Technological productivity cannot be blindly accepted without scrutinizing its impact on people and the planet

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Why does Marxism, alongside capitalism, get blamed for disasters
such as Typhoon Haiyan,
Superstorm Sandy or Hurricane Katrina? The
answer, argue green critics, lies in the shared zeal of the two for an
infinite economic expansion, which they believe is burning up the
planet and stoking global climate change. For Marxism, harnessing an
ever-expanding economy is a means to amelioration of the human
condition. Capitalism, on the other hand, pursues this Holy Grail for
shareholders’ profits. Ironically, the stark divergence in their aims is
seen melt into convergence of their pathways that their critics
contend yield equally disastrous consequences for the planet.  

Marxism and Green Narratives

Critics, thus, view both Marxism and capitalism organically bound in their anthropocentrism and instrumentality of nature to further human ends. Anthropocentrism, as Arne Naess
claims, elevates humans to the status of a superorganism, and subjects
nature to their servitude until its extinction. Green critics,
nevertheless, are not monolithic in their vision of the natural world.
They occupy a wide spectrum of philosophical orientations, the
prominent of which include deep ecology, shallow ecology (liberal
environmentalism), social ecology, socialist ecology, eco-Marxism and
eco-socialism. All these variants of environmentalism are, in turn,
challenged by eco-feminism for neglecting gender, particularly in what
ecofeminists describe the “grand narratives” of Marxist and capitalist “ideologies.”

There is, however, a broad range of sub-sets within eco-feminism,
some of which are closer to Marxism (such as socialist eco-feminism)
while others hue to capitalism (such as liberal ecofeminism). All but
shallow ecologists and liberal ecofeminists are skeptical of modern
technologies, and their fervent advocates in Marxism and capitalism.
Driven by this skepticism, some of these groups, such as deep
ecologists and cultural ecofeminists, reject the intellectual inheritance of the Enlightenment era,
western science, modernity and technology as dark forces that they
believe ruined the environment. In contrast, these very forces are
embraced by both Marxism and capitalism as the first seed of human
progress. Green critics do not go unchallenged though. The celebrated
founder of social ecology Murray Bookchin
has fiercely taken deep ecologists and cultural ecofeminists to task
for their anti-technology fanaticism. In his erudite rebuttal, Bookchin
has challenged both with the sharpest of wit, strongest of words and
utmost deftness of a polemicist.

Marxism and the Green Left

Oddly enough, green critics are just as vociferously echoed by a growing section of the green left that tends to see Marxism as insufficiently green, ungreen or even brown. They take issue with Marx’s fabled concern for “the development of the productive forces,”
which was purported to rid humanity of the “brutal necessities” of
material existence. They see Marxism achieve this emancipation by
transforming nature through technological innovations (i.e., productive
forces), a premise that some on the green left finds hard to reconcile
with the contemporary environmental condition. In the like vein, what
Marxism envisions in the productive forces, capitalism enacts in their
realization (i.e., scientific progress and technological innovations).
This apparent approximation of the two has a section of Marxist
theorists and practitioners foreseeing in capitalism a transition to a social revolution.
Ironically, their conjured up intermediation of capitalism makes them
even tolerant of capital’s excesses as “collateral damage” on the way
to a revolutionary heaven on earth. In lay terms it is technophilia that drives Marxism and capitalism into each other’s arms,
and binds their critics in their putative technophobia. In general,
however, the green left has helped move the orthodox version of Marxism
in the ecologically informed direction that has made it even more
relevant to the contemporary human condition. Even so, the larger
question as to how to reconcile Marxism’s putative technophilia and the
greens’ and the green left’s assumed technophobia still remains
unanswered.

Technologies and Social Relations of Production

Although it is a hotly contested assumption, technologies themselves
are value-neutral. It is their “social relations of production” (i.e.,
social systems that underscore the development of productive forces)
that have them save or savage people and the planet. Social relations tend to foster or fetter production of a given technology,
such as fossil fuels or green energy; uranium enrichment for weapons
making, electrical power, or cancer treatment; human cloning or
therapeutic cloning; genetically modified organism (GMO) foods or
organic produce. Similarly, modern technologies could not have been
developed under the fetters of regressive feudalism. They awaited their
birth until after the overthrow of feudalism, and the reconstruction of
alternative social relations under “progressive capitalism”.
Absurdly, some greens, in their backward mental leap, have even come
to prize feudalism over capitalism for its putative small ecological
footprint. Here they indeed risk being perceived as misanthrope in the
extreme for abandoning any pretense of human concern in their zest for
naturism. Yet they decry capitalism and reject its progressive
potential in technological breakthroughs that they see at the heart of
ecological ruin. Their feud with Marx and Marxism also rests on this
same premise. 

Marx and Capitalism

Marx did recognize the progressive potential of capitalism
at a time when the masses of humanity were wallowing in misery. To
help liberate fellow humans from the brutal necessities of life, and
enable them to live up to their fullest potential as a self-determined
citizen, the development of the productive forces was deemed a
necessary, if not sufficient, condition for social revolution.  In
Marx’s times (1818-1883), these forces were developing, not developed,
which can be gauged from what was then considered to be the icons of
technology: telephone, train and steam ship. These technologies were,
nevertheless, benign, as their intended or unintended ecological
consequences were still in gestation. At the same time, their economic
and social benefits were all too obvious for humanity. They each helped
compress time and space, unlocked human economic potential, and paved
the way for lifting masses out of misery.
As a result, the more of such technologies were sought after to relieve human suffering. Marx and Engels were convinced
that dignified human living was bound up with the uninterrupted
development of productive forces, massive industrialization, and
ever-growing consumption to keep the former going, a rationale that
stokes their critics’ skepticism of Marxism to this day. Although Marx’s vision of the world was humanistic, it too was decried by greens as anthropocentrism
and speciesism. Yet the productive forces that capitalism has since
unleashed have become a doubled-edged sword that can simultaneously
save life and spell disasters. As a result, technological productivity
cannot be blindly accepted without scrutinizing its impact on people
and the planet. Marxist theorists, therefore, need to contextualize
Marx’s call for the development of the productive forces and, more
importantly, reassess capitalist technologies as to whether they
qualify to be “productive forces” in the first place, given their
“counterproductive” impact on both human and non-human nature. 
  
Contextualizing Marx

In the 150 years since Marx wrote, capitalism has been helping
itself to the low-hanging fruit of extractive technologies, such as
transformation of fossil fuels, minerals and metals into energy and
industrial products. Yet the intended benefits of such technologies
have begun to be obscured by their unintended disbenefits, especially
when one scans the depletion and degradation of natural resources, and
their impact on what Allan Schnaiberg
calls the environment’s source and sink limits. Global climate change,
together with typhoons, hurricanes, cyclones and superstorms, is the
result of exceeding these limits. Marx was profoundly aware of humans’
dependence on nature for their very survival, as Ted Benton, James
O’Conner, John Bellamy Foster, and Jason Moore, among others, have
diligently evidenced in their ecological accounting of Marx. In his
time, Marx did not confront ecological limits on the development of
productive forces; he rather observed ecological transformation being
constrained by the underdeveloped productive forces. Today, Marx, having
been an ecologically informed thinker, would not push against what the
Club of Rome report
comprehensively described as “ecological limits” to develop the
“undifferentiated” productive forces, as did capitalism imperiling the
very survival of humans on this planet.

A section of Marxist theorists prioritize concern for the economic
well-being of humanity over all other concerns, a position that is not
entirely without merits. But their inattention to ecology
as the very basis of human material provisioning is puzzling all the
same. It amounts to belaboring the obvious that prospects for
humanity’s economic well-being are not just dependent upon the
development of productive forces, but the productive and absorptive capacity of the environment
as well. Capitalist technologies have long been overtaxing the
environment’s capacity to produce and absorb, with the consequences
that have now grown unbearable for the planet and its inhabitants. The
world cannot wait indefinitely for capitalism to go on pursuing its
progressive potential in the interest of a hoped-for social revolution,
while leaving behind a trail of ecological and human wasteland. Also,
frequent calls are made on the greens to pay mind to the needs of the
working classes. While it is important to draw greens’ attention to
their neglect of the human condition, it is equally important to engage
those Marxists whose literalist allegiance to Marx’s writings has them
pursue the “development of the productive forces” with the same zeal
and to the same neglect of nature as that of capitalism.

Technologies Are No Nirvana

Technologies alone are no nirvana for human prosperity, unless their
fruits are widely shared. To the contrary, technologies have lent
themselves to concentrating their dividends in the fewest possible
hands. A case in point is the global economy of $71.8 trillion
(in 2012) that allows every person on earth to have $11,000 a year, and
a household of four to have $44,000 a year. If broadly distributed,
mass circulation of wealth would not only banish poverty but would have
created more, better and cleaner prosperity. Instead, capitalist
relations of production have engendered an island of prosperity in the
sea of poverty. This can be gauged from the holdings of the financial
class in the global derivatives market, which has risen in “value” to a
whopping $600 trillion!!!!
As such, financial capitalism is worth more than 8 times the size of
the global economy. Yet its distributive impact is just the opposite as
is evident from the fact that less than 1% (0.7%) of the world’s population owns $98.7 trillion
(i.e., 41%) of the global wealth, while about 70% of the world’s
population is left with 3% of the world’s wealth to subsist on. In the
United States alone, 400 richest Americans are worth more than half of all Americans
combined. These are the issues that persist not because of
“underdeveloped productive forces” but because of the global
distributive disorder that is so markedly skewed towards the wealthiest
few. While greens must consider the human condition, there is just as
much need for the advocates of productive forces to reconsider their
blind adherence to what is pejoratively called “productivism” as a panacea for human deliverance. 

Unplugging Fossil Fuel Technologies

Above all, many of the capitalist technologies are hard to grade as
“productive forces,” given their “counterproductive” impact. Nor will
capitalist relations of production allow the development of
technologies that are friendly to people and the planet. Just as
feudalism served as “fetters” on the development of “productive
forces,” so did capitalism on developing ecologically benign
technologies. Today, the fossil fuel industry, which forms the heart and
soul of modern capitalism, is hooked on ecologically destructive
technologies of energy production, which are also at the root of global
climate breakdown. Just in 2012 alone, the fossil fuel industry
invested $674 billion
in developing hydrocarbon-based energy, while its supporters in the
halls of power throw a chump change on the development of green
alternatives.

The world’s future seems even more fraught in light of the International Energy Agency’s prediction that the global investment in fossil fuel production will rise to $22.7 trillion
in 2012-2035. This alone explains why the fossil fuel industry stands
in the way of developing real “productive forces” that Marx would have
espoused: zero-emission energy from farming the sun, wind and water. It
is worth noting that the endless supply of energy from the sun and
wind cannot be measured even in trillions of barrels of oil and
quadrillions of cubic meters of natural gas. More importantly, solar
and wind power has virtually no expiration date, and costs least to the
environment. Despite these merits, capitalism and capitalist relations
of production are fettering the development of green energy because
fossil-fuel capitalists have trillions of dollars to lose if the switch
to renewable alternatives becomes a reality.

Marx for All Times, Or for Our Times?

So at this crossroads, what is the way forward? Defending the
development of the productive forces in the name of ending mass
privation? Waiting for capitalism’s progressive potential to exhaust
before the dawn of social revolution breaks out? Accepting human waste
along the road to revolution as “collateral damage”? Or scrutinizing
the very nature of the “productive forces” and their impact on both
people and the planet? The fact of the matter is that these putative
productive forces have already become “counterproductive” in their
impact. While the world still needs the development of the productive
forces, the concept of “productive forces” ought to be redefined in its
selective application to ecologically benign technologies such as solar
power — to the exclusion of fossil fuels. Similarly, searching for a
panacea in capitalist technologies for improving the human condition is
a fool’s errand as has been shown in the preceding two sections.
Instead, focus ought to be on the redistributive impact of technologies
and their dividends to better the human lot.

Isiah Berlin,
in his acerbic (rather acidified) criticism of Marxists, wrote that
they tend to eternalize Marx and his writings in their effort to
validate them for all times to come. Marx was, indeed, the most
prescient thinker who could foresee eons ahead. For this gift, he will
continue to be relevant for the ages to come. Yet there is no
gainsaying the fact that Marx lived in a specific time and space that
formed the context of his writings. In the mid-nineteenth century, the
mass of underdeveloped world and developing Europe needed to harness the
productive forces to emancipate the laboring masses from the
enslavement of brutal necessities of life. The transformative potential
of capitalist technologies was thus seen as a way out of human misery,
although the Dickensian world of industrial capitalism even then was
making its price unbearable. In the past 150 years, however, the cost
of “productive forces” to people and the planet has far outweighed
their benefits, pushing the humanity ever nearer to foreclosing on its
only abode – the planet earth. This impending “real estate bust” only
amplifies the need for altering the production and social relations of
production of future technologies to make them benign to ecology and
humanity alike.

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