What Giselle wrote in about “abundance” and “sustainability” on a previous post on David Harvey’s views got me thinking. I originally wrote this in reply to her comment, but thought it would be better etiquette as a post since it turned into a full blown rant. So here is my riff on Giselle’s comment:
A political change and a change in the language of politics has seen the notion of “abundance”, a “land of of milk and honey” invoked by nearly every socialist, transform into a vile consumerist earth-killing notion of well fed, elite Western workers in the minds of many. In some ways that journey is odd, because it misses what is common to both, but Marxists are not without blame in some of the confusion. However, I think underlying most of the confusion is the fact that the things essential to our survival are also commodities. Food and the like are not primarily produced for people’s use, but for exchange value. What feeds us kills us; no wonder there’s confusion. The change in language, to say nothing of the confusion, has most certainly been conditioned by the current ecological crisis and the various reactions to it. Some of this is just a difference over how words are used and the context in which they are used, some of it a difference of ideas and interests.
An abundance of certain things seems to me to be absolutely essential; scarcity breeds war and bureaucracy to say nothing of ensuring against unforseens and nature’s nature. It’s always wise to fill the granary with more than enough grain before the winter winds arrive. It remains a truism (deserving of dialectical unraveling) that we must satisfy certain needs before we can even begin to explore “the better angels of our nature” (Lincoln’s use of words is enough to earn him “greatest President” title). “Abundance” can only then be measured in the number of healthy years well lived (the “well” of which we freely define). That’s clearly Harvey’s position too.
I think, for Marxists, by “abundance” was often meant the material foundation on which freedom as the “consciousness of necessity” could be based. It has never meant simply a mass of commodities or even of goods only realized for their use. In many ways Marxists have meant the end of the commodity and the redefinition of use. Obviously an ever expanding capitalist market, with all of its “abundance”, has proven incapable of providing even the most basic of needs to billions of people. “Abundance” can not be purchased in any marketplace; it requires social equality and democratic planning, two things definitely not on offer by even the most benign imaginable of capitalist regimes.
One of the reasons I think that leftists don’t talk about sustainability so much (some do) is the kind of branding that the notion has undergone thanks to those wily eco-capitalists. Of course, by “sustainability” they mean their profits. I too, like the idea, first and foremost because it implies long term planning and a relationship with the earth (even if limited to the earth’s resources). I like even better the notion of forging an economy to heal the “metabolic rift” between our society and nature. But that is hardly a slogan for a placard.
In any case, we have to leave behind utterly the idea that only an expanding economy is a healthy economy; quite the opposite in fact. A healthy economy is sustainable, but it is also dynamic. Making sustainability and dynamism common features requires the emancipation of labor. One of the proofs of the best of Marxism’s own dynamism is that, in the last decade or so, the view of alienation (and therefore the ‘root’ of our species distress) has changed dramatically. No longer is it possible to talk about the alienation of labor without talking also about alienation from nature.
The best of Marxism has met the challenge of the current social and ecological crisis with by placing our conflict with nature at the feet of our conflicted labor. If labor is understood as the point at which nature is transformed, then labor also become the medium of our relationship with nature. When our labor has been alienated, even as it was in eras well before capitalism’s reign, our relationship with nature has as well. Reclaiming our labor means reclaiming our relationship with nature; reclaiming our relationship with nature means reclaiming or labor. Compare this, Marxist, response to the ecological crisis nearly all agree is upon us to that of the capitalists and their ideologues.
Kicking and screaming most have come to the acceptance of blatant facts. Their solution in the face of catastrophe? The best of them offer the banality of words and the wise hand of the market (late cause of said catastrophe), where pollution can now be traded along with coal and Lysol comes printed with a little green leaf assuring its harmony with Mother Earth. All of capitalism’s perfidy and sordid talent is on display in the new field of environmental advertising.
Many of the most committed and sincere environmentalists are too often trapped within the framework of commodity production. As if the problem were what we produced, or even how, rather than our system of reproduction. I have heard the most radical analysis on the scale and scope of the crisis only to end in a program of urban farming (I’m not at all opposed to urban farms). What is always missing is the agency of the working class, and through them, socialized production. And yet the response of many Marxists (not without some kicking and screaming) has been to reconceptualize, to begin from the beginning again, the way we view our relationship with nature.
A kind of new Prometheanism has emerged; one in which liberated humanity recovers nature’s fire from an expropriating Lord. That lord is not Nature Blind but the blindness of the market. Fire is such a perfect metaphor for nature; it is energy, it transforms matter, it warms homes and cooks our meals and yet it will scorch the greenest pasture without a thought. Nature is not to dominate, but neither can there be a complacency in our relationship. Our relationship will always be fraught with tension. We are, after all, mortal. However that tension can be dynamic instead of destructive…if we give up trying to resolve it. Mortality is the number one reason to live, that we haven’t found our way to make it worth living is a realization of Hell.
“Ecology” has (to be) been placed at the center of our current framework; gone are the base Promethean notions of humanity’s domination of nature that were so much a part of past Marxist discourse. The trend developed by folks like Walt Sheasby, Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster twenty years ago (begun by looking back to Marx) has profoundly shaped the changing response of Marxists to these issues. These changes can’t but be welcomed; the framework they begin to provide is essential if we are to answer the crisis in a way worthy of its seriousness.