Book Review - Capitalism in the Anthropocene: Ecological Ruin or Ecological Revolution
Capitalism in the Anthropocene: Ecological Ruin or Ecological Revolution by John Bellamy Foster. New York: Monthly Review Press 2022. 576 pp., £72.04 hardcover 978-1-58367-9753, £23.49 paperback 978-1-58367-9746, $16 e-book 978-1-58367-977-7
John Bellamy Foster has made his name for excavating “Marx the Ecologist.” His timely treatise, Capitalism in the Anthropocene, is a grand summation of Marx’s ecological thought. Foster has been mining Marx’s oeuvre for his ecological insights for the past four decades. This sustained engagement extends beyond Marx to key thinkers of his era, including but not limited to Charles Darwin, German Chemist Justus Von Leibig, Roland Daniels (Marx’s close friend and comrade), and British scientist James F. W. Johnston. Beside these, Foster seeks out philosophers, theologians and even literary classics that informed Marx’s ecological thinking.
Foster points to Marx’s fascination with the philosophy of Epicurus who loomed in Marx’s doctoral dissertation, and drove his ecological critique. The book deploys such vignettes to debunk unfounded assumptions about Marx’s putative “productivism”. A case in point is Marx’s reference to Prometheus, a metaphor that even lifelong Marxist scholars cite to mean productivism. They use this reference to infer Marx’s predilection for industrial revolution that, to environmentalists, has accelerated ecological upending. Foster rejects this reading of Marx by wringing the tragic character of Prometheus for its true meaning: “bringer of light.” He acknowledges Marx to be a devotee of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, a play of which he was a frequent reader. In his dissertation, Marx compared Prometheus with Epicurus.
Why did Prometheus become a stand-in for industrialism? In Greek mythology, Prometheus, defied Zeus, by giving fire to humanity to defend itself against Zeus’s plan to annihilate and replace it. Fire was the weapon (technology) with which humanity was to combat Zeus’s destructive designs. Hence, Marx’s ecologically minded critics beheld in this usage “Marx the Productivist!” But, Foster argues, fire has twin properties: light, and energy. The Roman poet Lucretius, who too was part of Marx’s scholarship, treated Epicurus as the bearer of light and knowledge. Similarly, Voltaire took Prometheus to mean Enlightenment. “It was in this same sense,” Foster avers, “that Marx himself praised Epicurus as Prometheus, the giver of light, celebrating him as the Enlightenment figure of antiquity” (p. 342). He calls for Marx’s scholarship on Epicurus and Lucretius to be read “as linked to the secular knowledge of the Enlightenment,” instead of “a blind advocacy for progress” (p. 342). Foster argues that there will be hardly “anyone on the left simplistic enough to see Marx as a Promethean thinker… promoting industrialization over all else” (p.340), thus turning trite misattributions to Marx on their head.
Critics tend to sideline the early Marx’s writings as peripheral to his core projects: material progress, technology, the development of the productive forces, and the general disregard of anthropogenic alteration of the environment. Foster argues that these views are not anchored in an engaged reading of Marx, and especially his writings of ecological bent. He highlights Marx’s theory of the “metabolic rift” for its singular importance in its applicability to “nearly all of our current ecological problems” (p. 340).
In evidence, Foster points out that ecological Marxism echoes all across the globe -- from Europe, Latin America, China, and South Africa to the Middle East. Its global embrace, thus, deflates the criticism that ecological analysis is peripheral to Marx’s thought. Yet, Foster cautions, in science “it is often the most ‘marginal’ insights of a thinker that prove most revolutionary and cutting edge” (p.340). Foster brilliantly argues the unity of Marx’s ecological and political-economic critique, and demonstrates that neither makes sense without the other. For Foster: “Marx’s critique of exchange value under capitalism has no significance outside his critique of use value that is related to natural and material conditions. The material conception of history has no meaning unless it is seen in relation to the material conception of nature. The alienation of labor cannot be seen apart from the alienation of nature. The exploitation of nature is based on capital’s expropriation of the ‘free gifts of nature’” (p.341). Foster furthers this argument by noting: “Marx’s very definition of human beings as the self-mediating beings of nature … is based on a concept of the labor process as the metabolism of human beings and nature” (p. 341). What could have been Marx’s ecological anthem is his denial of private property. “No one owns the earth” (p. 357), Marx professed - not even all humanity put together.
Foster dives deep into Marx’s vocabulary to shine a spotlight on Marx the ecologist. He presents Marx’s early usage of the German phrase Stoffwechsel which he translates as metabolism, to show his material conception of history, but more importantly the material conception of nature. Resurrecting the classical-historical-materialist ecological critique, Foster refers to the contemporary ecological crisis as “planetary emergency” forced by capital. For Foster, ecosocialism builds “on the classical historical materialist tradition,” and extends “its critique of capitalism’s destructive socioecological metabolism to the present epoch” (p. 26), or the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene has been spun into a plethora of variations, including Capitalocene. Foster’s own term is “Capitalinian Age” that he shows to be driven by the processes of capital accumulation. He argues that capitalism (a system of capital accumulation) underlies the planetary emergency that is bound up with the Anthropocene. To Foster, “capitalism has disrupted the larger Earth System of which it is a part” by pursuing its zeal for accumulation that “now threatens the very nature of existence on earth” (p.26).
Foster observes that Marx’s theory of the metabolic rift, which centers on capital’s alienated social metabolism (i.e., society’s ecological relations with nature), nurtures the critical understanding of ecological problems. Marx employed the notion of metabolism in his general analysis, and introduced a conception of production (or the labor process) as constituting the social metabolism of humanity and nature. Foster demonstrates that Marx further developed the concept of metabolism in his crowning work, Capital, while analyzing the ecological crisis. Marx regarded the social metabolism as part of the “universal metabolism of nature,” i.e., wider nature and its biogeochemical processes. He observed a contradiction between the alienated social metabolism of capitalist production (e.g., pollution) and the “universal metabolism of nature” (e.g., ecological depletion), a contradiction that was generative of a rift which birthed the ecological crisis under capitalism.
The empirical roots of Marx’s theory of the metabolic rift lay in the British soil crisis in the 1850s, which stemmed from industrial agriculture. Marx, building on German chemist Liebig’s insights, found that soil nutrients, especially NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium) embedded in food and fiber, get transported thousands of miles to the urban industrial centers. Displaced to far-off places, these nutrients (the soil’s vitality) ended up as pollutants rather than being returned to farmland as its nourishment. Long after, British anthropologist Mary Douglas aptly captured this phenomenon in her succinct but stunning definition of pollution as “matter out of place.” Pollutants that Marx observed choking the Thames and shutting down the British parliament in the mid-nineteenth century were fugitive soil nutrients, floating out of place. All this was happening in the name of capitalist progress that left Marx exasperated, who famously remarked: “All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil…” (p. 48).
Foster, however, points us to a hopeful future that he calls the Communian Age “of substantive equality and ecological sustainability.” The usher of this promising epoch is what Foster calls the environmental proletariat who will execute the revolutionary reconstitution of society into an ecological civilization. Capitalism in the Anthropocene, a compendium of Marx’s ecological thought, is intended to blaze the trail to this impending civilization. For this monumental task, Marx could not have hoped for someone better suited than John Bellamy Foster.
Tarique Niazi, Ph.D. is a Professor of Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, Wisconsin.