Journal of Emancipation | Spanish

Environmentalism

Marxist Dictionary

Ideology stating that the main historical contradiction is Humanity-Nature, or in certain versions, capitalism-Nature; proposing as an alternative a range of “reforms” that go from “green capitalism” to “degrowth”.

Environmentalism as an ideology of “green” technological change

On one side of the environmental spectrum we have all the tendencies that present the overcoming of one of these two contradictions as the product of a “technological change” that can be carried out within the capitalist system. The problem is that there is no technological change outside of social relations and therefore that would not affect unequally the situation of the classes that define society. By making invisible the centrality of the class struggle to put environmental damage in its place, environmentalism forgets the necessarily reactionary meaning of all “environmental reform” under capitalism.

The change in the energy, transport and agricultural production model implies the implementation of technological change. But it is important to understand that it is not technology itself what would magically allow a boost to accumulation, but the transfer of labor income to capital. Technology is purely instrumental and is developed not by the genius of solitary researchers but by the demand and investment of interested capital. This is why new, supposedly more “sustainable” technologies are required to be, above all, more productive. This does not refer to physical productivity, to the amount of product obtained per hour of average work, but to productivity for capital: the amount of profit produced for each hour of work contracted. That is why global state regulation is central to the “ecological transition”: taxes and regulations do not change the physical production capacity but rather the expected profit per hour of exploited social work.

This is the logic of every “technological revolution” in capitalism. Capitalism does not “adapt to new technologies”, but technologies are not considered viable unless they increase productivity from the perspective of profit, that is, unless they serve to increase the share of capital’s income in total production.

Capitalism is a system of exploitation of one class by another. Its aim is not to produce cars and even less to safeguard the climate. Its only aim is to produce and to increase exploitation at each cycle by increasing capital. Under the promise of green and utopian digitally modeled urban landscapes, of silent and non-polluting electric cars, lies as always the sharp reality of the class struggle. All this global renewal of energy, transport and industrial production infrastructures that they imagine capable of “restarting” the global cycle of capital is nothing but the greatest transfer of income from labor to capital since World War II.

“Against the Holy Climate Union”, Emancipation communiqué.

Degrowth environmentalism as a contemporary form of Malthusianism

Another wing of environmentalism, the so-called “extinctionist”, “degrowth” or “deep environmentalism”, heir to the “Club of Rome” and neo-Malthusianism, with recognized stars like Hardin and his very famous “tragedy of the commons” (originally written as a racist pamphlet asking for population control against black people), will insist again and again on the finite nature of natural resources to establish a contradiction between them and the volume of the world’s population today. Humanity would be nothing more than an uncontrollable predatory species, a plague to be contained or eradicated, as in the simplistic models of ecology lectures.

The only alternative would be catastrophe or “degrowth”, implying a reduction that its own spokespersons estimate at 7/8 of the population. Unlike Malthus, they will try to explain their “sustainability” ratios and for that they will incur all kinds of fallacies. The best known: repeatedly predicting an energy collapse due to lack of sufficient oil on at least two occasions in the decade of 2000, and projecting from the data of global warming an extinction of the species in 2050.

But the main fallacy of this branch, increasingly numerous and promoted through the media of environmentalism, is that it equates industrialization with capitalism to reaffirm bourgeois morality in its crudest terms, those used by Malthus.

Malthus and bourgeois morality

The United Kingdom in the late 18th century was not the most suitable place for industrial enterprise. From the landed and mercantile aristocracy to the peasants whose communal morality had not been shattered yet under the most miserable poverty, all of them posed an obstacle to the industrial bourgeoisie and the liberal luminaries. At the end of the century, the Elizabethan “Poor Laws” were still in place, which imposed forced labor, but also provided food and basic support to the great masses of poor people either thrown out of the countryside by the mercantilist greed of primitive accumulation or barely resisting. Revolts against the price of bread occurred periodically, and the revolutionary situation in France caused great concern among the British rulers. Following in the footsteps of Adam Smith and closing the Smithian moral treaty from below, Thomas Malthus proposed at the most opportune moment a new moral order which broke with everything before it. Where Smith pointed out that the laissez faire and free trade leads to the best of results thanks to accumulation, Malthus orders to put into operation what he himself calls the social “machine” by dismantling the Speenhamland system of aid and forcing the poor to work at any rate in order to survive. Life is activity, and this activity can only be guaranteed by the threat of the evil of scarcity. Malthus’ entire statistical work on the need for population control, whose famous ratios he never demonstrates, serves as justification for the moral argument that occupies the last two chapters of the treatise.

Malthus began his theodicy with a critical analysis of human nature. As in the Aristotelian theory of movement, the natural state of mankind was rest. Men were “inert, slow and reluctant to work” it was movement that needed an explanation. Some push was needed to “awaken inert and chaotic matter into spirit, to sublimate the dust of the earth into soul; to cause an ethereal spark from the clay heap. This thrust were the physical and moral evils caused by the law of populations. In order to avoid pain, men would go into activity.

To avoid evil, and to pursue good, seems to be man’s great duty and occupation; and this world seems peculiarly calculated to afford opportunities for the greatest efforts of this kind; and it is by this exercise, by this stimulation, that the mind is formed.

Men were by nature passive; the discomforts of life caused movement. Evil was the driving force of the human kingdom. It was therefore the force behind civilization. Malthus confronted this potentially embarrassing problem by transforming it into a theory of incentive. At the lowest level hunger or cold forced men to search for food and form a society of cultivators, at the highest levels “some of the noblest exercises of the human mind have been set in motion by the obligation to satisfy human needs.

DL LeMahieu, “Malthus and the Theology of Scarcity”

To the horror of some of his contemporaries -and the delight of others- Malthus not only tolerates but celebrates evil and scarcity as creative forces. Scarcity, as a guarantee of hunger and torment for the workers, must be artificially maintained to ensure the functioning of the great hydraulic accumulation machine: capitalism.

And so it becomes clear that a society constituted according to the most beautiful forms that the imagination can conceive, with benevolence as its driving principle, instead of self-interest and with every predisposition to evil of its members corrected by reason and not by force, would end up, by the inevitable laws of nature and not by some original depravity of man, degenerating in a short time into a society governed by a plan not much different from that which prevails in all the states known today; I mean, in a society divided into a class of owners and a class of workers, and with self-interest as the main mechanism of the great machine.

Thomas R. Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population 1798

Malthus will get the expansions of poor relief rejected and become a figurehead of his time, influencing politicians in the islands and training officials in the Indies who will apply his principles of population control to the British colonies. The morality of Malthus and Bentham would underpin all discussions about poor laws and the formation of the new independent proletariat “free to sell its labor power”:

The 1834 Poor Law Report, summarizing the results of the Royal Commission, was full of Malthusian language:

We have seen that one of the objectives which the present administration of the Poor Laws is trying to achieve is to repel both that law of nature by which the lack of foresight or misbehavior of each individual man must fall on him and his family. The effect of this attempt has been to repel both the law by which each man and his family enjoy the benefits of their own prudence and virtue.

One of the main objectives of the new regime, the report stated, was “the reduction of unplanned and spoiled marriages; thus stopping the increase of the population”. By abolishing support for able-bodied men and their families, the New Poor Law, Dean says, revealed its Malthusian goal of “making the self-employed solely responsible for the welfare of their wife and children”.

James P. Huzel, “The Popularization of Malthus in Early Nineteenth Century England”

Blaming the workers and millenarianism

In the degrowth and extinctionist discourse, individual “lack of foresight” has been replaced by collective lack of foresight. The development bequeathed by rising capitalism, from mass vaccination to the improvement of agricultural production, not to mention industrialization, would have fed a population growth “above the possibilities”, “unsustainable”. The only possible horizon would be “degrowth”, that is, the mass destruction of productive forces with its consequent misery and genocide. They generously offer us to do it “little by little”, through “economies of transition”, so that the responsibility of each family prevails and in the face of scarcity the birth rate drops drastically.

As in Malthus, the argument always begins with the perspective of an unquestionable catastrophe produced by the increase in consumption. Consumption that would have grown excessively supposedly “in response” to the permanent dissatisfaction of the great social majorities’ needs. It is a technique of shock and sectarian guilt applied to social communication. In reality, consumption is the form that the satisfaction of workers’ needs takes in a commercial society. By attacking their “consumerism”, today’s Malthusianism puts the focus on the same place as its predecessors: the voracity and growth of the working classes is the main enemy of the social order. And if Malthus intended to channel – by means of liberalism – this growth impulse towards proletarianization in the harshest conditions, the neo-Malthusians propose simply “self-containment” and even greater restriction of consumption to save a select few in a Morris-style pre-industrial utopia… that should begin to be built now.

What is characteristic of environmentalism and the original Malthusianism is the absurdity of its premises. Malthus, after all a parson, was strongly opposed to contraception and for him the fecundity of the species was not, but must be, a constant without historical change. For the ecologists too. The fact is that what is known as the “demographic transition”, a marked decline in fecundity with the economic development of territories, does not fit in with any of the premises of environmentalism. Humanity does not reproduce like rabbits in heat. A large part of the population “boom” in the so-called “developing” countries is due to a drop in infant mortality thanks to a basic medical improvement that is not yet coupled with a drop in the birth rate… because families still live in poverty and need as many hands as possible to work (as well as restrictions on access to contraceptives). Humans are not given to maximize their number of children regardless of the state of society. The supposed problem of “overpopulation” is the problem that a good part of humanity lives in the most miserable poverty and scarcity due to capitalism, not due to some supposed natural tendency to cover the planet with offspring. For Malthus this was an inevitable result of his reasoning, since his simple economic model predicted that wages would not increase with accumulation (a mistake for which he ended up apologizing at the end of his life), due to which workers would always suffer great scarcity and try to breed as much as possible. Today, the position according to which workers’ consumption -the cause of all evils- must be restricted is simply indefensible.

In reality, the discourse is reduced to three moves: threat of catastrophe (oil peak, climate change, extinction, etc.), blaming workers for making the use of resources “unsustainable” by consuming “too much”, and exalting pauperization, which should be embraced as soon as possible and voluntarily. Few arguments could better represent what the decadence of one mode of production means.

Because in fact all modes of production have generated similar movements in their decadence. In Rome we discover a growing popularity of eschatology since the crisis of the Republic: in the mystical cults of Isis, the esoteric -and literally castrating- cults of Ceres and Apis and even in a certain Hellenized Jewish cult with strong apocalyptic tendencies known as Christianity which, having already become an official and obligatory religion, will still provide a mythological framework for the latest sectarian movements of the decomposition of slavery, from the Gnostics to the Priscillians. In the crisis of feudalism from the 12th century onwards, there will be no shortage of flagellants, Adamites, Joachimites… an endless list of pauperizing, chaste, penitentiating and increasingly violent cults which already prelude the millenarianism of the Valencian Germanies or the English Puritans.

Today the Apocalypse is called extinction and the “city of God” eco-village, a productive model that would feed only one seventh, perhaps one eighth according to its own promoters, of the current world population. The bourgeois classes, linked to a system that no longer produces progress, are incapable of imagining a capitalist future in which the whole species could fit. So they fantasize an impossible “return” for the chosen ones imposed by a catastrophe that would make it compulsory. They are right about one thing, there is no longer a future in which the development of Humanity is compatible with capitalism. On the other hand, abundance is reached through communism.

Environmentalism as a moral problem

In all forms of environmentalism, including the so-called “eco-socialism” in all its variants, two characteristics coincide: the denial that the capitalism-proletariat contradiction is central or even points to the overcoming of the capitalist social relations; and the impossibility of imagining an abundant society that is de-commercialized and de-commodified.

In other words, environmentalism directly attacks the two pillars of communist morality. That is why the result of any opportunistic approach, accepting, for example, that the perspective of the extinction of the species due to an environmental disaster is set for the next decades, no matter how much capitalism is blamed for it, besides not being true, can only be demoralizing.

There is no “common ground” possible between class interests and environmentalism in any of its forms, which does not imply leaving aside the environmental problems caused by capitalism.