The Great Unfettering

In a recent contribution to Sidecar, Matthew Huber claims to present a ‘Marxist alternative’ to the ‘mish-mash ecologism’ and dead-end ‘utopianism’ that he says afflicts parts of the climate left. Finding evidence of these maladies in two recently published books – The Future is Degrowth by Aaron Vansintjan, Andrea Vetter, and Matthias Schmelzer, and Half-Earth Socialism by Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettese – Huber makes an impassioned plea for the left to walk away from utopian arcadias and embrace the more realistic option of a ‘socialist eco-modernist… transformation of production’.

Huber’s essay rehearses a line of criticism that he has elaborated on several occasions and that finds its most systematic form in his recently published book, Climate Change as Class War. In part an argument for appealing to working-class interests to win a Green New Deal, in part a polemic against degrowth, which Huber associates with the environmentalism of the ‘professional managerial class’, the book aims to further the cause of so-called ‘eco-modernism’.

Briefly put, advocates of degrowth call for an end to the fetishization of growth in contemporary society, a reduction in energy use and material throughputs in the Global North, and a globally just distribution of wealth and resources. This is necessary, they claim, to phase out fossil fuels, regenerate the planet’s damaged ecosystems and attain a decent quality of life for all. Such a programme would require reductions in resource and energy use for many in the Global North, yet this need not lead to asceticism. Rather, its supporters argue it would enable communal luxury within ecological limits. Though disagreements exist within the degrowth movement, most of its adherents envision a future where food production is localized, people have democratic control over issues that affect them, renewable energy infrastructure is decentralized and collectively owned, and public transportation is commonplace.

For left eco-modernists such as Huber and Leigh Phillips, this is a decidedly middle-class agenda – a ‘politics of less’ which, by calling on workers to reduce their energy and resource use, is destined to be unpopular and unattainable. For Huber, the problem is not the consumption habits of the Global North’s proletarianized groups; it is rather the activities of a capitalist class that consumes too much and profits from planet-destroying fossil fuels. As such, the antidote is class struggle, stronger unions and a parliamentary path to a Green New Deal.

From this perspective, degrowth’s inclination towards the local and the particular, and its relative silence on class struggle, create insurmountable barriers to socialist emancipation. In contrast, eco-modernists propose largescale nuclear energy projects, hydroelectric dams and industrialized agriculture, arguing that this is what it means to think and act in the Marxist tradition. Capital’s large-scale industry and exploitation of the world’s producers sets the stage for its abolition through a working-class seizure of the means of production. In Huber’s words, ‘industrial capitalism makes emancipation and freedom possible for all of society. This vision of freedom through social control over industrial abundance is key to mobilizing the masses to the socialist fight.’

In his Sidecar contribution, Huber adds that social control of industry will remove the primary impediment to a green transition: capital’s pursuit of profit. ‘All known technological pathways to halting environmental breakdown’ – Huber gives the examples of renewable energy, ‘green nitrogen production’ and lab meat – ‘are “fettered” by the social relations of production’. He goes on to explain that ‘while the utopian eco-socialists would likely scoff at these “techno-fixes” – technological solutions which don’t challenge capitalist social relations – an eco-modern socialist perspective would insist these technologies will not be developed unless we challenge capitalist social relations.’

Huber’s Climate Change as Class War has so far been the apogee of the eco-modernist position in a debate that has done much to further the discussion of desirable post-capitalist futures. The book’s emphasis on class struggle, thinking at scale, the state as a terrain of struggle, and the dynamics of transition are valuable contributions. Huber’s Sidecar essay reiterates many of these themes, stressing the need to imagine a green transition rooted in a Marxist study of the ‘historical economic conditions’, rather than abstract utopian speculation.

There is no question that there are important critiques of degrowth to be made from a Marxist perspective. Whereas Marxism’s critique of capitalism flows from a study of the historically determinate way it realizes value – through the exploitation of labour and the natural world – degrowth instead opts for an abstract critique of ‘growth’ as such. This is more than just a difference of terminology. Degrowth’s simplified conceptual apparatus has obscured the political stakes of a green transition to such a extent that it has been adopted by various irreconcilable traditions: from anti-capitalists to those pursuing a reformist politics of redistribution and reduced consumption. However, by unreflexively aligning Marxism with eco-modernism, Huber obscures Marxist alternatives to degrowth that are not eco-modernist in orientation but that nevertheless strive for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism in the pursuit of a liveable planet for all human and non-human life.

At the heart of Climate Change as Class War is the claim that a successful climate politics must win over the majority of the world’s population. As Huber rightly claims, that majority is the ‘global proletariat’ in its myriad of forms: manufacturing labour, service workers, informal workers, agricultural work, unwaged work, reproductive work and more. The issue of how the world’s exploited and oppressed can unite in struggle is of course a crucial one for any left politics. It is all the more striking, then, that Huber does not try to answer it. In a footnote to Climate Change as Class War, Huber explicitly narrows the scope of his study:

My analysis of class in this book will focus mostly on the US context… While there is no justifiable basis for analyzing class in territorial terms – as if particular classes are only contained within national boundaries – a reason for this analytical focus is the simple fact that US political culture is the largest barrier to climate action globally… I will also admit my own scholarly (and personal) expertise is based in American Studies and US politics.

This amounts to an admission of methodological nationalism. If the goal is to appeal to the majority of the world’s population, this should lead to an analysis of the global working class in all its complexity – not the minority of that class living in the US. Moreover, if ‘US political culture’ is indeed one of the greatest stumbling blocks to climate action, this should involve an interrogation of not just the US’s internal political economy but its external role as the world’s leading imperialist power and orchestrator of wars, coups, sanctions, ‘development programmes’, ‘human rights interventions’, assassinations and arms sales that have devastated the world’s working classes and the ecological systems their lives depend on.

A thorough analysis of US class politics should also involve a consideration of how imperial predation in the periphery shapes class interests and struggles in the US. Yet in his critique of climate justice politics, Huber categorically rules out this line of inquiry: ‘climate justice politics often positions the struggle in territorial terms, as a struggle between Global North and Global South, and not as a global class struggle between capital and an international working class.’ He goes on to cite Jason Hickel’s work on value transfers and uneven ecological exchange as an example of a degrowth paradigm that fails to ‘differentiate “income” based on wages versus capital ownership’, writing that such scholars falsely ‘assume all income – whether it flows to capital or labour – is a form of ecological imperialism.’

This approach leads Huber into a false choice between a politics that attends to imperialist domination and one focussed on class struggle. As anti-colonial Marxists such as Walter Rodney, Samir Amin and Sam Moyo have long argued, this is to ignore one of the fundamental issues of working-class politics today: the national self-determination of oppressed peoples. As Enrique Dussel explains, Marx repeatedly intimated in his writings that an analysis of global capitalism must investigate both competitive relations between ‘capitalist nations’, which are defined by ‘dependency’ and the ‘extraction of surplus-value by the stronger capital’, and relations of class struggle, or ‘the exploitation of one class by another, of labor by capital.’

Huber’s criticism of Hickel also ignores a wealth of scholarship on how value transfers and uneven ecological exchange are used to reduce labour unrest in the core. Utsa and Prabhat Patnaik, for instance, describe how the imperialist world-system rests on the devaluation of currencies in the periphery to strengthen the currencies and increase the living standards of both capitalists and workers in the Global North, while Gurminder Bhambra traces the genealogy of Euro-American welfare systems back to their origins in colonial plunder and exploitation. None of this is to say that workers in the core are not exploited; it is merely to point out that they benefit from a capitalist system that pits them against their peripheral counterparts. If you drink coffee in the United States or Europe, eat chocolate, own a phone or wear clothes, you are in all likelihood a participant in the super-exploitation of the periphery’s lands and labour. To recognize this is a precondition for meaningful internationalism. Since the Global North’s energy and resource use cannot be extended to the rest of the world without exceeding the planet’s biophysical limits, anti-imperialist politics requires that those in the core – including many workers – reduce their overall consumption.

In 1848 Marx and Engels wrote that ‘the proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie’. This, I would hazard, is what animates Huber’s approach to Marxist politics. But by 1869 Marx had come to realize that for workers in colonial countries, this would be impossible without first tackling the colonial question that divided the world’s working classes into ‘hostile camps’. As Marx argued, and as history verified, workers often have conflicting interests that pose a challenge to the kind of mass mobilization that Huber envisions. His image of the ‘planetary proletariat’ is not attuned to how conflicting interests, misogyny, racism and chauvinism drive a wedge between workers. It refuses to acknowledge that shared interests, far from being an objective reality, must be composed in and through struggle. Indeed, it is particularly concerning that Huber’s proposal to implement a Green New Deal in the imperialist heartland overlooks such messy realities. As critics of the GND have argued, a green transition that does not take heed of such divisions will merely entrench neo-colonial and ecologically unsustainable relations of labour, land and resource exploitation.

Huber’s belief in the necessity of climate ‘megaprojects’ – involving large-scale, state-led ecological planning – leads him to rebuke those on the left with a ‘penchant for a retreat to small-scale agriculture’, which he says ‘implies hunger, if not starvation, for the world’s mega-slums’. In a telling aside, he remarks that ‘as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates, urban gardens are no substitute for industrial agriculture’. This reveals a major problem with the eco-modernist mentality. Far from discrediting urban gardens, the Ukraine conflict makes the case for localized, resilient and diverse food systems. The global dependence on a few select crops, produced by industrialized monocultural systems that are vulnerable to geopolitical antagonisms – and unpredictable weather events like floods, droughts and wildfires – now looks entirely unsustainable in light of the war. What matters here is that, like all eco-modernists, Huber assumes capitalist industrialization is the pinnacle of technological advancement. Technology progresses, they suppose, in a linear fashion from inefficient and labour-intensive systems to efficient, energy-intensive, labour-saving ones. Hence, for Huber as for Phillips, the aim should be ‘to take over the machine, not turn it off!’

But things are not as simple as this stageist, almost Whiggish, theory of history would suggest. David Noble and Langdon Winner have argued that technologies do not exist independently from the social relations that produced them (and which they help to reproduce). Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital recounts how the introduction of fossil fuels in the early nineteenth century was an effect of class struggle rather than linear progression. Mill owners transitioned from using water energy in the countryside to coal – a more expensive energy source – because it enabled them to access a more disciplined and dependable labour supply in industrializing cities. In Carbon Democracy, Timothy Mitchell explains how the eventual shift from coal to oil similarly empowered capitalists to discipline labour by limiting the ability for workers to conspire and organize together to disrupt production. In other words, from the perspective of class struggle, a given technology and the social relations it instates might not be preferable to the one it replaces. The transition from labour-intensive agricultural systems to centralized industrial ones may not, as Huber assumes, pave the way for socialism.

Technology must also be understood in a broader sense than eco-modernists permit. Anti-colonial Marxists have described how colonialism de-developed and supplanted more ecologically sustainable technologies in the periphery, from vernacular architecture to agroecological farming systems. To take just one example from Climate Change as Class War, Huber argues that synthetic nitrogen production unleashed previously unknown levels of agricultural productivity – yet, on closer inspection, this claim does not stand up to scrutiny. Eric Ross and Glenn Stone have shown that the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 60s was entirely unnecessary to feed the world. Its main achievements were chronic overproduction, profits for input producers in the core, the loss of smallholder independence and suppression of communist and agrarian struggles for land reform. Ironically, by displacing producers from the land, it also accelerated the emergence of the mega-slums Huber cites as an argument against smallholder agriculture. All of which suggests that capitalist technological advancements may not be in the ultimate interest of the world’s producing classes. Historically, they have often conflicted with greener forms of production.

Instead of seeing capital’s abolition as the unfettering of productive forces, it is better to view it as freeing the world’s producers to choose from a richer and more diverse array of technologies and socio-ecological relations than capitalist industrialization can offer. Of course, it would be unwise to reject contemporary medical advances, green steel production or lithium batteries; but we might want to avoid nuclear in a world destined for water shortages, unpredictable weather events and geopolitical instability. And instead of using ‘green hydrogen’ to produce synthetic fertilizer, we might consider supporting and expanding agroecological farming systems, which already provide between 50% and 70% of food calories consumed globally, with fewer high energy off-farm inputs, and greater biodiversity and climate resilience than industrialized agriculture.

The question, then, is not about whether one is for or against technology – as if this were possible. It is about adopting appropriate technologies and collectively managing energy and food systems at relevant scales. A promising alternative to Huber’s vision lies in an anti-imperialist eco-communism that understands how relations of dependency and uneven ecological exchange devastate ecologies and exploit workers in both core and periphery. Such a politics must do the difficult work of developing strategies of struggle and ecological transition that meet the needs of the exploited and oppressed in the Global North in ways that are compatible with demands for colonial reparations, technology transfers, food sovereignty, land back, the lifting of sanctions, the end of occupations and the atmospheric space to develop freely and independently. This knotty problem can neither be wished away nor delayed until the US working class has won a Green New Deal. Huber is right that capital’s pursuit of profit is a fetter on our collective liberation. What he misses is that eco-modernism similarly fetters a world of flourishing for all.

Read on: Mark Burton & Peter Somerville, ‘Degrowth: A Defence’, NLR 115.