Sunday, 30 October 2016

Deborah Cook on Adorno and nature

Just a few words on Deborah Cook's Adorno on Nature (Acumen, 2011), which I finished reading today. Cook shows great familiarity with Adorno and is a reliable guide to his thinking. Usefully, she starts off by introducing two ideas central to his approach to nature. The first is the idea of "natural-history" (Naturgeschichte) which, as she points out, "informs all Adorno’s work" (Cook 2011:1). Correctly, she points out that this idea should be understood as a critical tool. As Adorno writes himself in Negative Dialectics, the task is "to grasp historic being in its utmost definition, in the place where it is most historic, as natural being, or to grasp nature, in the place where it seems most deeply, inertly natural, as historic being" (quoted in ibid. 17).

The second important idea concerns Adorno’s materialism. Adorno conceptualizes materialism not in terms of base and superstructure, but in terms of "the preponderance of the object" (Vorrang des Objekts). To him, matter has priority over mind not only because material objects are never completely grasped by their concepts but also because they impinge on thought, shocking and upsetting it through the pain and suffering that signal their non-identity with the concepts. For thought to develop rightly, it has to pass through and negate itself in this pain, thus reshaping itself and rearranging itself in a way that does more justice to the object. To refer to this thought operation he uses the Hegelian term "determinate negation", but unlike in Hegel the imperative to remain true to the object prevents thought from stabilizing itself in the form of a system because of the non-identity between concept and object. Instead, it triggers a dialectics of disintegration (Logik des Zerfalls) that shows the falsity of such systems and allows us to criticize them.

Here I won't go through the entire book, but will just mention a few points I found interesting.

The first has to do with Adorno’s Kantianism. Adorno combines the Hegelian idea that all is mediated with the Kantian idea of an object non-identical to its concept. But how is this possible? As Cook points out, Adorno links the latter idea to a valorization of immediacy as the truth of what the concept fails to cover - an immediacy that shows up in pain, vertigo and shocks that serve as the propulsive force of negative dialectics. Simply put, the answer is that mediation - as in Hegel - concerns the realm of concepts. But unlike in Hegel concepts are not all. The object remains outside this realm, although never wholly separated from it. To thought it inevitably appears through the mediation of concepts, but nevertheless "preponderates" in the sense described above, generating pain and contradictions.

This Kantian respect for the object means that Adorno is not a social constructivist. Cook rejects Steven Vogel’s criticism in Against Nature that Adorno contradicts himself by positing nature as immediate while at the same time stating that nature is mediated. Vogel himself asserts that nature is nothing apart from its socially mediated forms. But as Cook points out, there are problems with Vogel’s social constructivism, above all concerning the ontological status of the "social":
Adorno would respond to this claim by arguing that Vogel wrongly treats the ‘social’ (which he nowhere defines) as ‘that on which everything depends and by which everything is oriented’ (MCP [Metaphysics: Concept and Problems] 29). Against this, Adorno contends that ‘society itself is determined by the things of which it is composed and... therefore necessarily contains a non-social dimension’ (HF [History and Freedom]122). (Cook 2011: 41)
This points to a larger problem with social constructivism as such. Although Cook doesn't develop her argument beyond the criticism of Vogel, it points to the problematic status in social constructivism of the "society" that is supposed to do the constructing. It's obviously problematic to assign objectivity to the "social" alone - as is implicitly the case when everything else is seen as a mere construction. The opposite position, to see society as well as socially constructed, leads to a self-referential paradox that ultimately leaves us with no explanation at all unless we abandon social constructivism and start to look around for non-social factors behind the construction of society.

A second important point concerns how Adorno's ideas of natural history and preponderance of the object relate to the possibility of a dialectics of nature. As I've already discussed in another blog post, John Bellamy Foster accuses Adorno and other Western Marxists for having restricted dialectics to the realm of society, handing over the study of nature to positivism and ending up in idealism. Not surprisingly, Foster comes in for criticism in Cook's book. “Adorno’s thoroughly dialectical view of natural history puts paid to Foster’s contentious and largely unsupported claim that Western Marxists, including Adorno, ‘increasingly rejected realism and materalism...’” (ibid. 25). The reasons for this criticism of Foster should be clear. Firstly, Adorno is a materialist, although not in the sense of the "dialectics of nature" Foster seeks to develop. The core of Adorno's materialism is rather the idea of the object's preponderance, which implies a denial of constitutive subjectivity (and thus of idealism) that is arguably far more rigorous and thoroughgoing than Foster's.

A second thing Foster misses is that Adorno's rejection of a "dialectics of nature" in the sense of the materialist dialectics developed by Engels by no means implies a rejection of all dialectical thinking in relation to nature. Thinking necessarily involves concepts, and - just like all other objects - "nature" involves a relation of non-identity to concepts that calls for dialectical thinking. As Adorno makes striking evident in his discussion of "natural history", drawing a rigid boundary between society and nature is itself undialectical.
Flatly denying that dialectics can be extended to nature as ‘a universal principle of explanation’, Adorno nonetheless argues that it is just as wrong to say that nature is undialectical and society dialectical. [...] In fact, the trenchant distinction between history and nature, which fails to acknowledge their entwinement, only reflects the deceptive division of labour between the social and natural sciences. [...] Since human beings are inextricably part of the natural world, with which they must constantly interact to survive, nature can be said to be dialectical. (ibid. 28)
Foster's criticism that Adorno restricts dialectics to society is thus clearly a misreading (and a rather baffling one at that). Furthermore, he also seems to overlook the similarities that exist between Adorno’s dialectics and the Marx-based society-nature dialectics that he himself advocates. Cook points out that, ironically, the result of Foster’s attempt to go back to Marx to reconstruct a dialectics of nature and society leads to a Marx-interpretation that “seems to ally Marx much more closely with Adorno than even Adorno thinks” (ibid. 25).

That said, Cook also highlights the contrast between Marx and Adorno. Above all "Adorno’s refusal to identify subject and object ... led him to take a markedly more critical stance towards science than Marx did" (ibid. 29). An example of this is Adorno's criticism of the concept of causality, in the course of which he questioned the degree to which science, with its identitarian deployment of concepts and mathematical formulae, understands nature (ibid. 72). We can note that this criticism makes it plain how absurd the accusation is that Adorno would have handed over the study of nature to positivism.

The suspicion towards science's identitarian logic also makes Adorno much more critical than Marx of the drive towards science-based domination over nature. The utopian counter-image to such domination is not Soviet-style socialism but rather what Adorno calls reconciliation with nature. This, however, doesn't mean that Adorno has given up hope for a better, more rationally organized future in which nature would no longer be dominated. That Adorno is critical of the Soviet Union doesn’t mean that he rejects socialism.

Large portions of the book concern "inner nature", i.e. the self as material, embodied nature, and the relation between self-consciousness and the self's natural, sensory part. Cook, however, also seeks to make Adorno relevant to contemporary ecological discussions. She thus ends the book with a chapter comparing Adorno to three radical ecologists (the deep ecologist Arne Naess, the social ecologist Murray Bookchin and the eco-feminist Carolyn Merchant).

I don't have much to criticize in the book. I think Benjamin and Lukács would have deserved more extensive discussions. The notion of "second nature" gets short shrift and Cook seems to miss out on some interesting differences in how Adorno relates to first and second nature. In regard to these questions, it might be a good idea to supplement her book with Susan Buck-Morss' The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt Institute (The Harvester Press, 1977) or her The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (MIT Press, 1991), both of which contain lucid and very interesting discussions on these topics.

Reconciliation with nature (mediated by Hollywood)

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Lukács's defence of History and Class Consciousness

Following the attacks by Abram Deborin, Laszlo Rudas and others on his History and Class Consciousness, Georg Lukács penned an angry response sometime in 1925 or 1926. The unfinished manuscript was never published and remained unknown for a long time (Lukács himself apparently never mentioned its existence), until it was discovered in the archive of the Comintern and the Central Party Archive of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in Moscow. It was published for the first time in Hungarian and German in 1996. The English version, titled A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic, was published by Verso in 2000. Below I'll simply refer to it as the "Defence".

History and Class Consciousnessone went on to become one of the foundational, classical texts of so-called Western Marxism, but Lukács himself repudiated it in the mid-1920s as part of kowtowing to party orthodoxy. This kowtowing was no doubt the reason the manuscript for the "Defense" was left unfinished. Aoart from the "Defense", few texts exist where Lukács even mentions History and Class Consciousness. There is the preface he wrote for the book in 1967, but this preface is little but an extensively argued rejection of his own early work, a text where Lukács goes to great lengths to castigate himself for a series of errors he believes he committed in it, including idealism, revolutionary messianism, misunderstanding the concept of alienation and neglecting the dialectics of nature (Lukács 1971a). In contrast to this preface, the "Defence" is truly a defence of History and Class Consciousness

What is there, then, of interest in the "Defense"? A noteworthy point concerns the importance of praxis - which Lukács discusses in terms of "moment" and "decision" and which he links to a criticism of the fatalist reliance on "process" (Zizek has a striking interpretation of this in his afteword, which, however, seems to overemphasize the decisionist aspect of Lukács's thought). Here's Lukács's definition of the "moment": 
What is a ‘moment’? A situation whose duration may be longer or shorter, but which is distinguished from the process that leads up to it in that it forces together the essential tendencies of that process, and demands that a decision be taken (Lukács 2000: 55)
This, however, is not pure decisionism, because what matters in such moments is class consciousness (ibid. 56). Another long discussion in the book concerns precisely how class consciousness comes into being. As in History and Class Consciousness, he rejects the "spontaneist" position associated with Rosa Luxemburg. The masses can't be trusted to develop this consciousness by itself. Instead, the party becomes decisive, as the place where class consciousness realizes itself. It's the party that "imputes" the consciousness to the workers (ibid. 71ff).

By far the most interesting part of the book concerns the dialectic of nature. In History and Class Consciousness the general thrust of Lukács's argument was to argue that dialectics essentially involved a relation between subject and object, and thus to deny - against Engels - that dialectics could be extended to the subjectless realm of nature. Spotting the weakness of Lukács's position, his critics accused him of lapsing into "dualism" by separating society from nature. Even today, it's popular among commentators to point to the problems and inconsistencies that arise in Lukács's work because of his refusal to extend dialectic to nature. From a variety of angles, commentators like Vogel (1996), Feenberg (2014), Jay (1984: 116), Foster and Loftus have focused on the following contradiction. If dialectics must halt before nature, doesn't this imply that nature is a realm where non-dialectical methods - e.g. those associated with positivism - are legitimate? But if such methods are legitimate, then how can they also represent an instance of reifying, bourgeois thought, as Lukács claims?

How serious are these accusations? In his 1967 preface, Lukács readily admits to the error of having viewed "Marxism exclusively as a theory of society, as social philosophy, and hence to ignore or repudiate it as a theory of nature" in History and Class Consciousness (Lukács 1971a). This admission is hardly surprising, considering the generally dismissive stance Lukács takes in this preface to his book. One has the feeling, however, that his admission is a bit too facile, that it simplifies matters too much. A more complex and interesting argument is set up in the "Defense" where Lukács puts up much more of a fight to defend his statements in History and Class Consciousness.  

In fact, the position expressed in History and Class Consciousness isn't so simple as Lukács pretends in his preface. The argument that the dialectic doesn't apply to nature is thus modified firstly by the repeted insistence that nature is a "social category" - a claim that suggests that our knowledge of nature is decisively shaped by the historical dialectic shaping society. Secondly, it is also modified by a rather odd, isolated passage where Lukács acknowledges the possibility of an objective dialectic operating in nature independently of humans while stressing that the absence of human consciousness in this dialectics means that it is different from the social dialectics and must be studied in a different way (ibid. 1971b: 207).

Turning to the "Defence", Lukács presents a number of arguments related to nature. Firstly, he clarifies that he in History and Class Consciousness had talked “only of knowledge of nature and not nature itself” (ibid. 2000: 97). That is the sense in which nature is a social category. It simply means that there is no socially unmediated relationship of humans to nature. This, he argues, follows from Marx’s thesis that our consciousness (which of course includes our consciousness of nature) is determined by our social being (ibid. 100). That society mediates our knowledge of nature, however, doesn't mean that one has to deny the objective, independent existence of nature. “Self-evidently nature and its laws existed before society” – but from that doesn’t follow that “nature would be knowable without the mediation of these new social dialectical forms” (ibid. 102). He repeats the acknowledgement in History and Class Consciousness that there is an objective dialectics in nature that is independent of humans, but insists that humans are still needed “for thinking the dialectic, for dialectic as knowledge” (ibid. 107). This first argument, then, amounts to a forceful assertion of the priority of a subject-centred dialectics, not only in the realm of society but also in regard to our knowledge of nature.

The second argument is a continuation of this. Lukács defends his decision in History and Class Consciousness to characterize “as the decisive dialectical categories not transformation of quantity into quality, etc., but rather interaction of subject of object” (ibid. 112). This decison implied a rejection of Engels's material dialectics, which had stressed objective laws such as the transformation quantity and quality rather than praxis. To Lukacs, however, the subject-object relation is central because of the historical situation in which the proletariat rises to transform society. Overlooking this need for transformation leads to eternalizing the categories as in bourgeois immediacy, making the concepts lose all dialectic functionality.
‘Dialectical’ categories that have been severed from this connection can even be used by bourgeois researchers; it is not inconceivable that they might, for example, be able to work with the transformation of quantity into quality. The category becomes properly dialectical only in the context of the dialectical totality (ibid. 113)
This, of course, sounds very much like a defense of the general overall conception of dialectics in History and Class Consciousness. But how about the objection that Lukács in that book fails to clarify whether natural science has a legitimate place or not?

To tackle this question, Lukács introduces an important third argument. While natural science - like all consciousness - is determined by society, it “does indeed adopt a special place in the history of human knowledge” (ibid. 113). It would thus be “false relativism” to dismiss it as a merely bourgeois form of thinking or to treat it “in the same way as the knowledge of nature of past epochs” (ibid. 114). While it was born with capitalism, there is a “factual obstacle” to concretizing how natural science is determined by society. The transformation of science only takes place gradually as the effect of the revolution of the material basis and the course of this transformation cannot be known in advance. This means that even socialism must use natural science in its bourgeois form for the time being since a new science has yet to emerge (ibid. 117). In other words, there mere fact that all knowledge is socially determined doesn't mean that we can transcend the horizon of that knowledge and dismiss it as "relative" or as belonging to a past era that has been overcome by the events of 1917. To jump immediately to a more "dialectical" science would be an illegitimate shortcut.    

The question remains, however, why the natural sciences in particular are so hard to transcend compared to, say, the social sciences. Why is it more legitimate to dismiss the use of non-dialectical methods in the latter? Lukács doesn't provide any clear answer to this question in the "Defence", but a reasonable answer would be that our self-awareness directly affects society in a way that isn't true of nature. We don't really need to transcend the horizon of social science to realize that society can't be fully understood without taking praxis or subjectivity into consideration. The fact that non-dialectical methods can be cogently criticized in an immanent fashion within the field of social science means that there is no need to resort to what Lukács calls "false relativism", e.g. dismissing such methods as "bourgeois" or belonging to a bygone era.
As mentioned, Lukács doesn't spell out this answer explicitly. He does, howeveer, adds a brief, fourth argument which I think suggests that this is indeed how he would have answered it. In the realm of society, our palpable experience of frequent change and of the role of human praxis make it easy for us to realize the limits of trying to understand society through ahistorical, non-dialectical categories. In nature, by contrast, it's possible that certain things are eternal or only change so slowly that they may never be known dialectically:
To what extent all knowledge of nature can ever be transformed into historical knowledge, that is to say, whether there are material actualities in nature that never change their structure, or only over such large periods of time that they do not feature as changes for human knowledge, cannot be raised here (ibid. 118)
This passage seems to suggest, firstly, that the non-dialectical traits of existing natural science may have to be abandoned one day, provided that we come to the realization that nature is more changing and less ahistorical than we thought. Secondly, however, Lukács leaves it open whether or not this will ever happen.

Looking back, Lukacs's presents four arguments that can be summarized as follows:
  1. Our knowledge of nature is socially determined - implying that whatever objectivistic framework we use for studying nature (e.g. an objectivistic dialectics of nature or natural sciences of the positivistic type) it will always be embedded in a social dialectics.
  2. Genuine dialectics is always social in the sense that it involves the relation between subject-object rather than being the merely objective or contemplative. It has to involve a subject-object relation with nature. This implies that even if a dialectics of nature is possible, it can't be merely of the objectivistic kind. Such an objectivistic dialectics wouldn't really be different from ordinary, "bourgeois" science.
  3. But even if existing natural sciences are embedded in a social dialectics, they can't yet be replaced by any dialectical method for studying nature, although this might be possible in the future. This is because we cannot anticipate the future science that may result from revolutionizing the material base. Despite existing forms of natural science having their social roots in capitalism, we are stuck with them for the time being.
  4. To the extent that nature and its lawlike regularities are subject to change, some form of objectivistic dialectics may be taking place in nature, implying that non-dialectical methods will ultimately prove to be insufficient also in the realm of nature. However, we don’t know to what extent such change is happening.
Taken together these arguments do form a kind of defense for, and clarification of, the position Lukács adopts in History and Class Conssciousness. While acknowledging that nature has its own dialectical laws and that our knowledge of nature is socially mediated, he nevertheless refuses to extend dialectical methods to the study of nature. At least for the time being, the existing non-dialectical methods of natural science are legitimate in relation to nature. At the same time, he holds out the prospect of a different natural science in the future, one that will be self-aware of its own social determination. Before that day comes it won't be possible to discern what in science is tied to bourgeois social formations and what is not. This is certainly a complex and rather difficult position to defend. Regardless of its strength or weakness, it is certainly much more interesting than the flat capitulation offered in the 1967 preface.

Post-script on Foster

Before ending, I'd like to add a comment on John Bellamy Foster. As I've discussed already (here and here), Foster bases a great part of his criticism of Western Marxism on its restriction of dialectics to the realm of society and praxis. By rejecting Engels's dialectics of nature, he argues, Lukács and other Western Marxists handed over the study of nature to positivism. In his "Defense", however, Lukács anticipates many of the moves Foster makes in order to reconstruct a dialectics of nature. On the one hand, Lukács admits of the possibility of an objective dialectics operating in nature independently of humans (as Foster himself points out). On the other, he also - like Foster - stresses that the act of knowing nature must always involve dialectics.

Considering these similarities, why does Foster criticize Lukács? An important part of the reason is obviously his dissatisfaction with the fact that Lukács, at least for the time being, admits of the legitimacy of an "undialectical" natural science as a tool for studying nature. Another part of the reason is probably that Lukács never really clarifies what he means by the objective dialectics operating in nature. Foster, by contrast, puts considerable effort into developing the idea of such a dialectics and on the basis of that tries to assert a "unity of method" for both society and nature.

In Lukács's "Defense", however, we find a series of objections to precisely the kind of project Foster seems to engage in. As we have seen, Lukács ultimately asserts the primacy of subject-object dialectics as the basis for studying both society and nature. Foster, by contrast, is only partially relying on a subject-object dialectics (e.g. when he argues that capitalism creates a metabolic rift in the relation to nature). In the main, his project is to develop a "subjectless" dialectics operating in nature itself inspired by Epicurus' atomistics and Darwin's theory of evolution.

Foster's problem is that to the extent that he emphasizes the former type of dialectics, his position not all that different from Lukács and Western Marxism and his harsh criticism of them therefore seems unfair. To the extent, however, that he instead emphasizes the latter type of dialectics, he ends up in a position where he will be vulnerable to Lukács's criticism. Firstly, his attempt to sketch a dialectics of nature on the model of Epicurus or Darwin seems to overlook that nature is a social category. Secondly, since this type of dialectics neglects the element of praxis, he seems vulnerable to the criticism that it will be merely contemplative and therefore easily reabsorbed in bourgeois research. Thirdly, such an objectivistic dialectics of nature would have to compete with the existing natural sciences. Its aim seems to be to do precisely what Lukács says is impossible: namely to anticipate the transformed natural science of the future and, on that basis, replace the existing natural sciences. The only alternative to actually competing with them would be to argue that natural science itself has already developed in a way that has made it less positivistic and more dialectical. To some extent, this is precisely what Foster is trying to argue by referring to Darwin and to contemporary biologists (such as Levins, Levontin and Gould) who are sympathetic to Engels's idea of a materialist dialectics. Against this, however, one might object that the overwhelming majority of scientific studies are still more positivistic than dialectical.

If Lukács's arguments hold, Foster is in a fix. Either he has to adopt a subject-object dialectics similar to the Western Marxists he set out to criticize, or else he has to mimick the natural sciences and compete with them on their terms by developing an objectivistic dialectics of nature. I don't really wish to evaluate here to what extent Lukács's claims can be upheld. It should be clear, however, that he is far from defenseless against the kind of criticism that Foster has directed against him. His position may be difficult to defend, but so is Foster's.


Feenberg, Andrew (2014) The Philosophy of Praxis: Marx, Lukács and the Frankfurt School, London: Verso.

Jay, Martin (1984) Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lukács, Georg (1971a) “Preface to the new edition (1967)”, pp ix – xivii, in History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, London: Merlin Press.

Lukács, Georg (1971b) History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, London: Merlin Press.

Lukács, Georg (2000) A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic, London: Verso.

Vogel, Steven (1996) Against Nature: The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory, Albany: State University of New York Press.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Labour and scarcity: Ricardo's caveat

Ricardo states something interesting on the first pages of his Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. He states that although scarcity contributes to exchange value he will exclude it from his analysis. That means that his labour theory of value only concerns situations without scarcity.
Possessing utility, commodities derive their exchangeable value from two sources: from their scarcity, and from the quantity of labor required to obtain them.
    There are some commodities, the value of which is determined by their scarcity alone. No labor can increase the quantity of such goods, and therefore their value cannot be lowered by an increased supply. Some rare statues and pictures, scarce books and coins, wines of a peculiar quality, which can be made only from grapes grown on a particular soil, of which there is a very limited quantity, are of this description. Their value is wholly independent of the quantity of labor originally necessary to produce them, and varies with the varying wealth and inclinations of those who are desirous to possess them.
    These commodities, however, form a very small part of the mass of commodities daily exchanged in the market....
    In speaking, then, of commodities, of their exchangeable value... we mean always such commodities only as can be increased in quantity by the exertion of human industry (Ricardo 1996: 18)
This passage strikes me as very suggestive in regard to the question of the relation between nature and capitalism. After all, nature is finite. Many natural resources are scarce. The way nature is priced within capitalism doesn't reflect labour, but - Ricardo seems to suggest - is better estimated through a supply and demand framework where supply is inelastic. This admission clearly makes the labour theory of value easier to defend, since many common objections to it seem to concern situations that involve scarcity.

We should note, by the way, that here "scarcity" doesn't mean scarcity in general, or scarcity in relation to human needs. It means scarcity in relation to economic demand, meaning a situation where the supply of a certain commodity cannot be easily increased to match the demand of people who would afford to buy it. Contrary to the common viewpoint that the "supply and demand" framework in economics is incompatible with the labour theory of value, Ricardo here states that this theory applies best to situations where supply and demand are perfectly elastic, i.e. free to adapt flexibly to each other. In other words, it applies precisely to the kind of idealized, unrealistic markets used in textbook economics. Just try a thought-experiment: if it had been possible to produce oil freely, the price would certainly be far lower than today, possibly reflecting the price of the labour needed to produce it. It seems clear, then, that a lot of problems with the labour theory of value might disappear if we recall Ricardo's caveat that it isn't meant to apply to situations of scarcity.

Is scarcity unimportant? Ricardo seems to think so. The assumption seems to be that we can legitimately abstract from scarcity if we wish to understand the logic of capital accumulation, since scarce commodities are few and since there can't be any long-term growth in such commodities. Against this, it is easy to argue that scarce commodities are not marginal at all, but form a substantial part of our economy. Not only nature, but also real estate, money and labour power are examples of commodities with inelastic supply. Furthermore, scarcity characterizes key commodities - such as oil - that seem central to the functioning of capitalism as a whole. Finally, we can easily realize the importance of scarcity in the economy if we recall that scarcity includes not only "natural" scarcity but also scarcity that is "socially" created, for instance by monopolies, copyrights, patents, custom barriers and so on. As Immanuel Wallerstein (2004:25) points out, all profitable enterprises are in fact monopolistic or quasi-monopolistic, since profits would evaporate if competitors were perfectly free to imitate successful innovations. From that viewpoint, scarcity is key to understanding capitalism. Far from being something that can be legitimately neglected, the role played by scarcity in the process of capital accumulation is precisely what needs to be better understood.

Marx and scarcity

Marx developed his value law from Ricardo's labour theory of value, but he also introduced important modifications to it, above all the idea of socially necessary labour-time. Does Marx's version of the labour theory of value abstract from scarcity, like Ricardo's, or do his modifications mean that it takes account of scarcity? This question is important to clarify in order to: 1) assess the persuasiveness of Marx's value law, and 2) ascertain to what extent this value law helps us understand the relation between capitalism and nature.

Unlike Ricardo, Marx doesn't - as far as I know - anywhere state clearly that he will abstract from scarcity in his analyses. In fact, it's not easy to find much explicit discussion of scarcity at all in his writings. As one commentator states: "Marx did not like to write about scarcity. Malthus ruined the question for him" (Moore 2014:92).

The lack of clarity in regard to how he stands in relation to scarcity has, I suspect, led to some confusion around to what extent Marxist analyses are applicable to "nature", "land" or "immaterial" forms of production (I include "immaterial" production in this list since it's a field where the artificial scarcity created by copyright is important). That Marx appears to neglect scarcity has been viewed as a weakness in his version of the value law since it invites the criticism that the exchange value of commodities such as natural resources, real estate or brands doesn't seem to reflect the labour needed to produce them.

But is it true that Marx disregards scarcity? To some extent, yes. Take this passage in Volume 1 of Capital where he writes about the means of production that “if... it is not the product of human labour, it transfers no value to the product. It helps to create use-value without contributing to the formation of exchange-value” (Marx 1967a: 204). Marx disregards scarcity here, since it is only in conditions without scarcity that nature creates use-value without contributing to exchange-value.

But in Volume 3 of Capital, he does discuss scarcity. A natural power:
does not enter into the determination of price, so long as the product which it helped to produce suffices to meet the demand. But if in the course of development, a larger output is demanded than that which can be supplied with the help of this natural power... then a new additional element enters into capital... a rise in the price of production takes place. (Marx 1967b: 745)
Commenting on this passage, Paul Burkett points out that it is from scarcity that rent arises and that the theory of rent solves the problem of how commodities that don’t contain labour can possess exchange-value. Furthermore, he points out that scarcity is a precondition of monopolization and that land rent is a redistribution of surplus-value derived from a monopolized force of nature (Burkett 2014: 74f, 90). Profits derived from scarcity, in other words, represent a redistribution of surplus-value produced elsewhere in the capitalist system. These profits therefore contribute to the capital accumulation only of certain capitalists, not of the capitalist system as a whole. This argument is fine as far as it goes. We can note that it seems to hold both for Ricardian and Marxian economics.

However, Burkett then adds an important argument that suggests that Marx's value law - unlike Ricardo's - does take account of scarcity: "But these conditions, together with their rents, are freely appropriated insofar as their useful effects can otherwise be produced, if at all, only through an additional expenditure of wage-labor time" (ibid. 75). This means that the value law can account at least to a certain extent for rising exchange values, even where those exchange values seem due to scarcity rather than labor. In such situations, “socially necessary labor-time” may still determine prices since the rent reflects the cost of the wage-labor that would be required to produce an additional equivalent unit. Far from excluding scarcity from consideration, Marx’s theory accounts for the higher prices scarcity gives rise to, since more labor is required to produce the commodity the scarcer it gets:
In Marx’s analysis, if a useful natural condition of production becomes increasingly scarce... the average productivity of the labor appropriating or utilizing this natural condition is, by definition, reduced... The values of the commodities produced with the increasingly scarce natural condition will, accordingly, be increased due to the greater amount of social labor time now required to produce the same use values. (ibid. 106)
What enables Marx to account for scarcity is the concept of "socially necessary labour-time". Interestingly, this concept operates with a kind of marginality: the socially necessary labour that according to Marx gives rise to a commodity's value isn't the actual amount of labour expended in manufacturing it, but the labor an imagined competitor would have to be prepared to expend in order to manufacture one more equivalent unit of the commodity (e.g. by prospecting for more of a scarce natural resource or developing an artificial substitute).

The modification that Marx introduces in Ricardo's labour theory of value then - namely that value is the product of abstract labour, reflecting the labor time that is socially necessary to produce the commodity - means that he can drop Ricardo's caveat, at least to some extent. But can he drop it entirely? Perhaps not. Even the concept of "socially necessary labour-time" cannot account for the exchange values obtained in wholly monopolistic situations, where the socially necessary labour of an imagined competitor would be infinite. Against this, one might turn the argument around and argue that it is precisely the excessive amount of "socially necessary labour-time" in situations like this that explains why a monopoly can be maintained at all. Still, the problem remains that some commodities aren't just monopolized but truly unique (e.g. celebrity items or certain pieces of real estate). In the case of unique commodities, prices seem to fluctuate only according to their desirability. The connection with labour time seems lost totally, and we're back in a situation where supply-and-demand works better. The alternative would be to deny that any commodity can be unique by stretching the concept of "equivalence". If we don't wish to take this step, however, the conclusion seems to be that we still need something like Ricardo's caveat in order to make the labor theory of value wholly persuasive.

By way of ending, let me return to the question whether scarcity is important. I've already mentioned the argument that scarcity is marginal from the standpoint of the capital accumulation of the capitalist system as a whole. After all, if profits obtained by scarcity only represent a "rent"-like redistribution of the aggregate surplus value produced in the system, then it seems legitimate to disregard it if we're interested primarily in the fundamental logic of capital accumulation as such. But it seems to me that one can make two objections to this argument.

Firstly, the argument disregards the role of "socially" created scarcity in raising profits overall by creating new rounds of capital accumulation - namely when it is accompanied by rising demand. For instance, when a new innovation is introduced in the market it is usually "scarce" in the sense that competitors don't yet have any equivalent commodity to offer. As mentioned, scarcity isn't a natural, objective property, but exists in relation to demand. If demand rises - for instance through a technological breakthrough that makes new machinery or new consumer goods available on the market - then a situation will result where scarcity is co-produced with and forms an integral part of the boost in capital accumulation.

Secondly, to disregard scarcity seems extremely unhelpful considering that, strictly speaking, no commodities are unaffected by scarcity. All commodities - both material and immaterial - require finite means of production. Neither raw materials nor energy nor labor power exist in infinite supply. If this is so, then scarcity is simply a too central component of how the economy works to be disregarded.


Burkett, Paul (2014) Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective, Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Marx, Karl (1967a) Capital, Volume I, New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl (1967b) Capital, Volume III, New York: International Publishers.

Moore, Jason (2015) Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, London: Verso.

Ricardo, David (1996) Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, New York: Prometheus Books

Wallerstein, Immanuel (2004) World-systems Analysis: An Introduction, Durhamn: Duke University Press.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

The poet laureate of rock n' roll

We live in a fallen world. That's a sentence that makes sense even if you're not religious. Religious language is sometimes needed to express truth, even if truth is not what religion says it is. Few people have expressed this particular way of apprehending the world as well as Bob Dylan. Here are some of his most pregnant and memorable formulations:
I hear the ancient footsteps...
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there.
Other times it’s only me.

The cards are no good that you’re holding, unless they’re from another world.
There’s no exit in any direction, ’cept the one you can’t see with your eyes.
One of the things that make Dylan an unforgettable experience is his meanness, his roughness or toughness, which is also a loneliness - the loneliness of a person trying to live in a fallen world without being swept away by depravity, without following others, without asking anyone else's opinion. This is also meanness towards oneself, an impatience with admirers, with recognition and with honors. His skill in giving voice to this meanness in his text is enough to make him one of the greatest poets I know. Here are a few more sentences, which I'll leave as they are, without context. Some are from his songs, others from interviews. They seem to work well that way, conveying the loneliness of their author, standing on their own, without help from others.
All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie. 
I think that this world is just a passing through place and that the dead have eyes and that even the unborn can see and I don’t care who knows it.

You always got to be prepared, but you never know for what.

Be kind because everyone you’ll ever meet is fighting a hard battle.
One more thing before I end. Many people seem to think he shouldn't have been awarded the Nobel Prize. Maybe they're right. But not because he doesn't deserve it. What would he do with the prize? He probably won't appreciate it. He'll always respect "the hearts and the hands of the men who come with the dust and are gone with the wind" far more than he respects the Swedish Academy. But even without the prize, he would be a hero of literature. He connects up with the roots of literature. If we think Francois Villon is a great poet, Dylan should be thought of as one as well.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016


Just a few remarks about Chantal Mouffe's Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (London: Verso, 2013). This is a thin book in which she extends previous arguments to the issue of a multipolar world and devotes more space to discussing the role of art in hegemonic struggles. I won't repeat my criticism of what I see as some of the major shortcomings of her approach. Instead, I will just briefly mention two things I found interesting, namely her criticisms of Arendt and Badiou. I'll end with a remark on her claim that antagonism is inescapable and why I find it problematic.

First, she distinguishes her own agonistic approach from that of Arendt: “In my view, the main problem with the Arendtian understanding of ‘agonism’ is that... it is an ‘agonism without antagonism’” (p. 9f). Arend stresses the element of contention and struggle in her view of the public, but continues to believe in the possibility and desirability of consensus. Therefore “Arendt ends up, like Habermas, envisaging the public space as a space where consensus can be reached” (p. 10). Against those, like Benhabib, who see Arendt and Habermas as exponents for two contrasting models of the public, Mouffe thus claims that Arendt's “pluralism is not fundamentally different from that of Habermas” (p. 10). Although she stresses struggle more than logical argumentation, “neither Arendt nor Habermas is able to acknowledge the hegemonic nature of every form of consensus” (p. 11).

She then turns to thinkers inspired by Arendt, such as Bonnie Honig. Here her criticism changes tack. Honig isn't criticized so much for consensus-orientation as for focusing too much on contestation around identities, forgetting “the necessity not only of challenging what exists but also of constructing new articulations and new institutions” (p. 11). “The main shortcoming of the agonistic approaches influenced by Arendt and Nietzsche is that, because their main focus is on the fight against closure, they are unable to grasp the nature of the hegemonic struggle. Their celebration of a politics of disturbance ignores the other side of such struggle: the establishment of a chain of equivalence among democratic demands and the construction of an alternative political hegemony” (p. 14). Acknowledging that antagonism is ineradicable “requires that we do not elude the moment of decision, and this will necessarily imply some form of closure. It might be that an ethnical discourse can avoid this moment, but a political one certainly cannot” (p. 15). Here I recall her criticism of Occupy activists for focusing too much on disruption, the mere challenging of status quo, and too little on constructive engagement with the political system.

Her criticism of Badiou is that he makes truth a category of the political sphere. He asserts the politics produced by subjects defined by their particular relation to a truth event. “The decision of a subject to remain faithful to an event is what produces a truth” (p. 16). She claims that this emphasis on fidelity privileges an ethical perspective on politics, undermining the political as such. The ethics of unconditional truth is a odds with politics, since the latter deals with the conditional: a hegemonic order is always contestable and “should never be justified as dictated by a higher order and presented as the only legitimate one” (p. 17). Later in the book she also criticizes Badiou for his adherence to communism or the “communist hypothesis”, which she claims connotes an anti-political vision of a society without antagonism (p. 82f).

A few comments. Is this criticism fair? To start with Badiou, fidelity to a truth can be politically important without necessarily leading to the legitimation of order. How about fidelity to the truth of radical democracy, or to some cause such as helping refugees or the homeless? Implicit in her criticism that fidelity implies an "ethical" perspective is the charge that it denies the essentially agonistic quality of politics and hence promotes depoliticization. But this is not convincing: to a large extent it is fidelity of this sort that propels and constitutes political action. Without it, much political action would simply die. Nothing in an ethical perspective per se is inimical to struggle or antagonism. Mouffe's own stress on the role of emotions in political struggles also strongly suggests that something like fidelity to the "truth" embodied in the central nodal points or empty signifiers that serve to unify discourses are constitutive of political struggle. Her defense here would probably be that the "ethical", even where it promotes struggle, projects a possible end-state of restored peace where the political would again be occluded. In other words, her defense would be that fidelity to truth by necessity implies the other great error Badiou commits, namely embracing an anti-political vision of a society without antagonism.

Why is this an error, according to Mouffe? Behind this, of course, lies her idea of antagonism as an inescapable dimension of the political - a dimension so important that she rejects not only all those theories that "post-politically" deny or cover up conflicts in the present but also all utopian visions of a future end to antagonism. This is one of her central ideas. But it's also a very ambiguous idea. While insisting on inescapable antagonism may sound very radical, it also, paradoxically, has very un-radical implications. To put it harshly, insisting on inescapable antagonism is reactionary in the same sense that the realist school of international relations or the idea of a homo oeconomicus driven only by self-interest are reactionary. These ideas all dogmatically assert “war” as an ahistorical constant. Again and again, Mouffe rejects theoretical opponents by simply referring to their supposed neglect of the ineradicable antagonism, but she never explains why antagonism must be a constant. Her idea is ahistorical since it neglects the fact that antagonism too is a historical product - something that is shaped by history and that varies depending on the overall historical or societal situation. A possible defense might be that the assumption of antagonism is "ontological" and hence independent of "ontic" or merely historical circumstance. But the drawback of positing antagonism as ontologically given is that it becomes inexplicable and hence only possible to assert dogmatically. I find it hugely problematic that this dogmatic assertion is used by her as the basis for her strictures on activists and radical intellectuals, who are told to either adhere to her logic - strive for hegemony, but give up your utopias - or face the charge of being "post-political".

A word, finally, on the utopia of consensus. I can't help finding Mouffe's understanding of consensus crude. For instance, she writes that “those who foster the creation of agonistic public spaces will conceive of critical art in a very different way than those whose aim is the creation of consensus” (p. 92). But to Arendt and to critical theorists, consensus is aimed at through critique. How different is that, in practice, from what Mouffe wants to do? She might reply, of course, that her aim is a hegemony that is self-aware of its merely hegemonic and hence transitory nature. But such an approach fails to account for the various Utopias that protesters have aimed at for millennia. Can she declare them all wrong? Isn’t it rather that Utopia always exists as a transcendental element, which is never fully realized but which informs all radical action and serves as a regulative idea (as in the case with Karatani's "X" or even Habermas’s ideal speech situation) which is always presupposed in critique for critique to be effective and persuasive? If so, then Utopia is needed for politically efficatious action. This Utopia doesn't need to to be spelled out or even be given much substantial content. As Bloch pointed out, it exists in rudimentary fashion whenever people feel that "something is missing" (etwas fehlt). In communicative action, the content of a future consensus can never be fixed or stated in advance. Yet even as an insubstantial ideal, it spurs people to engage in protests and criticism, simply because they cannot rest content with letting prevailing viewpoints or opinions dominate society. What activists or protesters long for is usually not just another round of hegemonic struggle, but a better world that is supposed to be the result of that struggle. That longing isn't an obstacle to the struggle, but something that spurs it on. If that is so, then isn't it Mouffe's own strictures on Utopia - rather than the "post-political" striving for consensus - that risk undermining the political? 

Chris Bracey

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

John Bellamy Foster: Two materialisms, two kinds of dialectics

In my previous post I pointed to some difficulties with Foster's attempt to extend the notion of dialectics to nature. However, there is a bigger problem with this attempt to which I will now turn. Contrary to his intentions, the attempt reproduces a methodological dualism that runs counter to his aim of a "unity of method". I explain why this is so in the first section below before turning, in the second section, to Foster's charge against Western Marxism that it lost touch with materialism and drifted in an idealist direction. As I discussed in my previous post, Foster claims that the price paid by Western Marxists for rejecting Engels's materialist dialectics was that they ended up in an idealist position and had to relinquish the study of nature to positivism. By way of ending, I suggest that this criticism is unfair and that Western Marxism offers theoretical tools for grasping the relation between nature and capitalism that are more useful than Foster thinks and that may be superior to his own.

Dialectics or monism? (Juan O'Gorman, Monumento funebre al capitalismo industrial)

A dialectics in relation to nature or a dialectics of nature?

Foster wants to demonstrate the possibility of a unity of method in the study of nature and society by showing that a similar dialectical method is applicable in both realms. How well does he succeed in reaching this aim? Broadly speaking, he seems to use two quite different strategies.

The first is to see dialectics as unfolding in the relation between humanity and nature. This strategy is consistent with his emphasis on the "metabolic rift" and with his idea of dialectics as a necessary element of human cognition in relation to nature. It is also consistent with Marx's emphasis that dialectics centrally involves human praxis, taken in a wide sense as including the way labour as a metabolism with nature is organized. Dialectics in this sense could be used to stitch together the two realms of society and nature, as long as the latter isn't viewed as a pristine realm existing independently of human action or human perception. Combined with the fact that capitalism has nowadays engulfed the entire globe, leaving practically no pristine wilderness behind, this argument goes a long way in ensuring the usefulness of dialectics in the study of nature. It is almost, but not quite enough, to achieve methodological unity. The problem for Foster is, firstly, that this sort of dialectics wouldn't be so very different from the "praxis"-centred dialectics of Western Marxism. Dialectics would basically still be seen as a property of human praxis. It's applicability to nature is a by-product of the socialization of nature in the course of the expansion of capitalism. Secondly, the problem remains of how to theorize the wholly non-human nature that existed earlier in history or that still exists out in space still remains.

The other strategy is to try to work out a dialectics of nature as such, showing how nature develops dialectically even without human interference. Foster admits that Marx himself tended to link dialectics primarily to human praxis, but argues that Marx nevertheless acknowledged the possibility of dialectics operating "ontologically" in nature itself. Engels's attempt to put forth a "dialectics of nature" was thus wholly legitimate when viewed from the standpoint of his and Marx's basic philosophical outlook. Foster believes, however, that Engels overemphasized the deterministic and mechanistic aspects of the dialectics of nature. To reconstruct a more openended dialectics of nature, Foster thus turns to Epicurus' atomistics and Darwin's theory of evolution, which he argues were bigger influences on Marx than the deterministic materialists of the Enlightenment period.

A problem with this second strategy, however, is that it tends to reinstate dualism. Foster appears to assign two separate dialectical methods for the two realms of society and nature. On the one hand there is a dialectics for society, which centrally includes praxis and subject-object interaction. On the other, there is a dialectics for nature, which would unfold on its own, without human involvement, in the manner of falling atoms or natural selection. As Lukács points out in History and Class consciousness these are two separate kinds of dialectics using different methods:
... the dialectics of nature can never become anything more exalted than a dialectics of movement witnessed by the detached observer, as the subject cannot be integrated into the dialectical process... From this we deduce the necessity of separating the merely objective dialectics of nature from those of society. For in the dialectics the subject is included in the reciprocal relationship in which theory and practice become dialectical with reference to one another (Lukács 1971: 207)*
Admittedly, one might argue that it's possible for Foster to hold on to the second strategy while avoiding dualism, provided that he manages to reduce the dialectics of nature and of society to a common denominator. That would enable him to claim that the same kind of dialectics is operative in both realms. To a certain extent, he tries to do this. An example is when he argues that the common ground uniting the study of nature and society consists in the use of dialectics as a tool for grasping "mors immortalis" (immortal death, i.e. neverending change). This search for a common ground, however, requires him to thin out the concept of dialectics considerably. This is problematical since it is unclear why the resulting abstract concept should be referred to as "dialectics" at all. The whirl of matter, conceived as falling atoms, hardly needs to be grasped through terms like negation or contradiction, central to Hegelian dialectics. Both of these terms are used by Hegel to point to the fact that the relation between the moments making up the whole can never be reduced to a common, "positive" or harmonious foundation. The Hegelian whole is always indelibly conflictual and torn.** What happens to this kind of negativity in Epicurus' theory of atoms? Although the falling atoms give rise to constant flux and hence to a state of neverending "mors immortalis", we seem to be less close to dialectics than to some form of monism.

This means that Foster's argument that we need to retain a dialectics of nature to ensure the possibility of a "unity of method" in the study of nature and society isn't convincing. Nor is his argument that rejecting the dialectics of nature implies handling over the study of nature to positivism. Contrary to his argument, it is probably the first strategy rather than the second that offers the best chances of tying together nature and society in a way that avoids both monism and dualism. If his aim is to surmount the dualism of nature and society dialectically, the first strategy is clearly sufficient to the extent that nature is thought of only as that nature with which human beings are in contact. The strategy also works fine if the main intention is to use dialectics as a critical tool (for example, in order to avoid the pro-capitalist implications of varieties of monism, like actor-network theory). Why, then, does Foster insist also on the second strategy? Presumably this is for the sake of "unity of method". But as I have argued, the argument that such unity is needed to avoid handing over nature to positivism is weak, since the insertion of a dialectics of nature next to a dialectics of society cannot effectuate such a unity of method. Instead it risks reinforcing a new dualism and raises question marks concerning in what sense this dialectics is really “dialectical” rather than monist.

What Foster should do then, in order to extend the applicability of dialectics to the study of nature and to weaken the hold of positivism in this area, is to emphasize the dialectics between nature and society – as he does in his theory of the metabolic rift - rather than to identify another dialectic (next to the praxis-oriented, social one) that is supposedly operative in nature independently of human beings. Ironically, the former strategy is very similar to the one employed by the Western Marxists that Foster is so keen on criticizing.***

Announcement of a 2011 public meeting with the participation of Foster

Can we be materialists without a dialectics of nature?

Foster argues that Western Marxism ended up in idealism since it jettisoned the idea of a dialectics of nature. Furthermore, its rejection of the dialectics of nature had the “tragic result” that:
... the concept of materialism became increasingly abstract and indeed meaningless, a mere ‘verbal category’, as Raymond Williams noted, reduced to some priority in the last instance... Ironically, given the opposition of critical, Western Marxism generally... to the base-superstructure metaphor, the lack of a deeper and more thoroughgoing materialism made the dependence on this metaphor unavoidable – if any sense of materialism was to be maintained. (Foster 2000: 8)
This characterization of Western Marxism is simplistic and grossly unfair. Let me just mention two obvious points.

To begin with, Foster disregards that materialism to Marx himself didn't primarily rest on a dialectics of nature (not even of the Epicurean kind). His materialism consistently emphasized the role of praxis, including the interplay between humans and non-human nature. This kind of materialism wasn't jettisoned by Western Marxists. The dialectics in relation to nature was retained; what was jettisoned was only Engels's dialectics of nature. The point here is the obvious one that emphasizing praxis doesn't equal idealism.

Secondly, Foster's criticism that Western Marxists hollowed out the concept of materialism and became dependent on the base-superstructure metaphor is completely off the mark in regard to, say, Adorno’s materialism. The latter is uncompromising anti-idealism: an attempt to think matter in a way that constantly resists thought's own idealistic tendencies. Rather than figuring as a mere abstract category, nature or matter is what dislodges and disrupts thought, shocking it into realizing its own untruth. From such a perspective, it goes without saying that relying on the base-superstructure metaphor would be idealism, an attempt to capture history in the net of reified concepts.

These two points are sufficient to show that other conceptions of materialism exist than Foster's. At the very least we should distinguish between the following two forms of materialism:

(1) Materialism as a conceptualization of how "matter" forms the essence of or determines the shape of other things, such as history or culture. In this form of materialism, matter functions as a principle or inner "essence" governing the development of society. It is eminently compatible with a philosophy of history and it borrows its form - the way it organizes its concepts - from the idealist system. The idealist system may be stood on its head, but otherwise retains its form since "matter" simply takes the place of the system's first principle. Paradoxically, "matter" functions as an idea, since it is presumed to go up seamlessly into its concept. This materialism is thus a mirror image of the idealism it tries to supplant; in fact it is basically an idealism in disguise.

(2) Materialism as a conceptualization of "matter" as alien to or outside our ideas. Being non-identical with the concepts we use to capture or master it, matter is capable of resisting, destabilizing and negating our ideas. Rather than being pictured as a principle or essence, it is seen as a force subverting the idealist system. It denies the idealist premise of constitutive subjectivity, the idea that thinking - as Adorno put it - has "supremacy over otherness" (Adorno 1994: 201). Often, this kind of materialism is wedded to the notion of dialectics as centered on praxis and the subject-object relation. The reason is that this is the way matter is encountered by the subject as it engages in attempts to change the world. This materialism finds its clearest expression in Adorno, but it also shows up elsewhere in Western Marxism. It is thus expressed by Fredric Jameson when he writes:
History is what hurts [...] This is indeed the ultimate sense in which History as ground and untranslatable horizon needs no particular theoretical justification: we may be sure that its alienating necessities will not forget us, however much we might prefer to ignore them. (Jameson 1981:102)
Both of these types of materialism are present in Marx. On the one hand, he broke with German Idealism, turning from the realm of ideas to the material processes that subverted the idealist systems. On the other, he was also - as Foster shows - inspired by Epicurus and Darwin and supportive of Engels's attempt to extend dialectics to nature. After Marx, however, the two kinds of materialism parted ways. The former type found expression in Soviet-style "historical and dialectical materialism" while the latter type came to characterize much of Western Marxism. Intertwined with each type of materialism, a particular conception of dialectics took form: a dialectics of nature in the former case and a dialectics in relation to nature in the latter. The point at issue here is not which of these materialisms or types of dialectics represents "correct" Marxism. The point is rather that Foster is wrong in claiming that abandoning the dialectics of nature amounts to an abandoning of materialism as such.

So how about Western Marxism and nature?

So far, I've argued that Foster is wrong on two scores. Firstly, resurrecting a "dialectics of nature" is not the best way of bringing about the "unity of method" that he aims for. Secondly, rejecting this "dialectics of nature" does not amount to rejecting materialism per se. In this final section, I will argue that Western Marxism - and in particular the Frankfurt School - provides resources for a theoretization of nature that is not only at least as dialectical and materialist as Foster's, but also more sensitive and fruitful. To bring this out, however, it's important to recall that the Frankfurt School has much more to offer than the few works - mainly Alfred Schmidt's The Concept of Nature in Marx and Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment - on which Foster concentrates.

Let's start by returning to dialectics. Contrary to the impression Foster conveys, the Western Marxists that he criticizes didn't reject the attempt to understand nature dialectically as such. What they did reject was dialectics in the form of deterministic, objective "laws", whether applied to nature or society. The criticism of Engels's dialectics of nature was thus not primarily an attempt to limit the reach of dialectics to society. Instead, it involved a double move: First dialectics was freed from determinism by emphasizing its link to praxis. Secondly, as a consequence of this emphasis on praxis, dialectics was viewed as having its home in society rather than nature. However, the withdrawal from nature was not absolute. Theoretically, there is ample room for theorizing nature in a dialectical fashion - not, however, by subjecting nature to dialectical "laws", but by extending to nature the more open-ended and non-determinist dialectics Western Marxists had developed in relation to praxis.

How might such an attempt to theorize nature look? I will suggest, firstly, that the strong points in Foster's account of the relation between capitalism and nature can be addressed equally well from a Frankfurt School standpoint. Secondly, I will argue that the resources of Frankfurt School theory provide several important benefits that help us theorize nature but which are absent in Foster.

What I see as the great contribution of Eco-Marxists like Foster and Burkett is their clarification of how the logic of capital as described by Marx relates to environmental problems. They address this issue with admirable lucidity through their discussions of the metabolic rift and the way nature fails to register as value in capitalism. We can note, however, that none of these discussions presupposes a "dialectics of nature". Instead, they pinpoint the destructive consequences that capitalism has on nature and thus concerns the dialectics between society and nature. They thus build on the basic conception of a praxis-centred dialectics through which nature becomes increasingly mediated, which is central both to Marx and Western Marxism. Although no Frankfurt School critical theorist(perhaps with the exception of Schmidt) has addressed ecological issues as directly as either Foster or Burkett, I think a strong case can be made for arguing that critical theory possesses the theoretical resources for doing so. This also means that there is nothing in the critical theoretical conception of nature that makes it insensitive to environmental problems. It's not hard to find what might be called an environmentalist awareness in several writers - one thinks of Marcuse first of all, but other examples would include Horkheimer & Adorno, Benjamin and Bloch - who were close to or active in the Frankfurt School. As I've already argued, Schmidt's "promethean" interpretation of Marx isn't a celebration of industrialism or of mastery of nature, but should rather be understood as a Weberian, bleak prophesy.

So let me now turn to what I see as the strengths of a critical theoretical approach. These are at least three. Firstly, one of the prime contributions of critical theory has been its dialectical approach to the very categories of nature and society. Here the idea of a "second nature" arising from the human-made, capitalist environment is central. Arguably, the most refined dialectical treatment of this process can be found in the works of Lukács (in relation to reification), Benjamin (from the vantage-point of Naturgeschicte, or the history of nature) and Adorno (here I'm thinking in particular of his essay “Die Idee der Naturgeschichte”). In connection with this, there are also quite wonderful analysis among several critical theorists on the ambiguity of the concept of "nature", which on the one hands stands for that with which reconciliation must be achieved but which, on the other, is also itself a reified category, prone to romanticization as well as ideologization in the sense that it can be used to present what is changeable and historical as timeless and necessary.

Secondly, this sensitivity to the ambiguity of our ways of thinking about nature also allows for a variety of approaches. To get a feeling for this variety, we can return to Foster's discussion of the dialectics of nature. As we recall, he suggests that such a dialectics would be suitable to the study of nature for a variety of reasons: it acknowledges the self-consciousness of at least part of nature, it helps us understand the unceasing change ("mors immortalis") of nature, and it does justice to the fact that dialectics always shapes our perception of nature. All of these aspects of nature are also taken account of in critical theory. The idea of nature as a possible subject is strongly present in Marcuse and it also informs the discussion of mimesis in the Dialectic of Enlightenment as well as Benjamin's discussions of nature's language and muteness. Indeed, there is a forceful utopianism built up around the liberation of or reconciliation with nature in critical theory that is much more pronounced than in Eco-Marxism but which connects up with the idea of "self-consciousness" that Foster touches upon (I discuss this briefly in this post on Daniel Cunha and the notion of the anthropocene). The idea of "immortal death" is approached by Benjamin through the lens of the historicity of nature (see his discussion of Naturgeschichte in connection with the theme of nature's decay in Baroque drama). Finally, the idea of dialectics as a necessary heuristics for apprehending nature is developed by Adorno, in whose hands it turns into a philosophy guided by the "primacy of the object" (Vorrangs des Objekts), even to the extent that the "logic of disintegration" triggered by object's resistance to thought is welcomed by the subject as an opportunity for its own liberation.

The third point is perhaps the theoretically most important one. In this post, I have tried to show how Foster struggles with dualism, arguing that unless we allow for a dialectics of nature we will have to hand over the study of nature to positivism. I have already indicated that I believe this is wrong. Nevertheless, the question remains how critical theory should deal with the natural sciences. Isn't Foster (and others like Steven Vogel) right, after all, that it is a severe theoretical weakness to argue that dialectics is needed to combat reification and then refrain from criticizing the "reifying" methods of natural science when applied to nature? Critical theory, I would argue, offers a way out of this conundrum which is far more promising than Foster's proposed solution.

Foster's solution, as we recall, is to attempt to resurrect a "dialectics of nature". I've already identified a number of weaknesses with this attempt. The chief weakness is perhaps that in trying to reconstruct a logic or principle behind nature's movement, it attempts in a too direct fashion to challenge natural science on its own turf - in effect, imitating it and competing with it. The dangers of this position is that it would end up in mere pseudo-science.

In critical theory, there is a useful model for how to think nature dialectically without having to imitate or compete with natural science. Rather than trying to provide an "objective" description of impersonal laws operative in nature or society, critical theory has always viewed its own task as bringing out contradictions, sharpening our awareness of them, and thus strengthening the opposition to oppression and exploitation. Theory, then, is supposed to be practical and emancipatory. In relation to nature, this means that the task of theory is not to imitate natural science, but to sharpen our awareness of how we, as subjects, are related to nature and how we may relate to nature in our praxis. What Adorno calls constellations are a particularly useful tool for thinking dialectically about nature. Constellations are concepts that "encircle" the object, illuminating it from various directions without necessarily being fixed in a logical relationship to each other. The concepts may well negate each other. Rather than logical consistency, what holds a constellation together is its ability to do justice to the internal inconsistency of its object. Bits and chunks of natural science too may be included in the constellation. Thinking dialectically isn't to do the work of natural science but to insert these bits and chunks in a useful and illuminating way, without letting them take on the status of absolutes or "reifying" them. This way of thinking about the applicability of dialectics to nature is not only preferable to the rigid separation between two realms, that of nature and that of society, with each realm possessing its own proper method. It also shows why the rejection of a "dialectics of nature" doesn't have to imply a rejection of all attempts to think dialectically about nature. Foster's claim that it does is incorrect - and this is quite obvious the moment one starts to think about it.

So to conclude what is already a far too long post:

1) Foster's attempt to secure "unity of method" by reinstating an upgraded version of the dialectics of nature fails. Rather than overcoming dualism, it tends to reinforce dualism by assigning one kind of dialectics to society and another to nature.

2) Foster's charge that Western Marxism abandoned materialism and ended up in idealism doesn't hold. Foster ignores the existence of other forms of materialism than his own.

3) Western Marxism offers resources for theorizing nature that are more promising than Foster's proposed dialectics of nature. These include theoretical tools for grapsing the historicity of nature. They also include the idea of "constellations" which help us see that it is possible to think dialectically about nature without having to imitate and compete with natural science, as a dialectics of nature would have had to do.

Capitalism, from Jardin d'Alice during COP21 in Paris 2015


* Some commentators have seized on this passage to argue that here Lukács acknowledges the possibility of a dialectics of nature (Foster 2016: 412f; Foster et al 2010: 219; Rees 1998: 245; see also the discussion in Rees 2000: 30f). This is true, but must be weighed against the fact that dialectics elsewhere in History and Class Consciousness dialectics is invariably linked to praxis and described as essentially taking place between subject and object. As Vogel points out, Lukács leaves the assertion that nature is dialectical "entirely without foundation" since he fails to provide any clue as to how such a dialectics could be known (Vogel 1996: 19). Regardless of this acknowledgement, the crucial point is that Lukács insists that the the two kinds of dialectics are different and hence cannot provide the foundation for a "unity of method". A similar remark can be made in regard to Marx. Even if it is true that Marx saw social metabolism simply as a set of relations within a larger universal metabolism (Foster 2000: 414), this is not enough to underpin a "unity of method" for the study of these two metabolisms.

** This is true also of the apparently "subject"-less movement of capital in Marx. The logic of capital is antagonistic in the sense that conflict is irreducible. As Postone points out, capital fulfills the role of the “spirit” in the dialectics of Marx’s Capital.

*** In some formulations, Foster himself seems to prefer the second strategy. This can be seen in Foster (2013), an article in which he explicitly addresses the question of how his version of materialist dialectics relates to Engels. But here too there are vacillations. Foster first criticizes those Western Marxists who rejected the "dialectics of nature" by referring to how even Lukács recognized the validity of a “merely objective” dialectics of nature. Strangely, however, he then goes on to defend a praxis-centred dialectics focusing on the relation between man and nature: “Lukács and Mészáros thus saw Marx’s social-metabolism argument as a way of transcending the divisions within Marxism that had fractured the dialectic and Marx’s social (and natural) ontology. It allowed for a praxis-based approach that integrated nature and society, social history and natural history, without reducing one entirely to the other.” Here Foster fails to notice that this praxis-based approach to nature is precisely what we find in the kind of dialectics offered by Alfred Schmidt and that it is fundamentally different from the “merely objective” sort of dialectics he just referred to which we also find in Engels and which Foster tries to reconstruct based on Epicurus.


Adorno, T. W. (1994) Negative dialektik, Frankfurt a/M: Suhrkamp.

Foster, John Bellamy (2000) Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Foster, John Bellamy (2013) “Marx and the Rift in the Universal Metabolism of Nature”, Monthly Review 65(7): 1-19.

Foster , John Bellamy & Clark, Brett & York, Richard (2010) The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Jameson, Fredric (1981) The Political Unconscious. Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Lukács, Georg (1971) History and Class Consciousness. Studies in Marxist Dialectics, London: Merlin Press.

Rees, John William (1998) The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition, London: Routledge.

Rees, John William (2000) "Introduction", pp. 1-43, in G. Lukács, A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic, London: Verso.

Vogel, Steven (1996) Against Nature: The Concept of Nature in Critical Theory, Albany: State University of New York Press.

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