Environment, Population and Decadence

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Environment, Population and Decadence
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I've started this thread to continue the discussion on the environment and decadence that emerged on this thread. It's primarily a response to JK's post no. 39 on that thread.

My ideas are still in the process of formation on this topic, so the positions expressed below should be seen more as exploratory than any kind of definitive statement. Still less should they be seen as any expression of the positions of the ICC as a whole, even though I am a member.

So, with that in mind here goes ...

"Can you explain that part a little bit more?"

I was basically trying to get at the fact that if we wanted to roll out the access to the internet that we enjoy in (some parts) of the developed world to the whole world that this will require an enormous amount of infrastructure and especially energy consumption. This will depend on a vast increase of energy generation which, with present technology, poses significant resource and environmental constraints.

"Its pretty clear that struggling to protect the envrionment leads nowhere except back into the capitalist state, but this is true of any "partial struggle", right?"

True, but I think there is something particular about the environmental crisis and certain other aspects of decomposition (social disintegration, drugs, etc)  that particularly lend themselves to partial struggles because they pose existential questions.

"Are you saying there is a crisis of industrial/post-industrial civilization itself that is different than the crisis of capitalism?"

I'm not entirely sure, if I'm honest. On the one hand, a certain technological base does lend itself to a particular mode of production ("The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist".) If capitalism was ripe for revolution in 1917 then it would imply that the technological base at that time was suitable, if not for communism proper, then at least as a basis from which to establish a society in transition towards it.

So what level of technology gives us the fully developed human being of communism? Do we have it now? Maybe. But do we have the means in terms of resources to provide it to everyone on the planet who wants it? I'm not so sure. If not, it would seem to imply that we still need a radically different level of technology from the one we have at present, that doesn't suffer from the same resource constraints (fusion power would satisfy this in terms of energy technology).

The cause of the environmental crisis today can be boiled down to this: we are generating more pollution than the planet can absorb and absorbing more resource than the planet can generate. At a material level this is caused by two factors: "dirty" technology and population. Or, to put it another way, we can't produce what this population wants with out current technology without disrupting the ecological balance.

The basic possible solutions seem to be these, none of which are necessarily mutually exclusive: better technology, smaller population, or a change in the wants of that population.

Capitalism is characterised by breakneck growth and technological change. But one of the fundamentals of our critique of capitalism is that capitalism has become  a break on the productive forces (and, yes, I know technology is not the sum total of the productive forces but it's certain a key component). We've already given several concrete examples on this thread.

In terms of population control, capitalism seems hard-wired to population expansion. It constantly generated a surplus population to meet its labour needs both in an absolute sense but also in terms of relative overpopulation to regulate the price of labour. The abololition of this social relationship, plus the other armaments that it has given us (contraception, education of women, etc.), poses the possibility of genuine control over our own reproductive capacities.

Arguably, communism will also change the wants of that population as well, but this is perhaps the most speculative aspect of imagining the future. It might be argued that there will be less focus on the individual accumulation of things and people will focus on the higher aspects of humanity - art, culture, etc. Except that all of these things involve physical consumption as well - paper to make books, electronics to watch films, read and write, instruments to play. So I'm not sure this aspect of things, especially as we want to involve more people in more aspects of them, will reduce material consumption.

"Doesn't the idea that there would have been a "communist ecological crisis," presuppose certain things about communist society that might be contentious, like growth, accumulation, etc."

Accumulation is a form of growth specific to capitalism. But Communism has always implied growth in terms of a development of productive forces, but one orientated around a planned increase in the satisfaction of human need rather than the anarchic growth of capitalism geared to the satisfaction of the few. I don't know if fully developed communism will be a society orientated around stasis or dynamic change, but surely the development towards it will be the latter. If Marx's vision of a society where everybody can farm, write, produce, or critique as the whim takes them is anything approaching accurate this surely also implies a growth in human needs as well.

"Does this all raise the spectre of Malthus?"

Maybe. But isn't Marx's critique of Malthus based around the latter's moralistic idea that worker poverty is caused by too much worker breeding and oversupply of labour? To this is counterposed the idea of the reserver army of labour, which points out that wages and relative overpopulation are determined by the needs of accumulation. For example, even if workers did reduce their population to raise wages, this would simply hamper the accumulation process, generate a crisis and thus recreate unemployment. Malthus conflates natural laws with the laws of capitalism, while Marx points out that every society has its own laws of population.

But I don't think that precludes the question of population. As Engels writes to Kautsky: "There is of course the abstract possibility that the human population will become so numerous that its further increase will have to be checked. If it should become necessary for communist society to regulate the production of men, just as it will have already regulated the production of things, then it, and it alone, will be able to do this without difficulties. It seems to me that it should not be too difficult for such a society to achieve in a planned way what has already come about naturally, without planning, in France and Lower Austria. In any case it will be for those people to decide if, when and what they want to do about it, and what means to employ. I don’t feel qualified to offer them any advice or counsel in this matter. They will presumably be at least as clever as we are." - https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1881/letters/81_02_01.htm

Lastly, on this question of internal vs external limits. I don't think there's a limit on population for capitalism per se. In fact, the tendency of capitalism is to massively expand the population as we have seen in the last few decades. If the material means are there, it would expand that population indefinitely. Conversely, neither is "absolute overpopulation" necessarily the source of the poverty and degradation of the third world. Such poverty and degradation would exist regardless of the material limits.

On the other hand, if there is a strong link between the productive base and a particular means of production as I (and Marx) argue; and, if there is a clear link between the technological base and the population it is able to support (clearly modern "capitalist" technology can support a far great population than a "feudal" technological base can); then it does tend to deconstruct the opposition between external and internal limits that I've posed.

Quote:If capitalism was ripe

If capitalism was ripe for revolution in 1917 then it would imply that the technological base at that time was suitable, if not for communism proper, then at least as a basis from which to establish a society in transition towards it.

The implications of this point, I've come to think, are very important. The link between a productivist vision of historical materialism and projections of the higher phase of communism can seemingly be reduced to answering the question: was world communism possible in 1917 (were the productive forces sufficiently developed to allow communist social relations to supplant capitalism). If the answer is 'No' (Dauve, communizers), and only a post-1945 or post-1973 capitalism was finally sufficient to support world communism, the connection between meeting needs and desires while obliterating the planet with 'productivism' (judging progress by material capacities of production and breadth/depth of capitalist penetration) is difficult to explain away. If communism is only possible on the basis of a productive-consumptive apparatus that is killing the planet, what's the point?

The basic possible solutions seem to be these, none of which are necessarily mutually exclusive: better technology, smaller population, or a change in the wants of that population.

I think you're right about the possibilities of population changes under full communism. Its been written by other communists that 'capital produces 2 surpluses: surplus value and surplus population'. Would a smaller population come about as basic human needs are met (food, water, housing, healthcare) with a sort of natural decline in population growth (as seen in Western Europe, Russia, etc)?


mhou is dead on target when

mhou is dead on target when he says:"if communism is only possible on the basis of a productive-consumptive apparatus that is killing the planet, what's the point?" He also quotes Demogorgon's possible solutions to capitalism's problems: "better technology, smaller population, or a change in the wants of that population." 

Surely a communist society will not retain the passion for greedy consumption,  largely unsatisfying anyway,  that this society sees as essential and as the final proof of a "successful" life,  especially in the West.  The productive-consumptive apparatus which mhou sees as killing the planet, also stultifies and cripples human life.   So a "change in the wants" of earth's population under communism, to that of a satisfaction of human needs continually redefined, rather than just a basic free-for-all-race to indulge human greed as now, is not only a requirement but a basic essential of communism as a new way of living isn't it,  otherwise what's the point? 

It should also be added  that it isn't the whole population of the planet  that exhibits a crazed greed for uncritical consumption.  In S.East Asia many people, largely peasants in the process of being unseated from their previous way of life, have not as yet completely fallen for this.  The opportunity  is only just  starting to be offered.  They will grab it if they can.  Now it is true they could all reap great benefits from improvements in education and health care, and the extension of Internet access, but they are not altogether unhappy people now and their steady way of life in the warm sunshine is easily as satisfying and as happy (happier?) as life on the streets of New York, Paris, or Bangkok. Human happiness is something that capitalism has generally caused us to lose interest in, or even to forget what it is. Surely  its pursuit and constant redefinition and extension would be a major aim of communism  - isn't it a major aim of  the United  States constitution (lol) - otherwise what's the point?

a few points

I maintain that ecological disaster is a major factor in capitalism's decadence and the question of socialism or barbarism.

Demo raises important questions here about continuing damage to the environment after a revolution and I don't think that this can be avoided. If the proletariat can preclude using nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction it will certainly have to fight the bourgeoisie in a civil war and the revolution will by no means be an "idyllic" one. So there will be destruction but, as always, its limitations and priorities depend on the strength and consciousness of the class as a whole.

As far as energy goes, then fusion seems the favourite. But the whole, dirty way that energy is extracted today, giving its flying about all around us, seems to be extremely crude and wasteful. But I don't have any answers here. I agree with the quote from Engels regarding population. I saw a comprehensive study years ago that showed stable societies, such as they are, tended to regulate themselves in regard to population. Malthus saw overpopulation as one of the "eternal laws of capitalism", but just as Darwin and Wallace overturned Malthus in respect of "survival of the fittest" and the escape from natural selection, so Marx turned him over in relation to overpopulation which Marx called: "the natural history of capitalist development" and that this surplus labour was thrown onto the streets by the capital that they had created. He said that Malthus had discovered "the beautiful trinity of capitalism: overproduction, overpopulation, overconsumption". Malthus wasn't a moralist but an acute spokesman for capitalism. He clearly saw, and Marx picks this up in Grundrisse, that there can never be an adequate demand from the workers because it must always produce more than it gets in return.

welcome, salut, etc

Welcome and salut to this thread!


I will need to re-read Demogorgon's starter, but a couple of thoughts ran through my brain.

Other civilisations have certainly perished because of their blind destruction of the surrounding habitat, in all likelihood under an economic and ruling class drive to expand into an empire. The Mayans are perhaps the most graphic example of a society which collapsed as a direct result of the unmitigated exploitation of the surrounding forest. In that sense, not so utterly different from the capitalist drive to accumulate, the foundation impulse of capitalism. 

But with capitalism, quantity has become quality. It is the first civilisation to have become truly global, and for the first time the threat to the human habitat is not local, but global. This is already means that the ecological dimension of capitalism's crisis takes on a difference in kind.

One point about the 'ripeness of communism' in 1917, closely related to the question of ecology. On the conflict between man and nature, and the first measures to restore a natural humanity, Marx and Engels were very insistant on the need to overcome the separation between town and country. Just consider what a city like London was in 1917, for all the dirt and poverty, to the vastly overbuilt, increasingly chaotic and poison-fumed Gigantopolis we live in today, and it immediately it becomes obvious that the scale of simply what has to be undone and to a large extent demolished is far greater today than it was a century ago. 

The first theoretical article the ICC published on this question, back in 1990 (although we were conscious of being very late to recognise the gravity of the danger posed by environmental depradation) can be found here:  https://en.internationalism.org/ir/63_pollution. Some of the more general historical questions raised here were looked at in this section of  the article: 

   From 'Capitalism is poisoning the Earth', International Review 63


Marxism against the Green mystifications

The notion that an abstract entity called ‘man’ is responsible for the current ecological mess is not restricted to a few esoteric Green ideolo­gists; it is in fact a widespread cliché of the conventional wisdom. But in either case, it’s an idea that can only lead to despair, because if human beings are the problem, how can human beings find a solution? It’s no accident that some of the ‘deep ecologists’ have welcomed AIDS as a necessary agent for pruning the world of excess humans ...

The position of the anarcho-primitivists leads to the same bleak conclusions. To be ‘against technology’ is also to be against mankind; man created himself through labour, and "labour be­gins with the making of tools" (Engels, ‘The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man’). The logic of the anti-technological po­sition is to try to get back to a pre-human past when nature was undisturbed by the clangour of human activity: "The animal merely uses its environment and brings about changes in it simply by its presence; man by his changes makes it serve his ends,masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between man and other animals." (ibid)

But even if the ‘anti-technologists’ would be content to return to the hunter-gatherer stage of culture, the result would be the same, since the material conditions of such a society pre­supposed a world population of no more than a few million. These conditions could only be re­stored through a massive ‘cull’ of human beings, something that capitalism in its death-throes is already preparing for us. Thus these ‘radical’ ecologists - products of a disintegrating petty bourgeoisie which has no historical future and can only look back to an idealised past - are recruited as theorisers and apologists for a de­scent into barbarism that is already well under­way.

Against these nihilistic ideologies, marxism, ex­pressing the standpoint of the only class that does have a future today, insists that the pre­sent ecological nightmare can’t be explained by invoking categories like man, technology or in­dustry in a totally vague and ahistoric manner. Man does not exist outside history, and technol­ogy cannot be divorced from the social relations in which it has developed. Man’s interaction with nature can also only be understood in its real historical and social context.

Humanity has existed on this planet for at least several hundred thousand years - most of them at the stage of primitive communism, of hunter gatherer societies where there was a relatively stable equilibrium between man and nature, a fact reflected in the myths and rituals of the primitive peoples. The dissolution of this archaic community and the rise of class society, a qualitative step in the alienation of man from man, also determined new alienations between man and nature. The first cases of extensive ecological destruction coincide with the early city states; there is considerable evidence that the very process of deforestation which allowed civilisations such as the Sumerian, the Babylonian, the Sinhalese and others to develop a large-scale agricultural base also, in the longer term, played a considerable role in their decline and disappearance.

But these were local, limited phenomena: prior to capitalism, all civilisations were based on ‘natural economy’: the bulk of production was still oriented towards the immediate consumption of use values, even though, in contrast to the primitive community, a large part of it was ap­propriated by the exploiting class. Capitalism, by contrast, is a system where all production is geared towards the market, towards the en­larged reproduction of exchange value; it is a social formation far more dynamic than any pre­vious system, and this dynamic compelled it to move inexorably towards the creation of a world economy. But the very dynamism and globality of capital has meant that the problem of ecologi­cal destruction has now been raised to a plane­tary level. For it is not marxism, but capitalism, which is "productionist at its heart". Goaded by competition, by the anarchic rivalry of capitalist units struggling for control of the market, it obeys an inner compulsion to expand to the furthest limits permitted to it, and in this mer­ciless drive towards its own self-expansion, it cannot pause to consider either the health and welfare of the producers, or the future ecologi­cal consequences of how and what it produces. The secret of today’s ecological destruction is to be found in the very secret of capitalist pro­duction: "Accumulate, accumulate. That is Moses and the prophets..." (Capital vol 1, ‘Conversion of surplus value into capital’).

The problem behind the ecological catastrophe, then, is not ‘industrial society’ in the abstract, as so many of the ecologists proclaim: hitherto the only industrial society that has ever existed has been capitalism. This of course includes the Stalinist regimes, who are a veritable caricature of the capitalist subordination of consumption to accumulation; those who blame marxism for the ecological devastation in the east merely lend their voices to the current hue and cry of the bourgeoisie about the ‘failure of communism’ following the collapse of the eastern imperialist bloc. The problem does not lie in this or that form of capitalism, but in the essential mecha­nisms of a society which grows not in conscious harmony with the needs of man and with what Marx called man’s "inorganic body", nature, but for the sake of profit alone.

But the ecological problem also has its specific history within capitalism.

Already in the ascendant period, Marx and Engels had many occasions to denounce the way that capitalism’s thirst for profit poisoned the living and working conditions of the working class. They even considered that the big in­dustrial cities had already become too large to provide the basis for viable human communities, and considered that the "abolition of the sepa­ration between town and countryside" was an integral part of the communist programme (imagine what they would have said about the megacities of the late 20th century ...)

But it is essentially in the present epoch of capitalism, the epoch which since 1914 has been defined by marxists as that of the decadence of this mode of production, that capital’s ruthless destruction of the environment takes on a dif­ferent scale and quality, while at the same time losing any historical justification. This is the epoch in which all the capitalist nations are forced to compete with each other over a satu­rated world market; an epoch therefore, of a permanent war economy, with a disproportionate growth of heavy industry; an epoch charac­terised by the irrational, wasteful duplication of industrial complexes in each national unit, by the desperate pillaging of natural resources by each nation as it tries to survive in the pitiless rat-race of the world market. The consequences of all this for the environment are now becom­ing crystal clear; the intensification of ecological problems can be measured according to the dif­ferent phases of capitalist decadence. The main growth of carbon dioxide emissions has taken place this century, with a considerable increase since the 1960s. CFCs were only invented in the 1930s and have only been used extensively over the past few decades. The rise of the ‘megacities’ is very much a post World War Two phenomenon, as is the development of forms of agriculture that have been no less ecologically damaging than most forms of industry. The frenzied destruction of the rainforests has taken place in the same period, and especially over the last decade: the rate has probably doubled since 1979.

What we are seeing today is the culmination of decades of unplanned, wasteful, irrational eco­nomic and military activity by decadent capital­ism; the qualitative acceleration of the ecological crisis over the past decade ‘coincides’ with the opening of the final phase of capitalist deca­dence - the phase of decomposition. By this we mean that after 20 years of profound and ever-worsening economic crisis, in which neither of the major social classes have been able to carry through their historic alternatives of world war or world revolution, the whole social order is beginning to crack up, to descend into an un­controlled downward spiral of chaos and de­struction (see International Review n°62 ‘Decomposition, final phase of capitalist Decadence’).

The capitalist system has long ceased to rep­resent any progress for mankind. The disas­trous ecological consequences of its ‘growth’ since 1945 is one more demonstration that this growth has taken place on a diseased, destruc­tive basis, and constitutes a slap in the face for all those pundits - some of them unfortunately to be found in the proletarian political movement - who point to this growth in order to challenge the marxist notion of the decadence of capital­ism.

But this doesn’t mean that marxists - unlike most of the bourgeoisie today, and all of its petty bourgeois hangers-on - are abandoning the notion of progress or making any conces­sions to the anti-technological prejudices of the radical Greens.

The marxist concept of progress was never the same as the bourgeoisie’s one-sided, linear notion of a steady ascent from primitive dark­ness and superstition to the light of modern reason and democracy. It is a dialectical vision which recognises that historical progress has taken place through the clash of contradictions, that it has involved catastrophes and even re­gressions, that the advance of ‘civilisation’ has also meant the refinement of exploitation and the aggravation of alienation between man and man and man and nature. But it also recognises that man’s growing capacity totransform nature through the development of his productive pow­ers, to subject the unconscious processes of nature to his own conscious control, provides the only basis for overcoming this alienation and arriving at a higher form of community than the restricted communism of primitive times - a world-wide, unified community that will be based not on scarcity and the submerging of the individual into the collective, but on an un­precedented level of abundance that will supply "the material conditions for the total, universal development of the productive powers of the in­dividual" (Marx,Grundrisse). By creating the material basis for this global human community, capitalism represented an immense step forward over the natural economies which preceded it.

Today the notion of ‘controlling’ nature has been vilely distorted by the experience of capi­talism, which has treated the whole of nature as just another commodity, as dead matter, as something essentially external to man. Against this view - but also against the passive nature-worship which is prevalent amongst many of to­day’s Greens - Engels defined the communist position when he wrote:

"At every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature - but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly" (‘The part played by labour....’)

Indeed, despite all its so-called ‘conquests’, capitalism is revealing today that its control over nature is the ‘control’ of the sorcerer’s apprentice, not of the sorcerer himself. It has laid the basis for a really conscious mastery of nature, but its very mode of operation turns all its achievements into disasters. As Marx put it:

"At the same pace that mankind masters na­ture, man seems to become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy. Even the pure light of science seems unable to shine but on a dark background of ignorance. All our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life and stultifying hu­man life into a material force." (Speech at the anniversary of the People’s Paper, April 1856)

Today this contradiction has reached the point where mankind stands at a two-pronged fork in the road of history, facing the choice between the conscious control over his own social and productive forces, and thus a "correct applica­tion" of the laws of nature, or destruction at the hands of the very forces that he himself has set in motion. The choice, in other words, between communism or barbarism.




Save the Planet

I didn't know where to put this post and didn't want to open a new thread in order to minimise my  carbon footprint, ie, to conserve the earth's precious resources that one uses in order to make a post. Now that I've explained all that it would have probably been better to start a new thread, especially now that I've mentioned that it would have better to start a new thread. At any rate, all this demonstrates that if we all do our bit we can Save the Planet...

... talking of which, the Observer last week reviewed a book by Eric Schlosser called "Command and Control". It's an account of US nuclear near-misses and the permanent danger of a nuclear holocaust. I thought that 1962, Cuba was the closest we came but in the book Schlosser details: "In January 1961, ... a B-52 flying over North Carolina exploded. Every safety mechanism on the hydrogen bombs it was carrying failed, except a basic switch. If it had been set on the equivalent of "on", most of the citizens of Washington, Philadelphia and New York would have been wiped out". Had such an "accident" occured, I bet the US would have launched an immediate strike against the Russians.


It's a song title from Donald Fagen's 'Sunken Condos' album (would you believe it was released ten days before that hurricane 'sunk' many of NYC's condos)

Anyway with his usual sardonic, well informed very dark words he sings a seemingly harmless ditty about 'memorabilia' on an island 'East of the Carolines': my ears pricked up :'souvenirs of a perfect doom : in the back of Louis Daghlain's back room'

Now Louis Slotin and Harry Daghlain (he's conflated the two) were two 'demon core' workers in the late forties/early fifties handling (literally) the plutonium cores and they both had fatal accidents and died of intense radiation sickness within a couple of weeks of those 'accidents' in the same military hospital.

There's a line Fagen sings with very dark irony because the 'whole HD film is now declassified and for sale': roll up roll up ! buy the ultimate snuff film.

'Have you met that perfect creature... the exceptional Ivy King ?

'She' knows just what she's after: 'she' got a jones for the real thing ...

The vintage atomic trash, the alien breeze, the bright white flash ....


(oops ...forgot the roy rogers' horse warning)


Command and Control

Demogorgon's arguments and concerns deserve better than this link. But stimulated by Baboon 's post (not to mention AS's reference to Donald Fagin), this is a link to the video publicising  Schlosser's "Command and Control". 


I think that Alf's point about capital's decadence threatening the entire planet, and all humankind, is the salient one at this point in the discussion

External or Internal

baboon wrote:

... talking of which, the Observer last week reviewed a book by Eric Schlosser called "Command and Control". It's an account of US nuclear near-misses and the permanent danger of a nuclear holocaust. I thought that 1962, Cuba was the closest we came but in the book Schlosser details: "In January 1961, ... a B-52 flying over North Carolina exploded. Every safety mechanism on the hydrogen bombs it was carrying failed, except a basic switch. If it had been set on the equivalent of "on", most of the citizens of Washington, Philadelphia and New York would have been wiped out". Had such an "accident" occured, I bet the US would have launched an immediate strike against the Russians.


Is this an "external" or "internal" problem for capitalism?

Fair Cop Guv

A deserved reprimand.

Especially as both Demorgorgon and alf's posts were so comprehensive, substantial and properly intended towards clarification of a key issue. AS did read and re-read them.

My superficialism was inappropriate.   

Crossed wires

Errrrrr there was no reprimand intended, AS. The link that was undeserving of Demogorgon's considered thoughts was mine, not yours. My reference to Alf's contribution was to underline what for me is the bottom line: unless we (the world proletariat) consciously take control of the planet and its resources, there is absoluterly no hope of practically addressing the issues raised by Demogorgon: our descendents will never know if our species can overcome the problems he poses without the revolution. Not very profound and it doesn't take the discussion much further. But there you go 

Marin Jensen
Very briefly on communist ecology

IMHO, any discussion on the question of the environment in a communist society needs to start with the relationship between man and nature, and the relationship of man to his own labour. Unless we take account of, and go to the heart, of the idea that these relationships will be radically transformed, then we will end up in a merely empirical discussion which assumes that basically communism means everybody having lots of everything. As some posts on this thread have said, this won't work because human need is socially determined, so human need under communism will not just be to continue the consumption of more of the same, but a) to overcome the separation between production and consumption (today I work to produce, but this has nothing to do with the consumption of what I produce...), b) to overcome the alienation of man from himself and especially his labour, and finally c) to overcome the alienation of man from what Marx called his "natural body" (ie nature).

I would suggest reading this from the series on Communism as a starter.