The Foster-O'Connor Rhubarb

Last June, James O'Connor opened up the pages of "Capitalism, Nature and Socialism" (CNS) for a hostile symposium on John Bellamy Foster's "Marx's Ecology". There has been a running dispute between these two for some time now. It also involves Paul Burkett, who wrote an attack on O'Connor's "Natural Causes" in the February 1999 Monthly Review. ( After Foster turned down the opportunity to present a presumably inadequate 3,000 word rebuttal for the September issue, Burkett pinch-hit for him.

I want to submit my own rebuttal to all of these folks using the Internet as is my wont. I will not count the words, nor will I worry about alienating any of the principals. I burned those bridges long ago and then dynamited the smoldering wreckage.

My interest in ecology began after hearing Joel Kovel speak on the topic over 6 years ago at the Brecht Forum in NYC. His likening of capitalist growth to metastizing tumors stuck with me. Although Kovel has spoken critically of the Frankfurt School (in another presentation at the Brecht Forum), he tends to retain some of their influences, especially around the question of 'spirituality' which was a major bone of contention in his CNS article on Foster.

A couple of years later, I took keen interest in a debate that had broken out between Foster and David Harvey, after Harvey had attacked Foster as a kind of neo-Malthusian in "Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference." Because Foster had addressed the question of ecological limits in "The Vulnerable Planet," Harvey concluded that Foster was suffering from the same kind of philosophical parsimoniousness at work in Malthus. But when minesweepers are converted into fishing boats, it is not Malthusian to point out that tuna and other fish at the top of the food chain might disappear at some point. Not only is it scientific to do so, it is a problem that there is no neat "socialist" ribbon-wrapped solution to. During the course of this debate, I communicated frequently with Foster through email, offered him my solidarity and defended his ideas frequently on the Internet. This was at a time when I held Marxist professors in much higher esteem than I do nowadays.

After posting a brief critique of Harvey on Doug Henwood's LBO-Talk mailing list, O'Connor, who was subbed there, invited me to expand upon my ideas and submit them to his journal. Although I did not know it at the time, my ideas were moving in the same direction as those that finally took shape in Foster's "Marx's Ecology." Basically, I made a strong case for an ecology rooted in Marxist materialism and even pointed out Marx's interest in classical Greek philosophical materialism, a key element of Foster's study.

What I didn't know at the time was that Foster and O'Connor were on a collision course around these very questions. So instead of simply telling me that he disagreed with my approach, O'Connor rejected my submission, telling me that CNS readers would not be interested in my rather obscure critique of Harvey's reliance on Leibnizian metaphysics. One got the impression from his correspondence that his readers were too busy chaining themselves to redwood trees or something to bother with philosophy. In reality, O'Connor was not bothered by the abstruseness of the article, but by the politics. If O'Connor was seeking to weed out abstruseness, his first target would have been Costas Panayotakis's "Nature, Dialectics and Emancipatory Politics," one of the attacks on Foster in the June issue, that contains gems such as:

"We have therefore arrived at an expanded conception of totality. In this conception any given socio-ecological totality would be analyzed as the complex and dialectical articulation of the economy and the realm of production, family and the realm of reproduction, politics, culture and this society's mode of appropriating nature. Such a view is dialectical without turning dialectics into a metaphysical, transhistorical guarantee of the inherent dynamism of reality. The degree of stability, the contradictions, and the dynamic tendencies of a society cannot be determined a priori but only emerge from a concrete analysis of this society's dialectical structure."

If anybody observes me writing such opaque and elephantine constructions, they have permission to take away my computer and then lobotomize me.

The first article in the June symposium is so banal that one wonders why O'Connor bothered to include it. Titled "Failed Promise" and co-authored by Maarten de Kadt and Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro, it makes the startling revelation that Marx's ecological analysis revolved around the problem of soil fertility and failed to address such problems as nuclear weapons or PCB's. One wonders why de Kadt and Engel_Di Mauro did not fault Marx for not living into the 1980s. Too much red meat, cheap wine and cigars, one supposes.

Alan Rudy's "Marx's Ecology and Rift Analysis" gets to the heart of Foster's study. For Foster, the question of a "metabolic rift" is key not only to understanding Marx, but in developing ecosocialist solutions for today's world. Basically, the metabolic rift was created as a result of the development of cities under capitalism, when the source of organic nutrients in the form of animal or human waste was separated from the soil. It led to "guano wars" in the 19th century, open sewers in the streets of London and a host of other social problems. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx proposed the abolition of the distinction between town and country as a first step toward mending the metabolic rift. Moreover, in the absence of a socialist transformation of the world, every chemical advance to compensate for the loss of soil fertility has led to further contradictions, including the seepage of fertilizers into bodies of water like the Gulf of Mexico, cancer epidemics due to pesticides, etc.

For Rudy, "[T]he concept of metabolic rift…has a far greater affinity for natural resource economics than the dialectics of ecological Marxism." In contrast, Rudy would shift the discussion away from scientific considerations of natural resource usage altogether--either Marxist or bourgeois. Why? Because, to put it bluntly, he is committed to the kind of anti-scientific prejudices that characterized the Frankfurt School. Foster supposedly subscribes to the "the Baconian conception of an atomized nature." Such a conception "undergirds the assumption that there is one scientific method because, at root, all of nature is comprised of discrete piles of differently arranged, hierarchically organized, though fundamentally similar things." That's odd. In my reading of "Marx's Ecology," I found a steadfast defense of the kind of dialectical understanding of science that you find in Lewontin and Levins.

After having declared his affinity for the kind of science spoofed by Alan Sokal in "Social Text," Rudy attempts to refute the concept of metabolic rift by referring to England at the time of the Enclosure Acts. He writes, "The metabolic rift argument suggests that the movement of human and animal waste from the country to the city leads to the accelerated depletion of agricultural soils. However, the increase in rural livestock suggests that the problem may have been as much related to the maldistribution of rural wastes as the separation of rural from urban wastes. The scientific or cultural or infrastructural incapacity to engage in this redistribution of animal waste then would need to be explained."

This distinction is next to useless. Marx's concern was not just with the separation of town and city, but the failure of capitalist farming in general, which tended to put short-term profits over long-term social considerations. Maldistribution of rural wastes simply suggests that the English gentry's verbal commitment to "improvement" was at odds with the mode of production. What else is new?

Perhaps Rudy's biggest problem is his tendency to assume that the concept of metabolic rift rests upon some kind of binary opposition that was not present in 19th century Europe at all. He writes:

"The imagery of rift suggests a chasm between country and city, nature and society, and agriculture and industry. Yet the 19th century is the era of massive road, canal and railroad construction; of extraordinary scientific and technological innovation (only exceeded by the following century); and of phenomenal introductions and migrations of non-native crops, peoples, diseases, and invasive species all multi-directionally across the increasingly accessible globe."

What can one say? Rudy simply doesn't get Marx's argument, nor Foster's very effective presentation of that argument. All of the sweeping changes described by Rudy, and which constitute the first part of the Communist Manifesto as well, are simply mechanisms to facilitate the development of the modern urban-based capitalist economy that is the root of our problem. Railroad construction made and makes it possible to separate livestock from their feed sources. The consequences are pig feces filling the rivers and lakes of North Carolina and monoculture production of corn in the Midwest with all the attendant problems. The idea is to reorganize society, not stand breathless in the face of capitalist transportation "miracles." (Unfortunately, Foster has not explored the connections between metabolic rift and the consequences of farming based on nonrenewable energy. More about that anon.)

Turning next to Costas Panayotakis's "Nature, Dialectics and Emancipatory Politics," the less said the better. The opening sentences reveal that Panayotakis was simply using Foster's book as a peg to hang his own preoccupations on:

"John Bellamy Foster begins Marx's Ecology with an overview of his 'path to ecological materialism.' In this overview the reader is informed that the theoretical legacy of Lukacs and Gramsci, which I had internalized, denied the possibility of the application of dialectical modes of thinking to nature, essentially ceding that entire domain to positivism."

Which I had internalized? God, what ugly prose. In plain English, Panayotakis is trying to say that Lukacs and Gramsci can provide a solid philosophical foundation for ecosocialism. And how? He write, "As Lukacs also pointed out in History and Class Consciousness, the transcendence of the socially generated reified experience of the world is only possible from the standpoint of a dialectically conceived totality." Oh, I see. Who needs to look at the problems of metabolic rift or Marx's life-long commitment to materialist thought when you can wrap yourself in quasi-metaphysical blankets such as this.

Panayotakis continues:

"Lukacs and Gramsci, the other Western Marxist that Foster repeatedly dismisses, were among the first Marxists to analyze social reality not through the use of a simple, mechanical concept of causality but through an exploration of the complex mediations between the different spheres of social life."

All that is well and good. But unfortunately, Lukacs and Gramsci were not engaged with *nature*. Panayotakis's article basically boils down to the need to think dialectically, which for CNS readers is equivalent to reminding Readers Digest subscribers to honor the American flag.

The final article in the symposium is by Joel Kovel and is titled "A Materialism Worthy of Nature." Basically it is a defense of spirituality in the following vein:

"Foster's errors are grounded in a misconception about the meaning of 'spirit.' We can infer (because, as with the Greens, there is no actual critique of the spiritual) that for him, to be 'spiritual' is synonymous with what is anti-scientific, irrational and superstitious, and is merely a kind of rough congener for the pole of 'idealism' in the classic materialism-idealism debate. He fails here to comprehend the distinction between spirit and religion, that spirit is an elementary property of being human, and that religions are the binding of spirit for the purposes of social cohesion. Therefore he also fails to appreciate that there is much more to spirituality than its religious elaboration, and much more to religions than their spiritual impulse."

To the contrary, Foster's book is not an attack on spirituality but on developing an analysis of the ecological crisis on other than a scientific and materialist basis. This is in keeping with the record of Marx and Engels, who both paid close attention to scientific matters throughout their life. While the rigorous attempt to develop a dialectics of nature based on the latest scientific findings was identified most often with Engels, Marx supported and consulted on each of these initiatives. Marx considered the soil chemist Van Leibeg to be more important to understanding European society than a dozen economists--in his own words. Marx's Scientific Notebooks have been published recently and lend support to the notion that Marx was a consummate believer in rigorous scientific methods, both in understanding the natural and social world.

There is, of course, another question entirely, which Joel appears confused over--namely, the role of spirit or belief in the supernatural in politics and human survival. Despite vulgar Marxist attempts to depict Marx as an "enemy" of religion, he was in fact not hostile to it at all, but merely described it as the necessary response to the cruelties and insecurities of capitalist society. Only after society was changed could the material conditions allow for a more scientific understanding of existence. Furthermore, when the Taiping rebellion in China broke out in 1851, led by Hung Hsiu-ch'üan who saw himself as the younger brother of Jesus Christ, Engels hailed the movement in a letter to Marx. Finally, the British colonists would get their comeuppance.

Much of the rest of the article is an attempt to enlist Marx and Engels as possible recruits to the German mystic Jakob Bohme, which is quite a different matter than seeing Marx and Engels as sympathetic to the spiritual yearnings of the disenfranchised. Kovel bases this on a passing reference to Bohme in "Socialism-Scientific and Utopian":

"mystic Bohme puts into the German word something of the meaning of the Latin qualitas; his 'qual' was the activating principle arising from, and promoting in its turn, the spontaneous development of the thing, relation, or person subject to it ...."

While Kovel admits that something more than this obscure reference might be required before drafting Bohme into the Marxist tradition, one can only say that there are thinkers who are much more adaptable to these purposes, such as Bacon and other materialists who might alienate the romantic yearnings of our Frankfurtish comrades. We do owe them an apology for offending their poetic sensibilities, but must move forward.

Let me conclude with my own take on this grand battle between elderly tenured professors who are largely speaking to their own mandarin circles. Most of this discussion would be utterly arcane to the average anti-globalization activist who is trying to address the ecological crisis through direct action. One young correspondent of mine, who has braved tear gas on more than one occasion, told me that he could not get through "Marx's Ecology." Okay, he said, so Marx's roots are in the Greek materialists. How does that help me fight logging in the Amazon rainforest?

Ironically, Foster was on the right track with "The Vulnerable Planet," but much more is needed to create a pole of attraction based on Marxism for the new radicals of today. Foster is correct to state that the analysis of the ecological crisis must be rooted in Marxist materialism, but--after having stated this--it is still a task that remains unfulfilled.

Just as the scientists of the early Soviet Union came together in state-sponsored academies to apply ecological thinking to the new society, we need to gather together left-oriented physical scientists and Marxist social scientists today to come to grips with the ecological crisis of capitalism. The Worldwatch Institute is a model for what needs to be done, but the effort I am describing will be rooted in historical and scientific materialism rather than Lester Brown's brand of Malthusian liberalism.

For this to begin to take place, it will be necessary for leftwing academics to begin to think collectively, a task that very might well be impossible in advance of a political reawakening of the working class. Given the cataclysmic events that have transpired over the past few months, that day may be sooner rather than later despite the grim appearance. After all, shocks to the system have a way of shaking up modes of thinking.