Ecology and Revolution
By Herbert Marcuse
(from Liberation 16 (September 1972):10-12)
Coming from the United States, I am a little uneasy discussing the ecological movement, which has already by and large been co-opted [there]. Among militant groups in the United States, and particularly among young people, the primary commitment is to fight, with all the means (severely limited means) at their disposal, against the war crimes being committed against the Vietnamese people. The student movement – which had been proclaimed to be dead or dying, cynical and apathetic – is being reborn all over the country. This is not an organized opposition at all, but rather a spontaneous movement which organizes itself as best it can, provisionally, on the local level. But the revolt against the war in Indochina is the only oppositional movement the establishment is unable to co-opt because neocolonial war is an integral part of that global counterrevolution which is the most advanced form of monopoly capitalism.
So, why be concerned about ecology? Because the violation of the earth is a vital aspect of the counterrevolution. The genocidal war against people is also “ecocide” insofar as it attacks the sources and resources of life itself. It is no longer enough to do away with people living now; life must also be denied to those who aren’t even born yet by burning and poisoning the earth, defoliating the forests, blowing up the dikes. This bloody insanity will not alter the ultimate course of the war, but it is a very clear expression of where contemporary capitalism is at: the cruel waste of productive resources in the imperialist homeland goes hand in hand with the cruel waste of destructive forces and consumption of commodities of death manufactured by the war industry.
In a very specific sense, the genocide and ecocide in Indochina are the capitalist response to the attempt at revolutionary ecological liberation: the bombs are meant to prevent the people of North Vietnam from undertaking the economic and social rehabilitation of the land. But in a broader sense, monopoly capitalism is waging a war against nature – human nature as well as external nature. For the demands of ever more intense exploitation come into conflict with nature itself, since nature is the source and locus of the life-instincts which struggle against the instincts of aggression and destruction. And the demands of exploitation progressively reduce and exhaust resources: the more capitalist productivity increases, the more destructive it becomes. This is one sign of the internal contradictions of capitalism.
One of the essential functions of civilization has been to change the nature of man and his natural surroundings in order to “civilize” him – that is, to make him the subject-object of the market society, subjugating the pleasure principle to the reality principle and transforming man into a tool of ever more alienated labor. This brutal and painful transformation has crept up on external nature very gradually. Certainly, nature has always been an aspect (for a long time the only one) of labor. But it was also a dimension beyond labor, a symbol of beauty, of tranquility, of a non-repressive order. Thanks to these values, nature was the very negation of the market society, with its values of profit and utility.
However, the natural world is a historical, a social world. Nature may be the negation of aggressive and violent society, but its pacification is the work of man (and woman), the fruit of his/her productivity. But the structures of capitalist productivity is inherently expansionist: more and more, it reduces the last remaining natural space outside the world of labor and of organized and manipulated leisure.
The process by which nature is subjected to the violence of exploitation and pollution is first of all an economic one (an aspect of the mode of production), but it is a political process as well. The power of capital is extended over the space for release and escape represented by nature. This is the totalitarian tendency of monopoly capitalism: in nature, the individual must find only a repetition of his own society; a dangerous dimension of escape and contestation must be closed off.
At the present stage of development, the absolute contradiction between social wealth and its destructive use is beginning to penetrate people’s consciousnesses, even in the manipulated and indoctrinated conscious and unconscious levels of their minds. There is a feeling, a recognition, that it is no longer necessary to exist as an instrument of alienated work and leisure. There is a feeling and a recognition that well-being no longer depends on a perpetual increase in production. The revolt of youth (students, workers, women) undertaken in the name of the values of freedom and happiness, is an attack on all the values which govern the capitalist system. And this revolt is oriented toward the pursuit of a radically different natural and technical environment; this perspective has become the basis for subversive experiments such as the attempts by American “communes” to establish non-alienated relations between the sexes, between generations, between man and nature – attempts to sustain the consciousness of refusal and of renovation.
In this highly political sense, the ecological movement is attacking the “living space” of capitalism, the expansion of the realm of profit, of waste production. However, the fight against pollution is easily co-opted. Today, there is hardly an ad which doesn’t exhort you to “save the environment,” to put an end to pollution and poisoning. Numerous commissions are created to control the guilty parties. To be sure, the ecological movement may serve very well to spruce up the environment, to make it pleasanter, less ugly, healthier and hence, more tolerable. Obviously, this is a sort of co-optation, but it also [contains] a progressive element because, in the course of this co-optation, a certain number of needs and aspirations are beginning to be expressed within the very heart of capitalism and a change is taking place in people’s behavior, experience, and attitudes towards their work. Economic and technical demands are transcended in a movement of revolt which challenges the very mode of production and model of consumption.
Increasingly, the ecological struggle comes into conflict with the laws which govern the capitalist system: the law of increased accumulation of capital, of the creation of sufficient surplus value, of profit, of the necessity of perpetuating alienated labor and exploitation. Michel Bosquet put it very well: the ecological logic is purely and simply the negation of capitalist logic; the earth can’t be saved within the framework of capitalism, the Third World can’t be developed according to the model of capitalism.
In the last analysis, the struggle for an expansion of the world of beauty, nonviolence and serenity is a political struggle. The emphasis on these values, on the restoration of the earth as a human environment, is not just a romantic, aesthetic, poetic idea which is a matter of concern only to the privileged; today, it is a question of survival. People must learn for themselves that it is essential to change the model of production and consumption, to abandon the industry of war, waste and gadgets, replacing it with the production of those goods and services which are necessary to a life of reduced labor, of creative labor, of enjoyment.
As always, the goal is well-being, but a well-being defined not by ever-increasing consumption at the price of ever-intensified labor, but by the achievement of a life liberated from the fear, wage slavery, violence, stench and infernal noise of our capitalist industrial world. The issue is not to beautify the ugliness, to conceal the poverty, to deodorize the stench, to deck the prisons, banks and factories with flowers; the issue is not the purification of the existing society but its replacement.
Pollution and poisoning are mental as well as physical phenomena, subjective as well as objective phenomena. The struggle for an environment ensuring a happier life could reinforce, in individuals themselves, the instinctual roots of their own liberation. When people are no longer capable of distinguishing between beauty and ugliness, between serenity and cacophony, they no longer understand the essential quality of freedom, of happiness. Insofar as it has become the territory of capital rather than of man, nature serves to strengthen human servitude. These conditions are rooted in the basic institutions of the established system, for which nature is primarily an object of exploitation for profit.
This is the insurmountable internal limitation of any capitalist ecology. Authentic ecology flows into a militant struggle for a socialist politics which must attack the system at its roots, both in the process of production and in the mutilated consciousness of individuals.