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On Marx, The Critique of Capitalism, and our Environmental Crisis

For decades now, some scholars have been arguing that Marxism is not necessarily hostile to environmentalism, but instead that Marx’s “critique of the destructive side of capitalist production...can be applied to contemporary ecological issues such as global warming.” This quote comes from Japan’s Kohei Saito in his book Capital in the Anthropocene (2020; English translation, 2023), which sold over a half million copies in Japan.

There have been many debates about the economic ideas perused by Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) and his New Deal policies. Were they capitalistic or socialistic? Was he trying to destroy capitalism or save it? This article, however, sidesteps that question and focuses instead on the types of capitalism targeted by Marx and four other critics of capitalism.

Let’s start with Marx, whose death in 1883 preceded the eras of Progressivism and the New Deal, both of which eliminated, or at least lessened, some of the worst capitalistic abuses. Saito’s book mentioned above summarizes nicely the case for thinking that Marx’s ideas underwent a transformation that led him in later life to adopt a position compatible with advocating a “non-consumerist way of life in a post-scarcity economy which realizes a safe and just society in the face of global ecological crisis.”

Marxian compatibility was aided by thinkers such as Hungarian Marxist István Mészáros (1930-2017), whom Saito claims from the 1970s “differentiated himself from the orthodox Marxism of his time, which was characterized by a naïve endorsement of the development of productive forces under capitalism as a progressive drive in human history. He warned that the wasteful and destructive system of production for the sake of endless capital accumulation would not bring about human emancipation but inevitably undermine the material conditions for the prosperity of society in the long run.”

We need not, however, get bogged down here in any detailed analysis of to what extent Marx’s ideas themselves are “the central pillar of his ecosocialist critique of capitalism” (as Saito maintains) or whether later Marxists (but certainly not Lenin and Stalin) deserve greater credit. Instead we will move on to four later ecological critics of capitalism, beginning with the English (but German born) economist and environmentalist E. F. Schumacher (1911-1977) and ending with Sen. Bernie Sanders, both of whom have considered themselves democratic socialists. And in between those two, we’ll also consider two non-socialist critics, both still living, Wendell Berry and Naomi Klein.

Although some similarities between the ideas of the four later critics and Marx may be mentioned, we will not overly concern ourselves as to whether their criticisms are in the Marxian spirit or not. But to begin with we should note a few of Marx’s beliefs: 

  • that any society’s productive forces (e.g., technology, material resources, and labor) are the starting point for determining what types of society, government, and culture exist. 
  • In modern society, as contrasted to antiquity, “production appears as the aim of mankind and wealth as the aim of production” (quote from Marx as cited by Saito).

E. F. Schumacher knew Marx’s main ideas well. But in the last few decades of his life, he was critical of them because of their exclusively materialistic approach, atheism, and emphasis on class hatred and violence. His democratic socialism was more of a Christian socialism, perhaps best described by his daughter: “A socialism that did away with the concentrations of economic power, a socialism which gave people work that allowed them to be fully human...Small-scale technology, small-scale enterprise, workshops and small factories serving a community and served by a community; that was real socialism in action.”

Read entire article at L.A. Progressive