...Without much enthusiasm I return to controversies that will have very little impact outside of the world of journals and academic conferences. This time it is round two of Foster versus the Frankfurt School and a new dust up between him and Jason Moore, the author of the well-received “Capitalism in the Web of Life”. I was particularly interested to read the critique of Foster in Moore’s book that Foster responded to on Ian Angus’s blog. I consider myself to be strongly influenced by Foster’s ecosocialist theories even though I’d like to wring his neck for allowing MRZine to function as an extension of RT.com, PressTV and SANA—a toxic dump...
In John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark’s 11,700-word article “Marx’s Ecology and the Left” that is accompanied by 121 footnotes, there is almost no possibility of the layperson understanding much of it unless you are familiar with Foster’s “metabolic rift” writings, the Frankfurt School and Neil Smith, who was influenced by the Frankfurt School. Although I am pretty familiar with Foster and the Frankfurt School, I found the discussion of Smith difficult to follow. For example, I have read this paragraph several times and still do not understand what Foster and Clark are driving at:
Hence, in Smith’s inverted Frankfurt School perspective on the domination of nature, nature as a whole was envisioned in almost Baconian terms as increasingly produced by human beings for their own ends. It was possible, he argued, to speak of “the real subsumption of nature” in its entirety within human production. The late twentieth century, he proclaimed, marked the infiltration of society into the last “remnant[s] of a recognizably external nature.” Indeed, there was no longer any meaningful nature anywhere apart from human beings: “Nature is nothing if it is not social.” “The production of nature,” in Smith’s words, was “capitalized ‘all the way down.’” From this perspective, the historical production of nature represented “the unity of nature toward which capitalism drives.”
I had some of the same difficulties with Moore’s critique of Foster that revolved around his supposed embrace of Cartesian dualism. By positing the “metabolic rift” as a result of the estrangement of society from nature (specifically through the growth of cities and the depletion of soil nutrients that attends capitalist farming), Foster is charged with failing to conceive of the dialectical unity of the social and the natural.
In Ian Angus’s interview with Foster, he defends himself from this charge:
The constant references to Cartesian dualism, or what Moore calls the Cartesian binary, are extremely misleading. In his seventeenth-century rationalist philosophy, Descartes distinguished between mind/spirit on one hand, and matter/mechanism on the other. Human beings were generally associated with mind, and animals with machines. This was quite different from the distinction between society and nature that Moore calls a “Cartesian binary.”
I have to agree with Foster. For Descartes, dualism was all about the mind-body dichotomy, having little to do with social relations. He was dealing with an epistemological quandary that had vexed philosophers going back to Plato. Ultimately, Descartes’s purpose, even if he didn’t fully grasp it, was to break the hold of organized religion on the Enlightenment that reflected the class interests of the emerging bourgeoisie.
If nature is conscripted on behalf of the rising bourgeoisie, the natural tendency is toward a kind of bourgeois materialism. Against this generally progressive philosophical current, he posits historical materialism. The difference between bourgeois and historical materialism is that the latter mode of thought does not see nature as transcendent but as something that society interacts with dialectically. Nature is always being transformed through labor. Furthermore, science in bourgeois society is always qualified by its social role, as Thomas Kuhn argues. The purpose of socialism is to liberate science from its class ties and make it available for the transformation of society.
Alan Rudy’s “Marx’s Ecology and Rift Analysis” gets to the heart of Foster’s study. For Foster, the question of a “metabolic rift” is key not only to understanding Marx, but in developing ecosocialist solutions for today’s world. Basically, the metabolic rift was created as a result of the development of cities under capitalism, when the source of organic nutrients in the form of animal or human waste was separated from the soil. It led to “guano wars” in the 19th century, open sewers in the streets of London and a host of other social problems. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx proposed the abolition of the distinction between town and country as a first step toward mending the metabolic rift. Moreover, in the absence of a socialist transformation of the world, every chemical advance to compensate for the loss of soil fertility has led to further contradictions, including the seepage of fertilizers into bodies of water like the Gulf of Mexico, cancer epidemics due to pesticides, etc.
For Rudy, “[T]he concept of metabolic rift…has a far greater affinity for natural resource economics than the dialectics of ecological Marxism.” In contrast, Rudy would shift the discussion away from scientific considerations of natural resource usage altogether–either Marxist or bourgeois. Why? Because, to put it bluntly, he is committed to the kind of anti-scientific prejudices that characterized the Frankfurt School. Foster supposedly subscribes to the “the Baconian conception of an atomized nature.” Such a conception “undergirds the assumption that there is one scientific method because, at root, all of nature is comprised of discrete piles of differently arranged, hierarchically organized, though fundamentally similar things.” That’s odd. In my reading of “Marx’s Ecology,” I found a steadfast defense of the kind of dialectical understanding of science that you find in Lewontin and Levins.
After having declared his affinity for the kind of science spoofed by Alan Sokal in “Social Text,” Rudy attempts to refute the concept of metabolic rift by referring to England at the time of the Enclosure Acts. He writes, “The metabolic rift argument suggests that the movement of human and animal waste from the country to the city leads to the accelerated depletion of agricultural soils. However, the increase in rural livestock suggests that the problem may have been as much related to the maldistribution of rural wastes as the separation of rural from urban wastes. The scientific or cultural or infrastructural incapacity to engage in this redistribution of animal waste then would need to be explained.”
This distinction is next to useless. Marx’s concern was not just with the separation of town and city, but the failure of capitalist farming in general, which tended to put short-term profits over long-term social considerations. Maldistribution of rural wastes simply suggests that the English gentry’s verbal commitment to “improvement” was at odds with the mode of production. What else is new?
Perhaps Rudy’s biggest problem is his tendency to assume that the concept of metabolic rift rests upon some kind of binary opposition that was not present in 19th century Europe at all. He writes:
“The imagery of rift suggests a chasm between country and city, nature and society, and agriculture and industry. Yet the 19th century is the era of massive road, canal and railroad construction; of extraordinary scientific and technological innovation (only exceeded by the following century); and of phenomenal introductions and migrations of non-native crops, peoples, diseases, and invasive species all multi-directionally across the increasingly accessible globe.”
What can one say? Rudy simply doesn’t get Marx’s argument, nor Foster’s very effective presentation of that argument. All of the sweeping changes described by Rudy, and which constitute the first part of the Communist Manifesto as well, are simply mechanisms to facilitate the development of the modern urban-based capitalist economy that is the root of our problem. Railroad construction made and makes it possible to separate livestock from their feed sources. The consequences are pig feces filling the rivers and lakes of North Carolina and monoculture production of corn in the Midwest with all the attendant problems. The idea is to reorganize society, not stand breathless in the face of capitalist transportation “miracles.” (Unfortunately, Foster has not explored the connections between metabolic rift and the consequences of farming based on nonrenewable energy. More about that anon.)
Nothing has occurred in the past fifteen years to make me want to take back a single word. In the ideological battle between Foster/Clark and a variety of Frankfurt-inspired thinkers, I continue to identify with the Monthly Review authors even though I find the magazine’s failure to understand the nature of the conflict in Syria a tragic mistake.