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.
In my opinion the time frame and the forces involved tend to give the advantage to the capitalists on the issue of global warming. Not because they are doing anything or are going to do anything but because at this juncture in history they are the only ones who could do anything and waiting even a little while doesn’t seem like an attractive option. Of course Copenhagen is a failure of immense historic proportions (though no surprise to me) and may well make the history books as so. Certainly it is an education. Where I think the environmental concerns will likely end up most directly impacting struggles though is in dealing with the aftermath of these failures, struggles over resources, for survival, reparations etc. In a sense this is where the real environmental/ecological struggles really are already, dealing with the aftermath of industrial pollution and poisoning, control of and access to important resources, natural disasters like Katrina. I think the Western environmental movement is adapting to this reality. They certainly have never been able to achieve a majority on purely environmental grounds. The effectiveness of the demonizing of the global warming scientists was instructive in this regard. These struggles strike me as unlikely to play out quickly and I think these problems are too large and the present system too entrenched for any quick solution to be found. Our hope is that as these crises deepen that they are capable of generating the sort of struggle and solidarity necessary not only for a socialist alternative to capitalism but for adapting to what is likely to be a significantly changed landscape, both ecologically and in terms of the sorts of resources available. In some ways I think Cuba might actually be a really good example here in the way it had to adapt in its special period. And I wouldn’t characterize the character of this adaption as really sustainable, indeed maybe we are already seeing its disintegration (in the face of imperialism), but it got them by for a while and I think transitioning from capitalism may well look something like that, that is if we are successful. If not then I imagine it will look much more ugly.
Well said in all regards, dave. Agreed. That the conversation is at sustainability (for obvious reasons), when in some ways it should already be at (something like) reconstitution is one way of seeing how behind the curve we are. They are linked in their way, of course, but the picture you paint is a complicated one. What is does sustainability mean in a changed and changing environment? To me this where dynamism becomes so essential. I know the world is a it wishy-washy, but I think it might be taken as something like ‘variation’. Without that , there is no hope of navigating the ‘changing landscape’ you describe. Like you, I find it very hard to be optimistic given current realities. The point, as some dude said, was to change those realities though. It’s our only option. One of the things that should give us some hope is that if there is such a thing as human nature it involves, not just genetic variation and environmental adaption, but cultural variations and adaptions too. Not always a good thing, I suppose, it brought us the slavery and the Celebrity Apprentice, but it also brought us Marx and the workers movement and baseball. It was the Neandertal that sustained themselves for many hundreds of thousands of years (far longer than us) with a single Acheulean axe and blistered feet. We are not Neandertals and I am not willing to return to a world before Shakespeare, coffee and the electric guitar. SO we have to figure something out. Gloomy, yes.
Gloom, yes, in the sense of a downcast mood but also in the sense of uncertainty, murkiness, etc. Much depends on the trajectory taken by capitalism in its descent and so isn’t really visible now. Where there is uncertainty, gloom, there is still room for some modicum of hope. On the hopeful side many of the forms of social control that have been perfected in late capitalism seem likely to come under stress or even break down. This may provide the room necessary for some type of reconstitution of the working class(es) as a self-conscious actor. I will make one hypothesis. That bourgeois democracy is largely finished and that what replaces it will be, in some ways, a historical regression, like in some respects to fascism. How this ongoing development will impact the development of future struggle and class reconstitution I can’t say.
“We are not Neandertals and I am not willing to return to a world before Shakespeare, coffee and the electric guitar.”
I feel this completely and in feeling this way find I am at odd with certain trends in the former new left and its more recent offspring (fragments that they all are). The irrationalism of the period has driven its roots deep, everywhere. To see clearly is difficult, gloom everywhere. That is one of the reasons that I am sometimes suspicious of words like sustainability. I wonder if secretly they are codewords for civilizational retreat (though I do not think that it must be so).
RR – Thinking about the cosmos will promote a degree of humility – however you do yourself a degree of disservice. You know, if anything, too much.
Giselle -I am not knocking sustainability per se. However, I do think that if one starts to think about it seriously it can be hard to define. Perhaps a bit of a buzzword, and so I get suspicious of it. However one reasonably defines it, though, capitalism certainly isn’t it. As far as science goes, over the long haul of evolution and ecological development, sustainability doesn’t exist. Which just means then that it is a relative term. Sustainable over some general time frame barring the disasters one knows will eventually arrive.
No human being is sustainable, but it sure doesn’t stop us from doing everything we can to draw another breath. I think we’re pretty well confined to human time scales in our political proposals. It is remarkable how thoroughly we’ve been able to muck up our home in a few short centuries. After socialism maybe we can begin to think how to place our society in different time frames, but if we don’t work out pretty quickly the problems related to the present crisis, we’ll never have the chance to ponder the cosmos and revise our primitive notions.
It’s difficult to talk about nature because everyone, even children, has a conception of what nature is. Nature is located outside of the city. Nature is a state park. I wouldn’t know where to even begin trying to talk about nature in the way being discussed here.
Dave, I wonder if you could elaborate on the following: “The reality is that the ideological underpinnings of a notion like sustainability have not caught up with the latest science which points to the highly dynamic and complex character of ecological interactions.” I just find that it’s never much of a leap for people to see the folly in the short term drive for maximum profits. The problem lies in thinking that solutions are possible under capitalism ie if capitalists could just be less greedy. The liberal left is all for smaller profits but that belies the fact that the logic of capitalism won’t allow for it. I personally like the term “sustainability” because it succintly encompasses what I think socialists envision for rational, long-term, ecological economic planning. It’s not that difficult for people to wrap their minds around what that might look like. Of course, as socialists, we need to emphasize that capitalism and sustainability are irrevocably at odds…
I like the term sustainability too for all of the reasons you’ve listed. It seems like a perfectly ‘transitional’ response to folks current consciousness. Everyone’s talking about sustainability, but we know it’s not possible with capitalism, so lets highlight that and push that contradiction. Copenhagen helped to confirm that I think. Whatever the problems with the term, at the least, the discussions opened up by the notions behind it are exactly the kind of discussions we want to be in.
I like the surfing metaphor though somehow surfing vids always seem to remind me of how hopelessly terrestrial I am (though I had a fantasy once of joining the S.C. Longboard Union just so I could say I was doing R&F work in it). The metabolism metaphor I find more problematic (though I think Foster’s discussion of the metabolic rift interesting and insightful) as metabolism usually implies homeostasis.
I hear you on the need to eat. Not an easy problem to solve nowadays if it ever was. To paraphrase, Man (or woman) cannot survive on retail alone. Also on school. A class – an opportunity to fuck up that is itself composed of sub-opportunities to fuck up (around 2-5 five per class). Thus a college degree (30-40 classes) has a combined total of between 60-200 opportunities to fuck up. No doubt bosses think that someone who has managed to not fuck up 200 times in a row will make a reliable worker… The problem I had looking for work after I finally got my history degree (over ten years after I started) was at every interview, “well, we have management opportunities available.” Of course, academic work in the humanities is just about shot unless you have ivy league or equivalent credentials, all of which leaves maybe lawyering or secondary education or some sort of government work (or a paid servant of the union bureaucracy or else the ever popular ‘non-profits’ – mendicant orders of empire). How is an honest man/woman to make a living? One has a right to some modicum of happiness, to not have to constantly be a knight of self-abnegation. I don’t have any answers. I am not sure there are any, not now, not under capitalism. A previous generation suggested proletarianization. It has become glaringly apparent how unrealistic that is now. And the common alternatives all seem unsatisfying. Don’t know if you are interested in continuing in school (and why not if one gets something out of it, one loses only time and money that would be lost anyway doing something less interesting) but you might consider geography or environmental studies since you have such an interest. The academic situation might be better and there is always GIS work if that fails. (Sorry for my unsolicited thoughts, but being a recent history grad I have had think about this also… of course I decided to study computers. Programming seems somehow cathartic.)
The fact that when it comes to this stuff I can only think in metaphors is a pretty good indication of how little I actually know. I blame watching Cosmos as a kid, I always want to see the biggest picture and that doesn’t always mean seeing things in all of their complexity. Big questions demand big answers I suppose. I’m not sure how much more school I can handle, but with zero employment prospects I’ll probably continue on until they throw me in debtors prison.
Can’t write long as my semester is still winding up and everything is coming due soon. First I am a big fan of Harvey and others who try and take a geographical perspective on Marxist. I view the application of geographical concepts and techniques to materialist historiography (ie. ‘Historical Materialism’) (something which I suppose was pioneered by the Annales school) as a major advance. Also I think Harvey is right that Capitalism is a system that must grow and that this growth is driving its deep crises. Also I think this implies an inevitable end to Capitalism as a form of social organization (though not necessarily its replacement by socialism). You raise a number of key concepts which strike me as need deep and thoughtful engagement. One is ‘nature’ (often with a capital ‘N’) and another is ‘sustainability’. What is nature? What is sustainability? Personally, I find that these notions often become reified ideological terms in popular (and sometimes in scientific) environmental and ecological discourse. Out here in the west of the US the way environmental discourse gets tied up in imperialism and its projects is both deep and complex (themes that have been explored in different ways by environmental historians like William Cronon or political ecologists like Carolyn Merchant). The notion of ‘human nature’ has always been problematic in Marxism and with good reason (there is a long history of ideological misuse). On the other hand to reject any notion of human nature (in some sort of Hegelian promethianism) is to erect a divide between the ‘human’ and the ‘natural’ that is just as ideological and destructive. But then how to think about ‘human nature’? And how to think about this divide?
In regards to ‘sustainability’, what does this mean? To often carried inside this concept is some notion of a ‘balance of Nature’, or an inherent ‘natural order’, etc. I recommend Krichner’s Balance of Nature’ book as a useful scientific critique of this. As Marxists we have an advantage in this area as our ‘dialectical’ training can help us avoid thinking in these sorts of static ways. The reality is that the ideological underpinnings of a notion like sustainability have not caught up with the latest science which points to the highly dynamic and complex character of ecological interactions.
PS. congrats on graduating. I have always thought you had a degree in history, now everyone else does too…
there’s a lot in what you write, and I can’t say I am familiar with many of the writers you’ve mentioned. I’ll take you recommendation for Krichner’s book. It must be the “natural” disasters in the news lately (what’s natural about a plane not being able to fly?) that has got me thinking along possibly similar lines about “sustainability” meaning “balance” or “harmony”. Nature’s metabolism, of which we are a part, transfers its energies, occasionally, in ways that are anything but balanced or harmonious. I suppose the point is to have a society that can, like a surfer, expertly ride the waves of natures calms and surges. I saw a documentary recently about this surfer in California, now an elderly Jewish man, who doing his best to get surf boards to the besieged in Gaza. He described surfing in ways that would have delighted Carl Sagan. He said a surfer was as close to a primal hand on the forces of nature, the cosmos. Since then image has gone over in my head. It’s a great metaphor, in its way, for that relationship we have with nature. There is no balance between the surfer and the ocean; the constantly shifting waves make even the most expert run unsustainable, but to ride the crest- shifting your weight with the movement of the squall- seeing how long you can stay on top of it with the whole of the planets waters beneath you and the heavens above…that;s living. These things only go so far, obviously. But the it made me want to surf.
Thanks for the congratulations but I have one semester yet with which to fuck it all up. I resisted college for so many years and stubbornly insisted the movement was a better education. Four years at university hasn’t changed that opinion one bit, but a comrade’s gotta eat.