Wednesday, 28 September 2016

John Bellamy Foster and the dialectics of nature

Bildresultat för foster marx's ecologyJohn Bellamy Foster's Marx's Ecology is an admirable book - ingenious in its Marx-interpretation, well-written and exciting to read. It's also been enthusiastically received and is already an Eco-Marxist classic. But rather than discussing the admirable aspects of this work, I will focus on an issue where it has certain weaknesses, namely his attempt to resurrect the idea – previously dismissed in much of Western Marxism – of a dialectics of nature.

First, let me situate this idea in relation to the two most important theoretical points made in the book. One of these is the idea of the “metabolic rift” for which Foster is famous and through which he establishes Marx as an ecological thinker. The second concerns the grounding of Marx’s materialism in Epicurus (rather than in Enlightenment materialism). In different ways, both of these ideas help Foster carve out an independent theoretical position vis-à-vis other Marxists, such as the Frankfurt School and “first generation” eco-socialists.

Before venturing further it might be good idea to give a moment's thought to the relation between these two ideas. There is a slight tension between them. The idea of the metabolic rift goes back to Marx's writings on how the disruption of the flow of nutrients between town and countryside impoverishes the soil. The idea suggests a (destructive) dialectical relation between capitalism and nature. This is easy to grasp for most readers, since dialectics has so often been thought of precisely as tied to human praxis and to historical development. A good example is Alfred Schmidt - author of the influential The Concept of Nature in Marx - who is explicit about dialectics being a property not of nature as such but of the way human beings relate to nature (see my previous post on Schmidt). Foster is harshly critical of Schmidt in general, but at least in regard to the "rift", Schmidt's description of dialectics fits rather well.

While easily grasped, however, the idea of the "rift" has also come under fire. Jason Moore thus criticizes it for reinforcing a "dualistic" understanding of the relation between society and nature. This is an understanding in which humanity is seen as existing apart from nature, and as acting "on" nature rather than "through" it (Moore 2015:75-87). Following the growing influence of actor-network theory, it is today popular to criticize such dualism, insisting that human and non-human elements are always "assembled" or - as Moore puts it - "bundled" together in socio-natures. Capitalism itself, Moore writes, should be seen as such a "bundling". Contrary to the image suggested by the metabolic rift, capitalism thus doesn't act on nature so much as through the "web of life" of which it is part. Rather than focusing on what capitalism does to nature, Moore argues that we should focus on what nature does for capitalism. In opposition to Foster's "dualism", he therefore advocates a "monist and relational" view of capitalism's metabolism with nature (ibid. 85).

I will return to Moore's criticism of Foster some other day. For now, I mention it merely to suggest how easy it is to link the idea of the "rift" to a dualistic understanding.

Let's turn to the second major idea in Marx's Ecology. In Epicurus' theory, humans figure merely as one constellation of atoms among others. Although Epicurus doesn't use the word dialectics to describe the relation between atoms, Foster uses his theory to suggest the possibility of an all-embracing, universal dialectics (or, as Marx writes, a "universal metabolism") that wouldn't be limited to the human realm. In this conception, humanity or capitalism isn't viewed as standing apart from nature at all. We are thus reassuringly far from everything that smells of dualism. The problem is, however, that it isn't clear at first sight why this kind of materialism would represent a "dialectics". If everything can be reduced to shifting constellations of atoms, then we would appear to be close to a form of monism. We might ask why Foster feels that this monism is acceptable, while the monism represented by theoretical foes like Jason Moore or actor-network-theory is not. The decisive difference, in Foster's eyes, seems to be that Epicurean materialism didn't remain a mere monism, since it was taken up by Marx and used by Marx to underpin the idea of a possible dialectics of nature. Foster argues that this Epicurean legacy has been overlooked in many Marx-interpretations until now. Yet, as he points out, it sheds light on many riddles in Marx’s intellectual development, such as why he wrote his doctoral thesis on ancient atomists, or why he kept on studying natural and physical science throughout his life (Foster 2000: 20).

These two ideas - the "rift" and the Epicurean legacy - are not irreconcilable, but pull in different directions. Roughly speaking, the former pulls in a dualist direction, the latter in a monist one. Recently, Foster has been heavily engaged in a fierce debate with "monists" like Jason Moore (ibid 2016, Foster & Clark 2016, Moore 2015). But this debate risks obscuring a side to Foster's own thought that has a certain affinity to monism. Rather than seeing him as a one-sided critic of monism, I believe it's possible to view his bringing together of these two ideas as an attempt to bridge a divide in today's debates on the relation between society and nature. On the one hand, there is the position that humanity (or capitalism) is ravaging nature. On the other hand, there is the position that such "dualist" views should be rejected in favour of more "monist" views of everything as organized in networks without qualitative differences or essential separations. To Foster, the separation between these seemingly "dualist" and the "monist" positions can be surmounted since they both represent instances of dialectics. If this argument holds, it would be a major theoretical feat. But does it hold?

Below I offer some reflections concerning to what extent Foster succeeds in bringing about this reconciliation. I start by asking why it's important for him to defend the much criticized idea of a dialectics of nature. An important part of the answer, I argue, is that he needs to demonstrate the possibility of a unity of method in the social and natural sciences in order to sustain his criticism of Western Marxism. Next, I turn to his attempt to reconstruct a dialectics of nature on the basis of Epicurean materialism. I show that he uses three quite different arguments to buttress his attempt, none of which is without problems. In my next post, I plan to conclude my discussion of Foster by arguing that his attempt to achieve a unity of method is vitiated by his use of two divergent strategies to overcome the split between nature and society. I end by arguing that there are theoretical resources in Western Marxism - above all in the Frankfurt School - that Foster ignores and that can be used to theorize the relation between capitalism and nature in a way that may be preferable to Foster's, and that is at least as materialist and dialectical.

Why extend dialectics to nature?

Foster's attempt to revive a dialectics of nature implies a break with prominent thinkers of Western Marxism such as Lukács, Gramsci and the Frankfurt School. These thinkers tended to argue, in opposition to Engels, that dialectics related only to human praxis. This meant a rejection of Stalin, whose Dialectical and Historical Materialism built on Engels and carried over the dialectical "laws" that Engels had discerned in physics and chemistry (such as the law of "quantitative change leading to qualitative change") to society and history. Carrying over these ahistorical laws, which appeared possible to study from a purely contemplative attitude, led to a rigidly deterministic and objectivistic theory of history. Borrowing a term popularized by Lukács, it produced a science that "reified" history. Opposing this theory, Western Marxists instead stressed the centrality of praxis and the subject in dialectics. Since such elements were hard to apply outside the human realm, however, nature could only be grasped in a dialectical way to the extent that it became involved in human action. Alfred Schmidt puts it forcefully:
Hence, it is only the process of knowing nature which can be dialectical, not nature itself. Nature for itself is devoid of any negativity. Negativity only emerges in nature with the working Subject. A dialectical relation is only possible between man and nature. In view of Engels’s objectivism, in itself already undialectical, the question whether nature’s laws of motion are mechanical or dialectical is distinctly scholastic. (Schmidt 2014: 195).
Foster claims that two pernicious effects followed from this rejection of the dialectics of nature. Firstly, by limiting dialectics to the social-human realm, the Western Marxists ceded the study of the realm of nature to positivism (Foster 2000: vii). Secondly, this move meant that their dialectics ceased to be materialist in a proper sense. "Within Marxism, this represented a turn in an idealist direction". Western Marxists may still have claimed to be materialists, but by abandoning the attempt to theorize nature they hollowed out the concept of materialism, which "became increasingly abstract and indeed meaningless, [...] reduced to some priority in the last instance" (ibid. 8). The Frankfurt School, for example:
... developed an ‘ecological’ critique which was almost entirely culturalist in form, lacking any knowledge of ecological science (or any ecological content), and generally attributing the alienation of human beings from nature to science and the Enlightenment. (ibid. 245)
According to Foster, this one-sided perspective characterized early Frankfurt School thinkers like Horkheimer and Adorno as well as later critical theorists like Alfred Schmidt. The result, he claims, severely limited the ability of Western Marxists to contribute anything of value to the debate on the ongoing environmental destruction.

Criticizing Western Marxism for its inability to extend dialectics to nature is not new (see for instance Steven Vogel's Against Nature). Various responses to it exist. Andrew Feenberg (1999, 2014), for instance, argues that the limitation of dialectics to the realm of human praxis isn't grounded in any ontological separation into two realms. Precisely a dialectical perspective on nature reveals it as suited for "positivistic" or reificatory methods of the kind used in natural science. At first sight, there is much that speaks for such a solution. It's not easy to see what "dialectics" would contribute to our understanding of, say, gravity or photosynthesis. Problematically, however, this solution takes for granted the possibility of making a clean, sharp separation between the two realms of nature and society. This premise is denied in much recent scholarship, which - often inspired by actor-network theory - tends to stress that reality is always an indissoluble mixture ("socio-nature") of the two realms or that the boundary between them is historically and culturally relative (see for instance Descola 2013, or here for how Alex Loftus discusses this problem).

Foster's criticism is different. To get away from what he sees as the misunderstandings of Western Marxism, he goes “back to the foundations of materialism”, above all to Epicurus (Foster 2000: viii). His primary aim is not to relativize the distinction between society and nature, but rather to show that dialectics can be fruitfully applied to both realms and that there therefore exists an essential unity of method between natural and social sciences. While Marx generally applied dialectics in relation to human praxis in the social realm, Foster points out that he refused to divorce materialism from natural-physical science. This refusal:
...establishes what Bhaskar has called 'the possibility of naturalism', that is, 'the thesis that there is (or can be) an essential unity of method between the natural and the social sciences' - however much these realms may differ. This is important because it leads away from the dualistic division of social science into a 'hyper-naturalistic positivism', on the one hand, and an 'anti-naturalistic hermeneutics', on the other. (ibid. 7)
This passage reveals the stakes in Foster's criticism of Western Marxism. It shows why the unity of method is so dearly important to him. If such a unity cannot be achieved, then his criticism of the Western Marxists would not only fall, but be turned back on himself. He too would be forced to "cede" the realm of nature to positivism and risk ending up in an "idealist" position. At the same time, the claim that such a unity is possible is very strong. Can it be redeemed? This hinges on Foster's ability to show that a Epicurean materialism can be given a dialectical form while at the same time avoiding the determinism and the reification attendant on Soviet-style "dialectical materialism".

Epicurean and Enlightenment materialism

Western Marxism rejected the idea of a dialectics of nature because of its determinism. But Foster stresses that materialism doesn’t “necessarily imply a rigid, mechanical determinism” (ibid. 2). This is shown by Epicurus, who was a materialist without being a determinist. Unlike Democritus and the later materialists of the Enlightenment period, he opposed all teleology and determinism in nature by allowing for the unpredictable “swerve” of atoms. Epicurean materialism, then, isn’t governed by “iron” laws, but is characterized by open-endedness, contingency and unpredictability.
Bildresultat för de rerum natura
Lucretius' De rerum natura - probably the most influential tract explaining Epicurean philosophy.
An important part of Foster's argument is that he sets up the Epicurean legacy as a basis for a dialectical approach to materialism. It was Epicurus, not the “mechanistic French materialists” of the Enlightenment that were the decisive influence on Marx. This, however, was overlooked by later Marxists. It was Enlightenment materialism that inspired Plekhanov and led to the positivistic, mechanistic character of Soviet-style Marxism. It was in reaction to this that Western Marxism veered in idealist direction by rejecting the idea of a dialectics of nature.
In the 1920s the positivistic influence within Marxism became more and more apparent, prompting the revolt of such Western Marxists as Lukács, Korsch, and Gramsci. But if these thinkers, and the subsequent Frankfurt School, resisted the invasion of positivism into Marxism, they did so, as E.P. Thompson emphasized, "at a very heavy cost," opening the way to [...] an idealist theoretical practice" (ibid. 231)
Against the Western Marxists, Foster resumes what he sees as Marx's and Engels’ original attempt to develop a dialectic of emergence inspired by Epicurus and contemporaries like Darwin. This implies a clear rejection of the view that dialectics only exists in man’s relation to nature, not in nature itself. At least partially, it also implies a rehabilitation of Engels’ "materialist dialectics", although Foster is careful to add that Engels missed a “deep enough understanding of the philosophical bases of Marx’s own materialist conception of nature as this had emerged through his confrontation with Epicurus and Hegel” (ibid. 230).

Natural praxis

By itself, however, there is nothing particularly "dialectical" about Epicurean materialism. Even granted that such materialism inspired Marx, Foster needs to show that it can be developed into a proper dialectics in order to avoid being stuck in dualism – with Epicurus providing the model for how to understand nature and another form of dialectics tied to human praxis providing the corresponding model for society.

What, then, is required to make materialism dialectical? In general, Foster’s argument is that dialectics is our tool for grasping a changing environment. But exactly what, in the various ways people have tried to understand change, is it that makes understanding dialectical? This question is far from clear: while Foster rejects the “mechanistic” view of dialectics as objective laws operating in nature (a view close to Engels’s) he also rejects the restriction of dialectics to the human subject which he sees as typical for Western Marxism. Foster makes the following distinction between materialism in general and dialectical materialism. The former "sees evolution as an open-ended process of natural history, governed by contingency, but open to rational explanation". The latter, by contrast, "sees this as a process of transmutation of forms in a context of interrelatedness that excludes all absolute distinctions" (ibid. 16). To qualify as dialectical, Epicurean materialism or a materialism derived from it would thus have to conform to the latter definition. But this distinction is hardly sharp. It also seems insufficient to establish what makes materialism dialectical. Ideas of "transmutation" and of "interrelatedness that excludes all absolute distinctions" are not unique to dialectics. Surely, these or similar ideas are also present in many manifestly un-dialectical approaches such as, say, actor-network theory.*

One important reason that the definition seems insufficient is that it leaves out the role of praxis. As Foster himself remarks, Marx's own dialectics was primarily tied to human praxis. Marx’s emphasis “was overwhelmingly on the historical development of humanity and its alienated relation to nature, and not on nature’s own wider evolution... he tended to deal with nature only to the extent to which it was brought within human history” (ibid. 114). His materialism was practical, not contemplative. Marx’s criticism of Feuerbach’s contemplative materialism was thus, Foster points out, also a criticism of Epicurean materialism (ibid. 112). But if superceding the contemplative attitude through praxis is central to a materialist dialectics, is it really possible to talk of a dialectics of nature in itself, a dialectics that would proceed without human involvement?

Foster is obviously aware of these difficulties. In Marx’s Ecology, he fails to provide a clear overall answer, but there are three passages that suggest what an overall argument might look like.

First, he suggests that in Epicurean philosophy nature is endowed with self-consciousness. Thus he argues that the Epicurus’s "swerve" turns the universe into a world of freedom and self-determination, characterized by "alienated self-consciousness". Marx himself refers to Epicurus’ atomistics as "the natural science of self-consciousness" (ibid. 55). If nature is suffused by self-consciousness, then it would be similar to human history in that respect and the concept of praxis could conceivably be applied to it. Here, of course, it's easy to object that this sounds like romantic mysticism, or even New Age mysticism. Certainly, there are passages where Marx suggests that there can be no absolute difference between how humans and other living organisms related to the world. One might think, for example, of the Paris manuscripts where Marx describes humanity as "part of nature" rather than opposed to it. This, however, is a far cry from claiming that rocks and sunlight are endowed with self-consciousness (for an image of what such a world might look like, I recommend Isaac Asimov's description of the planet Gaia in Foundation's Edge). The problem is that the idea of self-consciousness as a basis of dialectics restricts the scope of dialectics to those parts of nature in which humans and other animals with self-consciousness are active. How about the rest of nature - should it be ceded to positivism? Foster is probably aware of the problems of relying on this argument about "self-consciousness" and after briefly letting it shine forth in the early part of the book, he seems to drop it.

Secondly, later in the book Foster changes tack and presents a new, weightier argument: what unites the two realms of nature and society is now said to be, not self-consciousness, but “mortality”, i.e. movement.
If the materialist conception of nature and the materialist conception of history remained integrated in Marx’s practical materialism, it was primarily... through the concept of ‘mors immortalis’ (immortal death), which he drew from Lucretius, and which expressed the idea that, in Marx’s words, the only eternal, immutable fact was ‘the abstraction of movement,’ that is, ‘absolutely pure mortality’. Natural and social history represented transitory developmental processes; there were no eternal essences, divine forms or teleological principles beyond this mortal world. (ibid. 114)
The evanescence of things, then, is supposed to provide the common ground for nature and society. As a foundation for a unity of method, this sounds fragile, to say the least. Furthermore, one might object that this talk of immortal death is an abstraction, a form of idealism (no less so than the contemplative “materialism” that Foster criticizes in Feuerbach). If this is dialectics, then what distinguishes it from, say, the Buddhist notion of impermanence or Zen-inspired philosophies like that of Nishida Kitarô? To be sure, Engels too described the dialectical method as important for grasping the "ceaseless flux" of nature, but he never pretended that this was all that dialectics was about.

Near the end of the book, Foster presents a third argument. Discussing an unresolved tension in Engels, he writes:
Engels sometimes writes as if the dialectic was an ontological property of nature itself; at other times he appears to be leaning toward the more defensible, critical postulate that the dialectic, in this realm, is a necessary heuristic device for human reasoning with regard to nature [...]. Dialectical reasoning can thus be viewed as a necessary element of our cognition, arising from the emergent, transitory character of reality as we perceive it (ibid. 232)
Here Foster seems to be claiming that the unity of natural and social science is that both must use the same heuristic device, dialectics, to grasp the movement, emergence and development of the subject matter. Dialectics is simply a method (not a law in matter itself) for grasping an emergent, transitory reality of the kind described by Epicurus – a world of “change involving contingency and coevolution” (ibid. 254). This also means that there is no determinism. Instead dialectics is grounded in contingency.

This third argument is, I believe, strongest of the three. It rhymes well with how I myself like to interpret dialectics: less as a necessary movement than as a retrospective imposition of necessity on a contingent one (in this I follow Fine and Zizek). Viewing the matter from Foster's perspective, however, I wonder if this argument suffices for his purposes. To begin with, it means that he, just like Schmidt, ties dialectics to the human subject. In this way, he reinstates the division between nature and society, admitting that the former can be viewed as "dialectical" only insofar as it becomes the object of human reasoning. Rather than a dialectics of nature, we would be dealing with what might more appropriately be called a dialectics of human understanding in relation to nature.

Furthermore, the argument that dialectics is a necessary heuristic device for understanding nature seems to imply a rather drastic criticism of the existing methods of natural science, most of which can be described as broadly positivist in the sense of aiming at formal models and general laws. Although Foster discusses a handful of biologists who endorse some form of "dialectics of nature" (Bernal, Haldane, Needham, Lewontin, Levins and Gould; ibid. 249-254; also see Clark & York 2005a, 2005b), these scientists are hardly the majority in natural science. Here it seems to me that Foster, to sustain his argument, would have to submit natural science to a harsher criticism than he does (unless he, less plausibly, prefers to reinterpret the existing methods of natural science as a form of dialectics in disguise).

Foster thus offers a patchwork of different arguments that all suggest ways in which dialectics may be extended to nature. None of these arguments is free from problems and none appears entirely successful. It can of course be argued that they nevertheless, in combination, lend sufficient support to his overall argument. The second and the third, in particular, can be combined and appear to dovetail with Foster’s general claim that dialectics is our tool for grasping change.

A clearer picture emerges in Foster’s later writings, above all The Ecological Rift (co-written with Brett Clark and Richard York). Here the authors depict the dialectics of nature they are proposing as based on a sensuous “natural” praxis and an ecological perspective spanning nature and society. They thus argue that Marx’s own materialism, developed through Epicurus, isn’t based narrowly on social praxis but on a “natural praxis” that is “a much larger concept of human praxis that encompasses human activity as a whole, that is, the life of the senses” (Foster et al 2010: 230). They quote young Marx: “In hearing nature hears itself, in smelling it smells itself, in seeing it sees itself” (ibid. 227). They comment that here “[t]he senses are nature touching, tasting, seeing, hearing, and smelling” (ibid. 228), suggesting a form of self-awareness or subjectivity in nature. This “natural praxis”, the authors argue, isn’t simply linked to the senses but also to an expanded ecological perspective emphasizing interaction and connectedness. In an ecological perspective, humans are not separated from nature – “human beings as living, sensuous beings are part of the ecological world” and “the biosphere is constitutive of our own existence even as we transform it through our actions” (ibid. 246). Such a perspective is not only dialectical in the sense of stressing the constitutive interconnectedness of all living things but also helps breaking free from the strictures of a merely social dialectics – it thus “constantly seeks to transcend the boundaries between natural and social science” (ibid. 246). An ecological dialectics, in other words, has the potential to be the unifying “single science” that the young Marx demanded and to vouchsafe the “unity of method” Foster aims at.

Hence, what is required is a more unified understanding of the dialectics of nature and society – recognizing that the dialectical method when applied to nature is our way of handling the complexity of a constantly changing nature. The development of ecology as a unifying science is pointing irrefutably to the validity of Marx’s original hypothesis that in the end there will only be ‘a single science’. (ibid. 247)

What we can observe here is that with this new formulation, Foster and his co-authors explicitly state that the dialectics of nature they are proposing is not thought of as a “subjectless” or merely objective sort of dialectics, but a subject-centered dialectics tied to praxis, much along the lines stressed by Lukács but with the difference that sensuous activity is given a central role and the unit of interconnectedness is now thought of as the ecology rather than society in a narrow sense. We are thus very far from the “objective” dialectics outlined by Engels and much closer to the young Marx’s stress on the senses as central to liberation – or as the authors put it “a reappropriation and emancipation of the human senses and human sensuousness in relation to nature” (ibid. 247). Instead of relying on an “objective” dialectics of nature, as Engels, he is relying on the interaction between nature and the human subject and the increasing historical subsumption of nature under the societal, historical process as a basis for his idea of a dialectics of nature

As I will argue in the next post, however, the result isn't necessarily superior to the way nature and dialectics are combined in Western Marxism.

(to be continued!)

* Erik Swyngedouw seems to share this impression. Quoting Foster's distinction between materialism in general and dialectical materialism, he immediately reformulates the latter using Latour (Swyngedouw 2006: 26)!


Clark, Brett & Richard York (2005a) “Dialectical Nature: Reflections in Honor of the Twentieth Anniversary of Levins and Lewontin’s The Dialectical Biologist”, Monthly Review 57(1);  .

Clark, Brett & Richard York (2005b) “Dialectical Materialism and Nature: An Alternative to Economism and Deep Ecology”, Organization & Environment 18(3): 318-337.

Descola, Philippe (2013) Beyond Nature and Culture, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Feenberg, Andrew (1999) “A Fresh Look at Lukács: on Steven Vogel's Against Nature”, Rethinking Marxism, Winter: 84-92.

Feenberg, Andrew (2014) The Philosophy of Praxis: Marx, Lukács and the Frankfurt School, London: Verso.

Foster, John Bellamy (2000) Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Foster, John Bellamy (2016) “Marxism in the Anthropocene: Dialectical Rifts on the Left”, International Critical Thought 6(3): 393-421.

Foster, John Bellamy & Clark, Brett (2016) “Marx’s Ecology and the Left”, Monthly Review 68(2).

Foster, John Bellamy & Clark, Brett & York, Richard (2010) The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Moore, Jason (2014) Capitalism in the Web of Life, London: Verso.

Schmidt, Alfred (2014) The Concept of Nature in Marx, London: Verso.

Swyngedouw, Erik (2006) "Metabolic Urbanization: The Making of Cyborg Cities", in N. Heynen & M. Kaika & E. Swyngedouw (eds.) In the Nature of Cities: Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism, Oxon: Routledge.

Vogel, Steven (1996) Against Nature: The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory, Albany: State University of New York Press.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Alex Loftus and urban environmentalism

Last week, I finished an interesting book - Alex Loftus' Everyday Environmentalism: Creating an Urban Political Ecology (2012). This is a theoretical book, but Loftus writes like a young activist, desperately hungry for a new and better world. Theoretically, he conjoins the urban political ecology-approach (represented by e.g. Erik Swyngedouw, Maria Kaika and Nikoas Heynen) with the “production of nature”-approach associated with Neil Smith.

Part of what makes this book interesting is that it exemplifies how Smith’s perspective can be developed from being primarily an academic tool into a stance in which theory joins hands with activism. This is quite significant, considering that Foster (2016) has criticized the "production of nature"-approach for its insensitivity to environmental problems. The result of Loftus' intervention is a kind of environmentalist Marxism that is quite distinct, both from today's Eco-Marxism and from older variants of Marxist thinking on nature derived from the Frankfurt School.

But what kind of environmentalism is this? 

Firstly, it is an urban environmentalism. It’s in everyday life as experienced in the urban environment that he finds his foothold – through “reveling in the dirt and grime, the anomie and the creativity: of city life” (Loftus 2012: xiv). As he also puts it: "Within the noise and the dirt, the fumes and the concrete, of the contemporary city, I argue that there are conditions of possibility of sensing this alternative world" (ibid. x).

Secondly, the urban environment is seen as assemblages of social and natural relationships. This means that he rejects the “dualism” between society and nature that is a trait of much environmental thought. Referring approvingly to actor-network theory (ANT), he writes that  “the world is made up of both things and relationships that simply cannot be separated into two boxes labeled ‘nature’ and ‘society’” (ibid. 2).

Thirdly, he rejects the apocalypticism that has long characterized environmentalism (in this, he follows Smith and Swyngedouw, and comes close to what I have described as post-apocalyptic environmentalism). He rejects apocalypticism not because threats to nature aren't real, but because such accounts are disempowering. They feed a sense of powerlessness and “put global futures outside the control of everyday citizens”, and thereby “depoliticise” environmental issues (ibid. xvif).

In all these three respects Loftus comes pretty close to the environmental justice movement (which he he's inspired by; ibid. x) or to what Joan Martinez-Alier (2003) refers to as the "environmentalism of the poor". Characteristic of this form of activism is that it is concerned with livelihood and social justice, rather than with preserving wilderness or "green" government. His inspiration from "justice"-movements is also seen in his choice of struggles around water distribution in Amaoti in Durban as one of his main main examples to visualize and underpin his arguments.

So let's turn to theory. Loftus is inspired by Marx's early writings. Much of the book is taken up with discussions of Lukács, Gramsci and Lefebvre. Along the way we also find briefer discussions of Smith, Eco-Marxism and actor-network theory. I'll briefly go though how he relates to these different theories. Doing so will give us a feel for how he works out and develops a theoretical position of his own.

His point of departure is Neil Smith’s claim in Uneven Development that capitalism produces nature. Loftus fundamentally agrees with this. Yet Smith is also criticized. Firstly, he is said to neglect the importance of the sensuous and embodied ways in which nature is performed. Secondly, he appears to give little sway to nonhuman agency (ibid. xxii, 13f, 27). Despite this criticism, Loftus claims that Smith’s approach shouldn’t be rejected. Instead its dialectical foundations should be deepened (ibid. 16). These remarks indicate the theoretical directions in which Loftus will set out searching for supplement and correct these weaknesses in Smith: we will thus need more on dialectics, the sensuous, and non-human agency.

The main discussion of dialectics comes in his chapter on Lukács. Lukács is appreciated above all for providing a theory of situated practice. Although his idea of the proletariat's unique ability to grasp history in a dialectical way may appear quaint today, it anticipates contemporary standpoint theory. The problem with Lukács lies in his concept of nature. Lukács rejected Engels's attempt to extend the dialectical method to nature. This is problematical since Lukács himself advocates dialectics as the only way to grasp "totality" and break the hold of reificatory bourgeois science. It also seems to go against the grain of his statement (in History and Class Consciousness) that nature is a social category. Despite the fact that Lukács ends up in a self-contradictory position, interpreters like Andrew Feenberg and Martin Jay defend his rejection of Engels as a sound move. Feenberg, for instance, argues that nature, unlike human praxis, constitutes a realm that can be adequately grasped through the "reificatory" methods of natural science (see e.g. Feenberg 1999, 2014). Matters are somewhat thrown into confusion by the fact that Lukács modified his position on nature in later writings (such as his long unpublished defense of History and Class Consciousness and his 1967 preface to a new edition of History and Class Consciousness). Nevertheless, it appears that Lukács could never bring himself to fully extend a dialectical method to the study of nature. Loftus thinks that this is “devastating to his overall argument” (ibid. 64). To fully separate dialectics from nature would “deliver a fatal blow to our efforts to appropriate Lukács for a non-dualistic approach to metropolitan nature” (ibid. 63). The reason? Such a separation fails to confront the reality of "socio-natures" (ibid. 73). However, Loftus argues that Lukács’s difficulties can be overcome by a greater emphasis on how nature is produced through human as well as nonhuman activity (ibid. 66).

Turning to the importance of the sensuous and the everyday, the central theoretician is Lefebvre. However, Lefebvre's own writings on nature are disappointing. He viewed nature as a passive victim of an encroaching society, and he was thus never able to see nature "as an ally". His stance was predicated on a dualism between society and nature that ignored the myriad mixings between the two (ibid. 8, 110). Smith’s signal move, which sets him off from Lefebvre, is precisely to recognize the interpenetration of nature and society, pointing out how capitalism constantly produces nature (ibid. 110ff). Lefebvre's strength, by contrast, lies in his focus on affective and mental conceptions that are missing in Smith, and in his recognition of artistic creation of human praxis. Loftus thus argues that such creative practices can be seen as a model of the sensuous processes through which the production of nature could be carried out (ibid. 113f, 38).

Non-human agency then? Although the direct inspiration seems to be urban political ecology, it is clear that the main, indirect source of this idea is Latour and ANT. The influence manifests itself in Loftus' terminology of "assemblages" and his critique of dualism. Curiously, in certain formulations he comes close to merging dialectics and ANT: Marx, he writes, helps us understand nature in non-dualistic terms, as a dialectical unity in which labour mediates a process in which human and nonhuman are inseparable, or in Latour’s terms form social-natures (ibid. 7). Reading sentences of this kind, it is easy to nod assent to Foster's lumping together of ANT and “the production of nature” (Foster 2016, Foster & Clark 2016). In fairness, however, it should be pointed out that Loftus is careful to stress that the unity of the socio-natural assemblage is dialectical, a relation which he argues that ANT fails to capture. Loftus also concurs with Kirsch and Mitchell in their criticism of ANT: its obvious that nonhuman agency exists but the task is to explain this and thereby to help people regain power over things that have taken on a life of their own (ibid. 73). As Kirsch and Mitchell writes:
But if we are truly to avoid becoming mere "dead theories and dead practices" ourselves, then it remains important that we insistently raise the question that ANT wants so much to forestall: why are "things as such" produced in the ways that they are—and to whose potential benefit? How, to turn Gramsci’s point around, can people struggle to take control of those non-human actors, those things as such, and shape them so that the "nature of things" is really on their side?” (Kirsch & Mitchell 2004: 702)
Ultimately, then, ANT is rejected as insatisfactory since it lacks the emancipatory drive and the rooting in everyday life that Loftus finds in Marxist thinkers.

In this way, Loftus balances his theoretical inspirations against each other, hoping that they will mutually make up for their respective deficiences.

At least as significant as what inspires Loftus is perhaps what doesn't. One might ask how he relates to two other important currents in Marxism that have been as influential as the "production of nature"-approach in theorizing the relation between capitalism and nature: the Frankfurt School and Eco-Marxism. I won't dwell long on the Frankfurt School here. Suffice it to say that Loftus isn't really appreciative of it. He castigated it for its dualism and its incapacitating lament about the "domination of nature". I believe he is unfair in this criticism, and in the future I will try to discuss more at length how a Frankfurt School approach to nature can be made fruitful today (some preliminary reflections can be found here and here).
How about the Eco-Marxists then? Clearly there is friction in relation to them. He explicitly criticizes “dualist” perspectives that posit nature “as a force inflicting revenge on the arrogance of human society” (ibid. xvi). Despite Foster’s own rejection of dualism, such an idea of nature as a victim of capitalism that may well some day exact revenge on humanity is surely implicit in Foster's idea of the metabolic rift. Not surprisingly, Loftus criticizes the idea of the rift for its ”vague and atavistic” implications: does Foster really want to return to a society in which the night soil of city-dwellers is used as fertilizer (ibid. 31)? He also criticizes Foster’s “somewhat overstretched claim that Marx was somehow a proto-environmentalist” (ibid. 13). Another difference between Loftus and the Eco-Marxists is Loftus’ stress on sensuousness and artistic practice as a model for the production of nature. Loftus therefore announces that he will “move in somewhat different directions” compared to Eco-Marxists like Foster and Burkett (ibid. 25).
I am less convinced of the centrality of ecological crisis to Marx’s overall understanding of the contradictions of capitalist societies. Nor am I convinced of the overall importance of the theory of ‘metabolic rift’ to a radical politics of contemporary urban environments. Foster’s rediscovery of the roots to Marx’s materialism [in Epicurus] leads to a neglect of key critiques of mechanistic materialism in the writings of Lukács and Gramsci. Even more curious, Foster then condemns these authors as ‘idealist’ and lacking the coevolutionary perspective necessary for a progressive ecological politics. These criticisms are unfounded. (ibid. 25f)
This isn't the place to delve further into this criticism. Let me just state that I agree with the part of it that deals with Foster's "idealist"-accusations (but this again is something I hope to return to it in a future blog post).

Clearly, Loftus finds much less of value in Eco-Marxism than in Lukács, Lefebvre, Gramsci, Smith or Latour. The fact that a theoretical conflict line today seems to run between Eco-Marxism and the "production of nature"-approach is evident also in Foster's harsh and scathing criticism of the latter in recent articles (Foster 2016, Foster & Clark 2016). In these, Foster assimilates the "production of nature"-approach to ANT and refers to both as "monistic" theories. Foster also stresses the superiority of Eco-Marxism as a tool for diagnosing to the damage capitalism causes to nature. By contrast, theoreticians in the enemy camp, like Smith, are insinuated to lack an environmentalist sensitivity or even - like Latour - to have capitulated wholesale to capitalism.

Foster may be right in his criticism of Latour. Whether he is right to condemn the "production of nature"-approach as a whole is more dubious. Having read Loftus, I have a pretty good hunch how he would reply to such criticism. To begin with, he would insist that his approach is as dialectical and as criticial of capitalism as Foster's. In addition, it would be easy for him to demonstrate that his own approach has at least as much affinity to environmental activism as Eco-Marxism. It's quite striking, however, that the kinds of environmentalism to which Loftus and Foster orient themselves are quite different. Foster's Eco-Marxism may be well suited to an environmentalism concerned primarily about damage done to nature. Loftus' position, by contrast, is geared to the environmental justice movement or the "environmentalism of the poor".

Dwelling on the debate between Eco-Marxists and the "production of nature"-approach may seem like a barren exercise. As a reader, one might wonder how meaningful it is to spend attention on these debates, in which theoreticians compete about being the best dialectician while hurling labels like “dualism” and “monism” as abusive invectives at their opponents. However, while reading Loftus, I had the refreshing feeling that theoretical trench warfare was not a prime concern for him. He seemed concerned above all to understand and at least theoretically do justice to the protesting women in Amaoti. In this book he gropes his way forward - picking up one insight from Smith, then another from Lukács, and so on - towards a position more adequate to such protesting women's experience and the alternative world taking shape in their struggles. I wouldn't say that he has solved all theoretical problems. But the road he indicates - seeing humans as part of nature but at the same time viewing this unity as a dialectical one, and basing all of this on everyday experience - deserves to be explored. It may be a way forward, past the trenches, or at least one way forward among others.



Feenberg, Andrew (1999) “A Fresh Look at Lukács: on Steven Vogel's Against Nature”, Rethinking Marxism, Winter: 84-92.
Feenberg, Andrew (2014) The Philosophy of Praxis: Marx, Lukács and the Frankfurt School, London: Verso.

Foster, John Bellamy (2016) “Marxism in the Anthropocene: Dialectical Rifts on the Left”, International Critical Thought 6(3): 393-421.

Foster, John Bellamy & Clark, Brett (2016) “Marx’s Ecology and the Left”; Monthly Review 68(2) (June);

Kirsch, Scott & Mitchell, Don (2004) “The Nature of Things: Dead Labor, Nonhuman Actors, and the Persistence of Marxism”, Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography 36(4): 687-705.

Loftus, Alex (2012) Everyday Environmentalism: Creating an Urban Political Ecology, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Martinez-Alier, Joan (2003) The Environmentalism of the Poor: A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

What is datsu-bôkoku? A note on Japanese environmentalism

This is just a brief note on a small curiosity, namely the word bôkoku (亡国, dead country or national death) which I've encountered a couple of times during anti-nuke demonstrations in Japan. The first time was one evening in December 2012 when I went to the weekly Friday demonstration outside the prime minister's residence (the "kantei-mae" demonstration). As I stood there with the others, a guy with sun glasses who looked like Jake in The Blues Brothers crossed the street and came walking briskly towards us, carrying a sign hanging over his stomach with the words “datsu-bôkoku” (脱亡国) written in big letters. I remember liking the expression for its touch of ambiguity. It seemed constructed in analogy with the common slogan "datsu-genpatsu" (Stop nuclear power!). Most likely, it was meant to meant something like "stop the national death" or "leave behind the state of being a dead country". Literally, however, it could be taken to mean the provocative "Leave (or get out of) the dead country!". In other words, it could be taken to mean either to revive the country or to leave it!

Considering that many people had left the Fukushima-region and even Tokyo itself in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, turning themselves into "nuclear refugees", this double meaning may very well have been intended. It really corresponded to a debate going on in the anti-nuke movement, between those who left and those who chose to stay on. Leaving, some argued, was the only sensible option. It meant prioritizing life and safety, regardless of the government's assertions. It was also connected to the "zero becquerel"-slogan, the determination not to tolerate any radiation (cf. Yabu 2012a, 2012b). Staying, by contrast, was urged by them who saw a value in preserving or rebuilding the communities and economies of the Fukushima region.

The term "bôkoku" itself has an interesting history in the Japanese environmental movement. As I read through Robert Stolz' Bad Water: Nature, Pollution, and Politics in Japan, 1870-1950 (Duke University Press, 2014), I realized that its use in anti-nuke activism must be a reference to Tanaka Shôzô, known as the father of Japanese environmentalism and famous for his engagements in the protests against the Ashio copper mine pollution and his solidarity with the Yanaka villagers. It appears that he developed his ideas on bôkoku in his Diet speeches in 1900, following the so-called Kawamata Incident in which the police had clashed with protesters marching to Tokyo (see Strong 1995: 115f for a vivid description). In the incident more then 50 protesters were injured and 69 were arrested. Many others fled. Following this violent suppression Tanaka made a speech in which he put the following question to the prime minister:
To kill the people is to kill the nation. To despise the law is to despise the nation. This is the end of the nation. If its resources are abused, its people killed, and its laws overturned, no country can survive. What will the government do about it? (quoted in Strong 1995: 119)
As Stolz points out, Tanaka saw the incident as evidence that the government had been overrun by private interests, above all the Furukawa zaibatsu running the mine. The police had become servants of private gain and hence Japan had ceased to exist. Because of this, the polluted lands were now “lawless regions”, stripped of the rights granted by the constitution (Stolz 2014: 71). "Bôkoku", in other words, meant that the ideal of the country enshrined in the constitution had died, betrayed by the government and the state. The victims of this betrayal were the people, the rivers and the land.

Tanaka's drawing (from Stolz 2014:73)
Later in 1900 Tanaka wrote a poem on bôkoku in a letter to a fellow activist along with a drawing showing a dancing skeleton next to a pile of corpses fed on by dogs and demons. He entitled the poem “The Mark of the National Death” (Bôkoku no ato):
The spirit in the hearts of governance, justice, and law has died
There are those eaten by dogs
and those reduced to dancing skeletons
All that remains for the starving survivors is death
The mark of bôkoku.
(quoted in Stolz 2014: 73)
Interestingly, the idea of death also occurs in other examples of political rhetoric during the Ashio protests. For instance, some of the pollution victims began calling themselves “himei no shisha” (非命の死者), himei standing for the opposite or negation of the Confucian tenmei or “Heaven’s decree” (ibid. 72). Similar self-designations also appeared in later episodes of the environmental movement, such as in the protests against the Minamata mercury poisoning.

But maybe I'm wrong. To some people, the term bôkoku doesn't seem to connote Tanaka Shôzô. Another occasion when I encountered the term was in 2015. Again I was at the weekly Friday demonstration, where I met a man with a Hinomaru flag and a sign saying "Nuclear power is the energy of bôkoku" (「原子力は亡国のエネルギー」). When I expressed interest in the slogan, he explained that the meaning was that nuclear power would ruin the country. To my surprise he said that he had taken the word bôkoku from Mao Zedong, who had apparently once said that Mahjong would ruin China (「麻雀は亡国の遊戯」).   


Stolz, Robert (2014) Bad Water: Nature, Pollution, and Politics in Japan, 1870-1950, Durham: Duke University Press.

Strong, Kenneth (1995[1977]) Ox against the storm: a biography of Tanaka Shozo - Japan's conservationist pioneer, Folkestone, Kent: Japan Library.

Yabu, Shirô (2012a) Hōshanō o kue to iu nara sonna shakai wa iranai, zero bekureru-ha sengen, Tokyo: Shinhyōsha.

Yabu, Shirô (2012b) 3.12 no shisō, Tokyo: Ibunsha.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Who is the "Other" in The War of the Worlds?

It just struck me, but the "Other" of H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds is not the Martian invaders. The Martians are a rather pale presence in the book. This might seem a curious thing to say considering that practically the entire book is taken up with gruesome descriptions of the destruction they bring. Yet despite this destruction, and the hideous details of their appearance, there's something about them that makes me think that Wells is uninterested in them. Unlike contemporaries like Jules Verne, Wells is also not very interested in space or the technical possibilities opened up by scientific progress; his concern seems rather to be with the moral state of humankind.

In fact, the most memorable scene of horror in the book is not any of the plentiful descriptions of destruction or suffering. It's surely the narrator's meeting with "the man on Putney Hill", a former artilleryman who appears to be the sole survivor in a vast, apocalyptic landscape of charred earth and strange Martian weeds near London. The artilleryman barely manages to scrape along, keeping himself alive in a shelter. "We're beat", he asserts with absolute conviction:
"It's all over," he said. "They've lost one - just one. And they've made their footing good and crippled the greatest power in the world. They've walked over us. (Wells 2005: 254)

"This isn't a war," said the artilleryman. "It never was a war; any more than there's a war between men and ants." (ibid. 254)   
"Cities, nations, civilization, progress - it's all over. That game's up. We're beat" (ibid. 257)
Despite this, the man has resolved to go on living: "for the sake of the breed. I tell you. I'm grim set on living" (ibid. 257). More specifically, he plans to live underground, even dreaming wildly about a future where humanity will be able to take revenge on the invaders:
I've been thinking about the drains. Of course those who don't know drains think horrible things; but under this London are miles and miles - hundreds of miles - and a few days' rain and London empty will leave them sweet and clean. The main drains are big enough and airy enough for anyone. Then there's cellars, vaults, stores, from which boltway passages may be made to the drains. And the railway tunnels and subways. Eh? You begin to see? And we form a band - able-bodied, clean-minded men. We're not going to pick up any rubbish that drifts in. Weaklings go out again. [...] Life is real again, and the useless and cumbersome and mischievous have to die. They ought to die. They ought to be willing to die. It's a sort of disloyalty, after all, to live and taint the race. (ibid. 262)
The importance of this passage is underlined by its placement in the book. It comes near the end, just before the chapter that describes how humanity is suddenly and miraculously saved. This "happy" ending does nothing to diminish the weight of the artillerist's brutal, feverish vision. The artillerist - Wells seems to imply - is still right, in the sense that he says the truth of what would have been humanity's future if it hadn't been for that unlikely, miraculous escape. He says what Wells wants his readers to reflect on. He's a prophet; in other words, he's delivering a warning.

But a warning of what kind? It turns out that this is a very moral warning. The proto-fascist artillerist himself is certainly not a very moral person. Yet he impersonates a moral warning. It is quite clear that what Wells fears above all is the prospect of humanity having to turn itself into brutes like him in order to survive. The artillerist is the prime image of horror in this book since he holds up a mirror to the reader, showing humanity the depths of brutality and barbary into which it may have to descend.

At the same time, there's no denying that Wells's horror is mixed with fascination, and even a dose of grim, masochistic pleasure - a pleasure in driving home the dreadful message of humanity's reversion into brutishness. As the artillerist says, life becomes "real" again when humanity is shorn of civilization, and a powerful message of Wells's book is certainly that this civilization is built on lies. The element of fascination can be felt even more clearly if we turn to the terrifying Morlocks of The Time Machine, a race of troglodytes who live underground, emerging to the surface only at night to carry off and eat the fairy-like Eloi. While the Morlocks are repulsive, they're also the necessary, logical outcome of present-day class-society - the Eloi having evolved from the upper classes, the Morlocks from the proletariat. With his brutality and his advocacy of a rat-like existence in the sewers, the artillerist is certainly an ancestor of the Morlocks - a Morlock in embryonic form.

To put it plainly: it's the artilleryman who's the "Other" of The War of the Worlds - or rather, it's him and the things that he stands for. If my association of him with the Morlocks is correct, these things include the proletariat. Class war was one of the great, compulsively recurring motifs of the 19th century. The proletariat was feared even as it was pitied for its brutish existence, a projection of many of the nightmarish fantasies that in today's developed world seem to be directed at asylum-seekers and other migrants. To the bourgeoisie, the revolution was not only an economic threat but also, to many, an imagined end to culture and civilization as such.

Yet the "Other" of The War of the Worlds includes more than the proletariat. The book is notable for its passages discussing colonialism and humanity's treatment of other species. It's in these passages that the book's moral message is clearest. Already in the first chapter, the narrator writes:
And before we judge of them [the Martians] too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. (ibid. 4f)
This passage is more than a condemnation of the ills of Britain's imperialist, capitalist and profoundly hypocritical "civilization". It can also be read as an abstract declaration of solidarity with everything oppressed and ravaged by this civilization, including colonized peoples and nature. Later, as the book progresses, the narrator's identification with nature grows progressively deeper, strengthened by the gradual loss of humanity among the people around him (such as the Curate). For instance, as he totters around alone in a landscape devastated beyond recognition, he thinks:
I felt as a rabbit might feel returning to his burrow and suddenly confronted by the work of a dozen busy navvies, digging the foundations of a house. I felt the first inkling of a thing that presently grew quite clear in my mind, that oppressed me for many days, a sense of dethronement, a persuasion that I was no longer a master, but an animal among the animals, under the Martial heel. With us it would be as with them, to lurk and watch, to run and hide; the fear and empire of man had passed away. (ibid. 240)
It is precisely this life of lurking, hiding and running away that is practiced by the artilleryman (into whom the narrator soon runs and who, as we recall, himself compares the relation between Martians and humans to that between humans and ants). What lends the artilleryman his air of "authenticity" is his resolute affirmation of this animality and his readiness to jettison civilization, a step which the narrator himself hesitates to take. What unites them, however, is their clear recognition that humanity no longer is the master of nature; it has been "dethroned", as the narrator writes, and must henceforth consider itself simply as one animal among others.

At this point, I think it's fruitful to connect up with the ideas of Mary Manjikian and Andrew Feenberg. Manjikian has argued that the "apocalyptic" fiction produced in Victorian Britain as well as in today's USA needs to be understood as products of the imperial status of these states in the respective periods. Apocalyptic stories, she suggests, are often indulged in when imperial nations appear to be at their most triumphant zenith. The imagined apocalypse is depicted as the outcome of arrogance and hubris. Interestingly, she argues that such stories have a critical function - they allow their readers to see and visit their own countries as a foreigner might, as if it were a foreign country. Thereby they allow us to “see” the other, to switch places with the other. Crucially, they often replicate conventions of colonial travelogues, offering a kind of inverted colonial gaze directed at the seat of imperial power itself (Manjikian 2012: 27, 228-238). This operation is exceptionally well illustrated by War of the Worlds, where Britain, the leading imperialist power of its time, becomes treated exactly as it itself treated Tasmania.

According to Feenberg, many Hollywood movies invert real life relations in a startling fashion. At the same time that the U.S. was busy fighting guerillas in Vietnam and elsewhere in the Third World, many of its movie heroes appeared to be mirror-images of the enemy: loners fighting impossible odds against enemies equipped with vastly superior high-technological weaponry.
The Enemy never employs the guerilla tactics of the Viet Cong; instead, it possesses an antlike army supplied with technologically advanced weapons, helicopters, and nuclear devices. The hero - a Westerner - is captured and, working from within, destroys the Enemy's technology with his bare hands. Here underdevelopment represents the power of machines over men, while the West is the haven of humanism. The viewers are encouraged to identify with James Bond in a guerilla war against Third World technocracy. (Feenberg 1995: 42f)
What is Rambo, if not a subliminal identification with the very enemies the U.S. had been fighting in Vietnam? The most glaring example of this curious reversal of roles is probably Independence Day, where the U.S. air force saves the earth from alien invasion by nothing less than a glorious kamikaze-attack, another tactic borrowed from an old enemy desperately trying to fight off an American invasion. These films seem to replay the role of apocalyptic fiction by directing an inverted colonial gaze at the U.S. itself. The tendential identification with the victims of imperialism or capitalism that we see in Wells is here extended to an actual role-shifting, whereby the hero becomes an anti-imperialist resistance fighter. Returning to Wells's artilleryman, it is quite striking to observe how his employment of the underground image - likely meant to evoke association with rats - is today one of the most popular metaphors for resistance. Complex underground systems figure as the last holdout of brave resistance fighters in an almost inexhaustible number of works of fiction.

In this light, the ambivalence in the portrayal of the artilleryman comes forward clearly. We see him in a double-exposure. He denies everything we think of as cultured and civilized, yet he's somehow disturbingly right in what he's doing - right in the sense that "our" civilization is built on lies and "deserves" to perish. It's of course easy to see this ambivalence as typical for the collective bad conscience of the milieu that Wells belonged to - Victorian writers with socialist sympathies and a bourgeois class-background. These writers were deeply unhappy about their own society and the culture in which they had been thoroughly socialized. They were open-minded enough to recognize all the things suffering oppression by this society - including the proletariat, the colonized peoples and nature. Yet since they were unfamiliar with these things, the latter had to appear in the imagination of these writers in abstract, monstruous form - as a mere negation of the culture and lifestyle that they did know. These are the "Other" in Wells's fiction, the troubling other, the one's whose existence was felt to be an existential threat towards their own culture and identity, and who therefore inspire fear as well as fascination.

This ambivalence is easy to recognize today - in regard to immigrants. The dehumanized image of masses of people from poor and wartorn regions welling into the rich countries of the North has helped right-extremist parties gain ground almost everywhere in these rich countries. Here a new "Other" is taking form which again risks becoming the object of projections of various sort.

This lends a certain actuality to Wells. The Martians, as mentioned, are not Wells's "Other". They are there as a literary device, to shine an artificial light on the world to reveal its crevices and fault lines, and probe its moral status. Today, they might well fufill a similar function, for when the Martians attack, who - except the dead - will not be a refugee?

Henrique Alvim Correa, 1906 illustration to War of the Worlds


Feenberg, Andrew (1995) Alternative Modernity: The Technical Turn in Philosophy and Social Theory, Berkeley: University of California Press

Manjikian, Mary (2012) Apocalypse and Post-politics: The Romance of the End, Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.

Wells, H. G. (2005[1898) The War of the Worlds, New York: Aladdin Classics.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

The Anthropocene as Utopian promise?

J. J. Grandville, Juggler of the Universe
Lately, its not hard to come across studies criticizing the concept of the "Anthropocene" in favour of that of the "Capitalocene". The basic argument is that the former is ideological since it masks the fact that it's not humanity in the abstract, but capitalism that bears the responsibility for the unfolding ecological catastrophe (see e.g. Malm 2016; Moore 2015:77; cf. Malm & Hornborg 2014).

Yesterday I came across an article by Daniel Cunha - "The Anthropocene as Fetishism" - which offers an alternative way to criticize this problematic concept. While the argument that the concept of the Anthropocene is ideological is present in the article, I think that its most interesting and original contribution lies elsewhere. Rather than simply denouncing the concept, it shows how the horror it inspires can be understood as an effect of capitalism. 

If the arrival of the Anthropocene means that humanity is now in charge, then why are we terrified of it? Why does it seem, to so many of us, to spell doom rather than liberation? The obvious answer, as Cunha points out, is alienation. We're terrified of ourselves. Under capitalism, humanity confronts itself as a deadly force threatening all life with extinction, as a terrifying "second nature" that cannot be controlled. "That Man is presented as a blind geologic force, such as volcanic eruptions or variations in solar radiation, is an expression of the naturalized or fetishized form of social relations that is prevalent in capitalism" (Cunha 2015: 68).

However, Cunha reminds us that the notion of the Anthropocene also contains a Utopian kernel of truth, an "unfulfilled promise" - namely that of a liberated humanity able to reshape its world through an interplay with nature (ibid. 65). This is certainly a startling claim and it's a safe guess that many environmentalists will find it provocative. Yet the history of Utopian thought does lend support to Cunha's claim. We only need to turn to Charles Fourier to bring a particularly unblemished version of this Utopian vision of the Anthropocene into focus. Here it's important not to get put off by Fourier's seeming craziness - by his bizarre visions of copulating planets, lemonade seas and a mutated humanity illuminated by two suns and four moons. Often it's precisely in the most outrageous and hallucinatory visions that Utopian longings shine forth most clearly.

Walter Benjamin too was charmed by this vision and found traces of a similar Utopian intermingling of technology and nature in Leonardo da Vinci and early Mickey Mouse movies. By way of illustration, let me quote a well-known passage from "To the Planetarium" (written 1923-26) - a passage in which it isn't hard to hear echoes of Fourier:
It is the dangerous error of modern men to regard this experience [ecstatic contact with the cosmos] as unimportant and avoidable, and to consign it to the individual as the poetic rapture of starry nights. It is not; its hour strikes again and again, and then neither nations nor generations can escape it, as was made terribly clear by the last war, which was an attempt at new and unprecedented commingling with the cosmic powers. Human multitudes, gases, electrical forces were hurled into the open country, high-frequency currents coursed through the landscape, new constellations rose in the sky, aerial space and ocean depths thundered with propellers, and everywhere sacrificial shafts were dug in Mother Earth. This immense wooing of the cosmos was enacted for the first time on a planetary scale – that is, in the spirit of technology. But because lust for profit of the ruling class sought satisfaction through it, technology betrayed man and turned the bridal bed into a bloodbath. The mastery of nature, so the imperialists teach, is the purpose of all technology. But who would trust a cane wielder who proclaimed the mastery of children by adults to be the purpose of education? Is not education, above all, the indispensable ordering of the relationship between generations and therefore mastery, if we are to use this term, of that relationship and not of children? And likewise technology is the mastery of not nature but of the relation between nature and man. Men as a species completed their development thousands of years ago; but mankind as a species is just beginning his. [...] The paroxysm of genuine cosmic experience is not tied to that tiny fragment of nature that we are accustomed to call "Nature”. In the nights of annihilation of the last war, the frame of mankind was shaken by a feeling that resembled the bliss of the epileptic. And the revolts that followed it were the first attempt of mankind to bring the new body under its control. The power of the proletariat is the measure of its convalescence. If it is not gripped to the very marrow by the discipline of this power, no pacifist polemics will save it. Living substance conquers the frenzy of destruction only in the ecstasy of procreation. (Benjamin 1997: 103f)
In pointing to the Utopian side of this "wooing of cosmos", it shouldn't be forgotten that it appears Utopian today only because it is antithetical to the real, capitalist society that blocks its realization. Neither Benjamin nor Cunha are apologists of that society or of the "Anthropocene" in its capitalist version - a version that denies the human capacity to act by presenting social processes as natural and that exploits real nature for no purpose other than capital accumulation. As Cunha suggests, it is precisely in order to fight capitalism that it is important to keep this "unfulfilled" Utopian promise of the Anthropocene in mind:
And yet what emerges here is a truly utopian perspective, the promise of the realization of the Anthropocene, not as an anthropological constant or a “natural” force, but as a fully historical species-being that consciously controls and gives form to the material conditions of the planet. If, as put by the young Marx, alienated labor alienates Man’s species-being, the liberatory reorganization of social-material interchange would unleash the species potential that is embedded, though socially negated, in the “Anthropocene.” Geoengineering and advanced technology in general freed from value-form and instrumental reason could be used not only to solve the climate problem, but also, as Adorno wrote, to “help nature to open its eyes,” to help it “on the poor earth to become what perhaps it would like to be.” Advanced forces of production imply that Fourier’s poetic utopian vision recalled by Walter Benjamin could be materialized.
cooperative labor would increase efficiency to such an extent that four moons would illuminate the sky at night, the polar ice caps would recede, seawater would no longer taste salty, and beasts of prey would do man’s bidding. All this illustrates a kind of labor which, far from exploiting nature, would help her give birth to the creations that lie dormant in her womb. [quote from Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History", No. XI]
Even the elimination of brutality in nature (predation) and the abolition of slaughterhouses through the production of synthetic meat nowadays seem within theoretical reach with “genetic reprogramming” and stem-cell technology. That goes beyond the wildest Marcusean utopian dreams. Of course, this requires a social struggle that subverts the production determined by the valorization of value and frees, first of all, human potential. On the other hand, with business as usual, we are likely to see our material future on Earth being determined by the interest rate, emergency geoengineering, and chance. (Cunha 2015: 74)
There's no denying that some of the assertions in this passage are disturbing. The affirmation of geoengineering and genetic reprogramming is likely to make the hair stand on end on most environmentalists, even if these things are "freed from value-form and instrumental reason".

At the same time, environmentalists could also find things to praise in the passage. It goes beyond the rigid dualism between nature and society that has often been an impediment and stumbling block in environmental struggles. It opens up for a red-green alliance by suggesting that the goal of such struggles could be a liberated nature for a liberated humanity, rather than a wilderness leaving no room for human beings.

To borrow Benjamin's formulation, nothing says that a Utopian take on the Anthropocene would have to imply human "mastery over nature". A humanity that "consciously controls and gives form to the material conditions of the planet" wouldn't have to realize the extravagant visions of Fourier or present-day geoengineers. Liberated from the spell of the value-law and the need for constant expansion, humanity would no longer be compelled to ravage nature at all, but might chose to limits its powers or to use them to preserve biodiversity and natural habitats. Asked what emancipation would mean, Adorno rejects the answer that it would enable a free and unhampered satisfaction of the ego, whose desires are in any case all too often implanted by the very capitalism from which it is supposed to seek liberation. In what sounds like an oblique riposte to Benjamin's embrace of Fourier, he suggests that emanicpation might well imply limitation and passivity, rather than process and action:

Perhaps the true society will grow tired of development and, out of freedom, leave possibilities unused, instead of storming under a confused compulsion to the conquest of strange stars. A mankind which no longer knows want will begin to have an inkling of the delusory, futile nature of all the arrangements hitherto made in order to escape want, which used wealth to reproduce want on a larger scale. (Adorno 1987:156f)

"Rien faire comme une bête, lying on water and looking peacefully at the sky", he adds, might well replace process and action as an image of emancipation (ibid 157). Emancipation, then, doesn't mean the satisfaction of desires, but the ability to come to one's senses and reflect on whether one's desires are really worthwhile or not. Surely it's this ability to choose that Benjamin aims for when he writes that the technology of a post-capitalist future wouldn't aim for mastery over nature, but rather for mastery over the relation to nature.

However, putting aside the question of how to evaluate these assertions, it's interesting to observe how Cunha builds up his argument. It's dialectical, much like what we see in thinkers like Adorno, Benjamin or Marcuse. It points out, on the one hand, that we're dealing with ideology. But on the other, it also points to a Utopian kernel in the concept that we can discover by immanent criticism and use to attack the ideology. Cunha's article shows, I think, how the dialectical approach typical of early critical theory can make an interesting contribution today next to other Marxist currents that in various ways are also trying to make Marx fruitful for the understanding of environmental problems - currents like Eco-Marxism or the "production of nature"-approach. The article's affinity to early critical theory is shown both in the way critique procedes immanently and in the steadfastness with which it holds onto an unabashed, provocative Utopianism that is lacking or more subdued in the other Marxist currents.

J. J. Grandville, Un autre monde (1844)


Adorno, T. W. (1987) Minima Moralia, London: Verso.

Benjamin, Walter (1997) “One-Way Street”, pp. 45-106, in One-Way Street, London: Verso.

Cunha, Daniel (2015) “The Anthropocene as Fetishism”, Mediations 28(2): 65-77.

Malm, Andreas (2016) Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming, London: Verso.

Malm, Andreas & Hornborg, Alf (2014) "The Geology of Mankind? A Critique of the Anthropocene Narrative", The Anthropocene Review 1(1): 62-69.

Moore, Jason (2015) Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, London: Verso.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Gripping or feeling? (Quote of the month)

This one's an old classic - the final line of Baudelaire's The Stranger:
- Well then! What do you love, unfathomable stranger? 
- I love the clouds… the passing clouds … up there … up there … the marvelous clouds!
I recalled these lines this morning as I went to work. Or rather: I thought of the balance between grasping and letting go. I thought of the ambivalence of the hand, which is both sensory organ and grapple. Imagine a man, a sensitive person who wishes in secret for his hands to be transformed into feelers. A man who wishes that he could spend his life without ever having to grasp or hold on to anything. Would such a man be possible? The wish, at any rate, would be possible. It's there in Baudelaire's "stranger". In the flâneur, content to move through the swarming city that abounds in dreams, savouring the spectacle of things he will never be part of. This man never clutches. He never grabs hold of things. He lacks the desire to possess, and he never says: "this belongs to my life, without it I cannot live!". It's easy to despise such a man, I suppose, but at the same time there's something angelic about him.

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