My War against Vandana Shiva: A Long but Interesting Exchange with Michael from Archive Fire regarding Marxism and the Environment

The following exchange stemmed from a thread that Michael posted over at Archive Fire, attached to a post in which the famous eco-feminist and advocate of indigenous peoples Vandana Shiva is interviewed.  Though I was more than a little rude and dismissive in my initial statements, the conversation ends up going in different directions, and along the way I clarify my positions on Marxism, capitalism, history, different cultures, and the environment.  Michael’s points are well-argued and demand the elaboration of many of the subtler nuances of Marxist thought, or at least my version of it.  These often do not fit comfortably with the categories established by more pluralistic, multicultural, and syncretistic positions of post-structuralism and beyond.  Michael’s latest thoughts on the matter are contained in a new post that provides some reflections.  I plan to post a detailed response to this on my own blog, and perhaps in sections over on his.

Vandana Shiva is the ultimate essentializing eco-feminist out there, who is guilty not only of hypostatizing the “feminine,” but also the “indigenous.” Her war against “development,” as an androcentric/Eurocentric mode of instrumental rationality, is a sham. Marxism of recent years has made the mistake of endorsing this grassroots nativist shit.

There are many ways to view the world Ross and Marxism with its fetish for technology and metaphysical faith in the progressive dialectic of history is only one of those. You often come across as a fundamentalist is every sense of that term. I wonder, are all perspectives invalid for you if they “fail” to reference the Marxist canon or promote the quasi-Hegelian ontology?

It’s true that Vandana promotes eco-feminism and indigenous rights but always with an eye towards what is possible and not what is ‘essential’. She is a scientist. I have spoken with her myself and she speaks as someone who has witnessed first-hand the strong bonds between the feminine and ecology – while struggling alongside the women of Chipko and many others. In India there is a strong link that can’t be erased by fundamentalist marxist ideology between the everyday life of female peasants and the forest commons. Whether you like it or not there are different social forms with different aesthetic-existential relations which generate more “traditional” affiliations. The ethnography of rural peasants (especially women) is quite clear about such bonds. Being a Marxist is not a license to denounce these actual bonds as mere abstraction or backwardness. Marxist imperialism is still imperialism.

As for her war against “development”, she is also quite clear that she is not against fair and sensitive development per se, but against industrial capitalist development that in effect (and sometimes intent) actually creates a dependency for rural peoples on urban (elite) social systems – thereby decreasing their self-determination and capacity for local functioning.

Surely you are not asking us to venerate or incorporate wholesale ‘instrumental rationality’ at the expense of all other forms of life and cognitive skill? What about Auschwitz or Stalin or Hiroshima or Fukushima for that matter? Is it a sham to call these failures of phallocentric rationality? Techno-logics are brutal, sterile and limited thought-forms when we fail to integrate them with other sensibilities.

Shiva references Marx at least once in her book on Staying Alive, and Herbert Marcuse, amongst others. But I’ll quote Marx directly on his feelings about the benefits of British colonialism specifically in India, where Shiva hails from:

These small stereotype forms of social organism [local village production] have been to the greater part dissolved, and are disappearing, not so much through the brutal interference of the British tax-gatherer and the British soldier, as to the working of English steam and English free trade. Those family-communities were based on domestic industry, in that peculiar combination of hand-weaving, hands-spinning and hand-tilling agriculture which gave them self-supporting power. English interference having placed the spinner in Lancashire and the weaver in Bengal, or sweeping away both Hindoo spinner and weaver, dissolved these small semi-barbarian, semi-civilized communities, by blowing up their economical basis, and thus produced the greatest, and to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia.

Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies. We must not forget the barbarian egotism which, concentrating on some miserable patch of land, had quietly witnessed the ruin of empires, the perpetration of unspeakable cruelties, the massacre of the population of large towns, with no other consideration bestowed upon them than on natural events, itself the helpless prey of any aggressor who deigned to notice it at all. We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the other part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindostan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.

England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.

The overwhelming sympathy for “indigenous” cultures “uncorrupted” by Western capitalism is pure Romanticism, sentimentalist trash. It even borders on the racist. I only wish that the British Rule in India had been even more effective, and eradicated the hideous caste system once and for all.

As Lenin wrote in 1916:

Imperialism is as much our ‘mortal’ enemy as is capitalism. That is so. No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support. We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism; we will not support an uprising of the reactionary classes against imperialism and capitalism.

Consequently, once the author admits the need to support an uprising of an oppressed nation (‘actively resisting’ suppression means supporting the uprising), [Kievskii] also admits that a national uprising is progressive, that the establishment of a separate and new state, of new frontiers, etc., resulting from a successful uprising, is progressive.

And just to clarify, I agree that some Marxism can fall prey to technological messianism, but the best Marxism has never simply held a view of a simple “progressive dialectic” of history, moving linearly forward. The Bernsteinians adopted such a policy, and thus advocated apoliticism. History can just as easily be subject to regression as it can be to genuine progress. The fetishization of “indigenous” peoples in recent years is just such a regression. It is part and parcel of political Third Worldism.

With Adorno and Horkheimer I am certainly wary of unfettered instrumental rationality. Technologies in and of themselves are fairly neutral, but depending on their social use they can be either extremely beneficial or extremely pernicious. So of course I would not advocate a wholesale submission to instrumental rationality. But it is important to recognize that it is a vital source of productivity for any society, capitalist or non-capitalist.

As far as “tradition” goes, I stand with Marx and the Enlightenment. Tradition by itself is undeserving of any recognition or justification, unless it is purged of irrationality, prejudice, and superstition. There were many quaint customs in European Christendom before the rise of capitalism; thankfully capital spread its influence and obliterated many of these primitive traditional social bonds.

Sorry to send that flurry of messages. The long quotes from Marx and Lenin surely won’t make me look like any less of a dogmatist. But I think that support for the oppressed “indigenous” peoples of the world, as well as opposition to male-chauvinist, androcentric technophilia, have become the accepted, unthinking wisdom among many on the Left. I am convinced that it’s actually more critical to question this rather sentimental attachment to traditional communities, even though most traditional customs and institutions in every society tend to be deeply conservative, patriarchal, and reactionary.

Ross – Don’t ever apologize for wanting to engage in conversation or debate. I quite enjoy your polemics and learned perspective. And I appreciate the quotes. Marx and Lenin are major influences on me, and being reminded of where they stand on certain issues is helpful.

One problem I consistently have with how you frame things, however, is with the unwillingness to investigate the root assumptions of what amounts a strict modernist logic. For example, you routinely reject the inherent worthiness of non-industrial communities to exist in the world. I find this frightening and deeply ethnocentric.

What standard allows you to determine that our “civilized” society and social practice objectively better than, let’s say, the Inuit of Northern Canada? The Inuit have strong family units and concordant community networks while living (traditionally) meaning-full, non-industrial and sustainable lives. Our culture, however, has brutalized every natural ecosystem, enslaved millions of people and effectively set us on a course of complete collapse within no more than 100 years. And I don’t think this is nostalgia at all, but empirical fact.

My point is that there were (are?) forms of life and ways of being in the world other than those deployed within our industrial capitalist machines. And those other forms of life have intrinsic worth and might possibly have insights and knowledges (e.g., ethnobotanical knowledge) which would enrich our existential and practical understandings of the world – although not always and in every case.

Again, this is not necessarily a romantic, “noble savage” argument, but one based on ethnographic evidence (e.g., the relationship between Balinese rice cultivation and traditional religious specialists and temple systems, etc.). What you continually call “primitive” will often turn out to only be not what you assume is better (e.g., non-Western) and your denigration of non-urban life might simply originate from your lack of understanding of how non-industrial systems work. (Again cf. the case of Balinese rice temples and how Westerners arrogantly and wrongly judged these sophisticated ecocultural ‘production’ systems as “primitive”. The ethnographic literature documenting the many cases of complex and more sustainable “traditional” innovations is thick ) [also see here]

But let me take one step back. I too believe in the innovations and historical force of the Enlightenment. I don’t want to suggest that all our European and neo-European technical and civil achievements are worthless or pathological. Particular innovations have proved to be, as you say, “vital sources of productivity”. I think the development of science is THE most important task of humanity. And there have been remarkable advancements on a number of fronts. However, I argue that “progress” is a mixed affair and never simply happening in monolithic or linear fashion. Our “civilization” has ushered in great things (medical advances, etc) at the same time as it has ravaged the earth and brutally dominated millions of non-European peoples and life-ways.

To be sure, no amount of self-congratulating and hyperbolic valuations of historical achievement or faith in the spiritual worth of liberal democracy can hide the fact that our culture is inherently phallocentric, militaristic and predicated on the pathological abstractions of particular strains of “economic” thinking. In fact, our achievements were only made possible by brutal domination and resource extraction, which makes our claims of being the harbingers of history quite sadistic.

So there is ‘good news’ and ‘bad news’ when it comes to the rise of Western dominance. And I ask that we acknowledge the ‘bad’ while accepting the ‘good’. My suggestion is to focus on the fact that, as they say, ‘another world is possible – through the conscious and rational incorporation of the best neo-European and non-Western mentalities and practices available. So it is possible in ways not at all obvious from a strict 19th century Marxist and modernist perspective.

Related, do you actually believe that Brittan (and North America) didn’t and doesn’t have its own caste system? It’s called class. Granted India’s system is more rigid and based on explicit religious and cultural categories, but it is no less systematic and structured. In the historical case of England, they loved the caste system because it mirrored their own only more codified – so they used it to their benefit. And today there is no difference in the daily experience of New Delhi Dalits and Mexican immigrants in the U.S.

And an openness to and appreciation for different ways of knowing, being and relating is not necessarily a “fetishization” or regression of values. If anything, the fetish here is in religiously promoting a classificatory schema and explanatory model that takes for granted the triumphal character of urban industrial democracies without initiating a self-critical evaluation of the historical conditions upon which our “progress” is based and upon which the current system exists.

The logic of fetishes is another impoverished and under-critical (psycho)analytic that inscribes economic schemas (“psychic economy”) everywhere and within everyone without providing access to an understanding of the gifts of alterity or recognizing our own relative position within an ecology of power. That is, respecting the inherent value of people different from us is neither sickness nor naïve regression ipso facto , but can be a valuable post-positivist recognition of situated alterity and privilege. As I have said numerous times, Marxism has its own ontology (stories about what is real and how things work) that binds it to certain judgments and blinds it to the inherent value of alterity.

Why is such a recognition and respect for the intrinsic resources of other ways of being valuable? If only for evolving lines of flight and alternative modes of praxis. We can only go where our tools will take us and the more we understand about the usefulness of the tools on offer the better position we will be in to decide which to bring with us on the journey.

With Adorno and Horkheimer I am certainly wary of unfettered instrumental rationality. Technologies in and of themselves are fairly neutral, but depending on their social use they can be either extremely beneficial or extremely pernicious.

I find this position extremely naïve Ross. Technologies are never neutral and in no way innocuous. McLuhan was pretty clear about how technology extends and augments human life. And several people, not the least of which Braudel, Seres, and Foucault, have laid bare the power relations involved in acquiring and maintaining certain technological regimes.

Heidegger talked about the ge-stell to describe what conditions come into being when technology arises and how certain technic configurations frame (or enframe) what we do, think and how we relate. We prioritize, focus, value and engage very different aspects of the world depending on our particular technic extensions and technological orientations. These life-priorities are framed (structured) by our infrastructural conditions (modes of production, etc.) and their resultant cognitive skills and technical procedures.

We could talk about all this in terms of ‘modes’: modes of production, modes of communication, modes of semantic evaluation (cultural schema), modes emotional regulation (habitus), modes or energy utilization (extraction and deployment), etc., etc. The key is that any change in a particular mode can affect the overall configuration of modes. So if we change particular technic modes there is a change in certain cognitive modes (skills, assumptions, values, etc.).

Supplemental to this point (as discussed above), I argue is that the sprawling technical regime (“the machines”) of late capitalism is a brutal intervention into more traditional, intrinsically valuable – although never completely healthy – life-ways. And Marxism, broadly conceived, is a paradigm originating from within the ‘family’ of such brutal technical and cultural assumptions.

A reinvigorated Marxism, then, would interrogate it’s own assumptions and ontology and open itself to minor revisions viz. alternative (non-western, non-phallocentric) modes of knowing, being and relating. Far from being an “unthinking”, a pluralistic ethical and practical assessment of oppression and politics would be a conscious and multi-rational projekt of reflexivity and praxis.

We need not bow down to the master narrative (religion?) of Marxist doxa, but, rather, foster an openness for hybrid narratives and more complex understandings, rather than less, on the way towards materially instantiating more mutualistic modes of being.

You raise several interesting points, and I will try to go through each of them as thoroughly as possible.

do you actually believe that Brittan (and North America) didn’t and doesn’t have its own caste system? It’s called class.

I actually belong to a school of thought that believes that “class” as a category of the capitalist social formation is radically different from social “castes” (as in India) or social “estates” (as in Europe under the Ancien Regime).

In each of these latter cases, one’s social position is based on either bloodline or religious training. Belonging to the ranks of the aristocracy or gentry was a matter of one’s family’s past military service, and was thereafter a status automatically bestowed by birth. Belonging to the clergy, the clerical estate, was based on religious education and the laying of hands (thereby granting Apostolic Succession). Again, this was a qualitative act. Similarly with the caste structure in India — one’s social class is determined by birth alone, and nothing one can do in life can raise you to the position of a higher caste (except through the belief in karmic reincarnation).

With class, these purely qualitative social differences are for all intents and purposes negated. In bourgeois society, everyone is (formally) equal. Belonging to one class or another is determined quantitatively — how much capital one possesses, whether in the form of money or saleable commodities. Once one’s private accumulation of capital surpasses a certain quantitative threshold (namely the tipping point at which he is able to own his own means of production and hire others to work with them to produce new commodities), where this engenders a qualitative shift in class identity. One is no longer proletarian but bourgeois. Many Americans mistake “class” as just being related to income brackets, where it’s actually just a tipping point wherein a difference in quantity transforms itself into a difference in quality — the classic Marxist dialectic.

I saw Shiva lecture at the CUNY Graduate Center here in New York and was generally unimpressed. Even if she regards “the feminine” as socially constructed, her linkage of femininity with nature is problematic, just as the nature=female/culture=male structuralist dichotomy has been repeatedly shown to be ambiguous.

In terms of the native, homespun “wisdom” of indigenous peoples, I will grant that there have been occasions in which their agricultural practices were better attuned to the specificities of their particular agricultural system. But any system of agriculture which continues to demand intensive manual/physical labor, and remains thereby unmechanized, without automation, consigns the majority of the population to the darkness, ignorance, and nearly chronic illiteracy of the countryside. “The idiocy of rural life,” as Marx and Engels called it.

In every country where capitalist modernity has taken hold, we have witnessed the mass exodus of formerly peasant/agricultural populations to urban centers founded on industrial production and labor. Though this sets up its own system of domination and unfreedom, there are positive corollary effects: the formerly narrow-minded peasant becomes more “urbane,” “cosmopolitan,” exposed to people of different races and languages, and generally receive a much better education.

It also usually has the positive effect of secularizing the population. The major religions first took root in the cities, while paganism remained in the countryside. But with the onset of capitalism, the situation was reversed: the major urban centers were the first to become “disenchanted” and secularized, while the hard-nosed religious conservatism and traditionalism remained rooted in the countryside. Urban societies are almost invariably more cosmopolitan and less parochial than their underdeveloped counterparts.

I also agree that “progress” has never been linear. Capitalist technical, economic, and social development has always proceeded in a cyclolinear fashion which involves both relative regressions and progressions, both of which tend to take place in extremely convulsive and violent ways. This is what Lenin referred to in his “spiral” theory of history.

But with capitalism, which just circumstantially happened to originate in Western Europe, the pace of successive developments, the cyclic rotation of “booms” and “busts” propelled social innovation forward at a frightening and unprecedented speed. It had nothing to do with the inherent “superiority” of Western peoples; indeed, traditional European society was utterly powerless to stop the freight train of hyperaccelerated development, which ripped apart the old feudal and ecclesiastical structures it encountered to shreds. Many people fail to realize that what capitalism is doing to “indigenous” or traditional cultures today is the same thing that capitalism did to traditional cultures in Europe over the last few centuries.

As Weber so cogently argued, the reason for the hyperdeveloped political and economic structures of rationality, for the extremely refined technologies of production and destruction (military technologies) of the West, was precisely due to the unstoppable, totalizing swell of capitalist social relations. This allowed the nations where capitalism first developed to ruthlessly exploit precapitalist (usually non-European) parts of the world with such ruthless efficacy. But Europe was by no means alone. Japanese industrialization in the 19th century, their own domestic program of sped-up modernization, quickly led to the improvement of its military strength and its productive capacities. This is what allowed Japan to handily defeat a European power, Russia, in 1904-1905, and which later took them down the road of aggressive imperialism that all the capitalist powers (Western or non-Western) were pursuing.

I do not see modernity, globalization, or capitalism as inherently Western. I see all of them as coterminous and inherently totalizing and non-local from the beginning, even though they arose historically/empirically in localizable settings. Globalization, which is capitalism’s spatial register, and modernization, which is capitalism’s temporal register, would have proceeded in such a brutal and totalizing manner no matter where they first emerged from primitive accumulation. Europe just happened to be the place where it did.

With regard to embracing seeming heterogeneity, pluralism, and hybridity, I side with Moishe Postone’s analysis:

In an earlier global transition of capitalism, Marxists frequently opposed general rational planning to the anarchic irrationality of the market. Instead of necessarily pointing beyond capitalism, however, such critiques frequently helped legitimate a subsequent state-centric capitalism. Similarly, the contemporary hypostatization of difference, heterogeneity, and hybridity, doesn’t necessarily point beyond capitalism, but can serve to veil and legitimate a new global form that combines decentralization and heterogeneity of production and consumption with increasing centralization of control and underlying homogeneity.

@Ross

In each of these latter cases, one’s social position is based on either bloodline or religious training… With class, these purely qualitative social differences are for all intents and purposes negated. In bourgeois society, everyone is (formally) equal.

These are cultural dressings – whereas the structural positioning of “class”, “estate” and “caste” (or Jati) are nearly identical. And that is my point: the structural domination of particular people is no-less oppressive in New York City than it is rural Rajasthan.

Belonging to one class or another is determined quantitatively — how much capital one possesses, whether in the form of money or saleable commodities. Once one’s private accumulation of capital surpasses a certain quantitative threshold (namely the tipping point at which he is able to own his own means of production and hire others to work with them to produce new commodities), where this engenders a qualitative shift in class identity. One is no longer proletarian but bourgeois.

I know how it all works Ross. And I understand the differences between particular manifestations of structural dominance (ecocultural positionality). And you are right, these differences make a difference and should be acknowledged and tracked. My point was that modern civilization is no less stratified than India, it just goes about it differently (as you point out) and with different justifications and material consequences.

[A]ny system of agriculture which continues to demand intensive manual/physical labor, and remains thereby unmechanized, without automation, consigns the majority of the population to the darkness, ignorance, and nearly chronic illiteracy of the countryside. “The idiocy of rural life,” as Marx and Engels called it.

This issue has been one I have struggled with for a long time. On one hand I agree with you: we should seek to enact modes of living that reduce the amount of physical and existential energy we put into labor – especially if it is directed towards capital accumulation or the extraction of surplus value for private gain – if only because such liberation from toil would free us up for more subtle and creative endeavors; yet, on the other hand, I can’t bring myself to reject the reality and value of work or effort per se. I think only a species drunk on its own surplus would want to suggest that work of physical labor is worthless (in terms of psychic benefits as well as physical rewards) or unnecessary. We are not only beings with frontal lobes fated for enlightened leisure, but embodied agents with primate sensibilities and physical needs who require action to maintain health, andintimacy in terms of procuring our own ways in the world. So I’m against “toil” and exploitation but not against hard work and skillful engagement with our life conditions.

And, again as evidenced in the ethnographic literature, pre-industrial cultures don’t necessarily view their habitual lives as “toil” – especially when they can offer rich opportunities for social interaction and communitas, sharing of gossip/news, teaching and mentorship, etc. In the case of the Bali water temples (which I highly recommend you look into) spiritual enrichment, ritual, economic equality and political disambiguation were all part of an ecocultural mode of production that provided highly meaningful experiences and anchored village life.

Evaluating the “idiocy” of rural life, in many ways, has as much to do with one’s cultural values and mode of being than it does with objective qualitative differences. To be sure, there are qualitative differences, and I would rather live in a post-industrial society than a pre-industrial society, not generally but for very particular reasons, but not all of what we might consider “idiot” is objectively so. Our society values certain kinds of intelligences and those intelligences are connected to certain technic and cultural modes (many of which are pathological in affect), but just because we value a certain set of intelligences doesn’t make them ontically less adaptive or practical or contextually necessary and important.

But, again, before I go too far let me align our views more closely by restating my agreement with you that science, literacy and technology are ALSO important. I support an aggregationist view of innovation that attempts to integrate the insights and advances of all available modes of being without a violent insistence on any particular mode in its totality. I only caution you to not simply take Marx’s views on non-urban (non-19th century European) life as absolute. Marx never traveled to places that might have provides opportunities for expanding his ethnocentric evaluations of other people and other life-ways. His “arm-chair” assessments of cultural diversity and the utility of alternative praxis is famous and utter untenable for any type of world-centric revolutionary zeitgeist.

the formerly narrow-minded peasant becomes more “urbane,” “cosmopolitan,” exposed to people of different races and languages, and generally receive a much better education.

And that is all well and good, if, that is, being “urbane” and bourgeois are the modes of being that are exulted and ideologically prioritized within the context of those who hold power. If being parochial and locally is what is valued by power-brokers than those are the traits that are better fitted to that environment. It’s true that in the current set of regimes (industrial corporate capitalism) being “cultured”, fashionable and having access to the latest discourse and technologies is at the top of our value hierarchy, but why should the revolutionary and/or intellectual seek to adopt that system of values? Should our goal be to reproduce in different manners the system of mass consumer cosmopolitanism at the heart of Capital?

Again, I reject the notion of a linear ladder of history embedded in Marxist thinking (a Marxist singularity?) where rural and non-industrial societies are seen as more primitive and industrial capitalist as harbinger of technical progress and productive innovation as more advanced. In Marx’s case it stems from his reliance on readings of Herbert Spencer, Sir E.B. Tylor and Lewis Henry Morgan – who were by all accounts piss poor anthropologists. (see the work of Amartya Sen for a better version of “development”)

In my assessment ‘History’ has ushered in waves of non-linear accumulation where all sorts of materials and powers have differentiated and crystallized into sequential (genealogical) systems of domination, passivity and sometimes resistance. In the evolution of human life and institutions many beneficial objects, narratives technologies and practices have been generated alongside numerous pathologies, superfluous assemblages and brutalizing habits. And from my perspective the only way forward has got to be one of synthesis and sensitivity. Synthesis in the sense of a conscious sorting out and gathering of the most eudemonic innovations and intelligences hitherto invented and evolved. And sensitive in the sense of a dialogical appreciation for the existential, moral and practical realities in which life flourishes. From this view we need to rethink everything we might assume about “underdevelopment”, “primitives” and “rationality”.

…capitalism, which just circumstantially happened to originate in Western Europe…

There were very specific geological, ecological and historical causal factors that led to the rise of capitalism in Europe. Writers such as Jared Diamond and other before and after him have indeed detailed the broad contributing factors to European dominance. If this is what you mean be “circumstantial” than ok, let us not forget all the blood spilt and communities destroyed on the way to our proposed technocratic socialist utopia.

As Weber so cogently argued, the reason for the hyperdeveloped political and economic structures of rationality, for the extremely refined technologies of production and destruction (military technologies) of the West, was precisely due to the unstoppable, totalizing swell of capitalist social relations. This allowed the nations where capitalism first developed to ruthlessly exploit precapitalist (usually non-European) parts of the world with such ruthless efficacy. But Europe was by no means alone.

Here I fully agree. The only thing I contest is both the necessity (inevitability) of this process and the ultimate pragmatic value that these “developments” have had and will have. I argue that the “engines of history”, these steamrollers of technical assemblage, have erased modes of being, alterity and possibilities that are not as “primitive” and unsophisticated as you suppose. Given some restraint, sensitivity and more eclectic forms of rationality history could have been more human, pluralistic and innovative than has been the case. More importantly, it can be so now if we abandon much of modernism and post-modernism (which are both tendencies of capitalism) and negotiate more technically savvy and ethically developed social relations and less culturally arrogant, alienating and “urbane” sensibilities.

Re: Postone

And I agree with Postone that the valorization of difference, etc., can mask a more pernicious form of global capitalism – since consumer capitalism thrives on artificial differences and “choice” – but it doesn’t necessarily lead to such.

…the contemporary hypostatization of difference, heterogeneity, and hybridity, doesn’t necessarily point beyond capitalism, but can serve to veil and legitimate…

An acknowledgement of heterogeneity, ontic differences and hybridity is not necessarily “hypostatization”. These are real aspects, processes and occurrences in our world. The cosmos is intrinsically ecological, compositional and complex. Causality, as demonstrated empirically, is multi-leveled, non-linear and mixed. To ignore these inherencies is to promote ignorance and idiocy, and is just as counter-productive as promoting such tendencies for their own sake. But that’s not what I am doing.

If we can’t operationalize concepts of hybridity and heterogeneity, and most importantly simultaneity, than how do we expect to understand the material complexes and affective relations that actually have these properties? In order to affect change and intervene in a complex reality we need to think it complexly.

What’s “beyond” capitalism? Cosmological adaptation, creativity and assembly.

There were very specific geological, ecological and historical causal factors that led to the rise of capitalism in Europe. Writers such as Jared Diamond and other before and after him have indeed detailed the broad contributing factors to European dominance. If this is what you mean be “circumstantial” than ok, let us not forget all the blood spilt and communities destroyed on the way to our proposed technocratic socialist utopia.

Well, that it specifically took place in northern and western Europe is somewhat circumstantial. The reasons why it occurred in those regions are by no means as obvious as one might think. Many Marxist scholars have long wondered why, for example, capitalism did not begin in Renaissance Italy, where commodity production (particularly centered around Venice, but elsewhere also) had reached such high levels that primitive accumulation would seem to have easily been reached. There was the fractured nature of the Italian principalities, and the menacing invasions by the Spanish during that period, and it is possible that this prevented capitalism from arising there.

That it happened to occur earliest in England and then subsequently in France and part of what would later become Germany owed in part to the massive destabilization of the countryside populations in those countries, which led to an influx of cheap, former peasant labor in the cities. This quickly eroded the guild system that had previously held sway there, and also led to heightened commodity production.

But even here, this might not alone have been sufficient for invested capital to realize its self-valorization through circulation to such an extent that it could have reproduced itself. This is why Weber’s theory of the Protestant (specifically Calvinist) ethic of “worldly asceticism” and time-discipline is such a valuable contribution or addendum to Marx’s theory. In this case, an ideological (religious, no less) factor may have helped lead to the spectacular bursting-forth of capitalism during this period.

These are cultural dressings – whereas the structural positioning of “class”, “estate” and “caste” (or Jati) are nearly identical. And that is my point: the structural domination of particular people is no-less oppressive in New York City than it is rural Rajasthan.

I would say that the distinctions between “estate” and “caste,” between lord and serf, rentier and tenant, boyar and serf, patrician and plebeian, Brahmin and Dalit, etc. These are merely of various “cultural dressings.” They usually had their origin in some sort of religious tradition or dynastic/bloodline sense. The categories were qualitative, and one was almost always born into the estate or caste that they remained in for the rest of their lives.

With class as it is constituted under capitalism, there is no traditional origin. It is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. As I detailed in one of my previous posts, the rigidity of class structure is of a quantitative and not qualitative measure. Structural unemployment is also something virtually unknown in non-capitalist societies. Usually the only beggars in non-capitalist societies were the blind, the crippled or malformed, or the seriously insane. Otherwise one simply pursued the craft or trade of their fathers, without looking for a capitalist to employ them. “Relative surplus-population,” as Marx termed it, originated under capitalism and is peculiar to it.

Though some of the instances of domination in non-capitalist societies may resemble domination under capitalism, the differences should not be too easily glossed over. For example, it is a crime to assault or otherwise heckle and needlessly provoke the homeless under capitalist society. If a policeman is nearby it is his duty to arrest the aggressor. But a slave, or worse, a day-laborer, could be regularly beaten by his master for almost any excuse. Likewise, in Russia and many parts of premodern Europe it was legal for lords to beat their serfs to death, without fear of repercussions.

And that is all well and good, if, that is, being “urbane” and bourgeois are the modes of being that are exulted and ideologically prioritized within the context of those who hold power. If being parochial and locally is what is valued by power-brokers than those are the traits that are better fitted to that environment.

Again, this is not an arbitrary development. The valorization of the town over the countryside began by at least the early 18th century. There are even etymological residues that indicate the supremacy of the town over the countryside under capitalism. The word bourgeois is the French equivalent for the German burgher, and literally means “someone who lives in a burgh/town.” So bourgeois literally means “city-dweller.”

But by that same token the proletariat or so-called “working-class” is also an urban phenomenon. They do not own the implements of their production nor any land upon which they can grow crops or produce. They have a defined place of work, at which they are paid according to time-wages. This is why the rural farmers and agricultural communities were so often referred to as petit-bourgeois and were, like rural populations in most countries, often reactionary and conservative. Usually even more so than the bourgeoisie proper.

Intense urbanization is practically a universal feature of modern/capitalist society. Even overwhelmingly peasant countries like Russia and China experienced an unbelievable influx of former peasant populations to the cities. The ratio of urban to rural population shifted radically in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, tipping the scales in favor of the urban. While the wise, simple farmer may remain a sentimental figure valorized by the nostalgic for his “closeness to the earth,” the reality is that rural life is the breeding-ground of narrow-minded provincialism, localistic/nativistic intolerance, and again, religious superstition and a lack of education.

Eudaimonism is a philosophy which Levi has recently resurrected, quite oddly, which Aristotle would find practically unrecognizable. The “good life” is certainly not to be found in the jumbled, syncretistic mess of theoretical tidbits taken from this and that intellectual and cultural tradition. This almost unrecognizable hodgepodge of concepts and choice ideas lifted from whatever sources seem to be at hand (I’m describing Levi’s brand of philosophizing) is useless unless there is a subordinating principle which systematically binds together the whole.

For example, I am very sympathetic to a Marxist reading of Freud, which takes for granted that Marx did not focus on questions of the unconscious or repressed drives, but which also historicizes many of Freud’s apparently transhistorical claims about the cosmic properties of concepts like Eros and Thanatos. Likewise, I am quite receptive to many of Weber’s and Durkheim’s ideas (though the latter’s concept of “society” and “solidarity” was too vague and all-encompassing). Weber’s ideas are quite compatible with Marx’s on a number of levels; he was, after all, the first teacher to actually lead a course on the study of Marx’s Capital in a university setting. But my point is, hybridity can easily be taken to the point of absurdity. Perhaps one of the reasons for my apparent dogmatism is that I demand thought to be systematically coherent, which implies the existence of interlocking parts, various symmetries and compatible conceptual distinctions.

11 thoughts on “My War against Vandana Shiva: A Long but Interesting Exchange with Michael from Archive Fire regarding Marxism and the Environment

      • It is clear that Marx had much more admiration for certain historical (particularly North American) tribal practices, and not for some vague, abstract notion of “indigenous peoples” as such. He rightly considered the Indian caste system to be wretched, Chinese absolutism to be despotic, and so on. And he recognized the numerous religious superstitions of these primitive (yes, primitive) societies, as well as their nearly universal patriarchal character.

    • nice find chris, thanks for this. Adds more nuance to my opinion of Marx as somewhat of a eurocentric morganite. It seems he did recognize, if only in a small way, the intrinsic value of some non-industrial modes of life. In the end, though, he maintained his reliance on a unilinear view of social evolution.

      it’s too bad he was dead wrong though, and that the “the end of history” as driven by industrial capitalism will not be a scientific communist technocratic civilization, but a hyper-militarized ecological wasteland of nuclear radiation and global warming…

      I would have rather had Marx’s vision.

  1. I think it’s important not to lump other civilized cultures like China and India in with foraging and tribal peoples. Hunter-gatherers worked far less (at least the ones in abundant eco-systems did) than agricultural and industrial peoples did/do, and of course didn’t have a category of “work” to differentiate some of their life activity from the rest. What Marx recognized, which probably would have been amplified had he had access to modern ethnographies, is that many forms of non-industrial life were (and in some few cases perhaps still are) less alienated than life within civilization. “Rural idiocy” as a concept only makes sense in a context where the separation between town and country is already in effect within a society.

    All this should be kept in mind as well as Marx’s insight that communism must be global. But the challenge of communism is to keep any particular life-ways from generalizing into a universal system, not to impose a regime of abstract labor on the entire planet.

    • Complete agreement from here, as well. I think the important thing that Marx realized is that, although society has become increasingly alienated as its has gradually “civilized” itself (this definitely fits with the Freudian idiom as well), it cannot be disalienated by simply reverting to a hunter-gatherer mode of subsistence living, or to earlier stages of mainly agrarian production. Marx understood that a postcapitalist society must be the overcoming of capital by working through its contradictions, not by retreating from them. It must be a negation of a negation, in the Hegelian sense, the sublation of capitalism and the fulfillment of the promises of liberalism and the French Revolution: liberty, equality, internationality. That which presently enchains us at the same time has opened up unprecedented emancipatory potential. The question is, can society become sufficiently self-conscious and autonomous to liberate and rescue itself from capitalism in time?

      Michael, expect an epic and programmatic post of terrifying proportions from me in the next couple days on Marxism and the problem of technology. Obviously, the old theme of humanity’s relationship to the rest of nature will be involved in this as well.

  2. What can be more petit bourgeois, than eco-feminism? I don’t think its a major threat.

    Ecology goals as rational use of resources, control over the impact of climate change, can’t be met under capitalism, and not on a national basis. Pollution doesn’t recognize borders.

    I think the main difference between Greens and Reds, is the question of abundance and scarcity.

    • I agree generally with the petit-bourgeois character of eco-feminism, especially in Shiva’s brand, with its valorization of “indigenous” forms of agriculture. Capitalist agriculture, founded on the private property of individual plots of land, which first began to take shape in Britain and Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, was initially viewed as a catastrophe. But in the end it proved far more productive and expedient than the feudal forms which had preceded it. The industrialization of agriculture, which lagged significantly behind the industrialization of the manufacturing trades in the city, was the next logical step from the primitive petit-bourgeois family farm. It paved the way for the superabundance of the 20th century, which in turn has allowed the world’s population to grow to levels unimaginable in precapitalist times. To turn back the clock to the more romantic, pastoral image of the farmer tending his crops would be disastrous. The same thing can be said of indigenous, precapitalist farming practices. Hyperindustrialized agribusinesses may be unsustainable, but this is because they obey the anarchic economic tendencies of capitalism, without rational foresight or planning.

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  4. Shiva is not a scientist, despite her book jackets bragging that she was “one of India’s leading physicists”. She is not a physicist, and is not a scientist of any kind. She has never worked in any scientific endeavor. Her degree is in philosophy. So her claim to be a scientist makes at least one thing about her clear: she is a liar.

    There’s an excellent article about her in The New Yorker:

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/25/seeds-of-doubt

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