NANCY FRASER IN NLR ON ECOSOCIALISM PART III

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28 february 2021


Climates of Capital
For a Trans-Environmental Eco-Socialism
Part III

Nancy Fraser, New Left Review, 127

There is also a further irony. Fossil-fuelled production in the capitalist core expanded throughout the liberal-colonial era. But as the guano gambit showed, the appearance of liberation from land and animal muscle was an illusion. Exosomatic industrialization in Europe, North America and Japan rested on a hidden abode of somatic-based extractivism in the periphery. What made Manchester’s factories hum was the massive import of ‘cheap natures’footnote17 wrested from colonized lands by masses of unfree and dependent labour: cheap cotton to feed the mills; cheap sugar, tobacco, coffee and tea to stimulate the ‘hands’; cheap bird shit to feed the soil that fed the workers. Thus, the apparent savings of labour and land was actually a form of ‘environmental load displacement’—a shift in the demands placed on biomass from core to periphery.footnote18 Colonial powers ramped up the process by calculated efforts to wipe out manufacturing in their colonies. Deliberately destroying textile production in Egypt and India, Britain reduced those lands to suppliers of cotton for its mills and captive markets for its products.footnote19

Theorists and historians of eco-imperialism are only now reckoning the full extent of this cost shifting,footnote20 while also revealing the close connection of anti-colonialism with proto-environmentalism. Rural struggles against liberal-colonial predation were also ‘environmentalisms of the poor’, struggles for environmental justice avant la lettre.footnote21 They were struggles, too, over the meaning and worth of nature, as European imperialists raised on distanced scientific conceptions sought to subjugate communities that did not distinguish sharply between nature and culture.

In the capitalist core, where people did make that distinction, (proto-)environmentalism looked rather different. The most celebrated version conjured a ‘Nature’ viewed, like the one fantasized by capital, as Humanity’s Other, but figured as sublime and beyond price—hence as demanding reverence and protection. The flip side of Nature II, this Nature was equally ideological. But far from licensing extractivism, it fed Romantic-conservative critiques of industrial society. Originally pastoralist and backward-looking, the natural sublime infused stand-alone ‘environmentalisms of the rich’,footnote22 which focused on wilderness preservation. Often thought to exhaust the whole of (proto-)environmentalism in this era, it coexisted in reality with another perspective, which linked capital’s assault on nature with class injustice. Key proponents of that perspective were William Morris, whose eco-socialism included a powerful aesthetic dimension, and Friedrich Engels, whose social environmentalism focused initially on industrialism’s deleterious impact on urban working-class health and later on ‘the dialectics of nature’—or what we would now call co-evolutionism and biological emergentism. Both thinkers seeded rich traditions of socialist ecology, subsequently obscured by narrow single-issue understandings of environmentalism, but now being recovered and extended.footnote23
Age of the car

Liberal-colonial capitalism’s chief legacy was not environmentalism, however, but the fateful world-changing shift to exosomatic energy, which ‘liberated’ fossilized stores of carbon that had been safely sequestered beneath the Earth’s crust for many millennia. That legacy, which brought us global warming, was embraced and extended in the following era of state-managed capitalism, as a new global hegemon orchestrated a vast expansion in greenhouse gas emissions. The United States, having supplanted Britain, built a novel exosomatic-industrial complex around the internal-combustion engine and refined oil. The result was the age of the automobile: icon of consumerist freedom, catalyst of highway construction, enabler of suburbanization, spewer of carbon dioxide and reshaper of geopolitics. Thus, coal-fired ‘carbon democracy’ gave way to an oil-fuelled variant, courtesy of the United States.footnote24

Refined oil also powered social democracy. Profits from auto and related manufactures supplied a sizeable chunk of the tax revenues that financed postwar social provision in wealthy countries. The irony went largely unnoticed: what underwrote increased public spending on social welfare in the Global North was intensified private plunder of nature in the Global South. Apparently, capital would foot the bill for some social-reproduction costs here only if permitted to dodge a much larger bill for natural-reproduction costs there.footnote25 The linchpin of the arrangement was oil, without which the whole operation would have ground to a halt. To guarantee supplies and control, the us sponsored a raft of coups d’état in the Persian Gulf and Latin America, securing the profits and position of Big Oil and Big Fruit. The latter, like Big Food more generally, capitalized on the evolving technology of oil-guzzling, ozone-depleting refrigerated transport to regionalize an unsustainable industrialized food system, while further contaminating the atmosphere.footnote26 All told, oil-fuelled social democracy at home rested on militarily imposed oligarchy abroad.footnote27

At the same time, the us also begat a powerful environmental movement. One current, descended from the nature-romanticism of the previous regime and originating in the nineteenth century, centred on wilderness protection through the creation of reserves and national parks, often by means of indigenous displacement.footnote28 ‘Progressive’, as opposed to backward-looking, this environmentalism of the rich was compensatory: it aimed at enabling (some) Americans to escape industrial civilization temporarily; it neither confronted the latter nor sought to transform it. As state-managed capitalism developed, however, it hatched another environmentalism, which targeted the industrial nucleus of the regime. Galvanized by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, this current pushed for state action to curtail corporate pollution. The result was the Environmental Protection Agency, a parallel of sorts to the New Deal agencies that supported social reproduction. Founded in 1970, at the tail end of the state-managed era, the epa was the regime’s last major effort to defuse systemic crisis by ‘internalizing externalities’ as objects of state regulation. The jewel in its crown was the Superfund, tasked with cleaning up toxic-waste sites on us territory on capital’s dime. Financed chiefly by taxes on the petroleum and chemical industries, the Fund realized the principle of ‘polluter pays’ through the coercive agency of the capitalist state—in contrast to current carbon-trading schemes, which substitute the carrot for the stick and work through markets.

However progressive in that respect, state-capitalist regulation of nature—like that of social reproduction—was built on disavowed cost-shifting. The regime unloaded eco-‘externalities’ disproportionately onto poor communities, especially communities of colour, in the core, while ramping up extractivism and environmental-load displacement in the periphery. Moreover, us environmentalism’s industrial wing misframed its central issue of corporate pollution. Positing the national-territorial state as the relevant unit for eco-policy, it failed to reckon with the inherently transborder character of industrial emissions.footnote29 That ‘oversight’ would prove especially fateful with respect to greenhouse gases, whose effects are by definition planetary. Although the process was not fully understood at the time, the detonation of that ticking timebomb was hugely hastened, as the regime relentlessly cranked out CO2 throughout its lifespan.
Globalized bads

All of these ‘bads’ continue on steroids today, in the era of financialized capitalism—but on an altered basis. Relocation of manufacturing to the Global South has scrambled the previous energic geography. Somatic and exosomatic formations now coexist side-by-side throughout Asia, Latin America and some regions of Africa. The Global North, meanwhile, increasingly specializes in the ‘post-material’ triad of it, services and finance—aka Google, Amazon and Goldman Sachs. But once again, the appearance of liberation from nature is misleading. Northern ‘post-materialism’ rests upon southern materialism—mining, agriculture, manufacturing—as well as on fracking and offshore drilling in its own backyard. Equally important, consumption in the Global North is ever more carbon intensive—witness steep rises in air travel, meat-eating, cement-making and overall material throughput.

Meanwhile, capital continues to generate new historical natures at a rapid pace. These include new must-have minerals, such as lithium and coltan—the latter an essential ingredient of mobile phones, Central African casus belli and super-profitable commodity mined in some instances by enslaved Congolese children. Other neoliberal natures are familiar objects newly enclosed, such as water, whose privatization is fiercely resisted by populations intent on safeguarding not only their ‘material interests’ but also ‘the source of life’ and related subaltern views of the nature-community nexus.footnote30

Although enclosures have been integral to every phase of capitalism, they assume some ingenious-insidious new forms under the current regime, as cutting-edge bio-tech joins with state-of-the-art intellectual-property law to engineer new types of monopoly rent. In some cases, Big Pharma claims ownership of indigenous plant-based medicinals, such as those derived from the Indian neem tree whose genome they lately decoded, despite the fact that the curative properties in question have been known and used for centuries throughout South Asia; similarly, Big Agra seeks to patent crop strains, such as Basmati rice, on the basis of notional genetic ‘improvements’ in order to dispossess the farming communities that developed them. In other cases, by contrast, the expropriators bioengineer new historical natures that do not occur ‘in nature’. A notorious example is Monsanto’s Terminator seeds, deliberately designed to be sterile so that farmers must purchase them every year. Here, a multinational intentionally snuffs out the natural life-renewing process by which seeds are reproduced in order to engorge the artificial life-extinguishing process by which capital reproduces itself.footnote31 Effectively turning its own conception of Nature II upside down, capital now denies to others the use of that ‘free gift’ on which it has always relied: nature’s capacity to self-replenish. The result is a tangle of super-profits and multiple miseries, in which the environmental entwines with the social. Sharply rising peasant debt leads to waves of peasant suicides, further impoverishing regions already saddled with a growing share of the global environmental load: extreme pollution in cities, hyper-extractivism in the countryside and disproportionate vulnerability to the increasingly lethal impacts of global warming.

These asymmetries are compounded by new, financialized modes of regulation, premised on new, neoliberal conceptions of Nature II. With the delegitimation of public power comes the new-old idea that the market can serve as the principal mechanism of effective governance, now tasked with saving the planet by curtailing greenhouse-gas emissions. But carbon-trading schemes only draw capital away from the sort of massive coordinated investment needed to de-fossilize the world’s economy and transform its energic basis. Money flows instead into speculative trade in emissions permits, ecosystem services, carbon offsets and environmental derivatives. What enables such ‘regulation’, and is also fostered by it, is a new green-capitalist imaginary, which subjects the whole of nature to an abstract economizing logic, even when it does not directly commodify it. The idea that a coal-belching factory here can be ‘offset’ by a tree plantation there assumes a nature composed of fungible, commensurable units, whose place-specificity, qualitative traits and experiential meanings can be disregarded.footnote32

The same is true for the hypothetical auction scenarios, beloved of environmental economists, that purport to assign value to a ‘natural asset’ according to how much various actors would pay to realize their competing ‘preferences’ regarding it: are indigenous communities sufficiently ‘invested’ in preserving their local fishing stocks to outbid the corporate fleets that threaten to deplete them? If not, the rational use of the ‘asset’ is to allow its commercial exploitation.footnote33 These green-capitalist scenarios represent a sophisticated new way of internalizing nature, which cranks epistemic abstraction up a notch, to the meta-level. But some things never change. Like its predecessor variants of Nature II, financialized nature, too, is a vehicle of expropriation.

Under these conditions, the grammar of eco-politics is shifting. As global warming has displaced chemical pollution as the central issue, so markets in emissions permits have supplanted coercive state power as the go-to regulatory mechanism, and the international has replaced the national as the favoured arena of eco-governance. Environmental activism has altered accordingly. The wilderness-protection current has weakened and split, with one branch gravitating to the green-capitalist power centre, the other to increasingly assertive movements for environmental justice. The latter rubric now encompasses a broad range of subaltern actors, from southern environmentalisms of the poor resisting enclosures and land grabs, to northern anti-racists targeting disparities in exposure to toxins, indigenous movements fighting pipelines and eco-feminists battling deforestation—many of which overlap and link to one another in transnational networks.

At the same time, state-focused projects, lately sidelined, are now re-emerging with new vigour. As populist revolts, both left and right, have shattered belief in the magical properties of ‘free markets’, some are returning to the view that national-state power can serve as the principal vehicle of eco-societal reform—witness nationalists like Marine Le Pen’s ‘New Ecology’, on the one hand, and Green New Dealers, on the other. So, too, labour unions, long committed to defending the occupational health and safety of their members but wary of curbs on ‘development’, now look to green infrastructure projects to create jobs. Finally, at the other end of the spectrum, degrowth currents find new recruits among youth attracted by their bold civilizational critique of spiraling material throughput and consumer lifestyles—and by the promise of buen vivir through veganism, commoning or a social and solidary economy.
3. for a new eco-politics

To this point, I’ve offered structural arguments and historical reflections in support of two propositions: first, that capitalism harbours a deep-seated ecological contradiction that inclines it non-accidentally to environmental crisis; and second, that those dynamics are inextricably entwined with other, ‘non-environmental’ crisis tendencies and cannot be resolved in isolation from them. The political implications are conceptually simple if practically challenging: an eco-politics capable of saving the planet must be anti-capitalist and trans-environmental.

The historical reflections offered here deepen those propositions. What I first presented as an abstract 4–D logic, wherein capital is programmed to destabilize the natural conditions on which it depends, now appears as a concrete process, unfolding in space and time. Its trajectory looks roughly like this: a socio-ecological impasse originating in the core prompts a round of plunder in the periphery (including the periphery within the core), which targets the natural wealth of populations deprived of the political means of self-defence. In each case, too, the ‘fix’ involves the conjure and appropriation of a new historical nature, previously dross, but suddenly gold, a must-have world-commodity, conveniently viewed as unowned and there for the taking. What follows in each case, finally, are uncontrolled downstream effects, which spark new socio-ecological impasses, prompting further iterations of the cycle. Reiterated in each regime, this process unfolds expansively, on a world scale. Churning through sugar and silver, coal and guano, refined oil and chemical fertilizers, coltan and gmo seeds, it proceeds in stages from conquest to colonization, neo-imperialism to financialization. The result is an evolving core-periphery geography, in which the boundary between those two co-constituted spaces shifts periodically, as does the boundary between economy and nature. The process that produces those shifts generates the distinctive spatiality of capitalist development.

That process also fashions capitalism’s historical temporality. Each impasse is born from the collision of our three Natures, which operate on different time scales. In each episode, capital, in thrall to its fantasy of an eternally giving Nature II, able to self-replenish without end, re-engineers Nature III to its own specifications, which dictate minimal outlays for eco-reproduction and maximal speed up of turnover time; Nature I, meanwhile, proceeding on a time scale ‘of its own’, registers the effects biophysically and ‘bites back’. In time, the ensuing eco-damages converge with other ‘non-environmental’ harms, rooted in other ‘non-environmental’ contradictions of capitalist society. At that point, the regime in question enters its developmental crisis, leading to efforts to fashion a successor. Once installed, the latter reorganizes the nature-economy nexus in a way that dissolves the specific blockage but preserves the law of value, which commands maximum expansion of capital at maximum speed. Far from being overcome, then, capitalism’s ecological contradiction is repeatedly displaced—in time as well as in space. The costs are offloaded not only onto existing populations that ‘do not count’ but also onto future generations. The lives of the latter, too, are discounted so that capital may live unencumbered and without end.

That last formulation suggests that the temporality of capitalism’s ecological contradiction may not be ‘merely’ developmental. Beneath the system’s tendency to precipitate an unending string of regime-specific crises lies something deeper and more ominous: the prospect of an epochal crisis, rooted in centuries of escalating greenhouse-gas emissions, whose volume now exceeds the Earth’s capacities for sequestration. The trans-regime progression of global warming portends a crisis of a different order. Implacably cumulating across the entire sequence of regimes and historical natures, climate change provides the perverse continuity of a ticking timebomb, which could bring the capitalist phase of human history—if not human history tout court—to an ignoble end.
A trans-environmental project

To speak of an epochal crisis is not, however, to proclaim imminent breakdown. Nor does it rule out the advent of a new regime of accumulation that could provisionally manage or temporarily defer the current crisis. The truth is that we can’t know for sure whether capitalism has any more tricks up its enormously inventive sleeve that could stave off global warming, at least for a while, nor if so, for how long. Nor do we know whether the system’s partisans could invent, sell and implement those tricks quickly enough, given that they, and we, are in a race for time with Nature I. But this much is clear: anything more than a pro tem stopgap would require a deep reordering of the economy-nature nexus, severely constraining, if not wholly abolishing, the prerogatives of capital.

That conclusion vindicates my principal thesis: an eco-politics aimed at preventing catastrophe must be anti-capitalist and trans-environmental. If the rationale for the first of those adjectives is already clear, the justification for the second lies in the close connection between ecological depredation and other forms of dysfunction-cum-domination inherent in capitalist society. Consider, first, the internal links between natural despoliation and racial/imperial expropriation. Claims of terra nullius to the contrary, the chunks of nature that capital appropriates are virtually always the life-conditions of some human group—their habitat and meaning-laden place of social interaction; their means of livelihood and material basis of social reproduction. Moreover, the human groups in question are virtually always those that have been stripped of the power to defend themselves, and often those relegated to the wrong side of the global colour line. This point was evidenced again and again throughout the sequence of regimes. It shows that ecological questions cannot be separated from questions of political power, on the one hand, nor from those of racial oppression, imperial domination and indigenous dispossession and genocide, on the other.

A similar proposition holds for social reproduction, which is closely imbricated with natural reproduction. For most people, most of the time, ecosystemic damages add heavy stresses to the business of caregiving, social provision and the tending of bodies and psyches—occasionally stretching social bonds to the breaking point. In most cases, too, the stresses bear down hardest on women, who shoulder primary responsibility for the well-being of families and communities. But there are exceptions that prove the rule. These arise when power asymmetries enable some groups to offload the ‘externalities’ onto others—as in the era of state-managed capitalism, when wealthy northern welfare states financed (more or less) generous social supports in the homeland by intensifying offshore extractivism. In that case, a political dynamic linking domestic social democracy to foreign domination enabled a racialized, gendered tradeoff of social reproduction for eco-depredation—a bargain that capital’s partisans later rescinded by designing a new, financialized regime that allowed them to have it both ways.

No wonder, then, that struggles over nature have been deeply entangled with struggles over labour, care and political power in every phase of capitalist development. Nor that single-issue environmentalism is historically exceptional—and politically problematic. Recall the shifting forms and definitions of environmental struggle in the sequence of socio-ecological regimes. In the mercantile era, extractivist mining poisoned Peruvian lands and rivers, while land enclosures destroyed English woodlands, prompting considerable pushback in both cases. But participants in these struggles did not separate protection of nature or habitat from defence of livelihoods, political autonomy or the social reproduction of their communities. They fought rather for all those elements together—and for the forms of life in which they were integrated. When ‘nature defence’ did appear as a free-standing cause, in the liberal-colonial era, it was among those whose livelihoods, communities and political rights were not existentially threatened. Unencumbered by those other concerns, their stand-alone environmentalism was—necessarily—an environmentalism of the rich.footnote34

As such, it contrasted starkly with contemporaneous social environmentalisms in the core and anti-colonial environmentalisms in the periphery, both of which targeted intertwined harms to nature and humans, anticipating present-day struggles for eco-socialism and environmental justice. But those movements were expunged from environm


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