Environmental Sociology - Concepts - Eco-Marxism


In the middle of the HEP/NEP debate, the general trend of Neo-Marxism was occurring. There was cross pollenization. Neo-Marxism was based on the collapse of the widespread believability of the Marxist social movement in the failed revolts of the 1960s and the rise of many New Social Movements that failed to fit in many Marxist analytic frameworks of conflict sociology. Sociologists entered the fray with empirical research on these novel social conflicts. Neo-Marxism's stress on the relative autonomy of the state from capital control instead of it being only a reflection of economic determinism of class conflict yielded this novel theoretical viewpoint in the 1970s. Neo-Marxist ideas of conflict sociology were applied to capital/state/labor/environmental conflicts instead of only labor/capital/state conflicts over production.

Therefore, some sociologists wanted to stretch Marxist ideas of social conflict to analyze environmental social movements from this materialist framework instead of interpreting environmental movements as a more cultural "New Social Movement" separate than material concerns. So "Eco-Marxism" was based on using Neo-Marxist conflict sociology concepts of the relative autonomy of the state applied to environmental conflict.

Two people following this school were James O'Connor (The Fiscal Crisis of the State, 1971) and later Allan Schnaiberg.

Later, a different trend developed in eco-Marxism via the historical revisionism of Marxist thought by John Bellamy Foster that desired to push 'eco-Marxism' back to the original Marx himself instead of being only a trend first analyzed in the 1970s. Foster challenged those who assumed Marx neglected the environmental concerns as had been argued in the 1970s against using the classical sociological theorists as a foundation for environmental sociology. Delving into the third volume of Marx's Das Kapital, Foster argued (1999) that environmentalism didn't have to be imported into Marx's thought because Marx himself was the original 'eco-Marxist' or (his phrase) "eco-communist" who wanted to remove the exploitation of the urban factory worker simultaneously with the removal of rural exploitation of the landscape by industrial agriculture, instead of Marx by the end of his life showing a clear preference of the former over the latter. Thus Foster argues the ecological concerns don't have to be "imported" into classical Marxism, only merely rediscovered in Marx's analysis of the British Agricultural Revolution. In stereotypical interpretations of Marx that eco-Marxist scholar Foster critiques, there was a Promethean view of Marx that assumed Marx was very similar to the anthropocentric cultural views critiqued by early environmental sociologists as the Human Exemptionalism Paradigm. Instead, Foster argued Marx himself was an 'eco-communist' concerned about the "Metabolic Rift" of industrial societies with the environment particularly in industrial agriculture destroying the productivity of the land and creating wastes in urban sites that fail to be reintegrated into the land and thus lead toward destruction of urban workers health simultaneously. By this, Foster critiques the assumption in early environmental sociologists that classical sociological thinkers like Marx were supportive of the "Human Exemptionalist Paradigm" and neglectful of environmental conditions in their analysis.

Societal-environmental dialectic

In 1975, the highly influential work of Allan Schnaiberg transfigured environmental sociology, proposing a societal-environmental dialectic, though within the 'neo-Marxist' framework of the relative autonomy of the state as well. This conflictual concept has overwhelming political salience. First, the economic synthesis states that the desire for economic expansion will prevail over ecological concerns. Policy will decide to maximize immediate economic growth at the expense of environmental disruption. Secondly, the managed scarcity synthesis concludes that governments will attempt to control only the most dire of environmental problems to prevent health and economic disasters. This will give the appearance that governments act more environmentally conscious than they really do. Third, the ecological synthesis generates a hypothetical case where environmental degradation is so severe that political forces would respond with sustainable policies. The driving factor would be economic damage caused by environmental degradation. The economic engine would be based on renewable resources at this point. Production and consumption methods would adhere to sustainability regulations.

These conflict-based syntheses have several potential outcomes. One is that the most powerful economic and political forces will preserve the status quo and bolster their dominance. Historically, this is the most common occurrence. Another potential outcome is for contending powerful parties to fall into a stalemate. Lastly, tumultuous social events may result that redistribute economic and political resources.

Treadmill of production

In 1980, the highly influential work of Allan Schnaiberg entitled The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity (1980) was a large contribution to this theme of a societal-environmental dialectic. Moving away from economic reductionism like other neo-Marxists, Schnaiberg called for an analysis of how certain projects of "political capitalism" encouraged environmental degradation instead of all capitalism per se. This ongoing trend in Marxism of 'neo-Marxist' analysis (meaning, including the relative autonomy of the state) here added the environmental conditions of abstract additions and withdrawals from the environment as social policies instead of naturalized contexts.

Schnaiberg's political capitalism, otherwise known as the 'treadmill of production,' is a model of conflict as well as cooperation between three abstracted groups: the state, capital (exclusively monopoly capital with its larger fixed costs and thus larger pressures for ongoing expansion of profits to justify more fixed costs), and (organized) labor. He analyzes only the United States at length, though sees such a treadmill of production and of environmental degradation in operation in the Soviet Union or socialist countries as well. The desire for economic expansion was found to be a common political ground for all three contentious groups—in capital, labor, and the state—to surmount their separate interests and postpone conflict by all agreeing on economic growth. Therefore, grounds for a political alliance emerge among these conflictual actors when monopoly capitalism can convince both of the other nodes to support its politicized consolidation. This can appeal to the other nodes since it additionally provides expanding state legitimacy and its own funding while providing (at least at the time) secure worker employment in larger industries with their desired stable or growing consumption. This political capitalism works against smaller scale capitalism or other uses of the state or against other alliances of labor. Schnaiberg called the 'acceleration' of the treadmill this degradative political support for monopoly capitalism's expansion. This acceleration he felt was at root merely an informal alliance—based solely on the propaganda from monopoly capital and the state that worker consumption can only be achieved through further capitalist consolidation.

However, Schnaiberg felt that environmental damage caused by state-political and labor-supported capitalist expansion may cause a decline both in the state's funding as well as worker livelihood. This provides grounds for both to reject their treadmill alliance with monopoly capital. This would mean severing organized labor support and state policy support of monopoly capital's desires of consolidation. Schnaiberg is motivated to optimism by this potential if states and labor movements can be educated to the environmental and livelihood dangers in the long run of any support of monopoly capital. This potentially means these two groups moving away from subsidizing and supporting the degradation of the environment. Schnaiberg pins his hopes for environmental improvement on 'deceleration' of the treadmill—how mounting environmental degradation might yield a breakdown in the acceleration-based treadmill alliance. This deceleration was defined as state and working labor movements designing policies to shrink the scale of the economy as a solution to environmental degradation and their own consumptive requirements. Meanwhile, in the interim, he argued a common alliance between the three is responsible for why they prefer to support common economic growth as a common way to avoid their open conflicts despite mounting environmental costs for the state as well as for laborers due to environmental disruption.

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