Ecological reconstruction of Marxism

'In almost every period since the Renaissance', writes Murray Bookchin, 'the development of revolutionary thought has been heavily influenced by abranch ofscience, often in conjunction with aschool of philosophy'.1 Can the development of the revolutionary thought of Christianity be advanced by a combination of ecological science and Marxist philosophy of praxis.?2 That is the question for this chapter. In what ways might the task of a political theology of nature be advanced through dynamic yet critical articulation with socialist ecology.

Of vital importance to a political theology of nature is how to think about natural limits, and their relation to scarcity. The notion of natural limits suggests that nature is mean and indifferent, to pick up one of Bookchin's refrains, and offers an explanation of the scarcity of social goods by reference to nature, thereby stabilising present society. However, a straightforward denial of natural scarcity is unpersuasive, not least as such a denial invites an expansionism without limits. Much ecotheology and political theory seems uncertain on this issue of limits. Socialist ecology is highly pertinent to this study, as we shall see, in that it offers a way of exploring the relationships between scarcity, social limits and the finiteness of nature. Further, socialist ecology has paid some attention to the ecological aspects of place which will inform a discussion of eucharistic place at the conclusion of this book (see chapter 9). For these two reasons, then, socialist ecology is relevant to this study.

1. Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, p. 79.

2. That Marxism has contributed to the development of Christian theology needs little defence: consider only the theologies of Barth, Bonhoeffer and Tillich; Rahner, Moltmann and Metz; Gutierrez, Solle and SchUssler Fiorenza.

Socialist ecology neither stresses the ecosphere over the technosphere nor privileges the technosphere to the detriment of the ecosphere.3 In Castree and Braun's summary, ecoMarxism has 'tempered the unabashed anthropocentrism of Marx's political economy, but without evacuating it altogether' and 'has widened both Marxian notions ofpolitical action and challenged the political separatisms of "green politics"'.4 Over against the anti-capitalistic, yet romantic, strains of deep ecology, with its turn to nature, socialist forms ofecology stress the production ofnature and the matter of the just distribution of the results of human labour. Yet environmentalists have, in turn, complained that Marxism, first, is productivist and, second, promotes the mastery of nature.5

Are these charges fair.? In one sense, it is true to say that Marxism is a form of humanism. Yet the humanism of Marxism is both pessimistic and natural. In other words, the means of human advancement is by way of struggle, and the measure of the human cannot be taken without reference to the natural conditions of humanity. Thus we should expect to find within ecological Marxism a firm stress on the construction of nature as a human project, coupled with a sense that the reconstruction of humanity's relations with nature turns upon the alteration of human social relations. To these two commitments a third must be added: a stress on the social metabolism between humanity and non-human nature. Ecological Marxism explores ways in which Marxism has been weak in its attentiveness to nature, and offers a reconstruction of human economy and natural economy in ways that are more attentive to the otherness of nature.

Acknowledging important difficulties in the work of Marx and later Marxists, the ecological reconstruction of Marxism has concentrated on the concept ofhistorical materialism. In other words, attention is focused on the theme ofhuman production and the use ofnature rather than paying attention to, say, the nature of Nature under discussion or nature as

3. For the terminology, see Barry Commoner, MakingPeacewith the Planet (New York: The New Press, 1992), p. 7.

4. Noel Castree and Bruce Braun, 'The Construction of Nature and the Nature of Construction', in Braun and Castree (eds.), RemakingReality:Nature at the Millennium (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), pp. 3-42 (pp. 9-10). Cf. the critique of Marxism in David Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), p. 193.

5. See O'Connor, Natural Causes; Kate Soper, 'Greening Prometheus: Marxism and Ecology', in Ted Benton (ed.), The Greening of Marxism (New York: Guilford Press, 1996), pp. 81-99. Other grounds for disagreement are the lamentably poor environmental records in the countries of 'actually existing socialism' and social agency being located by Marxism almost exclusively in the working class.

the measure of the human.6 In one sense, such ecological reconstruction suffers from some of the standard weaknesses for which Marxism is traditionally attacked: lack of attention to the normative bases of the good life; excessive attention to the material interpreted as the economic to the detriment of the material interpreted as cultural. To begin, however, I wish to draw out some themes from the work of Marx and Engels which will set up the analysis ofthe ecological reconstruction ofMarxism.

In their analysis ofcapitalism, Marx and Engels were concerned in part with the ideologies of Malthus and liberal political economy. Understanding ideology in the strict, negative, sense to indicate a theoretical practice in which the emancipatory potentials of a circumstance are persistently misrecognised and misrepresented, their concern about both these ideologies may be understood in terms of tendencies to de-historicise the workings of capital.7 To combat such ideology, Marx stresses the social forms, practical and epistemological, of capitalism.8 For Marx's main target was the tendency of capitalism's apologists to dehistoricise capitalism and thereby to place it outside the realm of human agency. However, as a consequence of emphasising that capitalism is a historical formation, and thereby reformable, Marx tended to understate, undervalue and under-theorise the fact that production is always ecoproduction. That is, human productive activity includes aspects of nature.

If we follow the Marxian emphasis that the fundamental creative/ productive human relation is between humanity and nature,9 the division oflabour that follows is to be interpreted from this basic insight. In ecological perspective, humanity produces its social life yet always in the context of the 'inorganic body' of Nature. What is this 'inorganic body'.? This is, Marx claims, both humanity's 'direct means of life' and 'the material object and instrument ofhumanity's life activity'.10 It follows from this claim that nature is independent of humanity yet is also the essential condition ofhuman life. Nature, as Marx writes, is not a human product.

6. See Ted Benton, 'Introduction to Part II', in T. Benton (ed.), The Greening of Marxism (New York: Guilford Press, 1996), pp. 103-10 (p. 104); Ely, 'ErnstBloch, Natural Rights and the Greens', pp. 134-66.

7. For a fuller articulation, see my Theology, Ideology and Liberation, chapter 1.

8. The questioning of the notion of natural limits in the work of, say, Gyorgy Lukacs may thereby be traced back to one aspect of Marx's work. See Gyorgy Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness (London: Merlin Press, 1972); cf. John Ely, 'Lukacs's Construction of Nature,' Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 1 (1998), 107-16.

9. Such a position contrasts with Bookchin's argument that the idea of the domination of nature is to be sourced to intrahuman domination.

10. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 'Marx and Engels on Ecology', in Merchant (ed.), Ecology pp. 28-43 (pp. 30, 36).

Is this a naturalism.? Not quite, because Marx argues - on the basis of a distinction that human beings produce nature yet animals collect from it - that it is not possible to transfer laws of nature to human social life. Indeed, he states quite specifically that there are no 'eternal natural laws of society'.11 What is truly human is not attributable to natural laws transferred to the social sphere but rather to the mastery by humanity of its social life. And, as is well known, he saw in the capitalism of his day not mastery but rather irrationalities of a punitive kind.

Our mastery of nature is incomplete yet need not be so: Marx links the theme of freedom as the mastery of our social circumstance with the theme of the mastery of nature.12 A significant weakness may now be discerned in Marx's thinking. The mastery of social life is to be thought together with the theme of the mastery of nature; social irrationalities involve irrationalities in our productive relations with nature also. Scarcity is here theorised not as a basic limit in the forces ofproduction but as restrictions, located in capitalist relations ofproduction, to be overcome. It remains true that Marx noted that capitalism denudes natural wealth: 'Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combination together ofvar-ious processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth - the soil and the labourer.'13 However, it is not clear, according to Marxist commentators, that Marx in emphasising the overcoming of 'natural irrationalities' developed an adequate theoretical account of such exploitation.

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  • amaranth
    What is the reconstruction of ecology?
    8 months ago

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