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Eve's Review

As the Earth Dies...

"The Robbery of Nature"

John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark

Monthly Review Press, 384 pages

 

Eve Ottenberg

The earth is dying and capitalism is to blame. Facing this, one can opt for hope, as Marxist ecosocialists do, or one can succumb to pessimism fed by dark thoughts on human nature and the intractable, deadly persistence of our economic system of exploitation. Human nature has a destructive and murderous side, while capitalism, expressing that side with its endless growth, endless greed, blights the planet like cancer. Yet Marxist ecosocialists do not let this drag them down to despair. They talk about fixing what humanity has wrought, about drastically cutting carbon emissions, about mitigating the sixth mass extinction, about decreasing plastics and other environmental toxins and doing so while providing for the necessities of life, including, as John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark write in their newly published "The Robbery of Nature," "love, family, community, meaningful work, education, cultural life, access to the natural environment and the free and equal development of every person."

 

Such ecosocialism differs vastly from the technocratic ecomodernism espoused by, say "Jacobin" magazine. Technocratic approaches to the climate catastrophe are very popular these days, even on the left. To demolish them, Bellamy and Clark cite "Jacobin's" summer 2017 issue, "Earth Wind Fire." They argue that the "socialist" magazine did far worse than miss the boat; it steered it in the wrong direction, by touting technological fixes to global warming and pollution, as well as rapid growth in production, population control and the magic of the global free market. This doesn't sound like any socialism I'm familiar with, and indeed one idiotic "Jacobin" writer opined: "You CAN actually have infinite growth on a finite world." Uninhabitable earth – here we come!

 

This writer also adds, "our skyscrapers are not separate from nature, they ARE nature." As Bellamy and Clark argue, by this logic, "so are nuclear weapons." Another "Jacobin" contributor supports the astonishingly dangerous geoengineering of injecting "sulfur aerosols into the atmosphere to block the sun's rays." Many scientists have warned that this could be a calamity. Bellamy and Clark also critique carbon capture and sequestration plans, advocated by Christian Parenti in this "Jacobin" issue. The problem is one of scale. Bellamy and Clark quote one energy analyst: "In order to sequester just a fifth of current CO2 emissions, we would have to create an entirely new worldwide absorption-gathering-compression-transportation-storage industry whose annual throughput would have to be about 70 percent larger than the annual volume now handled by the global crude oil industry, whose immense infrastructure of wells, pipelines, compressor stations and storage took generations to build."

 

Ecosocialists have a more straightforward approach. They start by pinpointing the problem – capitalism. Bellamy and Clark argue Marx's ecological bona fides convincingly, by detailing his concern about a "metabolic rift." They quote Marx that capitalism creates an "irrevocable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself." Much of "The Robbery of Nature" debunks leftists who have dismissed Marx's environmentalism; but Marx asserted that capital loots nature as a "free gift." This, the ecosocialists argue, is the problem of capital's relation to the earth: plunder and deadly "externalities," i.e. pollution. According to Bellamy and Clark, Marx "emphasized that capital accumulation, through its rapacious expropriation of nature, inevitably promoted ecological destruction." He also wrote that capital's seizures of common people's property is "written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire."

 

"The Robbery of Nature" also argues that Marx was a proto-feminist and a food theorist. "The unhealthy and even poisonous contents of the Victorian working class diet was thus a key concern of Marx's food analysis." The book also documents Marx's views on alienated speciesism and his horror at capitalist animal abuse; one can only imagine his abhorrence of modern factory farming. But he never lost sight of the human impact of animal abuse: he noted that between 1855 and 1866, "1,032,694 Irishmen [were] displaced by about one million cattle, pigs and sheep."

 

The core of Marx's critique of capitalism is that it undermines "the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker." That is as true today as it was in the nineteenth century. Leftists, like the "Jacobin" writers that Bellamy and Clark cite, who do not argue for halting endless capitalist growth, who swoon over the magic of the global free market, are not socialists. Leftists who blame impoverished people for humanity's carbon footprint and advocate population control, instead of targeting the real carbon criminals, namely the affluent West, they are hardly socialists either. We have seen where endless growth leads: a poisoned atmosphere, an overheated planet and billions reduced to destitution. The ecosocialists argue that capitalism is a death cult. They are correct.

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Capitalism Versus Humanity

"Beyond Crisis"

Edited by John Holloway, Katerina Nasioka, Panagiotis Doulos

PM, 246 pages

$21.95

 

Eve Ottenberg

From today's perspective of Covid-19 mass death, the virtues of left-wing policies like Medicare for All are abundantly clear. Especially at the capitalist core, where, in the U.S., a stripped down, for profit, privatized, price-gouging, neoliberal health-care system has been proven wholly inadequate and been quickly swamped. Tens of millions cannot afford health insurance. They fall sick with Covid-19 and have a choice: suffer and spread the disease or go to a hospital, get treated and go bankrupt. M4A would correct that. In fact, every other plank of the Sanders campaign would correct similar abuses. In a sane world, that would lead to a leftish government to implement M4A, student loan forgiveness, progressive taxation and more. But this is not a sane world. And not all recent leftist governments have covered themselves with glory.

 

Take Greece. If ever there was a political party that betrayed its principles upon obtaining power, left-wing Syriza is that party. Elected on a wave of Greek disgust at EU austerity, Syriza held a referendum on whether Greeks should submit to that. The people resoundingly voted no, even at the risk of being booted out of the EU, whereupon Syriza promptly turned around and ignored the referendum. Not surprisingly, last July, a conservative party beat Syriza at the polls.

 

Was this a stunning instance of treachery by Syriza or was it something else? In the recently published essay collection, "Beyond Crisis," one of the authors, John Holloway, argues it was something else, that for the last 30 years governments have adopted neoliberal policies "not because the leaders are traitors, but because that is the world in which governments are forced to operate." An economy based on debt, deployed to ram austerity down the throats of workers and the middle class – that is contemporary, globalized, financialized and seemingly inescapable capitalism. Left-wing states – Greece, Venezuela, Bolivia – "have been unable (or unwilling) to break the dynamic of capitalist development."

 

According to Theodoros Karyotis' essay, in Greece "a sovereign debt crisis has been used as a pretext for a massive operation of wealth transfer from the popular classes to the local and international capitalist class." Sound familiar? It should. It's life as normal in the U.S., where every time the stock market shudders, political leaders become hysterical and demand that the Fed throw billions down the toilet to rescue the rich. Of course, what is also flushed away is social welfare; tax revenues which could decrease college tuition or subsidize medical care go to ceos, rich corporations and their dividends. As Holloway argues, it's capitalism versus humanity.

 

This was already clear in another sphere: the climate crisis. There, capitalism sentences us to an unlivable planet, so that in the short term, fossil fuel corporations can rake in profits. With Covid-19, as with the climate, capitalism reveals its fundamental anti-human nature. "Capitalism has become our destiny," Holloway writes. "And more and more it seems that this destiny is death…Yet we resist…because resistance is the defense of what we understand as our humanity, as our dignity…Capital flees from us…It may flee geographically in search of a more docile or more malleable labor. It also flees into technology, replacing us with machines." He argues that we are in a stalemate "where capitalism is unable to tame us sufficiently," and we haven't created an alternative. This was written before Covid-19. So it does not account for the chance that capitalism may destroy itself. Its refusal to resuscitate the welfare state, its refusal to forgive debt, may undo it.

 

The 2020 financial crisis could become a depression. If so, we are not in uncharted waters. We know what that looks like. We can refer to the 1930s or glance at the carcass of Greek society after the banks bled it dry and tossed it in the dumpster. Misery for almost everyone. Unimaginable luxury for a very few. Now we have the added disaster of Covid-19. A plague that ravages a population which cannot afford health care. Overwhelmed hospitals where bodies pile up in the corridors. You can be sure there will be no shortage of ventilators for plutocrats. Still, that may not save them.

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