Political Ecology

Mark Jones Jones_M at netcomuk.co.uk
Wed Dec 9 14:14:13 PST 1998

If political ecology had not become the preserve of students of divinity and anthropologists, instead of being the embracing and essential discipline it ought to be, I would think of renaming L-I the Political Ecology List and indeed have suggested as much to Hans Ehrbar. But as things are it would be misunderstood. The critique of political ecology can never be the world-historical task which Marx's critique of political economy was.

Yet capitalist crisis is entwined with eco-crisis, and the latter has perhaps become the determining last instance of the former. Eco-catastrophe may mark the final punctuation-mark in capitalism's brief and disequilibrated existence. The critique of political ecology ought therefore a matter of concern not just to Marxists or self-professed revolutionaries, but to anyone with an attention span greater than a goldfish's.

We need to focus on the central issues and not be sidetracked. My own checklist includes not only the usual suspects: anthropogenic climate change, loss of biodiversity and the invasive and irreversible (though little-quantified) impact on Nature of the life-engineering sciences -- nor should we be confined to related issues of capitalist economy and its material and energetic substrates. We need to cast the net wider, especially since (surprisingly), the centrality of the relationship between political economy and political ecology has not fully registered on the Left.

We need also to document and also to reconstruct, domains of theory whose relations to these themes has also been less well understood, such as the hypostatisation of the state, the metapsychology of the social contract in the possible absence or atrophy of civil society, and related so- called pomo themes which may prefigure post-capitalism.

These topics are also intimately connected with the all-important question of political organisation and the constitution of political pluralities committed to the necessary kinds of all-embracing social change, change profound enough to merit the term social revolution, but undoubtedly the minimum necessary to ensure the survival of functional human civilisation in an era of tectonic social-systemic transformation, eco-collapse and perhaps climate catastrophe. The Left in its obsessional need to romanticise revolution has never grasped the point which the paleo-right easily sees, namely that mass support for revolutionary regimes has always in real historical practice depended upon the mobilisation of *post-revolutionary* state power as the indispensable prerequisite of 'proletarian' ideo-political and hence social hegemony. Support for revolutionary coups d'etat in reality was thus never more than an uneasy amalgam of rejection of the insupportable oppression which actually exists, and dreams by the masses of a different but unrealisable future.

How, then, can mass support be mobilised *in the necessary absence of the proletarian state*, since that is the inevitable correlative of World Revolution (as Lenin foresaw in State and Revolution) and since no other kind of revolution is possible nowadays? The era of socialist state building has passed. This is the crucial impasse facing the masses in their attempts to oppose imperialism in every country from Indonesia to Russia where the capitalist regime has fallen into irreversible crisis (as it already has in most of Africa) and where capitalist social relations continue to subsist in societies which slip back to feudal production conditions, only because of the complete political immobilisation of the masses.

This is not a mere theoretical issue, either, but a literal matter of life and death to tens of millions now freezing in Russia or starving and homeless in Asia. And more: this issue and how it is resolved is perhaps the central issue of the whole era of transition, as the crises of the peripheries generalise, deepen and encroach on the metropoles. The deconstruction of the state into the technologies of surveillance and mass thought control is in any case already an advanced, material strategy of postmodern imperialism, as ideo-fragmentation and the techno-panopticon replace the fetishised absolutism of the totalised Enlightenment state with the greater obscurantism of the totalised individual qua hero of anti-history (thus in celebrating the general victory of the Anglo-Saxon ethnos, we also must celebrate the victory of Bentham over Hegel).

The critique of the state-form is thus also a metacritique of the entire tradition of socialist state-building, from the construction of the soviet state to the researches into social renewal of the modern Blairistas. The sources of such a critique are richly present within the marxist corpus, of course, but they need to be mobilised, the more especially since the Greens have only a black hole in their heads where the State should be.

The state's identity/unity, its mystificatory function as pole of social universality and constitutor and guarantor of the universal grounds of social existence which are encapsulated in the tables of rights and obligations which define the social being of each citizen, springs from its nature as mirror inverse of the social diversity of the division of labour and the psychic fragmentation of labour immersed/chained within it. The collapse pf socialist state-building means the definitive ending of the era of bipolar worlds, of a 'socialist' enclave within and competing with world capitalism: thus the overthrow of capitalism entails/is predicated on, the overthrow or supersession of the social division of labour itself, a truly colossal undertaking and one very uncertain of success. Yet without attempting it, humankind is doomed to remain entrapped within environmentally- suicidal (ecocidal) capitalism, and the clock is relentlessly ticking.

Who can doubt that the litany of eco-disaster will be so clamant within another decade that to continue with unsustainable capitalism will be ever more widely perceived as simply no longer an option? But the option of 'sustainable' capitalism is also no option at all. Nothing can prevent the veils being torn away from imperialism. Its spiral into global crisis is its only visible trajectory, and the fantasy of development has long been revealed as the truth of mass immiseration. Meanwhile US and European industry will still spew 60% of the carbon out, as the solemn pledges of Kyoto suffocate in colossal increases in metropolitan greenhouse emission. This is a kind of epochal, ecocidal lawlessness by the West. It simply cannot and will not continue.

The utter lack of popular legitimacy among the client regimes of the periphery helps paralyse opposition, but the question of sovereignty is opaque even where states, such as Russia now, begin inching their way into quasi-opposition.

How to win trust? -- as Russian premier Primakov has just been lamenting to the World Economic Forum session in Moscow, as if his people ought to trust him, sold as he already is to his comprador-banker mafia. But in any case, there will not and there cannot be another strong Russian state in the absence of a world revolution which of itself will dissolve states, yet without such a strong state it is impossible to mobilise the Russian working class. The power of the Russian state has always depended on its strong bond with the popular masses, amounting to a quasi-mystical dyadism of Russian absolutism and Russan national exceptionalism. The paradox of the leninist state-building project in the space of the former tsarist empire was its dynamic combination of these disparate elements: the archaic iconography of state-power uneasily subsisting throughout the entirety of Soviet history, with the leninist nostrums about internationalism and World Revolution which radically undercut state-building ab initio and prefigure wholly different futures. This anomalous but dynamic dualism existed not just in historical reality but in the heads of Soviet people themselves, and its loss occasioned much bewilderment and bitterness: even young entrepreneurs -- even mafiosi! -- complained that 'the government has abandoned us'.

We should not be surprised by this.

In his novel The Faculty of Useless Knowledge, the Soviet dissident writer Yury Dombrovsky wrote with savage intensity about the terror and dislocation of the Stalinist machine: the fear that locks people inside themselves forever; the third person present at every conversation "without bodily presence, spawned by the very air of the year 1937, dense and pregnant with terrors, listening in to every word, remembering all, saying nothing and misinterpreting what he has heard, after his own fashion, the most fearful fashion, one not compatible with life". Even the prosecutors - inscrutable, deadly and terminally wretched - are endearing with their talk of swimming, drinking, film-shows and family squabbles. Neiman discusses with his cousin the family tragedy he is writing about "the spiritual regeneration of the saboteur under the humane methods of Soviet interrogation" but he is tormented by the search for love and poetry'.

Neiman would be differently tormented in modern Russia. And is not the case that most of us secretly yearn for an inscrutable, omniscient being to watch our doings and overhear our thoughts? This desire for a secret interlocutor/judge is just what Calvinist elders horrified and delighted children with.

If you were sure that no conversation was private, you were also sure that you have a private hotline with Uncle Joe himself. The fascination and appalled desire which writers like Mikhail Bulgakov and Boris Pasternak felt for Stalin was shared by millions of their fellow countrymen and women (both Pasternak and Bulgakov -- and the latter was in truth virulently anti-soviet, in fact a former White counter-revolutionary -- were the unexpected recipients of phone calls from Stalin, and both were haunted and troubled by the experience to the end of their days: Stalin ended his talk with Bulgakov by promising to receive him, and it was a festering source of bitterness that the meeting never materialised; this was in 1937. As for Pasternak, who nearly fainted when he first heard Stalin's strong Georgian accent, he tried to upstage Bulgakov by himself proposing such a meeting.

'What would we discuss?' Stalin asked sceptically. Struggling for an answer, Pasternak said: 'Life and death,' whereupon Stalin abruptly hung up and the two men never spoke again, something Pasternak never forgave hismelf for).

As every honest Soviet citizen discovered, even the anti-Soviet among them, on the day the Soviet Union ceased to be, the period of abandonment began, of neglect, humiliation, of being taunted by the depthless cynicism and gered of the New Russians parading their ill- gotten gains.

The nexus between individual and state which, in the absence of a civil society, constituted Soviet reality, was the culture in which the secret- police state grew and was nourished. Its destruction traumatised the masses (last week the Duma, that delicate sensor of popular moods, voted overhwhelmingly to put Feliks Dzerzhinskii back on his pedestal outside the Lubyanka). This was also how socialism constructed itself from the materials which lay to hand.

The Russians will certainly try to reconstruct their state and they will be obliged to do so in the only possible way, that is, by seizing the moment of a US-led general economic slump to drive a still deeper wedge into the unity of the world system.


The political analysis of the conjuncture is one thing. We need also to sharpen our pencils and do more to understand the linkages between economic processes and ecological ones. How are the evolutionary crises of capitalist accumulation regimes impacted by the growing positive feedbacks of capitalist externalities, as these are revisited on the accumulation process? How are the traditional but not-so-well understood marxist laws of motion, of rising organic composition and falling profit rates and of capital over-accumulation, theoretically (dynamically) interlinked with the entropic disequilibria within global a energy-system still locked and increasingly dependent upon fossil (carbon) fuels?

The Capital-Nature-Socialism current, the ecological economists and many others have addressed these issues with fragmentary successes, and much more needs to be done. This elist may also make a definable contribution. To that end, I hope we shall collectively refine the List Mission to more rigorously thematise discussion.

The politics of class-based revolution, as informed by Marxist theory, has to be reinvented. We should not abandon the revolutionary, anti-imperialist dimension of marxism-leninism but we need to re-infuse it with meaning and content. This means drastically broadening out the political scope of the list.

This is one reason why we need to redefine the list mission and perhaps rename the list. Another is that the list has to play a theoretical/critical role more than an organisational role, so that the name 'Leninist-International' with its invocation of a storied and very specific history of struggle and organisation, is no longer appropriate. In the West, Leninism has generally become synonymous with the most vacuous, shrill and vitriolic kinds of political sectarianism. The relentless march of social imperialism, the recuperation of metropolitan proletariats financed by the phenomenal acceleration of unequal exchange with the semi-colonial peripheries (which underlies the fantasy of 'globalisation') and geometric growth in global inequality, and the general crisis of etatism, have removed the Western left's social basis at least temporarily and the revolutionary tradition is now a playground for poseurs, cranks and the mentally ill. A different situation obtains in the peripheries, of course. But everywhere the revolution remains trapped within archaic and obsolete horizons, its struggles encapsulated by demands for democracy, self-determination or sovereignty, none of which can constitute the basis for successful revolution today.

Nevertheless, the political destiny of the metropolitan working class is still a completely central political preoccupation. The world system is octopus with several heads where agglomerate large scientific-technical social couches. These are ultimately proletarian, and they constitute the few percent of the world's workers (perhaps 200 million from more than 2 billion) who valorise the social capital.

The exhaustion of imperialism's material potential does nothing to diminish the historical significance of these groups, and their political rivenness and propensity for ideological capture by obscurantist neofascist and chauvinist propagandas only makes their political fate a still more consuming matter of concern. They cannot be written off, on the contrary.

It is obvious that the theoretically-empty Trotskyite and Stalinoid sectarians have nothing whatever to offer in the political rebirth of western proletariats. So the salvaging of the key social couches and their reconstitution as a class-for-self must begin as a proletarian politics de novo.


Marx did not have to invent Political Economy in order to criticise it. But the apotheosis of economics as the representation of bourgeois social relations is largely thanks to him. As for ecology, which shares the same etymology, a still greater beatification may prove necessary, since ecology long ago stumbled and fell and is no longer the defining environmental science, perhaps not a science at all. But ecology's ambiguous semi-oppositional status has always been evident. It has never been respectable. Therefore we may adopt it as the orphan of degenerate bourgeois science and make it our own (what taints ecology is its proximity to philosophy, of course; nowadays science is only a matter of instrumentalities; evidence of anything more is bound to raise suspicions). Political Ecology ought to be the study of social processes embedded within their natural locale. Instead it is a minor branch of anthropology cross-fertilised with theology and wracked with Harvard angst.

It should be the keystone discipline of the environmental and life sciences. The fact that the keystone is probably missing from the arch ought to alert us to the disarray within those sciences, which are as radically incoherent as are particle physics and quantum mechanics, and perhaps for the same reasons.

Without putting politics in command of ecology there is no reason to doubt that calamity will result, perhaps already has, from the sciences of which it should form (but certainly does not) a general rubric. There are those who do not see this and never will, who are convinced that the black hole at the heart of science is actually a transcendent mystery which we better not mess with for fear of turning science into superstition and magic. But this fear of anthropic conjecture is misplaced. It is not the pursuit of knowledge which is the problem, it is the conversion of that pursuit into a general social process, and not an unimportant one either, but one which defines humankind's metabolism with the external[ised] world. Unfortunately this metabolic exchange is completely blind, the result of millions of invisible transactions, and it produces not by design, unmeant, a social and natural world thereby rendered unknowable and out of control.

It is useless to talk of capitalist desecration and compare this with the imagined, desired socialist resacralisation, of nature. Useless not merely because of the dismal experience of 'socialist construction' and planning generally. Actually, only absurd misconceptions of what is at stake and complete ignorance of the actual history (or a wilful refusal to confront the circumstances in which these things took place) permits people to think that for example Stalin's planning of war industry (driven by the imminence of capitalist attack) bore some other-than-fortuitous relationship to planning *in the absence of world capitalism*. No, the point is that we face what are at bottom quite simple problems; only capitalism (its form of stochastic accumulation) makes them practically insoluble. More like good housekeeping than faustian dilemmas. In fact, safeguarding the physical environment would really be very simple, like cleaning a house, if you could do it your own way, in your own time, but instead what you have is a slavering beast roaring in the corner the whole time and threatening to tear the whole place down unless you feed its insatiable appetite with every morsel you have, offering even yourself in lieu of your own children.

To recapitulate, IMO the List should focus on capitalist crisis, imperialism and the accumulation regime, the restructuring of the working class, eco-crisis and environmental change, and the state.

Mark Jones

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list