Against malthusian despair and apolitical apathy: For a movement towards the constitution of non-capitalist nature

American Appliance GarbageIn a recent article on the anthropocene in the London Review of Books (2 March 2017), Benjamin Kunkel wonders, “How is the ecological predicament of the 21st century to be conceived of?” He almost immediately answers his question by falling back on malthusian dogma about population and the reification of “the poor.”

Kunkel writes about loss of farmland “on a planet that must feed seven and, soon, nine or ten billion people. Most of this population is poor by European and North American standards and doesn’t constitute any automatic constituency for ecological restraint.” In short order Kunkel implicates the “poor by European and North American standards”, who “suffer most” from the consequences of climate change and produce the least of the emissions that cause it, in “the collective activity of humanity [that] is sapping the ecological basis of civilization” on the same par as governments and corporations.

Ultimately, the growing “global population” appears to Kunkel as the obstacle to advancing ecosocialism, or what he fantasizes ecosocialism to be: a project that seeks to reverse the “fantastic economic inequality and ecological devastation” that characterize contemporary capitalism “by simultaneously elevating living standards for the bulk of the world’s people and reducing to a sustainable level humanity’s use of the planet’s resources.” Kunkel then wonders whether this fantastic state of affairs he calls ecosocialism can exist “even as a technical possibility, let alone a political prospect.” It is not only the growing population of the “poor by European and North American standards” that plunges Kunkel into despair about the prospect of ecosocialism, but the prospect of “equality of global incomes”. For Kunkel, social equality leads either to universal ecological ruin or uniform poverty: “With each year that the global population increases while the conditions of its livelihood deteriorate, we presumably near the point at which any rough equality of global incomes must either commit us to environmental ruin fully as much as capitalism has done, or impose a grim uniform poverty.”

Thus, Kunkel succumbs to the same fears that the Victorian bourgeoisie harbored against the entropic tendency of communism or any socialist transformation towards equality, uniformly diffused death, and to the despair and “apolitical fatalism” of anthropocene thinking. Instead of the evolutionary biologist’s “madness gene,” however, Kunkel finds the increase in “global population,” the growing population of “the poor,” to be the source of ecological destruction and the obstacle to ecosocialism.

There is of course nothing apolitical about malthusian despair and fear of the poor. Increase in “global population” never means growth in the number of people of European descent, but increase in the numbers of people whom the power elite have deemed superfluous or redundant—those who are seen to contribute very little to the common good but much to ecological destruction by their sheer numbers and wanton habits.

The implications are tremendous: those people have to be disciplined into accepted ecological practices, i.e. enrolled in the market, or sacrificed to preserve the rest of humanity, for now. The “depopulation of the Americas, after European conquest” (i.e. the genocide of native Americans by European settlers that Kunkel so casually mentions) may not have been committed with the intention of reforesting the New World and withdrawing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But current reforestation projects to offset carbon emissions are accomplished by violent methods deployed against Indigenous people across the Global South. It is evident that colonialism, land grabbing, violent displacements, and market expansion are becoming the methods with which the elites will try to forestall an ecological crisis that has already beset us—the same methods that brought about the ecological crisis in the first place.

Green capitalism is not an option, as Kunkel has learned from his brief foray into the “brief of ecomarxism.” But Kunkel condemns ecosocialism to failure at the minute he admits “feebly” that “ecosocialism seems possible,” not only because of the growing “global population” but because of his misunderstanding of ecosocialism as a more democratic version of green capitalism or a greener version of Stalinism.

Kunkel misses the fundamental point of ecosocialism—that it is a project of radical reconstitution of nature and the social relation with nature. Nature in ecomarxism is not the given physical environment, but the product of social, economic and political organization: capitalist nature, or what Neil Smith calls “second nature.” It is irreducible to the “natural environment” or “extra-­human nature,” and comprises human beings and their productive and reproductive capacities, the built (physical) environment and social institutions; that is, what James O’Connor calls “the conditions of production.”

The current environmental crisis, the result of capital’s self-restructuring to dig its way out of its self-inflicted economic crises, including the “natural limits” capital creates for itself, is irreducible to ecological destruction: warming climate, species extinction and loss of biodiversity, soil degradation, resource depletion, growing inorganic waste, salinization, toxicity, etcetera. Environmental crisis also means: intensification of labor exploitation and domination of workers; feminization and racialization of poverty; explosion in consumer debt to expand markets and stave off realization crises; racism, colonialism, imperialism, and militarism; destruction and devaluation of the built environment and the social infrastructure including health care, education, social reproduction; and excessive policing and mass incarceration.

The eco in ecosocialism is a reminder that any socialist project, or more broadly anti-capitalist project for the transition into non-capitalist society, must involve the reconstitution of the conditions of production and the production of non-capitalist nature: the human capacities and social and physical infrastructure that mediates our relations with the means of life.

Indeed, ecosocialism can be understood as that process itself, multiple and diverse movements towards non-capitalist society and non-capitalist nature, and not the consequence of a future socialist society “committed to the criterion of sustainability” as Kunkel imagines. Think of ecosocialism as practice that redefines, recomposes, and extends class struggle beyond struggle over wages, the working day and labor conditions, to struggles over the means of life and over the conditions of social production and reproduction.

Many people across the world are engaged in one form or another of ecosocialist struggle, even if in the short term it has taken the defensive form of struggles to protect the means of life from the destructive excesses of racial capitalism. The battle of the water protectors in Standing Rock in North Dakota is perhaps the most prominent example—a struggle to protect the means of life against capitalist, racist, militarist aggression. But so is the struggle for clean water in Flint, Michigan, and Palestine.

Ecosocialism, to borrow from Marx and Engels, is not an eco-social state of affairs to be established but the real movement that abolishes the present eco-social state of things.