Mauritius: Marxism, ecology and the contribution of John Bellamy Foster
By Lalit de Klas
June 2011 – Lalit [the revolutionary socialist party in Mauritius] sees the natural universe, whether it be the air above us, the sea around us or the Earth we walk upon, and all that lives upon it, and even outer space, as being our collective heritage as human beings. We are part of it, and also the guardians of it. This natural universe, our Mother Earth, is now endangered.
Our planet is already suffering irreversible damage, damage so serious as to threaten the very existence of the totality of human civilisation in all its varied forms. We humans have the minds to know this.
The threat is posed by our own human-made forms of agricultural and industrial “development”. This is serious because it is our way of survival that has become this destructiveness.
The main damage has been done in the past 250 years. Increasingly serious damage is being done. And yet most of us are oblivious to it, and once we know, we are “helpless”. We sit and watch a potential meltdown of a nuclear plant in Japan, as the capitalists who run it admit their own helplessness.
The private ownership and control by a tiny minority of unaccountable bosses over all our natural resources and over nature itself has permitted them to do as they please in their quest for private gain. This is the philosophy by which they have lived.
The rest of us human beings, creatures of nature, have been cut off from control over our own labour power and what it produces. This fracture, combined with the fracture between the city and the country, has led to the reckless ransacking of the Earth. In particular, our forms of energy production, industrial agriculture and transport are now a threat to our continued social existence on the Earth. Climate change provoked by the greenhouse emissions from fossil fuels is now proven. Yet, even timid attempts by nation states to limit the damage being done, like the Kyoto agreement, are systematically sabotaged by powerful multinational corporations that control nation states and governments.
So this brings us to the crying need for collective and internationalist strategies. It is the working people, as a class, the youth taken as a whole, women who have always had to care for the environment, who will, together with the best elements of the environmental movement, be in the forefront of the struggle to regain control of what we do on this Earth. We need this control so that we can assure the care and nurture of our planet. This means wresting control over production for private greed from the minority who do as they please. This means challenging the state that provides this minority with the wherewithal to maintain its banditry. This means a socialist revolution.
It is, of course, totally useless to rely on the private company bosses to stop ransacking and polluting the Earth. They will at best just pretend. It is also totally useless to rely on heavily financed “do gooders” and other NGOs that the capitalists often control and who turn the environment into a single-issue campaign, fractured from the social forces that must be mobilised in order to be able to bring about the kind of change necessary to save the planet.
John Bellamy Foster
Since Lalit’s Program on Ecology and the Environment of October 2003 (available in Kreol language version), there has been the huge contribution made by John Bellamy Foster in his works, [including] Marx’s Ecology. He has “given us back” a materialist and more political approach to the question of ecology. So, Lalit has, since 2009, been doing the long-term work of re-integrating this “new” way of looking at the relationship between nature and human society into our overall analysis. We use the contradictory expressions “giving back” and “new” because the ideas that were so very much part of the basic philosophy of Marxism before the distortions of the rise of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, disappeared from the political front for some 70 years, leaving the surviving Marxist ecologists all alone in the field of science. The activists were not “green” and the “Greens” were often anti-Marxist, interpreting “Marxism” as the Stalinists did, in the sense of seeing humankind as “mastering” nature. Anyone who questioned industrialisation was seen as obstructing the Soviet Union’s catching up with US capitalism’s industrialisation.
John Bellamy Foster has gone back to the materialist roots of Marxist philosophy, and to the way in which ecology is central to all Marx’s thinking.
In Lalit, we are often critical of many of the currents in ecology, sometimes because they miss key elements to the problems, and other times because they fall gaily into all the traps set by capitalists.
In Mauritius, we have criticised those who take sides blindly in intra-capitalist fights, while thinking they are protecting the environment. There were ecologists who were openly and proudly financed by sugar estates and hotel bosses in order to oppose the Gamma-Coventa project for burning rubbish and generating energy, which impinged on their tourism project for Integrated Resorts Schemes. An advisor to the government’s Maurice Ile Durable (Sustainable Mauritius Program), M. Jean Pierre Hardy, replied to the question, “Who finances these environmentalists?” by “And, so what!” (L’Express, June 2, 2009). This lack of integrity brings discredit to environmentalists, and the discrediting weakens any point they may have made. They are, in the same vein, against some coal-burning plants, and fail even to see others!
And look at the trouble that the “single issue" environmentalists got themselves into over the Marine Protected Area in Chagos. They have all fallen right into the British state’s colonial trap, and made fools of themselves relative to the polluting nuclear military base there. See our letter to Greenpeace, who fell into the trap.
We are also critical of those who pretend that environmental catastrophe, and even climate change, can [be addressed by relying] only on “micro-actions”, that is to say each of us travelling less, becoming vegetarians, composting. Clearly all these are very fine things to do, but they will not suffice to get us out of the fix that the capitalist system has got us into.
We are also critical of the sections of the ecology movement that are happy to rely on “values” without any analysis of the social forces that underpin reality. Some people are benefitting from the ransacking, and they are the minority who take decisions. In Lalit, by contrast, we are mobilising to build up power in the hands of the dispossessed masses of working people, so that, together, on the basis of a shared program, we can challenge the havoc that the capitalist class and the imperialists are wreaking. And it is urgent. Today global warming is threatening climate change, which could, in turn, cause social collapse. Fossil fuels are the main cause. So it is urgent to find clean, renewable energy for industry, for households, for agriculture and for transportation. Today, the dangers of nuclear energy have been exposed by the difficulty of controlling the Fukushima plant in Japan after the tsunami of 2011.
Nature and humanity
Given that humans do not only live in nature but are, ourselves, natural creatures, and that it is nature that allows us to survive on the planet, it is quite normal that we want human society to once again establish a long-term harmony with the rest of the natural world. It is normal for us to demand that the sea, the land, the air and outer space all once again become our common property, democratically controlled.
What John Bellamy Foster has brought back into politics are the two fractures that Marx saw having happened between nature and humans.
First, humans have, over the past 250 years, become [divorced] from part of our own nature. For most of our 100,000 years of existence on the planet, we have lived with elementary tools and in harmony with the natural world and the rest of life that has existed for 4 billion years or so. Until some 5000 years ago when in many places on the Earth, we broke up into social classes, with the development of agriculture, whether animal-rearing or planting, this harmony existed. Still, we affected nature little more than, say, otters. However, in the last 250 years, increasingly a huge proportion of human beings have seen ourselves estranged from our own labour power. It is no longer ours. So, part of us (our work, our hands, our minds) has become a commodity for sale, and someone else decides what to do with it. And given that our labour power is part of our being, what has happened is that one third of our lives have been fractured from us. We sell them to another class of person, the employers, owners of capital, who decide [what to do with them].
This happened at the same time as the development of huge machines, thousands of them, that we work on, that pollute the world, and that we do not control. We listen to orders. Our labour power is alienated from us. Our nature is thus fractured. A tiny group of capitalists can then use this alienated labour for the pillage of the planet, the removal of the stock of carbon from under the ground and under the sea, and burning it into the atmosphere. The fracture in our natures has led to a dictatorship of a tiny class of people out to “maximise private profit”. That is their only aim. They say it. Pollution is not a care in their world. Even when the whole system depends so thoroughly on fossil fuels that we head blindly to our doom, as a society, their aim remains unchanged: make profit for themselves.
So, that is the first fracture: between human beings and their own labour power. This needs to be repaired, and the way to do it is to do away with class society.
The second fracture is between humans beings and what we metabolise and how. Marx called it the “metabolic rift”. Throughout most of our 100,000 years of history, humans metabolised things nearby. We ate and drank what was nearby and returned our stools and urine nearby. We lived in relatively small groups, in villages or smaller units. Where agriculture developed, peasants farmed on the spot, and everything was composted back into the earth. The cycle of nature was maintained. Domestic animals were in the same cycle. But two huge changes took place 250 years ago on a worldwide scale. First, cities and countryside got separated. Cities ate up things from the countryside, and caused “rubbish” and “sewerage” in the cities, while depleting the earth in the countryside.
This is a long-term threat to the planet. It has to be addressed collectively. And second, production is so huge-scale now under capitalism that the pillage is too vast to be sustained without harming the very Mother Earth we live off. In particular, the mining of fossil fuels under the ground and under the seabed and burning them is a threat to the planet. This is also a metabolic rift, in that humans – through our huge machines – are transforming natural substances irreparably, including, for the past 50 years, by nuclear fission. Causing pollution and contamination.Causing global warming, too. Top soil, water, biological diversity all essential to our survival. Our climate needs to be nurtured. However, the metabolic rift threatens them.
All this means that the government’s Maurice Ile Durable is too little too late. It is like all the NGOs that have no social motor. Maurice Ile Durable is a program that implies submission before the capitalist class, that class that has caused the fracture in nature, that does the polluting.
Lalit’s program, in contrast, has a natural motor: the working class, which is the largest class, the productive class and the class with the interest and capacity to overturn this capitalist rule that has brought the destruction in the first place. Then the fractures will have been repaired: both the alienation of our natural labour power and the metabolic rift that does not return to the Earth’s own system its natural balance.