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A Marxist Ecological Economics

Elmar Altvater is professor emeritus for International Political Economy at the Free University of Berlin and a member of the Scientific Council of ATTAC, Germany. He is the author of many works including The Future of the Market (Verso, 1993), and most recently “The Social and Natural Environment of Fossil Capitalism,” in The Socialist Register 2007, Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, eds. (Monthly Review Press, 2007).

Paul Burkett, Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy (Boston: Brill, 2006), 355 pages, hardcover, $89.00.

Paul Burkett’s new book, Marxism and Ecological Economics, offers in an outstanding manner evidence of the treasures in Marx’s “Critique of Political Economy” and of the riches of Marxist theory accumulated in more than a hundred years of theoretical reasoning. It is an attempt to bring Marx into the new economic subdiscipline of ecological economics (transforming the latter through the encounter), and at the same time to reexamine Marxist theory from the perspective of ecological economics. Many ecological economists have taken notice of Marxist debates, but in most cases in an abbreviated and biased way. The simplest understanding of Marx concludes that he was preaching the development of productive forces without taking their destructive potential into account. More sophisticated critiques of Marxist theoretical reasoning point to the failure of Marxists to recognize the supposed ecological rationality of unconstrained market mechanisms. Very often this argument is underlined by an allusion to the negative experiences of actually existing socialism and the ecological disasters that came to the surface after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Burkett’s book aims at correcting these widespread, if not altogether dominant interpretations, which are fundamentally flawed—in both their theoretical understandings of Marxism and their attempts to reduce its influence to certain failed historical experiments.

Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether the subtitle of the book, “Toward a Red and Green Political Economy,” is justified. Is there a rational need for this kind of color composition in political economy and ecological economics? Given the development of social democracy and green parties and movements, and recognizing that both their theoretical efforts and “progress” toward a red and green political economy are clearly disappointing, at least in Europe, what justification can we give for such a theoretical/political coalition? With a few exceptions green contributions to political economy are either nonexistent or based on liberal, neoliberal, or postmodern-libertarian approaches, and all too often enthusiastically adhere to the ideas of a “green capitalism”—which Burkett with good reason rejects. There is nothing remotely “red” any more in actually existing green political economy; no wonder that the greens in Germany, after the experience of the coalition with social democracy until 2005, are turning to the colors of the Jamaican flag: yellow, black, and green. They are gearing up for a political coalition with the (neo)liberals (yellow) and the conservatives (black).

Hence, it is unlikely that the green movement will embrace the “class perspective” that Paul Burkett very often mentions in his book as a norm of theoretical reasoning as well as left political practice. It is even more unlikely that the contemporary red and green movements will adopt the ideas of communism and solidarity. Therefore, one should read Burkett’s Marxism and Ecological Economics without any great illusions regarding the green parties and social democracy and their theoretical capacities. This qualification, however, does not make his book any less useful, since its real value lies in a serious and comprehensive discussion of the “societal relation of humanity to nature” (Gesellschaftliches Naturverhältnis) in Marx and in post-Marxian theoretical reasoning—that Burkett always presents in a fruitful and non-polemical comparison with different currents of ecological economics. The experiences of the last decades together with new, emerging needs and necessities call for the development of revitalized socialist utopian movements in the twenty-first century that will reach out and grasp theoretically comprehensive arguments such as those offered in Burkett’s work, thereby recognizing the crucial role of the natural environment in peoples’ lives and working conditions, and the imperative of creating a more sustainable world order. Burkett’s argument is thus of the utmost importance—theoretically as well as politically.

The message of Paul Burkett’s book is very clear and also convincing. Capitalism is experiencing two intertwined crises. The first type “involves crises of capital accumulation” (171); the second type is “the crisis in the quality of natural wealth as a condition of human development” (172). These two crises trigger two forms of struggles: first, “traditional” struggles “for higher wages, safer and less burdensome work procedures, reduced working time, and even for more co-operative and democratic forms of ownership and management” (139). Second, there are struggles for the goal of “general disalienation, not more tolerable forms of alienation” (140), aimed at the realization of “sustainable human development” (135). The latter struggles are seen as in accord with the “material-social requirements of a healthy co-evolution of humanity and nature” (131)—and not with the requirements of capitalist accumulation. Burkett invariably underlines the importance of class struggle for the realization of these requirements, which sharply distinguishes his analysis from the related goals advanced by the diverse world commissions around the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development and the stream of reports issued by the United Nations Development Program. Sustainable human development is a broadly shared objective of very different, even opposing, political forces. Perhaps Burkett might have usefully discussed the sustainability discourse of the United Nations Development Program and the secretary general of the UN in order to distinguish his approach from the “UN speech” so prevalent in NGO circles, but the reader will readily perceive the difference.

Burkett begins his argument with a short outline of three methodological requirements of any theoretical reasoning in ecological economics. First, ecological economics as a field is a multidisciplinary endeavor. Second, it must be committed to theoretical/methodological pluralism. And third, it must be historically “open in the sense of being receptive to new visions and possibilities in the realms of economic policy and institutional change” (2). These requirements were clearly not met by the orthodox interpretation of Marxism, especially in the Stalinist version. At the beginning of the 1960s, Herbert Marcuse had already written about the deficiencies of Soviet Marxism.

But modern and nonorthodox interpretations of Marxian theories (in plural, not in singular as Wolfgang Fritz Haug so convincingly argues) are capable of discovering in Marx’s theory sometimes surprising insights into the human-nature metabolism in processes of transforming matter and energy into desired use values. Already in his early writings of the 1840s Marx mentioned several times the “metabolic character” of natural transformations performed by human labor. The “active man” (and woman) inevitably uses nature as a resource (tap) on the one hand and a waste outlet (sink) on the other. But it is important to understand that this metabolism is central to the making of human history. Transformations of matter and energy simultaneously are transformations of society and of men and women themselves. The very existence of humankind depends on nature; moreover, it is part of it, physically as well as psychologically, aesthetically, etc. Even the “metabolic rift” between society and nature (Burkett refers here to John Bellamy Foster) is part of this history because it is a result of the social mechanisms of alienation of workers from the conditions of production (292). At one end of the rope is the alienation of workers, while at the other end are the external constraints exerted by the dynamics of capitalist accumulation on peoples. The human-nature relationship was the theme of the very influential book of Alfred Schmidt on the dialectics of nature (published in the early 1960s), which unfortunately is not mentioned by Burkett. (Although this is understandable because it does not belong to the body of “ecological economics” in a narrow sense, and because Burkett provides an extensive critique of Schmidt elsewhere—in a 1997 article in the journal Organization & Environment.)

The classical Marxian critique of political economy and the contributions authentically based on it (as opposed to the rigid official Marxism of the Stalin period) follow the methodological requirements stipulated by Burkett. But is it possible to say the same about ecological economics as presently constituted? Obviously not, as the evidence of Burkett’s book lucidly shows. However, it is necessary to go in detail into the categories, notions, and discourses of a wide range of approaches. This requirement of a materialist critique is fabulously met by Paul Burkett. His discussion of ecological economics always takes the authors into serious consideration, avoiding any inclination to superficial polemics—and this is the reason why it is difficult to negate his arguments.

In Marx’s “Critique of Political Economy” the category of the double character (use value/exchange value) of labor, production, and the commodity as a result of production is of utmost importance (Marx himself called it the “Springpunkt,” the core question), because it bridges the rift between society and nature, between the openness of social practice and hard natural laws. The use value produced by concrete labor in the production process is nothing else than the result of the transformation of matter and energy, i.e., of nature. It is an integral part of the human-nature “metabolism.” The exchange value produced in the valuation process by abstract labor however constitutes nothing else than an immaterial social relation in capitalism between the capitalist class and the working class.

Here the “class perspective” inevitably comes in and Burkett demonstrates its importance as a guideline for ecological economics. It is understandable that the “class perspective” is necessarily external in the approaches of authors who do not share the insight into the double character of production, labor, and value. They are inevitably victims of the fetishisms of the commodity and money as Marx analyzed in the first volume of Capital. However, it is just as necessarily internal to the logic of approaches that, following Marx, consider the double character and its implications. Therefore the “class perspective” follows from the internal logic of the Marxian critique of political economy and cannot simply be grafted on to any of the prevailing theoretical approaches in ecological economics.

This centrality of the double character of the commodity is quite clear in the case of money, in which the abstract social form predominates over the natural/material. Money can be represented by useless (in the sense of a material use value) pieces of paper or electronic bits and bytes. It performs the functions stemming from its social form perfectly, without being represented by the natural form of gold or other valuable materials. Because gold by its very nature is scarce, this hinders using it as the material form of money, since money under the regime of capital must serve as the universal equivalent for commodity values and hence requires a form that is limitless (disregarding the limits of nature). The misunderstanding of the double character, of the double sidedness of the natural and of the social forms, is responsible for the stupidity of pleas for a return to the old gold standard.

The question of money, perhaps, is one of the weaker points in the book. Burkett does not explicitly deal with the different forms and functions of money. He underlines the function of money as a measure of value, as a “leveler” and “a completely homogenous entity” (168); he also describes the tendencies of valuation and of monetization of nature. But he does not elaborate on money as a treasure or as a means of payment and as credit. This is quite often the case in ecological economics. Even in critical approaches, an analysis of money and credit very seldom goes beyond a critique of the monetization of nature (i.e., of the first function of money as a measure of value). But the working of international finance has a serious impact on nature. Perhaps this is a theme for another book.

The human-nature relationship is a centerpiece of the Marxian critique of political economy. It is also the object of ecological economics. The critique of political economy is a powerful theoretical endeavor because of its emphasis on praxis, especially the class struggle, which so often is singled out in Burkett’s book as the core of the problem. Marx’s entire class-based political-economic critique (which cannot be separated from his ecological views) thus becomes the necessary basis for the development of a truly radical ecological economics.

For this reason Burkett begins his book with a critique of the notion of the “value of nature” (referring simply to economic values and not to the issue of intrinsic value). This is a concept that, as he makes clear, can be traced back to the physiocrats. Marx’s critique of the physiocrats becomes the basis for the critique of other, more recent value-of-nature concepts. The physiocrats in their theoretical reasoning had an agrarian society in mind; this was their life experience. Their theory was outdated already by the end of the eighteenth century due to the emerging manufactures, the use of fossil fuels, and the increase of productivity for the production of relative surplus value. Adam Smith, who is not mentioned by Burkett, had already heavily criticized the physiocrats and mercantilists in his Wealth of Nations. The physiocrats contributed to economic theory not only with Quesnay’s famous circulation scheme, but also with their emphasis on natural riches as the fundamental basis of productive work.

Nevertheless, the physiocrats did not understand that in capitalism natural riches must be transformed into economic and monetary wealth. Again, the double character of the natural and of the social form is decisive. It is not by accident that physiocratic theories led to economic romanticism and even reactionary discourses. Silvio Gesell gave the journal he published at the beginning of the twentieth century the title “Der Physiokrat.” There he propagated his ideas of free land (access to land for everybody, “Freiland”) and free money (“Freigeld,” money with a zero or negative interest rate), plus the free market as the alternative to capitalism. This is a current that deserves theoretical as well as political criticism in a discussion of the relevance of physiocratic ideas today.

It is not entirely clear why in his discussion of Marxist approaches to the human-nature relationship or to a Marxist understanding of the environment, Burkett chooses to concentrate on the contributions of Michael Perelman, Richard England, and Thomas Weisskopf and not with comparable intensity on those of David Harvey, James O’Connor, Enrique Leff, and others. Arguably Harvey, O’Connor, and Leff have more to say on the crisis of the environment and the unleashed social conflicts and the class perspectives related to this than the authors on whom Burkett chooses to concentrate. (Of course, those familiar with Burkett’s work know that he has treated Harvey, O’Connor, and Leff in his earlier writings, such as Marx and Nature.) It is also regrettable that Paul Burkett does not take notice of authors who contribute to the debate outside of the English idiom (with the exception of Sergei Podolinsky). There is a broad and lively debate on Marxism and ecology in Latin America and in Europe. Not all contributions have been translated into English. Given the importance of diversity to evolution in nature, culture, and the scientific world the linguistic/cultural distinctions matter in a positive sense and therefore they must be taken into consideration.

In Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference, David Harvey discusses many of the questions raised by Paul Burkett in his tenth chapter on the class and distributional bases of capitalist accumulation. It is true, as Burkett notes, that in many contributions to ecological economics the “social separation of the direct producers from necessary conditions of production” (309), i.e., the class perspective, is missing. Also frequently missing is any understanding of “Marx and Engels’ vision of communism which integrates a common-pool resource, co-evolution, and common-property dimensions of sustainable development” (331). For Burkett it is crucial to pay homage to “the classical Marxist vision of communism as disalienation of production in service of human development…” (332). Such a vision of sustainability in a society of associated producers contrasts sharply with the anti-ecological world of the present global economy, the features of which are summarized at the end of Burkett’s book in terms of accumulation, crisis, growth, and class hierarchy—which can only be surmounted by a full-scale ecological-social revolt.

Most of the environmental distribution conflicts that Burkett examines in his book are due to the acceleration and expansion of economic processes so that the environment, which is a finite entity, is overexploited on the side of the taps and overloaded on the side of the sinks. The environmental “Kuznets curve” (the mainstream environmental notion that as societies reach a certain stage of economic development they begin to devote increasing shares of their economic resources to protecting environmental amenities), which Paul Burkett criticizes, is only a naïve expression of the dominant functionalist view that the market will, when it becomes necessary, choose to create disincentives to pollution. Such a notion does not even take into account the obvious distinction between “dirty” and “clean” pollution. It is true that dirty pollution, e.g., smog and poisoned water, decreases with growing incomes. The rich don’t want the waste they produce in their own backyard. But due to the same process of the growth of wealth, “clean” pollution, which one cannot see or smell, increases, e.g., CO2 emissions due to a rising number of cars. This is the reason why the so-called ecological footprint is larger the richer people are. It is monetary wealth that allows access to natural resources (exhausting ecological taps) and high amounts of harmful emissions (overloading ecological sinks).

The notion of ecological footprint (which measures the global ecological input of any given entity, whether a particular individual, city, or nation state) has triggered a broad worldwide debate on ecological justice. The ecological footprint of many regions, particularly in the rich industrialized countries, is far too large for the world as a whole to sustain. Yet, since money is the key to access natural resources and sinks, those who have large amounts of money at their disposal have access to more resources and sinks than those who have little or no money—and money in a globalized economy is denominated by a few strong currencies.

Burkett explores at length the current question of energy and how energy is grasped in Marxist as well as in non-Marxist ecological economics—above all in approaches based on thermodynamic economics. He dedicates a large part of his book to the treatment of thermodynamic economics and the categories of entropy and irreversibility. Marxism and Ecological Economics thus presents as broadly as it deserves the seminal approach of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen from the early 1970s on.

While supporting Georgescu-Roegen’s critique of the ecological irrationalities of the economic process, Burkett goes on to question Georgescu-Roegen’s attempt to reconcile the nonsense of the economic process, which inevitably produces an entropy increase, i.e., a deterioration of living conditions of human beings, by seeing this as having no more fundamental root than the mere pursuit of the “enjoyment of life.” This, as Burkett points out, is obviously a superficial and unsatisfactory explication of the reasons why humanity accepts the entropy increase. It is a good example of the failures resulting from the disdain of useful Marxist categories by even critical ecological economists. Entropy production in the economic process always makes sense so long as the other side of the double-sided production process, i.e., the valuation process, results in a surplus value and thus in profits and an acceptable profit rate for capital and capitalists. Consequently, Burkett stresses the relevance of the Marxian category of the double character of production, which allows him penetrate the economy-nature relation much more thoroughly than most of even the more critical approaches to ecological economics.

This is also amply demonstrated in the sixth chapter on the “Podolinsky myth,” where he criticizes attempts to base value theory not on labor but instead on energy. The critique of Podolinsky is completely justified and is elaborated on the basis of Friedrich Engels’s notes, which he submitted to Marx on the question.

Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that Burkett, after having discussed the importance of the categories of energy and entropy, does not pursue the next step of analyzing the capitalist energy system and its relevance for capitalist accumulation as well as for the alternative: sustainable human development. Capitalist industrialization and the production of relative surplus value would not have been possible without the transition from an energy system based on biotic energies, windmills, and water wheels to a fossil energy regime. The increase of the growth rate of GDP since the end of the eighteenth century—an indicator of the extreme acceleration of capitalist accumulation since then—would not have been possible without the use of fossil energy. The energy regime is important also because of the contemporary conflicts arising from the unequal distribution of fossil energy reserves and the uneven consumption of these resources. Money is of utmost importance, but it cannot open all the doors of access to resources, particularly to fossil fuels. Distributional conflicts on the environment are sharpened and reshaped into political and military conflicts. Today they are one of the most topical aspects of world development. Therefore it is necessary to incorporate within critical reasoning on ecological economics the question of ecological imperialism. The history of ecological imperialism has been recounted by Alfred Crosby in his book by the same name. But ecological imperialism is not merely past history but the history of the present, with regard to both taps and sinks.

The question of the energy regime is also of vital importance for the whole question of sustainable human development. Here Burkett remains rather abstract. Communism, in line with Marx, is for him “the individual’s right to a share in the total product for her private consumption” (322), access of all individuals to the “expanded social services—education, health care, utilities and old age pensions—that are financed by deductions from the total product…” (323), “individual’s right to progressively shorter working time” (324), and a cooperatively structured society regulated by a common plan (325). It is surprising that Paul Burkett does not take notice of the broad debate on renewable energies as the basis for any social, economic, and political alternative beyond the capitalist system, which is intimately bound to the exploitation of fossil fuel. Overcoming capitalism is only possible by concomitantly overcoming the fossil energy regime. Sustainability remains an abstract message, so long as the question “Which energy regime is sustainable?” is not answered. Perhaps Burkett understands the “de-entropification of human needs and human development” (329) as another expression (however abstract) of the transition from the fossil energy regime to an energy regime based on the use of renewables.

There is no book without some lacunae. This also holds true in this case. One question which still deserves more deliberation is how to regulate property in a communist, planned, cooperatively structured economy based on renewable and not fossil energy. What are the forms of reappropriation of the alienated and dispossessed spaces (and times) of peoples? The struggles for reappropriation are already going on today, everywhere. There is an urgent need for theoretical clarification. Paul Burkett’s Marxism and Ecological Economics is a great help, and it also shows that the “red-green” line of argument should be continued.