I have the distinctly nerve-wracking pleasure of being the resident ecosocialist* charged with writing up a review of Kohei Saito’s Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy (hereafter KME), the latest academic tome read by the Past & Present Reading Group. In order to do this justice I will spend the first half of the review explicating the central rift within ecosocialist scholarship itself, before moving to discuss Saito’s contribution.
The unspoken context: Ecosocialist rifts
While it goes generally unexplored in KME, the context for this book is the ongoing cleavage between work in the tradition of so-called ‘first-stage’ ecosocialism, such as James O’Connor’s ‘second contradiction’, and scholarship in the tradition of the metabolic rift school, ‘second-stage’ ecosocialism, associated primarily with the work of John Bellamy Foster, Paul Burkett and Brett Clark. It is worth setting out some of the key aspects of this supposed opposition, which begins from the question of whether or not Marx had a fully-formed or coherent ecological theory.
The second contradiction is perhaps the quintessential theorisation of capitalism and ‘the environment’ from the ‘first-stage’ ecosocialists. James O’Connor theorised a second contradiction within capitalism, co-existing with the primary contradiction between labour and capital which tends to result in crises of overproduction (or demand-side crises of profit realisation). The second contradiction, O’Connor held, emerges as one of underproduction (supply-side crises), responding to capital’s expansionary imperative and the finite reproductive capacities of socio-ecological systems. In O’Connor’s original formulation, both the systematic degradation of the conditions of production and the social response to the ongoing appropriation of non-human nature can lead to economic crises. The restructuring of social relations following such crises presents opportunities for demonstrating the non-teleological resolution of crisis tendencies, and thus is a useful mechanism for movement-building. Many scholars following O’Connor have used this approach to reveal so-called ‘environmental limits’ as socially constructed, avoiding the political dead-end of Malthusianism.
As Alan Rudy has argued, the second contradiction often gets mistaken for an ‘ecological’ crisis, when it is more appropriately considered as a theorem of socio-ecological crisis and response, building from Neil Smith’s production of nature argument to see the conditions of (re)production as constantly (re)produced through human labour. Humans are part of nature, and through producing ourselves and non-human nature(s) in-and-against(-and beyond) the capital relation, we can combine and thus strengthen multivalent class struggle across socio-natures. The centering of human labour as the process through which we transform and are transformed by the rest of nature is regularly dismissed as constructivism – but this handy strawman can be neatly countered by some of the contemporary meditations on the ways humans transform and are transformed by the rest of nature, for example the work of Blanche Verlie, on climate and affect. These sorts of discussions help to deepen Smith’s production of nature thesis.
These arguments also tie to the materialist ecofeminist literature, and the double dialectic of socio-ecological reproduction in-and-against the capital relation. Jason W. Moore’s ‘world ecology’ takes this basic dialectic, or ‘double internality’, and considers it at the world-scale. The openness of this approach also makes it legible to the full array of struggles in-and-against the capital relation, embedded in socio-natures. Here in particular we can see the internal links to Indigenous sovereignty struggles.
The metabolic rift school begins from the premise that there is a coherent ecological theory in Marx’s existing work and thus the very premise of ‘first-stage’ ecosocialist theory is wrong. Rift scholars have been concerned to work out the nitty-gritty detail of how capital systematically degrades the ecological systems upon which all labour relies. It is essentially a variant of value-theory: the rift is a constitutive dynamic of capitalism, driven by the rupture between the town and country first induced by the event of industrialisation.
There is a great deal of good to be said about the metabolic rift school’s efforts to build, or parse, a form of ecosocialist theory from Marx’s existing works. The ability to do so, however, is not entirely surprising, given humans are a part of nature and the ‘first’ contradiction is about humans in an historically specific form of (re)production. It is ironic, given their focus on the labour theory of value, that the rift school appears unable or unwilling to grapple with Smith’s elegant treatment of historically-specific forms of human labour and contradictions therein as the necessary centrepiece of any ecological thought.
There is not enough space here to set out the full array of accusations which have been lobbed. I will content myself with suggesting that much of the furore goes to the basic epistemological intent of these mirroring approaches. The second contradiction/production of nature synthesis is focused on labour (and the contours of contemporary labour movements, with concerns about environments, ‘race’, gender, and so on all constitutively part of this consideration—the tensions of which are set out usefully by Stuart Rosewarne). The metabolic rift is concerned primarily with the capital relation. The former is inherently a political strategy. The latter is a theorem.
Into this theoretical morass swings Saito with his freshly available MEGA texts, landing feet-first in the rift school’s camp. The publication of MEGA for the first time in English is promised to reveal new insights gleaned from Marx’s notebooks, which reveal a(n even) more robust foundation for the rift school’s claim that Marx had an ecological theory. Saito sets out to explore the trail of Marx’s ecological development, and engagement with the various characters who were working on similar issues, to suggest that ecology was not a secondary nor negligible consideration within his work. Through careful engagement with this freshly available primary source material, Saito argues, we can trace the development of Marx’s ecological thought and fortify the rift school’s contention that the Promethean Marx was a straw man. ‘Look no further!’ they claim. Our Karl had the answers all along.
Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism as a contribution to ecosocialist scholarship
The bottom line, I suppose, is that Saito’s decision to work entirely within the confines of the rift school battle lines has resulted in a text which—despite its strengths in textual analysis and promise of broader contribution—does very little to advance ecosocialist scholarship, politics or strategy, as a whole.
The research agenda at the base of KME seemed to dictate Saito’s engagement, or lack thereof, with certain historical figures and ideas. One example is the extended discussion of Karl Nikolas Fraas’ influence on Marx’s later ecological thought, despite Saito’s admission that Fraas’ name appeared only once in Marx’s extensive written body of work. Conversely, this doubling down on the rift school agenda led to many missed opportunities to engage usefully with the O’Connor-Smith synthesis, and at times I found myself silently screaming ‘Neil Smith said this!!’ at the page—waiting for the other socio-natures to drop, so to speak.
Still, the novel reading of Marx’s notes might have led to some useful bridge-building across the ecosocialist divide. Alas, despite the promise of juicy tidbits from the MEGA, the carefully reconstructed development of Marx’s ecology did not appear to offer us anything we had not already seen. The small deviations from accepted chronologies do not appear to substantively alter the existing rift school reading. On the other hand, Saito’s efforts to demonstrate that the human-nature relation was deeply important to Marx is a point well-made, even if it has been made before.
A common critique of the rift school, and one that certainly applies to Saito here, is the tendency toward reification of ‘Nature’ and pre-capitalist natures. In existing debates about the double internality of human and non-human natures in the capitalist mode of production the theorisation of the dialectic is a source of massive controversy. I (along with my frequent collaborator Natasha Heenan) would suggest that not much substantive hangs on this issue. To side with Moore, other than the compulsions of capital driving contemporary academia, it is unclear why it is heresy to suggest that ‘the metabolic rift’ is rather a proliferating and mutating series of rifts. The rifts have not sprung from a single moment, but are necessary to the operation of capital on the global scale.
The insistence on a singular metabolism also obliterates the diversity and, certainly at times the ecologically devastating, internal compulsions of pre-capitalist socio-natures. A lack of engagement with even a handful of the lively socio-natures which co-exist with and against the capital relation in the present moment—Indigenous sovereignty movements, materialist feminisms and the questions of social reproduction, anti-imperialist agro-ecological movements—are all lost within the singular metabolism.
Without an explicit focus on the generative contradictions animating a pluriversal metabolism of human reproduction within the rest of nature, I am left asking: what is the politics of this? The focus on capital rather than the human labour which creates and internally divides the capital relation leaves us wanting for a political imperative. The focus on capital rather than socio-natures in-against-and beyond capital leads, I suggest, to a fundamentally defensive/offensive binary of possible action (think Andreas Malm’s war communism lens) rather than an open programme of political economic transformation operating at the level of the global, strengthened rather than riven by acknowledging the agency of the various sites of socio-natures building in-against-and beyond the capital relation.
Against the charge of rigidity, we can certainly acknowledge that there is a case to be made for the KME’s function at the level of internationalist theory and praxis. Saito’s work here has, anecdotally, almost single-handedly revived interest in the work of Marx in Japan, which is no small political feat! Perhaps this context can tell us more about why this project was so favourably received within the Anglophonic ecosocialist scholarship—it contributes to a properly internationalist ecosocialist project, and is thus deserving of acclaim.
On the other hand, it is imperative that ecosocialism becomes increasingly accessible, and the stories it allows us to tell are grounded in the materiality of socio-natures, past, present and future. Ecofascism is on the rise, the Mathusian politics of ‘population control’ are an ever-present spectre, and how we choose to outline and advance an ecosocialist agenda will have very real political consequences. This is not a book I would recommend to someone as an entry-point to thinking about ecosocialism, either theoretically, historically or politically—a problem, considering the arresting title.
Ultimately, I’m not sure what is to be gained by refusing to see the generative frictions and resonances between so-called first and second-stage ecosocialisms, beyond playing into the established dynamic of academia in capitalism. The unwillingness of the rift school to absorb the vitality and politics which drove first-stage ecosocialist thought, and which quite frankly yielded a theoretical framework which offers immediate and practical opportunities for action, is a real shame. It certainly would be much more useful for us, as ecosocialists (and here materialist ecofeminism should be taken as read as a basic requirement for calling oneself an ecosocialist), to explore how our work strengthens each other’s perspective rather than fighting to the death over What Marx Said.
*I am but one of the ecosocialist theorists in the P&P Reading Group and extend my thanks in particular to Tash Heenan and Matt Ryan for their thoughtful comments on the draft of this review. More broadly, the reading of ecosocialist theory and debates set out here is informed by my ongoing, shared research agenda with Tash Heenan.
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Author: Anna Sturman
Anna is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. Her research centres on the political economy of climate change, particularly theories of the state, and of non-human nature and value, from a materialist ecofeminist perspective.