When analyzing the relationship between Marxism and ecology, we must reflect on a key question: How does the capitalist economy work in the modern world?
More specifically, is the current focus on economic growth (or, more precisely, capital accumulation) part of the inner logic of the system, making the idea of a capitalist steady state, or planned degrowth within the confines or the system, oxymoronic? Or is the emphasis on growth the result of misguided policy?
If growth economics is the result of bad policy choices, we can fix the problem within a Policy Reform scenario. We can choose wise leaders who will retain the benefits of efficient markets while pushing for a more just distribution and sustainable macroeconomic scale.
But what if this is not the case? If growth and accumulation are part of the inner logic of the system, then we are going to have to modify greatly the institutional framework, if not replace it, in order to avoid the worst aspects of a failed growth economy: persistent and grinding poverty, inequality, unemployment, and unused productive capacity.
From the Marxian perspective, the answer is clear. Marx defined capital not as a thing (produced means of production), but as a process of self-expanding (exchange) value. Capitalists hire wage laborers and pay them at a socially determined value to transform the use values found in nature into sellable commodities. The resulting surplus is then reinvested into the production process to reduce the cost of production and improve productivity. Competition makes this process an imperative. Periodically, capitalists overinvest and cannot realize their profits, and the economy succumbs to depression. The depression restores the conditions for prosperity. Productivity, or the rate of surplus value, rises again, bankruptcy removes excess capacity, and the system rebounds. On the level of the firm, success depends upon efficiency.
But by the turn of the century, fossil fuels increased the surplus dramatically, and smaller regional businesses became more monopolized. They began competing on lowering cost and expanding markets, and not by means of competing by lowering prices. With co-respective behavior characterizing the behavior of big business (oligopolies), the surplus rose. If sufficient spending outlets are not found, the system slips into slow growth or stagnation.
A bigger surplus requires more spending. We can consume it, we can invest it, or we can waste it. From this perspective, enunciated by Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy (founder of Monthly Review), stagnation is the normal state of the economy. Since investment also creates more productive capacity and surplus to be absorbed, the solutions require conspicuous consumption and waste. If not, then the statistical trace is left in the form of unemployment, boarded up factories, soaring degrees of inequality, and grinding poverty. Financial speculation can boost the system for a while, but, as we saw in 2008/9, this too is subject to limits.
But none of these can possibly form the basis of a Great Transition. We need to live within nature’s limits, but we also need to provide decent work and decent incomes to the people who live here. If the logic of growth and accumulation is built into the system, and the solution is more waste and more consumption, then we need to rethink the system. We should certainly not dismiss out of hand the tradition of Marxism because he denigrated Malthus or because Soviet Marxism did not turn out as expected.
Let me end with a final note on Malthus. Malthus was certainly insightful about the clash between biophysical capacity and population growth, although he did not see the expansion of carrying capacity by means of the advent of anhydrous ammonia as fertilizer. Malthus believed, like all classical political economists, that the natural outcome of capitalism was the stationary state. The causes were population growth that exceeded food production and overinvestment (and too much saving) on the part of capitalists. He proposed solutions as well. To control population in the cities, we should crowd more people into smaller houses and court the return of the plague. In the countryside, we should build our villages near stagnant ponds and keep doctors from attending the poor. To solve overinvestment, we should redistribute income to the aristocracy, who would waste it on personal servants and monuments to themselves.
These Malthusian solutions do not, to me, seem like the basis of a new sustainability paradigm. Do I ask my students not to read Malthus because I find his morals abhorrent even though some of his analysis was insightful? No. I ask them to read him critically. I hope the same goes for Marx and his modern interpreters such as John Bellamy Foster.