Against inadvertent climate change; for великое преобразование природы instead

Even casual readers of Marx will likely know that his favorite figure from antiquity was Spartacus. In his responses to one of the questionnaires that periodically circulated — or “confessions,” quite popular during the nineteenth century — he listed the great leader of the Roman slave revolt as his hero. Johannes Kepler was his modern idol. What is less widely known, however, is that Marx’s favorite figure from classical mythology was Prometheus, who revolted against the gods. Marx did mention Aeschylus, author of the famous tragedy Prometheus Bound, as his favorite ancient poet in the 1865 “confession.” Shakespeare took the title as greatest of the moderns; Nietzsche would have approved of both choices. He went so far as to quote Aeschylus’ Prometheus in the introduction to his dissertation, in March 1841: “Philosophy makes no secret of it. The confession of Prometheus — ‘in a word, I hate all gods’ — is its very own confession, its own sentence” (MECW 1, pg. 130).

Franz Mehring later pointed out the affinity Marx felt with the fallen Titan, who stole the technology of fire from the gods and bestowed it upon humanity. Edmund Wilson would expand on this motif in his outstanding intellectual history To the Finland Station, placing Lucifer alongside Prometheus as one of Marx’s twin patron anti-deities. Both challenged the gods. “In one of Karl Marx’s ballads,” Wilson explained, “a Promethean hero curses a god who has stripped him of his all; but he swears that he will have his revenge, though his strength be but a patchwork of weaknesses: out of his pain and horror he will fashion a fortress, iron and cold, which will strike the beholder livid and against which the thunderbolts will rebound. Prometheus is to be Marx’s favorite myth” (To the Finland Station, pg. 116).

After his journal, the Rheinische Zeitung, was suppressed by state censors in 1843, Marx was depicted in a contemporary cartoon as Prometheus chained to a printing press, being disemboweled by a Prussian eagle. There’s also a squirrel holding a rifle featured in the upper left of the picture, the symbolism of which has been lost to time. Regardless, Marx was quite flattered by the comparison.

One of the more controversial subjects within Marxist discourse over the last forty or so years has been Marx’s relationship to what is commonly called “Prometheanism.” Following the appearance of the Club of Rome’s neo-Malthusian study The Limits to Growth (1972) and the Romanian mathematician Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s ruminations on entropy (1970, 1975), optimistic visions of mankind’s mastery of self and world were generally frowned upon. Since this time, many sympathetic to Marx tried to distance the his theories from more Promethean strains of applied Marxism or actually-existing socialism. They stress Marx’s ambivalence toward large-scale machinery in heavy industry, marveling at its productive powers while also decrying their effect on the humans who operated them.

John Bellamy Foster, for example, tries to turn the tables by revisiting Marx’s critique of Proudhon, supposedly on grounds of the latter’s “Prometheanism.” In his book, Marx’s Ecology, Foster claims that Marx impugned “Proudhon’s fetishistic approach to machinery, which gives it a reified ‘Promethean’ character” (Marx’s Ecology, pg. 131). Foster fails to produce textual evidence that Marx argued in these terms. Marx’s argument, in fact, is not that Proudhon is too Promethean. If anything, he is not Promethean enough. Ever the dialectician, Marx recognized the dual-sided character of progress in capitalist society: “In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary,” wrote Marx. “Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking 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 the dark background of ignorance” (MECW 14, pgs. 655-656).

Clearly, there is a dimension of the old man’s thought that is far from being naïvely enthusiastic about newfangled industrial technologies. He can hardly be called a vulgar technocrat. But it is not so easy to disaggregate Marx’s own Prometheanism from that of his so-called “epigones.” Quite plainly, if one looks to his writings, Promethean undertones are readily apparent. For example:

Herr Daumer’s cult of nature…is a peculiar one. He manages to be reactionary even in comparison with Christianity. He tries to restore the old pre-Christian natural religion in a modernized form. Thus he of course achieves nothing but Christian-Germanic patriarchal drivel on nature…[T]his cult of nature is limited to the Sunday walks of an inhabitant of a small provincial town who childishly wonders at the cuckoo laying its eggs in another bird’s nest, at tears being designed to keep the surface of the eyes moist, and so on, and finally trembles with reverence as he recites Klopstock’s Ode to Spring to his children. There is no mention, of course, of modern natural science, which, with modern industry, has revolutionised the whole of nature and put an end to man’s childish attitude towards nature as well as to other forms of childishness. But instead we get mysterious hints and astonished philistine notions about Nostradamus’ prophecies, second sight in Scotsmen and animal magnetism. For the rest, it would be desirable that Bavaria’s sluggish peasant economy, the ground on which grow priests and Daumers alike, should at last be ploughed up by modern cultivation and modern machines. (MECW 10, pg. 245)

Marx had very little patience for reverential attitudes toward nature, or romantic anticapitalism in general. As he saw it, the main problem faced by society under the capitalist mode of production was the subjugation of all its efficiency toward ends foreign to itself. Humanity, which is able to marshall wondrous materials and energies in pursuing its productive enterprise, nevertheless does not produce for the good of society. Social production serves an end outside of itself, namely the valorization of capital. Other considerations take a back seat to the primary goal of capitalization, so it is seldom that the unintended consequences or harmful byproducts of this process (such as climate change) are questioned. This is one of the ways production is “alienated,” to borrow the terminology of the young Marx.

In fact, the character of Prometheus reappears in Marx’s Capital. Here Prometheus stands in for enchained humanity: “[T]he law which always holds the relative surplus population or industrial reserve army in equilibrium with the extent and energy of accumulation rivets the worker to capital more firmly than the wedges of Hephaestus held Prometheus to the rock” (Capital, pg. 799). The implication is that capitalist production after a time actually constrains the creative capacities of mankind, instead of cultivating them. This was the sense of the metaphor summoned up by the revolutionary leader Clara Zetkin almost sixty years later, discussing Comintern’s need to “accelerate the advent of the proletarian world revolution.” Zetkin implored her audience to “learn from Lenin to believe implicitly that within the bosom of every proletarian and of every oppressed human being, there dwells the titanic promethean defiance which says to the strongest oppressors: ‘And yet you cannot slay me!’ Let his spirit teach us to snap the chains of Prometheus and forge them into weapons for freedom and into tools for construction.” Once again, the technologies which today constrain the proletariat tomorrow may just liberate them, effectively repurposed to serve society.

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Socialism or Barbarism?

The decline of the Left over the course of this last century is thus not only a tragedy for those who fought on its behalf, but also for those who traditionally fought against it.  Inasmuch as proletarian socialism aimed at the supersession of bourgeois liberalism, its old nemesis, while simultaneously preserving the latter’s revolutionary accomplishments and raising them to a “higher level,” the former stood for the hope of all humanity — no matter which side one was on.  For as long as it is able to reproduce its own existence, the underlying volatility of capitalist society will remain unchanged (whether or not there is a leftist political project capable of overcoming it).  But the idea that capitalism will simply continue to exist indefinitely cannot at all be supported by historical experience.  Though bourgeois political economists have time and again tried to naturalize the social relations that have appeared immediately before them, mesmerized by the fetish-character of the commodity form, the capitalist mode of production has not always existed.  It came into existence historically, and could just as easily pass out of existence historically.[231]  The issue thus comes down to ascertaining the nature of this historical passage, should it ever arrive at all.  Capitalist society could cease to exist in any number of ways, the majority of which would not be emancipatory in the least.  This might well be the most disturbing prospect of all: that capitalism will collapse and still not lead to a more just, liberated, and equitable society.  As Lukács pointed out, commenting on the revolutionary legacies of Lenin and Luxemburg, “socialism would never happen ‘by itself,’ and as the result of an inevitable natural economic development.  The natural laws of capitalism do indeed lead inevitably to its ultimate crisis, but at the end of its road would be the destruction of all civilization and a new barbarism.”[232]  Broadly speaking, there are two scenarios that can be imagined as leading to capitalism’s eventual demise: 1.) cataclysm or 2.) revolution.

In either case, the result would be that capital would no longer exist.  The reason for this would be quite different from instance to instance, however.  Should the former take place, capital would be dissolved simply because it would no longer be able to reproduce and augment its own value through the process of production.  For example, a war could break out that would be of such devastating proportions that the cycles of production and circulation would be fatally disrupted.  Some of the images called to mind are total blight, scorched earth, and nuclear holocaust.  Another possibility would be some sort of global environmental catastrophe.  Should the latter (revolution) obtain, however, capital would be dissolved because human production would no longer be subordinated to its ends.  Humanity would not produce goods simply to extract surplus-value from labor and then be realized on the market, only to repeat this cycle all over again, in perpetuity.  Rather, humanity would produce in order to meet (and surpass) human needs, in a way that does not endanger the provision of such needs in the future.  In this scenario, society would not undertake production for the sake of a category external and alien to itself (capital), but would become its own self-directed end.  Society would only produce for the sake of society and its individual members.  The mystery of capital — and indeed the riddle of all history[233] — is that society is a product of human activity, and yet appears to humanity as an unruly force of nature.[234]  Crises are experienced under the capitalist social order as so many natural disasters, as storms to “weather” or endure.  Humanity is, nonetheless, the unconscious demiurge of this second nature.  It has but to attain consciousness in order to decisively act and thereby claim this system for itself, so that society and its constituent individuals might someday live autonomously.  As Engels once put it:

With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer…The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face-to-face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him.  Man’s own social organization, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by Nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action…It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.[235]

Faced with the polarity dividing freedom and humanity on the one hand from unfreedom and inhumanity on the other, society arrived at a historic impasse almost a century ago.  Since this time it appears to have remained at a virtual standstill, stuck before this fork in the road.  This apparent immobility must not be thought of as an absolute motionlessness, however, qua an absolute cessation of motion or activity.  At best, civilization has merely been spinning its wheels for the last hundred years; at worst, it has politically regressed.  The choice presently at hand poses afresh Luxemburg’s old disjunction of “socialism or barbarism.”[236]  But make no mistake about it: these options do not present themselves as on an empty slate.  Liberalism has been utterly barbaric for over 150 years now.  But the attempts to go beyond it during this time, the many faces of “actually existing socialism,” have been similarly barbarized and enervated.  The twentieth century, Richard Rubin has pointed out, revealed the nightmarish possibility of having both socialism and barbarism, embodied its most characteristic and grotesque form as Stalinism.[237]  A pair of related, if troubling, questions now makes an appearance.  What if liberal civilization still provides the basis for the best (or least worst) of all possible worlds that humanity can realistically hope for? This is, at least in Michéa’s opinion, how it has often understood itself.[238]  And, assuming that liberalism does in fact provide this basis, what if the best (or least worst) of all possible worlds thus established proves impossible to maintain?

This is the prospect raised by Žižek, amongst others, as the specter of ecological and thermonuclear Armageddon continues to haunt contemporary social life.[239]  In one of his more bombastic books of late, In Defense of Lost Causes, Žižek summarizes this current state of affairs more succinctly.  “What looms on the horizon today is the unprecedented possibility that [a calamity] will intervene directly into the historical Substance,” projects Žižek, “catastrophically disturbing its course by triggering an ecological catastrophe, a fateful biogenetic mutation, a nuclear or similar military-social catastrophe, and so on…It no longer holds that, whatever we do, history will carry on.”[240]  Since the 1970s and the emergence of the environmental movement, many leftists fear that an impending natural disaster will render the Earth uninhabitable, effectively bringing an end to the drama of human history.  Other critics of a Marxist persuasion, such as Fredric Jameson, count no fewer than “four fundamental threats to the survival of the human race today,” throwing global impoverishment and famine as well as structural unemployment into the mix along with ecological collapse and nuclear war.  He immediately adds, correctly, the humbling fact that “in each of these areas no serious counterforce exists anywhere in the world.”[241]  Yet it would seem to be of paramount importance that such counterforces eventually arise so that humanity can continue to exist at all — let alone realize its deepest aspirations of liberty and equality.  Despite capitalism’s much-vaunted “adaptability,” the liberal belief in the self-correcting capacity of the Market seems a dangerous game to play, a concern voiced in recent decades by the Marxian anthropologist Maurice Godelier.[242]  For now, at least, liberalism clearly offers no way out.  With the decline of the Left in the twentieth century, however, no socialist alternative seems readily available.  That is to say, the need for revolutionary transformation has never been greater, and yet the forces necessary for such a transformation have never been in shorter supply.

Lenin remarked in 1917, of course, that revolutionary ruptures necessarily appear as “miracles” to those who witness them.[243]  It is thus perhaps not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that capitalism might still someday be transcended.  If liberalism’s original emancipatory potential is ever to be realized, however, it will require a revolutionary act of sublation — in the strict Hegelian sense of a thing’s determinate negation, its concurrent cancellation and preservation.[244]  As Chris Cutrone has put it: “Socialism is meant to transcend liberalism by fulfilling it.  The problem with liberalism is not its direction, supposedly different from socialism, but rather that it does not go far enough.  Socialism is not anti-liberal.”[245]  Despite the recalcitrance it has repeatedly shown to efforts aiming to radically transform it, liberalism’s — and, indeed, all of humanity’s — only chance for survival resides with socialism.  “In this hour, socialism is the only salvation for humanity,” Rosa Luxemburg proclaimed in 1918.  The fundamental truth of this assertion remains equally valid today, however much other conditions have changed.  Absent the possibility of its determinate negation, liberalism now instead faces absolute annihilation.  Socialism or barbarism? Revolution or cataclysm?

Continue to Revolution into Reaction: June 1848 to August 1914