NANCY FRASER IN NLR ON ECOSOCIALISM PART IV

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28 february 2021


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

Nancy Fraser, New Left Review, 127

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a racialized, gendered tradeoff of social reproduction for eco-depredation—a bargain that capital’s partisans later rescinded by designing a new, financialized regime that allowed them to have it both ways.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 environmentalism’s official history, which canonized the single-issue definition. This broadened somewhat in the following era of state-managed capitalism, as wilderness protectionists were joined by activists urging deployment of capitalist-state power against corporate polluters. What eco-successes this regime achieved were due to its use of that power, while its failures stemmed from the refusal to reckon seriously with trans-environmental entanglements—with the inherently trans-territorial character of emissions; with the force of home-grown environmental racism; with the power of capital to subvert regulation by lobbying, workarounds and regulatory capture; and with the limitations intrinsic to a focus on eco-abuses as opposed to the normal, lawful workings of a fossil-fuelled consumerist economy. All those evasions are alive, well and still wreaking havoc today, in the era of financialized capitalism. Especially problematic, then and now, is the guiding premise that ‘the environment’ can be adequately protected without disturbing the institutional framework and structural dynamics of capitalist society.
The path ahead

Will these failures be repeated today? Will our chances to save the planet be squandered by our failure to build an eco-politics that is trans-environmental and anti-capitalist? Many essential building blocks for such a politics already exist in one form or another. Environmental-justice movements are already in principle trans-environmental, targeting entwinements of eco-damage with one or more axes of domination, especially gender, race, ethnicity and nationality; and some of them are explicitly anti-capitalist. Likewise, labour movements, Green New Dealers and some eco-populists grasp (some of) the class prerequisites for fighting global warming, especially the need to link the transition to renewable energy to pro-working-class policies on incomes and jobs, and the need to strengthen the power of states against corporations. Finally, decolonial and indigenous movements plumb the entwinement of extractivism and imperialism. Along with degrowth currents, they press for a deep rethink of our relation to nature and ways of living. Each of these eco-political perspectives harbours some genuine insights.

Nevertheless, the current state of these movements is not (yet) adequate to the task at hand—whether viewed individually or as an ensemble. Insofar as environmental-justice movements remain focused overwhelmingly on the disparate impact of eco-threats on subaltern populations, they fail to pay sufficient heed to the underlying structural dynamics of a social system that produces not only disparities in outcomes but a general crisis that threatens the well-being of all, not to mention the planet. Thus, their anti-capitalism is not yet sufficiently substantive, their trans-environmentalism not yet sufficiently deep.

Something similar is true of state-focused movements, especially (reactionary) eco-populists, but also (progressive) Green New Dealers and labour unions. Insofar as these actors privilege the frame of the national-territorial state and job creation through green-infrastructure projects, they presume an insufficiently broad and variegated view of ‘the working class’, which in reality includes not just construction workers, but also service workers; not only those who work for a wage, but also those whose work is unpaid; not just those who work ‘in the homeland’, but also those who work offshore; not only those who are exploited, but also those who are expropriated. Nor do state-focused currents adequately reckon with the position and power of that class’s opposite number, insofar as they retain the classic social-democratic premise that the state can serve two masters—that it can save the planet by taming capital and needn’t abolish it. Thus, they, too, are insufficiently anti-capitalist and trans-environmental—at least at present.

Finally, degrowth activists tend to muddy the political waters by conflating what must grow in capitalism—namely, ‘value’—with what should grow but can’t within capitalism—namely, goods, relations and activities that can satisfy the vast expanse of unmet human needs across the globe. A genuinely anti-capitalist eco-politics must dismantle the hard-wired imperative to grow the first, while treating the question of how sustainably to grow the second as a political matter, to be decided by democratic deliberation and social planning. Equally, orientations associated with degrowth, such as lifestyle environmentalism, on the one hand, and prefigurative experiments in commoning, on the other, tend to avoid the necessity of confronting capitalist power.

Taken together, moreover, the genuine insights of these movements do not yet add up to a new eco-political commonsense. Nor do they yet converge on a counter-hegemonic project for eco-societal transformation that could, at least in principle, save the planet. Essential trans-environmental elements—labour rights, feminism, anti-racism, anti-imperialism, class consciousness, pro-democracy, anti-consumerism, anti-extractivism—are present, to be sure. But they are not yet integrated in a robust diagnosis of the structural-cum-historical roots of the present crisis. What is missing to date is a clear and convincing perspective that connects all of our present woes, ecological and otherwise, to one and the same social system—and through that to one another.

I have insisted here that that system has a name: capitalist society, conceived expansively to include all the necessary background conditions for a capitalist economy—nonhuman nature and public power, expropriable populations and social reproduction—all non-accidentally subject to cannibalization by capital, all now under the wrecking ball and reeling from it. To name that system, and conceive it broadly, is to supply another piece of the counter-hegemonic puzzle we need to solve. This piece can help us to align the others, to disclose their likely tensions and potential synergies, to clarify where they have come from and where they might go together. Anti-capitalism is the piece that gives political direction and critical force to trans-environmentalism. If the latter opens eco-politics to the larger world, the former trains its focus on the main enemy.

Anti-capitalism is thus what draws the line, necessary to every historical bloc, between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Unmasking carbon trading as the scam that it is, it pushes every potentially emancipatory current of eco-politics to publicly disaffiliate from ‘green capitalism’. It pushes each current, too, to pay heed to its own Achilles heel, its inclination to avoid confronting capital, whether by pursuing (illusory) delinking or (lopsided) class compromise or (tragic) parity in extreme vulnerability. By insisting on their common enemy, moreover, the anti-capitalism piece of the puzzle indicates a path that partisans of degrowth, environmental justice and a Green New Deal can travel together, even if they can’t now envision, let alone agree on its precise destination.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether any destination will actually be reached—or whether the Earth will continue to heat to boiling point. But our best hope for avoiding the latter fate is to build a counter-hegemonic bloc that is trans-environmental and anti-capitalist. Where exactly such a bloc would take us were it to succeed also remains obscure. But if I had to give the goal a name, I’d opt for ‘eco-socialism’.footnote35
1 This essay is drawn from Nancy Fraser’s forthcoming book, Cannibal Capitalism, to be published by Verso later this year.
2 See, among other contributions: Herman Daly and Benjamin Kunkel, ‘Ecologies of Scale’, nlr 109, Jan–Feb 2018; Robert Pollin, ‘De-Growth vs a Green New Deal’, nlr 112, July–Aug 2018; Lola Seaton, ‘Painting Nationalism Green?’, nlr 124, July–Aug 2020; Sharachchandra Lele, ‘Environment and Well-Being’, nlr 123, May–June 2020.
3 Nancy Fraser, ‘Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode: For an Expanded Conception of Capitalism’, nlr 86, Mar–Apr 2014, pp. 55–72.
4 My account of capitalism’s ecological contradiction is indebted to James O’Connor’s ground-breaking theorization of ‘the second contradiction of capitalism’. He paved the way by drawing on the thought of Karl Polanyi to conceptualize the ‘conditions of production’ and the tendency of capital to undermine them. See ‘The Second Contradiction of Capitalism, with an Addendum on the Two Contradictions of Capitalism’, in James O’Connor, Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism, New York 1998, pp. 158–77. John Bellamy Foster correctly notes some reductionist aspects of O’Connor’s account in ‘Capitalism and Ecology: The Nature of the Contradiction’, Monthly Review, vol. 54, no. 4, 2002, pp. 6–16. But O’Connor remains a major touchstone.
5 Nancy Fraser, ‘Contradictions of Capital and Care’, nlr 100, July–Aug 2016, pp. 99–117.
6 Nancy Fraser, ‘Legitimation Crisis? On the Political Contradictions of Financialized Capitalism’, Critical Historical Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, 2015, pp. 1–33.
7 Nancy Fraser, ‘Is Capitalism Necessarily Racist?’, Presidential Address, 2018 Eastern Division, Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, vol. 92, 2018, pp. 21–42.
8 Jason Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, London and New York 2015. Unfortunately, Moore appears to assume that Nature III can simply replace Nature I, which he proceeds to dismiss as ‘Cartesian’. That assumption is politically disabling, as it effectively invalidates climate science. It is also conceptually confused. As I explain below, those conceptions of nature are not in fact incompatible and can be deployed in concert. For more on my differences with Moore, see Nancy Fraser and Rahel Jaeggi, Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory, Brian Milstein, ed., Cambridge 2018, pp. 94–6.
9 One should make use of all three conceptions of Nature. Each pertains to a different level of analysis and genre of inquiry: Nature I to biophysical science; Nature II to structural analysis of capitalist society; Nature III to historical materialism. Properly understood, they do not contradict one another. The appearance of contradiction arises only when one fails to distinguish the levels and confounds the conceptions. Thus, the current debate between critical realists and social constructivists (or ‘anti-Cartesians’) is largely misplaced. Each side fastens on one conception, which it illegitimately totalizes, while wrongfully excluding the others. Cf. Andreas Malm, The Progress of this Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World, London and New York 2018.
10 I owe the terms ‘developmental’ and ‘epochal’ crises, as well as the distinction between them, to Jason Moore, who has adapted them for eco-critical theory from Immanuel Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi. See Moore’s essay, ‘The Modern World System as Environmental History? Ecology and the Rise of Capitalism’, Theory and Society, vol. 32, no. 3, 2003.
11 For the distinction between ‘somatic’ and ‘exosomatic’ energy regimes, see J. R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th Century, London 2000, especially pp. 10–16.
12 Jason Moore, ‘Potosí and the Political Ecology of Underdevelopment, 1545–1800’, Journal of Philosophical Economics, vol. 4, no. 1, 2010, pp. 58–103.
13 There are good accounts of all this in Philippe Descola’s brilliant book, Beyond Nature and Culture, trans. Janet Lloyd, Chicago 2014; and in Carolyn Merchant’s classic, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, San Francisco 1990 [1980].
14 Andreas Malm, ‘The Origins of Fossil Capital: From Water to Steam in the British Cotton Industry’, Historical Materialism, vol. 21, no. 1, 2013, pp. 15–68.
15 The expression ‘metabolic rift’ comes from Marx via John Bellamy Foster, as does this account of the disruption on the soil-nutrient cycle. See Foster, ‘Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology’, American Journal of Sociology, vol. 105, no. 2, 1999, pp. 366–405.
16 John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, New York 2011.
17 This expression comes from Jason Moore, ‘The Rise of Cheap Nature’, in Moore, ed., Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History and the Crisis of Capitalism, Oakland ca 2016, pp. 78–115.
18 Alf Hornborg, ‘Footprints in the Cotton Fields: The Industrial Revolution as Time-Space Appropriation and Environmental Load Displacement’, Ecological Economics, vol. 59, no. 1, 2006, pp. 74–81.
19 Aaron Jakes, Egypt’s Occupation: Colonial Economism and the Crises of Capitalism, Stanford 2020.
20 For example: Mike Davis, ‘The Origins of the Third World’, Antipode, vol. 32, no. 1, 2000, pp. 48–89; Alf Hornborg, ‘The Thermodynamics of Imperialism: Toward an Ecological Theory of Unequal Exchange’, in Hornborg, The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment, Lanham 2001, pp. 35–48; Joan Martinez-Alier, ‘The Ecological Debt’, Kurswechsel, vol. 4, 2002, pp. 5–16; John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York, ‘Imperialism and Ecological Metabolism’, in Foster, et al., The Ecological Rift, pp. 345–74.
21 Joan Martinez-Alier, The Environmentalism of the Poor: A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation, Northampton ma 2003.
22 To invert Joan Martinez-Alier’s expression.
23 For a masterful reconstruction of 19th- and 20th-century socialist environmentalism in England, see John Bellamy Foster, The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology, New York 2020. Among the many recent extensions of this tradition, see Murray Bookchin, Social Ecology and Communalism, Chico ca 2005, and Michael Löwy, Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe, London 2015.
24 Timothy Mitchell, ‘Carbon Democracy’, Economy and Society, vol. 38, no. 3, 2009, pp. 399–432.
25 Alyssa Battistoni, Free Gifts: Nature, Households and the Politics of Capitalism, PhD thesis, Yale University 2019.
26 Susanne Freidberg, Fresh: A Perishable History, Cambridge ma 2010.
27 Mitchell, ‘Carbon Democracy’.
28 Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves and the Hidden History of Conservation, Oakland ca 2014.
29 For ‘misframing’, see Nancy Fraser, ‘Reframing Justice in a Globalizing World’, nlr 36, Nov–Dec 2005, pp. 69–88.
30 Adrian Parr, The Wrath of Capital: Neoliberalism and Climate Change Politics, New York 2013.
31 The best account of dispossession through this marriage of bio-tech and intellectual property remains Vandana Shiva’s ‘Life Inc.: Biology and the Expansion of Capitalist Markets’, Sostenible?, vol. 2, 2000, pp. 79–92.
32 Larry Lohmann, ‘Financialization, Commodification and Carbon: The Contradictions of Neoliberal Climate Policy’, Socialist Register, vol. 48, 2012, pp. 85–107.
33 Martin O’Connor, ‘On the Misadventures of Capitalist Nature’, in Martin O’Connor, ed., Is Capitalism Sustainable? Political Economy and the Politics of Ecology, New York 1994, pp. 125–51; Joan Martinez-Alier, The Environmentalism of the Poor.
34 The point parallels one that Black- and socialist-feminists have repeatedly made about single-issue feminism, which purports to isolate ‘genuine’ gender issues from ‘extraneous’ concerns and thereby ends up with a ‘bourgeois’ or corporate feminism tailored to the situation of professional-managerial women, for whom alone those concerns are extraneous.
35 The content of a viable, 21st-century eco-socialism remains to be invented. For some preliminary reflections, see Nancy Fraser, ‘What Should Socialism Mean in the Twenty-First Century?’, Socialist Register, vol. 56, 2020, pp. 282–94.


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