Coming to Terms with Nature (Socialist Register 2007)

23 06 2007

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Review of Socialist Register 2007, titled Coming to Terms with Nature; edited by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, The Merlin Press, London, 2006; published in India by Leftword Books, New Delhi, 2007, pp. xv+363, Rs. 250. This review was published in Down To Earth, 15 June 2007.

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The Socialist Register has come to acquire a special place, globally, as an annual document bringing together state-of-the-art thinking within the left. Therefore it is both a welcome step, and one somewhat surprising, that finally in its 43rd edition the Social Register focuses exclusively on issues relating to the environment and the human – nature relation.

As expected from Socialist Register, it is a thought provoking collection of articles written from a wide range of political and ideological positions within the left. The range of topics covered is also fairly extensive with climate change, fossil fuels, renewable energy, agriculture, water, carbon credits, natural disasters, garbage, consumerism, environmental politics and sustainability all being covered in the 17 essays which make up this volume.

While there already exist articles and books equal to hundreds of thousands of acres worth of forest-cover on these topics, what these essays do is to introduce a new insight into the environmental debate by understanding these issues through the prism of class analysis and by highlighting the relation of environmental damage and capitalism.

It is difficult to discuss each of the essays in this space, but five stand out for their relevance to our specific concerns in India today.

Neil Smith looks at the manner in which ‘freely available’ natural goods are commodified and argues that “Capital is no longer content simply to plunder nature” but rather is moving towards replicating and producing nature and natural goods in laboratories and factories, a process he calls “the real subsumption of nature”. He explains, “This involves not just the production of nature ‘all the way down’, but its simultaneous financialisation ‘all the way up’, which he terms the “vertical integration of nature with capital”.

Elmar Altvater analyses the dependence of capitalism on fossil fuels and argues that there is no available escape from this addiction. His is perhaps among the few leftwing positions which accepts the reality of “Peak Oil” and argues that the transition to renewable energy is not possible under capitalism, specially in its present form of late imperialism.

Henry Bernstein and Philip Woodhouse present an important study on Africa where they argue that under the pressures of capitalist competition, petty commodity production can end up as damaging of the environment as large scale production. This essay has important lessons for environmental politics in India where a populist eco-localism based on the remnants of pre-capitalist commodity production is often seen as an alternative to the resource intensive commodity production of industrial capitalism.

Heather Rogers looks at the life after death of all the millions of commodities which make our beautiful life. Her essay on garbage is a useful history of how waste (and pollution) caused by proliferating commodities in the USA was dealt with in a way which would not obstruct the expansion of consumerism. She is able to effectively show the limits of using consumption as a method of green politics. Costas Panayotakis’ essay, which discusses an extension in the classical Marxist conception of contradiction within capitalism, argues that consumerism is a symptom of an irresolvable contradiction within the heart of capitalism, based as it is on an assumption that economic growth is eternal.

It is significant that this collection of essays, which purports to be a representative voice of Marxist and other socialist thinking on environment and nature, should be entirely populated by aceademics from the North. This reviewer would be the last person to argue for a “third-worldist” or indigenist politics, but the fact that there are no contributions from actual “practitioners” of leftwing politics, whether from the first world or the third, is worrying. Traditionally, the leading theoreticians of left politics have been its leading practitioners, whether it be Marx and Engels themselves, or Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Mao, Che, etc. Therefore, it’s a bit disconcerting to discover the total absence of any leftwing activist or politician in this collection.

This appears to be more a symptom of the lack of theorising by left movements and their activists, rather than merely an omission of the editors. Environmental issues, whether it be the access and control over natural resources, pollution, agriculture, water, climate change or energy, are directly related to the life and death struggles of the poor and working classes all over the world. It is therefore a symptom of the larger disjoint with reality and the intellectual impoverishment of the left that its mass movements no longer throw up theoreticians and organic intellectuals. This disjoint between the producers of Marxist theory and activists of left movements clearly shows that both are remiss. A correct theory will tend to “seize the masses” while a correct political praxis cannot but throw up its own theoreticians. That both are working in their own separate chambers, strangers to each other, merely indicates the distance the left has to cover before it becomes relevant again.

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