Ecology and Social Monism: The Subsumption of Nature
Karl Marx’s metabolic analysis and concept of the metabolic rift have received increasing attention in recent years for their power and depth in explaining the contradictory socioecological dynamics of the capital system. (Burkett 1999; Foster 1999, 2000; Foster, Clark, and York 2010; Saito 2017). These views have generated perspectives within Marxism that have troubling implications. In this piece, I critically examine the work of those contemporary theorists whose criticisms of the metabolic conception involve positions that are at variance with Marx’s materialist conception at key points. In eliminating the idea of nature as possessing any independent significance apart from human practice, such thinking loses the materialist ontology (natural and social) at the basis of Marx’s emancipatory critique, effectively reverting to an idealist position. The problem with confining the dialectic to human history and society is that it precludes the possibility of an “objective dialectics of nature,” or the relevance of Marxist modes of thought to such an inquiry. (Foster, Clark, York, 2010). It leaves practice adrift in a world of its own making (or, adrift from nature, its own unmaking). To overcome this, I affirm the centrality of metabolic interaction between society and nature in Marx’s work.
The metabolic conception is of both theoretical interest and practical political significance given the extent to which academic and political responses to the crises afflicting the modern world have remained largely within the confines of the capital system, evincing a combination of neoliberal economics and technocratic politics so as to co-opt environmental concerns within the corporate form.
In Of Gods and Gaia (Critchley 2012), I criticized the planetary engineering envisaged as an environmental solution under the guise of ecomodernization. This approach downgrades and marginalizes the field of practical reason (politics and ethics) by identifying socioenvironmental problems as technical problems to be resolved by an extension of technocratic market-based solutions (Hawken, Lovins, and Lovins 1999). This emphasis on technical solutions is accompanied by a reduction of collective political intervention and action to individualist lifestyle changes and cultural choices. The approach is designed explicitly to be a practicable alternative to the more radical social solutions which locate the root of “existential crisis” precisely in the contradictory dynamics of the capital system. We should, therefore, be alert to a corporate greenwashing that is concerned with steering social and environmental movements in the direction of actions and policies that extend and entrench the corporate form, appropriating concerns about justice and the environment to defuse, divert, and ultimately destroy meaningful social and environmental movements that possess the potential and motivation to deliver system change. In this corporate greenwashing, the central dynamic of capital accumulation driving social and ecological degradation remains firmly in place (Foster 2012).
The world is being seduced by a so-called greening of the very modernization that has brought us to the brink of climate catastrophe. This makes clarity of theoretical analysis and political direction of the essence.
Despite the pertinence of metabolic approach to addressing the converging social and environmental crises of the contemporary world, the concept of the metabolic rift has yet to achieve the centrality it merits. Brian M. Napoletano et al. seek to address this neglect by distinguishing metabolic rift theory from both the production-of-nature thesis and posthumanist world ecology, offering a comparative analysis and assessment that establishes its theoretical merits and political potential (Napoletano, Foster, Clark, Urquijo, McCall and Paneque-Gálvez, 2019).
The argument proceeds from a clear distinction between those who view the socioecological crisis as a cultural and/or ideological problem and those who view it as a materialist-realist one. The former may target issues of anthropocentrism and argue the relative merits of ecocentrism or biocentrism, or address issues of rationalism, mechanicism, and dualism arising from the Cartesian and the Enlightenment tradition (Castree 2000). I argue that this approach is misconceived and serves to generate serious political deficiencies when it comes to addressing the contemporary crisis.
In arguing for the critical realist-materialist approach, I shall show that Marx’s metabolic analysis and concept of the metabolic rift pioneers a materialist-dialectical approach that transcends the “idealism and the false dichotomization of Man versus Nature” (Kovats-Bernat 2001, 73), which generates and sustains a politically debilitating culturalism and naturalism.
I address the theoretical issues at stake in this debate with a keen eye on practical political implications, paying particular attention to certain deficiencies in contemporary “green” thought and to bringing insights from Marxism and metabolic thinking to bear on a transformative environmental praxis.
I shall address the theoretical roots which go some way toward explaining the slow take-up of metabolic rift theory despite its evident potential. To be precise, critics charge the metabolic rift approach with replicating the very idealism and dualism it repudiates (Castree 2015; Napoletano et al. 2018). In seeking to overcome the marginal position of the metabolic conception in the field of environmental geography and sociology, Napoletano, John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, Pedro S. Urquijo, Michael K. McCall, and Jaime Paneque-Gálvez (2019) undertake a searching comparative analysis of the Marxian approaches in critical environmental geography from which these theoretical differences arise, making the case for a stronger engagement with metabolic rift theory.
Napoletano et al. (2019) point to the deep chasm between geography and other social sciences with respect to political ecology:
On the one hand, Marxian work on the nature-society dialectic within geography (particularly that of Neil Smith) has been described as among ‘the most influential efforts by human geographers to conceptualize the matter of nature’ (Braun 2009, 24) but is ‘little known in Marxist circles’ outside geography (Castree 2000, 24). On the other hand, the metabolic rift has been described as the ‘one Marxist line of inquiry into environmental problems [that] has outshone all the others in creativity and productivity’ in the twenty-first century (Malm 2018, 177)—including the awarding of the Deutscher Prize in 2018 to Saito (2017) for his analysis of the evolution of the metabolic rift concept in Marx’s thought—but has received little attention in geography.
This neglect may be considered harmful in theoretical and political terms to the extent that critical environmental geography (including much work in political ecology) comes to be insulated from the growing ecosocialist movement that is mobilizing around the concept of the metabolic rift. That mobilization demonstrates a practical political potential in the metabolic concept, something crucial to transformative environmental praxis concerned with “system change, not climate change” (see http://systemchangenotclimatechange.org; Wittman 2009; Klein 2015; Angus 2016; Baer 2016).
I therefore argue that the recovery of Marx’s concept of metabolism and his ecological value-form analysis enables a practical-critical understanding of and intervention in the convergent social and ecological crises of our times.
Commenting on the profound disciplinary divide that contributes to the neglect of metabolic rift theory, Napoletano et al. (2019) subject the Neil Smith-Noel Castree production-of-nature thesis (Castree 2002; Smith 2008) and the world-ecology approach advocated by Jason W. Moore (2011), as two of the metabolic rift’s most outspoken Marxian critics in geography, to close analysis and criticism. I shall proceed along the same lines with a view to political issues beyond the question of bridging disciplinary divides.
Foster writes of the opening of “dialectical rifts on the Left” (Foster 2016: 393–421). These theoretical controversies, involving both social monism and constructivism, show the extent to which Marxism is still striving to navigate a path beyond what is dubbed the postmodern turn in theory. In some perspectives, Marx’s concept of social metabolism has been interpreted as entailing a social monism that is centered on the social production of nature, yielding notions of capitalism as constituting a
“singular metabolism” (Moore 2015: 80–81; Smith 2008). I will challenge this view.
Since Bruno Latour is a key influence on the social monism that I criticize, I start with a brief treatment of his views (Latour 1987: 99 258. For a devastating critique of Latour on these points, see Alan Sokal, Beyond the Hoax [2008: 154–58, 211–16]). In direct contradiction with Marx’s dialectical approach, Latour presents a flat ontology or neutral monism in which all entities and objects are equal and interconnected as assemblages, bundles, hybrids, or networks. The problem here is not one of relationism as such. I develop Marx’s materialist ontology as a dialectical relationism and realism.
The problem is that Latour’s relationism loses the connection with the realism of Marx in that it denies the existence of nature and society as substantive objects. That view is not Marx’s and issues in a social monism in which the social is “reassembled” through a social production (the plasticity of politics and technology in creating, molding, and shaping the world) that is abstracted from prevailing power relations, social forms, and relations. That view loses Marx’s critical focus and, in the process, prepares the ground for an accommodation to existing social arrangements.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Latour’s recent work has been described as a green Schmittianism, a regressive political ecology influenced by the Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt. Also unsurprising is the fact that Latour has become a senior fellow of the Breakthrough Institute, a global research center that claims to identify and promote technological solutions to environmental and human development challenges (see thebreakthrough.org). Such thinking is a political and moral evasion that capitulates all too easily to existing capitalist relations; such ecomodernization is an explicitly capitalist modernization, only adding the ecoprefix in order to cover up its ideological purposes (Critchley 2012).
Also deficient is the Latourian idea of the social production or construction of reality, the idea that reality—and people—are plastic and can be shaped and molded by technology as politics (Eagleton 1991; Critchley 1997). I have consistently argued for an essentialist ontology, which holds that things are essentially creatively unfolding in history, as the dominant humanitarian thread connecting Aristotle and Marx and constituting humanity’s best defense against the tyranny of those to whom power and technology give the capacity to construct the “new man” and the “new world” (Critchley 2018b). I consider all socially and materially neutral constructivism as further misadventures in the theoretico-elitist models that have plagued human civilization from the beginning, treating people as passive puppets of expert action, entailing an authoritarian technics imposed against a democratic technics (Critchley 2014; 2012). It is wise to be leery of the notion of philosopher-kings in politics, not least when a failure to appreciate Plato’s relation between principle and practice come to be overlooked to take monstrous form in the idea of scientific-technocratic dictators. Hence the need to ask critical questions with respect to whom legitimately speaks for nature, just what precisely this “nature” is, and what specific conditions are constitutive of ecocitizenship (Critchley 2018a; Critchley 2016). For the same reason, we also need to be cautious of the existence and use of the state and law as an environmental rescue squad, while recognizing that the failure to constitute a democratic ecopublic of responsible, active, and informed citizens may well result in the necessary intervention of some such thing as a condition of human survival. With Marx, I put the emphasis on the changing of circumstances as a self-change, enabling human beings to emerge as ecocitizens in their own right, rather than being engineered into a compulsory ecocitizenship from above and from the outside.
In short, I argue for human beings through the politicization of the environment to come to accept voluntarily the collective self-restraint required to address the collective force of our ecological predicament as against having to accept involuntarily the external constraint of either a full-blown environmental collapse or of an ecoauthoritarian attempt to deal with its effects. These are the only options available to us; there are no others. This leaves us socially and politically bereft. (It is enough to say here that I draw a sharp distinction between the relationism of the likes of Latour and the dialectical relationism of Marx. Marx possesses a materialist ontology which puts his relationism in touch with realism; Latour not only lacks such an ontology, he denies its possibility [Harman 2009, 73–75, 102, 152–56, 214–15; Latour 2014; Latour 2005, 18, 116, 134–47; Latour 2013]).
The big problem is that the thinking of the likes of Latour is influential and has the potential to dissipate critical thinking into a social and ethical vacuity that leaves the existing terrain unchallenged and unchanged. A social monism in which nature is merely a social production begs the question of what the point of critique is, whether critique has ceased to exist, and whether critique is even possible at all. And it begs the question of the nature of reality studied by natural science, the status of scientific facts, and the relation of science to the human-social world. From this perspective, it is easy to see why environmentalism has struggled to make much of a political impact, despite the wealth of science, fact, and research on its side. Nature idolatry comes in many forms, from affirmations of the priority of an independent nature over society and worship of a Mother Nature that does not exist, a mere empty signifier, to a belief in the affective power of natural scientific facts. None of this cuts any ice in the social-natural metabolism within which human beings exist and act.
The loss of a materialist ontology comes at a price, losing the very point and purpose, even the very possibility, of critique. At best, these views develop Marx’s emphasis on the subjective factor (human agency as creative and reality-constituting within specific social relations) but only at the expense of his materialist ontology, so much so that the idea of nature as the universal metabolism (Marx) that exists in its own right, independently of its social use and mediation, is lost from view. The result is a reversion to idealism in the form of a social-constructivist view of reality, a view that is postmodernist, even, in the emphasis on the plasticity of reality. Such a position denies the possibility of a meaningful ecological materialism and political ecology and, as I show, displays a pronounced tendency to present the concern with ecological crisis as apocalyptic or catastrophist. Within this social monism, ecological crisis is reducible to the law of value operating within the prevailing social system. There is no ontological reality independent of that law and hence there is no environmental crisis independent of social power and production. The reality of the climate crisis is something that is rendered secondary to politics and power struggles. The approach is a political cul-de-sac, generating ineffectual demands for change that come to be channeled into a techno-managerial environmental elitism in which nothing changes at the level of societal fundamentals.
The issue is not merely intellectual, not only of academic significance, but is of practical relevance when it comes to identifying precisely the nature of the crises that beset us and their resolution. Is the age we are living in best described as the Anthropocene or the Capitalocene? Is the problem one of human activity in general or the particular activities of particular human beings within certain social relations? The anthropocentrism we need to uproot is itself implicated in the capitalocentrism of prevailing social relations. That parts of the Marxist left have come to appropriate Marx’s social metabolism analysis and interpret it as a social monism that reproduces these very centrisms indicates that something has gone badly wrong in the understanding of Marx’s real dialectic (Moore 2015, 169–92.)
With respect to the Capitalocene and the Anthropocene, the two terms are compatible rather than antithetical once one appreciates the way that Marx related the social and natural metabolisms. The debate as to whether we are living in the Capitalocene or the Anthropocene is based on a false dualism between social and natural metabolisms, ignoring the way that Marx brought them into relation. It is not an either/or: Capitalocene is a social category that refers to the domination of the logic of capital within the social metabolism; Anthropocene is a scientific category that concerns the relation of human beings as such to nature. Both terms are valid interms of the relation that Marx establishes between “social metabolism” and the “universal metabolism of nature.” The big problem is capitalocentrism, indicating the way in which nature has come to be subsumed within the internal logic of capitalist accumulation. That problem tends to be elided when there is a scientistic approach to environmental crises.
The Accusation of Dualism in Metabolic Rift Analysis
To point to the ecological dimension of Marx’s writings, then, begs the question of how the metabolisms of society and nature are related in his analysis. This question has been answered by those advancing metabolic rift analysis. Within Marxism, however, some have criticized metabolic rift theory as expressing a Cartesian binary that, in violation of dialectical logic, conceives nature and society dualistically rather than as existing in dialectical relation (Moore 2011, 1–2, 8, 11; Schneider and McMichael 2010, 478, 482; Stoner 2013, 6–7).
Critics further charge that the idea of a metabolic rift between nature and society denies “the dialectical reciprocity of the biophysical environment” and is therefore “non-reflexive” (Stoner 2013, 7). Stoner writes: “We must be careful about ascribing the theory of the metabolic rift to Marx, since he did not use this terminology, and was not driven to develop a theory based on such terminology.” This statement can be challenged. Marx made enough consistent references to the metabolism of nature and society, including one explicit reference to the “rift” in the social-ecological metabolism, in his work from the Grundrisse in 1857–58 to Capital, including his notebooks from that time, up to the Notes on Adolph Wagner, to warrant Marx’s consideration as a metabolic thinker. Marx’s interactive metabolic conception can therefore be defended against his monist critics.
The dualism purportedly expressed in metabolic rift analysis is considered by critics to issue an “epistemic rift” that affects Marx’s value theory, rendering ecological relations of secondary significance in his writings (Schneider and McMichael 2013, 478–82.) Thus, Schneider and McMichael argue that Marx continually “risks a one-sided representation of the society-nature relationship,” falling prey at times to such methodological dualism since “the abstraction of value and of nature discount ecological relations in capital theory.” This criticism misunderstands Marx radically, accusing him of the very thing he criticized capital for—the systemic neglect of ecology, of natural wealth as true wealth in the realm of use value, through the emphasis on the bottom line in the realm of exchange value.
The Subsumption of Nature under Capital/Society
Marx’s thinking is dialectical rather than dualistic. In critically analyzing the way that capital’s alien wealth dominates society, Marx also draws attention to the emancipatory potential immanent in capitalist development (Marx Gr 1973, 541–42). There is a need to avoid abstraction and the way this invites splits into false antitheses. Marx conceives nature not abstractly as an external, objective datum, but in relation to humanity via the middling term of labor/production. Insofar as Marx discusses nature progressively as it is brought into society by this labor, as an extension of human labor, then his view could be considered to be of a piece with social monism. There is, however, a key difference that separates Marx from social monism. The monists turn Marx’s critical-emancipatory concern into a general methodological statement. This fails to understand the precise nature of Marx’s critique. Marx is not theorizing a social monism in which nature comes to be subsumed within society through labor/production—still less through the alien form of capital—but is specifically engaged in the critique of the value structure of capital itself, criticizing capital precisely on account of its failure to ground its value abstractions in ecological relations. Marx’s critical point is that this neglect is inherent in the nature of capital as an alienated system of production. This is made crystal clear in the way that Marx’s specific target is the distinction between use value and exchange value, distinguishing value under the commodity value form of capital from true wealth, which has its source in labor and the earth (Marx CGP FI 1974, 341). The argument here turns on the key points at the heart of Marx’s critique of political economy, specifically the way that, as a result of the split between use value and exchange value, externalization becomes a structural principle of the capital system. In challenging that principle by seeking to uproot the capital relation itself, Marx seeks to revalue the realm of true wealth, labor and nature, thus overthrowing the tyranny of exchange value and the way that capital is impelled to commodify and monetize the whole of society.
Marx thus critically understood modern capitalist society as a dehumanized (and denatured) society whose roots lie in alienated labor. To those who object that human beings are now healthier and wealthier, better educated, longer lived, and in greater numbers as a result of capitalism, there is a need to point out that Marx’s target was the inherent systemic tendencies of the capital system, its thirst for exchange value in indifference to qualitative wealth and needs within the realm of use value. Marx nowhere denied that that capitalist development was materially progressive and, ironically, has been accused of being a Promethean apologist of progress of the same stripe as capitalist modernizers as a result. The dialectical quality of Marx’s critique of (self-)alienation has been lost from view here, with the result that Marx can come to be lined up on one side or another of a false dualism. Marx’s key point is that within the alienating and exploitative relations of capital, social reality is subject to a reified monism in its relationships, with the constitutive role of human agency coming to be leveled and lost in a fetishistic social world.
Marx, then, is not theorizing a general process of monism in which nature is progressively subsumed into society but is concerned to expose the roots of the contradictory development at the heart of capitalist modernity in order to uproot them and establish the true relation between humanity and labor/production and nature. Marx is criticallyconcerned with the way that human subjectivity has come to encase itself within the alienated forms of social and political life. He is concerned to uproot the monism of the capital system as an alienated system of production. For Marx, alienation is a self-alienation, meaning that human beings as agents of their enslavement to their own social powers retain the capacity to abolish what Max Weber theorized and rationalized as an untranscendable steel-hard cage (Mészáros 2000, 129, 142, 744). Ironically, in the name of Marx, the social monists return us to the irrevocability of Weberian rationalization, placing us back under the shadow of Weber, Marx’s great critic. In contrast to Weber, Marx recovers the human capacity to engage in creative practical activity as a condition of truly human society (on Weber and untranscendability, see my piece on Mészáros, Critchley 2018c).
Idealism and Monism—Culturalism vs. Naturalism
These left critics of metabolic analysis ignore the fact that Marx is engaged in a critique based on the distinction between use value and exchange value. They thus take capital’s subsumption of all things under its accumulative imperatives—the very thing that Marx sought to uproot—as an argument not for the alienatingrole of the capital system in the humanity/labor-production/nature relation but for its unifying role with respect to material life. This amounts to a rejection of Marx and his critique of alienation in favor of Weber’s position on rationalization, leading to a world irrevocably enclosed within the alien forms of the capital system. Whereas Marx sought to liberate human subjectivity from the alien forms within which it had come to be encased, the social monist position renders this encasing within Weber’s iron cage a permanent condition. This position effectively rejects Marx for Weber’s notion of the untranscendable complexity of the capital system. The rationalizing and ideological character of the monist argument becomes clear in some of the statements made by the social monists. Thus, the likes of Moore go so far as to claim that capitalism is constitutive of the web of life itself. In opposing a social monism to the allegedly dualistic nature of ecological Marxism, the monist approach effectively turns Marx’s critique of an alienated system of production into a capitalist apologetics.
This distortion of Marx’s critical-emancipatory project has its epistemological roots in Western Marxism’s categorical rejection of the dialectics of nature, which can be traced to Georg Lukács’s critical comments on Engels in a footnote he wrote in History of Class Consciousness, comments that he contradicted in that book and repudiated later (Lukács 1971, 24). The loss of the dialectics of nature severed the connection to Marx’s materialist ontology, removed the ground from under the possibilities for developing a Marxist ecological materialism on the basis of Marx’s metabolic conception, and invited the reversion to idealism in the form of culturalism, historicism, and social constructivism. The problem is that the rejection of the dialectics of nature, in confining the dialectic to the social and historical reality produced by human agency, had the effect of distancing Marxist philosophy from nature as an object of analysis and from the findings of natural science, restricting the dialectic to the human world and thereby inviting a reversion to idealism. The result was a split between culturalism and naturalism that is far removed from Marx’s dialectical realism and that traps us within false antitheses (Jacoby in Bottomore, ed., 1983, 523–26; Merleau-Ponty 1973).
The rejection of the dialectics of nature—a reaction against the reversion to a mechanical, determinist materialism during the time of the Second International—developed as a Western Marxism that emphasized culture, consciousness, and idealism concerning the subjective factor in history, which in turn came later to issue in social constructivist and postmodernist modes of thought (Timpanaro 1975). One half of Marx’s “metabolic interaction” went missing (Colletti 1973, 191–93; Jacoby 1983, 524; Merleau-Ponty 1973, 32; Sartre 2004, 32; Marcuse 1960, 314; Schmidt 1971, 59–61; Vogel 1996, 14–19). As a result, Marx’s social-natural ontology was lost from view and with it the possibilities of an ecological Marxism.
The door was opened, then, to a one-sided reading that turned Marx’s critique of the way that the capital system absorbs labor and nature into a theorization and rationalization of the world as a social construction. The result is an anthropocentric social monism in which “society”—under the sway of capital as its principal agency—completely appropriates nature into itself. What, to Marx, had been a criticism of capital has now become a point of principle, a capitalist apologetics and Weberian rationalization delivered in Marx’s name!
How this turning of critique into rationalization could take place can be seen through a critical examination of Marxist geographer Neil Smith’s production-of-nature thesis. Castree posits the inconsistencies of Smith’s thesis as “productive ambiguities” rather than weaknesses, cautioning that to attempt a coherent assessment of his thesis would “risk overlooking important aspects of [Smith’s] thinking” (Castree 2015, 280). While I highlight some of these aspects, there is a real sense in which Smith’s “ambiguities” are more destructive than productive, particularly with respect to occluding the complexity of Marx’s dialectical understanding of the human-nature interaction.
In his production-of-nature thesis, Smith was concerned to address the limitations of social constructivism in human geography without reverting to positivism. He was interested in countering what he considered a neo-Kantian focus on the discursive construction of “nature”; the nature idealism and “environmental romanticism” of those who emphasized and reacted against the domination of nature (Schmidt 1971 and the Frankfurt School); and the view of any red-green coalition of anticapitalist struggle, on account of the fact that capital has entirely subsumed nature in the production (such as restoration and biotechnology) and appropriation (via, for example, rent, financialization, and taxation) of surplus value. Smith proceeds from capital’s conversion of nature into “an accumulation strategy” (Smith 2006). As Napoletano, Foster, et al. argue, “These three thrusts were built on a critique of what Smith (2008) viewed as a contradictory dualism in bourgeois ideology of nature, conceived as both universal (encompassing everything that exists) and simultaneously as external to society, neither of which he considered incorrect but together offering a contradictory image of reality” (2019).
Smith refers to capitalism’s “real subsumption of nature all the way down.” For Marx, this statement would have been a critical comment directing us in favor of establishing the proper relation between social and natural metabolisms. In the hands of social monists, however, it becomes a general epistemological and methodological statement, rationalizing the monism of the capital system and denying the irreducibility of the social metabolism and the natural metabolism as they are brought into relation:
Marx conceived the shift from the formal to the real subsumption of labour in simultaneously historical and analytical terms, and the same twinning of historical and analytical intent applies to the conceptual framework necessary to understand the current production of nature. With the formal subsumption of nature, capital accumulation is facilitated predominantly by a continual expansion in the conversion of extracted material into objects of production. (Smith 2006, 28)
Such a view denies the autonomy of nature in a way that Marx did not. Marx did not belabor the point, but he did acknowledge the existence of a nature that always lies outside of human praxis. He rejected philosophical speculation about the ontological status and truth of this nature as scholastic as talk of God. But he did recognize the irreducibility of a nature outside of human society and history. It is this acknowledgement that goes missing in the arguments of the social monists, with the result that what to Marx were critical comments directed against the capitalist subsumption of the realm of use value (labor and nature) become general statements in favor of the social production of nature: “Much as the real subsumption of labour strips the labourer of individuality, the real subsumption of nature, through its capitalization and financialization, strips nature of its specificity” (Smith 2006, 29).
This, to Marx, would have been a critical comment against capital, with a view to revalorizing labor and nature against their enclosure and commodification. Writing that “Nature is nothing if not social,” Smith argues that this refers to “the production of nature, all the way down.”
The explosion of ecological commodification and capitalization has significantly deepened the production of nature. It became a mantra of 1990s constructionism that “nature is discursive all the way down,” but the dramatic transformation of “socionature” today signals, if anything, that it is the regulation and production of nature that threatens to penetrate ‘all the way down. (Smith 2006, 25)
The Marxist credentials of Smith’s production-of-nature thesis are questionable in being based on a highly selective reading of Marx’s conception of production (Napoletano et al. 2019). Smith consistently conceives production in terms of humanity changing the form of “received” nature through interacting with it, primarily through social labor (Smith 2006, 2008). While this seems consistent with Marx’s view that human labor, like nature, only proceeds by changing the “form” of existing material (Marx 1976), this interchange is quite distinct from notions of the actual production of nature. Marx thus characterizes the labor process as the site of the “metabolism between [the human] himself and nature” (283), with nature an active participant in the process (Saito 2017; Napoletano et al. 2018). That notion effectively precludes Smith’s notion of the “production of first nature from within and as a part of second nature” (Smith 2008, 83), since, beneath any human labor added, production always contains a “substratum” of material “furnished by nature without human intervention” (Marx 1976, 133). That means that while human beings can continuously transform first nature, even beyond initial recognition, they cannot produce in the way that Smith would have it. As Napoletano et al. argue,
Smith’s (1999) arguments for a more expansive conception of production compound this inconsistency between the production of nature as form or essence, rendering the thesis more difficult to reconcile with Marx’s approach. The identity that Marx posited between production and consumption in the Grundrisse that Smith invoked to justify his own approach is only one aspect of a complex, dialectical argument on identity-in-opposition that encompasses production, distribution, exchange, and consumption as nonidentical moments in a differentiated totality in which production predominates but without excluding the other three moments. (Napoletano et al. 2019)
Smith makes an unwarranted leap from Henri Lefebvre’s production of space thesis (1991) to argue for the production of nature. Marx placed the emphasis squarely on the human transformation of nature through social labor expressed in historically and socially specific forms of mediation. There is a need to distinguish this transformation of nature from the production of nature. Understanding this distinction is central to establishing the dialectical nature of Marx’s critique as a critical realism-materialism that transcends both idealism and a passive environmental materialism (something that can take the form of the culturalism and naturalism I am concerned with criticizing). While Marx fully recognized the drive on capital’s part to subsume nature entirely within the value form, he considered the natural form to be far more resistant to such subsumption than the trademark technological optimism that the bourgeoisie could countenance (something that advances in biotechnology have done nothing to change, despite exaggerated claims and fantasies) (Burkett 1999). Marx’s understanding of the limits to capital’s drive to subsume nature was developed as a result of his incorporating natural scientific studies into his analysis, yielding an awareness that the endless expansion of production impelled by the accumulative dynamic would continuously, and maybe ultimately, be checked by biophysical processes and natural factors that shape and constitute use values, thus giving rise to the ecological as well as social contradictions of capital (Saito 2017; Ekers and Prudham 2018). Avoiding a naïve bourgeois optimism with respect to technological and industrial advance automatically delivering progress, Marx characterized capitalist economic development as internally contradictory:
The productivity of labour is also tied up with natural conditions, which are often less favourable as productivity rises—as far as that depends on social conditions. We thus have a contrary movement in these different spheres: progress here, regression there. We need only consider the influence of the seasons, for example, on which the greater part of raw materials depend for their quantity, as well as the exhaustion of forests, coal and iron mines, and so on. (Marx 1981, 369)
As Harvey argues, Marx’s concept of universality in production postulates “the [human] metabolic relation to nature” as an “eternal necessity” that cannot be suspended by positing a subject-object identity between society and nature, although conscious common control over the social metabolism can render the relation less antagonistic (Harvey 2012). Napoletano et al. rightly charge that this complexity in Marx’s ecological discussion, including the metabolic rift conception itself, “is either lacking or severely obscured in Smith’s production-of-nature thesis” (Napoletano et al. 2019).
The same deficiency is apparent, too, in the work of Castree, for whom any reference to a nature independent of humanity produces an ontological society-nature binarism (Castree 2000, 2002, 2015). Castree charges that metabolic rift theory expresses an ideology of nature’s “non-identity with humanity and its relative autonomy” within a “dualistic mindset” that recapitulates “the bourgeois and green views of nature it otherwise opposes: namely, an ontological, theoretical and normative separation of the social and natural realms” (Castree 2000, 14, 21). That view results in the loss of the dialectics of nature again, which serves to undermine appreciation and development of the ecological dimensions of Marx as a metabolic thinker (Critchley 2018a).
That Smith (2008) and Castree (2000) continue to qualify their views so as to deny that the production-of-nature thesis implies that the material world as such is the creation of human labor, and that society could gain control over all of nature, suggests in the very least a recognition of the relative autonomy of nature with respect to the social metabolism. That recognition totally undercuts the objections to metabolic rift theory as dualistic. As Napoletano et al. argue:
But if at least part of nature is not produced by humans, or at best partially integrated into capital circuits, and outside human control, leading to all sorts of unforeseen human consequences, how exactly can reference to various natural processes as relatively autonomous or partially external to society—particularly when humans are recognized as a unique part of nature—be legitimately dismissed as dualistic or obfuscatory? If humans are part of nature, how can nature as a whole not be partly external, as well as partly internal, to human society? (Napoletano et al. 2019)
Smith is enough of a Marxist to be concerned to clarify the point of his argument: “The production of nature thesis makes no pretence to the control of nature.” This statement implicitly acknowledges the irreducibility of nature, bringing the argument back into relation with Marx, underscoring the critical concerns of metabolic rift theory:
Just as capitalists never entirely control the production process, its results, or the global capitalism it generates, so capitalist society does not entirely control nature. Global warming and genetically modified organisms are certainly socially produced but they are by no means entirely controlled. Nor should future societies entertain any fantasy of controlling nature.
By the same token, it should also be emphasized that the production of nature is in no way synonymous with a social constructionist vision of nature. (Smith 2006, 25)
Smith, then, takes pains to distinguish his view from a thoroughgoing social constructionism. His production of nature thesis is not, he insists, a social constructivism in which nature as an independent force disappears entirely. The distinction may seem a fine one, and so it is worth quoting Smith’s argument at length. Reading Smith’s words here it becomes clear that the emphasis needs to be placed on labor/production as the mediating term between humanity and nature, as against assertions of the social construction of nature. To this extent, Smith’s argument is consistent with Marx and can be read alongside the case for establishing the true harmonious relation between the social metabolism and the universal metabolism of nature:
While the “production of nature” thesis certainly stresses the veins of social agency that runs through nature, it is not in any way assimilable to, or to be confused with, the constructionist paradigm that has become fashionable since the 1980s. Unsettled by the political implications of a focus on social production, but presumably responding to many of the same kinds of social shifts, some theorists have adopted a social constructionism anchored in the privileging of discourse. This creates its own kind of nature-washing in which the power of nature is discursively washed away or at least washed to the margins. This could hardly have been clearer than in the 1995 Social Text fiasco in which a scientist hoaxed that cultural politics journal with an entirely invented “constructionist” reading of contemporary physics. Whatever our necessary critiques of scientific conceptions of the world—and young scientists are often much more astute at this than those parrying from a distance—a discursive constructionism does not lead far. There is of course much debate on these issues, and the question of how to conceptualize nature-society relations is not and will not easily be solved in theory. I remain convinced that the crucial question is less how to recombine our understandings of nature and society, a project best geared to attempts to repair a rapacious capitalism, but rather the opposite: How could such a unified, if internally differentiated field, of nature-society relations, processes, and events come to be conceived in the first place as such a stark duality? This project requires reading the history of myriad practical productions of nature, over the last few centuries, through the evolution of western conceptions of nature. For the moment, a notion of the production of nature, which puts transformative human labour in its broadest sense at the center of the equation, works passably well, sympathetic I think with Donna Haraway’s notion of the co-production of social and natural processes and relations. Nature-washing, by contrast, re-consigns responsibility to nature. (Smith 2008, 246)
I would highlight Smith’s argument that “the crucial question is less how to recombine our understandings of nature and society, a project best geared to attempts to repair a rapacious capitalism, but rather the opposite: How could such a unified, if internally differentiated field, of nature-society relations, processes, and events come to be conceived in the first place as such a stark duality?” This view is consistent with the establishment of the “unified science” that Marx sought, eschewing philosophical speculation over the ontological status of “Nature” (and “God,” “Reason,” and “Humanity” for the same reasons), in favor of a focus on the practical, productive relation of real individuals in their material life-processes to nature (Marx EW EPM 1975, 356). Such a view rejects both “nature-idolatry” and “nature worship” (Marx in the Grundrisse), naturalism, whether in the name of natural science or spirituality, (Marx and Engels CW, vol. 4, 1975, 150), and capital idolatry and capital worship (culturalism and constructivism, the idea that reality is a social creation).
Smith thus places the focus on the myriad practical productions of nature, claiming that the notion of the production of nature, with transformative human labor at its heart, “works passably well, sympathetic I think with Donna Haraway’s notion of the co-production of social and natural processes and relations.” I think, in light of above criticisms, we can make the much stronger claim that Marx’s humanity-labor/production-nature works very well indeed and undergirds the idea of coproduction within the metabolic interaction between social and natural metabolisms. I agree entirely with Smith’s view that “Nature-washing, by contrast, re-consigns responsibility to nature.” Such “Nature-washing” is the nature idolatry and nature worship that Marx explicitly rejected. At this juncture, however, I am concerned to steer the notion of social production away from the dangers of capital idolatry and worship, away from rationalizing capital’s subsumption of labor and nature within its realm of exchange value. What we are really talking about, then, as Smith himself says, is the “very real subsumption of daily life to capital.”
What is new today is not that this horizontal integration of nature into capital has ceased, even if in some arenas it is significantly circumscribed as many raw materials become scarcer, harder to locate, and more expensive to extract. Rather, partly in response to these increasing constraints, a new frontier in the production of nature has rapidly opened up, namely a vertical integration of nature into capital. This involves not just the production of nature “all the way down,” but its simultaneous financialization “all the way up.” Capital is no longer content simply to plunder an available nature but rather increasingly moves to produce an inherently social nature as the basis of new sectors of production and accumulation. Nature is increasingly if selectively replicated as its own marketplace. (Smith 2006, 33)
While Smith is concerned about distinguishing his view from social constructivism, there is nevertheless a real danger that his concern with the social agency that runs through nature and its production does draw attention away from nature as an independent entity in its own right. The danger is apparent in the way that Smith argues that we should reject natural science’s idolatry of the “so-called laws of nature” and eschew the “left apocalypticism” and “fetishism of nature” indulged in by sections of the environmental movement (Smith 2008, 45–47, 247; Smith 2006, 23–29). Smith would counter that his target here is idolatry and fetishism, something on which I am in firm agreement. We should be careful, however, not to mistake what science explains with respect to the laws of nature with nature and its operation as such. Scientists do not indulge in idolatry in this sense. A natural science that engages in the idolatry of anything has ceased to be science. But there is a deeper point with respect to the notion of nature as an empty signifier, something which cannot serve as an ontological foundation om which to base politics, ethics, and social practice. So, we should emphasize that the specific target here is fetishism with respect to nature and its laws, and the way that a certain strain of environmentalism occludes human practice, production and agency to effectively fetishize “nature.” We should be alive, therefore, to the way that certain environmentalists naturalize their own social and historical agency, claiming to speak for nature with their own voices, as a non-negotiable truth and unanswerable overriding authority.
Smith’s remarks here are in keeping with the form of Marx’s critical comments on “nature-idolatry” and “nature worship” (Marx Gr 1973, 410-411). We need, however, to be alert to the danger that such comments could come to be taken further, occluding nature completely, and thereby depriving natural science of its object of study and entire reason to be. Not only do we lose natural science as a result, we lose reality as an intelligible and meaningful entity as such. We also lose sight of Marx’s pioneering contributions to ecology, as expressed in metabolic rift theory, with consequences that are debilitating not merely in theoretical terms but also political ones.
Marx’s status as a pioneer in ecological materialism and his identification of the ecological contradictions of capital are lost from view as a result. The claim that is still frequently heard that “Marx has nothing to say on ecology” is the product not merely of ignorance but of ideological obfuscation. This involves more than the tendency to reduce issues arising from social forms to technical questions—it is a failure to establish the right relation between economic categories and the social relations of production. Marx consistently excoriated those who made the error of turning socially specific economic categories into eternal form, thus naturalizing and dehistoricizing what ought to be historicized. Marx was therefore concerned with checking against what he considered the trademark bourgeois error of inversion of true relations and flight to abstraction (see, for instance, his criticism of Proudhon in The Poverty of Philosophy Chapter 2.1: “The Metaphysics of Political Economy [The Method]”). In the Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx is adamant that “a socialist programme, however, cannot allow such bourgeois formulations to silence the conditions which give them the only meaning they possess” (Marx FI 1974, 341-2).
Marx was here writing in response to the claim made in the Gotha Programme of The German Workers’ Party that “labour is the source of all wealth and culture” (Marx FI 1974). Marx rejects that view firmly, highlighting the debilitating political consequences that follow in the trail of such bourgeois theoretical formulations. “Labour is not the source of all wealth,” Marx insists, proceeding to argue that “nature is just as much the source of use-values (and surely these are what make up material wealth!) as labour.” “Labour,” he continues, “is itself only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labour power.” Marx is concerned with identifying the conditions obfuscated by bourgeois theoretical formulations and inversions such as this, locating the source of abstraction in the self-possessing figure on which the liberal ontology rests:
Man’s labour only becomes a source of use-values, and hence also of wealth, if his relation to nature, the primary source of all instruments and objects of labour, is one of ownership from the start, and if he treats it as belonging to him. There is every good reason for the bourgeoisie to ascribe supernatural creative power to labour, for when a man has no property other than his labour power it is precisely labour’s dependence on nature that forces him, in all social and cultural conditions, to be the slave of other men who have taken the objective conditions of labour into their own possession. He needs their permission to work, and hence their permission to live. (Marx FI 1974, 341–42)
The result of inversion and abstraction, then, is to obscure the nature of the social relations generating conditions of dependence, removing the distinction between the contributions made by human labor and nonhuman nature to production, and thereby occluding the political practice required to remedy the situation. Such “bourgeois formulations” are a theoretical inversion and abstraction that—in obscuring the precise ways in which the expropriation of both nature and unpaid socially reproductive labor in the household and the appropriation of unpaid labor undergird bourgeois society—come to “hobble” a political movement (Foster and Clark 2018). Marx proceeds to detail the damaging political consequences of such formulations (Marx CGP FI 1974, 342).
Marx’s emphatic statement that labor is not the source of all wealth, giving due recognition to labor, renders Smith’s production-of-nature thesis problematic, if not conceptually barren. Napoletano et al. acknowledge that Smith’s thesis “encourages a more detailed examination of the mechanisms and strategies that capital uses to bring environmental concerns into its accumulation processes at multiple points…that dovetail with work on metabolic rift, emphasizing the way in which capital continues to profit from environmental degradation even as public wealth and the conditions for human development are depleted” (Napoletano et al. 2019; Burkett 1999; Foster, Clark, and York 2010). Which is to say that the production-of-nature thesis is at best an invitation to deeper analysis with respect to the nature-society dialectic, and not the end. More precisely, the metabolic rift could be used to extend Smith’s critique of capital’s subsumption of nature by considering how newly capitalized nature:
- exacerbates human alienation from nature by imposing further second-order mediators (private property, exchange, and so on; see the description of the metabolic rift later);
- helps to grease the wheels of accumulation, such that the net effect is further deepening of the metabolic rift as well as an overexploitation of capitalized nature; and
- reconciles the accumulation process to changed ecological conditions (and accelerates it) at the expense of the most politically marginalized population segments in the introduction of various socioecological fixes (Napoletano et al. 2019).
Clarification of the theoretical issues at stake here are of the utmost political significance. Although environmentalists committed to sustainability, even plain survival, are increasingly calling for an end to politics and business as usual, the break with “bourgeois formulations” necessary to effect a transition beyond prevailing social relations tends to be missing. Note, in this respect, the tendency of environmentalists to write of taking control of capital and reorienting it to social and ecological use, repeating the classic textbook definition of capital as a thing, as against Marx’s designation of capital as a relation. Such errors will indeed “hobble” (Marx’s word) a political movement by confining it within the very social relations its demands purportedly transcend. Within these confines, it should come as no surprise that environmental crisis could come to be apprehended as a business opportunity, giving us the extension and entrenchment of the corporate form instead of the required social transformation. The call for “system change, not climate change” should be an occasion for radical critique of an alienated system of production that systematically prioritizes the accumulative imperatives of capital over social and ecological health, exposing the material roots, contradictory dynamics, and class relations at the heart of the socioecological crisis (Harvey 1997, 2006, 2014).
Arguing that the labor and production process of society “mediates the metabolism between man and nature” (Marx 1976, 133), Marx makes a distinction between, on the one hand, “the universal condition for the metabolic interaction (Stoffwechsel) between man and Nature, the everlasting Nature-imposed condition of human existence” and, on the other hand, the particular mediation through which this metabolic interaction takes on a socially and historically specific form (Colletti, introduction to Early Writings, by Marx, 1975, 27–28; Marx CI 1976, ch. 7, 291). In “Excerpts from James Mill’s Elements of Political Economy,” Marx refers to the “reversal of the original relationship” through “the alienated mediation of human production with human production, the alienated species-activity of man. All the qualities proper to the generation of this activity are transferred to the mediator” (Marx 1974, 261). Marx is referring to the way in which production ceases to be governed by the direct satisfaction of human needs once the direct producers lose control over the production process and enter the system of wage labor. Instead, the social supply of labor comes to be expressed indirectly through the value form, with production geared to the pursuit of exchange value. This inversion is historically specific to capitalist relations of production and involves a qualitative shift to a structure of abstract value removed from the realm of use value or material production, with materiality considered a mere precondition for value and exchange (Marx 1976). Smith’s view that the alteration of nature involves unintentional byproducts of commodity production—such as climate change—underplays the extent to which environmental crises are necessarily generated by capital’s contradictory socioecological dynamics. As Napoletano et al. argue, the distinction once more pivots on the question of agency:
Here it is important to understand how and what structural features prevent bourgeois society from rationally and democratically regulating the metabolism between human beings and nature in such a way as to maintain the earth for the chain of future generations. To include in the production of nature all such “externalities”—from radionuclides to climate change—that capitalism leaves out of its value calculations further undermines the production-of-nature thesis as a radical critique of capital (Napoletano et al. 2019).
Smith’s production-of-nature thesis thus entails an explanatory monism which “far from resolving the problems of dualism, gives capitalism all the power in the society-nature relation and therefore erases nature altogether” (Castree 2002, 131). This monism is compounded by Moore’s assertion of the flat ontology of a more posthumanist approach, eliminating the analytical distinction between humans and their material environment central to Marx’s material-dialectical conception of nature and society (Napoletano et al. 2019). The result is to obfuscate the role of class, asymmetrical relations of class power, and other social structures of domination involved in the process of ecological degradation, making critical socioecological analysis well-nigh impossible (Malm 2018).
In contrast, metabolic rift analysis upholds the distinction between humans and the material environment in engaging in a socioecological critique focused on the antagonistic but conjoined coevolution of nature and society (Saito 2017; Napoletano et al. 2019).
Jason W. Moore and World Ecology
The extent to which the notion of social production could come to depart in substance from Marx’s argument is made clear in the way that world-ecology theorist Jason W. Moore develops the implications of Smith’s production-of-nature thesis to its logical conclusion. Moore thus proceeds to argue that capitalism appropriates and subsumes nature “all the way down, across, and through” (Moore 2015, 152). In this conception, nature ceases to exist independently of society, seeming to undermine the very point and purpose of natural science, undercutting its claims to objective knowledge. We should, here, bear in mind Marx’s call for a “unified science” on the basis of a materialist ontology, integrating natural-scientific and social-historical investigations: “The social reality of nature and human natural science or the natural science of man are identical expressions” (Marx EW EPM 1975, 356). This is a very different notion from the subsumption of one into the other and the erasure of nature—Marx recognizes the continued existence of nature independent of social production.
The serious implications of the social productivist or constructivist turn become clear once climate change comes to be considered as merely a power play of social interests, a story that different groups tell from their own perspectives. In this reading, the climate system is a social production whose reality or otherwise is fought over between different groups and interests in politics. To point out the reality of the crisis in the climate system, as revealed by natural science, is not to indulge in the sophistry of power-play. There is a real world and it can be known in some part by the methods of science. The contest between groups and interests in politics is real enough in itself, but it is, ultimately, about something more substantial than power and power relations; it is about reality. Hence the importance of reinstating the dialectics of nature so as to recover the connection with Marx’s materialist ontology. That reality, however, is a mediated one, underlining the need to set the social and natural metabolisms in true relation.
Smith opens a line of analysis which sees first nature (the nature which precedes society and stands outside it, which Marx referred to as the “universal metabolism of nature”) as coming to be totally absorbed by second nature (nature as transformed by “society,” which Marx called the “social metabolism”) (Smith 2008, 65–69). Rather than engage in the critique of capital for the totalitarian way that it subsumes all—both labor and nature (true wealth in the realm of use value)—under the systemic imperative of accumulation, there is instead a rationalization that occludes the role of capital. The critical edge of Marx’s analysis, exposing asymmetrical power relations and systemic drives, is thus blunted to present a general statement with respect to social monism. The result is an effective denial of the existence of nature as an ontological referent, as an independent reality in and of itself.
Smith would deny that this criticism applies to his work, hence his concern to distinguish the production-of-nature thesis from the idea of the social control of nature as such. But the charge certainly applies to Moore’s work, where nature is considered to exist only in relation to social construction, as “hybrids” or “bundles” within the capitalist world-ecology. Moore goes so far as to describe the nature that existed before human society as “pre-formed” in that it is not yet produced or “coproduced” by society: “Even when environments are in some abstract sense pre-formed (the distribution of the continents, for example) historical change works through the encounters of humans with those environments, a relation that is fundamentally co-productive” (Moore 2014, 15).
This is the view I aim to contest. I argue in favor of notions of coproduction and cocreation, the idea of a partnership between creative human agents and of the world as a ceaselessly creative universe (Critchley 2016). “Both humans and nature are active agents” (Merchant 1992 ch. 10). This view does not deny the independent significance of nature as a reality outside of human agency. For all his emphasis on creative human praxis, Marx argues for society and nature as irreducible in their metabolic relation. Against this, the view that affirms a social monism against an alleged Cartesian dualism in Marx effectively rationalizes capitalist alienation and metabolic disruption within an assertion of social construction, thereby denying the idea of a metabolic rift that identifies a contradiction between capital and ecology (Moore 2015, 4, 19–20, 78, 152). The evidence is clear that the notion of metabolic rift plays a key role in Marx’s critical analysis of the contradictory dynamics of the capital system and it is clear, too, that this rift constitutes the defining problem of the contemporary age (Foster 2000, 164; Foster 2015, 9). The problem that Marx addressed in a local sense has therefore gone global, threatening the conditions of human civilization as such (Foster, Clark, and York 2010, 7, 73–87). Establishing this point has been my main concern in this piece on the pertinence of Marx to ecology.
Marx argues that capitalist commodity production necessarily disturbs fundamental ecological processes. This view is rejected on account of being contrary to the social-monist perspective. To point to specific instances of ecological rift is, to social monists, to give expression to an apocalyptic vision. I can point to examples of rift in both the texts of Marx and in the real world, which most assuredly continues to exist as the world we all live in. Since the social-monist accusation of “left apocalypticism” is of the same species as the cries of “alarmism” made against climate campaigners, it is interesting to identify what it is that unites seemingly disparate political forces. The common thread lies in a commitment to modernization as the human-social transformation of nature. Not only is this a distortion of Marx, it also plays into the hands of green critics of Marxism by (mis)reading Marx’s emphasis on human development as a type of Prometheanism. This revelation indicates the extent to which we are in the company of an ideological project, employing ideology in Marx’s critical sense—ideas that accurately express an inverted world, serving to conceal, preserve, and rationalize existing asymmetrical power relations. The critical dimension of Marx’s argument has been erased. His emancipatoryconcern with the alienation of labor and of nature under the capital system has been replaced with a social determinism that eliminates the rift in the metabolic order so as to theorize a social monism that emphasizes the social production of reality and rationalizes the contradictory dynamics of capitalist development. Thus, Moore affirms a “monist and relational view” against the supposed dualism of nature and society that he identifies within the ecological Marxism of metabolic rift theorists. He sees the “bundling” of nature and society as signifying their unified existence (Moore 2014, 16; Moore 2015, 85).
The truth is that once Marx’s dialectical relation between the social and natural metabolism is lost, things that are connected in his critical understanding can come to appear as dualistic. There is a need to understand the role of abstraction in conceptual analysis and to comprehend Marx’s analysis dialectically. For example, the notion of the identity of opposites points to a contradiction that can only be transcended at another organizational level. Alfred North Whitehead expresses this point on contradiction perfectly in his process philosophy: “Throughout the Universe there reigns the union of opposites which is the ground of dualism” (Whitehead 1933, 245). Whitehead thus warned against the dangers of a misplaced concreteness when it came to conceptual abstraction. The failure to appreciate the dialectical quality of Marx’s conceptual framework, then, has resulted in a number of critics condemning metabolic rift analysis as a form of Cartesian dualism. This criticism is a result of the failure to understand the role of abstraction in conceptual analysis, the way in one “moment” within the totality is isolated from the overall dynamics (Levy 1932, 31–81; Levy 1938, 30–36; Ollman 1993, 24–27; Paolucci 2007, 118–23, 136–42; Lewontin and Levins 2007, 149–66). Such conceptual abstraction cannot but appear partial, mechanical, or reductionist when considered independently of the totality. The point of abstraction is to shed light on specific mediations so as to better understand the larger concrete totality within which they are set (Mészáros 1972, 61–91). Fail to understand concepts and contradictions dialectically in relation to reality, and the door to dualism swings wide open. It was not a mistake that Marx made (hence his critique of abstraction, philosophical speculation and scholasticism, see Critchley 2018a 2018b). For Marx, terms such as Nature, God, Reason, Man, and Humanity are meaningless in themselves, insofar as their ontological status is uncertain apart from the mediation of labor/production in the social-nature metabolic interaction.
There is a distinction to be made here between open and closed dialectics. Fredric Jameson puts it this way:
The notion of the dialectic, with a definite article—of dialectics as a philosophical system, or indeed as the only philosophical system—obviously commits you to the position that the dialectic is applicable to everything and anything.… Western Marxism…stakes out what may be called a Viconian position, in the spirit of the verum factum of the Scienza Nuova; we can only understand what we have made, and therefore we are only in a position to claim knowledge of history but not of Nature itself, which is the doing of God. (Jameson 2009, 3–7)
Materialist dialectics are said to be “open” in the sense that they hold that there is no domain closed to human apprehension and knowledge. There is no separate domain of nature and no domain of God, as in Giambattista Vico, no Kantian things-in-themselves. This sounds liberatory but, I would argue, is itself a form of closure in that it invites the enclosure of the world and everything in it by a totalizing Reason, subsuming nature under society and human beings themselves under their alien mediations.
I develop an ecological Marxism in terms of the dialectical unity Marx established between society and nature, pointing to what Marx called the “metabolic interaction” that proceeds between them, making it clear that the “social metabolism” of human society and productive activity operates within the “universal metabolism of nature.” Marx seeks a unified or harmonious coexistence between both metabolisms, but this is not the “singular metabolism” theorized by the likes of Moore—Marx recognizes that nature precedes human action and will continue to exist independently of human transformation. Marx considered indulging in philosophical speculation in this regard to be idle and thus focused on labor/production as the mediating term. Marx’s criticism of “nature-idolatry” and “nature worship” does not constitute a denial on his part of a nature that is independent of creative human praxis, nor does it involve an assertion that nature only exists as a result of reality-changing and -constituting human social praxis; rather, it is an attempt to focus on the practical reappropriation and humanization (or disalienation) of human social powers in mediating the metabolic interchange with nature. This view is very different from that of social monism. Whereas Marx criticized the way that capital subsumes the two sources of wealth, labor and nature, within its pursuit of exchange value, degrading both in the process, monists, to take the words of Moore, point to the way that “capitalism internalizes—however partially—the relations of the biosphere,” as the forces of capital construct and configure “the biosphere’s internalization of capitalism’s process.” The fact that Moore says “partially” here would seem to imply a recognition on his part that nature does indeed resist complete enclosure. The effect of his analysis, however, is to extinguish the independence of nature. As he states: “Capitalism internalizes the contradiction of nature as a whole, while the web of life internalizes capitalism’s contradictions” (Moore 2014, 12; Moore 2015, 28; Moore 2015c, 91).
In the monist conception, nature, in effect, comes to exist only as an internal moment or relation within the capital system. And once this is admitted, then it becomes entirely legitimate to claim that “nature” is anything that human beings through their praxis come to say it is—or, more to the point, specific human beings within specific social relations, asymmetrical relations of class power within which some have greater voices and more choices than others. Nature thus comes to be effectively and irrevocably enclosed within the alienated mediations of the capital system, which in turn encloses human agents within class relations, breaking up the human we and dividing it in accordance with social power and asymmetrical relations of power and resources. This position gives the victory to Weber and his notions of untranscendable complexity within the iron cage of capitalist modernity over Marx and his society of associated producers. In an alienated social world, there is no human we, meaning that the agency of some counts for a whole lot more than the agency of others. We remain within the world of capitalist appropriation and class division. Instead of Marx’s critique of alienation, there is a Weberian rationalization of social determinism in the context of asymmetrical relations of power, celebrating the very thing that Marx sought to identify and uproot.
Here we see the deleterious consequences of the culture-nature dualism that issues from the loss of Marx’s dialectical materialist ontology. Marx certainly rejected naturalism in the form of “nature-idolatry” and “nature worship,” but he would also certainly have rejected a culturalism, idealism, or constructivism that saw reality as nothing more than the creation of human praxis. Marx rejects such dualism as utterly false and instead defines a dialectical relationism and realism. Marx was concerned with avoiding abstraction, or “scholasticism,” with respect to claims about the ontological status of “Nature,” “Man,” and “God.” In the monist concern to identify and reject dualism, Marx’s metabolic conception and dialectical realism have come to be lost, with the world coming to be seen as composed of human and nonhuman “bundles.” Moore thus asserts that “all agency is a relational property of specific bundles of human and extra-human nature” (Moore 2015, 37). This constitutes a “web of life” not in the ecological sense in which that term is normally understood, but in purely social-cultural terms. For Moore, such bundles are “formed, stabilized, and periodically disrupted,” but discursively rather than in terms of a materialist social-natural ontology (Moore 2014, 12; Moore 2015, 85 179. Moore 2015, 46).
In Moore’s conception, the critical aspect of alienation in Marx has been lost and with it the emancipatory commitment to a defetishized world that forms the entire point of Marx’s critique. A world that is made up of no more than “bundled” forms gives evidence of a social monism that expresses a neutral monism that lacks a philosophical anthropology, bringing with it the normative dimension that is key to notions of socialist emancipation (See Maclean 2014). Whatever else it is, it is not the Marxism of Marx. It is a reversion to Weberian rationalization, rendering rational the very capitalist forms that Marx criticized as alienated.
To criticize the capital system as a dehumanization, as Marx does, is to have an idea of what a truly human society looks like. Similarly, to criticize capital for the degradation of nature is to have some idea of what a healthy functioning nature would look like. Lose the critical-emancipatory dimension and “humanity” and “nature” cease to exist as anything more than social productions. This begs the question of who or what, within capitalist relations, is doing the producing and why. Reality becomes no more than a sophist power struggle. Victory in the class struggle ceases to have the emancipatory purpose it had for Marx and merely concerns the triumph of one sectional interest over another. Again, this is merely the circulation of power without the referents that give it an end and purpose. Marx’s criticism is that the capital system is necessarily involved in the degradation of labor and nature is grounded in a normative philosophy that cannot be socially neutral in this way. The exchange of that normative dimension for neutral monism ends an emancipatory project and delivers us into the world of endless power struggles and plasticity, a world that removes us ever further away from our socioecological matrix. Boundaries are written out as mere obstructions to productivist power. This is most decidedly not Marx’s view.
Social Monism and Cartesian Dualism
The principal target for these leftist critics is a dualism whose source they claim to find in Marx himself. As Smith writes: “Given Marx’s own treatment of nature, it may not be unreasonable to see in his vision also a certain version of the conceptual dualism of nature.” Ironically, the reason for this criticism seems to be Marx’s dialectical interactionism and relationism, which affirmed the unity of society and nature but in a way that avoided reducing one to the other. I see this as a virtue in Marx’s metabolic conception. Erik Swyngedouw, however, criticizes Marx for this understanding: “The social and the natural may have been brought together and made historical and geographical by Marx, but he did so in ways that keep both as a priori separate domains” (Swyngedouw 1999, 446). This distinction, I have argued, is to Marx’s credit, because it enabled him to argue for unity and harmony within the social-natural metabolism, avoiding the reduction of one metabolic order to the other, while also avoiding “idolatry” and “worship” in all their forms, not just natural but also sociocultural with respect to human power. Marx affirmed a unity that recognized society and nature as irreducible; that is, he affirmed a materialist ontology that recognized the existence of a reality that is always something more than human social construction.
Against Marx’s supposed dualism of society and nature, Swyngedouw proposes a singular “socionature” that is every bit as all-encompassing as capital’s thirst to subsume all things in the realm of use value—labor and nature—to its accumulative imperatives. Such a monistic socionature is reductionist, proposing a totalitarian unity in a world enclosed within a totalizing rationalization. We are in the presence here of G. W. F. Hegel’s World Spirit, overcoming Kant’s things-in-themselves; we are in the presence of Reason turning into a repressive rationalization of all things under the agency of capital; we are in the Weberian world of an untranscendable rationalization of social forms. In the words of Castree, “nature becomes internal to capitalism in such a way that the very distinction implied by using these terms is eroded and undermined” (Castree 2000, 27–28; Castree 1995, 20; Castree 2001, 204–05; Castree in Perreault, Bridge, and McCarthy, eds., 2015). Capitalism is thus presented as having a total power over nature in that it “seems to swallow up the latter altogether” (Castree 2002, 131; Latour 2005, 58). The social monist perspective is evidence of a self-made human world that has come to curve in on itself. I would strongly distinguish Marx’s focus on labor/production and praxis from such a view. Social monist criticism of Marx on account of his supposed Cartesian dualism is an invitation to reinstate Marx’s dialectical realism as a metabolic relationism that recognizes the irreducibility of the social metabolism and the universal metabolism of nature as they are brought into harmonious interaction.
Comprehending the Totality: The Dialectical Quality of Marx’s Conceptual Framework
Marx explicitly criticizes monism as something identified with capital’s inversion of subject and object:
The fusion of the subject-object inversion with the problem of the concept of capital is the fundamental theme of Marx’s oeuvre, which…constitutes the red thread which unites all other problematics in the early writings with those of the later works. (Backhaus in Bonefeld at al. vol. I 1992, 68 [see also Ranciere in Rattansi ed. 1989,86])
In overcoming the inversion of subject and object, Marx establishes their true unity in relation. It is therefore important to emphasize that Marx’s conception of “the metabolism of nature and society” was dialectical rather than dualistic, emphasizing the way in which our knowledge of nature was generated through the productive interchange with nature from within the social metabolism. In the view of David Harvey (Deutscher Prize Lecture 2011), Marx’s “metabolic relation to nature” involves a notion of “universality” that denotes a boundary of reality, establishing the conditions of sustainable existence serving to connect the “different ‘moments’” of Marx’s critique of political economy together. As I have argued elsewhere, since Marx did not manage to integrate the key boundary issues of the global economy and the universal metabolism of nature into Capital, his ecological critique remained scattered and incomplete (Critchley 2018a). I have therefore made a point of buttressing Marx’s published statements in this regard with the comments he made in his notebooks, indicating how integration could have been effected in terms of his critical method. The integration of specific mediations at the level of concrete totality is entirely possible within Marx’s humanity-nature dialectic. And, as the copious notes that Marx made from his extensive reading of scientific literature show, such integration was precisely Marx’s intent (Harvey 2012, 12–14, 36).
At this point, one can only conclude that what is in Marx a critique of capital’s alienating and exploitative domination of nature (and labor) has become in the hands of monists and modernizers a celebration of a human-social power abstracted from specific social relations and mediations to create and transform reality as such. This is Marx’s praxis unbound, which is to say, not Marx at all. Whereas Marx affirmed a materialist ontology, in this understanding nature as an independent objective entity has ceased to exist. In this case, the mediation of labor/production, which formed Marx’s principal focus in bringing the social and natural metabolisms into harmonious relation, has lost its point and purpose, since there is nothing with which to mediate. And once nature is lost, how far can the eclipse of humanity be behind?
When Moore remarks that “green materialism” was “forged in an era when nature still did count for much,” the clear implication is that nature no longer counts for anything, for the very reason that it has ceased to be (Moore 2014b). Does humanity, by the same reasoning, count for much either? And if nature as an objective referent has been lost, then natural science has lost its point and purpose: natural science has lost its object of study, nature, which would no doubt come as news to natural scientists. Who speaks for nature when nature has ceased to exist? The view cuts the ground from under environmentalism too, in that it has ceased to have any definite referent in nature. Such a view renders environmentalism both a science and a political and social movement, problematic to say the least and redundant to say the most—a view expressed by Latour, who makes the nonexistence of nature as a referent a basic stipulation of his philosophy. We are in the world of power and its circulation, construction, interests, the sophist world of Thrasymachus in which justice is the interests of the strongest.
The loss of a materialist ontology comes at a cost of coherence and purpose in any critical and emancipatory project. The inanities of culturalism are most obviously apparent in the departure from natural science. Thus, Moore endorses geographer Bruce Braun’s criticism of Marxian ecological economist Elmar Altvater for his adherence to the second law of thermodynamics in his analysis (Moore 2014b; Braun 2006, 197–99; Angus and Murphy 2016). Moore does not just downplay reality and the science that seeks knowledge of it by referring to nature as operating within a social dynamic, but he actually goes against basic physics and science when he argues that “the ‘law of entropy’…operates within specific patterns of power and production. It is not determined by the biosphere in the abstract. From the standpoint of historical nature, entropy is reversible and cyclical—but subject to rising entropy within specific civilizational logics” (Moore 2015, 14). This is a radical statement in favor of the human power to not just modify nature but to change its workings entirely.
In trying to make sense of something that seems so absurd, I would highlight “in the abstract” and relate them to Marx’s argument in “Thesis II on Feuerbach,” in which he declares the question of the truth with respect to objective reality to be a “scholastic” question. Truth must be proven in practice, stated Marx. Stated in such shorthand, this view would indeed seem to deny the relevance of ontological questions, giving up the scientific search for the truth of objective reality (as well as moral truths with respect to God) in favor of a truth that is generated and proven from within a humanly objective reality, from within human power relations.
Does this mean that Marx, then, is a social monist after all? I would argue not. General statements, such as the ones made in the “Theses,” do not constitute an overall philosophy. A careful analysis of Marx’s conceptual framework, supported by textual evidence of the precise features of Marx’s critical analysis, indicate the existence of a social-natural materialist ontology, one that sees society and nature as irreducible while being involved in a metabolic interaction. Social monism lacks this critical framework, fails to see the care that Marx took in defining the mediated relation between “social metabolism” and the “universal metabolism of nature,” and so comes to swallow reality up into social practice.
Social monism is a culturalism that commits the same mistake made by those who advocate a primitivist, anticivilization naturalism, but in reverse. The result is an idolatry and worship of social and cultural forms on one side, opposed to a nature idolatry and worship on the other, a wholly uncritical culturalism fighting it out with an uncritical naturalism. This is the real dualism, one that Marx explicitly rejected. The absurdities soon become apparent. The social monist view is not merely dualistic, opposing culture to a (nonexistent) nature, it inverts true relations, thus making the laws of nature subject to the powers of society, which, it is claimed, is capable of reversing or recycling entropy, because discursive practice says so (Moore 2015, 14).
The criticism of “left apocalyptism” is interesting in this regard, because it seems to be part of a general repudiation of not merely environmentalism in politics, but of notions of the natural environment as such, denying the existence of nature as an independent entity in itself. With this comes also the devaluation of natural science, which holds that knowledge of nature is possible. From the uncertain status of natural science’s object of study, it follows that the findings of science are rendered of uncertain value. Those who think this way would, no doubt, point to the political failures of environmentalism in light of the crisis in the climate system and environmentalism’s inability to mount an effective challenge to ecological degradation. Naturalism as an alliance of science, facts, and nature worship has proven politically ineffective against the power of capital. The greatest inroads have been made at the level of green energy, technology, and business, but only at the expense of leaving social relations unchanged, rendering environmentalism a green hygiene movement powering an exploitative and rapacious economic system with clean energy. Something crucial has gone missing. However, if naturalism is in error, at least it errs on the right side in affirming the existence of a nature that is independent of social praxis. The social monists reject naturalism for something that seems much worse, something that not only leads to absurdity, an entirely made-up truth in denial of ontological nature, but which risks becoming an ideological rationalization of the exploitative capitalist relations implicated in the degradation and destruction of the world.
Taken to the logical conclusion, social monists must go so far as to exempt humanity, as the reality-creating power, from nature’s laws altogether, a step that is indeed taken by those who argue that “nature and its more recent derivatives like ‘environment’ or ‘sustainability,’ are ‘empty’ signifiers” (Swyngedouw 2010, 304). While “‘Nature’ (as a historical product) provides the foundation,” Swyngedouw argues, “social relations produce nature’s and society’s history” (Swyngedouw 1999, 446). While this view does at least acknowledge nature as a “foundation,” in keeping with Marx’s recognition that the “universal metabolism of nature” enfolds the “social metabolism,” it nevertheless refers to nature as the “historical product” of human activity, and hence as something that exists within the confines of human history. This effectively elides the crucial distinction. Swyngedouw, while professing fidelity to Marx’s view, proceeds to criticize Marx for placing too much emphasis on this natural foundation in seeing nature as a signifier. Again, this is a continuation of Western Marxism’s trajectory since its beginning in the denial of the dialectics of nature. Ultimately, it places the culturalists on the side of the forces driving planetary unravelling—a concept and problem they reject.
In making these critical comments, I am concerned with avoiding the dualism of culture and nature, criticizing both sides on that divide while identifying the insights they bring to the debate. The awkward truth is that the social monists have identified a flaw in environmentalism, explaining its ineffectiveness as politics. Naturalists can identify the errors of the culturalists and culturalists can identify the errors of the naturalists: the key task is to locate the errors of both in the loss of a dialectical materialist realism and to restate the virtues of that realism within a metabolic understanding of the relation between society and nature.
Marx’s idea of metabolism expresses a sophisticated dialectical realism-relationism that enables a critical focus on the “irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism” (Marx 1981, 949). Moore expresses this in terms of a “singular metabolism of power” (Moore 2014, 11; Moore 2015, 83). On the basis of this understanding, Marx shows the problem to be one of disruption in the metabolic interaction between society and nature, a disruption originating in the alienated ecological value form. In contrast to this, Moore argues that the problem is not “metabolic rift, but metabolic shift.” In this view, metabolism is merely “a way to discern shifts (provisional and specific unifications) not rifts (cumulative separation)” (Moore 2015, 83–84; for a better view of rifts and shifts, see Foster, Clark, and York 2010, 73–87). As a result, the possibility of a critique, based on Marx’s critical conception of alienated mediation in the EPM (Marx EW 1975, 261), that falls between the social metabolism of humanity and nature under capitalist relations comes to be lost. With the discarding of the critical focus that Marx placed on the alienation of labor and nature, the whole notion of capital’s necessarydevelopment and its deleterious social and ecological consequences disappears from view (Smith 2008, 81). The consequences are serious in that the entire emancipatory commitment driving Marx’s critique is lost and Marxism as a result becomes an ideological project, a form of apologetics for capitalist development.
Moore cautions against the “fetishization of natural limits” (Moore 2015, 80). It is at this point that the distancing from natural science in order to restate social agency and politics risks degeneration into an explicit capitalist apologetics. Moore thus argues: “The reality is not one of humanity ‘overwhelming the great forces of nature.’ Instead, he declares that capitalism has a seemingly infinite capacity for ‘overcoming seemingly insuperable ‘natural limits.’” With this happy conclusion, ideas of the absolute limits and ecological contradictions of capital come to be discarded to the effect that there are no boundaries, planetary or otherwise, for capital to transgress, no constraints on the constant expansion of capital and, implicitly, no cause for ecological concern. And with that, the whole socioecological critique of capital loses its force. The accumulative dynamic of capital is unbounded, free to overcome any barriers to expansion that lie in its way, with no need to recognize limits to its growth imperatives, natural or social. Capital has thus, at this ideological level, realized its ultimate fantasy of autonomizing itself from the realm of use value, degrading and destroying labor and nature at will, with consequences that will prove fatal for human civilization (Moore 2014c, 308; Moore 2014a, 14).
Moore explicitly rejects the concept of the Anthropocene with respect to the idea of an anthropogenic rift in the Earth system. Far from there being a metabolic rift as a result of the ecological contradictions of the capital system, as Marx argues, Moore presents capitalism as a world-ecology that is “unfold[ing] in the web of life,” involved in continuous innovation that ensures scarcity is overcome whenever and wherever it arises (Moore 2014a, 16–17). Far from seeing the capital system’s transgression of natural limits as a problem or contradiction to be afraid of, Moore actually celebrates capitalism’s ability to transcend all such limits. Indeed, in criticizing the green perspective as apocalyptic, he goes so far as to suggest that the collapse of civilization would not be “something to be feared” in any case, pointing to the fall of Rome as opening the way to a golden age. Such a view is blasé, (willfully) ignorant of the amount of suffering that followed in the wake of Rome’s collapse, and blithely unaware of the dislocation and destruction, affecting billions of people across the planet as well as the very existence of countless other species (and maybe even the human species), that would result from transgressing planetary boundaries. (For the clear evidence concerning the reality of the Anthropocene, see Ian Angus 2016.)
Moore’s use of the term web of life is instructive. This is a common phrase among ecologists, as in the title of Fritjof Capra’s 1996 The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. Moore’s use of the term, however, is very different. Rather than being ecological, it is employed as a metaphor for the subsumption of the ecological under capitalism. Capra’s unifying vision of synthesis and relationism is replaced in Moore’s perspective by a view of society and nature as subsumed under capital as a singular metabolism composed of a collection of bundled, entwined relationships. At this point, the position comes to display clear affinities with the old “green capitalism” and the new “ecological modernization,” as expressed in the idea that it is possible to achieve “sustainability” by internalizing nature within the capital system, bringing everything under the logic of capital and its accumulative imperatives—thus taking the world to the market (Hawken, Lovins, Lovins, 2010; Mol and Jänicke 2009).
Moore thus praises the “ecomodernist” Breakthrough Institute founders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger for their “powerful critique” with respect to environmental problems. The ecomodernizers advocate capitalist markets, high technology (including nuclear and geoengineering), and accelerated economic growth as solutions to environmental problems, not the cause (within specific social forms and relations) of these problems in the first place. Rejecting as dualistic the concepts of the metabolic rift, the ecological footprint, and the Anthropocene, Moore claims that the mistake of the green critique is to focus on “what capitalism does to nature” instead of on “how nature works for capitalism.” It should come as no surprise, then, to read Moore concluding that rising to the environmental challenge we face involves “Putting Nature to Work” (Moore 2015c, 69; Moore, “The Rise of Cheap Nature,” in Moore, ed., Anthropocene or Capitalocene [2016a, 111]; Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility ).
I put the full titles here to give some sense of what the failure of environmentalism to develop a genuinely political and ethical position with respect to constituting public community entails.
The Social Monism of Capital
What makes this conflation of critique and rationalization such a hazardous enterprise for Marxism is the evidence that the development of the corporate form within the capital system is “erasing” liberal society at its roots, while taking control of public business in all its forms, political, social, and natural. The loss of nature as referent proceeds hand in hand with its corporate capture. The institution of private property is being replaced not by the communal social form as envisaged by Marx but the corporate form (McDermott 1991, 13–14; Critchley 1995a, 1995b). There is a danger, then, of a social monism that, in the name of Marx and Marxism, becomes complicit in capital’s totalization of society through corporate capture. In which case, social monism is not a coherent response to the process of environmental (and social) disruption, but an integral part of it.
In Moore, therefore, an uncritical social monism replaces Marx’s complex dialectical relationism based on a realist or materialist ontology with what is called a “dialectical bundling” in which reality is reconfigured as a series of socially constructed “assemblages” of things and processes. (Moore 2015, 13, 37, 76, 78.) In arguing that Marx viewed capitalism as unifying nature, Moore misinterprets Marx: “Rather than ford the Cartesian divide, metabolism approaches have reinforced it. Marx’s ‘interdependent process of social metabolism’ became ‘the metabolism of nature and society.’ Metabolism as ‘rift’ became [for ecological Marxists] a metaphor of separation, premised on material flows between nature and society” (Moore 2015, 76; Moore 2014a, 13, 18). This is a selective quotation that entirely distorts Marx’s meaning and the meaning of metabolic theory. In referring to the relation of capitalist development to ecology, Marx wrote of “the irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism,” which is a very different notion indeed. Moore claims that Foster’s term metabolism of nature and society is a distortion of Marx. I think it is clear from what I argued throughout Social Restitution and Metabolic Restoration that Foster’s term is entirely consistent with Marx’s reference to “the metabolic interaction between man and the earth” (Marx C1 1976, 637; Marx C3 1981, 949) and that Foster’s work is a legitimate, insightful, and sophisticated development of the ecological materialism that exists in Marx (Critchley 2018a).
The same cannot be said of the social monism that Moore and others argue. Arguing that the capital system subsumes all things into it, Moore takes the ecological idea of the web of life and has it refer to the all-encompassing order of capital. This is a cultural-intellectual appropriation entirely in keeping with capital’s appropriation of labor and nature. And with reality thereby reduced to a collection of bundles (that is, commodities), the very notion of an Earth system disappears from view. In place of Marx’s critique of the capital system, we have the confirmation of the triumph of exchange value over use value and an expression of the delusion that the only reality is the social one constituted within the logic of capital.
In contrast, Marx’s materialist (social and natural) ontology makes possible the dialectical critique of alienation in the metabolic interpenetration, interchange, and mediation of nature-society relations. Even at the level of abstraction, society and its forms are not considered autonomous from natural cycles and processes. Such autonomization is impossible in Marx’s terms. The power of capital is secondary and derivative, meaning that capital can never autonomize itself from labor and nature; labor and nature, however, can autonomize themselves from capital and exist independently of the capital relation (Bonefeld in Bonefeld et al. I 1992, 103; Mészáros 2000, 606–7, 718–20, 725, 728–29, 733–34; Mészáros 1970, 21–22; Clarke 1991, 118). For Marx, then, there is an interrelation and interaction between society and nature, with neither side being subsumed into the other without fundamental damage occurring in the metabolism of society-nature. Both society and nature are legitimate subjects in their own right and in their metabolic relation and interaction. Marx affirms the fundamental irreducibility of society and nature, and therefore the possibility of one being subsumed by the other does not arise, except by way of capital’s alienated system of metabolic control seeking systemically to absorb nature into itself. Marx’s critical dimension as a result of his concept of alienation holds that neither society nor nature can or should be subsumed for a healthy and functioning social-natural metabolic order. His idea of a society-nature metabolism emphasizes totality and mediation, integrating society and nature at all levels while recognizing the heterogeneous character of reality. Such is the materialist and realist nature of Marx’s social-natural ontology, affirming the true material relations of reality (Lukács 1980, 119–24; Needham 1943, 13–20, 233–72).
With this conclusion, I shall draw my argument to a close, emphasizing Marx’s critical relevance to the environmental crisis in which we are embroiled.
Marx’s dialectical realism and relationism enables a complex, dynamic analysis that shows how human productive activities can be reintegrated within the larger biophysical world. While critical realist Roy Bhaskar acknowledges that Marxism has in the past shared “the manipulative, instrumentalist orientation to nature and place integral to the development of nineteenth-century capitalism,” he considers this a “relatively minor difficulty” compared to the lack of time before us in resolving the ecological crisis that is on us: “In the long run the answer may be socialism, but in the immediate-short run the question is survival, non-extinction.” Bhaskar rightly insists that there is “no way of bypassing historical mediations in any resolution of this profound and pressing ecopolitical problem,” noting that its very difficulty and urgency could provide the rudiments of a possible solution. This is a point I would stress in terms of the missing mediations in environmentalism as politics. Bhaskar speculates that the scale of the problem we face, in the form of a heightened sense of time and in the possibility it conveys of global displacement, “could so concentrate sensibility on our common planetary locale and our species’ interest in its survival as to avoid an early terminus for it.”
Bhaskar thus combines Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation:
What we need in order to feel at home in the world is not the infantile fantasy that it was made for us, but the mature post-Darwinian recognition of the ecological asymmetry: that it is more true to say that we were made for it, and that we survive as a species only insofar as second nature respects the over-riding constraints imposed upon it by first nature. From this nature, although it is always historically mediated, we can never, nor will we ever, escape. (Bhaskar 2009, 150)
Why, in the interests of a genuinely socioecological standpoint, would we even want to escape? I take a nonalienated metabolic order to indicate a humanity that has settled in its true place in the order of things. In which case, the emergence of a global ecological crisis may, in the long run, prove to be what Bhaskar states is (cautiously) to be (and in a slightly different context) an “indispensable ratchet in the self-transformative process of the human species in the direction of a more fully human, and at least longer, and perhaps more emancipated being” (Bhaskar 2009, 150).
We can argue over God and Nature ’til kingdom come. I would argue strongly that we need to get past any science versus religion so-called debate here and bring the worlds of fact and value back into relation. I think Bhaskar’s words beg deeper questions as to what being in place and being at home are all about, which assuredly involve a spiritual dimension and transcendent norms, truths, and values that go beyond conventionalism, certainly, and beyond a science which sees the world as objectively valueless, purposeless and meaningless. But in addressing such questions, we risk losing the focus that Bhaskar rightly seeks to bring to this question of survival, in the first instance, and flourishing, in the second. I hope I have given the “self-transformative” dimension that Bhaskar emphasizes the centrality it is due, placing it at the heart of the triadic relation that Marx establishes between humanity-labor/production-nature (Critchley 2018a). In terms of focus, I hope my argument has sufficiently emphasized the crucial need to bring environmentalism to the question of specific mediations with respect to resolving the ecological and social crisis. If my views on natural science, nature worship, and romanticism seem abrasive, I can only say that they are motivated by the heightened sense of time that looming ecological catastrophe is pressing on us. We simply have to overcome splits between scientism, culturalism, and naturalism to develop that “unified science” of which Marx wrote. And this at means bridging the gap between theoretical reason and practical reason while establishing the social metabolism and universal metabolism of nature in true relation. This is a question of uprooting the alienated forms of mediation in the capital system with appropriate forms of social mediation. As Bhaskar emphasizes, there is “no way of bypassing historical mediations in any resolution of this profound and pressing ecopolitical problem.” The tragedy is that, in detaching ecology as a naturalism (and scientism) from the field of practical reason (politics, ethics, and economics), we have failed to see this as an ecopolitical problem and hence have bypassed the necessary social mediations. This has left environmentalism without sufficient practical purchase, detached from effective “self-transformative process,” unable to transform reality and bridge the gap between humanity and nature—without a mediating term. We need an integral, socialized, and politicized environmentalism.
Those who still do not see why mediation matters or still cannot see what mediation means in that humanity-labor/production-nature relation need to consider these words from scientist Ken Caldeira, a man who has spent a lifetime addressing the problem of climate change:
“How do we address the climate problem, when 99.999% of the people in the world have other more immediate problems to address?
For many, the climate problem seems like a luxury problem for those who don’t have to worry about jobs, debt, corruption, violence, health care, etc.”
Mediation is key. What looks like a lack of response on the part of people is not indifference, it is incapacity. The real indifference comes from the capitalist value form and the split between use value and exchange value.
I have argued that, for Marx, there is an ecological critique running alongside the socioeconomic critique; the relation between the social and the natural metabolic order is established (Critchley 2018a). I offer the argument here as the answer to Caldeira’s question.
Napoletano et al. posit that the “dualistic counterpoising of monism to dualism that has constrained the ecological contributions of left- and Marxian-influenced thinkers within geography,” arguing for the integration of dialectical and systems theories into critical ecological thought without resorting to hybridization (Napoletano et al. 2019; Keller and Golley 2000). The authors argue for the pertinence of metabolic rift analysis to political ecology, indicating a potential that goes beyond the need to bridge disciplinary divides. They thus conclude that engagement with metabolic rift theory can serve to bring together and politicize the work of researchers within and across various disciplinary boundaries around shared concerns regarding the prospects of human society in the Anthropocene and sustainable alternatives to an ecomodernization that succumbs to a neoliberal environmentalism and a nature romanticism that fetishizes nature (Clark and York 2005; Castree 2017).
Thus, metabolic rift scholarship has become politically charged as part of a project of radical activism within and through the academy aimed at the identification and advocacy of progressive, socially just alternatives to the status quo (Blomley 2008). The metabolic conception exhibits a dialectical unity of theory and practice that cultivates strong organic links to red-green politics and activism beyond the strict confines of the academy (such as Wittman 2009; Klein 2015; Malm 2018; Wallis 2018), ensuring that environmental research and scholarship serves to overcome the disjuncture between academic theorization and social praxis, thereby challenging rather than reinforcing the hegemony of existing power structures (Peet 1977).
By bringing the critical weight of Marx’s dynamic materialist dialectic to bear on contemporary crises, the accent in metabolic theory comes to be placed firmly on the socio-ecological contradictions of the capital system, rather than on symptoms and surface-level manifestations to be addressed with incremental and technical solutions based on technocratic, neoliberal, and managerial assumptions. In transcending both Cartesian dualism and social monism, metabolic rift analysis offers a path to a genuine political ecology as distinct from an ecology of fear based on the “millenarian and apocalyptic proclamation that ecocide is imminent” (Harvey 1997, 194). That is not to downplay the serious and growing threats to civilization as a result of ecological degradation, but to locate these threats in the contradictory dynamics of the capital system so as to enable critical and practical engagement with the increasing struggles beyond the workplace to protect and enhance the socioecological conditions for a joint human and planetary flourishing (Harvey 2001; Burkett 2009; Napoletano et al. 2019).
Marx is a pioneer social ecologist in that his society-nature dialectical realism predates Ernst Haeckel’s ecology. Marx’s examination of the interchange between social and natural metabolisms is inherently ecological. For Marx and Engels, “man is inconceivable apart from his evolution in nature and his collective labours upon nature by means of his tools. Man’s dialectical relationship with nature, in which man transforms it and is therefore transformed, is the very essence of his own nature.… Nature is definable as the materials and forces of the environment that create men and are in turn created by man” (Parsons 1977, xi). Further, Marx and Engels “had a definite (though not fully detailed) ecological position. As both working people and nature are exploited by class rule, so they will be freed by liberation from class rule” (Parsons 1977, xii). It must be added that both society and nature—the worker and the soil as Marx puts it—are dominated, exploited, and degraded by capital’s alienated system of production. But there is a need to be clear with respect to the distinction between capitalism and the capital system (Mészáros 2000). Liberation from class rule must proceed further than the institution of private property to uproot capital rule and its basis in alienated labor at the more profound level of social relations of production and their transformation.
The ecological dimension of Marx’s thought is expressed in his writings on the metabolic interdependence between human society and nature and the way in which this relation is mediated in the sphere of labor/production. In this productive interchange, nature is transformed by labor as a mutual transformation. It is, to use Bhaskar’s term, a self-transformative process, and one that Marx sought to put on a nonalienated basis as a condition of healthy development (a true, organic growth as against capital’s cancerous systemic growth). Marx expresses this ecological view consistently, in his writing on the society-nature metabolic relationship that existed before the rise of capitalism, on the alienation of labor and nature under the rise of the commodity form under the capital system, and in the healthy, harmonious relationship that is projected to exist under future communist society.
The alternative to the social and ecological pathology which is becoming all-pervasive in the socioinstitutional and economic fabric of modern capitalist society is to be found in the development of an appropriate, harmonious relationship between humanity, their productive powers, and nature. The specific social character of the mediating term of labor/production is key in this respect. Viewing human beings as a part of nature, the essence of human mastery through technique and organization is not measured by the capacity to dominate nature but lies in “the mastery of the relationship between nature and humanity.” In other words, in the replacement of alienated mediation by a system of social self-mediation. Whereas domination is accompanied by the degradation and destruction of nature, the purpose of Marx’s mastery is to “do justice to the subtle interplay of internal and external nature” (Leiss 1974, 198). Whereas domination generates overscale, imbalance, and unreason, a true mastery is characterized by harmony in the metabolic interaction between all life-enhancing, life-affirming forces on earth. The restitution of social power and the disalienation of mediation renders human productive activity socially and ecologically benign and beneficent in contrast to the destructive consequences of alien power and control.
Marx’s critique of alien power, and of the technology of unreason implicated in its external control, is positively oriented toward the social ecology of a harmonious social metabolic order. The realization of such an order would represent the constitution of a genuine public life, in the sense of creating the overarching framework and infrastructure that brings human self-actualization in the social metabolism within the universal metabolism of nature. This would be to create a form of social self-mediation that brings power under human control and comprehension. Through this mediation, human beings would come to exercise common conscious control over their social existence for the first time in history. They would realize a public life that has dissolved Weber’s “untranscendable complexity” into units of mediation that are scaled to human dimensions and proportions. The alien mediation of institutional structures, forms, and practices within the capital relation are thus replaced with a social self-mediation.
- Angus, Ian and Fred Murphy, “Two Views on Marxist Ecology and Jason W. Moore,” Climate and Capitalism, June 23, 2016.
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