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.

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