Marx(ism) in the Anthropocene
Historical Materialism and the Ambivalence of Value Theory
November 15, 2023
With his recent book, Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism, Kohei Seito builds upon the impressive scholarly work in his earlier Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism to offer a provocative yet largely compelling reconstruction of the late Marx’s intellectual project.11. Kohei Saito, Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2023). Carefully researched and closely argued, Marx in the Anthropocene is essential reading for anyone who wishes to better understand the evolution and contemporary resonance of Marx’s ecological thought. It also has important implications for socialist politics today. Rather than reviewing the book, I want to use it as a jumping-off point to explore some of these implications, with a particular focus on the implicit normative-political questions raised by Saito’s argument for degrowth communism.
Karl Marx: (Late-Blooming) Degrowth Communist
Marx in the Anthropocene touches on, and has ignited further controversy around, a number of key debates within contemporary left ecotheory. But the core of Saito’s argument is that the rapid deterioration of planetary ecology has demonstrated that “capitalism is no longer progressive” in the sense of preparing the material grounds for communism; rather, capitalist development “destroys the general conditions of production and reproduction”22. Ibid., 2. upon which all life depends. This reality appears to render “Marx’s view of historical progress … hopelessly outdated.”33. Ibid. The only hope for “a revival of Marxism in this historical conjuncture,” Saito explains, is therefore a “radical reformulation of its infamous grand scheme of ‘historical materialism’” that sheds its disqualifying “productivism and ethnocentrism.”44. Ibid.
Other ecosocialists have taken similar positions, but Saito is unique in claiming that the late Marx actually recognized productivism and ethnocentrism as central problems in his earlier understanding of historical progress and had himself begun this fundamental reconfiguration in the years leading up to his death. In Saito’s narrative, once Marx “started to question the progressive role of increasing productive forces under capitalism, he was inevitably compelled to challenge his own earlier progressive view of history.”55. Ibid., 8. As Marx became increasingly aware of ecological limits and consequently “jettisoned productivism as the essential component of his view of human history, he was also compelled to reconsider his biased Eurocentrism, which is the other side of the same coin.”66. Ibid., 182.
Readers will note that this account differs from those ecological rehabilitations of Marx that ascribe a basic continuity and cohesion to his entire corpus. While such accounts have been invaluable in correcting one-sided Promethean readings of Marx, they sometimes rely upon selective interpretations of earlier texts in order to sidestep Marx’s explicitly Eurocentric and productivist pronouncements. Saito instead fully acknowledges these shortcomings, holding that the late Marx “experienced a theoretical breakthrough—coupure épistémologique in an Althusserian sense—after 1868.”77. Ibid., 168. He concludes that, “in finally discarding both ethnocentrism and productivism, Marx abandoned his earlier scheme of historical materialism”88. Ibid., 173. in the later years of his life.
For Saito, this means that rather than being a procrastinatory distraction from the completion of subsequent volumes of Capital, as it is usually understood, “Marx’s intensive research [into environmental science and the organization of noncapitalist societies] in his last years was a desperate attempt to reconstruct and reformulate his materialist conception of history from an entirely new perspective.”99. Ibid. This enormous task, however, remained unfinished; Marx struggled “until his death … with various theoretical inconsistencies and limitations, especially those having to do with the development of productive forces,” leaving Saito to recreate his conversion to degrowth communism from fragmentary textual evidence.1010. Ibid., 247.
Saito’s Marx vs Ecomodernism
This argument’s most immediate implications are for contemporary debates between Marxist ecomodernism and degrowth. By claiming that Marx’s investigations into environmental science led him to abandon his earlier Promethean orientation by eroding his confidence in the generally progressive character of technological development and economic growth within capitalism, Saito seeks to invalidate ecomodernist and accelerationist claims to the Marxist mantle. He points out that these technophilic arguments are generally grounded (or stuck) in the Grundrisse and fail to incorporate Marx’s important innovations in Capital (such as his account of real sub- sumption), let alone the subsequent move toward degrowth communism that Saito speculatively sketches in Marx in the Anthropocene.1111. Ibid., 158.
In undermining these appeals to Marx’s authority, Saito attempts to flip the usual script in several ways. Often left ecomodernists will accuse their critics of being conservative or regressive, as well as elitist and out of touch with the working class, essentially Malthusian rather than Marxist. But by framing the late Marx’s work as a heroic effort to overcome his own biases and preconceptions, Saito tries to highlight both the disavowed elitism and the conservative character of ecomodernist commitments.
He rightly suggests that the ecomodernist vision of post-capitalism is built upon a faith in technology that “eliminates the possibilities of imagining a completely different lifestyle and a safe and just society in the face of economic and ecological crisis.”1212. Ibid., 162. As a result, it “ends up endorsing capitalist value-standards under the guise of a grandiose emancipatory project for infinite production and consumption.”1313. Ibid., 160.
This is the key to ecomodernism’s alleged “realism” and pretensions to mainstream appeal; a vision of socialism in which “everyone keeps driving electronic SUVs [and] changing smartphones every two years … obviously sounds attractive to many people in the Global North” because it appeals “to the satisfaction of people’s immediate desires without challenging the current imperial mode of living.”1414. Ibid. But deep down we must realize, or at least strongly suspect, that our contemporary consumerist lifestyle cannot be sustained, let alone generalized, without further environmental ruin. Ecomodernist utopias that depend upon such a generalization thus have a straightforwardly ideological function.
Ecomodernists often seize upon critiques of the North’s “imperial mode of living” to suggest that their opponents are pro-austerity. But Saito, with Marx, shows that wealth and scarcity are largely contextual, socio-historical categories; ecomodernists assume that degrowth must entail scarcity and poverty because they naively identify human wellbeing with capitalist material abundance, having “uncritically [accepted] existing value standards and consumerist ideals.”1515. Ibid. In the final chapter of the book, Saito suggests that Marx himself understood wealth as something very different from its appearance within capitalism “as an immense collection of commodities,” and that his “critique of political economy would be inconsistent and mediocre if he so naively endorsed ‘bourgeois values.’”1616. Ibid., 230.
Indeed, although he does not frame it in this way, Saito’s reconstruction of Marx’s ecological and decolonial turn seems to largely be a vehicle for critiquing the prevalence of these values within mainstream socialist circles; by arguing that Marx ultimately outgrew them, he tries to show why we, as Marxists, ought to as well.
Saito is right about the poverty of ecomodernist and accelerationist visions of abundance, and partly (though, as I explain below, not entirely) correct to argue that “post-capitalism needs to invent wholly different value-standards and social behaviors,” such that “instead of wanting destructive, extravagant and wasteful products, people will desire healthier, more solidaristic and democratic ways of living.”1717. Ibid., 236. However, the strategy of speaking this argument in Marx’s voice, while potentially persuasive for some, also has important limitations.
The Dialectic of Degrowth
Saito advocates for “post-capitalist” values of degrowth communism primarily by showing how Marx ultimately arrived at them. The intellectual path he plots for Marx is certainly remarkable, and its precociousness speaks to the power of Marx’s ruthlessly critical framework to disrupt deep and pervasive biases that even Marx himself had unconsciously internalized. Saito does not, however, directly discuss how or why others might come to adopt the alternative values of degrowth. These normative-political questions nonetheless haunt the book, looming just beneath the surface of Saito’s scholarly argument.
To see why this must be so, we can briefly contrast Saito’s reconstructed Marxism with a more orthodox account of historical materialism. In its broad outlines, Saito’s sketch of Marx’s revised view of historical progress appears familiar; communism is still the “negation of the negation” that abolishes capitalist private property and replaces it with communal production of a “higher” sort while retaining the “positive” fruits of capitalist development.
However, here the negation to be negated is understood as the metabolic rift opened by capitalism, a contradiction that can be sublated only by “the re-establishment of the original unity of humans and nature on a higher scale.”1818. Ibid., 217. Thus, the superiority of this “higher form” of communism can no longer derive primarily from the development of its productive forces in the service of material abundance.
This revision necessarily raises central questions of value. If capitalism’s economic and technological development is not inherently progressive in the way that traditional historical materialism (or at least Saito’s formulation of it) had assumed—for we now understand that the growth of capitalist wealth and technological mastery does not tend toward a fully automated luxury communist utopia but, rather, produces ecological disaster—then in what sense will the “positive” fruits of capitalist development lay the grounds for a “higher” form of communism? By what standards are we to judge social progress after the rejection of productivist and Eurocentric historical materialism?
This need for new normative standards also points to larger questions of motivation and agency—for it is no longer obvious who is meant to affect this negation of the negation, or for what reasons. In the orthodox renderings of historical materialism, the answer was (more or less) clear: structural countertendencies and contingent historical vicissitudes notwithstanding, capitalism’s “progressive” development would tend to produce the conditions of its own self-overcoming. The deeper irrationalities of capital’s logic would fetter the growth of productive forces and/or lead to declining rates of profit, creating economic crises which, alongside increasing inequality and the development of social production, would lead to a commensurate development of proletarian class consciousness.
But few of these materialist motive forces seem to survive intact in Saito’s reconstruction. He criticizes ecosocialists like Jason Moore and James O’Connor for their too-narrow focus on economic crisis tendencies produced by environmental breakdown and wholly rejects the productivist narrative of fettering, while simultaneously casting doubts upon ecomodernist socialists’ complacent conception of working-class (electoral) politics.1919. Ibid., 104, 125–29.
Further, inequality between North and South seems to partly offset the political spur of class inequality here, with workers in the North apparently at least partially pacified by the consumerist fruits of ecological imperialism. Saito explicitly admits to “the current political unpopularity of ‘degrowth communism,’” while nonetheless arguing for its necessity from the perspective of “human survival in the Anthropocene.”2020. Ibid., 249–50. Is this meant to move people to adopt the requisite post-capitalist values?
To be clear, my aim in raising this question is not to defend the orthodox view; Saito is clearly correct that it is nonviable today, and that a “Marxian vision of post-scarcity society adequate to the Anthropocene” must therefore look quite different.2121. Ibid., 4. What I want to highlight is the way in which Saito’s account inescapably raises fundamental questions about what Marxists value, our reasons for holding and ranking these values, and how we might persuade others to adopt and fight for them.
These are normative questions that we will need to explicitly confront as such. Do we primarily value freedom conceived as the ability to organize our relationships collectively and democratically with each other and the rest of nature in a just and sustainable way, or do we prioritize an understanding of freedom as progressive transcendence from the “realm of necessity”—that is, from the socio-natural metabolic process?
Do we see the infinite expansion of human needs and capacities and a technologically based increase in free time to develop them as the primary indices of social progress, or do we also see virtue in simplicity, long-term sustainability, and more direct connection with other people and the land? One can clearly interpret the relevant passages of Volume 3 of Capital in support of one position or another—but exegesis can take us only so far.
Marxism and the Ambivalence of Value Theory
In academic philosophy, “value theory” designates “the area of moral philosophy that is concerned with theoretical questions about value and goodness of all varieties.”2222. “Value Theory,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/value-theory/. For most Marxists, of course, it means something rather different. Indeed, the Marxist version of “value theory” is characterized in large part by contrast with moral arguments for socialism. Marxism’s deeper understanding of the motive forces of history constituted the superiority of “scientific socialism” over its moralistic peers, demonstrating, if not the certainty and necessity, then at least the materially grounded possibility of overcoming capitalism.
Whether or not Marx ultimately abandoned historical materialism—and whether or not Saito’s caricature of its tenets matches up with Marx’s own understanding—it has been clear for some time that the productivist-determinist version of this story, which largely negates the need for normative argument, is untenable. This was clear even to G.A. Cohen, whose Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense provides the template for Saito’s formulation of the theory.2323. G.A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).
By 1995, Cohen had recognized that productive power cannot continue to expand forever because “the planet Earth rebels; its resources turn out to not be lavish enough for continuous growth in technical knowledge to generate unceasing expansion of use-value.”2424. Cohen, Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 7. Cohen understood that “our environment is already severely degraded” and that “if there is a way out of the crisis, then it must include much less aggregate material consumption than what now prevails.”2525. Ibid., 9. For this reason, he concluded:
We cannot rely on technology to fix things for us; if they can be fixed, then we have to fix them, through hard theoretical and political labor … we consequently have to be far more clear than we were about what we are seeking, why we are justified in seeking it, and how it can be implemented, institutionally.2626. Ibid., 10.
Cohen was wrong about many things—he was a poorer reader of Marx than Saito is, and his self-described “severely ahistorical view of normative philosophy” is implausible.2727. Ibid., 2. But he was quite right that Marxists will need to overcome their disdain for normative argument and do the hard political labor of arguing for the world we want, and this is especially true if the world we want resembles Saito’s sketch of degrowth communism.
Of course, Marxists will not win masses of people to support this project simply by having better philosophical arguments any more than we will convert them by giving the project Marx’s speculative endorsement. The work of clearly articulating and weighing radical ecosocialist principles and the reasoning behind them is a necessary part of the much larger process of developing a political program with broad appeal.
Politics, Populism, and Persuasion
I have tried to show that this task is particularly pressing for radical visions of post-capitalism such as Saito’s. This might appear to put it at a disadvantage compared to its reformist rivals. Ecomodernism, by contrast, does not seem to require as much of an imaginative leap beyond our existing alienated context; it aims instead to give people more of what they already allegedly want. This is the central reason that it purports to represent a “socialism that can win.” Its populist strategy simply requires eschewing “lifestyle environmentalism,” which “will never win over workers”2828. Matt Huber, “Lifestyle Environmentalism Will Never Win Over Workers” Jacobin, August 2, 2021. instead of holding to radical principle and dooming ourselves to irrelevance, we are entreated to be “pragmatic” and to exclude “fringe” left causes in order to build real power.2929. It is worth noting that similar arguments have been made with respect to trans rights, family and police abolition, and other “cultural” battles that distract from the underlying project of addressing the (selectively understood) material interests of the working class. It is also worth noting that such arguments inherently exclude the interests of nonhumans and future generations, and tend to marginalize those of nonvoters and noncitizens.
Thus far, it is unclear to what extent this strategy can actually deliver meaningful political victories today. But, assuming that it could, we should worry that these victories would be Pyrrhic. The “hard theoretical and political labor” that Cohen recommends can only be avoided at the cost of abandoning our emancipatory aspirations. Indeed, Saito identifies this avoidance at the root of twentieth century Marxism’s failures; he argues that Engels, recognizing that the late Marx’s project “went far beyond the short-sighted interests of the working class … [thus making] the wide reception of Marx’s theory among workers difficult,” simplified the theory in ways that overemphasized rationalism, progressivism, and productivism. This, Saito believes, was both the “secret of Engel’s success” in popularizing Marxism and the reason why the resulting doctrine was “not able to provide the theoretical scope necessary to truly go beyond modern capitalist society.”3030. Saito, Marx in the Anthropocene, 248.
However, although he blames Engels (perhaps excessively so) for obscuring Marx’s more radical degrowth communist agenda, Saito does not indicate what Engels ought to have done differently. How, one is left to wonder, are we supposed to convince people to adopt the “wholly different value-standards” of a future society that does not yet exist? This, in my view, is the heart of the problem that Saito confronts (or, rather, fails to directly confront in Marx in the Anthropocene).
Marxists tend to believe that our values are inescapably shaped by the world around us, and it seems clear that in capitalist society this process is characterized particularly by our alienation from the rest of nature and from the production of the things we consume. It might thus seem difficult to imagine a way forward for Saito’s project, which appears to put the normative-ideological horse ahead of the material-social cart.
On the other hand, perhaps things are not quite so dire as they seem. The situation we face today is not that of Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, or even of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Capitalism is increasingly unpopular among younger people even in the North, and not only because it has failed to deliver on its promise of ever-growing material abundance. Rather, this is also because much of the abundance our society does provide is rapidly destroying the world and deepening alienation.
Social media provides an always-accessible simulacrum of communal connection, but youth loneliness and depression have reached unprecedented levels; frictionless online shopping temporarily fills a hole that is increasingly felt as such, with advertisers’ cheerful enjoinders to consume rubbing repeatedly against the dystopian realities of the Capitalocene.
When we look beneath the façade of complacent consumerism, we may find that many people today actually long for alternatives to which they have not put a name, alternatives abundant in goods we already value but that no capitalist can sell us.3131. Indeed, the popularity of Saito’s more widely addressed Capital in the Anthropocene—which has sold more than half a million copies in Japan—speaks to this longing. These values and aspirations remain just beneath the surface despite all efforts to stamp them out, and they necessarily inform our understanding of the world around us; otherwise no negation of the negation would ever be possible.
It is true that we cannot transcend our context, but we are not irredeemable either. The task of radical politics is thus not to pander to complacent consumerism but to tap into the deeper desires for which it substitutes, and to mobilize them toward emancipatory goals.
We must understand that if the Left is unable or unwilling to do this, then the far right will happily fill in the lacuna we leave. Ecomodernists tend to portray ambivalence toward (some) capitalist technologies and desire for authentic connection with each other and with nature as at best politically suspicious, and at worst inherently reactionary. But their own political project makes this characterization self-fulfilling by preemptively ceding this territory to the Right.
There is indeed a long history of right-wing appeals to authenticity and ecological community, from Hitler to Heidegger to Hardin. Such elements can be found within the history of the degrowth movement as well. But just as antisemitism, as a “socialism of fools,” thrives on the failures of anticapitalist movements, so too do xenophobic right-wing environmentalism and ecofascism thrive on the failures of ecosocialism; reactionary ideologies draw upon and pervert real recognitions of capitalist harm and deprivation.
Perhaps the promotion of a more radical alternative, then, is not a matter of inventing new values and bringing them down from the mount. Rather, the task would be to identify, articulate, and build upon peoples’ existing emancipatory desires and values, even if these are sometimes latent or suppressed. Where people desire “extravagant and wasteful” things, we might find that such desires often have deeper roots in alienation, anxiety, and disempowerment.
On the other hand, in a world increasingly ravaged by capitalist catastrophe, we might find that attachment or aspiration to some affordances of Global North lifestyles—access to modern medical technologies or air conditioning, for example—have entirely reasonable grounds, rather than being the product of an artificially induced consumerist desire. In this process, the somewhat abstract debate around “growth” and “technology” would have to give way to a more nuanced conversation concerning how specific aspects of economic growth and technologies relate to our core priorities, and how to appropriately balance them in a context of planetary emergency.
Bugs and Features
This task requires Marxists to not only lead, but also to listen. What we are attending to, and seeking to bring to the surface, are the values and sympathies that will support a viable post-capitalist society. This means—as Saito’s Marx also recognized—that we will need to place particular emphasis on learning from those groups who have managed to coexist more sustainably with their surroundings by adopting and embodying norms that encourage metabolic stability. However, if we are able to listen in a sufficiently humble and nonextractive manner, we might find that Saito’s vision of post-capitalism is actually insufficiently radical, in the sense of getting to the root.
Saito argues that for the late Marx, the comparative stability of productive technologies in noncapitalist societies was no longer a mark of inferiority. Marx came to understand that their:
low and stationary level of productive forces was not because they were “barbaric” and “ignorant” of science. Even if they had the possibilities of increasing productive forces or working longer hours, these communities intentionally avoided doing so. In this way, they consciously prevented the concentration of power which generates the relationship of domination and subjugation.3232. Saito, Marx in the Anthropocene, 208.
Indeed, the late Marx “recognized that the persistent stability of communes without economic growth is the underlying foundation for realizing sustainable and egalitarian metabolic interaction between humans and nature,” and thus that “any serious attempt at overcoming capitalism in Western society needs to learn from non-Western societies.”3333. Ibid., 208.
Saito’s Marx is right—although, ultimately, we ought not need Marx’s seal of approval to convince us of this. For example, in a chapter of her book, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance, titled “Nishnaabeg Anticapitalism,” Leanne Betasamosake Simpson tells us the same thing rather more explicitly and comprehensively than Marx did.3434. Leanne Betasomosake Simpson, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017). Simpson writes:
when Nishnaabeg are historicized by settler colonial thought as “less technologically developed,” there is an assumption that we weren’t capitalists because we couldn’t be—we didn’t have the wisdom or the technology to accumulate capital, until the Europeans arrived and the fur trade happened. This is incorrect. We certainly had the technology and the wisdom to develop this kind of economy, or rather we had the ethics and knowledge within grounded normativity to not develop this system, because to do so would have violated our fundamental values and ethics regarding how we relate to each other and the natural world. We chose not to, repeatedly, over our history.3535. Ibid., 78.
In the same chapter, Simpson reflects upon her earlier reluctance to critique capitalism in her published work; she worried that she hadn’t “spent enough time reading, thinking, and analyzing Marx—that [she] should leave the analysis of capitalism, its role in dispossession, and its impact on [her] as an Indigenous woman to others more qualified to do so.”3636. Ibid., 72. But she comes to shake off this worry, noting that Indigenous peoples:
have thousands and thousands of years of experience building and living in societies outside of global capitalism. We have hundreds of years of direct experience with the absolute destruction of capitalism. We have seen its apocalyptic devastation on our lands and plant and animal relations.
Acknowledging the validity and importance of this experience for anticapitalist resistance, Simpson argues, “in no way diminishes the contributions of other anticapitalism theorists, thinkers, and writers”; rather, “it adds the beginnings of a critical reframing of the critique, one that is centered within grounded normativity.”3737. Ibid., 73. How does this project fit alongside Saito’s?
The term “grounded normativity,” which Simpson takes from Dene theorist Glen Coulthard, denotes “ethical frameworks generated by … place-based practices and associated knowledges.”3838. Ibid., 22. As Simpson’s characterization of the “apocalyptic devastation” of “lands and plant and animal relations” suggests, such frameworks inherently tend to make greater space for the importance and interests of nonhuman entities than do purportedly universalist Western philosophies—including Marxism.
While Saito’s Marx jettisons Eurocentrism and productivism, he holds to rationalist anthropocentrism as a virtue; Saito argues that “without anthropocentrism, it would actually be almost impossible to speak of the ecological crisis because it exists mainly for humans.”3939. Saito, Marx in the Anthropocene, 129. It is from this perspective that he concludes that “Marx’s idea of degrowth communism is more important than ever today because it increases the chance of human survival in the Anthropocene.”4040. Ibid, 242.
While there is a great deal to admire in Saito’s book, I suspect I am not alone in finding such rhetoric somewhat stale. Humans are clever creatures; our species will probably survive whatever damage capitalism inflicts upon Earth. The same cannot be said for many of the world’s nonhuman inhabitants; the planet has already “lost” 70 percent of its wildlife in the last half-century, and, at the opening of Earth’s sixth mass extinction, we are now “losing” species at up to ten thousand times the baseline rate.
Until Marxism is able to register the scale of this loss—until we can see it not simply as a technical problem to be solved, but as an outrage, an “apocalypse”—then any claims to usher in a “higher” synthesis will necessarily ring hollow. Unlike Saito, environmental theorist Timothy Morton argues that Marx’s anthropocentrism is “a bug, not a feature.” “What happens,” Morton asks, “when we remove the bug?”4141. Timothy Morton, Humankind: Solidary with Nonhuman People (New York: Verso, 2017), 7. If Marxists wish to offer a credible vision of post-capitalism for the Anthropocene, we will have to find out. For communism to represent a true negation of the negation, “the fishes in the water, the birds in the air, the plants on the earth … too, must become free.”4242. Marx, “On the Jewish Question,”  approvingly citing German peasant leader Thomas Münzer, Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/jewish-question/.
This is not to suggest that we can totally avoid anthropocentrism—particularly in the Anthropocene. “Anthropocene” is in many ways a misleading abstraction that implicitly and unfairly pins responsibility for ecocide on all of humanity rather than on the structural imperatives of accumulation and dispossession. But it contains a kernel of truth, insofar as it is not beavers or butterflies who have rapidly destabilized the biosphere and initiated a mass extinction—and even if communism wins, it will ultimately be members of our species making hard decisions about what we can save and what tradeoffs we can accept. Nonetheless, if we aim for sustainability and justice rather than variations on a colonial theme, these decisions cannot assume the total preeminence of human interests, and communist norms and institutions will ultimately have to reflect this relative decentering of human priorities. “Land back” would give us a good start.
Historical Materialism and Grounded Normativity
As the preceding argument implies, we cannot expect people to jump all at once to a different value system; ecosocialism will have to progressively rebuild its own grounded normativities within a flexibly universalist framework as it attempts to partially reverse the “annihilation of space by time.” But it will not have to—indeed, it cannot hope to—invent its values ex nihilo and then attempt to impose them on the unwilling subjects of consumer ideology. Rather, if it is to win, ecosocialism must feel like finally coming home.
Given this need, perhaps Marxists should not be so hasty to reject historical materialism. Certainly, we have no use today for a Eurocentric productivist teleology that deterministically absolves us of normative–political responsibility. But this is not the only vision of historical materialism that one can derive from Marx’s work. Perhaps, rather than rejecting historical materialism, the late Marx was in the process of reexamining some of his assumptions and accordingly reformulating his earlier framings to be less parochial.
Perhaps he was working toward an elaboration of historical materialism that recognized norms as grounded in material relations without seeing them as either epiphenomenal or monolithic—a recognition that would also demonstrate the radical universalist potential of anticolonial resistance. Perhaps he was aiming to use the tools of political economy against itself to systematically map the perverse and world-consuming compulsions of capitalist accumulation—not to thereby assure us of communism’s inevitable victory, but to identify the consequent political fault lines and show us where we must go to work. Perhaps. But as Marx unfortunately died 140 years ago, we have our work cut out for us either way. ×
- Kohei Saito, Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2023).
- Ibid., 2.
- Ibid., 8.
- Ibid., 182.
- Ibid., 168.
- Ibid., 173.
- Ibid., 247.
- Ibid., 158.
- Ibid., 162.
- Ibid., 160.
- Ibid., 230.
- Ibid., 236.
- Ibid., 217.
- Ibid., 104, 125–29.
- Ibid., 249–50.
- Ibid., 4.
- “Value Theory,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/value-theory/.
- A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).
- Cohen, Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 7.
- Ibid., 9.
- Ibid., 10.
- Ibid., 2.
- Matt Huber, “Lifestyle Environmentalism Will Never Win Over Workers” Jacobin, August 2, 2021.
- It is worth noting that similar arguments have been made with respect to trans rights, family and police abolition, and other “cultural” battles that distract from the underlying project of addressing the (selectively understood) material interests of the working class. It is also worth noting that such arguments inherently exclude the interests of nonhumans and future generations, and tend to marginalize those of nonvoters and noncitizens.
- Saito, Marx in the Anthropocene, 248.
- Indeed, the popularity of Saito’s more widely addressed Capital in the Anthropocene—which has sold more than half a million copies in Japan—speaks to this longing.
- Saito, Marx in the Anthropocene, 208.
- Ibid., 208.
- Leanne Betasomosake Simpson, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).
- Ibid., 78.
- Ibid., 72.
- Ibid., 73.
- Ibid., 22.
- Saito, Marx in the Anthropocene, 129.
- Ibid, 242.
- Timothy Morton, Humankind: Solidary with Nonhuman People(New York: Verso, 2017), 7.
- Marx, “On the Jewish Question,”  approvingly citing German peasant leader Thomas Münzer, Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/jewish-question/.