New Red-Green Politics

Against the Current, No. 130, September/October 2007

John McGough

Coming to Terms with Nature
Socialist Register 2007
edited by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006. 363 pages, $25 paper.

IN THEIR PREFACE to the 43rd volume of the Socialist Register, Coming to Terms with Nature, editors Leo Panitch and Colin Leys admit that this edition “has been one of the most challenging to put together.”

While socialist activism has a deep and heroic tradition of theorizing and organizing against many of the deadly contradictions of capitalism — from the daily exploitation of the working class to imperialist wars — the present generation is faced with a global environmental crisis “so severe as to potentially threaten the continuation of anything that might be considered tolerable human life.”

This crisis — including rising sea levels, agribusiness’ genetic monopolies and destruction of indigenous food networks, more intense storm cycles, and irreversible global warming — catches both the environmental and socialist movements off their feet, and collectively weak.(1) Panitch and Leys rightly note that some elements of the latter are hung over with “productivism” inherited from the develop-at-all-costs ideology of the USSR and China, and blind to ecological harm caused by rampant industrialism. (ix)

At the same time, much of the environmental movement is isolated in bureaucratic institutions (whether governmental or of the NGO variety) and often cut off — at least in the countries of the North — from grassroots struggle by their white and middle-class character.

There is also the problem of linking a politics of socialist working-class solidarity and mass-scale political action with an environmental consciousness that too often remains at the level of personal habit, individual morality and lifestyle.(2)

Further, primitivism (a utopian romantic return to the pre-industrial or even pre-agricultural past) and “localism” are fairly strong currents in political ecology movements that oppose the coordination and planning necessary to tackle the crisis democratically and in all its global proportions.(3)

All of these issues, and more, are taken up in the contributions in Coming to Terms with Nature. This volume continues the Socialist Register’s admirable tradition of providing, through difficult times for the left, coherent and thought-provoking annual collections of essays on strategically chosen themes. Recent volumes edited by Panitch and Leys include Telling the Truth, on power and the production of ideas and information (2006); The Empire Reloaded, on the U.S. drive for world domination (2005); and The New Imperial Challenge, on imperialism in the new century (2004).

If the pieces collected for this new volume are more like discrete snapshots of the problems than a sustained argument, they do somewhat fall into three categories: capitalism’s relation with nature; more geographic-or issue-specific case studies; and eco-socialist political strategy. It’s impossible to do justice to the arguments and points in all 17 of the essays. But I’d like to highlight and pull out some of the more important contributions, and note problems and omissions.

Capital’s Destruction of Nature

The first task for eco-socialist politics is to dispel notions of the environmental crisis as the result of a few nasty exceptions to the otherwise rational and efficient ordering of the world by the market and profit accumulation, or as a product of sinister natural forces beyond our influence.

The system of capitalism must be placed at the center of our analysis — its basic laws of motion understood as guaranteeing the abuse and destruction of nature. Capitalism should not be seen as acting upon a nature which exists out there; rather the two should be thought of as related together — dialectically, if you will — in a matrix.

Neil Smith’s “Nature as Accumulation Strategy” argues that “a new frontier in the production of nature has rapidly opened up, namely a vertical integration of nature into capital.” (33) Genetically engineered crops and life forms, and also “green” goods (carbon sequestration schemes, pollution credits) are produced and marketed for profit, and new realms of nature (“bio-prospecting in the Amazon”) are being “socialized” into capital’s accumulation strategy.

In a fascinating essay, Elmar Altvater argues that the exploitation of fossil fuel energy was essential for the growth of capitalist production and social relations. “Without the continuous supply and massive use of fossil energy modern capitalism would be locked into the boundaries of biotic energy (wind, water, bio-mass, muscle-power, etc.).” (42)

The geopolitical significance of this relationship is obvious in terms of today’s resource wars and what Altvater calls “petro-imperialism.” (50-55) Here nature and politics are linked, with terrible possibilities: climate change caused by carbon fuel use catastrophically destroying whole life systems, with a potential permanent war in the Middle East rooted in the “oil security” politics of imperialism. (51)

Agriculture under capitalism also exposes the system’s destructive and contradictory relation with nature. Philip McMichael’s essay argues that the laws of the market forbid it from guaranteeing global food security. He describes the disastrous consequences to food production of the extension of subsidized industrial agriculture in driving small producers out of business, off the land and often into starvation. (175)

This process should be seen in the light of capitalism’s “metabolic rift” with nature: Production of commodities for the sake of realizing surplus value — in this case, the employment of industrial methods in food production — overrides nature’s “biological base, reducing the possibility of recycling nutrients in and through the soil and water.” (177)(4)

The majority of the contributions look at more specific, current dilemmas that confront a socialist critique of the environmental crisis.

Different Terrains, Different Approaches

Achim Brunnengraber’s article on the Kyoto Protocol describes the plan’s pathetic limitations. The emissions in many countries that pledged to reduce them a certain percentage (in comparison with 1990) actually increased in the decade following. Countries can get points by funding projects in other countries, without cleaning their own air. (220) And by 2008 emission certificates will permit countries to “trade” in emission credits; the buying countries can decrease their emissions “on paper,” through purchase of another country’s unused credits, thus totally obscuring who’s really doing what.

Brunnengraber notes that the built-in failures of Kyoto and similar schemes is connected to the fact that “the debate on climate protection has been moved increasingly out of the everyday world into the hands of ‘global resource managers’.” (224-5) Strategies “from above” — where development, accumulation and the economic subjugation of the global South are unquestioned premises — are fundamentally unable to confront the problem head on.

In one of the volume’s best essays, “Garbage Capitalism’s Green Commerce,” Heather Rogers chronicles the history of how the United .States has dealt with its trash. From the business-funded “Keep America Beautiful” anti-littering campaign in the 1950s to recycling and “green buying” today, she argues that all these measures stem from industry’s attempt “to distract people from questioning the viability of an increasingly trash-reliant marketplace” while “steering public debate away from the regulation of production.” (233, 238)

“Politics as consumption (and vice versa) works to individualize environmental problems and their solutions in ways that repeatedly forestall and mystify any meaningful ways of dealing with them.”(249)  Anxiety over industry’s waste and the bewildering amount of commodities/trash was transformed and directed back at the individual as consumer.(5)

This development legitimized a mode of production based on obsolescence and disposability, marginalized alternatives (reusability, regulating production, reducing consumption), and reduced political action to level of personal — buying and recycling — habits.

Other contributions tackle the savage pace of capitalist industrial development in China and its environmental costs; the privatization of water provision; struggles over land development and “traditional” ecologies in Africa; and the marginalization of renewable energy alternatives in states (in this case, the U.K.) controlled by neoliberal capitalist interests.

However, these essays in Coming to Terms with Nature take such vastly different — and often highly sophisticated — theoretical approaches to the issues that it’s difficult to glean an overall picture. A lot is interesting here; but much is lost due to a lack of a common framework.

The essay on Katrina by Jamie Peck is particularly problematic. One would think a socialist perspective on Katrina would include the oppression of African Americans, the continued neoliberal war on social welfare in our cities, the legacy of pollution and environmental struggle in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” and the oil and gas industries’ destruction of the marshes and wetlands of the Gulf Coast.

Especially for militants in the United States, the Katrina struggle — and potential “Katrina” struggles in other cities — is a critically important battleground linking workers’ rights, racial and economic justice, and the very nature of democracy.

Instead, Peck’s essay is solely concerned with documenting the right-wing’s ugly and sadly successful “framing” of the disaster “to enable a brazen extension of the neoliberal project.” (103) Interesting? Yes. But the best tactical approach to analyzing the worst so-called natural disaster in U.S. history?

Building Ecosocialist Politics

The last few essays deal with ecosocialist political strategy. Some of the more salient features of these proposals indicate a way forward.

Michael Löwy criticizes existing Green parties for their endorsement of “social-liberal” politics, and argues that an ecosocialist political movement must demonstrate clearly that democratic planning has nothing to do with the bureaucratically controlled industrialism of Soviet Union. (295-8)

An ecosocialist program must include “a qualitative transformation of development,” pointing out that “the issue is not ‘excessive consumption in the abstract, but the prevalent type of comsumption, based as it is on conspicuous appropriation, massive waste, mercantile alienation, obsessive accumulation of goods, and the compulsive acquisition of pseudo-novelties imposed by ‘fashion’.” (303)

Frieder Otto Wolf gives a nuanced analysis of the failure of the German Green Party.  Wolf discusses Joel Kovel’s strategic blueprint for ecosocialist party building in the latter’s The Enemy of Nature and wonders if the proposals — “that the party be ‘grounded in communities of resistance’,” that it be democratic and transparent — are enough. The failure of the German Greens “cannot simply be explained by assuming that they did not try” to build a democratic force of opposition uniting the radical movements.” (329)

He ends by calling for party-building “in terms of a broad alliance for education and self-education” and urging that scientific and political theorizing is “needed to supply social movements and any emancipatory party with sufficiently clear and sharp ideas of what needs to be transformed in their societies.” (327)

Finally, Greg Albo discusses the “attraction of the local” for currents in the radical environmental movement and the tacit endorsement of markets within “think globally, act locally” politics. (337, 342) The bad globalization of neoliberal capital will not be defeated by a “return” to local, delinked communities, but only through connecting up and generalizing local struggles as a part of “a universal project of socio-ecological transformation.” (359)

The need for a democratic, qualitative transformation of society, clear theorizing about how this transformation is to happen, and the work of linking different and local resistances to a universal project of emancipation seem three solid features from which we can begin to build an ecosocialist political struggle.

Socialist politics is indispensable to any real struggle against the environmental crisis. We are urgently needed to analyze how directly the crisis is related to the system of capitalist production, and to work with movements to organize democratic, class-based, “from below” strategies of transformation.

Coming to Terms with Nature presents a good introduction to the issues, and a call on socialist activists for further, deeper engagement. As the editors note, ecosocialist theory and struggles lack coherence. That some of the problems in the book are not clearly presented with a common language and approach speaks to how much work we have ahead of us.


  1. “The greatest challenge we faced was that the absence of a strong eco-socialist left is reflected in a corresponding lack of coherence in eco-socialist theory.” (ix)
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  2. See especially by Heather Rogers’ “Garbage Capitalism’s Green Commerce,” 231-253.
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  3. See Gregory Albo’s “The Limits of Eco-Localism: Scale, Strategy, Socialism,”  337-363.
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  4. Marx’s notion of capitalism’s “metabolic rift” with nature is explored well by John Bellamy Foster. See Marx’s Ecology, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2000  (155-163).
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  5. Rogers points out that municipal waste — from households, small business, schools, etc. — accounts for only one in every 70 tons of garbage produced. The other 69 tons is produced by larger industrial processes. (238)
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from ATC 130 (September/October 2007)