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Fusing Red and Green

PaulBurkett teaches in the Department of Economics at Indiana State University in Terre Haute.

James O’Connor, Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism (New York: Guilford, 1998), 350 pp., $19.95, paper.

One of the foremost Marxist social scientists in the United States, James O’Connor has produced many original insights into the political economy of the United States, and global capitalism. His Fiscal Crisis of the State (1973) revealed the structural roots of government deficit problems, and his subsequent work has focused on the development of a general theory of capitalist crisis. In Accumulation Crisis (1984) and The Meaning of Crisis (1987), he surveyed and synthesized alternative viewpoints on the economic, political, cultural and psychological crisis tendencies of late-twentieth century capitalism. Since 1988, when he co-founded the innovative “eco-Marxist” quarterly Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, O’Connor has expanded his vision of capitalist crisis and socialist movements to incorporate natural conditions more fully. Natural Causes gathers together O’Connor’s major writings over this last period, providing an excellent opportunity to assess his considerable contribution to eco-Marxist theory and practice.

O’Connor’s eco-Marxism centers on “what is arguably the basic contradiction of world capitalism at the end of the 20th century,” that between the multiplication of “environmental and social problems” on the one hand, and the breakdown of “older forms of political, economic, and social regulation of capital” on the other. Capital has always had a tendency to plunder and vitiate the human, social, and natural conditions of production by treating these conditions as commodities, even though they are not produced as commodities. But these destructive tendencies have now been freed up by the weakening or dismantling of Keynesian welfare-regulator regimes in the West, “real socialism” in the East, and “semiautarkic models of nationalist socioeconomic development and regulation” in the South—all of which have been displaced by neoliberal “free market” regimes, which place fewer social restraints on profit-driven production, trade, and finance. Worker and community struggles have been stimulated by, and in some cases contributed to, the breakdown of the old regulatory systems; but these struggles have remained mostly “populist” and “localist,” and thus incapable of countering capital’s increasingly broad and deep exploitation of natural and social wealth. O’Connor’s aim is to assist the development of a broader, but still richly diverse “radical green and green radical politics.” Such politics must meld together ecological, social, and labor concerns, thereby providing a viable alternative to “both global capital/neoliberalism and the many forms of styles of localism” current among the “new social movements—especially environmental and ecological movements.”

This eco-Marxist project requires good theory based on a sound method of analysis. Accordingly, Part I of Natural Causes records O’Connor’s own “search for a method.” He suggests that the traditional materialist conception of history “may be strengthened by incorporating both natural and cultural ‘environmental’ factors” more fully. By placing explicit emphasis on the natural and social conditions of production, O’Connor hopes to produce “a method of study that is at once theoretically sound (more or less) and also practically useful in radical environmental politics.” Besides, in order for “Marxism to be true to itself” as materialism, it “must become ecological.” Surprisingly, O’Connor does not systematically address the extent to which Marxism’s historical neglect of the conditions of production is rooted in partial and/or distorted interpretations of the work of Marx and Engels. Instead, Natural Causes merely recites the standard accusations of ecologically incorrect thinking against the founders of Marxism, with no real consideration of the evidence for and against these charges or of alternative interpretations, in which Marx and Engels assign a central role to natural conditions and ecological themes.1 The fact that O’Connor never really comes to grips with the legacy and resources of classical Marxism may help account for certain problems with his analysis of capitalist environmental crisis, as described later.

O’Connor’s method is, in any case, explicitly anticapitalist. He shows how capitalism reduces nature’s use value to its usefulness as an immediate condition of the production of goods and services by human labor. This instrumental valuation of nature goes hand in hand with a series of mechanistic and dualistic attitudes also traceable to capitalism. Nature is treated as an aggregate of separate “things” (utilities) rather than as a total functioning and evolving system. As a result, “external nature and human nature” are falsely separated, just as “human nature [is] separated into mind and body, mind and feelings, thought and emotion.” Meanwhile “the social nature of human beings [is] also divided or separated,” and society is defined merely as an aggregate of individuals. For O’Connor, individualistic ways of thinking about society and instrumental ways of thinking about nature are two sides of the same coin: both are rooted in capitalism’s basic wage-labor and market relations. An effective struggle against these ideologies must question the treatment of human beings, and their natural and social conditions as instruments of commodity production for profit. O’Connor’s method is thus profoundly anti-economistic not just because it is interdisciplinary, but also because it consciously struggles to escape the dominant conception of what it means for people to “use” nature and society. His eco-Marxism strives for a more holistic and coevolutionary perspective on people, society, and nature, informed by Marxist class analysis.

Part II of Natural Causes applies O’Connor’s eco-Marxist method to “the way that capitalist production relationships…degrade or destroy the conditions of production.” The analysis is developed “mainly from the vantage point of crisis theory,” extended to consider the environmental sustainablility of capitalism. For O’Connor, this more general crisis theory must “focus on the use value as well as the exchange value side of things,” while recognizing “the external physical and social barriers to capitalist accumulation as well as the internal economic barriers.”

Capitalism requires material and social conditions under which exploitable labor power can be reproduced—conditions suitable to the profitable investment of capital. It also presumes that revolts by “those whose ways of life are being subverted by capitalism” remain within manageable bounds. According to O’Connor, “the short answer to the question ‘Is sustainable capitalism possible?’ is ‘No,’ while a longer answer is ‘Probably not.’” For one thing, “the evidence” of this system’s vast environmental plunder and ecological degradation “favors the judgement that capitalism is not ecologically sustainable.” There is also a growing “disjuncture or gap” between mainstream environmentalist and capitalist perspectives on the environment. “For reformist Greens, the problem is how to remake capital in ways consistent with the sustainability of nature.” Corporate capital, by contrast, reduces the environmental question to short-run economic motivations (e.g., “how to present a plausibly green image to consumers and the public,” and how to “save energy and raw materials”), plus the long-run goal of “remak[ing] nature in ways that are consistent with sustainable profitability and capital accumulation.” Both sides evade “the contradiction between self-expanding capital and self-limiting nature.” Since “a positive rate of profit means growth of total product…sustainable capitalism must of necessity be an expanding capitalism” but this contradicts the limited character of natural conditions, at least for any given quality of these conditions.

For capitalism to be sustainable, the conditions of production must “be available at the right time and right place and in the right quantities and right qualities.” O’Connor is skeptical about the ability of market-oriented environmental policies (so-called green taxes and subsidies, tradeable pollution rights, etc.) to resolve this problem. Whether de facto or de jure, “the capitalization of the conditions of production in general, and nature in particular, tends to raise the cost of capital and reduce its flexibility.” Given the corrosive effects of capitalist production on the productivity of natural and social conditions, “huge sums of money would have to be expended to restructure production conditions in ways that restored or increased their ‘productivity’ and thus lower the costs of capital.” Such a project seems unlikely, given the absence of any “state agency, or corporate-type planning agency…that engages in overall ecological, urban, and social planning.”

Capitalism’s degradation of natural and social conditions gives new meaning to anticapitalist struggles. Part III of Natural Causes thus chronicles O’Connor’s “search for (and evaluation of) radical tendencies within the ecology and related movements.” Among the movements he considers are NGOs and the “environmentalism of the poor” in the South, and the environmental justice and toxic waste movements in the North. O’Connor explores the potential of these movements for fusing ecological and social sustainability concerns with the traditional “bread and butter” concerns of organized labor. One basis for such a fusion is the underlying “unity of social labor,” including socially useful, non-commodity producing labor. This unity is neglected by many “post-Marxist” leftists whose one-sided focus on “differences and particularities” within and across social and ecological movements leads them to interpret these movements as “non-class.” Neither do post-Marxists adequately consider why it is that “most problems of the natural and social environment are bigger problems from the standpoint of the poor, especially oppressed minorities, than for the salaried and the well-to-do.”

O’ Connor believes that “a partnership between labor and new social movements not only can but must be made to work.” Despite the absolute differences in worker-community conditions in the developed North and the underdeveloped South, “the ‘ecologism of affluence’ and the ‘ecologism of survival’…are in some ways intersecting in both North and South.” While Northern struggles increasingly address nature as a basic condition of human production and reproduction (prefiguring a fusion of sustainability, environmental justice, and labor concerns), industrialization and the proliferation of reserve armies of surplus labor have produced a qualitatively similar intersection of concerns in the South (albeit with a stronger orientation towards issues of immediate survival). The potential thus exists for the development of a popular and global Red-Green alternative to the capitalization of natural and social conditions, especially given the planetary scope of capitalism’s environmental impacts and the “political vacuum” created by the demise of prior forms of national capitalist regulation.

At times, however, O’Connor’s fusion of Red and Green is hampered by the artificial lines he draws between capital’s exploitation of labor and capital’s destructive use of natural and social conditions. This problem becomes clear when O’Connor argues that capitalism now suffers from two basic contradictions, which together explain why “capital and the state today” are “totally confused as to the new form of regulation which might provide a coherent framework for capital accumulation.”

The first contradiction involves the danger of over-production crises due to over-exploitation of labor. When “capital exercises [too] much power over labor,” wage-based demand shrinks relative to the total value of commodities produced, making it difficult for capital to realize the surplus value contained in these commodities. This over-accumulation tendency manifests itself in the “vast credit structure, aggressive marketing, constant product innovation, and intensified competition” undertaken by capital to cope with the growing “risk of a realization crisis,” Capitalism’s second contradiction is between capital and the conditions of production. As noted earlier, O’Connor argues that this second contradiction reduces the profitability of capital by increasing the costs of production. When individual firms “defend or restore profits by strategies that degrade or fail to maintain over time the material and social conditions of their own production,” the “unintended effect is to raise costs on other capitals (and, at the limit, capital as a whole), thereby lowering produced profits.” Profits are further reduced when “social movements demand that capital better provide for the maintenance and restoration” of natural and social conditions, e.g., “when they demand better health care, protest the ruination of soils, and defend urban neighborhoods in ways that increase capital costs or reduce capital flexibility.”

O’Connor’s “two contradictions” framework is pleasing insofar as it explains why neither Keynesian demand-side policies nor neoliberal supply- or cost-side policies can overcome the contradictions of capital accumulation. The problem, however, is that O’Connor artificially divides the first contradiction from the second, even asserting that the “first contradiction…has nothing to do with the conditions of production, whether these are interpreted economically or in socio-political terms.” Since the first contradiction “expresses capital’s social and political power over labor,” it is difficult to see how it can be separated from the conditions of production. As we know from Marx, capital’s power over labor and increases in the rate of exploitation (especially through increases in labor productivity which reduce the value of labor power itself) are both firmly rooted in capital’s appropriation of natural and social conditions and the conversion of these conditions into means of exploiting labor power and objectifying surplus labor in vendible use values. As O’Connor himself notes, this situation presumes a “process of original accumulation” in which the direct producers are “freed…from their land and other means of production.” The social separation of labor power from necessary conditions of production is thus central to capital’s power over labor, capital’s exploitative and destructive combination of nature and labor in production, and over-accumulation problems. O’Connor’s sharp line between the first and second contradictions unwittingly reproduces this separation by artificially dividing the “internal” and “external” barriers to capital accumulation, and this weakens his fusion of Red and Green perspectives on capitalist crisis and social movements.

As for the “second contradiction,” it is by no means clear that rising “external costs” from capital’s use of natural and social conditions need translate into profitability problems for capital as a whole. All capital accumulation requires is exploitable labor power and material conditions conducive to extraction of surplus labor and its objectification in marketable use values. The qualitative nature of the production conditions, labor power, and produced use values is historically contingent. Pollution control and waste disposal, prisons (with exploitation of imprisoned labor power), and police and security services, are all quite profitable sectors, even though they represent private costs and/or tax bills from the standpoint of many individual enterprises. The fact is that the “external costs” of capital accumulation create profitable opportunities for the production and realization of surplus value not only for individual enterprises, but for capital as a whole—with or without a “corporate-type planning agency” to coordinate and distribute these opportunities. On the one hand, capital responds to its over-accumulation problems by developing and marketing new products featuring ecologically and socially destructive use values (plastic packaging, fast foods, the automobile, pesticides). On the other hand, capital accumulation increasingly takes the form of goods and services whose necessity or usefulness stems from the “external costs” of capitalist production and consumption. The whole automobile/petroleum/real estate complex, for example, feeds off of capitalism’s “negative externalities” as much as it helps generate them; the same can be said of the medical and legal industries. The pollution control and waste treatment industry, with annual sales of between $200-300 billion in 1990 (more than the entire global aerospace industry) is merely the latest member of this pantheon of externality-based activities.2

The profitability of such destructive and/or externality-based activities does not resolve capitalism’s “first contradiction.” Indeed, insofar as private enterprise naturally gravitates toward the most profitable kind of pollution control and waste management activities, the problem of over-accumulation of potential surplus value is correspondingly worsened—all the more so as these activities are increasingly monopolized by a small number of larger, relatively profitable corporations. In this respect, the environment industry does not differ from other monopoly capitalist sectors. Still, the fact that the environment industry can itself contribute to over-accumulation problems shows very clearly that the real, fundamental contradiction of capitalism is the alienation of the conditions of production vis-à-vis workers and communities. O’Connor’s two contradictions are both symptoms of this more basic contradiction.

Once the underlying unity of O’Connor’s two contradictions is recognized, we can see more clearly the limits of the reformist vision of a green capitalism. The environment industry is not only incapable of solving the problem of over-accumulation; it is also incapable of resolving capitalism’s environmental crisis. Pollution control, waste management, and recycling may be profitable activities; but they do not directly address the tension between competitive capitalist growth and the limited character of natural conditions of any given quality.

As matters stand, the competitive “success” of the environment industry itself depends upon and contributes to the ecologically unsustainable growth of capitalist production. The fact that “environmental maintenance” is itself a “growth industry” reveals the conflict between the conditions required for capital accumulation and the conditions required for a sustainable process of human and social development. To put it bluntly, capital can in principle continue to accumulate under any natural conditions, however degraded, so long as there is not a complete extinction of human life. This makes it essential to distinguish environmental crises of capital accumulation from environmental crisis in the sense of a general deterioration of the conditions for the development of people as a natural and social species. The latter type of crisis by no means automatically implies the former, even though both are products of capitalism—which is to say that, from the standpoint of human development, capitalism is an ecologically and socially irrational system.

O’Connor does note that capital’s destructive effects on the conditions of production represent “not only threats to profits and accumulation, but also to the viability of the social and natural environment as means of life and life itself.” He also describes ecological and social movements as struggles “to determine what kind of use values production conditions will in fact be.” Nonetheless, by treating the conditions of production as “external” to capital’s exploitation of labor, O’Connor’s “two contradictions” dichotomy tends to soften the distinction between the conditions required by capitalist production and the conditions required for human development. This is ironic given O’Connor’s healthy desire to avoid economism. More importantly, the effect of this softening is to artificially divide labor and ecological struggles—with the latter still basically defined as “non-class” struggles. The dualism between “internal and external” capitalist contradictions thus weakens O’Connor’s critique of the “post-Marxist” politics of difference and particularity.

It is difficult to inform an anticapitalist ecological perspective using a framework in which natural conditions are “external” to capital accumulation. In order to accumulate as exchange value, capital must take the form of marketable use values combining social labor and nature. As a result, current “natural” conditions are largely a product of the capitalistic appropriation of nature. It follows that any Red-Green movement must be based on subjective and objective conditions growing out of capital’s exploitation of labor and nature, and the struggles engendered by this exploitation. Along with its destruction and degradation of natural conditions, capital’s development of social labor creates the potential for more universal, less restricted relations between people and nature. In this sense, contemporary ecological thinking is, to a significant degree, a product of capitalist development.3 But this knowledge can only be effectively applied insofar as capitalism’s social separation of working people from necessary conditions of production is replaced by a system of democratic worker-community control over society’s use of these conditions. As Engels puts it, the “regulation” of “our interference with the traditional course of nature…requires something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order.”4

Engels’ observation is not a prescription to sit back and “wait for the revolution.” All worker and community struggles for greater popular control over production are objectively opposed to the treatment of labor and nature as mere means of capital accumulation. These struggles can work toward the de-alienation of the conditions of production required to overcome O’Connor’s two contradictions and to create a healthy and sustainable coevolution of people, society, and nature. Despite the above qualifications, Natural Causes is a rich source of insights for anyone interested in contributing to this movement.


  1. John Bellamy Foster, “Marx and the Environment,” Monthly Review, vol. 47, no. 3, July/August 1995, pp. 108-123; Paul Burkett, “On Some Common Misconceptions About Nature and Marx’s Critique of Political Economy,” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, vol. 7, no. 3, Fall 1996, pp. 332-359.
  2. For further details, see Joshua Karliner, “The Environment Industry: Profiting from Pollution,” The Ecologist, vol. 24, no. 2, March/April 1994, pp. 59-63, and Claudia H. Deutsch, “Scrubbing the Air, Buffing the Cleaners: Belated E.P.A. War on Pollutants May Infuse Value into Companies,” New York Times, October 17, 1997, pp. C1; also Martin Gellen, “The Making of a Pollution-Industrial Complex,” in Eco-Catastrophe, Editors of Ramparts, ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), pp. 73-83.
  3. Howard L. Parsons, Marx and Engels on Ecology (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977), pp. 88-89; Victor Wallis, “Socialism, Ecology, and Democracy,” in Socialism: Crisis and Renewal, C. Polychroniu, editor (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993), pp. 147-148.
  4. Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), pp. 183-184.
1999, Volume 50, Issue 09 (February)
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