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Marx as a Food Theorist

Food has become a core contradiction of contemporary capitalism. Discussions of the economics and sociology of food and food regimes seem to be everywhere today, with some of the most important contributions made by Marxian theorists. Amid plentiful food production, hunger remains a chronic problem, and food security is now a pressing concern for many of the world’s people.… Despite the severity of these problems and their integral relation to the capitalist commodity system, it is generally believed that Karl Marx himself contributed little to our understanding of food…. [Yet] food for Marx was far more than a “passing interest”: in his work one finds analyses of the development of agriculture in different modes of production; climate and food cultivation; the chemistry of the soil; industrial agriculture; livestock conditions; new technologies in food production and preparation; toxic additives in food products; food security; and much more. Moreover, these issues are not peripheral, but organically connected to Marx’s larger critique of capitalism.… | more…

Marxism and the Dialectics of Ecology

The recovery of the ecological-materialist foundations of Karl Marx’s thought, as embodied in his theory of metabolic rift, is redefining both Marxism and ecology in our time, reintegrating the critique of capital with critical natural science. This may seem astonishing to those who were reared on the view that Marx’s ideas were simply a synthesis of German idealism, French utopian socialism, and British political economy.… The rediscovery of Marx’s metabolism and ecological value-form theories, and of their role in the analysis of ecological crises, has generated sharply discordant trends. Despite their importance in the development of both Marxism and ecology, neither idea is without its critics. One manifestation of the divergence on the left in this respect has been an attempt to appropriate aspects of Marx’s social-metabolism analysis in order to promote a crude social “monist” view based on such notions as the social “production of nature” and capitalism’s “singular metabolism.” Such perspectives, though influenced by Marxism, rely on idealist, postmodernist, and hyper-social-constructivist conceptions, which go against any meaningful historical-materialist ecology and tend to downplay (or to dismiss as apocalyptic or catastrophist) all ecological crises—insofar as they are not reducible to the narrow law of value of the system.… | more…

The Anthropocene Crisis

The Anthropocene, viewed as a new geological epoch displacing the Holocene epoch of the last 10,000 to 12,000 years, represents what has been called an “anthropogenic rift” in the history of the planet.… Recent scientific evidence suggests that the period from around 1950 on exhibits a major spike, marking a Great Acceleration in human impacts on the environment, with the most dramatic stratigraphic trace of the anthropogenic rift to be found in fallout radionuclides from nuclear weapons testing.… Viewed in this way, the Anthropocene can be seen as corresponding roughly to the rise of the modern environmental movement, which had its beginnings in the protests led by scientists against above-ground nuclear testing after the Second World War, and was to emerge as a wider movement following the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. Carson’s book was soon followed in the 1960s by the very first warnings, by Soviet and U.S. scientists, of accelerated and irreversible global warming. It is this dialectical interrelation between the acceleration into the Anthropocene and the acceleration of a radical environmentalist imperative in response that constitutes the central theme of Ian Angus’s marvelous new book.… | more…

Monopoly Capital at the Half-Century Mark

A half-century after its publication, Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital remains the single most influential work in Marxian political economy to emerge in the United States.… In recent years, interest in Baran and Sweezy’s magnum opus has revived, primarily for two reasons: (1) the global resurgence of debates over the constellation of issues that their work addressed—including economic stagnation, monopoly, inequality, militarism and imperialism, multinational corporations, economic waste, surplus capital absorption, financial speculation, and plutocracy; and (2) the new, fundamental insights into the book’s origins resulting from the publication of its two missing chapters and the public release of Baran and Sweezy’s correspondence.… I shall divide this introduction on the influence and development of the argument of Monopoly Capital over the last fifty years into three parts: (1) a brief treatment of the book itself and its historical context; (2) a discussion of responses to Monopoly Capital, and of the development of the tradition that it represented, during its first four decades, up to the Great Financial Crisis that began in 2007; and (3) an assessment of the continuing significance of monopoly capital theory in the context of the historical period stretching from the Great Financial Crisis to the present.… | more…

Multinational Corporations and the Globalization of Monopoly Capital

From the 1960s to the Present

In 1964, Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy wrote an essay entitled “Notes on the Theory of Imperialism” for a festschrift in honor of the sixty-fifth birthday of the great Polish Marxist economist Michał Kalecki.… [T]he essay offered the first major analysis of multinational corporations within Marxian theory. Parts of it were incorporated into Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital in 1966, two years after Baran’s death. Yet for all that book’s depth, “Notes on the Theory of Imperialism” provided a more complete view of their argument on the growth of multinationals. In October and November 1969, Harry Magdoff and Sweezy wrote their article “Notes on the Multinational Corporation,” picking up where Baran and Sweezy had left off. That same year, Magdoff published his landmark The Age of Imperialism, which systematically extended the analysis of the U.S. economy into the international domain.… In the analyses of Baran, Sweezy, and Magdoff, as distinct from the dominant liberal perspective, the multinational corporation was the product of the very same process of concentration and centralization of capital that had created monopoly capital itself.… | more…

Marx’s Ecology and the Left

One of the lasting contributions of the Frankfurt School of social theorists, represented especially by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s 1944 Dialectic of Enlightenment, was the development of a philosophical critique of the domination of nature.… Yet their critique of the Enlightenment exploitation of nature was eventually extended to a critique of Marx himself as an Enlightenment figure, especially in relation to his mature work in Capital.… So all-encompassing was the critique of the “dialectic of the Enlightenment” within the main line of the Frankfurt School, and within what came to be known as “Western Marxism”…, that it led to the estrangement of thinkers in this tradition not only from the later Marx, but also from natural science—and hence nature itself. Consequently, when the ecological movement emerged in the 1960s and ’70s, Western Marxism, with its abstract, philosophical notion of the domination of nature, was ill-equipped to analyze the changing and increasingly perilous forms of material interaction between humanity and nature.… | more…

Nature

“Nature,” wrote Raymond Williams in Keywords, “is perhaps the most complex word in the language.” It is derived from the Latin natura, as exemplified by Lucretius’s great didactic poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) from the first century BCE. The word “nature” has three primary, interrelated meanings: (1) the intrinsic properties or essence of things or processes; (2) an inherent force that directs or determines the world; and (3) the material world or universe, the object of our sense perceptions—both in its entirety and variously understood as including or excluding God, spirit, mind, human beings, society, history, culture, etc.… | more…

Marx’s Theory of Working-Class Precariousness

Its Relevance Today

As a concept, worker precariousness is far from new. It has a long history in socialist thought, where it was associated from the start with the concept of the reserve army of labor. Frederick Engels introduced the idea of precariousness in his treatment of the industrial reserve army in The Condition of the Working Class in England. Marx and Engels employed it in this same context in The Communist Manifesto, and it later became a key element in Marx’s analysis of the industrial reserve army in volume I of Capital.… In recent years, however, the notion of precariousness as a general condition of working-class life has been rediscovered. Yet the idea is commonly treated in the eclectic, reductionist, ahistorical fashion characteristic of today’s social sciences and humanities, disconnected from the larger theory of accumulation derived from Marx and the socialist tradition. The result is a set of scattered observations about what are seen as largely haphazard developments.… In the face of such a confusion of views—most of them merely ad hoc responses to what is presumed to be an isolated social problem—it is necessary to turn back to the classical Marxian tradition, where the issue of precariousness was first raised.… | more…

The Opt Out Revolt

Democracy and Education

In the United States today, the age of monopoly-finance capital and neoliberal politics, all aspects of social life are being financialized at breakneck speed, while the economy as a whole and employment remain lackluster. Financial flows of whatever kind are converted into “securitized” assets to be leveraged by Wall Street speculators. The data of private communications are mined. Health care is converted into a realm of super profits. Public water and electric facilities are sold to the highest bidder. The political system is turned into an open-air auction. Even pollution is treated as a market.… At the center of this juggernaut is elementary and secondary education, which receives over $550 billion in annual public spending, equal to the GDP of Belgium, ranked twenty-fifth worldwide in national income. The new copyrighted Common Core State Standards, and the accompanying standardized tests run by two multi-state consortia in conjunction with testing companies, are “high stakes” not merely for schools, teachers, and students, but also for the vested interests of capital.… | more…

Marxism and Ecology

Common Fonts of a Great Transition

To link Marxism and ecological transition may seem at first like trying to bridge two entirely different movements and discourses, each with its own history and logic: one having mainly to do with class relations, the other with the relation between humans and the environment. However, historically socialism has influenced the development of ecological thought and practice, while ecology has informed socialist thought and practice. Since the nineteenth century, the relationship between the two has been complex, interdependent, and dialectical.… This essay unearths the deep ecological roots of Marx’s thought, showing how he brought an environmental perspective to bear on the overarching question of social transformation. From there it traces the evolution of Marxian ecology, illuminating its profound, formative link to modern ecological economics and systems ecology. It concludes with the wider project of building the broad and deep social movement required to halt and reverse ecological and social destruction.… | more…

The Great Capitalist Climacteric

Marxism and "System Change Not Climate Change"

Humanity today is confronted with what might be called the Great Capitalist Climacteric. In the standard definition, a climacteric (from the Greek klimaktēr or rung on the ladder) is a period of critical transition or a turning point in the life of an individual or a whole society. From a social standpoint, it raises issues of historical transformation in the face of changing conditions. In the 1980s environmental geographers Ian Burton and Robert Kates referred to “the Great Climacteric” to address what they saw as the developing global ecological problem of the limits to growth…. I will use the term the Great Capitalist Climacteric here to refer to the necessary epochal social transition associated with the current planetary emergency. It refers both to the objective necessity of a shift to a sustainable society and to the threat to the existence of Homo sapiens (as well as numerous other species) if the logic of capital accumulation is allowed to continue dictating to society as a whole. The current world of business as usual is marked by rapid climate change, but also by the crossing or impending crossing of numerous other planetary boundaries that define “a safe operating space for humanity.”… | more…

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