The Review of the Month in this issue of Monthly Review is titled “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, and Other ‘-Cenes’: Why a Correct Understanding of Marx’s Theory of Value Is Necessary to Exit the Planetary Crisis,” by Spanish geologist Carles Soriano. MR readers will recall that the “Notes from the Editors” in the September 2022 issue consisted of a statement by John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark discussing Soriano’s proposal in Geologica Acta in 2020, in which he designated the first geological age of the Anthropocene Epoch as the Capitalian. In their statement, Foster and Clark dealt with how his proposal was similar to their own, which was published in MR in September 2021, and in which they referred to the first geological age of the Anthropocene as the Capitalinian.
At the time that they wrote their 2021 article, Foster and Clark were unaware of Soriano’s prior publication. In the September 2022 “Notes from the Editors,” they examined the similarities in the two proposals, both of which arose out of historical-materialist analysis. They also pointed to what appeared to be slight differences in the dating of the Capitalian/Capitalinian (and the beginning of the Anthropocene), with Soriano seemingly preferring to designate the Industrial Revolution, 200–300 years ago as the beginning of the new geological age, as opposed to Foster and Clark’s placement of the Capitalian/Capitalinian as arising in the 1950s, in line with the Anthropocene Working Group’s dating of the Anthropocene.
However, subsequent correspondence with Soriano and a discussion of his Geologica Acta article have resulted in important clarifications regarding his argument and the dating of the beginning of the Capitalian/Capitalinian. In line with many of the discussions of the Anthropocene within science, Soriano sees some of the crucial beginnings of anthropogenic effects on the Earth System—historical markers which point toward our present geological epoch/age—as arising at the time of the Industrial Revolution, 200–300 years ago, with the birth of fossil capital. However, his view on the actual dating of the Capitalian (consistent with his Geologica Acta article) would place it in the 1950s, in line with the Anthropocene Working Group’s proposed stratigraphic markers for the Anthropocene (a view that also coincides with the argument developed in MR). This is because it was not until the globalization of the monopoly capitalist economy in the 1950s that anthropogenic factors came to dominate over non-anthropogenic drivers in Earth System change, thus resulting in a quantitative shift that produced a qualitative transformation in the human relation to the earth. There are, therefore, no fundamental differences between the proposals on the Capitalian/Capitalinian offered by Soriano in Geologica Acta and those from Foster and Clark in this magazine.
In the “Notes from the Editors” in September, it was stressed that Soriano’s approach to these questions was the result of his historical-materialist methodology and his profound understanding of the issues related to the dialectics of nature, as this bears on both natural and social science. In his article in the present issue, he provides a very broad assessment of these issues, clarifying the relation of capitalism to the present planetary crisis, and the indispensability of Karl Marx’s value-based critique in that respect.
Misconceptions about Karl Marx’s critique of the classical-liberal economic notion of “primitive accumulation,” in volume 1 of Capital, predominate in left scholarship, adding all sorts of confusion. A recent example of this is Nancy Fraser’s noteworthy and in many ways valuable book, Cannibal Capitalism (Verso, 2022), in which the concept of “primitive accumulation” is incorrectly seen as reflecting Marx’s own analytical view. This is then strongly criticized by Fraser from the standpoint of the notion of “expropriation,” seen as a superior conception to that advanced by Marx—even though this emphasis on “expropriation” as constituting the reality behind the bourgeois concept of “primitive accumulation” was precisely the critique advanced by Marx himself on page after page in that part of Capital.
In this context, we highly recommend Ian Angus’s article, “The Meaning of ‘So-Called Primitive Accumulation,’” published by Climate & Capitalism and Monthly Review Online in September 2022, which succeeds more than any other piece in clearing up this confusion (available at mronline.org/2022/09/07/the-meaning-of-so-called-primitive-accumulation). As Angus points out, Marx stressed in his lecture, “Value, Price and Profit,” delivered in English in 1865 to the General Council of the First International, that the appropriate term for this historical process was not “Original Accumulation”—since it did not constitute accumulation at all—but rather “Original Expropriation.” Moreover, “original” (later translated from the German as “primitive”) did not stand for a specific period in time in the distant past. Rather it referred to the expropriation of the means of production from the workers, which was a recurring necessity of capitalist expansion, occurring in Marx’s own time. In the chapter on “The Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist” in part VIII of Capital on “So-Called Primitive Accumulation” Marx integrated his notion of expropriation with an account of the bloody role played by colonialism, racial slavery, and genocide; that is, the expropriation of human bodies themselves. Understanding these issues, we believe, is crucial in comprehending the relation between expropriation and exploitation, not simply in the years leading up to the Industrial Revolution, but also in the globalized capitalism of the twenty-first century. For a further discussion, see John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, The Robbery of Nature (Monthly Review Press, 2020).
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) initiated by the Joe Biden administration and passed by Congress in August 2022—largely consisting of climate legislation—has been praised to the skies by the Democratic Party, the media, and most mainstream environmental groups. The Associated Press called it a “massive” attempt to address the planetary climate crisis. The Guardian called it Biden’s “Green Deal,” if not quite Green New Deal, and said that the United States had reclaimed world leadership on the climate. The Marine Conservation Institute called it a “game changer.” Others raised the question of whether Biden had saved the planet (“The Guardian View on Biden’s Green Deal,” August 14, 2022; Zeke Miller and Seung Min Kim, “Biden Signs Massive Climate and Health Care Legislation,” AP News, August 16, 2022; Mike Gravitz, “Biggest Climate Bill Ever Signed into Law; It’s a Game Changer,” Marine Conservation Institute, August 30, 2022).
The passage of the first comprehensive climate legislation by the U.S. Congress in more than half a century of accelerating climate catastrophe does constitute a noteworthy event. Nevertheless, it is best regarded as a chronic symptom of, rather than a partial solution to, the present planetary crisis. To put this in perspective, it is useful to compare Bernie Sanders’s Green New Deal proposal during the 2020 presidential election campaign to spend $16.3 trillion in public investment centered on averting climate change, Elizabeth Warren’s $3 trillion plan, and Biden’s pre-election plan to spend $2 trillion on the climate in four years with the IRA’s allocation of $370 billion to be spent on the climate over the next decade. The total cost would amount to 0.1 percent of projected GDP over the decade—hardly massive. Sanders’s Green New Deal included $200 billion to aid poor countries in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while the Biden IRA offers nothing in this regard.
The IRA has no emission targets, since it relies exclusively on a carrot approach (avoiding all regulatory sticks), provided primarily in the form of tax credits and subsidies to corporations, the wealthy, electrical utilities, and relatively well-to-do consumers. Backed by various econometric models, the IRA purports to provide a 31–44 percent reduction of emissions by 2030 below the U.S. peak. Yet, U.S. emissions are already 20 percent below those of 2005, and are expected to fall by an estimated 7 percentage points by 2030, even without the new climate bill. Moreover, even the most optimistic assessment of the IRA would not close the gap between the present U.S. emissions reduction pathway and the pathway needed to reach net zero emissions by 2050. (It should also be noted that the U.S. military’s vast and increasing climate emissions are not included in the accounting of U.S. emissions.) (Paul Krugman, “Can Inflation Reduction Save the Planet?,” New York Times, August 1, 2022; Shannon Osaka, “Why the Climate Bill’s Impact Might Not Match What Many Expect,” Washington Post, August 18, 2022; Jim Walsh and Peter Hart, “Will the Manchin Climate Bill Reduce Climate Pollution?,” Food and Water Watch, August 10, 2022; “Climate Change Indicators: U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” available at www.epa.gov.)
Matters are worse when we look more closely at the details of the Biden climate legislation. The econometric model by Princeton’s Rapid Energy Policy Evaluation and Analysis Toolkit (REPEAT) Project, which provides the strongest projections supporting the Biden IRA, claims that tax credits promoting carbon capture and sequestration technology would account for one-sixth to one-fifth of total emissions reductions, amounting to a decrease of 50 million tons by 2024, mainly from coal plants, and of 200 million tons by 2030. Yet, since such technology does not exist at scale and has provided virtually zero reductions in emissions up to this point, such projections enter the realm of the fantastic, and indeed have no real basis. Other projected cutbacks are due to carrots, in the form of tax credits for alternative energy and consumer purchases of electric vehicles and heat pumps. Since there are no planned targets, the econometric model projections rely on assumptions of “rational economic behavior” by economic actors, which are, from a wider social and behavioral standpoint, extremely unrealistic. As leading U.S. climatologist James Hansen and his colleagues state, the Biden IRA would have “on the order of [a] 1 percent effect on global emissions,” far less than what is needed (Walsh and Hart, “Will the Manchin Climate Bill Reduce Climate Pollution?”; Jesse D. Jenkins et al., “Preliminary Report: The Climate and Energy Impacts of the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022,” Princeton University Zero Lab, August 8, 2022, available at repeatproject.org; James Hansen, Makiko Sato, and Reto Ruedy, “August Temperature Update, a ‘Thank You’ and Biden’s Report Card,” September 22, 2022, available at columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2022/AugustTemperatureUpdate.22September2022.pdf).
On top of all of this, the Biden climate legislation envisions the continued expansion of the fossil fuel industry. A controversial part of the plan, promoted by coal country Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia, is a tradeoff in which new solar and wind energy projects are contingent on opening millions of acres of public land and waters to oil and gas leases, while another provision includes locking in drilling off the coast of Alaska and in the Gulf of Mexico. Taking all of this into consideration, the Climate Justice Alliance declared: “While the language for the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 includes benefits for some frontline and environmental justice communities, sadly the harms outweigh the benefits. By relying on polluting industry to solve the economic crisis through ramped up fossil fuel relationships and production, Democrats are ensuring that future generations of frontline communities will be sacrificed to subsidize this dying and outdated industry” (Aaron White, “Inside the Democrats’ Climate Deal with the Devil,” Open Democracy, August 2, 2022; Climate Justice Alliance, “Democratic Leadership Must Not Rely on Fossil Fuel Industry to Solve the Economic and Climate Crises,” June 28, 2022; Julia Rock, David Sirota, and Andrew Perez, “Most Dems Mum on Blocking Manchin’s Pipeline Deal,” the Lever, September 8, 2022).
We would like to congratulate Victor Wallis, MR author and close friend of the magazine, for the publication of the second edition of his book Red-Green Revolution: The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism (Toronto: Political Animal Press, 2022). The extended edition contains a new preface and a new epilogue covering the developments of the last four years since the first edition was published. As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has said of the book, it is “a must read for everyone who cares about the fate of the earth in this era of capitalist implosion[,] with socialism no longer a possible alternative, but rather a requirement for survival.”
Barbara Ehrenreich, one of the most widely respected intellectual figures on the U.S. left and a longtime MR author, first published in the magazine in 1967, died on September 1, 2022, aged 81. All socialists should be familiar with her classic essay, “What Is Socialist Feminism?,” first published in WIN magazine in 1976 and republished in the July–August 2005 issue of MR, available at monthlyreview.org/2005/07/01/what-is-socialist-feminism. In her now-classic bestseller on the working poor in the United States, Nickel and Dimed (2001, Metropolitan Books)—the product of her own participatory observation of what it meant to be a low-wage worker in the United States—she wrote: “When someone works for less pay than she can live on—when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently—then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The ‘working poor,’ as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society” (p. 221).
George Comninel, a leading contributor to Marxist historical analysis and theory and a former director of the Monthly Review Foundation Board, died on August 18, 2022, aged 72. Comninel taught for more than thirty years as a professor of political science at York University in Toronto. He was the author of Rethinking the French Revolution (Verso, 1986) and Alienation and Emancipation in the Work of Karl Marx (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). For more on Comninel and his important work, see “The Political Theory of Capital: Fetishism of Commodities,” Socialist Project (via MR Online), August 28, 2022.
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