Karl Marx and ‘eco-Marxism’

The threat of ‘ecocidal capitalism’ is linked to the absence of a class-conscious international proletariat, writes Rex Dunn

Toxic capitalism: artwork by David LaChapelle

Benjamin Kunkel is a 44-year-old American with a degree in creative writing from Columbia University. He has written an excellent review of four recent books about the ecology of the planet in the London Review of Books (March 2 2017). The last two belong to the category of ‘eco-Marxism’ and offer some important new insights. Therefore I shall focus my attention on these. If I make any errors along the way, I am happy to be corrected by other, better informed Weekly Worker readers.

First up is Jason Moore’s Capitalism in the web of life: ecology and the accumulation of capital (London 2015). The second one is Andreas Malm’s Fossil capital: the rise of steam power and the roots of global warming (London 2015).

But, before I can proceed, the first big question to be considered is the meaning of the term ‘Anthropocene’. Kunkel agrees with Moore’s argument that it is ill-conceived from a Marxist perspective. For Moore, the defect in “the Anthropocene argument”, associated with the Greens, is that it “presents humanity as a ‘homogeneous acting unit’”, whereas human beings live in “particular historical forms of society”, characterised by specific “property relations” that lead to certain “dispositions towards ‘extra human nature’”. Therefore, Moore argues, the ‘Anthropocene’ should be renamed the “Capitalocene”, corresponding to the rise of capitalism after 1450 (which also marks a turning point in the history of man’s relationship with the rest of nature). By contrast, Malm locates the origin of the present ecological crisis several hundred years later: ie, global warming was set off by modern capitalism - the age of coal-burning industrialisation.

Kunkel is right to argue that “there can be no ecologically sound capitalism”. He also urges us not to be complacent about the next mode of production freeing us from pollution, citing the Soviet bloc as an example. Of course, he fails to point out that the latter was a mode of production sui generis - ie, neither fish nor fowl - and therefore could not last for long in historical terms, but it was long enough for “the USSR to drain away the Aral Sea and let the Chernobyl reactor melt down”, while “the GDR emitted the most sulphur dioxide per capita of any country”, etc (LRB p23). On the other hand, he is right to reappraise ‘Anthropocene’ in historical materialist terms, implying that, once man has achieved a classless society, then we will live in a truly Anthropocene world: ie, one in which humanity is able to regulate its interchange with nature rationally, bring it under our common control, etc.1


This argument immediately raises the notion of instrumentalism, or means-end necessity, regardless of the human cost or the damage that this might do to the environment. Initially this can be attributed to the empiricism of the bourgeois political economists. For them, knowledge is the product of the rational observation of the world, leaving no room for speculative thought. This led to Ricardo’s “heartless indifference to the suffering propertyless classes” - compare this to German idealism, such as Schiller’s aesthetic criticism of reality, whereby he argues that the “mechanical pressure of wants”, this “realm of necessity ..., cannot serve as the soil for genuine artistic productivity”, which is the essence of man.2 Almost before it began, the ‘dark’ side of the enlightenment had replaced the hopes of its authors for a new social order based on reason and natural law, in the name of ‘universal humanity’.

For classical Marxists this is inextricably linked to the period of generalised commodity production/commodity fetishism, along with the market mechanism - as opposed to earlier periods, when the commodity was “a particular, isolated, non-dominant form”.3 On this basis, therefore, in terms of the argument about the periodicity, then one would have to agree with Malm. But this is not to decry Moore’s argument as a whole. On the other hand, although both of them recognise the role of private property in human alienation, Kunkel, Moore and Malm tend to underplay the role of alienated wage-labour, the bourgeois hierarchical division of labour, along with the role of commodity fetishism. (But perhaps this is because they assume that the reader already understands the role of the ‘big four’ vis-à-vis alienation/false consciousness in general?)

Malm is certainly right to argue that the Green version of climate change is “relocated from the sphere of natural causes to that of human activities”, only to be “renaturalised” a moment later as the excrescence of “an innate human trait”. He continues: “Capitalists in a small corner of the western world invested in steam, laying the foundation of the fossil economy; at no moment did the species ... exercise any sort of shared authority over its destiny and that of the earth system.” Similarly today, “In the earliest 21st century, the poorest 45% of humanity generated 7% of CO2 emissions, whilst the richest 7% produced 50%.” Kunkel adds: “For both Malm and Moore, capitalism [is] the overriding determinant of humanity’s recent ecological career.”

Hence, Kunkel continues:

... human beings have fundamentally shaped life on earth for thousands of years, a fact that the term ‘Anthropocene’ refers to. [But the] unprecedented scope and pace of such change is better evoked by the term ‘Capitalocene’ ... ‘Anthropocene’ is here to stay, but just how it unfolds over coming generations will be decided whether, politically, it remains true ‘Capitalocene’ (“privileging the endless accumulation of capital”, as Moore puts it) or becomes for the first time a properly political Anthropocene, in which the interests of humanity as a whole chart our ecological course (LRB p23).

Kunkel now turns to the term ‘eco-Marxism’ itself: “In classical Marxist terms, modes of production can be described in terms of the relations of production (among human beings) and forces of production (human labour applied to the means of production, such as tools and machines, and raw materials)” (p23). He stresses the fact that neither Marx nor Engels had a narrow, productivist bias towards progress (as attributed to them by their bourgeois critics). Rather Marx was at pains to point out that “all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil”.

Engels later generalised Marx’s concern for soil exhaustion into something like a law of environmental blowback:

Let us not ... flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us ... Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, but that we ... belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.4

Rosa Luxemburg in The accumulation of capital (1913) goes on to argue that capitalism can only expand by dragging “‘into the orbit of the commodity economy’ ever more of ‘the natural economy’ outside capitalist exchange, and Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of enlightenment (1944) lamented the instrumental reason that sought to control and quantify nature to no purpose beyond the automatic pursuit of profit” (p24).

For Kunkel, the rise of eco-Marxism is also part of the inheritance of Marx’s and Engel’s thought. He writes: “In 1988, James O’Connor, founding editor of the American journal, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, proposed that the ‘capital-nature relation’ is no less fundamental to the capital-labour relation in analysing how capitalism reproduces and, ultimately undermines itself.” In his book, Marx’s ecology (2000), Bellamy Foster reminds us of “Marx’s critique of the unsustainable metabolism (Stoffwechsel), by which capitalist agriculture extracts from the soil more nutrients than it replaces”; hence the rift between “capitalist humanity [surely the rule of capital] and nature: the compulsion to accumulate ever more capital rules out the metabolic equilibrium that would allow a society to maintain indefinitely the environment from which it indefinitely takes its livelihood”. (At this stage, Kunkel does not raise the related problem of environmental pollution: ie, the over-use use of fertiliser or chemical pesticides to expand agricultural production, which eventually is washed into the rivers and even the oceans.)

Kunkel reminds us that it is often forgotten that Marx and Engels were also aware that capital accumulation is an ecological process as well. But, from the start, bourgeois political economists compartmentalised nature and society, undialectically implying that nature exists outside of society. Therefore nature can “be coded, quantified and rationalised to serve economic growth”: ie, an instrumental end, which is production for production’s sake. This amounts to the naturalisation of capitalism itself. On the other hand, Moore - and Kunkel - envisage capitalism not as “an economic system”, but “a way of organising nature”. Equally this is also an undialectical view of the capitalist mode of production and its negative effects vis-à-vis man and the rest of nature.

‘Cheap natures’

According to Kunkel, Moore goes on to “a standard reading of Marx’s law of value”:

... capital strives to get ever more commodity production from an hour’s labour, while paying the labourers less for that hour as a share of its costs ... the effort to boost labour productivity in the workplace [is] united with another imperative. Capitalism “must ceaselessly search for, and find ways to produce, cheap natures” as inputs to commodity production. These belong to four categories: food, labour-power itself, energy and raw materials. Staple foods must become cheaper, because household expenditure on them accounts for much of the base cost of hiring workers (pp24-25).

As for energy, the aim is to make it more efficient and cost-effective. This led to improvements in the design of watermills, to windmills, sailing ships, making propulsion by water and wind cheaper. Energy from fossilised fuels “enabled motorised transport and drove industrial production”, bringing down costs. “Finally raw materials too must become cheaper”, in order to lower the costs of building construction and the manufacture of goods. But:

The trend over recent centuries has been for labour-power to become more expensive, while the price of energy and raw materials has tended to fall ...

“The Dutch Republic was the 17th century’s ‘model capitalist nation’ - in Marx’s phrase - because it organised and led a world ecological regime that delivered cheap grain (from Poland), cheap energy (from domestic peat), and cheap timber (from Norway and the Baltic) to the northern Netherlands.” To the degree that the ‘four cheaps’ can be secured, both the efforts of labourers and the cruder components of the labour process can be cheaply had. The productivity of an hour’s labour will therefore rise, and the opportunity for profit to expand.

According to the logic of ‘cheap nature’, Moore argues that “more and more extra-human nature [external nature] attaches to every quantum of socially necessary labour time”. [Kunkel adds:] “Capitalism’s ecological project, in other words, is to enlarge the quotient of ‘unpaid nature’, like that of unpaid labour, in the total value of saleable commodities.”

He also states that

most writers on Marx’s value theory ... typically concentrate on machines and other infrastructure (‘fixed capital’) in the means of production to the neglect of energy and raw materials (‘circulating capital’). As Moore points out, “circulating capital is the forgotten moment in Marx’s model”.

In other words, they are reluctant to admit

the full import of non-human energy and raw materials, when these are obviously not products of human labour. But, as Marx himself insisted, “labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values ... as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature”.

Can capitalism come by cheap nature indefinitely? Moore identifies a counter-tendency, which he calls “the tendency of ecological surplus to fall”.

The latter may be described as the

contribution that the flood of non-human ‘work/energy’ into the economy makes capital accumulation over and above the cost of procuring it. The ecological surplus will fall whenever capital can’t maintain or boost the quotient of ‘unpaid nature’ in the sum of commodity values.

Moore gives four reasons for this process:

1. “... the law of entropy stipulates that using compact and versatile energy-dense materials (say precious metals or fossil fuels) yields less serviceable and energy-dense materials (cans in the recycling bin) if not outright waste (discarded batteries) and pollution (power-plant emissions). Over the long run, transforming useful resources into useless waste rules out economic growth.”

2. This is a more immediate problem, because “the capitalisation or money-cost of the ‘four cheaps’ rises faster than their contribution to labour productivity, as might happen should increased demand for unfinished commodities like wood, copper or wheat - or [lack of?] cooperation among the countries that export them - drive up prices”.

3. “... natural resources may, for technical reasons, become harder [to exploit; for example,] petroleum production [as a] declining ‘energy returned on energy invested’: a century ago it took far less effort to extract a barrel of oil from the great Texas oilfields than it does now to get, through fracking, another barrel from [the new sources of fossil fuel].”

4. This is the “last barrier to perpetually increasing ecological surplus - and “arguably the most cumulatively significant” - the “degradation of the biosphere through carbon emissions, soil degradation, biodiversity loss, chemical toxicity and so on. A sufficiently tattered web of life will yield ‘negative value’ rather than any positive plenty: no application of capital or labour, in any amount, will be able to produce anything but goods of generally inferior quality and quantity. Capitalism would then have finally destroyed the natural preconditions for continually raising labour productivity and endless capital accumulation, never mind the welfare of non-capitalist humans and other bystander organisms.”

Kunkel acknowledges the scope of Capitalism in the web of life: ie, Moore provides us with a “bravura sketch of historical capitalism across five centuries”. I need not go into this here, apart from the briefest of outlines. He moves from the period of the Dutch republic, as well as its own empire in south-east Asia, to the Spanish empire in the new world; then onto Britain’s own industrial revolution based on coal/steam power, with the merest of hints here that this was financed by the modern slave trade (the ‘plantation revolutions’); finally bringing us into the present period: American hegemony, based on new oil frontiers and the industrialisation of agriculture. In each case, “The ecological surplus falls as the capitalisation of nature rises”.

Simply put, British capital, by comparison with Dutch, could get more out of the natural world for less, just as American capitalism could later do by comparison with the British. The old regime gives way to the restored and enlarged reign of ‘cheap nature’, enthroned in a new imperium, until the line comes to an end ...

Historically, ‘capitalism’s basic problem’ - namely that its ‘demand for cheap natures’ tends to rise faster than its capacity to secure them - could always be temporarily relieved by opening new commodity frontiers. But a truly global capitalism presents a last frontier, beyond which lies only the cold of space. Already for more than a generation oil companies have tended to spend more on exploration than production for every barrel of crude they extract, while exhaust emissions exacerbate global warming. [The latter] - together with soil exhaustion, aquifer depletion, the vulnerability of monocultures to invasive species, and the collapse of bee colonies - portends declining gains in agricultural productivity. Precious metals may also become scarcer and more costly (p25).


According to Kunkel, Moore’s conclusion is that “it is difficult to see that the global economy’s annual drain on the earth can go on increasing, at whatever price in dollars, for many decades longer”. Given its very nature as a system, capitalism is not capable of turning things around in the interests of humanity as a whole. As a result of a partial collapse, it might opt for a new lease of life: that is, return to an ecological surplus again - albeit one which is “derived from an absolutely smaller material input. A smaller body of labourers … employed to furnish a growing mass of commodities to a reduced company of consumers, realising an acceptable rate of profit in the process.”

This scenario is similar to one of Peter Frase’s Four futures for the 21st century: namely exterminism - ie, “a combination of ecological scarcity with aggravated class society: guarded enclaves for the rich in an ocean of the superfluous poor” (p26). It would then be up to the oppressed and their ability to fight back, if we are to save what is left of civilisation.

Shortage of space dictates a summary of Andreas Malm’s book, Fossil capital; suffice to reiterate my earlier comment: that he focuses on the 18th-19th centuries and the rise of industrial capitalism in Britain (which some ‘wags’ have dubbed ‘the Anglocene’, based on steam power and cotton production, leading to the rise of towns and the creation of the modern proletariat, along with the rapid rise of CO2 emissions. Vis-à-vis Moore’s ‘Capitalocene’ thesis, which argues that “the rise of capitalism after 1450 marked the turning point in the history of humanity’s relation with the rest of nature”, once again, perhaps the most interesting question here is the role of generalised commodity production and commodity fetishism, which clearly did not arise until the ‘Anglocene’ period. But here we are really talking about the way in which modern capitalism was able to create new forms of alienation (alienated wage-labour, fragmentation and atomisation, leading to self-alienation): in a word, new forms of false consciousness rather than anything else.

But Malm’s book certainly concentrates the mind with regard to the role of fossil fuels, which are so inimical to the future of humanity; yet capitalism’s dependence on fossil energy is just as entrenched as ever, despite the looming consequences. This does not auger well for the future, certainly in the age of Trumpism. The new president has pledged to withdraw from the Paris climate control agreement, which was signed only last year. It

committed the nations of the world to preventing a rise in mean global temperature greater than 1.5 degrees centigrade. A rise of two degrees centigrade is generally considered dangerous, but may already be a lost cause. In November [2016] a paper in the journal Science Advances projected that average temperatures will increase between 4.78 and 7.6 degrees centigrade by 2100 under what is tellingly called a “business-as-usual” scenario.

Thus, “The signal traits of contemporary capitalism are fantastic economic inequality and ecological devastation.”


Kunkel raises the question as to which theory is capable of bringing about a “sustainable universal prosperity”: “eco-socialism/solar communism” or classical Marxism? Surely it is a question of using the former to develop the latter. Isn’t this what ‘eco-Marxism’ means? Hence he continues:

A constantly more numerous and better-organised [as well as better informed] working class, its identity cohering, as proletarian experience becomes more uniform across industries, regions and countries, would need only to perceive its shared strength in order to wield it, and the workers as a body would seize the world they’d made ...

But this has lost its persuasiveness so far as the working class remains divided by nationalism, chauvinism and xenophobia, as well as identity politics. Hence we are not likely to see a “class-conscious international proletariat”, let alone a “species-conscious planetary humanity” in the near future - which is a categorical imperative, since “ecocidal capitalism” is already upon us.

This is especially true in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. As a result capitalism continues to rely on the strategy of neoliberalism, combined with austerity, because - Trump or no Trump - it is afraid to venture down the Keynesian road of economic expansionism; it has not forgotten the lessons of the post-war boom, which led to the Événements of 1968, etc. Therefore we are stuck with low growth, whilst inequality continues to increase across the world. Thus multinational companies are even less likely to invest in long-term solutions to the dangers of global warming, etc.

Given the impossibility of ‘ecocapitalism’, ‘eco-socialism’ is the only answer. But, as Kunkel points out, the achievement of something like an “enlightened species being” anyway “would likely emerge in a handful of embattled … countries”, long before “attaining anything like the universality” which is required. Thus we face a

drawn-out battle against capitalism dead-set against any such thing. This means, tragically, that by the time the Capitalocene concludes, capitalism will only have a … badly despoiled world to bequeath to us.


Thus we can update Marx and Luxemburg’s prognosis: ie, as either “ecosocialism or ethnobarbarism”. As Kunkel states, “In the political sense of the term, then, the question about the Anthropocene isn’t when it began, but whether it ever will, and, if so, where first - Godspeed!” (p28).

Rather, speed the revolution!



1. See K Marx Capital Vol 3, Moscow 1966, p820.

2. See M Lifshitz The philosophy of art of Karl Marx chapter 1, London 1973.

3. G Lukács History and class consciousness London 1967, p85.

4. F Engels, ‘The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man’: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1876/part-played-labour.