform that allows pretty much all of the aforementioned to continue uninterrupted. On the one hand, the Green New Deal “leaves growth intact”; on the other hand, in order to achieve the economy-wide decarbonization it proposes, it would elicit a ruthless response of the ruling class (“you should expect the owners of that wealth to fight you with everything they have, which is more or less everything”). But is the Green New Deal win-win green growth or all-out class warfare? Is it too reformist to meet the scale of the climate catastrophe or too radical to be thinkable let alone realizable in the current conjuncture?

Now, one could of course argue, as I think Jasper does, that this ambivalence inheres not in his critique of the Green New Deal, but in the policy vision itself, a vision that contains something for everyone, a mirror in which both the anti-capitalist and the venture capitalist can see their own desired future reflected. Jasper seems to argue that this form-shifting quality is the unique cunning of the Green New Deal, its ability to seduce us into (cruel) optimism. But I would argue that it is precisely this indeterminacy that provides a historic opening for the left. Perhaps inadvertently, Jasper alludes to this potential: as he writes, for supporters of the Green New Deal, “its value is primarily rhetorical; it’s about shifting the discussion, gathering political will, and underscoring the urgency of the climate crisis. It’s more big mood more than grand plan.” I’ll have a bit more to say on the contrast between a “mood” and a “plan” below, but for now I want to pause and reiterate: “shifting the discussion, gathering political will, and underscoring the urgency of the climate crisis.” If, through the vehicle of the amorphous Green New Deal, left forces might achieve these three tasks, that strikes me as an exceedingly important development; not an end in and of itself, of course, but it’s unclear to me how a pathway to radical transformation wouldn’t pass through these three crucial tests of political capacity.

2/ Vagueness and Deception
In keeping with the charge of ambivalence is the charge of vagueness (“The Green New Deal proposes to decarbonize most of the economy in ten years—great, but no one is talking about how.”). This is, on the face of it, not true. From green capitalist policy wonks to agroecology enthusiasts to proponents of public banking, there is, in fact, currently an effloresce of proposals for how to decarbonize the economy. I have never had so many conversations about the architecture of our electric grids, the relative contribution of distinct sectors to overall emissions, or the dilemmas of carbon taxes as I have had in the past few months. This is not to suggest that these myriad proposals will get the job done, nor to downplay the sharp contrasts between a proposal to expropriate the fossil fuel industry and a carbon price based on a high discount rate, but rather that (1) many people are, in fact, talking about how to decarbonize and, (2) the battle over these distinct pathways will emerge as a key political, and class, conflict of our moment.

Jasper’s charge of vagueness, however, soon slides into a more serious accusation: deception. Socialists, like myself, that mobilize around the Green New Deal know full well that “the mitigation of climate change within a system of production and profit is impossible, but they think a project like the Green New Deal is what Leon Trotsky called a ‘transitional program,’ hinged upon a ‘transitional demand.’” For such socialists, Jasper argues, it is precisely the combination of technological feasibility and systemic impossibility that makes the Green New Deal a radicalizing demand: if capitalism could, but won’t, save humanity and the planet, then the masses will rise up against the true obstacle to progress. Not only is this strategy fundamentally patronizing and deceptive, as he points out, but it is self-defeating: “the transitional demand encourages you to build institutions and organizations around one set of goals” and then convert them to another. In this case, organizations designed to “[solve] climate change within capitalism” and, when that fails, are expected to “expropriate the capitalist class and reorganize the state along socialist lines.” Institutions, however, “are tremendously inertial structures” — once designed for one purpose, they can’t be transformed. This strikes me as a very odd statement. In the social sciences, “path dependency” is more or less the mantra of mainstream institutional theory. A historically-grounded, critical view of institutions sees them always as live, provisional, crystallizations or resolutions to class conflict, in need of ongoing reproduction and legitimation. They are the social arrangements through which violent domination is transmogrified into hegemony. This is a lesson the right knows very well, displayed in its maneuvers into every nook and cranny of institutional life; it would behoove the left to learn it, too.

3/ This World, But Better
It turns out, however, that advocates of the Green New Deal are not just deceptive but themselves duped. In their fever dreams of rosy futures, “The world of the Green New Deal is this world but better—this world but with zero emissions, universal health care, and free college.” For these green dreamers, reality will be a rude awakening: “The appeal is obvious but the combination impossible. We can’t remain in this world.” Nothing short of “completely reorganiz[ing] society” will do the trick.

It’s not only the green new dealers who have dreams. Jasper too conjures “an emancipated society, in which no one can force another into work for reasons of property, could offer joy, meaning, freedom, satisfaction, and even a sort of abundance.” I have to be honest, this sounded pretty familiar; it is quite close to my own radical horizon. Okay — how do we get there? For Jasper, “We need a revolution.” But seriousness swiftly returns: “a revolution is not on the horizon.” This sober appraisal accords with the overall tone of the essay. He is merely stating the facts; telling the truth instead of lying (“Let’s instead say what we know to be true”; “But let’s not lie to each other”). These exhortations figure the author as above the fray, cool, and objective and his targets as confused, deceptive, duped, and, to return to the aforementioned quote, seduced by the Big Mood of the green dream. But isn’t the “ambient despair” that Jasper describes as the inevitable affective register of his reality check a mood, too?

How the new world is born out of the old is of course the vexed question of any project of radical transformation. What kinds of programmatic demands, organizational forms, and institutional designs can be proposed, mobilized, and assembled under present conditions but that would, once set into motion, violate the sanctity of growth, property or profit? What tactics of disruption are available to us? What nascent coalitions might weave solidarities across the dispersed supply chains of the energy transition? What financial crises might be on the horizon? What fractions of capital ascendent or descendent? Where are the cracks in hegemony? We are living in a moment of profound turbulence; predicting or foreclosing the future seems less analytically rigorous than actively intervening to shape it. Ruling out the possibility by fiat is avowedly realist but functionally conservative.

April 26, 2019

The Biggest Little Farm; Lobster War

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,farming,Film,water — louisproyect @ 12:50 pm


Two new documentaries tackle the all-important question of our age, namely how humanity and nature can co-exist in a period of insurmountable capitalist contradiction, especially when humanity takes the form of small businesspeople hoping to exploit natural resources under duress.

Opening at The Landmark at 57 West on May 10th, “The Biggest Little Farm” is a stunningly dramatic portrait of a husband and wife trying to create an ecotopian Garden of Eden forty miles north of Los Angeles. (Nationwide screening info is here.)

Idealist to a fault but utterly inexperienced as farmers, they encounter one obstacle after another in the hope of doing well by doing good. Essentially, they discover that by creating a bounteous yield of edibles destined for the organic foods market, they also attract a plague of gophers, coyotes, starlings and snails that see their farm as a dinner plate. Trying to balance their ecotopian values with the appetites of the animal kingdom becomes an ordeal they never anticipated.

Utterly indifferent to ecological values, the lobster fishermen depicted in Bullfrog Film’s “Lobster War: The Fight Over the World’s Richest Fishing Grounds” are family and village-oriented. As long as they can haul in the valuable crustaceans and keep themselves and their respective towns in Maine and Canada prosperous, nothing much else matters. Not being able to see outside the box, they symbolize the short-term mindset of the ruling class. If lobsters become extinct because of unsustainable practices, the fishermen might turn to other profitable marine life. But when all animals become extinct except for rodents, pigeons and cockroaches, homo sapiens will be next in line.

Continue reading

April 12, 2019

DeGrowth, the Green New Deal and This Island Earth

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology — louisproyect @ 2:11 pm


Back in the early 1970s, the Socialist Workers Party was well on its way to becoming the largest group on the left in the USA. To a large part, Peter Camejo’s speeches were responsible for this. He was not only good at explaining why you should become a socialist but doing so in an entertaining manner. One of the jokes that never failed to get a laugh was his description of an abundant life under socialism. Money wouldn’t be necessary. You’d go to a state-owned grocery store and be able to walk out with a shopping cart overflowing with filet mignons. This would not prompt an arrest but a referral to a psychiatrist because who in the world would do such a thing.

Although Peter would eventually adopt an ecosocialist outlook that would have made such a joke obsolete, he was reflecting a certain kind of techno-optimism that characterized our movement. Its prophet Leon Trotsky wrote an article in 1926 titled “Radio, Science, Technique and Society” that exclaimed: “The atom contains within itself a mighty hidden energy, and the greatest task of physics consists in pumping out this energy, pulling out the cork so that this hidden energy may burst forth in a fountain. Then the possibility will be opened up of replacing coal and oil by atomic energy, which will also become the basic motive power.”

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April 5, 2019

The Eco-Fascist Canard

Filed under: Ecology,Fascism — louisproyect @ 5:50 pm

From the latest New Statesman: a photo of Eva Braun exercising by a pristine lake as if that has something to do with Barry Commoner or Rachel Carson

Recently, a New Statesman article titled Nature writing’s fascist roots has been making the rounds on Facebook. It seeks to explain the troubling statement made by the New Zealand neo-Nazi mass murderer Brenton Tarrant that he was an “eco-fascist”.

One of the main problems with the article is that it blurs the lines between naturalists and ecologists. For example, it refers to a 1927 “nature book” titled Tarka the Otter that was written by Henry Williamson, a Nazi sympathizer. There’s also a confusion between ecology and “back to nature” movements that romanticized rural life in England, with the cities being regarded as overrun by immigrants and other “subhumans”. The same phenomenon existed in Germany.

“Nature, with all its violence and beauty, was the primary model for conceiving German history and identity in the Third Reich,” the scholars Robert G Lee and Sabine Wilke have argued. The anti-industrial German Romanticism of the 19th century fed a surge of feeling for the notion of German soil and German forest: “There was no escaping the imagery, and there still isn’t,” Paul Scraton writes in his book Ghosts on the Shore. “The German word for beech forest, a very normal descriptive word… now carries the weight of a very different meaning: Buchenwald. The name of the extermination camp at Auschwitz? Birkenau. Birch meadow.”

Over the years, I have seen repeated references to this sort of thing. My first exposure to this was 22 years ago when people connected to Frank Furedi’s Living Marxism sect produced a TV show called “Against Nature” that included this observation by Furedi:

What we today call “environmentalism” is … based on a fear of change. It’s based upon a fear of the outcome of human action. And therefore it’s not surprising that when you look at the more xenophobic right-wing movements in Europe in the 19th century, including German fascism, it quite often had a very strong environmentalist dynamic to it. The most notorious environmentalists in history were the German Nazis. The Nazis ordered soldiers to plant more trees. They were the first Europeans to establish nature reserves and order the protection of hedgerows and other wildlife habitats. And they were horrified at the idea of hydroelectric dams on the Rhine. Adolf Hitler and other leading Nazis were vegetarian and they passed numerous laws on animal rights.

I replied to this nonsense in an article titled “Nazi “Ecology” that offered a different take on Hitler’s actions. I argued they  had nothing to do with Green values. I wrote:

The Nazis promoted the view that the class-struggle in the city could be overcome by returning to the villages and developing artisan and agricultural economies based on cooperation. Aryans needed to get back to the soil and simple life.

The core of Nazi rural socialism was the idea that land-use must be planned. Gottfried Feder was a leading Nazi charged with the duty of formulating such policy. He made a speech in Berlin in 1934 in which he stated that the right to build homes or factories or to use land according to the personal interests of owners was to be abolished. The government instead would dictate how land was to be used and what would be constructed on it. Feder next began to build up elaborate administrative machinery to carry out his plans.

Not surprisingly, Feder earned the wrath of the construction industry. This segment of heavy industry had no tolerance for any kind of socialism, even if it was of the fake, nutty Nazi variety. Hitler had promised the captains of heavy industry that the “rabble-rousers” in his party would be curbed and Feder certainly fell into that category.

Hjalmar Schacht was a more reliable Nazi functionary who agreed with the need to curb Feder’s excesses. After Hitler named Schacht Minister of Economics on November 26, 1934, he gave Feder the boot and assured the construction magnates that business would be run as usual.

Consider also Walter Schoenichen, an aide to Herman Goering who in his capacity as Minister of the German Forests supervised the “Germanization” of forests in conquered territories. In 1941, the Nazis took control of the Bialowieza forest in Lithuania and they resolved to turn it into a hunting reserve for top officers. Open season was declared on the Jews, who made up 12 percent of the population in this region and who violated the ethnic purity of the proposed game farm. Five hundred and fifty Jews were rounded up and shot in the courtyard of a hunting palace operated by Battalion 332 of Von Bock’s army division. Goring decided that the purified forest should be altered into an extension of the East Prussian forests. An SS team led by Konrad Mayer, who had been Minister of Agriculture at Berlin University, planned a colonization program that would “Germanize” the forest. Poles, and any remaining Jews, were reduced to the status of barnyard animals to be penned up or slaughtered.

Schoenichen jumped at the opportunity to administer this program. This “total landscape plan” would first empty villages and then the unpopulated forest would be stocked with purely “Teutonic” species, including eagles, elk, and wolves. Since there was a painting of a bison on Goring’s wall, it was crucial to include this beast in the menagerie.

Read full article (http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/ecology/nazi_ecology.htm)

At the same time “Against Nature” aired, David Harvey came out with a book titled Justice, Nature & the Geography of Difference that warned against the idea of the “ecological Indian” and the susceptibility to eco-fascism in terms not that distant from Frank Furedi. The danger existed that well-meaning Green activists and Indians fighting for preservation of community rights can foster “nationalistic, exclusionary, and some cases violently fascistic” elements.

Harvey frets that things can go from bad to worse when the American Indian or their supporters abuse “militant particularism.” The next step, if one is not careful, is down the slippery slope into “nationalistic, exclusionary, and some cases violently fascistic” behavior. While it is very difficult to make the case that American Indian activists have actually ever joined skinheads or other fascist gangs, Luc Ferry does point out that the Nazis were enthusiastic about American Indian rights in “The New Ecological Order.” Ferry’s book, which Harvey cites uncritically, is a general assault on the environmental movement, which tries to draw out every reactionary tendency and place it in the foreground. An affinity between Nazis and the American Indian would be a very serious business indeed. Ferry states:

We have to be ignorant or prejudiced not to see it: Nazism contains within it, for reasons that are in no way accidental, the beginnings of an authentic concern for preserving “natural,” which is to say, here again, “original” peoples.

Turning Nazis into pro-ecology and pro-indigenous rights spokesman takes quite a bit of gumption on Luc Ferry’s part and a certain amount of fecklessness from Harvey to endorse his findings, especially in light of what John Toland wrote in his Adolf Hitler biography:

Hitler’s concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide owed much, so he claimed, to his studies of English and United States history. He admired the camps for Boer prisoners in South Africa and for the Indians in the Wild West; and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America’s extermination–by starvation and uneven combat–of the ‘Red Savages’ who could not be tamed by captivity.

About a decade after “Against Nature” and Harvey’s book came out, the CPGB sect in England came up with the same warnings about eco-fascism in a series of articles in Weekly Worker by Jack Conrad.

A piece titled “Darker Shades of Green” had the following lead: “Jack Conrad questions the romantic images presented by green primitives and cautions against the seductive lures of ecofascism.” Like the New Statesman article, Conrad singles out Jorian Jenks as a prime example of eco-fascism:

The Soil Association in Britain counted Jorian Jenks amongst it founding members. He edited its journal Mother Earth till his death in 1963. In the 1930s he was the agricultural advisor to the British Union of Fascists and remained throughout his life a close associate and disciple of Oswald Mosley.

Now Jorian Jenks did oppose the use of chemical fertilizers and urged organic farming. This makes perfect sense, of course. The fact that he hooked up with Mosley should not serve as a warning, however. Agronomists with exactly the same sort of outlook have worked with left parties as well. Indeed, the Mosley website states:

His “Green” views were not all fully shared by all his old comrades, understandably perhaps, at a time after the war when the pressing need was for food in greater quantities. The Editor of “Union” and Secretary of Union Movement once told him wittily “people can forgive one eccentricity, but not two.”

And, also like the New Statesman article, Conrad next turns his attention to Germany, which in the eyes of anti-environmentalists like Anna Bramwell and Luc Ferry, is the spawning ground of eco-fascism. Indeed, I was somewhat dismayed to discover a reference to Bramwell in Conrad’s footnotes. Her work and Ferry’s has had a confusing effect on some very well-meaning Marxists besides Jack Conrad, not the least of which is David Harvey who eventually backed off from an analysis that Conrad’s echoes.

Conrad made much of the Wandervögel movement of the late 19th century which was a revolt of sorts against industrialization and called for a return to nature. There was also, according to Conrad, “a strong undercurrent of homoeroticism.” For Conrad, this might lead to fascism in the same way that marijuana leads to heroin. You start off on nature walks, graduate to gay sex and the next thing you know, you are beating up pawnbrokers.


April 4, 2019

Review of Allen Young’s “Left, Gay, and Green: a Writer’s Life”

Filed under: Catskills,Ecology,farming,Gay,SDS — louisproyect @ 4:51 pm
The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture
Volume 11, 2018
A New Dawn for the New Left: Liberation News Service, Montague Farm, and the Long Sixties
By John McMillian,

For many years – when I was in college, graduate school, and even for some time after that – I used to envy those Baby Boomers who had immersed themselves in the American left during the 1960s and 1970s. They had been righteous in their support of civil rights, outraged about the Vietnam War, and they got to enjoy the era’s great music, as well as various exciting cultural events, like Woodstock and the Moon landing. I always figured it must have been exciting to come of age during such dramatic and compelling times. The Portuguese have a fine word for that kind of melancholy longing I’m describing: saudade.

In recent years, however, that feeling has largely dissipated. I’m no longer sure I’d have enjoyed the Sixties. Part of the reason may be that I’ve been studying that era for about twenty years (so maybe I’ve finally maxed out on the topic). Meanwhile, my thoughts about the desirability of almost any kind of “revolution” have changed. (I now think it’s usually best when social change unfolds gradually.) Furthermore, it turns out that we are currently living through an uncommonly tumultuous time, and I don’t find it too enjoyable. I’m apprehensive about the future, and the social justice left that prevails on American campuses nowadays frequently offends me.

It is in some ways surprising, then, that I have such a fond appreciation for Allen Young’s memoir, Left, Gay & Green: A Writer’s Life. (The title alludes to the fact that Young was a red diaper baby, and then a journalist who was active in the New Left, gay rights, and environmental movements.)

Let me say upfront that I have known Young, from a distance, for many years. Back in the mid-2000s, when I was researching my book, Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, I visited the Allen Young Papers at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, and I interviewed Young over the telephone. Since then, we have occasionally exchanged cordial emails. We have only met once, however, and that was just for a few moments, by pure chance, many years ago. (He was walking out of Columbia University’s Fayerweather Hall, and I was walking in.) Put another way, if it had turned out that I had significant criticisms of Left, Gay & Green, I would not have been particularly hesitant to say so.

But mostly I have compliments. Young calls his book an “autobiography,” rather than a “memoir,” because it encompasses his entire life, rather than just the years when he was most intensively engaged in leftwing activism. His amiable, conversational prose style makes for quick reading, but Left, Gay & Green resists easy summary. It is not a didactic autobiography, meant to impart a lesson, or develop a theme. And although it is a longish book (480 pages) each of its twenty-four chapters is subdivided into short, discrete sections. Frequently, Young will pause his narrative in order to share various musings, ponder conundrums, or poke gently at people’s foibles and eccentricities – sort of like a hip Andy Rooney. Some readers may find these digressions excessive, but I found them delightful. Young also occasionally includes excerpts from his writings long ago, which he analyzes from his perspective today.

Young grew up on a Jewish farm in the Catskill Mountains. For years, his main daily chore was to collect eggs from his family’s chickens, clean them, and pack them for shipping. His parents were secretly members of the American Communist Party, which of course put the family at risk during the Red Scare. Unlike some communists who resided in big cities, however, Young’s parents were not bohemians. They were hard-working, straight-laced, and stoic. That posed a problem for Young, because he knew from an early age that he was gay. He lived in “the closet” – and repeatedly tried dating women, while also having secret liaisons with men – from his adolescence until about age twenty-five.

Young was thrilled to matriculate at Columbia University in 1958, and at the time, he was certain he was leaving rural life behind for good. Academically and socially, he thrived, and eventually he became the Daily Spectator’s editor-in-chief. Meanwhile, he began demonstrating his enviable knack for meeting or befriending various successful, well-known, or otherwise interesting people. One of the lifelong friends he made at Columbia was the great historian Eric Foner; another is Michael Meeropol (who was orphaned after the United States government executed his parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg). Other notable names appear in this book, too, and he includes some entertaining yarns about his friendship with Abbie Hoffman.

During his undergraduate years, Young grew appalled by the crimes of the Soviet Union, but he continued working on the same issues his parents had taught him to care about, mostly around racial justice, war, and peace. He did graduate study at Columbia’s School of Journalism, traveled extensively in South America, and at age twenty-six, took a job at the Washington Post. (Young was hired by Ben Bradlee, who would later become famous for publishing the Pentagon Papers, and for overseeing the Post’s Watergate coverage. Young sketches a brief but memorable portrait of this gruff and no-nonsense newsman.)

Young did not last long at the Post, however. Instead, he became increasingly committed to building the antiwar movement, which was in turn supported by the fast-growing American underground press. In the fall of 1967, Young made what he says “was probably the biggest single decision” of his life and defected from the Post to Liberation News Service (LNS). Often described as a radical version of the Associated Press (AP), LNS produced hundreds of news packets full of reporting, commentaries, graphics, and illustrations, and this material regularly made its way into underground newspapers across the country.

Some of the most edifying and analytical passages in Left, Gay & Green concern the topic (applied anachronistically) of “political correctness.” Young acknowledges that, like others in his cohort, he could be aggressively hostile to opposing viewpoints. By the late ’60s, New Leftists had grown dismissive of voting and non-violent civil disobedience. Most white radicals tended to zealously support the Black Panthers (despite that group’s obvious flaws), and they were prone to dogmatically making snap judgements about who had “good politics” (and who did not). New Leftists frequently dehumanized their political opponents with words and images that, especially from today’s vantage, seem scurrilous and grotesque. Young went along with some of this, but not always comfortably, and only to a degree. After the Weatherman faction of Students for a Democratic Society turned to political violence, for instance, Young strongly criticized the group, even as he maintained friendships with some of its members.

Exemplifying the maxim “the personal is political,” in 1970, Young became an early member of the Gay Liberation Front. He participated in the world’s first gay pride march, and he promoted gay equality in numerous periodicals. Meanwhile, Young started collecting personal essays and manifestos from other radical homosexual writers that he admired. In 1972, he published (with Karla Jay), Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation, a classic compilation.

In 1973 – defying the expectations he formed when he started at Columbia in 1958 – Young moved to Butterworth Farm, an intentional community in Royalston, Massachusetts. Young calls Butterworth Farm “the love child of two unique and consequential movements … back-to-the-land, and gay liberation” (303). Perhaps surprisingly, given the frenetic pace of the first half of his life, Young has continued to reside there ever since. He has been an avid gardener, a valuable participant in local institutions, and in 1980 he got busted for growing marijuana. (The chapter describing the marijuana bust is amusingly titled “Reefer Madness, or, The Sacred Herb and Me.” Fortunately, Young largely escaped punishment for what he now refers to as his “so-called crime.”) In the 1980s and 1990s, Young worked at the Athol Daily News and did public relations for a local hospital. After living frugally this whole time, he was able to retire in 1999, at age fifty-eight. Today, Young lives in an octagonal house that he helped build many years ago

Even when Young is not writing directly about movement issues, Left, Gay & Green offers salutary lessons about how to engage politics wisely. He thoughtfully ponders arguments and counterarguments; he does not assume bad faith or bad character from those with whom he disagrees; and he easily admits when he was wrong. I’ve no idea whether Allen Young is familiar with Walt Whitman’s famous directive (“be radical – be radical – be not too damned radical!”) but that quote came to mind numerous times while reading Left, Gay & Green. Young spent a big part of his life deeply immersed in revolutionary politics, but one gathers, while reading this charming autobiography, that the cut and thrust of his personality has changed substantially since the vertiginous Sixties. “Nuance,” Young says at one point, “has now become one of my favorite words”.

February 7, 2019

A Woman at War

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 10:21 pm

As the DVD’s I received from Hollywood studio publicists for our December NYFCO awards meeting gather dust on my bookshelf (including “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Sister Brothers”, and “First Man”), I am finally getting back to the kind of films I cherish. At the risk of sounding like those reviewers who fawn over the likes of “A Star is Born”, I will start off this review by stating that “A Woman at War” is a brilliant work with a keen understanding of the central crisis of our age, namely the looming extinction of life on earth, including homo sapiens. Like “First Reformed”, and just as powerfully, it is the story of an ecoterrorist willing to sacrifice everything, including her own life, to throw a monkey wrench into the gears of the system. I refer to Edward Abbey’s great novel since the lead character of “A Woman at War” has much in common with his protagonists. They want to preserve the natural resources and beauty of the American Southwest while Halla is just as intent on preserving Iceland’s austerely beautiful biosphere while striking a blow against Rio Tinto, a corporation that is widely criticized for its mining operations that degrade nature and wage laborers alike.

Despite Iceland’s tiny population (338,349), it has a film industry that puts Hollywood to shame. Given the preoccupations of “A Woman at War”, it is clear that director Benedikt Erlingsson is attuned to the political sensibility of the majority of its population that has a much better grasp of world affairs than Americans, liberal or conservative. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, the USA would be much better off if we were dissolved and the Icelanders were elected to take our place.

A major difference between “First Reformed” and “A Woman at War” is the kind of action its protagonists choose. As Father Toller, Ethan Hawke dons a suicide belt with the intention of blowing himself up and everybody else who is attending a ceremony in honor of his landmark church’s anniversary. He has lost a reason for living and is anxious to take out with him the owner of a factory that has been despoiling the local soil, air and water.

In the brilliant opening scene of “A Woman at War”, we see the 49-year old protagonist, a woman named Halla, putting a powerline out of commission. It feeds an aluminum factory that is a joint venture of Iceland’s government, the Chinese, and Rio Tinto. Erlingsson has the guts to call out Rio Tinto, even though it is not a player in Iceland. By contrast, Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” features a totally fictional corporation.

Halla uses a powerful hunting bow to launch a steel cable up and over the power lines that will land on the other side of the pylon. After donning thick rubber gloves, she brings the steel cable into contact with the power lines in order to create a short circuit that cuts off power to the aluminum factory. At the risk of sounding like the typical hype-purveying reviewer, this is about as exciting a five minutes I have spent watching a movie in the past 5 years or so.

Halla is getting set to escalate her attacks on the plant when she receives word that a four-year old girl living in a Donetsk orphanage is available for an adoption that she applied for years ago. Before going off to Ukraine to pick her up, Halla is determined to go ahead with the mother of all monkey-wrench operations, even if threatens her becoming a new mother. As a fallback, she will rely on her twin sister, a yoga instructor who has also applied to become an adoptive mother and who has no idea of her sister’s clandestine activism.

It takes a great deal of nerve and artistic acumen to successfully portray such a woman as a heroine. Erlingsson has succeeded beyond all expectations. Your worry (at least mine and my readers, I would think) is that she fails to disable the factory permanently and is prevented from retrieving the girl from the orphanage. The suspense is considerable and the film’s conclusion will leave you melting into your seat.

Let me conclude with the director’s statement in the press notes. Given his political insights and his brilliance as a filmmaker, it is obvious that “A Woman at War” that opens in New York City on March 1 at the IFC Center and Landmark at 57 West theaters is one that you cannot afford to miss:

To me it seems evident that Nature’s rights should be strongly protected in all constitutions and defended by local and international laws. We need to collectively realize that untouched nature has an intrinsic right and necessity to exist, regardless of our human needs or our economic system.

I can for example imagine a more rational system in which ‘we humans’, if we wanted to spoil or use unblemished Nature for our own needs, we would need to go through a process, maybe something like a trial, in order to be allowed to do that.

These issues are really about the common good and the long-term interests of our existence as a whole. Just like the ability to take a person’s freedom away and keep them inside a prison for life. So I think now is the right time to look at this kind of approach.

Add to this the strange paradox in some of our societies, the “State”, which in democratic countries is an instrument created by the people for the people, can be so easily manipulated by special interests and against what’s obviously the common welfare. When we look at the big, existential environmental challenge we face, and what has been happening, this becomes crystal clear.

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