Marx, technophilia and typhoons

Technological productivity cannot be blindly accepted without scrutinizing its impact on people and the planet

By Tarique Niazi
Published: Thursday 16 January 2014

Technological productivity cannot be blindly accepted without scrutinizing its impact on people and the planet

Why does Marxism, alongside capitalism, get blamed for disasters such as Typhoon Haiyan, Superstorm Sandy or Hurricane Katrina? The answer, argue green critics, lies in the shared zeal of the two for an infinite economic expansion, which they believe is burning up the planet and stoking global climate change. For Marxism, harnessing an ever-expanding economy is a means to amelioration of the human condition. Capitalism, on the other hand, pursues this Holy Grail for shareholders’ profits. Ironically, the stark divergence in their aims is seen melt into convergence of their pathways that their critics contend yield equally disastrous consequences for the planet.  

Marxism and green narratives

Critics, thus, view both Marxism and capitalism organically bound in their anthropocentrism and instrumentality of nature to further human ends. Anthropocentrism, as Arne Naess claims, elevates humans to the status of a superorganism, and subjects nature to their servitude until its extinction. Green critics, nevertheless, are not monolithic in their vision of the natural world. They occupy a wide spectrum of philosophical orientations, the prominent of which include deep ecology, shallow ecology (liberal environmentalism), social ecology, socialist ecology, eco-Marxism and eco-socialism. All these variants of environmentalism are, in turn, challenged by eco-feminism for neglecting gender, particularly in what ecofeminists describe the “grand narratives” of Marxist and capitalist “ideologies.”

There is, however, a broad range of sub-sets within eco-feminism, some of which are closer to Marxism (such as socialist eco-feminism) while others hue to capitalism (such as liberal ecofeminism). All but shallow ecologists and liberal ecofeminists are skeptical of modern technologies, and their fervent advocates in Marxism and capitalism. Driven by this skepticism, some of these groups, such as deep ecologists and cultural ecofeminists, reject the intellectual inheritance of the Enlightenment era, western science, modernity and technology as dark forces that they believe ruined the environment. In contrast, these very forces are embraced by both Marxism and capitalism as the first seed of human progress. Green critics do not go unchallenged though. The celebrated founder of social ecology Murray Bookchin has fiercely taken deep ecologists and cultural ecofeminists to task for their anti-technology fanaticism. In his erudite rebuttal, Bookchin has challenged both with the sharpest of wit, strongest of words and utmost deftness of a polemicist.

Marxism and the green Left

Oddly enough, green critics are just as vociferously echoed by a growing section of the green Left that tends to see Marxism as insufficiently green, ungreen or even brown. They take issue with Marx’s fabled concern for “the development of the productive forces,” which was purported to rid humanity of the “brutal necessities” of material existence. They see Marxism achieve this emancipation by transforming nature through technological innovations (i.e., productive forces), a premise that some on the green left finds hard to reconcile with the contemporary environmental condition. In the like vein, what Marxism envisions in the productive forces, capitalism enacts in their realization (i.e., scientific progress and technological innovations). This apparent approximation of the two has a section of Marxist theorists and practitioners foreseeing in capitalism a transition to a social revolution. Ironically, their conjured up intermediation of capitalism makes them even tolerant of capital’s excesses as “collateral damage” on the way to a revolutionary heaven on earth. In lay terms it is technophilia that drives Marxism and capitalism into each other’s arms, and binds their critics in their putative technophobia. In general, however, the green left has helped move the orthodox version of Marxism in the ecologically informed direction that has made it even more relevant to the contemporary human condition. Even so, the larger question as to how to reconcile Marxism’s putative technophilia and the greens’ and the green left’s assumed technophobia still remains unanswered.

Technologies and social relations of production

Although it is a hotly contested assumption, technologies themselves are value-neutral. It is their “social relations of production” (i.e., social systems that underscore the development of productive forces) that have them save or savage people and the planet. Social relations tend to foster or fetter production of a given technology, such as fossil fuels or green energy; uranium enrichment for weapons making, electrical power, or cancer treatment; human cloning or therapeutic cloning; genetically modified organism (GMO) foods or organic produce. Similarly, modern technologies could not have been developed under the fetters of regressive feudalism. They awaited their birth until after the overthrow of feudalism, and the reconstruction of alternative social relations under “progressive capitalism”. Absurdly, some greens, in their backward mental leap, have even come to prize feudalism over capitalism for its putative small ecological footprint. Here they indeed risk being perceived as misanthrope in the extreme for abandoning any pretense of human concern in their zest for naturism. Yet they decry capitalism and reject its progressive potential in technological breakthroughs that they see at the heart of ecological ruin. Their feud with Marx and Marxism also rests on this same premise.  

Marx and capitalism

Marx did recognize the progressive potential of capitalism at a time when the masses of humanity were wallowing in misery. To help liberate fellow humans from the brutal necessities of life, and enable them to live up to their fullest potential as a self-determined citizen, the development of the productive forces was deemed a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for social revolution.  In Marx’s times (1818-1883), these forces were developing, not developed, which can be gauged from what was then considered to be the icons of technology: telephone, train and steam ship. These technologies were, nevertheless, benign, as their intended or unintended ecological consequences were still in gestation. At the same time, their economic and social benefits were all too obvious for humanity. They each helped compress time and space, unlocked human economic potential, and paved the way for lifting masses out of misery.
As a result, the more of such technologies were sought after to relieve human suffering. Marx and Engels were convinced that dignified human living was bound up with the uninterrupted development of productive forces, massive industrialization, and ever-growing consumption to keep the former going, a rationale that stokes their critics’ skepticism of Marxism to this day. Although Marx’s vision of the world was humanistic, it too was decried by greens as anthropocentrism and speciesism. Yet the productive forces that capitalism has since unleashed have become a doubled-edged sword that can simultaneously save life and spell disasters. As a result, technological productivity cannot be blindly accepted without scrutinizing its impact on people and the planet. Marxist theorists, therefore, need to contextualize Marx’s call for the development of the productive forces and, more importantly, reassess capitalist technologies as to whether they qualify to be “productive forces” in the first place, given their “counterproductive” impact on both human and non-human nature.  
Contextualizing Marx

In the 150 years since Marx wrote, capitalism has been helping itself to the low-hanging fruit of extractive technologies, such as transformation of fossil fuels, minerals and metals into energy and industrial products. Yet the intended benefits of such technologies have begun to be obscured by their unintended disbenefits, especially when one scans the depletion and degradation of natural resources, and their impact on what Allan Schnaiberg calls the environment’s source and sink limits. Global climate change, together with typhoons, hurricanes, cyclones and superstorms, is the result of exceeding these limits. Marx was profoundly aware of humans’ dependence on nature for their very survival, as Ted Benton, James O’Conner, John Bellamy Foster, and Jason Moore, among others, have diligently evidenced in their ecological accounting of Marx. In his time, Marx did not confront ecological limits on the development of productive forces; he rather observed ecological transformation being constrained by the underdeveloped productive forces. Today, Marx, having been an ecologically informed thinker, would not push against what the Club of Rome report comprehensively described as “ecological limits” to develop the “undifferentiated” productive forces, as did capitalism imperiling the very survival of humans on this planet. 

A section of Marxist theorists prioritize concern for the economic well-being of humanity over all other concerns, a position that is not entirely without merits. But their inattention to ecology as the very basis of human material provisioning is puzzling all the same. It amounts to belaboring the obvious that prospects for humanity’s economic well-being are not just dependent upon the development of productive forces, but the productive and absorptive capacity of the environment as well. Capitalist technologies have long been overtaxing the environment’s capacity to produce and absorb, with the consequences that have now grown unbearable for the planet and its inhabitants. The world cannot wait indefinitely for capitalism to go on pursuing its progressive potential in the interest of a hoped-for social revolution, while leaving behind a trail of ecological and human wasteland. Also, frequent calls are made on the greens to pay mind to the needs of the working classes. While it is important to draw greens’ attention to their neglect of the human condition, it is equally important to engage those Marxists whose literalist allegiance to Marx’s writings has them pursue the “development of the productive forces” with the same zeal and to the same neglect of nature as that of capitalism.

Technologies are no nirvana

Technologies alone are no nirvana for human prosperity, unless their fruits are widely shared. To the contrary, technologies have lent themselves to concentrating their dividends in the fewest possible hands. A case in point is the global economy of $71.8 trillion (in 2012) that allows every person on earth to have $11,000 a year, and a household of four to have $44,000 a year. If broadly distributed, mass circulation of wealth would not only banish poverty but would have created more, better and cleaner prosperity. Instead, capitalist relations of production have engendered an island of prosperity in the sea of poverty. This can be gauged from the holdings of the financial class in the global derivatives market, which has risen in “value” to a whopping $600 trillion!!!! As such, financial capitalism is worth more than 8 times the size of the global economy. Yet its distributive impact is just the opposite as is evident from the fact that less than 1% (0.7%) of the world’s population owns $98.7 trillion (i.e., 41%) of the global wealth, while about 70% of the world’s population is left with 3% of the world’s wealth to subsist on. In the United States alone, 400 richest Americans are worth more than half of all Americans combined. These are the issues that persist not because of “underdeveloped productive forces” but because of the global distributive disorder that is so markedly skewed towards the wealthiest few. While greens must consider the human condition, there is just as much need for the advocates of productive forces to reconsider their blind adherence to what is pejoratively called “productivism” as a panacea for human deliverance.  

Unplugging fossil fuel technologies

Above all, many of the capitalist technologies are hard to grade as “productive forces,” given their “counterproductive” impact. Nor will capitalist relations of production allow the development of technologies that are friendly to people and the planet. Just as feudalism served as “fetters” on the development of “productive forces,” so did capitalism on developing ecologically benign technologies. Today, the fossil fuel industry, which forms the heart and soul of modern capitalism, is hooked on ecologically destructive technologies of energy production, which are also at the root of global climate breakdown. Just in 2012 alone, the fossil fuel industry invested $674 billion in developing hydrocarbon-based energy, while its supporters in the halls of power throw a chump change on the development of green alternatives.

The world’s future seems even more fraught in light of the International Energy Agency’s prediction that the global investment in fossil fuel production will rise to $22.7 trillion in 2012-2035. This alone explains why the fossil fuel industry stands in the way of developing real “productive forces” that Marx would have espoused: zero-emission energy from farming the sun, wind and water. It is worth noting that the endless supply of energy from the sun and wind cannot be measured even in trillions of barrels of oil and quadrillions of cubic meters of natural gas. More importantly, solar and wind power has virtually no expiration date, and costs least to the environment. Despite these merits, capitalism and capitalist relations of production are fettering the development of green energy because fossil-fuel capitalists have trillions of dollars to lose if the switch to renewable alternatives becomes a reality. 

Marx for all times, or for our times?

So at this crossroads, what is the way forward? Defending the development of the productive forces in the name of ending mass privation? Waiting for capitalism’s progressive potential to exhaust before the dawn of social revolution breaks out? Accepting human waste along the road to revolution as “collateral damage”? Or scrutinizing the very nature of the “productive forces” and their impact on both people and the planet? The fact of the matter is that these putative productive forces have already become “counterproductive” in their impact. While the world still needs the development of the productive forces, the concept of “productive forces” ought to be redefined in its selective application to ecologically benign technologies such as solar power -- to the exclusion of fossil fuels. Similarly, searching for a panacea in capitalist technologies for improving the human condition is a fool’s errand as has been shown in the preceding two sections. Instead, focus ought to be on the redistributive impact of technologies and their dividends to better the human lot.

Isiah Berlin, in his acerbic (rather acidified) criticism of Marxists, wrote that they tend to eternalize Marx and his writings in their effort to validate them for all times to come. Marx was, indeed, the most prescient thinker who could foresee eons ahead. For this gift, he will continue to be relevant for the ages to come. Yet there is no gainsaying the fact that Marx lived in a specific time and space that formed the context of his writings. In the mid-nineteenth century, the mass of underdeveloped world and developing Europe needed to harness the productive forces to emancipate the laboring masses from the enslavement of brutal necessities of life. The transformative potential of capitalist technologies was thus seen as a way out of human misery, although the Dickensian world of industrial capitalism even then was making its price unbearable. In the past 150 years, however, the cost of “productive forces” to people and the planet has far outweighed their benefits, pushing the humanity ever nearer to foreclosing on its only abode – the planet earth. This impending “real estate bust” only amplifies the need for altering the production and social relations of production of future technologies to make them benign to ecology and humanity alike.

[Tarique Niazi, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Environmental Sociology at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.]

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