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)!


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