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It’s Not a Postcapitalist World, Nor is it a Post-Marxist One—An Interview with John Bellamy Foster

JOHN BELLAMY FOSTER most recent books include Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (2000) and Ecology Against Capitalism (2002), both are available from Monthly Review Press.
This interview appeared in Evrensel Kultur (Universal Culture), September 2002, issue no. 129. Evrensel Kultur, published in Turkey, is a monthly Marxist journal of culture, arts, and literature. The interview was arranged by Arif Bektas in London and was conducted by email.

Evrensel Kultur: Postmodernism’s advice to us was to have doubts towards all kinds of information acquired. The “security syndrome” following September 11 has spread these doubts to daily life. In other words, the twenty-first century has begun as an age of doubts/suspicions. How does the suspiciousness of the new century differ from that of past centuries? If we take “suspicion” as a metaphor, what kind of real relations/connections can be described or hidden with this metaphor?

John Bellamy Foster: It is true that suspicion (not to be confused in any way with postmodernist doubt) appears to characterize the dominant intellectual climate at present. Such suspicion is not universal, but emanates from the powers that be and has as its real targets those who would in some way threaten the capitalist status quo (something that terrorists hardly do at all). Within the United States this takes us back in many ways to the anticommunist hysteria of the 1950s, which went beyond mere suspicion and included the execution of the Rosenbergs as “atomic spies.”

Rather than something altogether new, the latest wave of suspicion can be seen as conforming to the long-term requirements of U.S. imperial strategy. Just as the U.S. state has needed new rationales for overcoming the “Vietnam Syndrome,” in order to obtain popular support for military interventions throughout the globe, so it has also needed new justifications for limiting democratic protest in the United States itself. Antiterrorism (quite apart from the immediate causes/consequences of the September 11 attacks themselves) handily serves both of these ends. Suspicion breeds suspicion and makes united protest from below much more difficult.

EK: It is suggested that we are going through a period which is expressed with the prefix “post.” Post-Marxism, postcapitalism, postcommunism, postfeminism, etc. Do we live in such a period, do you think?

JBF: At first sight, the virtue of the various “post” prefixes is that they appear to refer to a transition between past and present and therefore to a historical perspective, designating a definite period. But actually they represent nothing of the kind. Rather the “post” prefix of postmodernism symbolizes a radical denial of the past at the level of understanding, coupled with the refusal of any future movement—that is, a rejection of any meaningful historical perspective. In fact, the earlier sense of postmodernism in architecture was about a disruption of our sense of time associated with the break-up of the concept of modernity. Here, all settled historical perspective is lost and the most discordant temporal elements can be mixed and matched together. It was a recognition of this radical rejection of history intrinsic to postmodernism that led Ellen Meiksins Wood and myself to give the title In Defense of History to our edited collection on this subject (based on a July-August 1995 special issue of Monthly Review).

There are all sorts of ways to define the present period. My preferred approach is to see it as monopoly capitalism at an advanced phase of globalization—a furthering of the logic of classical imperialism. What is clear is that the various “post” categories are not very useful in any attempt at periodization. This is definitely not a postcapitalist world, nor is it a post-Marxist one.

EK: Do you think postmodernism’s field of interest is limited to culture and arts? Or is it possible to talk about a postmodern political project?

JBF: Postmodernism as an intellectual movement is strongest in relation to culture and the arts. Its technique of deconstruction radically destabilizes fixed forms and provides new ways of seeing. But these are always presented as partial forms, ghostly appearances, never new universals—so the political aspect of this cultural expression is limited. At most, postmodernism further sensitizes us to elements of difference, as in the areas of gender and race. Yet, in privileging difference within its analysis, postmodernism often serves quite reactionary ends, which is no doubt why an openly reactionary philosopher like Heidegger is so easily brought within its general orbit. Indeed, as a political movement postmodernism is at best a non-starter. Its main leanings are toward the posthistorical and the postpolitical. It is a reflection of the prevailing anomie (normlessness) of much of the left and the wider population. It is apolitical like anomie, not political like alienation, which is an exercise in self-consciousness. Postmodernism is an unhappy consciousness and a partly enslaved one. It doesn’t say “philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it.” It says “movements have only naively sought to change the world, the purpose is to deconstruct it (and them).”

EK: There are efforts to invalidate the main thesis of Marxism, “history consists of class struggles,” through various methods. Do you think this thesis of Marxism, which is now accused of being a summary theory, has become obsolete? Have “new social movements” and “new subjects” replaced the working class as claimed?

JBF: Addressing the question of the class struggle and its relation to social movements is extremely difficult because we have to break through a whole lot of preconceptions at the outset. Class for Marx and Engels was defined first of all by the relation of individuals, families, and groups to the process of exploitation, the way in which surplus product is appropriated from the direct producers. Classes were seen as at the center of society’s metabolism, the whole dynamic process of the constitution of power. The ruling relations of power in class societies were ultimately class relations in that they had to do with appropriation of surplus product. The problem with the standard treatment of class nowadays is that, on the one hand, the connection to exploitation/appropriation is frequently lost, so class becomes an entirely empty abstraction, a kind of stratification category as in contemporary sociology. On the other hand, class is turned into an even more bloodless abstraction by removing it from all determinate, historical content, all of the wider social relations to which it belongs. Thus class is seen as a pure abstraction having nothing to do with race/ethnicity, gender, culture, community, the state, religion, the environment, etc.—all of which have to be added to it from outside. It was rebellion against this empty, essentially meaningless notion of class as a pure abstraction, as an “objective” form removed from the subject, that constituted E. P. Thompson’s main contribution to social thought. Once divorced from all social content and connections, classes are seen almost as another form of domination, not as a means of liberation.

The idea of new social movements as a substitute for the class movement is inseparable from this hollowing out of the concept of class. The old social movement is supposed to be the class-labor movement, a purely economic struggle, often viewed (in European and North American thought) in terms of white factory workers, divorced from issues of race, gender, environment, etc. New social movements, in contrast, are supposed to represent these very same identities/issues, which have been excluded by the working class movement. Viewed in this way, class struggle appears to be a form of oppression—a dead end. New social movements are thought to enter in as the truly progressive forces, substituting for the old class movement.

What we need to recognize, however, is that these new social movements, though raising vital concerns, cannot accomplish their objectives except in very limited ways—as mere supplicants to power—outside of the class-based movement, which alone has the potential to overturn the dominant relations of production, i.e., the very means of ruling-class domination. The historical record tells us that only a class movement constitutes a world-historical force capable of shaping-reshaping the entire mode of production and moving from one mode of production to another. It is in this sense that history remains the history of class struggle. It is a serious mistake to view the working class, except as an artificial abstraction, as cut off from issues of race, gender, culture and community. In the United States the vast majority of the working class consists of women and people of color. The power to upend and reshape society in decisive ways will come not primarily through single-issue movements for reform, but rather through forms of organization and popular alliance that will establish feminists, opponents of racism, advocates of gay rights, defenders of the environment, etc. as the more advanced sectors of a unified, class-based, revolutionary political and economic movement.

EK: Is it possible to talk about a retreat in influence of dialectical and historical materialism, and the rise of a new idealism as a result of the development of theories of “discourse?”

JBF:It is certainly true that idealism has in many ways penetrated the left and even Marxism. In fact, there was a renewed opening up to idealism within Western Marxism in the 1920s, with the rediscovery of Hegelianism, that has come down to us in various ways today. I don’t mean this as a simple criticism. As Marx pointed out, idealism often was better than materialism at capturing agency. Materialism too often became mechanical and succumbed to an abstract necessity. So recapturing the positive side of idealism and the dialectic was extremely important for Marxism. But in the process, any meaningful sense of materialism was frequently lost and full-fledged materialism-naturalism came to be seen as just a form of positivism. Marxists were supposed to be practical materialists, materialists only in their emphasis on praxis and the importance of economic conditions. It was this narrowing down and indeed crippling of our idea of materialism, removing it from the larger realm of sensuous experience, that allowed Marxism to fall into the trap of juxtaposing an abstract idealism to a naEFve positivism, giving birth to post-Marxism and various other forms of radical skepticism (always more skeptical towards materialism than idealism). Eventually, everything became sign and signifier. An abstract “reflexivity” replaced the dialectic, the need to root critical analysis in material conditions, and even the concept of praxis itself—all of which were likewise condemned as “essentialist.”

Here I believe that the current very pressing need to forge an ecological materialism in response to the global ecological crisis offers a way out. It forces upon us an approach that is dialectical, materialist, historical and realist—everything that postmodernist/poststructuralist/post-Marxist skepticism is not—completely transcending all forms of idealism as well. Ecology demands that we become more, not less, materialist. It demands an approach that is the negation of purely mechanistic materialism. It is here that the full brilliance of Marx’s materialist and dialectical conception of history is most evident—as I tried to explain in Marx’s Ecology.

EK: Do you think the propaganda about “terror” in the aftermath of September 11 has succeeded in placing the argument of a “war of civilizations” in the daily lives of working people in Europe? Which criteria have been added to the views of European intellectuals (leftist or Marxist) on the East, on Asia?

JBF:The dominant political and economic realities of our time are the slowdown in the rate of growth of the capitalist economy since the early 1970s, the globalization of capital, the attendant polarization between rich and propertyless (or even destitute) among and within all states, and the expansion of U.S. imperial hegemony into new regions of the world following the fall of the Soviet Union. It is in this context that the ideas of both of a “clash of civilizations” and a “war on terrorism” have to be understood. The first of these, Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” is an attempt to revert to older, pre-Cold War, rationales for imperialism reminiscent of earlier stages of European conquest. It takes into account the fact that the major centers of resistance/recalcitrance to the American imperium at present are to be found in certain parts of the Islamic world and in China. Thus old “orientalist” ideas were retrieved in the interest of a new imperium. The “war on terrorism,” which came to the fore in the aftermath of September 11, is a much more flexible justification for U.S. military intervention throughout the global periphery. Both of these rationales are likely to be used, depending on the situation. What is of chief importance here is how ,” the idea that Europe together with its former white settler colonies represents the only truly universal civilization, is once again being used to justify the expansion of empire. Such racist/ethnocentric justifications are indispensable to the smooth workings of the system. Indeed, racism (however muted at the level of mere discourse) is an essential part of the culture of imperialism. Yet, this is no longer either the nineteenth or the twentieth century. The old methods of oppression are no longer as effective. The great danger to the present constellation of power is that there is a growing material basis on which to ground movements of international solidarity, and that this will strike global capital at its weakest point—its tendency to generate a world proletariat.


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