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Survival instead of Profit: On the Necessity of an Eco-Socialist Ethic

Capital is a powerful machine of commodification. Since the Great Transformation, since the capitalist market economy became autonomous and "separated" from society, capital has only functioned according to its own laws, the impersonal laws of profit and accumulation.
The deepest shadow that hangs over us is neither terror, environmental collapse nor global recession. It is the internalized fatalism that holds there is no possible alternative.

On the Necessity of an Eco-Socialist Ethic

By Michael Lowy

[This article published on July 1, 2017 is translated from the German on the Internet, www.sozoline.de.]

Capital is a powerful machine of commodification. Since the Great Transformation emphasized by Karl Polanyi, since the capitalist market economy became autonomous and since it "separated" or "spun off" from society, capital has only functioned according to its own laws, the impersonal laws of profit and accumulation. It assumes very simply "the transformation of the natural and human substance of society into commodities," Polanyi warned, thanks to a device, the self-regulating market that inevitably tends "to crush human relations and destroy the natural environment of people." This merciless system throws disadvantaged individuals "under the murderous wheel of progress."

Max Weber described the "commodifying" logic of capital in his great work "Economy and Society." "The de-emotionalization of the economy established on the basis of the socialization of the market follows its own functional legality absolutely... The de-emotional cosmos of capitalism leaves no room for a merciful orientation... " Weber concludes the capitalist economy is structurally incompatible with ethical criteria. "Unlike every other form of rule, the rule of capital cannot be ethically regulated owing to its `impersonal character'... Competition, the market, the labor market, the currency market and the food market are simply non-ethical and neither ethical nor anti-ethical. They control conduct and introduce impersonal authorities between affected human beings." In his neutral and non-engaged style, Weber put his finger on what is essential: capital by its nature is imminently "non-ethical."

At the root of this incompatibility, one encounters the phenomenon quantification. Capital is a powerful machine of quantification inspired by the spirit of rational calculation of which Weber speaks. Capital only knows the calculation of losses and profits, the measure of prices, costs and profits. It subjects the economy, society and human life to the rule of the exchange value of commodities and its most abstract expression money. Quantitative values do not know justice or injustice, good or evil. They dissolve and destroy qualitative values as ethical values. "Antipathy" in the old alchemist sense of the word exists between the quantitative and qualitative values: the absence of congeniality between two substances.

Today, this total or totalitarian rule of market value, quantitative value, money, has reached an unparalleled extent in the history of humanity. A lucid critic of capitalism explained the logic of the system in 1847: "A time finally came when everything people previously considered inalienable was alienated as an object of exchange, haggling, or horse-trading. This was the time when things became exchanged or acquired that earlier were never sold or purchased: virtue, love, convictions, knowledge, conscience etc. Everything became a matter of trade. This was the time of general corruption, universal corruptibility or, to use the economic expression, when every object, whether physical or moral, is brought on the market as a commercial value" (Karl Marx, The Misery of Philosophy).

Modern socialism wants to base production on the satisfaction of social needs, the "public interest" and social justice and no longer on the criteria of the market and capital - on "solvent demand," profitability, profit, and accumulation. Qualitative values are involved that cannot be reduced to a mercantile or monetary quantification. By resisting productivism, Marx insisted on the priority of the being of individuals - the full realization of their human potentials - over against having and possessing goods. For him, the first and most urgent social needs that opened the gates of the "kingdom of freedom," free time, the reduction of the workday, the development of individuals through play, learning, artistic creation, and love.

Among these social needs is one that is crucial today and that Marx did not sufficiently consider (apart from isolated passages): the need to protect the natural environment, the need for breathable air, drinkable wate3r, food free from chemical toxins and nuclear radiation. This need is increasingly identified with the command of the survival of the human species on this planet. The human ecological balance is seriously threatened by the catastrophic consequences - the greenhouse effect, destruction of the ozone layer and the nuclear danger - by the unlimited expansion of capitalist productivism.

Thus socialism and ecology share the qualitative social values that are not compatible with the market. They also share a revolt against the "Great Transformation," against the commodified autonomization of the economy in relation to society and a desire "to integrate or embed the economy in a social and natural environment again. This convergence is only possible under the condition that Marxists subject their traditional conception of "productive forces" to a critical analysis and ecologists break with the illusion of a true "market economy." This twofold operation is the work of a current of eco-socialism that manages the synthesis of these two methods.

This is a current of ecological thought and action that integrates the fundamental achievements of Marxism and liberates Marxism from its productivist slag. This movement understands that the old logic of the capitalist market and profit - like the logic of technical-bureaucratic authoritarianism of the former "people's democracies" - is incompatible with preservation of the environment. Finally, this current criticizes the ruling ideology of the market while knowing workers and their organization s represent vital powers for a radical transformation of the system. This eco-socialism developed in the course of the last twenty years - starting from the studies of several Russian pioneers from the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century (Sergey Podolinski, Vladimir Wernadski).

What would the essential elements of an eco-socialist ethic look like that radically opposes the destructive and "non-ethical" language of capitalist profitability and the total market - this system of universal corruptibility"?

Firstly, a social ethic is involved that is not an ethic of individual conduct and does not trigger guilt feelings or promote asceticism or self-restriction. Certainly, individuals should be brought up to respect and not waste the environment. However something else is also involved, the transformation of capitalist economic and social structures, establishing a new paradigm of production and distribution based on social needs - particularly the elementary need to live in a natural and not damaged environment. This change requires social actors, social movements, ecological organizations and political parties - and not merely individuals with good wills.

This social ethic is a humanist ethic. Living in harmony with nature and protecting threatened species are humane values just like the destruction of life forms that attack human life (microbes, viruses, and parasites). The Anopheles mosquito, transmitter of yellow fever, does not have the same "right to live" as the children of the third world who are threatened by this sickness. Saving the latter and rooting out the former in some regions are ethically legitimate.

The ecological crisis that threatens the natural balance of the environment endangers the health, living conditions and survival of our species and not only the animal and plant worlds. Thus waging a war against humanism or "anthropocentrism" is not necessary for defending biodiversity or threatened animal species. The struggle to save the environment is necessarily a struggle for changing civilization, a humanist imperative that involves all individuals and not only this or that social class.

This imperative affects future generations that run the risk of leaving behind a planet hostile to life through the increasingly uncontrollable damage done by pollution. But the discourse that justified ecological ethics because of this future danger is outdated today. A more urgent question faces today's generations, the individuals who live at the beginning of the 21st century already know the dramatic consequences of capitalist destruction and the poisoning of the biosphere and run the risk of experiencing real catastrophes in twenty or thirty years.

An egalitarian ethic is also involved. The present mode of production and consumption of the advanced capitalist countries is based on a logic of unlimited accumulation (of capital, profits, and goods) and on the squandering of resources. A boastful consumption and accelerated destruction of the environment cannot be extended to the whole planet without causing an even greater ecological crisis. This system is necessarily based on maintaining and intensifying the flagrant inequality between North and South. The eco-socialist project aims at a planetary redistribution of wealth and a common development of resources thanks to a new paradigm of production.

The social-ethical demand to satisfy social needs only has meaning in a spirit of social justice, equality (that doesn't mean homogenization) and solidarity. The collective appropriation of the means of production and the distribution of goods and services should correspond to the principle "each according to his needs."

A democratic ethic belongs to eco-socialism as long as economic decisions remain in the hands of an oligarchy of capitalists, bankers, and technocrats or of a bureaucracy that evades all democratic control. Otherwise, we will never escape the devilish cycle of productivism, exploitation of workers, and destruction of the environment. Economic democratization - including the socialization of productive forces - means that the big decisions about production and distribution are made by society itself after a democratic and pluralist debate in which different proposals and options collide and not by "the markets" or by a Politburo. This is the necessary condition for introducing another socio-economic logic and another relation to nature.

Finally, eco-socialism is a radical ethic in the etymological sense of the word: an ethic that goes to the root of evil. The half-hearted measures and reforms, the conferences of Rio and the emissions trade, could not bring a solution. A radical paradigm change is necessary, a new model of civilization, in short, a revolutionary change.

This revolution attacks the social relations of production - private property, the division of labor and the productive forces. The structure of the production process must be put in question - against a certain vulgar Marxism that relies on some texts of the founder.

Workers or the people must smash the production machine and replace it with another, to paraphrase Marx's famous formula about the state after the Paris Commune. They cannot simply take it over and use it for their purposes. A radical transformation of the technical structure of production and the (fossil or nuclear) energy sources is vital. The new technology, a technology that respects the environment and renewable energy - especially solar energy - are at the heart of the eco-socialist project.

The utopia of an ecological socialism, a "solar communism," does not mean we should not fight for immediate goals that give a glimpse of the future and are inspired by the same values:

- for public transportation and against the monstrous excesses of individual automobilism and road traffic,

- out of the nuclear trap and for developing renewable energy,

- for observing the Kyoto agreement on the greenhouse effect and against the emission trade,

- for a biological agriculture and against the transnational seed producers, the multinationals, and their genetically-manipulated organisms.

Michael Lowy is a French-Brazilian Marxist sociologist and philosopher. He is the emeritus research director in social sciences at the CNPS and lectures at the Ecole. He was born in 1938 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.


An Ecosocialist Manifesto
By Joel Kovel and Michael Lowy
Sept 2001



The idea for this ecosocialist manifesto was jointly launched by Joel Kovel and Michael Lowy, at a September, 2001, workshop on ecology and socialism held at Vincennes, near Paris.

We all suffer from a chronic case of Gramsci's paradox, of living in a time whose old order is dying (and taking civilization with it) while the new one does not seem able to be born. But at least it can be announced.

The deepest shadow that hangs over us is neither terror, environmental collapse, nor global recession. It is the internalized fatalism that holds there is no possible alternative to capital's world order. And so we wished to set an example of a kind of speech that deliberately negates the current mood of anxious compromise and passive acquiescence.

This manifesto nevertheless lacks the audacity of that of 1848, for ecosocialism is not yet a specter, nor is it grounded in any concrete party or movement. It is only a line of reasoning, based on a reading of the present crisis and the necessary conditions for overcoming it.

We make no claims of omniscience. Far from it, our goal is to invite dialogue, debate, emendation, above all, a sense of how this notion can be further realized. Innumerable points of resistance arise spontaneously across the chaotic ecumene of global capital. Many are immanently ecosocialist in content. How can these be gathered? Can we envision an "ecosocialist international?" Can the specter be brought into being?


The twenty-first century opens on a catastrophic note, with an unprecedented degree of ecological breakdown and a chaotic world order beset with terror and clusters of low-grade, disintegrative warfare that spread like gangrene across great swathes of the planet—viz., central Africa, the Middle East, Northwestern South America—and reverberate throughout the nations. In our view, the crises of ecology and those of societal breakdown are profoundly interrelated and should be seen as different manifestations of the same structural forces.

The former broadly stems from rampant industrialization that overwhelms the earth's capacity to buffer and contain ecological destabilization. The latter stems from the form of imperialism known as globalization, with its disintegrative effects on societies that stand in its path. Moreover, these underlying forces are essentially different aspects of the same drive, which must be identified as the central dynamic that moves the whole: the expansion of the world capitalist system.
We reject all euphemisms or propagandistic softening of the brutality of this regime: all green-washing of its ecological costs, all mystification of the human costs under the names of democracy and human rights.

We insist instead upon looking at capital from the standpoint of what it has really done.

Acting on nature and its ecological balance, the regime, with its imperative to constantly expand profitability, exposes ecosystems to destabilizing pollutants, fragments habitats that have evolved over eons to allow the flourishing of organisms, squanders resources, and reduces the sensuous vitality of nature to the cold exchangeability required for the accumulation of capital.

From the side of humanity, with its requirements for self-determination, community, and a meaningful existence, capital reduces the majority of the world's people to a mere reservoir of labor power while discarding much of the remainder as useless nuisances.

It has invaded and undermined the integrity of communities through its global mass culture of consumerism and de-politicization.
It has expanded disparities in wealth and power to levels unprecedented in human history.
It has worked hand in glove with a network of corrupt and subservient client states whose local elites carry out the work of repression while sparing the center of its opprobrium.
And it has set going a network of transnational organizations under the overall supervision of the Western powers and the superpower United States, to undermine the autonomy of the periphery and bind it into indebtedness while maintaining a huge military apparatus to enforce compliance to the capitalist center.

We believe that the present capitalist system cannot regulate, much less overcome, the crises it has set going. It cannot solve the ecological crisis because to do so requires setting limits upon accumulation—an unacceptable option for a system predicated upon the rule: Grow or Die!

And it cannot solve the crisis posed by terror and other forms of violent rebellion because to do so would mean abandoning the logic of empire, which would impose unacceptable limits on growth and the whole "way of life" sustained by empire. Its only remaining option is to resort to brutal force, thereby increasing alienation and sowing the seed of further terrorism ... and further counter-terrorism, evolving into a new and malignant variation of fascism.
In sum, the capitalist world system is historically bankrupt. It has become an empire unable to adapt, whose very gigantism exposes its underlying weakness. It is, in the language of ecology, profoundly unsustainable, and must be changed fundamentally, nay, replaced, if there is to be a future worth living.

Thus the stark choice once posed by Rosa Luxemburg returns: Socialism or Barbarism!, where the face of the latter now reflects the imprint of the intervening century and assumes the countenance of ecocatastrophe, terror counter-terror, and their fascist degeneration.

But why socialism, why revive this word seemingly consigned to the rubbish-heap of history by the failings of its twentieth century interpretations?

For this reason only: that however beaten down and unrealized, the notion of socialism still stands for the supersession of capital. If capital is to be overcome, a task now given the urgency of the survival of civilization itself, the outcome will perforce be "socialist, for that is the term which signifies the breakthrough into a post-capitalist society.
If we say that capital is radically unsustainable and breaks down into the barbarism outlined above, then we are also saying that we need to build a "socialism" capable of overcoming the crises capital has set going. And if socialisms past have failed to do so, then it is our obligation, if we choose against submitting to a barbarous end, to struggle for one that succeeds.
And just as barbarism has changed in a manner reflective of the century since Luxemburg enunciated her fateful alternative, so too, must the name, and the reality, of a socialism become adequate for this time.
It is for these reasons that we choose to name our interpretation of socialism as an ecosocialism, and dedicate ourselves to its realization.

Why Ecosocialism?

We see ecosocialism not as the denial but as the realization of the "first-epoch" socialisms of the twentieth century, in the context of the ecological crisis. Like them, it builds on the insight that capital is objectified past labor, and grounds itself in the free development of all producers, or to use another way of saying this, an undoing of the separation of the producers from the means of production.

We understand that this goal was not able to be implemented by first-epoch socialism, for reasons too complex to take up here, except to summarize as various effects of underdevelopment in the context of hostility by existing capitalist powers. This conjuncture had numerous deleterious effects on existing socialisms, chiefly, the denial of internal democracy along with an emulation of capitalist productivism, and led eventually to the collapse of these societies and the ruin of their natural environments.

Ecosocialism retains the emancipatory goals of first-epoch socialism, and rejects both the attenuated, reformist aims of social democracy and the the productivist structures of the bureaucratic variations of socialism. It insists, rather, upon redefining both the path and the goal of socialist production in an ecological framework.
It does so specifically in respect to the "limits on growth" essential for the sustainability of society. These are embraced, not however, in the sense of imposing scarcity, hardship and repression. The goal, rather, is a transformation of needs, and a profound shift toward the qualitative dimension and away from the quantitative. From the standpoint of commodity production, this translates into a valorization of use-values over exchange-values—a project of far-reaching significance grounded in immediate economic activity.

The generalization of ecological production under socialist conditions can provide the ground for the overcoming of the present crises. A society of freely associated producers does not stop at its own democratization. It must, rather, insist on the freeing of all beings as its ground and goal. It overcomes thereby the imperialist impulse both subjectively and objectively.
In realizing such a goal, it struggles to overcome all forms of domination, including, especially, those of gender and race. And it surpasses the conditions leading to fundamentalist distortions and their terrorist manifestations. In sum, a world society is posited in a degree of ecological harmony with nature unthinkable under present conditions.

A practical outcome of these tendencies would be expressed, for example, in a withering away of the dependency upon fossil fuels integral to industrial capitalism. And this in turn can provide the material point of release of the lands subjugated by oil imperialism, while enabling the containment of global warming, along with other afflictions of the ecological crisis.
No one can read these prescriptions without thinking, first, of how many practical and theoretical questions they raise, and second and more dishearteningly, of how remote they are from the present configuration of the world, both as this is anchored in institutions and as it is registered in consciousness.

We need not elaborate these points, which should be instantly recognizable to all. But we would insist that they be taken in their proper perspective.

Our project is neither to lay out every step of this way nor to yield to the adversary because of the preponderance of power he holds. It is, rather, to develop the logic of a sufficient and necessary transformation of the current order, and to begin developing the intermediate steps towards this goal.

We do so in order to think more deeply into these possibilities, and at the same moment, begin the work of drawing together with all those of like mind. If there is any merit in these arguments, then it must be the case that similar thoughts, and practices to realize these thoughts, will be coordinatively germinating at innumerable points around the world.
Ecosocialism will be international, and universal, or it will be nothing. The crises of our time can and must be seen as revolutionary opportunities, which it is our obligation to affirm and bring into existence.

This entry was posted in Documents, Ecology & Ecosocialism on January 2, 2007.

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