Against inadvertent climate change; for великое преобразование природы instead

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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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On the first socialist tragedy

Andrei Platonov

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It is essential not to thrust oneself forward and not to get drunk on life; our time is both better and more serious than blissful delight. Everyone who gets drunk is sure to be caught, sure to perish like a little mouse that messes with a mousetrap in order to “get drunk” on the fat on the bait. All around us lies fat, but every piece of this fat is bait. It is necessary to stand in the ranks of the ordinary people doing patient socialist work — that is all we can do.

The arrangement of nature corresponds to this mood and consciousness. Nature is not great and is not abundant. Or her design is so rigid that she has never yet yielded her greatness and her abundance to anyone. This is a good thing; otherwise — in historical time — we would long ago have looted and squandered all nature; we would have eaten our way right through her and got drunk on her right to her very bones. There would always have been appetite enough. Had the physical world been without what is, admittedly, its most fundamental law — the law of the dialectic — it would have taken people only a few centuries to destroy the world completely. More than that, in the absence of this law, nature would have annihilated itself to smithereens even without any people. The dialectic is probably an expression of miserliness, of the almost insuperable rigidity of nature’s construction — and it is only thanks to all this that humanity’s historical development has been possible. Otherwise everything would long ago have come to an end on this earth — like a game played by a child with sweets that melt in his hands before he has even had time to eat them.

What is the truth to be seen in the historical picture of our own time?

It goes without saying that this picture is tragic — if only because true historical work is being carried out not on the whole of the earth but only on a small, and greatly overburdened, part of the earth.

Truth — in my opinion — lies in the fact that “technology decides everything.” It is indeed technology that constitutes the theme of our contemporary historical tragedy — if technology is understood to mean not only the entire complex of man-made production tools but also the social organization that is based on the technology of production, and if ideology too is included in this understanding. Ideology, incidentally, is located not in the superstructure, not on some “height,” but somewhere within, in the heart of society’s sense of itself. To be more precise, unless in our concept of technology we also include the technician himself — the human being — our understanding of the question will remain obtuse and leaden.

The relationship between technology and nature is tragic. Technology’s aim is “Give me a fulcrum and I shall overturn the world.” But nature’s construction is such that she does not like being outmaneuvered. With the right moment of force it is possible to overturn the world, but so much will be lost in the journey and in the travel time of the lever that in practical terms the victory will be useless. This is an elementary example of the dialectic. Let us look now at a fact from our own time: the splitting of the atomic nucleus. It is the same thing. The hour will come when we expend n quantity of energy on the destruction of an atom and in return receive n + 1 — and we will be ever so pleased with this meager increase, because this absolute gain will have been obtained by virtue of something like an artificially induced change to nature’s most fundamental principle: the dialectic itself. Nature stays aloof, she keeps us at bay; a quid pro quo — or even a trade with a mark-up in her own favor — is the only way she can work. Technology, however, strains to achieve the opposite. It is through the dialectic that the external world is defended against us. And so, however paradoxical this may seem: nature’s dialectic is both humanity’s enemy and its instructor. The dialectic of nature constitutes the very greatest resistance to technology; the aim and function of technology is to deny, or at least mitigate, the dialectic. Up until now its success in this has been modest, which is why the world cannot yet be kind and good for us.

And at the same time, the dialectic is our only instructor and our only means of defense against the premature and senseless destruction involved in childish delight. Just as the dialectic is itself the power that has created all our technology.

In sociology, in love, in the depth of a human being, the law of the dialectic functions no less immutably. A man with a ten-year-old son left the boy with the boy’s mother — and married a young beauty. The boy began to long for his father and patiently, clumsily hanged himself. A gram of delight on one end of the lever is balanced by a ton of graveyard earth on the other. The father took the rope from the boy’s neck and soon followed him into the grave. What he wanted was to get drunk on the innocent beauty; he wanted to bear love not as a duty, not as an obligation with a single wife, but as pleasure. Don’t get drunk — or it will be the end of you.

Some naïve people may retort that the contemporary crisis of production overturns this point of view. It does not overturn anything. Imagine the extremely complex technical equipment of the society of contemporary imperialism and fascism, the grinding exhaustion and destruction of the people of these societies — and it will become only too clear at what price this increase in the forces of production has been achieved. Self-destruction in fascism, war between states — these are the losses entailed by increased production, these are nature’s revenge for it. The tragic knot is cut — but without being resolved. What results cannot — in the classical sense of the word — even be called tragedy. Without the USSR, the world would be certain to destroy itself in the course of no more than a century.

The tragedy of man, armed with machine and heart, and with the dialectic of nature, must in our country be resolved by way of socialism. But it must be understood that this task is an extremely serious one. Ancient life on the “surface” of nature was able to obtain what was essential to it from the waste products and excretions of elemental forces and substances. But we mess about deep inside the world, and in return the world crushes us with an equivalent strength.

Translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth
Chandler, Jonathan Platt, and Olga Meerson

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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

Thinking Nature, a Speculative Realist Journal, Volume 1 Released

Thomas Cole's "A Tornado in the Wilderness" (1835)

Volume 1 of the Speculative Realist journal Thinking Nature is finally out.  Though I do not consider myself part of the Speculative Realist movement and have on several occasions been extremely critical of it, the content of my article was deemed relevant enough that it warranted inclusion in the journal.  My essay, “Man and Nature,” posted on this blog already, is written from a thoroughly Marxist perspective.  In any case, the other accepted submissions are listed below:

Volume 1

Essays

/1/ – What did the Early Heidegger Think about Nature? – Paul Ennis

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/2/ – Being and Counting: Speculative Materialism and the Threshold of the Given – David Lindsay

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/3/ – Unthinking Nature: Transcendental Realism, Neo-Vitalism and the Metaphysical Unconscious in Outline – Michael Austin

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/4/ – Philosophies of Nature in the Differentials of Iain Hamilton Grant and Ray Brassier – Himanshu Damle

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/5/ – Ecological Necessity – Tom Sparrow

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/6/ – Six Myths of Interdisciplinarity – Ted Toadvine

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/7/ – Some Notes Towards a Philosophy of Non-Life – Timothy Morton

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/8/ – Towards a Philosophy of (Dejected) Nature – Ben Woodard

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/9/ – Man and Nature – Ross Wolfe

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Man and Nature, Part IV: A Marxist Critique of the “Green” Environmental Movement

Communist Party International Emblem, 1919

“Go Green” Emblem, 2010

A part of the bourgeoisie wants to redress social grievances in order to assure the maintenance of bourgeois society.

Included in it are economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, do-gooders for the working classes, charity organisers, animal welfare enthusiasts, temperance union workers, two-a-penny reformers of multifarious kinds.

— Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party

Surveying the various constituencies that make up the present-day Green movement, a number of distinct tendencies can be observed.  These each have their own peculiarities and distinguishing features, and are sometimes even at odds with one another.  But there do exist overarching themes that hold this jumbled mass of ideological fragments together.  One trend held in common by most of them, for example, is a shared opposition to “big business” and “corporate greed.”  It is on this basis that many of them fancy themselves to hold a generally anti-capitalist worldview.

1. The Ideology of “Local” and “Organic”: Locavores and Urban-Agriculturalism

But on closer inspection, it can be seen in most cases that these activists don’t really want to overturn capitalism.  They merely want to turn back the clock to what they perceive as a kinder, gentler capitalism, in which the “little guy” wasn’t stomped on so severely by all the corporate giants.  They want the family-run local shops down the block where everybody knows each other’s first name.  They miss the nearby farms that were owned by honest, hardworking families who brought their fresh produce into market every day.  They want to get rid of all the corporate suits who come into town and vampirically leach off the hard labor of others and put these local stores and farms out of business by importing cheap goods made by foreign labor and selling produce enhanced by synthetic additives.  (The völkisch and vaguely crypto-fascist/anti-Semitic overtones of this perspective should be obvious).  Instead, these activists advocate to “buy local” and “go organic,” since they imagine that a world built on these principles is more “natural” than the one in which we live today.  The pro-organic and “locavore” movements are based on precisely this belief, which they consider to be more “eco-friendly.”

This world is, of course, a fiction.  But that doesn’t stop activists from calling for a return to this paradise that Marx and Engels called “the idiocy of rural life.”  Indeed, many leftish urbanites and self-proclaimed radical students have developed a bad conscience out of their sense of distance from the more natural and “authentic” world of organic farming.  In fact, this has driven many such ecophiles out of their urban lofts or student housing in some vain hope of achieving a “return to the land.”  “There is…wisdom and contentment in the unhurried rhythm of country life, which is mistaken by the smart townsman for slowness in the uptake,” wrote Lord Northbourne,[1] the traditionalist philosopher and progenitor of the term “organic farming.”  This promise of living the “simple life” out on the countryside seems to many students and city-dwellers to provide an escape from the stale atmosphere of the academy and the hustle-and-bustle of the urban scene.  So they buy some land out on the outskirts and set up farms where they can grow their own food.  This gives them an overweening sense of self-satisfaction; they experience the thrill of producing their own homemade, holistic goods, which they can then consume or perhaps even sell at the local co-op back in town.

So what sets organic farming apart from the non-organic? To begin with, organic farming promotes “bio-diversity,” which contrasts sharply with the perceived over-specialization and monocropping practices of big agrobusiness.  “Mixed farming is real farming,” declared Northbourne, continuing his anti-modern diatribe against the industrialization of agriculture.  “Unduly specialized ‘farming’ is something else; it must depend on imported fertility, it cannot be a self-sufficient nor an organic whole.”[2]  This bleak outlook regarding the mechanization and rationalization of the agricultural process, uprooting and replacing more traditional modes of farming, was shared by Sir Albert Howard, the so-called “father of organic farming.”  “The hunger of the urban populations and the hunger of the machines has become inordinate,” he lamented.  “The land has been overworked to satisfy all these demands which steadily increase as the years pass.”[3] And indeed, the trend over the course of the last century has been toward large-scale industrialized farming — with its reliance on heavy machinery, pesticides, chemical additives, and the bio-engineering of plants.  And despite the recent resurgence of the ideology of agricultural organicism in popular culture, its actual output (in terms of its percentage of the market) remains fairly marginal.  Even though it is one of the only growing sectors of the agriculture industry, this is true only insofar as the imperative to “go organic” has been embraced by mainstream capitalism.  It’s the reason why one sees “organic food” aisles in major supermarket chains, with organic fruits and vegetables produced by subsidiaries of huge agro-giants rather than by their smaller, independent competitors.[4]

But let us return to those dedicated students and urbanites who have fled from their cities and universities to pursue the vocation of local organic farming.  And let us further assume that these industrious, small-scale farmers band together to create agglomerations of “community-supported agriculture” (or CSA, for short).  Sticking to their “buy fresh, buy local” principles, moreover, we will grant that these farmers restrict the sale of their goods to local co-ops and farmers’ markets.  For none of these changes in the sphere of circulation alters the fact that the production process necessitates charging higher prices to break even, or even turn a profit.  Since organic foods are typically much more labor-intensive to produce and difficult to preserve, the price for an organic item at a store is usually much steeper than its mass-produced equivalent.  The maintenance of such small-scale organic farms would thus seem to be a luxury available only to those who are wealthy enough to afford selling their produce at a loss, or those who find clientele wealthy enough to afford paying much higher prices for locally-grown organic products.  It is thus an elitist phenomenon not only in the smug sense of ethical virtue that comes with buying organic or local, but also in a very real, economic sense.

There are those, however, who have not even had to look beyond the city limits for a place to reunite with nature.  Though parks and public gardens have been a feature of most major urban centers since the nineteenth century, the movement toward urban-agriculturalism is a relatively recent phenomenon, and is associated with the whole ideology of Green.  Many urban-agriculturalists are simply private individuals buy their own plots at outrageous prices inside the greater urban municipality, where the retail-value for the same acreage bought on the countryside would be dwarfed.  So it goes without saying that those who can stand to keep up such an expensive hobby must be extraordinarily rich.  But what they’re buying is almost certainly not the crops they will grow on it, or the relaxation brought from the hobby, but rather the knowledge that they, city-dweller though they may be, are eco-friendlier than thou.

That this fetishization of small local farms originally stems from a romantic anti-capitalist ideology should be obvious.  However, the deeply conservative and reactionary character of this tendency remains hidden to its adherents.  They imagine a past where everything was done at the local level, with “organic” social relationships and good family values.  They remember the honest farmer, with his pitchfork in hand and his wife by his side.  What they forget is the revolting reality and chronic backwardness of the old, small family farm, most famously condemned by the journalist H.L. Mencken, whose vitriol must here be quoted at length:

…Let the farmer, so far as I am concerned, be damned forevermore.  To Hell with him, and bad luck to him.  He is a tedious fraud and ignoramus, a cheap rogue and hypocrite, the eternal Jack of the human pack.  He deserves all that he ever suffers under our economic system, and more.  Any city man, not insane, who sheds tears for him is shedding tears of the crocodile.

No more grasping, selfish and dishonest mammal, indeed, is known to students of the Anthropoidea.  When the going is good for him he robs the rest of us up to the extreme limit of our endurance; when the going is bad be comes bawling for help out of the public till.  Has anyone ever heard of a farmer making any sacrifice of his own interests, however slight, to the common good? Has anyone ever heard of a farmer practising or advocating any political idea that was not absolutely self-seeking — that was not, in fact, deliberately designed to loot the rest of us to his gain? Greenbackism, free silver, the government guarantee of prices, bonuses, all the complex fiscal imbecilities of the cow State John Baptists — these are the contributions of the virtuous husbandmen to American political theory.  There has never been a time, in good seasons or bad, when his hands were not itching for more; there has never been a time when he was not ready to support any charlatan, however grotesque, who promised to get it for him.  Only one issue ever fetches him, and that is the issue of his own profit.  He must be promised something definite and valuable, to be paid to him alone, or he is off after some other mountebank.  He simply cannot imagine himself as a citizen of a commonwealth, in duty bound to give as well as take; he can imagine himself only as getting all and giving nothing.

Yet we are asked to venerate this prehensile moron as the Ur-burgher, the citizen par excellence, the foundation-stone of the state! And why? Because he produces something that all of us must have — that we must get somehow on penalty of death.  And how do we get it from him? By submitting helplessly to his unconscionable blackmailing by paying him, not under any rule of reason, but in proportion to his roguery and incompetence, and hence to the direness of our need.  I doubt that the human race, as a whole, would submit to that sort of high-jacking, year in and year out, from any other necessary class of men.  But the farmers carry it on incessantly, without challenge or reprisal, and the only thing that keeps them from reducing us, at intervals, to actual famine is their own imbecile knavery.  They are all willing and eager to pillage us by starving us, but they can’t do it because they can’t resist attempts to swindle each other.  Recall, for example, the case of the cotton-growers in the South.  Back in the 1920’s they agreed among themselves to cut down the cotton acreage in order to inflate the price — and instantly every party to the agreement began planting more cotton in order to profit by the abstinence of his neighbors.  That abstinence being wholly imaginary, the price of cotton fell instead of going up — and then the entire pack of scoundrels began demanding assistance from the national treasury — in brief, began demanding that the rest of us indemnify them for the failure of their plot to blackmail us.[5]

Not only is the historical memory of the locavores fantastic and imaginary, however, but their vision for the future is equally unthinkable and alarming.  To generalize the practice of local farming and small shops would mean a regression to a quasi-feudal state of existence, with massive urban depopulation and the death of probably 95% of the Earth’s people.  For many Green activists, however, such a development might not be so unwelcome.  Unwittingly echoing the arch-conservative Malthus, they insist that the current growth of population is unsustainable and will inevitably exhaust the world’s resources.  They fail to recognize: 1. that it is classist (since the lower classes have more children); 2. that it is racist (since non-whites have more children); 3. and that it is sexist (because women are supposed to be the “gatekeepers” of reproduction).  Yet the activists who still hold fast to the fear of overpopulation continue to reinforce their claims with apocalyptic rhetoric and eco-scaremongering, evoking images of global environmental collapse.  The Malthusian theory of a limit-point to the growth of population was materially disproven by the industrial revolution taking place before his very eyes.  And while many may fear the influence that chemical additives might have on their food, the kind peddled by vast multinational corporations like Monsanto, there’s a good reason that population growth has accelerated at such a rapid pace since the end of the eighteenth century: capitalism, and its concomitant industrialization of the agricultural process.

Indeed, there was a time when the Left advocated the industrialization of agriculture, calling for the mass-production and distribution of foodstuffs throughout the world.  They welcomed mechanization insofar as it rendered the labor-heavy mode of traditional farming superfluous and produced more goods for consumption.  And this is very much what has happened over the course of the last century.  The elimination of small family farms and the mechanization of crop production has taken place on its own in the West and throughout the modern world, without the brutal programs of forced collectivization and “tractorization” implemented by Stalin.  And while famines still take place in some of the poorer countries, it is only in recent times that all famines could actually be prevented — that for the first time we produce enough food to potentially feed the entire world.[6]  So it is a bitter irony of history that many on the Left today seek to return to more primitive modes of local production, rather than to take control of the massive forces of agricultural production that capitalism has unleashed — and end starvation forever.  But instead, the Green ideologues exalt and glamorize the small family farmer, and demonize and vilify big agrobusiness.  Huge agricultural corporations may be ruthless and unmerciful when it comes to the way they operate and do business, but only a fool would want to return to the world of petty small-time farmers that Mencken described.

2. The Neo-Romantic Reification of Nature: Deep Ecology and Permaculturalism

But the proponents of local and organic produce are hardly the only ones to have resurrected ghosts of the Romantic ideological past.  The twin movements of deep ecology and permaculturalism seem to have resuscitated the old notion of Nature as some sort of self-harmonious organic whole, an equilibrium hanging delicately in the balance.  In this view of the world, the careless intrusions of mankind into the environment threaten to upset the natural order of things, disturbing the fragile ecosystems they touch.  Humanity is therefore to take existing nature as it is, and live in such a manner that impacts it the least.  The thought that humanity can reshape nature according to its wants and needs is therefore seen as hopelessly hubristic, the vanity of unnatural anthropic exceptionalism.  Instead, human society is to adapt itself so as to leave nature intact, allowing its natural cycles and processes to play out without human interference.

According to the tenets of deep ecology, nature should be thought as a value unto itself, wholly separate from questions of the how it might be potentially useful or harmful to mankind.  Arne Næss, the Norwegian philosopher and founder of the deep ecology movement, found it peculiar that “[o]ne of the most striking features of political arguments used to decide for or against intervention in free natural processes is that respect for nature in itself is not mentioned.”[7]  For Næss, it is not only important that different “forms of life” be respected as inherently valuable, but also certain landforms and geological formations.[8]  Now, of course, it is obvious that humanity cannot continue to exist in the complete absence of the instrumentalization of nature at some level, however modest.  In light of this reality, Næss sketched out his positive vision of what would be “characteristic of a green society”:

It should be decentralized and should be a grassroots democracy.  There should be social responsibility, mutual aid [a reference to the anarchist Petr Kropotkin], and a reign of nonviolence.  People should live in voluntary simplicity, with a high degree of self-reliance and with moderate mobility.  Different generations should be able to live together and work together.  There should be a feeling of community; technology should be appropriate; industrial and agricultural units should be small.  Home and place of work should be near each other and transportation mainly public.  There should be an absence of social hierarchy and an absence of male domination.

[…]

Then there are concepts of another type, namely, respect for nature, reverence for life, ecological agriculture, absence of monoculture forests, absence of animal factories, free access to nature, and so on.[9]

Nowhere in Næss’ populist, nature-revering speculative utopia does he reflect on the various reifications that underpin his positive prescriptions for society.  Of course, it contains many inoffensive and uncontroversial points about gender equality and the elimination of social hierarchies, but beyond this, his entire vision of the ideal society is built upon a house of cards.  For just as Lukács illustrated the false reification of the present state of society as a sort of “second nature,” obeying eternal, ahistorical laws that cannot be transformed, it can be readily seen that Næss is guilty of an inverse reification.  While he is certainly innocent of viewing society’s current state as unalterable state of affairs, he hypostatizes nature in its present state as something to be preserved, rather than transformed.

Næss seems to be oblivious to the fact that to preserve nature in its present state, even fixing it as a limited set of natural cycles and processes, would be a wholly unnatural act.  Humanity’s proclivity to save certain species from extinction is likewise in many cases an extremely unnatural intervention; we often forget that the extinction of species has been a fairly common feature of natural history.  Nature in itself is not some peaceful, harmonious state of existence, unsullied by human intrusions.  It is an often brutal world that exists in a state of perpetual flux, generating (and enduring) countless catastrophes and disruptions that radically reshape its own being.  The idea of Nature as some kind of sacred, inviolable entity worthy of our reverence is pure ideology.  Human society is totally dependent on the exploitation of nature in some form or another.  “[T]he existence of coats, of linen, of every element of material wealth not provided in advance by nature, had always to be mediated through…a productive activity that assimilated particular natural materials to particular human requirements,” explains Marx, in the first volume of Capital.  “Labor, then, as the creator of use-values, as useful labor, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself.”[10]

Permaculturalism takes deep ecology’s notion of sustainability as one of its points of departure.  The word itself, a portmanteau of “permanent” and “agriculture,” advocates a sort of soft resilience to withstand the forces of nature, not of brick or reinforced concrete but assembled out of various objects, both natural and artificial, which are then integrated into a natural system.  But the “philosophy” that undergirds permaculturalism goes beyond deep ecology in taking inevitable Armageddon as likely, if not inevitable, outcome of humanity’s destruction of nature.  “The sad reality is that we are in danger of perishing from our own stupidity and lack of personal responsibility to life,” laments Bill Mollison, one of the co-founders of the permaculture movement.  “There is too much contemporary evidence of ecological disaster which appalls me, and it should frighten you, too.  Our consumptive lifestyle has led us to the very brink of annihilation.  We have expanded our right to live on the earth to an entitlement to conquer the earth, yet ‘conquerors’ of nature always lose.”[11]  In Mollison’s opinion, the only way to counter the damage that has already been done is to all-of-a-sudden renounce our exploitative ways, and cultivate a more permanent and sustainable way of living through his program of permaculturalism.

3. Lifestyle Politics: Vegans, Freegans, and Raw Foodists

To continue with the theme of worldwide ecological catastrophe, however — we needn’t fear, some Green activists will say.  “If we all chip in and do our part,” they continue, “together we can really make a difference!” This sort of puerile rhetoric brings us to the next subject of our investigation: lifestyle politics, or lifestylism, as it is sometimes called.  Its origins can be traced to Gandhi’s famous injunction to “be the change you want to see in the world.”  But lately it’s more the kind of message usually delivered by some well-known spokesman (or spokeswoman) — a famous athlete or movie star.  The celebrities, always insecure of their ethical status because of the fame and fortune they enjoy, are always ready to join in for a good cause.  And so they become the mouthpiece for this or that social message, usually inoffensive and uncontroversial.  “The change begins with YOU,” they will say.  And then they will parade around the fact that they’ve donated to many charities, rescued sick animals, or adopted a vegan diet.  In this way are they spared the guilty conscience of knowing that they have it better off than most people.  It’s why they’re so easily lampooned for their endless (and almost pornographic) pontificating.

But the lesser-known practitioners of lifestyle politics are hardly less smug, sanctimonious, and self-satisfied than their celebrity counterparts.  They are almost invariably ostentatious in the exhibition of their given way of life.  A vegan might take every opportunity to point out how the waiter must first check with the chef to make sure that no animal products are being used in the preparation of his meal, before he can order.  Oppositely, they’ll rarely miss a chance to sneer or take offense at something that falls outside their narrow, single-issue worldview.  A fur coat, an unrecycled recyclable, a “gas-guzzling” SUV — they’ll find almost any excuse to launch into one of their patented, pre-rehearsed tirades.  The words “speciesism” or “anthropocentrism” often enter the diatribe, but the arguments that follow revel in anthropomorphism, allowing for absurd casuistry and moral equivalencies.  The logic of meat-consumption apparently “parallels” that of the Holocaust or incidents of rape.  I had no idea.

The lifestylists thus usually find their way into a clique of like-minded ethicians, who share the same ideals and who can feel virtuous with one another.  As certain lifestyles become unfashionable, many tend to drift away from their chosen lifestyle or simply burn out — so there’s typically a high turnover rate.  A vegetarian diet, a vegan diet, a raw food diet, gluten-free diet, a freegan diet — it’s too tough keeping up with the latest trend.  But there are some diehards who still cling to their diet or other ethical habits of living (“dumpster diving,” buying “eco-friendly” products, reducing one’s “carbon footprint,” etc.).  One might even have counted the guru of deep ecology himself, Arne Naess, a lifestylist to the end, as he enumerated “anti-consumerism,” Third Worldism, and personal asceticism as standard points of the deep ecological code of conduct.  But perhaps wisely, in the end, Naess implored his followers to keep their self-selected lifestyles at a strictly ethical level, as he advised them in general “to find politics boring or distasteful.”[12]  (He would later contradict himself on this score, writing a piece on “The Politics of the Deep Ecology Movement,” complete with a partial apologium for Malthusian population-control).[13]

For it is only when lifestylists attempt to extrapolate a politics from their chosen ethos that they get lost, that they fall prey to a particularly pernicious eidolon.  That they tend to flaunt their given way of life may be obnoxious, of course, but in the end it’s fairly harmless, really.  Far more dangerous, politically speaking, is the delusion that the sum of their individual lifestyle choices will have a significant impact on society.  This is all the more true if they believe that they are somehow undermining capitalism through their actions.  Some vegan lifestylists, like Will Tuttle, have even advanced the hilarious notion that veganism is a more revolutionary position than Marxism.[14]  Quite the opposite is true.  If anything, these various lifestyles are so readily integrated into the edifice of capitalist society that they almost immediately lose any revolutionary force they might have had.  They are reduced to mere niche markets within the greater totality of capitalism.  This is why it should not come as such a surprise that one sees the opening of a “Green” McDonald’s in Riverside, Los Angeles.[15]  Lifestyle politics is remarkably assimilable to capitalism.  In this sense, political veganism, freeganism, and so on, are all worse than ineffectual; they appear to constitute a form of “resistance” to capital just as they are seamlessly sublated into its all-encompassing fold.  It was for this reason that Lenin as well as Marx argued against prefigurative utopianism: the idea that one must behave as if he already lived in a perfect society, a Kantian kingdom of ends.  Marx was a merciless critic of the utopian socialists of his day.  Lenin would later write off the ultraleftist utopianism (or “Left-Wing” Communism) that surrounded the Revolution as merely an “infantile disorder.”  One must accept the social reality that obtains at any given time, and not imagine himself to be ethically or superior to or more politically informed than the rest of humanity by virtue of some lifestyle change.  Such a conceit is all too easily repackaged — and thereby absorbed — by capitalist society.

Also, world hunger has nothing to do with scarcity. We continue to produce enough grain and other foodstuffs for human consumption to feed double the human population. Economists who speak of a “grain glut” mean that literally tons of grain is wasted and unused, not because people aren’t in need of it, but because they can’t afford it.  Second, it speaks to incredible naiveté to assume that world agribusiness would give away any excess grain left over if the meat industry suddenly collapsed. When I say political veganism doesn’t understand capitalism, this is what I mean.

While there’s nothing wrong with seeing it as simply a moral issue, there is something incredibly obnoxious and self-aggrandizing about puffing out your chest, believing your diet will change the world. While the number of vegetarians and vegans has grown into sizeable minority, you would think that meat consumption would’ve shown a slight decline.  But the opposite is true.  Total meat consumption has increased.  With food costs rising, meat has become more practical (in terms of calorie intake) and affordable.  There is absolutely no substance to the claim that going vegan saves any animals. Capitalism does not plan production based on a one to one correspondence of a supply demand. In fact, its key feature is overproduction.  A general lowering of demand will then likely mean two things: 1) animals not consumed will just be wasted 2) the price of meat becomes cheaper, increasing total consumption.

There is also no precedent for a boycott strategy that has shut down an entire industry the way it’s being described (and it would require a boycott of all supermarkets and restaurants). That’s because the consumer has very little power. One can “choose” to drive a fuel-efficient car, but can’t choose why cities lack efficient public transportation.  One can choose to buy energy efficient light bulbs, but has no say about planned product obsolescence.  No one can dispute that the factory farm model creates tremendous amounts of waste, contributing to environmental catastrophe.  It does so because capitalism forces every industry to accumulate and capture as much of the market as it can, in the most cost effective way. It functions to maximize profit, not to meet needs or work rationally.  So every industry is structured unsustainably.

4. Eco-Feminism

Closely related to, but distinct from, lifestyle politics is a “gendered” strain of eco-activism — eco-feminism.  They offer an environmentalist critique that is at once broader and more particular than that of the lifestylists.  For many eco-feminists, the whole problem of man’s domination over nature (and yes, specifically man’s) can be traced to a male way of viewing the world.  Men, they argue, seek to dominate and bend to their will everything that stands in their path.  They will stop at nothing to bring Nature, often culturally identified as female, under their dominion, and so they must beat it into submission.  And so patriarchal society has pursued throughout history a campaign against nature, as a test of manhood, an eternal struggle.  By contrast, a more feminine perspective on nature, the eco-feminists contend, would be more empathetic and understanding.  It would accept nature in all its abundance and fertility; it would show compassion where the men showed none.  The wanton destruction of natural ecosystems would thus appear to them as the result of a specifically androcentric (and not more generally anthropocentric) worldview.  The domination of nature, eco-feminists argue, mirrors the oppression of women and indigenous people by the Western patriarchal tradition.  “The reductionist mind,” states the Indian eco-feminist Vandana Shiva, “superimposes the roles and forms of power of western male-oriented concepts on women, all non-western peoples, and even on nature, rendering all three ‘deficient,’ and in need of ‘development.’”[16]  A predominantly gynocentric, indigenous perspective on society’s relationship to nature would be far less destructive, many eco-feminists claim.

Many eco-feminists draw inspiration from the mythological representation of nature as a woman — Gaia, Terra, Prakriti,[17] Mother Earth, and so on.  This often leads them to embrace numerous mystifications, many of them anagogic or primitivist in nature.[18]  These eco-feminists will then point to indigenous tribal myths that teach that nature should be revered and held sacred.  An eco-feminist spiritual worldview, its proponents insist, would lead to a more harmonious relationship with nature.

Of course, there are several problems with these arguments.  First of all, it essentializes (one could even say naturalizes) the difference between men and women.  “One of the reasons for ecofeminism’s association with an essentialist radical feminism,” Mary Mellor points out, “is its emergence alongside the cultural feminist radicalization of the feminist movement, particularly in the United States.”[19]  But this again hypostatizes the old patriarchal myth, so often repeated, that men are strong, bold, and decisive, while women are weak, caring, and empathetic.  This is a dichotomy that feminists have for decades been trying to disprove, and now many eco-feminists are looking to resurrect it to serve the purposes of their argument.  The old structuralist association man with culture and women with nature is one that modern feminism sought to overturn.[20]  Postmodern feminism, on the other hand, has been far more ambivalent.[21]

Secondly, the appeal to the mythological symbolism portraying Nature as female must be seen as inadmissible superstition.  The phantoms of religion and mythological deities cannot be used as evidence in any rational discussion, no matter how “authentic” or “sincere” some of these indigenous beliefs might seem.  Finally, even if one were to accept such dubious symbolic evidence, would it not stand to reason that men would refrain from acts of environmental destruction like deforestation? After all, the act of chopping down a tree (a longtime symbol of the phallus) could be easily interpreted as an act of castration, the worst fear of men, according to Freud.  If the eco-feminists were to trot out such symbolic interpretations in defense of their arguments, one could easily counter with symbolic interpretations of his (or her) own.

5. Radical Environmentalism: Green Anarchism, Animal Liberation, and Anarcho-Primitivism

There are those within the Green movement, however, for whom a superficial change in one’s way of life or a gender critique is not enough.  As self-styled radicals, they cannot be satisfied by such modest acts.  Nor can they be content with merely participating in theatrical demonstrations, marches, and protests against animal or environmental exploitation (though they continue to do these things as well).  These young firebrands feel they must do something more.  A truly radical activism, they contend, must seek to do away with the whole bloody system — dismantle it piece by piece.  So what you usually get is a bunch of angry young activists, often with some sort of anarchist orientation, who will sometimes whip themselves up and engage in isolated acts of corporate sabotage, office disruption, and animal “liberation.”  These acts are usually carried out by either single individuals or small groups coordinating their efforts according to some preconceived plan.  The most notorious organizations advocating such militancy are the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), with which it is closely associated.  But there are countless little coteries of activists strewn throughout the more developed world that operate by using such tactics.  In the age of the internet, they issue any number of online manifestos or proclamations of intent.

Much of this is just militant posturing, though occasionally some groups are able to muster the courage of conviction to actually pull off some of these stunts.  They are, however, often quickly arrested and given harsh sentences.  There have some been some journalists who believe the courts have been a bit heavy-handed in labeling these activists’ crimes as “terrorism.” They even believe these rulings to be the result of some conspiratorial plot cooked up by big business interests, who then pull some strings in Washington to specifically target eco-activists through their legislation.  Though there might be some small truth to this belief, the reality is that these isolated attacks on corporate property and sporadic acts of animal liberation barely dent the profit index of most of these major businesses.  Militant Green activism isn’t even half as disruptive or effective as its practitioners would like it to be.  It would be (and perhaps is) an extreme overreaction for business interests in government to insist that these young crusaders be classified as “terrorists.”  If anything, this only ennobles them by giving them the sense that they are martyrs of state oppression, when in fact they are little more than petty pranksters who got in over their heads.

We have already mentioned how many of these militant tactics owe their origin to the long tradition of political anarchism, which dates back to the first decades of the nineteenth century.  Many anarchist authors actually did call for individual acts of terrorism — one needs only read Mikhail Bakunin and Sergei Nechaev’s Catechism of a Revolutionist or look to the acts inspired by Georges Sorel’s book on revolutionary violence to witness this fact.  (Lenin would famously critique such Narodnik terrorism in his book, What is to be Done?). This does not, of course, imply that all forms of anarchism employ or even approve of terrorist tactics, as there have been almost innumerable anarchist tendencies over the past two hundred years — some violent, others not.  Indeed, most Green anarchists and “veganarchists” are so oblivious to the history of political anarchism that they might scarcely be aware that there were ever any major figures within the annals of anarchism who considered terrorism an acceptable revolutionary method.  Their association with anarchism is in most cases purely ahistorical.  It’s a sad truth that many activists who identify with anarchism do so out of temperament rather than a thorough course of study.  Nevertheless, we may close this critique of the contemporary Green movement with an examination of the peculiarities of the Green anarchist Weltanschauung, then moving on to its most troubling manifestation, anarcho-primitivism.

The anarchist elements within the greater ideology of Green manifest themselves mostly in their anti-hierarchical organizational structures and belief that individual actions can spark revolutionary change.  This is closely connected with the more general theme of lifestyle politics, to which almost all Green anarchists adhere.  In fact, lifestylism is so deeply engrained in the “eco-anarchist” and “veganarchist” traditions that Brian Dominick, the founder of the latter tendency and author of the seminal pamphlet Animal Liberation and Social Revolution, described the veganarchist revolution “wholly internal, wholly personal.”  “My revolution is not defined by objective changes in the world around me, such as the overthrow of the state or capitalism,” wrote Dominick.  “Those, to me, are merely symptoms.  The revolution itself cannot be found outside of us.  It is wholly internal, wholly personal.”[22]  Besides this nearly mandatory lifestylism, Green anarchists tend to associate themselves with an anti-globalization political stance, as well. Their critical perspective on what they call “mainstream” environmentalism also distinguishes them from other eco-activist groups.  Green anarchism understands itself to be part of a radical fringe, and often takes great pleasure in that occupying that status.

Indeed, for all too many Green activists, the anarchist affiliation is little more than a fashion accessory that they pin to their preexisting beliefs in ending climate change and animal cruelty.  They enjoy marching side by side with other self-declared anarchists, wearing black bandanas over their mouths and waving a large black flag.  They will usually hold up some placards covered with anarchist slogans and chant commonplaces like “this is what democracy looks like!” and “ain’t no power like the power of the people ’cause the power of the people don’t stop!” — mindless populist jargon.  While these are the kind of people who can sometimes get caught up in the Durkheimian swell of religious fervor and overturn a police car or break into a Starbuck’s, in their life outside of protest their anarchism is more like a hairstyle or tattoo.  They might go out of their way to get arrested (in order to wear that fact as a badge of honor), but for the most part their anarchism extends no further than that.

There are the true believers, though.  The most frightening among them identify with the anarcho-primitivist movement — a tendency founded under the ideology of John Zerzan, who has a number of followers who live up and down the west coast of the U.S., but also some residing in the northeast.  Considered fanatics even by many of the other Green anarchist currents, the anarcho-primitivists are actually pro-collapse.  Against Walter Benjamin and the Marxist theoreticians in the Frankfurt School, Zerzan maintains that modernity offers no redemptive possibilities:

There is no reconciliation, no happy ending within this totality, and it is transparently false to claim otherwise.  History seems to have liquidated the possibility of redemption; its very course undoes what has been passing as critical thought.  The lesson is to notice how much must change to establish a new and genuinely viable direction.  There never was a moment of choosing; the field or ground of life shifts imperceptibly in a multitude of ways, without drama, but to vast effect.  If the solution were sought in technology, that would of course only reinforce the rule of modern domination; this is a major part of the challenge that confronts us.[23]

In their interpretation of history, society has been built on slavery, injustice, and the ruthless exploitation of nature ever since the first agrarian communities were established.  Domestication, to them, is the root of all evil.  Even simple farming is too “unnatural” for their tastes;[24] they look to small bands of hunter-gatherer tribes as the only natural mode of human existence.  Everything else is “Civilization,” and must be destroyed as a whole.[25]  This is why they actually welcome climate change and the prospect of ecological catastrophe — because it would undo the accomplishments of human society and force mankind to “rewild,” to really finally return to nature.  Only this can end man’s alienation from nature, the anarcho-primitivists maintain.  And so some of them even prepare for this “endgame” scenario by going on barefoot runs through the wilderness at night or learning basic nature survival skills.  The lunacy of their ideology is so patent that it would almost honor it too much to offer a critique of it.  Needless to say, this is the outermost extreme of the present-day Green movement, but still can claim a number of adherents.

6. Results and Prospects

And so with that shall we close the critique of contemporary eco-activism we have pursued thus far.  It might be appropriate here to recapitulate some of its results.  In the final analysis, far from being a single, unitary ideology, the ideology of Green is rather just a hodgepodge of past ideological remnants — neo-Romanticism, vitalism, primitivism, Luddism, Eastern mysticism, and quasi-fascist Germanic naturalism. Though there is a small kernel of truth to its project insofar as it deals with sustainability (i.e., the ability to carry on the exploitation of natural resources without the threat of environmental catastrophe), more often than not there is an underlying notion amongst eco-activists that humanity should have some sort of “respect” for nature as an inviolable thing-in-itself.  The Green movement therefore views nearly every industrial-technical instrumentalization of nature, plant and animal alike, as invasive and chauvinist. Insofar as it preaches “eating local” and “going organic,” and then promotes the long-outdated ideal of self-sufficiency, it’s tacitly advocating a return a semi-feudal mode of production, which would necessarily involve massive famine and urban depopulation.

Humanity does, indeed, stand alienated from nature.  And yes, there is good scientific evidence that supports the theory of global warming, though the scientists are characteristically more cautious in their predictions.  Those on the Right who insistently deny the fact of climate change are just as delusional as the hysterical dispensationalists on the Left who declare the world is doomed.  But the present-day Green movement provides no real answers for reconciling man with nature, when posed as a social problem, outside of, perhaps, its notion of sustainable growth.  So what might a Marxist approach to the societal problem of man’s relation to nature look like?

To begin with, it must acknowledge that the answer can only lie in radical social transformation.  Since humanity’s alienation from nature began with the foundation of the first societies — i.e., the beginning of history as such — and since the precise form in which this alienation has manifested itself has varied throughout history, we are left two options.  Either we renounce society in its entirety, with all its freedoms and higher sensibilities, and retreat into the dark recesses of prehistory (as the anarcho-primitivists suggest), or we must progress into a new, as-yet-unseen social formation.  With the former option, nature would no longer present itself as a problem to humanity because there wouldn’t be a consciousness of anything different, and we would act on our every savage instinct.  Following the latter course of action, human society must gain a more self-conscious mastery over nature, such that it would become merely an extension of our will.  What we are faced with is thus clear: either we must accept the renaturalization of humanity, or, inversely, the humanization (or socialization) of nature.  Only by pursuing one or the other of these options can the contradiction be overcome — only then might humanity be disalienated from the natural world.

For the Marxist, the choice is simple.  Though regressions do occasionally take place throughout history, one cannot turn back the hands of time wholesale.  Thus is the dream of the anarcho-primitivists only a nightmarish fantasy, never to be realized.  One can only progress by moving forward.  The only answer the Marxist can accept is worldwide revolution — the fundamental transformation of existing social relations.  This revolution must honor neither regional convention nor national boundary, it must extend to encompass the globe.  And only by eliminating society’s foundation on that insatiable category called Capital, only then can society exist for itself, only then can men truly make his own history, rather than be made by history.  In the words of Marx, “[m]en make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”[26]  Engels expanded on this in later work, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific:

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.  Anarchy in social production is replaced by systematic, definite organization.  The struggle for individual existence disappears. Then, for the first time, man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones.  The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, now comes under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature, because he has now become master of his own social organization.  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. The extraneous objective forces that have, hitherto, governed history, pass under the control of man himself. Only from that time will man himself, more and more consciously, make his own history — only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him. It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.[27] [my emphases]

How to achieve such a seizure of the means of production is a political question, one that has been dealt with historically by figures like Lenin and Trostkii.  And although it would be utopian to speculate exactly what such a realized society would look like, a few possibilities seem plausible.  First, such an emancipated society, freed from the rule of Capital and the forces of history, can now consciously direct its actions at a global level.  No longer would there be the haphazard, chaotic hyperexploitation of nature that one sees under capitalism, which so often gives rise to crises and acute shortages.  Secondly, humanity, liberated from its servitude to merely use technology as a tool to generate relative surplus-value, can now self-consciously harness the vast technological forces bestowed upon it by capitalist society.  No longer beholden to these machines, gadgets, and other devices, but their master, human society can use these technological instruments to radically reshape nature for the benefit of both society and nature.  Indeed, this would involve both the transformation of man and nature.  Or, as Trotskii put it in the conclusion of his book, Literature and Revolution, in a quote that might as well serve as an appendix to our whole discussion:

The Socialist man will rule all nature by the machine, with its grouse and its sturgeons.  He will point out places for mountains and for passes.  He will change the course of the rivers, and he will lay down rules for the oceans.  The idealist simpletons may say that this will be a bore, but that is why they are simpletons. Of course this does not mean that the entire globe will be marked off into boxes, that the forests will be turned into parks and gardens.  Most likely, thickets and forests and grouse and tigers will remain, but only where man commands them to remain.  And man will do it so well that the tiger won’t even notice the machine, or feel the change, but will live as he lived in primeval times.  The machine is not in opposition to the earth.[…]

[And thus, t]he wall will fall not only between art and industry, but simultaneously between art and nature also.  This is not meant in the sense of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that art will come nearer to a state of nature, but that nature will become more “artificial.”  The present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests, and of seashores, cannot be considered final.  Man has already made changes in the map of nature that are not few nor insignificant.  But they are mere pupils’ practice in comparison with what is coming.  Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing “on faith,” is actually able to cut down mountains and move them.  Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan.  Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature.  In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste.[28]

The Marxist vision of an emancipated society is one of abundance and plenitude, not of scarcity and shortage.  It is a vision of unlimited human freedom, not within the constraints of an ascetic lifestyle.  And these are precisely the terms that the Green movement have set up as unchallengeable, terms of shortage and “ecoscarcity.”  And “[t]he danger here is of accepting, often without knowing it, concepts that preclude radical critique,” writes the Marxist theorist and radical geographer David Harvey.  “Consider, for example, the way in which ‘ecoscarcity’ (and its cognate term of ‘overpopulation’) plays out in contemporary debate.”  With such terms as “ecoscarcity” and the supposed dearth of natural resources, contemporary eco-activism shortchanges the possibilities of human freedom.  Harvey continues, writing that the assumption of “ecoscarcity” by contemporary environmentalists implies “that we have not the will, wit or capacity to change our social goals, cultural modes, our technological mixes, or our form of economy and that we are powerless to modify ‘nature’ according to human requirements.”[29]  The history of capitalism supports none of these claims.  There may be limitations in terms of what we might accomplish in transforming nature at the present moment, but that is no reason set arbitrary limits on what might be accomplished in the future.  “Hitherto philosophers have only described the world; the point, however, is to change it,” reads Marx’s famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach.  We might close by saying that not only can the social world be changed, but our physical world as well.

NOTES


[1] Northbourne, Walter James.  Look to the Land.  (Sophia Perennis.  Hillsdale, NY: 2005).  Pg. 53.  Originally written in 1940.

[2] Ibid., pg. 56.

[3] Howard, Albert.  The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture.  (University Press of Kentucky.  Lexington, KY: 2006).  Pg. 59.  Originally published in 1947.

[4] “A familiar brand name to organic shoppers is Hain.  This company now owns many other organic brands, which continue to appear to be independent. Some examples include: Bearitos (chips), Bread Shop (granola), Celestial Seasonings (tea), Garden of Eatin’, Health Valley, Imagine Foods (Rice Dream), Terra Chips, and Westbrae (canned vegetables, soy drinks, pastas, and more).  And who owns Hain? The prime investors in the Hain Food Group are mutual funds and holding companies.  Their principal stockholders are Phillip Morris (tobacco), Monsanto (genetically modified food), Citigroup (responsible for rainforest destruction), Exxon/Mobil, Wal-Mart, Entergy Nuclear, and Lockheed Martin (weapons manufacturer). In 9/99 the H.J. Heinz Co. acquired ownership of nearly 20% of Hain.  And, no surprises here, Heinz is principally owned by the same mutual funds and principal stockholders as is Hain.

Cascadian Farms (the brand offering much of the organic frozen food on the market) and Muir Glen (tomato products) are owned by Small Planet Foods, which is the organic marketing ‘niche’ owned by General Mills, the third biggest food conglomerate in North America.  Agribusiness is guilty enough for negative impacts on the global environment, local economies, and the nutritional quality of the food most of us have little choice but to consume.  But look who ‘owns’ General Mills.  Their principal investors are Philip Morris, Exxon/Mobil, General Electric, Chevron, Nike, McDonald’s, Target Stores, Starbucks, Monsanto, Dupont (weapons & pesticides), Dow Chemical (Agent Orange, breast implants, napalm), Pepsico, Alcoa Aluminium, Disney, and Texas Instruments (weapons producer and one of G.W. Bush’s top contributors).

Fresh Samantha, a popular organic juice brand regionally produced in Maine, merged with Odwalla in 5/00.  Little do health conscious consumers suspect that Odwalla Juice is owned by CocaCola, as part of their Minute Maid unit.  Boca Burgers is owned by Kraft Foods, which is owned by Philip Morris.  Stoned Wheat Thins is made with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and is owned by Nabisco, which was acquired by Philip Morris in December, 2000.  Arrowhead Water and Poland Spring Water are owned by Nestle (which is being boycotted because its ‘breast milk substitute’ causes the deaths of millions of babies).  Silk Soy Drink is owned by White Wave, which is owned by Dean Foods, whose main shareholders are Microsoft, General Electric, Philip Morris, Citigroup, Pfizer, Exxon/Mobil, Coca Cola, WalMart, PepsiCo, and Home Depot.”

Resnick, Carole.  “What We Need to Know About the Corporate Takeover of the ‘Organic’ Food Market.”  http://www.peacecouncil.net/pnl/03/718/718CorporateTakeover.htm.  Recovered 4/21/11.

[5] Mencken, H.L.  “The Farmer.”  From American Mercury, March, 1924. Pgs. 293-96.

[6] “[M]uch has changed since Marx’s day. But the essence of capitalism — the exploitation of the many by the few for profit — remains, and wreaks its damage on an ever-expanding scale.  The insane anarchy of a world market that can produce enough food to feed everyone, but fails to feed the 6 million children who die every year from malnutrition, remains with us.  The unplanned character of capitalist production, with its incessant drive for profit, has created an environmental crisis that threatens the earth’s inhabitants like a runaway train threatens its passengers.”  D’Amato, Paul.  The Meaning of Marxism.  (Haymarket Books.  Chicago, IL: 2006).  Pg. 10.

[7] Næss, Arne.  “Expert Views on the Inherent Value of Nature.” From Selected Works of Arne Næss, Volume 10: The Deep Ecology of Wisdom.  (Springer Press.  Dordrecht, the Netherlands: 2005).  Pg. 150.

[8] “However, the very broad sense of the expression ‘forms of life’ implies that a diversity of landscapes and, more generally, landforms is also included in its scope.  Environmental protection today includes such activities as the preservation of traces of old habitation and the human activities associated with them in former times.  This includes the protection of old landforms, such as the peculiar geological formations of the Quaternary period.”  Ibid., pg. 154.

[9] Næss, Arne.  “The Basics of Deep Ecology.” From Selected Works of Arne Næss, Volume 10: The Deep Ecology of Wisdom. (Springer Press.  Dordrecht, the Netherlands: 2005).  Pg. 14.

[10] Marx, Capital.  Pg. 133.

[11] Mollison, Bill.  Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual.  (Tagari Publications.  Tasmania, Australia: 1988).  Pg. 1.

[12] Næss, Arne.  “Deep Ecology and Lifestyle.”  From Selected Works of Arne Næss, Volume 10: The Deep Ecology of Wisdom. (Springer Press.  Dordrecht, the Netherlands: 2005).  Pgs. 105-106.

[13] Næss, Arne.  “The Politics of the Deep Ecology Movement.”  From Selected Works of Arne Næss, Volume 10: The Deep Ecology of Wisdom. (Springer Press.  Dordrecht, the Netherlands: 2005).  Pgs. 201-218.

[14] “The ramifications of veganism are enormously subversive to the status quo.  Even other subversive social theories that are rarely seen in schools of the media – such as Marxism – don’t begin to address the deeper issue we are discussing: the mentality of domination and exclusion that necessarily flows from commodifying animals and eating animal foods, and that gives rise to competition, repression of the feminine principle, and the exploitation of the lower classes by the wealthier cattle-(capital-)owning classes.  Marx’s ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ never questioned the underlying ethic of dominating animals and nature, and hence was not truly revolutionary.  It operated within the human supremacist framework and never challenged the mentality that sees living beings as commodities.  Veganism is a call for us to unite in seeing that as long as we oppress other living beings, we will inevitably create and live in a culture of oppression.  Class struggle is a result of the herding culture’s mentality of domination and exclusion, and is just part of the misery that is inevitably connected with eating animal foods.”  Tuttle, Will.  The World Peace Diet.  (Lantern Books.  New York, NY: 2005).  Pg. 200.

[15] “McDonald’s is jumping on the eco-conscious bandwagon: a location in Los Angeles reopened yesterday after an overhaul that rendered it more sustainable and energy efficient.”  Brion, Raphael.  “McDonald’s Goes Green, Inside and Out.”  Posted Friday, October 15th, 2010. http://eater.com/archives/2010/10/15/mcdonalds-goes-green-inside-and-out.php.  Recovered April 21st, 2011.

[16] Shiva, Vandana.  Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Survival in India.  (Zed Books Ltd.  London, England: 1988).  Pg. 4.

[17] “From the point of view of Indian cosmology, in both the exoteric and esoteric traditions, the world is produced and renewed by the dialectical play of creation and destruction, cohesion and disintegration. The tension between the opposites from which motion and movement arises is depicted as the first appearance of dynamic energy (Shakti). All existence arises from this primordial energy which is the substance of everything, pervading everything. The manifestation of this power, this energy, is called nature (Prakriti). Nature, both animate and inanimate, is thus an expression of Shakti, the feminine and creative principle of the cosmos; in conjunction with the masculine principle (Purusha), Prakriti creates the world.”  Ibid., pg. 37.

[18] Attempts to link a feminine principle to shamanism and other eco-friendly spiritualities can be readily found in Carol Adams’ collection on Ecofeminism and the Sacred.  (The Continuum Publishing Company.  New York, NY: 1993).

[19] Mellor, “Gender and the Environment.”  From Ecofeminism and Globalization: Exploring Culture, Context, and Religion.  (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.  London, England: 2003).  Pg. 18.

[20] MacCormack, Carolyn and Strathern, Marilyn.  “Nature, Culture, and Gender.”  From Nature, Culture, and Gender.  (Cambridge University Press.  New York, NY: 1980).  Pg. 43.

[21] “Modern feminism in both its liberal and socialist forms has sought to rescue women from their association with nature and the body, although more recently the postmodern feminist position is more ambivalent.”  Mellor, “Gender and the Environment.”  Pg. 13.

[22] Dominick, Brian A.  Animal Liberation and Social Revolution.  (Critical Mess Media.  Syracuse, NY: 1997).  Pg. 6.

[23] Zerzan, John.  “Seize the Day.” From Against Technology and Other Texts and Essays.  (The Anarchist Library.  2006).  Pg. 4.

[24] “Agriculture is the birth of production, complete with its essential features and deformation of life and consciousness. The land itself becomes an instrument of production and the planet’s species its objects. Wild or tame, weeds or crops speak of that duality that cripples the soul of our being, ushering in, relatively quickly, the despotism, war and impoverishment of high civilization over the great length of that earlier oneness with nature.”  Zerzan, John.  “Agriculture.”  From Against Technology and Other Texts and Essays.  (The Anarchist Library.  2006).  Pg. 2.

[25] “Civilization, technology, and a divided social order are the components of an indissoluble whole, a death-trip that is fundamentally hostile to qualitative difference. Our answer must be qualitative, not the quantitative, more-of-the-same palliatives that actually reinforce what we must end.”  Zerzan, John.  “We Have to Dismantle All This.”  From Running On Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization.  (Feral House.  Los Angeles, CA: 2002).  Pg. 160.

[26] Marx, Karl.  The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm

[27] Engels, Friedrich.  Socialism, Utopian and Scientific. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/soc-utop/ch03.htm

[28] Trotskii, Lev.  Literature and Revolution. http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1924/lit_revo/ch08.htm

[29] Harvey, David.  “The Nature of Environment: The Dialectics of Social and Environmental Change.”  From The Socialist Register.  Volume 29, 1993.  Pg. 39.

Man and Nature, Part I: The Shifting Historical Conceptions of Nature in Society

Caspar David Friedrich, "Sunset" (1835)

History proves again and again

How Nature points out the folly of man…

— Blue Oyster Cult, “Godzilla”

With recent events in Japan and images of Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 tsunami still fresh in our minds, it seems appropriate to revisit the old issue of humanity’s relationship to nature.  The proper exposition of the problem would require a great deal of space; therefore, I propose to divide my treatment of the issue into three separate blog entries, each of which builds on the results of those that precede it.  After all, the problem of man’s relation to nature has been conceived in a number of distinct ways over the ages, many of which survive into the present day, in various mutations.

So perhaps it might be useful to begin with an overview, a genealogy of sorts, so that these different conceptions and their relation to one another can be clarified.  The presentation will be dialectical, but not out of any obligation to some artificially preconfigured format.  It will be dialectical because the subject at hand is itself really dialectical, as the various conceptions of nature interweave and overlap in their progress through history.  For man’s orientation to nature has by no means been the same over time; and by that same token are no later conceptions of nature that do not bear the traces of those that came before it.

And so, to begin at the beginning:

At some points, nature was viewed as an adversary to be feared, bringing plague, catastrophe, and famine to ravage mankind.  Often these elemental forces were either animistically, naturalistically, or totemistically embodied as divine powers in themselves,[1] or anthropomorphized as gods who commanded these forces as they saw fit.  When cataclysms occurred, it was because the gods or spirits had somehow been enraged by the misdeeds of men, and thus they unleashed their fury upon the mass of fear-stricken mortals.  In Christian times, this same logic persisted,[2] with periods of plenty seen as signs of God’s providence and grace, while periods of blight were viewed as God’s wrath, brought on by the sinfulness and iniquity of men.

Later, at the dawn of the Enlightenment, nature was reenvisioned as dead matter, abiding by a set of mechanical but unknown laws, which could be discovered and mastered through careful study and observation under controlled conditions.  As the Baconian dictum went, contra Aristotle: “the secrets of nature reveal themselves better through harassments applied by the arts [torture] than when they go on in their own way.”[3] Thus began the “conquest” of nature, the quest to harness its forces so that they may serve the ends of mankind.  Robbed of their mysterious properties, natural objects therefore became “disenchanted,” in the Weberian sense.[4] With the arrival of the Enlightenment, as Hegel recognized, “the intellect will cognize what is intuited as a mere thing, reducing the sacred grove to mere timber.”[5]

Romanticism responded to this alienation from nature with a sense of tragic loss, and sought to regain what they saw as the fractured unity of man and nature.  The Romantics exalted the primitive, celebrating the charming naïveté of the ancient Greeks or their modern-day counterparts, who appeared in the form of “noble savages.”  The playwright Friedrich Schiller even dedicated an essay to the distinction between the “naïve”[6] and “sentimental” in poetry.  For modern man, he asserted, “nature has disappeared from our humanity, and we can reencounter it in its genuineness only outside of humanity in the inanimate world.  Not our greater naturalness [Naturmäßigkeit], but the very opposite, the unnaturalness [Naturwidrigkeit] of our relationships, conditions, and mores forces us to fashion a satisfaction in the physical world that is not to be hoped for in the moral world.”[7] The Romantics thus preferred the bucolic simplicity of the small old village to the sprawling chaos of the modern city.  Vitalistic explanations of nature, like Goethe’s and Schelling’s, were offered as alternatives to the Democritean-Newtonian vision of the universe as composed of dead matter and obeying a changeless set of mechanical laws.

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