Economic/Ecological Crisis and Conversion

A downturn in economic activity was the original signal, for Marx and Engels, of capitalist crisis. But it has never been the only possible form the crisis could take. Any downturn encompasses a range of adverse consequences which are not reflected in charts of declining production. The earliest Marxist analysis of capitalist crisis (in the Communist Manifesto) notes that it entails “destruction of a mass of productive forces,” along with “conquest of new markets” and “more thorough exploitation of the old ones,” all of which has the effect of “paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises” and “diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.”

Imperialism and war are already foreshadowed in this scenario. The anticipation of a calamitous war would become more explicit in Engels’ later writings,1 and with its actual outbreak in 1914, the murderous inter-imperialist clash would be interpreted – by Lenin among others – as the fullest manifestation of capitalist breakdown.2 This understanding would be partially confirmed with the Bolshevik revolution, only to be later apparently disconfirmed – with capitalism’s eventual stabilization, its partial accommodation of working-class demands (within the industrialized countries), and, in the last two decades of the 20th century, its effective rollback of most socialist, quasi-socialist, or social-democratic gains.

This very period of capitalist “triumph,” however, raised a new specter from a direction previously ignored by capital: that of physical natural limits to its scope for expansion. Moreover, what for capital may appear only as an obstacle to steady growth is readily recognizable, on any broader canvas, as a reminder that species-survival is at risk. Certainly this is how the conjuncture can be seen from the standpoint of the working class, whose more vulnerable members are or will be – in this crisis as in all previous ones – the first human populations to suffer the consequences.

If the present crisis of neoliberalism can in some respects be compared with the post-1929 slump, the convergence now of economic breakdown with imminently foreseeable environmental collapse is unprecedented. It signals that the traditional indicator of economic recovery – the revival of capitalist growth – has now itself become problematic. Correspondingly, the struggle against capital has evolved from being overwhelmingly class-based to being one which from the outset links working-class demands with the fight to reassert collective control over the entire nexus between the human species and the rest of the natural world. The argument can now be advanced that the project of attaining a more rational social order has become a priority not only (or primarily) for those directly oppressed by the existing order, but rather for the whole human race – not to mention other species threatened with extinction.

The vastness of this tableau makes it at once compelling and daunting. On the one hand, there is broad scientific consensus as to the gravity of the danger,3 and there is also, even in the US (which lags in this respect behind many other countries, poor as well as rich), considerable recognition of the need to respond to it – both among politicians and in the general public. On the other hand, there is a degree of paralysis in face of the sheer enormity – however dimly perceived – of the life-changes that a proper response would require.

If there has ever been an opportunity for socialist education, it is now. Part of what makes the ecological challenge seem so alarming is the very fact that the goal of addressing it is viewed largely in isolation from the interests of any clearly identifiable sector of the population. The environment is the concern of “everybody,” but by the same token it is the concern of no one in particular. It is an issue of global scope, but yet the only way many of us can see of responding to it is by our individual actions. Beyond the individual level, there is a vague hope that appropriate measures will be taken – to which many corporations and political leaders respond by proclaiming green agendas – but there is little public awareness of the constraints surrounding such promises.

A socialist response is uniquely pertinent here in several respects. First, the underlying Marxist analysis is alert to capital’s profligate utilization of natural goods, both human and non-human, which Marx from the beginning contrasted with the traditional responsibility of each generation to transmit an undiminished resource-base to its successors.4 Related to this, there is an identifiable social class whose antagonism to capital implies commitment to alternative (non-capitalist) principles and structures of production, that is, of humanity’s interaction with the natural environment on which all productive activity depends. A further consequence is the recognition that such interaction is not circumscribed within units defined by proprietorship. The air, the waters, the forests, the wildlife, the soil, and the microbes do not recognize boundaries either of private ownership or of political jurisdiction – any more than do the toxins injected into this nexus by the production process. This means that determination of the rate and parameters of resource-utilization is inherently a society-wide responsibility, of global proportions, and not one that can be entrusted to any private or corporate agent, however “enlightened.”

The current economic crisis carries with it a new opportunity to impress this understanding on broad sectors of the population. Whereas the environmental crisis has appeared to many as being beyond our collective capacity to affect, the economic crisis can be more easily seen as the outcome of practices springing from a transparent class-interest. Much useful socialist analysis along these lines is already circulating.5 What I want to stress here is that such analysis – and the associated outreach work – should be integrally linked to consciousness-raising about the environment. While the economic critique can underline the class interests that have been at play, the ecological focus can call attention both to the universality of the issues – their implications at the most basic level for every human being – and to the urgency of society-wide planning.

The analysis and outreach will have to strike a delicate balance between short-term and long-term thinking – on the model of the classic dialectic between reform and revolution. The long-term dimension will encompass the total reorganization of society, including a dramatic change in the definition of both individual and common goals. The short-term dimension will reflect the need to immediately arrest the headlong drive to environmental collapse. It will inescapably require steps that can engage capitalist participation; the challenge will lie in not letting corporate interests define the bigger picture.6 This will entail developing a high level of mass consciousness, so that when ecological advances are attained, popular constituencies will be ready to claim the credit for them, and not allow corporate adaptations or concessions – such as renewable energy and “green jobs” – to be repackaged as a triumphant achievement of capital.

The framework for any such near-term battle is being set for us by the Obama administration, which promises a shift to renewable energy but remains committed to economic growth and to the longstanding goals of US foreign policy, thereby distancing itself from any far-reaching agenda of reorganization/re-education. As Obama himself has put it, “We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.”7 The continued primacy of the latter two goals is not questioned; nor is the human cost of diverting a significant portion of arable land to the cultivation of biomass. And yet it is within and around agencies operating under these watchwords that the most immediate large-scale changes in this country will be initiated. The resulting challenge to a serious agenda of ecological transformation is enormous. It will be necessary somehow to combine a process of socialist ecological education with a practice of informed response (including support) to official measures that could make inroads against the worst of prevailing practices.8

While the critical expertise will have to be nourished – especially in its striving for synthesis – primarily outside of state agencies, there may nonetheless be opportunities for collaboration with progressive-minded government workers at lower levels (as has occurred from time to time, for example, with safety and health inspectors). It may therefore be useful to consider the roles that could be played by each particular administrative department in an eventual comprehensive process of conversion. At present, one hears of across-the-board energy-saving measures applicable to the internal functioning of the various offices, but the challenge for us now would be to begin elaborating – in the manner of an alternative political party – a full-scale “shadow” program of policy initiatives. An illustrative sketch, progressing from the more obvious to the less obvious applications, would begin with the government’s “service” departments and would proceed to encompass those reflecting broader official priorities. The idea at every point, building on the unprecedented confluence of capitalist breakdowns (economic and ecological), would be to articulate a socialist approach in the most directly practical terms.

In relation to sectoral services (Agriculture, Transportation, Health) and also to administration of the underlying material resources (Energy, Interior), ecological – and more especially eco-socialist – critiques have been widely publicized on the Left and don’t require repetition here.9 What is needed is to have them presented systematically, in a spirit of open inquiry, and with attention to the links between short-term and long-term measures. Some of the other departments, however, offer stronger challenges to the imagination.

An appropriate policy for Education will ultimately have to break with hitherto sacrosanct assumptions about state and local autonomy. One of the ironies of US tradition is that under the guise of such seemingly democratic principles, the most undemocratic mindsets have established a foothold from which they have cast a pall far beyond the regions in which they are most deeply rooted. Overt racism long shielded itself from legal challenge behind the doctrine of “states’ rights.” Its legacy, embodied in dogmatic religiosity (creationism, etc.), has made aversion to rational thought-processes an integral – and, for certain political purposes, highly functional – strand of the national culture.10 Its environmental spinoff has been disastrous, as the consequent aggressive know-nothingism epitomized in rightwing talk-radio has made the United States paradoxically – in view of its disproportionate ecological footprint – the only major power to officially cast doubt on the science of global warming. Obama’s shift, on this issue, if it is to carry weight, will need to be reflected in a stiff campaign against obstruction at every level.

Regarding Commerce and Treasury, we would be dealing with more than just the immediate causes of financial collapse. The whole system of speculation as a basis for investment decisions needs to be called into question, as does the predominantly regressive character of the tax structure (which, significantly, is the most direct legal channel for wealth-redistribution). Vast inequalities generate disrespect for the public sphere and hence for the natural commons. Commerce, for its part, provides the institutional backup for international investment as well as trade. Trade raises issues not only of inequality (reinforcement of the global North-South divide), but also of sheer magnitude, inasmuch as regional overspecialization – in part a consequence of the inequality – brings about a far greater reliance on long-distance shipment than is ecologically acceptable, both in terms of impinging on local biodiversity and in terms of energy-costs of the movement of goods. As for investment, the ownership patterns need to be challenged partly because of the wealth-transfer from poor to rich countries, but partly also because foreign or absentee ownership is an obstacle to coherent regional and national planning.

The Department of Justice could serve an ecological agenda by becoming serious in criminalizing destruction of the environment. This would have to be understood more broadly than it has been up to now. The processes by which corporations harm the environment are many and varied, ranging from clear-cutting forests to depleting aquifers to spewing toxins into air and water. Common to all is a reckless disregard for the impact of their practices. Here also arises the question of corporate treatment of the labor force – which brings us to the Department of Labor. Health and safety issues, along with issues of job-security, the right to organize, and job-retraining for ecological conversion all come into play here. The thrust of necessary demands arises from the scale, the abilities, and the sense of common purpose required of those who, through their sustained hard work, would implement the changeover to an ecologically based system of production and consumption. An ecologically sound economy would rely less on energy and raw materials and more on labor – beginning with the work of collectively redefining and reshaping urban and rural land-use.

The State Department would have a crucial role in view of the global character of the environmental crisis. A major pretext for rejecting ecological measures has been the argument that other countries are also failing to take them. This in turn raises the issue of global inequality or, in blunter terms, the fallout of imperialism. While all of humanity has a stake in blocking environmental abuse by newly industrializing societies, the inhabitants of the latter have a legitimate complaint as to the prior and continuing profligacy of the imperialist powers. It would seem impossible to resolve this conflict without formulating an adjustment framed by the idea of reparations. This has already been broached in the notion of debt-for-nature swaps, but it would need to be applied much more sweepingly. Part of the resolution, given the increasing incidence of environmentally displaced people, might also entail negotiations over habitat. Such matters point to the importance of a far more democratic approach to international relations than has heretofore prevailed. Cuba’s model of people-to-people help could carry some wider lessons here.11

Finally, there is the Defense Department. Despite its current mission of upholding US military supremacy, it is not without components that could equip it for a more positive role. Already in its own usage, the concept of “national security” does not pertain only to military threats; a recent Pentagon report explicitly included global warming under this rubric.12 The point would be to extend such reasoning so as to rule out applying the security label to issues emanating from US geopolitical designs on other countries. The idea of obligatory national service would be unobjectionable were it not imposed in an authoritarian manner and invoked for aggressive purposes. The universal aspect of such service would provide an opportunity to educate the entire population in the basic science of the natural world and the responsibility of the human species for helping to undo its own destructive impact. With this accomplished, the military could then be reconfigured to handle the more physically demanding tasks of ecological conversion,13 beginning with the cleanup of its proving grounds and then going on to such tasks as planting trees, evacuating endangered communities, and restoring excess paved area to botanical space.

No such suggestions – for any of the departments – will begin to appear compelling until they are integrated into a comprehensive program with visible popular backing. Such support will in turn depend on a massive process of participatory political education, one of whose core presuppositions will be the awareness that the time still left for disaster-avoidance is running out (where it has not run out already). Whether this is a relatively or an absolutely new situation – or when it might turn from one into the other – can be left an open question. What is certain is that, as a species, we have reached a point at which we no longer have a choice between being radical and being realistic; the two attributes have become one and the same.


1. Introduction (1895) to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France, 1848-1850. Marx & Engels, Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970), p. 648.

2. Lenin thus concludes his book on imperialism (1916) by saying that “we must define it as capitalism in transition, or, more precisely, as moribund capitalism.” Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism (New York: International Publishers, 1939), p. 126.

3. See John W. Farley’s critique of left-wing skeptics, “The Scientific Case for Modern Anthropogenic Global Warming,” Monthly Review, July-August 2008.

4. Marx, Capital, vol. 3, ch. 46 (Penguin ed. [tr. David Fernbach], 1981, p. 911).

5. See the regular coverage in Monthly Review and postings by Rick Wolff and others at

6. A particular challenge in this connection is presented by works such as Thomas L. Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution and How It Can Renew America (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008) and David C. Korten, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009), which, although recognizing the gravity of the crisis, put forward responses which do not challenge the drive to accumulation.

7. Quoted in Liza Featherstone, “Help Wanted for Green Jobs,” The Nation, February 16, 2009, p. 24. Obama strikingly reaffirmed his acceptance of capitalist parameters for environmental policy at a March 2009 meeting of the Business Roundtable. See the text of his presentation and ensuing Q/A at

8. Support will be especially needed to address dereliction of the private sector, as we are reminded by recent layoffs in industries serving wind and solar power (“Dark Days for Green Energy,” New York Times, February 4, 2009, p. B1).

9. Some of the relevant insights are synthesized in Victor Wallis, “Socialism and Technology: A Sectoral Overview,” in Anatole Anton & Richard Schmitt, eds., Toward a New Socialism (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007).

10. See Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (New York: Pantheon Books, 2008).

11. See Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, “Cuban Doctors in Pakistan: Why Cuba Still Inspires,” Monthly Review, November 2006.

12. Peter Schwartz & Doug Randall, An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security, October 2003

13. This whole agenda could also encompass a suitably reconceptualized department of “homeland security.”

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