Radical Ecological Democracy

Searching for alternatives to unsustainable and inequitable model of ‘development’


REDWeb Anniversary Series -Marx and Political Ecology

Omar Dahbour

Marxian theory is usually connected to environmental concerns through the attempt to provide an explanation for the historical origins of climate change, species extinction, and other facets of the contemporary ecological crisis [eg Foster 2000, Moore2015, Malm 2016]. However trenchant such attempts are, they leave open the nature of alternatives to regimes of capital accumulation that despoil and devastate natural habitats. This is because Marx’s own work, while innovative in its reaffirmation of the intimate connections between nature and humanity( through labor), still relied on a rationalistic and humanistic conception of emancipation derived from his philosophical predecessors (especially Feuerbach and Hegel). Clearly, socialism/communism was meant to address particular social ills (eg the exploitation of wage labor), not to change the relation of humanity to nature instantiated in an industrial capitalist society (at least not directly).

Here, I leave aside explanations for the advent of climate change and other environmental ills affecting the planet as a whole (ie the biosphere), and consider what political ecologists might learn from revisiting certain Marxian ideas about labor, capital, and nature. By political ecology, I mean the study of humans in their connection to particular ecosystems, and the environmental goods and services needed to maintain human life (Robbins 2004). While political ecologists have tended to study peoples in the Global South who are still intimately connected to ecosystems for their sustenance (eg peasants, hunter-gatherers, nomadic peoples), the approach need not be limited to that. In general, it concerns conflicts over resources, and the equitable and sustainable (i.e. just) resolution of these conflicts. One aspect of this comparison, then, is to ask what Marxian theory might have to say about environmental justice, in general. I conclude that, while Marx’s ideas clearly inspire some new work in this field, it is also important to note that an understanding of environmental justice based on political-ecological research would diverge in some important ways from what is usually regarded as Marxian theory.

Marx and Environmental Justice

Probably, the most important contribution that Marx has made to environmental justice movements is the simple idea of entitlement to or ownership of the means of production by the producers. While Marx did not make a normative argument that this was the right of workers and other producers, he showed how the threatened loss of control over such means of production is a continual spur to working people to resist that loss, or to reclaim their control. This idea differs from most conceptions of justice, which concentrate on determining an overall just scheme of distribution, based on certain moral principles. The idea of entitlement justifies a more intrinsic connection between producers and the goods that they produce—in Marx, as an entitlement of the working class, based on their labor power.

The idea of just entitlement has its origins in John Locke’s justification of private property, where it is the individual’s actions in “mixing” their labor with nature that “begins” or creates the property (right). But Marx makes a crucial innovation in the entitlement idea—that, since labor is a fundamentally social interaction with nature, any proper entitlement is a communal, not individual, one. It is the class, group, or community that labors and produces that is entitled to ownership of what they work upon.

Political ecology advocates for the recognition of the legitimate claims of communities to the natural resources found on the land that sustains them. Photo – Ashish Kothari

Of course, while Marx focused on industrial workers as the entitled class, contemporary political ecologists focus on peasants, agricultural laborers, tribal peoples, and nomadic and/or hunter-gatherer groups as the peoples who have legitimate claims to natural resources. But the idea of entitlement is similar in both instances. This difference indicates, however, how political ecology, while drawing on some Marxian notions, nevertheless departs significantly from Marxian conceptions of social labor and class struggle.

This Marxian idea of the ownership of production is important today especially(though not exclusively) in the “Global South,” where there is a massive land and resource grab by corporations and states going on that has been referred to as “accumulation by dispossession” [Harvey 2003]. In Marx’s work, this process was regarded as “primitive accumulation,” in the sense of an original acquisition of materials (and labor) necessary to start capital accumulation. Initially,Marx regarded this process as occurring largely in the European countries. But he eventually came to see how this process was extending itself in the Americas, in India, and in other world regions.

  1. Ideas from Political Ecology

Several ideas in political ecology have set the context of struggles for environmental justice in the contemporary period. These ideas both draw on the Marxian heritage of critical theory, and challenge it in other ways. They are concerned with three things—the very ideas of society and nature/ecology, the understanding of property relations, and the nature of conflicts arising from them.

First, in political ecology, the idea of society is often replaced by a notion of socioecological systems, particular ecosystems that involve distinctive adaptations of human groups to physical environments [Berkes and Folke 1998]. Another similar concept sometimes used is that of the natural economy–the idea that human economies are embedded in natural systems that enable goods and services necessary for human life to be produced. To some extent, these notions are normative ones, inasmuch as they suggest a sustainable form of human production and consumption of goods that preserves biomass and the ability of ecosystems to replenish resources as they are used. But environmentally unsustainable economic systems that overuse natural resources by generating waste through non-cyclical processes, carbon- rather than solar-based energy production, and chemical-intensive agricultural practices that result in soil depletion are also socioecological systems. They are simply ones that engage in irrational and unsustainable uses of resources.

Second, the related notions of the commons, common pool resources, and common  property designate resources (as well as the means for managing them) that are hard to parcel out to individuals and therefore seem to require non-private forms of use and ownership. Examples include forests, fisheries, and other types of land and water resources. The existence of these resources has historically resulted in forms of property that are separate from both individual/private and state/public forms. The commons is itself an institution found in many countries and regions historically. Its existence suggests that markets and states do not exhaust the options for the management of resources, but that there are other practices that may provide more sustainable maintenance of natural economies [Ostrom 1990].

Indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources is bound to result in conflicts between indigenous communities and external economic interests.

Third, political ecologists refer to struggles over the allocation of resources as ecological distribution conflicts [Martinez-Alier2002]. These conflicts are the result of the tremendous variability that human beings have in using resources for the maintenance of life. This variability leads to conflict, not only between humans and other species, but also between human communities themselves. Such conflicts are the result of the fact that humans have no set patterns for using energy and other material resources. Consequently, differences between forms of use, and struggles over which should prevail, have been characteristic of human history for millennia. With the tremendous increase in human populations in the last two hundred years, and the corresponding resource depletion that certain forms of use entail, such conflicts have occurred at an accelerating rate.

2. Marxian Themes in Political Ecology

Political ecology has, at least in part, been based on an application of some ideas from historical materialism to contemporary struggles for environmental justice.Each of the three central concepts mentioned above has some connection to central themes in the materialist approach to historical struggles over wealth and resources. First, the idea of socioecological systems echoes the Marxian idea of a necessary and continual connection between human social systems and nonhuman life and resources. This connection, elaborated in a number of texts from the “German Ideology” onward, was claimed as a fundamental feature of all forms of human social life. The mediation between humans and nonhumans was, of course, the human labor necessary to transform materials into means for the satisfaction of needs, basic and otherwise. But this mediation, as Marx emphasized, was neither one that could be assumed, or transcended, in more industrialized societies, nor one that was stable and ongoing. On the contrary, the design and maintenance of systems of resource extraction, based on human laboring on nonhuman materials, was subject to continual change. As new forms of labor (often in relation to new technologies) and of resource use emerged, the social systems that organized labor for maximally efficient production of needs satisfactions also changed. Consequently, there could be no“post-material” economy or society, for the reason that an ongoing connection to the sources of human life and health was always necessary.

Second, the idea of common pool resources—resources owned and maintained by non-market and non-state collectives—is similar to Marx’s concept of communal ownership in pre-capitalist societies. In the “Grundrisse” and elsewhere, he wrote of the importance of studying historical forms of non-capitalist ownership as intimations of future, post-capitalist forms. While the fact that such“commons” institutions would have survived into the 21st century would have no doubt seemed strange to him, Marx nevertheless emphasized the importance of realizing that what appears to be a simple binary opposition within capitalist societies, between private (capitalist) or public(state-owned) enterprises, is historically exceptional.

 Third, the idea of conflicts over the distribution of environmental goods and services bears a resemblance to Marx’s concept of “primitive accumulation.” The latter constituted the consolidation of land ownership for non-subsistence production(ie commercial crops), plus the separation of the land-holding population from their holdings, thereby creating a supply of unskilled labor. Both served as spurs to the development of capitalist enterprises, with the acquisition of natural materials, and the employment of available labor power. Today, the process of primitive accumulation continues, with conflicts between small holding peoples, often subsistence farmers (or fishing peoples), and businesses intent on acquiring new lands for plantation agriculture, commercial fisheries, and so on. The inevitable accompaniment of this is the expansion of an impoverished landless population, which in turn provides labor power for expanding urban construction and for industrial enterprises of all sorts.

3. Limitations of the Marxian Paradigm for Environmental Justice

Despite these similarities between Marx’s description of the capital accumulation process and contemporary processes of environmental exploitation and resistance to it, there are important limitations to viewing today’s environmental distribution conflicts as straightforwardly anti-capitalist struggles, such asMarx advocated.  Specifically, there are four major limitations to the use of Marxian theory—differences between class struggles and environmental conflicts, changes in productive processes and the value of labor, the distinction between workers’ and peoples’ ownership of productive resources, and the importance of (environmental) justice claims as an antidote to the “domination of nature.”

While ownership of the means of production was a basic demand of workers’ movements and, in very different contexts today, ecological resistance movements, the differences are almost as great as the similarities. For the working class, on Marx’s view, ownership enabled them to take control of the products and proceeds from industrial processes in which they were the creators of value. Of course, many questions were left unanswered in the articulation of this view; among others, how, in an industrial economy, workers could primarily produce for themselves, or whether markets would in fact continue to play an important role in the distribution of goods and services. Furthermore, with the increasing mechanization of industrial technologies, it became less apparent that workers were the primary creators of value—and if not, why they were still entitled to ownership of firms. With the increasing role of advanced technology in many industries, the role of scientists and engineers seemed at least to take on a much more important one in the creation of value (as compared to abstract labor power). In addition, the professional-managerial class that partly maintained the technical plants (as well as “managing” the labor force) experienced tremendous growth in numbers and as a percentage of the workforce apart from owners and workers. These changes in the composition of the labor force and in the character of industrial production have made the classical Marxian view more difficult to justify

But the problem for environmental struggles is a somewhat different one. It is often the case that the producers in agricultural and extractive enterprises do have a primary—though perhaps not exclusive—role in the production of goods and services. Their claim to ownership seems to be a good one. But, from Marx’s point of view, they are otherwise unqualified to own because they are supposedly incapable of joint actions to take power over the productive process. Their location at dispersed rural, often solitary, worksites suggests that peasants, farmers, fishery workers, miners, forestry workers, and so on do not work in a socially cooperative enough way to enable them to own and manage their enterprises—or at least that’s what Marxians have claimed. It is only, on this view, the workers in industrial firms that have this ability to cooperate in workplaces and therefore to organize politically as well.

Local communities have traditionally taken the lead in planning for the conservation of their commons. A village council meeting in Mendha Lekha, Maharashtra, India. Photo – Ashish Kothari

This conclusion is contradicted, first, by the investigations of informal management of commons land and resources that has occurred and continues to occur in many parts of the world. Such management involves cooperative enforcement of rules and other norms within rural, small village, and agricultural settings. It is the supposedly atomized peasant populations of such environments that have played a crucial role in the sustainable and resilient maintenance of ecosystem goods and services in many such locations. The rural history of many world regions has also documented that, from the great peasant revolts of past centuries to the environmental struggles of the present, it has been “ecosystem peoples”—those with a direct and personal relation to “natural” resources who have most successfully challenged regimes of capital accumulation [Wolf 1982, Gadgil and Guha 2000]. Industrial workers, after all, are frequently enmeshed in a social system that does not enable them to envisage their own independence from regimes of labor control and exploitation. As individuals, they have no direct connection to the means of sustenance, but are dependent upon a wage-oriented economy. Today, it is those who are still, to one degree or another, outside this economy that can see most clearly what is at stake in struggles for control of resources.

This is reflective of a second problem with applying Marxian theory to environmental conflicts. Recent work on the process of primitive accumulation has shown that value in the productive process lies just as much in the acquisition of inexpensive natural materials as inputs into production, as it does in the exploitation of labor itself. Raw materials, energy, water, and other inputs must be procured cheaply in order for production to “take off”—and it is this, as much as the use of cheap labor, that is the source of profit. This perhaps is the underlying reason that struggles to procure such “cheap nature” have been as important for capital as the struggles to keep the cost of labor down[Mies and Bennholdt-Thomsen 1999, Moore 2015]. Furthermore, it is opposition to such despoliation of nature for capital accumulation that appears to hold the greatest promise for halting both such destructive uses and reducing the exploitation inherent in capitalist economies.

What this means, as a third limitation of the Marxian view, is that, just as the opposition to environmental destruction will come, not from the working class but from peoples who have a stake in maintaining nonindustrial socioecological systems, so these systems will not necessarily benefit from workers’ control over industrial societies. Though the Soviet Union was in no real sense a“workers’ state,” it was an attempt, through the creation of a state-bureaucratic class, to organize an industrial society without a capitalist class of owners. Surely it was indicative that eliminating such a class is no guarantee that environmental destruction will not proceed apace with the industrialization of society, whatever its structure of ownership [Bahro1982]. “Socialism” means different things; but there is little reason to think that in any of its guises—as long as it remains just a different way of organizing industrialization processes—it will be any less destructive of what remains of the natural world than capitalist markets have been. The need is fora socioecological system that does not depend on the industrial manufacture of products to satisfy the needs of an expanding consumer class—and “state capitalism,”“market socialism,” and the other hybrids on offer will all continue to do this.

Finally, there is the matter of justice—a concept that Marx thought limited to a juridical codification of existing social relations. Of course, there has been a lively debate over the last generation or more about whether or not there could be a concept of justice implicit in Marxian theory that goes beyond the juridical one. But it is fair to say that, even if there is, the critique of capitalist society by Marx was not (at least principally) that it was unjust. Marx was more concerned to specify the possible sources of political opposition to capital accumulation, rather than the ethical problems with it.

Reimagining Resistance – From Class Struggle to Climate Justice

Yet, this approach has not worked well, as critical theorists in the mid-twentieth century such as Adorno and Marcuse pointed out. If there was a moment when the industrial working class could have opted for an alternative to industrial capitalism, that moment is probably past. Today, it is under the “sign of nature” that opposition to capital is building. From the “climate justice” movement in the North to the peasant and ecological resistance movements in the South, hopes for a break with capital accumulation come from a critique of, and resistance to, “progress,” “development,” and other economic growth projects. But this opposition does not have as its basis any clear “subject position” (eg the working class), but rather a principled rejection of a certain conception of the good life, even if this rejection is rooted in alternative lifeworlds and practices. It is pretty clear that none of this was anticipated by Marx or other Marxists.

It is now the case that, to paraphrase Adorno, the moment to “realize philosophy” has passed; now is the moment to think again about what a socioecological system that does not destroy the bases for continued life on the planet would be. Philosophy—and in particular, the meaning of (environmental) justice—has an important role to play in this rethinking. It is not at all clear that the overcoming of capitalism—if that does not involve a further halt to the industrialized production of everything—will mean a move to a more environmentally just world.

In Marxian terms, the quest for climate justice depends on communities and people engaging in environmental stewardship of their ecosystems and laying claim to the ownership of their natural resources.

Certainly, to reiterate, the primary lesson to learn from the Marxian project is that peoples who need to sustain themselves directly from the ecosystems in which they live—and this is virtually all peoples, at least potentially—have a claim to ownership of the resources in those ecosystems. But it is also the case that, unless peoples engage in environmental stewardship of their ecosystems, they will forfeit a legitimate claim to them (or deplete the resources to an extent that there will be little left to claim). Environmental justice involves both claims of equity in the ownership and management of natural resources, and of sustainability in the maintenance and health of the ecosystems in which such resources are located. Despite the lack of attention in traditional Marxian theory to these considerations, it seems clear that a quasi-Marxian theory provides a better beginning for developing an adequate theory of environmental justice than other environmental philosophies on offer today (eg sustainable development, environmental pragmatism, “hybridism”—see J. Sachs 2015, Norton2005, Latour 2017).

Omar Dahbour is professor and chair of philosophy at Hunter College and Graduate School, CUNY. He teaches courses on political and environmental philosophy, philosophy of history, and critical theory, and is author, most recently, of Self-Determination without Nationalism: A Theory of Postnational Sovereignty (2013, Temple UP), as well as articles on such topics as ecology and territorial rights, and global versus social justice.


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