The Marxist Green Lantern confronts the Menace of Runaway Capital

by Rick Elmore

I was talking to a student from my Multiculturalism seminar after class last week.  We had been reading sections of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in particular, those concerned with the industrialization of corn.  I had gone to some lengths to show how the Nixon era changes to the US Farm Bill contributed to the over production of corn, in addition to the link between fossil-fuels and the move of the arms industry into agriculture after WWII.  This student had several questions and small points of clarification.  However, during this conversation he mentioned that he had found it interesting how so many of the concerns of our class (hospitality, language, law, the public and private, food, etc) seemed to come back to a critique of capitalism.  He brought this point up several times.  It wasn’t clear to me if he thought this was a criticism or not, but, as the conversation went on, it began to seem like he thought of me as some sort of Marxist Green Lantern, turning everything I had the will to imagine into a concrete critique of capital.  Now of course the Green Lantern is the most Hegelian of all superheroes.  I mean good lord, the Green Lantern Corps fights fear and chaos with Will, one can’t get much more Hegelian than that (although in fairness, Hegel would call it Spirit and not Will). Given this, it would only make sense that a young Hegelian such as Marx would be somewhat Green Lantern like.  Now perhaps this characterization was not my student’s intention.  Not everyone I guess sees the analogy between philosophers and superheroes with the same clarity. However, his comments reminded me of just how important making the connection to capitalism is for those of us working in environmental philosophy.

The simple fact of the matter is that one can’t responsibly take up or teach anything resembling environmental thought without addressing capitalism, and addressing it, necessarily, in a critical way.  If the need for this criticalness is not immediately self-evident, I find Chris Williams’s book Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket Books, 2010) particularly helpful.

For those not familiar with Williams’s work, Ecology and Socialism is a great introduction to the essential conflict between capitalism and environmentalism.  It offers a remarkably clear, concise, and compelling case for the ways in which capitalism can’t possibly offer real or lasting solutions to the environmental degradation it creates.  One of the key claims Williams makes to support the thesis of his book is that although, in principle, capitalism can make basically anything profitable, the historical evolution of capital in relation to fossil-fuels seriously limits the possibility of a capitalism fueled by “green” energy.  As he puts it, “now that capitalism has evolved in a particular way and has developed a world economic system predicated on fossil fuel-driven growth, it is caught on the horns of its own historical development” (74).  Williams here follows out Marx’s insight in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, that outmoded forms of social production can limit the ability of society to address peoples’ real needs.  The massive investment of fixed capital in the extraction, production, and use of fossil-fuels (over 13 trillion dollars according to Williams) functions to vastly curtail the possibility for capitalism to pursue more environmentally friendly forms of energy consumption.  The weight of historical development shapes the material possibilities of capitalism in a way that flies in the face of the logic of capitalism.  Capital can’t go green, not because green energy isn’t or can’t be made profitable, but because it has too much invested in fossil-fuels to give them up.  I find this argument remarkably compelling, and it seems to me difficult to take up issues of the environment without addressing the logic laid out above.  However, even if one holds out the hope that some form of capitalist alternative could be developed, it certainly would not resemble the form of global capital we have on the ground at present.  Hence, as my student observed, one is forced to return to a critique of capital, not because one is an ideological Marxist (although one might be) but rather because this conflict of capital and environmentalism is what we have on the ground.  Now, I think this is more than a moralist point, since once we accept that a critique of capitalism is important to our environmental thinking, it opens up a connection between such a critique and the kinds of environmental thinking we might do.  For example, given the prominence of OOO in several recent posts, it would be interesting to revisit the links between OOO and Marxism (something Levi Bryant, among others, has written about).  What is the link between our relationship to objects and our thinking of capital?  What is the link between ethics and OOO?  This is something I’d like to pursue perhaps in a subsequent post. However, in the mean time, it seems like it might be wise to all break out our green power rings and get to work willing those concrete critiques.



Filed under Environmental Ethics, Objects, OOO

11 responses to “The Marxist Green Lantern confronts the Menace of Runaway Capital

  1. Jeff Tangel

    Thank you Rick for a compelling post about capitalism trapped in its own logic and the effect of that on the environment. These kinds of non-ideological critiques are truly valuable, because as much as capitalism is bound by its sunk investments, we are all bound by its discourse. Your post helps loosen the bindings. The belief that capitalism is a hard-fast science of exchange is a yoke that will surely sink us. Capitalism is a social construct that has become a religion, one so powerful that it is the primary creative (and destructive) force in our world (some may disagree, but I would argue this on borrowed money!). You might say it has taken the place of the medieval Church, filling the void left by the failure of the Enlightenment to reason our way towards a life of meaning. It seems to me that OOO is, in the end, all about ethics…and since capitalism is near-perfectly amoral, its creative (and destructive) role in our world must be greatly reduced or eliminated. That is, if OOO succeeds where the Enlightenment failed then alternative, radically democratic methods of creation (and destruction) must be found.
    I’m not much of a superhero buff, but Godspeed to all engaged in that!

  2. Interesting post and very important:the ecological crisis cannot be solved under capitalism but only under socialism; only under a system which puts people and their lives before profits.

    • Christine Skolnik

      I like your definition of socialism here because it very simply puts people and their lives before capital . . . if I were to choose obsessions (or fetishes.) Jeff?

    • Christie Klimas

      Since the economic system is a means of valuing objects (resources), would placing the highest value on human lives lead to a culture that extended lives, or otherwise led people to behave as if their lives had maximum value (and were of infinite importance)? What about other species? How would they be incorporated? I guess I don’t feel that socialism would accurately describe a vision of an ideal system since it is still human focused. My perspective is less philosophical and I would love to hear outlines of other visions of a future system that could replace the capitalist system with its focus on growth and profits in lieu of those things that we value most (clean air, diversity, low crime, clean water, social gatherings, ultimate frisbee, etc.). OK, the ultimate frisbee was just to lighten the tone.

      • Jeff Tangel

        This is a great conversation, prompting a lot of thoughts for me, so I’m going to take a shot with my inchoate understanding of OOO (nothing ventured…!)

        When thegodlessutopian confidently names socialism as the only cure for our condition he is naming a hyper-object, and expects that one of the affects of this entity is “putting people before profits”. CS empathically agrees with this sentiment—as surely most people do—and names socialism’s arch rival hyper-object, capital, whose affect is infinite growth—that is, increasing returns to itself. In its pure state, capital has no other regard—and this is very off-putting for her (and rightly so!).

        CK seems like the idea of socialism, but worries that privileging people will come at the expense of other species—and if I can extrapolate, might not enable a way out of our ecological crisis. Put into OOO speak, she thinks “the others” are due their share of “care and concern”, as Tim Morton might say.

        The addition of the suffix, “ism” universalizes an idea to become an ideology, and ideologies of all stripes trap us in their discourse as they attempt to homogenize an infinitely diverse world. Ideologies are a simplification of immense complexity—a shorthand, and in fact lazy escape from the hard work of thinking, case by case (as Galbraith said in his, The Affluent Society). Because ideologies are broad sweeping stokes across infinite numbers of species and objects and all of their interconnectedness (the “mesh”), their affects are unknowable. Since ideologies can pay no particular attention to the infinite array of stuff—but instead attempt to squeeze everything into their own rubrics—all ideologies eventually fail. Put another way, we simply cannot model the world. Perhaps we can say the devil really is indeed in the details!

        I’ve been thinking about the three major socio-economic orderings: capitalism, socialism and communism, and it occurs to me (however simply!) that the latter two are grounded in humans and their intrinsic complexity (social and community), especially moral complexity—and this makes them compelling. Capitalism, on the other hand, cannot make any such claim—this alone should make us all ill at ease. What were we thinking? The only human connection capitalism has is that someone came up with the idea of capital as an entity. Capital has never been observed, it doesn’t exist as do societies and communities. And in fact, carving the idea of capital out of labor, intentionally and purposefully eliminated any human characteristics. And worse: the entity is pure simplicity—unlike anything I can think of, except to say that it is kin to cancer, in the sense that its teleology is pure unfettered reproduction of itself. In other words, omeone came up with an idea that must replicate itself—how weird is that? Put this way, capital seems an insanely stupid idea. And so we can think of very ardent capitalists in a new way: to the extent that they are driven towards infinite reproduction, we should, in all seriousness, begin to question their very sanity.

        But to get back to the practical matter at hand—that is, what system might we turn to—the answer I think is no one in particular. If we accept infinite complexity and are inclined (or compelled) towards care and concern, there is no one system, but instead many, many (and many again) systems. This notion most resembles a democracy of things and as such, must lead us to unwind the hegemony of capitalism, while taking great pains to avoid falling into any traps of imagined universal simplifications. It seems to me there will be assemblages of systems, all flexible and porous, that will come together and part, thus mirroring the complex world we live in—but necessarily reflecting and manifesting sets of values we truly hold dear (like concern for the strange stranger—or in non-OOO speak, clean air and Ultimate Frisbee!). Perhaps the idea of capital has some role. If so, nothing like it does today. Capital seems a too wily and insatiable, amoral fiction for the parliament to want to have around.

      • Christie Klimas

        Wow. I’m more than impressed with Jeff’s reply – and I think I understood all the OOO-speak! I agree that a society based on cancer-like growth of one metric will eventually destroy our planet – as cancer destroys its host. Indeed, I am worried that any system that uses only one metric to gauge its success, even using other metrics as constraints (unemployment, etc.), is doomed to fail. We as people make decisions based on an often conflicting set of metrics (money, morals, care for others, care for ourselves, safety, etc.). Even if I tried to limit myself only to making decisions based on increasing my happiness, would I maximize my happiness by playing frisbee, eating chocolate or giving to one who is less fortunate? And while I like components of socialism, I feel that it does not go far enough in addressing the complexity of the way we make decisions and still leaves us vulnerable to maximizing one metric while minimizing others. Even if we use constraints (only so much land deforested or so many species lost), I fear that we may repeat the same mistakes of capitalism (though in a different way – almost like a parallel universe).

        I wholeheartedly agree with Jeff when he states “This notion most resembles a democracy of things and as such, must lead us to unwind the hegemony of capitalism, while taking great pains to avoid falling into any traps of imagined universal simplifications. It seems to me there will be assemblages of systems, all flexible and porous, that will come together and part, thus mirroring the complex world we live in—but necessarily reflecting and manifesting sets of values we truly hold dear (like concern for the strange stranger—or in non-OOO speak, clean air and Ultimate Frisbee!).”

        But I think that as people, we should question the status quo with the goal of improving it. And thus our system (socialist, capitalist, communist or otherwise) could be a democratic ideal constantly under revision by its concerned and engaged participants.

      • Jeff Tangel

        Hey Christie, I can’t reply–dunno why, no link–under your last, very kind and much appreciated comment on my last post…but thanks! I just wanted to say that I think you hit on something very important there—we need to constantly question what it is we’re doing, all of us, together, an effort towards awareness about means and ends. This is a radical, almost heretical idea in itself: “Reflection? Nonsense…Act!” (Actually I think it is heresy, so I’m all for it!)

        And in another post in this series, Christine S. indicts the “profound ignorance of history and the physical sciences [that] underwrites a lot of this neoliberal nonsense.” All of which made me think of Betrand Russell’s lament, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

        What are we going to do about that? (S.O.S.!)

  3. cskolnik

    One thing that astonishes me is the essentializing of fossil fuels as a primary resource. In human history the “era” of fossil fuels is a blip. In the history of the earth it’s imperceptible. An ecological definition of sustainability starts with solar energy. It’s not a new fangled iIdea, socialist plot, or new age fantasy, unless common sense is suddenly the exclusive purview of the left (no comment). A profound ignorance of history and the physical sciences underwrites a lot of this neoliberal nonsense.

  4. Edali

    Insightful narrative, thank you

    Btw, the reference to OOO is?

    • Jeff Tangel

      Thank you…In The Ecological Thought, Tim Morton takes us down into the world of the strange stranger, a world in which sensible acts are predicated upon “care and concern” or more simply, “love”. I hesitate somewhat to write this because of the possibility of diminishing his work towards cliche, thereby losing the richness of his argument–so please do read this amazing book; it is anything but cliche. Moreover, his recent post, Guilt, Shame and Sadness, leads us in the same direction, again a rich argument in which he shows his appreciation for Buddhist thought by quoting Chogyam Trungpa regarding the “fearlessness” within the heart of a warrior–which is likely not what you think! Trungpa says, “… when a human being first gives birth to the tender heart of warriorship, he or she may feel extremely awkward or uncertain about how to relate to this kind of fearlessness. But then, as you experience this sadness more and more, you realize that human be- ings should be tender and open. So you no longer need to feel shy or embarrassed about being gentle. In fact, your softness begins to become passionate. You would like to extend yourself to others and communicate with them.” “Warriorship” I take to be “awareness” of the strange stranger, a state in which courage grows to enable the warrior to show care and concern, fearlessly.
      Here’s that post:

    • Christine Skolnik

      Hi Edali,
      Thank you for you interest! This is a great intro to OOO written by the author:

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