[Marxism] Forwarded from Jurriaan

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Dec 21 13:20:29 MST 2004

While I remember. There exists a very extensive Marxian literature on
environmental issues in German, but little is translated.

One particular work I unfortunately do not remember the name of, traced in
detail the ecological consequences of capitalism in terms of value theory.
Elmar Alvater was the first Marxist I know of, who from the beginning of his
scholarly career included environmental concerns in his writing.

For a discussion of Rudolf Bahro's views, see for example

Also  Bahro's Avoiding Social & Ecological Disaster: The Politics of World
Transformation,(Bath: Gateway Books, 1994). Bahro had a fling with the 
German Greens, but
left because he felt they had "sold out" politically.

Ernest Mandel wrote an essay in Dutch on Marxism and the environment in
1971, subsequent to the publication of the Mansholt Report (titled "The
dialectic of growth"). This essay was republished in German in Ernest
Mandel, Karl Marx: Die Aktualität Seines Werkes Frankfurt / Main: ISP
Verlag, 1984 as "Marxismus und Ecologie". I haven't translated it yet, but
aim to do so at some stage.  Alfred Schmidt's The Concept of Nature in Marx
was published in the same year. Inspired by all that, I wrote a small
article on the topic for New Zealand Monthly Review, which was republished
in International Viewpoint. As Richard S. Barnet argued in his prophetic
book Global Reach, the Western controversy that dominated the 1970s
concerned economic growth - but this discourse mixed ideas about the merits
of endless growth with the problems of economic recession. Once large
numbers of jobs were lost, the environmental movement caved in, and it grew
again only when the exhaustion of traditional political dividing lines
prompted a search for political alternatives

If I remember correctly, Mandel mainly argued, following Alvater who had
written a book in 1969 on the problem of external costs ("externalities") in
centrally planned economies (see Alvater, Gesellschaftliche Produktion und
oekonomische Rationalität), that capitalist production combines partial
rationality (economising at enterprise level) with overall irrationality
(offloading the communal costs of private enterprise activity on others).
Thus private property relations became an obstacle to solving environmental
problems, and "production for production's sake" occurred regardless of the
overall consequences.

Next, the capitalist economy had no way of valuing environmental costs
except through imputed prices, legal strictures or arbitrary taxes, but it
was unclear that a price could be put on non-reproducible public goods or on
the quality of human life itself, and insofar as taxes could not be dodged,
they would be opposed, if they significantly eroded profitability. Finally,
technological development and innovation was not "neutral", but followed the
priorities of profitability and sales, which meant that whether new
technologies or products were healthy or progressive could often not be
established until many years after they were introduced.

Mandel therefore endorsed the idea that it was justifiable to block new
technologies or products if insufficient proof existed that they did not
cause real harm to human life. Nevertheless Mandel rejected eco-alarmism,
arguing that doomsayer theories were based on extrapolations from past
trends, i.e. they projected eco-disaster "if present trends continue". But
whether present trends would continue, depended in good part on conscious
human agency and human action, which could divert eco-disaster, and change
social relations. An additional problem was that the causal concatenation of
environmental effects was often very difficult to define and quantify,
because of the great complexity of the interaction of many different
factors. This made it easy for problems which were social in origin to be
'naturalised', with the aid of some or other neo-Malthusian ideology. Mandel
was also inspired by Harry Rothman's pioneering book "Murderous Providence:
A study of Pollution in Industrial Societies".

The political difficulty of an anti-capitalist eco-politics however is that
in Soviet-type societies environmental despoilation was at least as bad, if
not worse, than in capitalist societies, as was thoroughly documented by
many authors. To a large extent, environmental problems were simply a
consequence of industrialism as such, and of population growth, although it
could be argued that Soviet-type societies often uncritically adopted
capitalist technologies, and that the lack of attention paid to ecological
issues in Marxism-Leninist ideology directly resulted from the
interpretation that environmental concerns were "petty-bourgeois" anxieties
(as well as from the adoption of a concept of "mastering nature" which
regarded the natural world only as a use-value for human beings and as a
means to develop the productive forces - a special reifying effect of
commodity fetishism).

In his book Population and Development, Frank Furedi argues that Western
anxieties about population growth say more about the cultural pessimism of
the Western elites, than showing a real concern with socio-economic
development of poor countries. He suggests that blaming poverty on
"excessive population growth" leads to a pragmatic, manipulative approach to
development issues which in reality marginalises the goals of development,
by imposing arbitrary limits on what people can achieve in advance.

This trend then feeds into the neoliberal argument that the poor are poor
because they are poor, by adding that the poor are poor because there are
too many of them. The focus then shifts from property relations and economic
exchange, to problems of cultural identity, gender issues, the longer term
sustainability of development and so forth; demography becomes an apology
for the inevitability of poverty, because further material development is
held to be unsustainable or even impossible. In reality, all the developed
capitalist countries suffer from excess productive capacity and there exists
a large surplus of capital which is not productively utilised, principally
because of low relative profitability and stagnating real wages.




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