“… perhaps the whole Western Tradition, of which Marxism is but a (Millennial Protestant) part, is off the track.” –Gary Snyder
If you accept the premise that the mind can be divorced from the body and that, to a mind so detached, the body and all natural things are just soulless mechanisms to be dissected with mathematical and logical instruments, then Descartes was probably right about many philosophical issues. If you reject that premise, then Descartes was as wrong as a thinking body can be.
The onset of climate change and the ratcheting up of environmental devastation are giving us new, daily more compelling reasons for reconsidering one of the founding premises of what has passed, since the seventeenth century, for a scientific worldview. A style of rationality that stands above and pits itself against the natural world divorces knowing from taking care, understanding from assuming responsibility. It is a style fit for pioneering and classifying but also for laying waste to and cheapening. To live in the modern world that Descartes ushered in we must forever seek some tolerable compromise between these kinds of endeavors – some way of reconciling ourselves to the horrors we have perpetrated and the comforts we have enjoyed as conquerors and scientists. To live in the Anthropocene is to face the realization that these compromises are steps on a path to oblivion and that there are not many left to take. The horrors and the comforts, it turns out, are of a piece. We might have acquired this insight from a reckoning with colonialism, chattel slavery, or the wars and genocides of the twentieth century, but as dualistic thinkers we had a proven method of insulating our moral outrage over horrendous events from our rational understanding of history. It has taken the specter of ecological ruination and, indeed, wholesale extinction to finally call this method, and all the compromises it has sanctioned, into question.
Karl Marx was a Cartesian, head to toe. He analyzed the mechanisms of capitalism – how it sustains itself by creating value and generating profit for the owners of capital – more rigorously than anyone before or since. This analysis led him to discern relations of exploitation beneath the formal equality of market exchange and to insist that these relations were central to the operation of any capitalist system. His conviction that this analysis was indeed a scientific one emboldened him to forecast a sequence of events, impervious to caprice or sentiment, that would sweep capitalism into the dustbin of history.
Hard times have again put Marxism up for discussion. Various elaborations of why “Marx was right” have found an audience in Europe and North America among those who believe we should be targeting capitalism for blame in the current crisis. Much of this audience resides on campus, but anti-capitalist sentiment circulates broadly online. Chris Smaje, regularly featured on this site, spends more time than he would like defending his vision of an agrarian future from those who chide him for his indifference to Lenin’s On the Agrarian Question. Talks by writers who express sympathy for Marx are well-attended by people who hope some kind of a radical Left might again become a force in the industrial democracies. Even those who lack that sympathy wonder nonetheless, given the carnage piling up in plain sight, if Marx shouldn’t get another hearing.
It may be time to stop wondering about this. If Descartes is a big part of the problem, then Marx can be no part of a solution. Rather, the unfolding of the Anthropocene has exposed the faulty premise lodged, from the very beginning, in the heart of the whole scientific socialist enterprise. Like the classical economists, Marx adhered to the labor theory of value. Accordingly, he believed that value was something that humans added to things in the process of production. Human labor was alone creative, all else was inert, raw stuff to be worked up into something that humans wished to use or exchange. Nature figured in this brand of economics either as “resource” (e.g., wool, lumber, fossil fuel) or “environment” (e.g., air, water, fauna and flora) – in either case, something with no value until animated by the touch of labor. The dualism of Cartesian philosophy was thereby reproduced in modern economic thinking – classical, neo-classical, and Marxist – with unhappy consequences for every living and sensing body that fell under the sway of minds so rationally deranged. This, in any case, is a way to understand one of the paradoxes of industrial-era history: however different communist and capitalist nations may appear when compared along political or cultural dimensions, they have been nearly identical in their disregard for whatever resources or environments they needed to deplete or defile as they became industrial.
Most of what Marx got wrong flows from his basic premise. After giving human labor the only dynamic role in his theoretical elaborations, he had little choice but to select the industrial worker as his active agent of historical transformation. The Marxist scenario whereby the inherent contradictions of capitalism put an impoverished proletariat in a revolutionary state of mind and generate the crisis that would allow these awakened workers to seize power follows from this decision. To render history amenable to a scientific analysis, Marx did to it what Descartes did to nature – he mechanized it. Once history had a motor (class struggle), its course could be directed and its outcome predicted with the certainty of Newtonian mechanics. The work of politics could then be wrested from idle visionaries and delegated to social engineers.
Even by such standards as it is reasonable to apply to historical prognostication, the Marxist forecast of proletarian insurrection has not fared well. Such revolutions as Marxists have successfully orchestrated occurred in countries with either a tiny proletariat (Russia) or practically none at all (China). Countries wherein the development of capitalism did create a large class of industrial proletarians proved more hospitable to various brands of reformism – trade unionism, social democracy, progressivism – than to revolutionary politics. Communists who suddenly found themselves at the helms of still agrarian nations pursued a policy of rapid industrialization as a way of closing the gap between Marxist expectations and living reality and adopted one-party rule to manage those who chafed under the constraints on liberty that such a policy required. Communists in industrial capitalist nations negotiated the errancy of Marxist theory by becoming reformists themselves and seeking power as shareholders in multi-party democracies. Once communist regimes had either fallen under the weight of their own internal contradictions or, as in China, stabilized themselves by embracing capitalism, all that remained of Marxism was Lenin’s idea of the Party, which proved an effective means of governing the poor souls who had to suffer the consequences of Marxist engineering. Meanwhile, in the capitalist world, all that remained of Marxism was the theory, now severed from any movement of workers and settled comfortably into institutions of higher learning, where it proved serviceable as a tool for extracting ideological content from literary and historical documents.
The industrial revolution did indeed create a mass of exploited workers with little to lose, a process that on a global scale is still ongoing. These workers, however, were not the same ones Marx incorporated into his vision of history. The laborers that he designated as agents of the coming socialist revolution had been stripped of “every trace” of cultural belonging – nationality, religion, folkways. Marx believed that capitalism itself would effect this peeling away of secondary qualities, creating workers worn smooth and uniquely calibrated for insertion into a mechanized process of historical development. Whether this proletariat might have carried out the mission Marx put them on is a moot point, as no such proletariat has ever toiled on land or sea. The factory system created workers who drank daily and sang loudly, went to church and kissed the flag, and carried around in their heads all manner of customary beliefs and unlicensed ambitions. This working class was rebellious as hell but could not possibly play the role ascribed to it by theorists who had looked through them to fix on phantoms of their own making. Marx’s spectral workers were amenable to Reason but alien to history.
It was just this variety of scientific rationalism that led Marx to take his regrettable position on British colonialism in India. As he saw it, the spirit of Western civilization, however brutal its manner of imposition, was necessary if India or “Asiatic” cultures generally were to move beyond the “undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life” of the peasant village. To clinch this argument, Marx cited these villagers’ “brutalizing worship of nature” and the “degradation” that ensues when “man, the sovereign of nature,” shows any reverence to non-human beings. Who could possibly deny these inert wretches their proper Western education and, through that, their opportunity to join the march of human progress?
As it turns out, a growing contingent of people living right now would. The villager’s attitude towards the natural world has survived every campaign – capitalist, colonial, communist – of extermination. As environmental devastation and climate change move to the center of public concern, the holistic and reverential convictions of rural dwellers are taking root and spreading in the dark heart of industrial civilization. Indigenous people fighting to protect ancestral lands; farmers and ranchers who adhere to an ethic of land stewardship; anyone who as gardener or hiker, small homesteader or pagan reveler, aspires to get in touch again with soil, rivers, mountains, and moons; the thickening crowd of people who consult A Sand County Almanac or The Unsettling of America rather than anything written by a Marxist when trying to figure out what is to be done – the struggles and aspirations of all these people flow in a single current.
That current courses visibly through every age and continent but does not lend itself readily to political navigation. Plans for living differently share little in the way of means or ends with strategies for reform or revolution. But the historian finds these unlike endeavors everywhere proceeding together and, indeed, can gain considerable insight into a period by focusing on the dynamics of their collaboration.
Such an approach has much to offer those still engaged in sorting through the lessons that might be gleaned from an event like the first successful Marxist-led revolution. Lenin and his comrades got something right in 1917, but it had nothing to do with anything one might find in The Communist Manifesto or Das Kapital. These Marxists found instead a set of aspirations that were felt deeply by ill-equipped, poorly-led soldiers being asked by vainglorious aristocrats to muster in against a well-oiled army of Germans. The peasants and workers in the Russian army did not suddenly recognize their proper role in the unfolding of a world-historic process but responded enthusiastically to the Bolsheviks’ call for “peace, land, and bread.” Over the next several decades ordinary Russians would not get nearly as much of these three things as they would like, but they backed Lenin in 1917 because only his party articulated a program that, at that moment, seemed to bring these aspirations within reach.
Peace, land, bread – that is not a bad list of worthy goals. What if we pursued them for their own sake rather than as a means of achieving some allegedly worthier revolutionary end? What if the most critical lessons to learn from 1917 arise from the commonsense calculations of plain folk rather than the strategic dexterity of the professionals? Laying down your weapons, settling into a patch of ground, producing and enjoying good food and strong drink with kin and neighbors – you do not need prisons and police to get people to do these things. You do not need theory to fortify the appeal of a life lived in this way. Perhaps the repressive impulses lurking within social revolutions would not be awakened if we pursued a strategy rooted in the everyday aspirations of ordinary people rather than in the theory-driven expectations of a self-proclaimed vanguard.
Cartesians are prone to see this kind of thinking as insufficiently rigorous. A strategy that does not claim to be in synch with any motors of history can only be, by their lights, utopian. The irony here, of course, is that a strategy designed to accommodate the untutored desires of regular folks jibes more readily than any Marxist prescriptions with the impulses to insurrection that are actually in play at the moment. The quest for peace, land, and bread proceeds along different paths than was the case a century ago, but these aspirations still animate key struggles of our own time. Nearly every act of protest today begins with an occupation – the seizure of a park, a public square, a stretch of farmland or forest – and then proceeds by showing how this land might be used to further humane and democratic purposes. Battles over how and by whom food is to be produced are now among the most consequential that are being fought. If this war goes badly, a few more dollars an hour or a government health care plan are not going to matter much. Among those who now want to occupy land or reconfigure agricultural systems and urban spaces, it is the peaceable types – the ones who feel a kinship with the land and all living beings – who are the most innovative. It is the folks who propose a non-Cartesian relationship to nature – who see it as fully alive, mysteriously purposive, and an active participant in the drama of life on this planet – who are generating the most compelling ideas about what kind of overturning we need. Those who believe that Marx has already settled this question will be condemned to prescribing ever stronger doses of scientific class analysis for ills that will not respond to any nature-as-machine, I-think-therefore-I-am kind of treatment.
It may be that we still need a revolution. Nothing good seems likely to come from pleading with or trying to pressure the banks and corporations that control the economy; it is now beyond foolish to expect from the major political parties any meaningful response to the problems we face. The power to make decisions about bedrock issues – food, land, water, work, political participation, health and well-being – must be wrested from those who wield that power now. What we do not need, however, is another Marxist revolution. The realization seems to be spreading among us that many features of the good life – healthy food, easy sociability, and democratic governance for sure – are most meaningfully secured at the local level. If the environmental crisis is to be in any way defused, it will likely be the work of people who care enough about a particular patch of earth to protect it from the vandals at the helm of the global economy. We do not need to storm the Winter Palace: by revivifying local economies, local cultures, and the institutions of local democracy we can effect a steady dying back of corporate commerce and of the governments – every one of them big and centralized – that cater exclusively to banks and corporations. On territory thus cleared we might begin to govern ourselves on a scale where self-government can again become meaningful. As local citizens actively shedding our loyalties to anything national or global, we might finally seize the power to look to our own well-being and that of the land we inhabit.
That is a politics fit for the Anthropocene and it knows no Right or Left. The infrastructure of Right/Left politics is crumbling with the bridges and pipes. Let it go. It is not worth rebuilding and the effort will exhaust whatever stocks of goodwill still exist in our civic life.
The revolutionary road that takes off from the scientific dissection of the commodity is impassable. There is no way to force ourselves through and no good reason to steel ourselves for another heroic attempt. We might consider as an alternative the branch that we can pick up along the banks of Walden Pond. Henry David Thoreau did not hole up in a museum library and issue proclamations about historic necessity. He built his own shack in the woods and then wrote with humor and insight about the necessaries of life. The intellect, for Thoreau, was “an organ for burrowing,” as if the process of thinking something through was similar in kind – and not at all uniquely human – to the act of making a home in the earth. Accordingly, he addressed basic philosophical questions by measuring human ambitions against the feel of wind and water, the behavior of squirrels and loons, the vexations of small-plot agriculture (his bean field), and the pleasures of berry-picking. Land, for Marx, was a factor of production, valuable only in so far as it might be mixed with human labor to yield something profitable. For Thoreau, all natural things had value, both intrinsically and as gateways to a realm where the great mysteries and conundrums of life might be encountered. He respected his neighbors and welcomed visitors but expected nothing but trouble from do-gooders, moneygrubbers, political parties, and governments. If there are any insights to be found in the nineteenth century that might be applied to our predicament in the twenty-first, they more likely reside in Thoreau’s earth-bound observations than in Marx’s equations.
“Workers of the world, unite!” was once a stirring battle cry. It appealed to many, myself among them, who came of age politically in the shadow of the Vietnam War. Lenin knew an imperialist war when he saw one and savaged anyone who claimed to see in it something redemptive or just – right on to that. The Bolsheviks overthrew a government and seized power – who among the anti-warriors in Nixon’s America could not envy such an achievement and commit body and soul to learning the secret of their success? But surely the same person can be right about one thing and wrong about another, clear-eyed about war but wrong-headed about power. No single key unlocks all the doors of comprehension and those who claim to possess one will inherit the indifference to lived, sensual experience that Marx inherited from Descartes. Now that we have glimpsed for the first time a planet-wide threat to all that lives and breathes, we might acknowledge at long last that we have been poorly served by a mode of understanding that must turn everything into the same kind of lock – the same mechanism – before it can proceed. The entangled, shape-shifting complexities of the Anthropocene place a premium on knowledge seekers who are more humbled than puffed up by what they find. No one who values humility of this sort – indeed, believes it to be a moral prerequisite for any genuinely empirical engagement with an animate world – can credit again either the rationality that was consummated or the power unsheathed in 1917.
Teaser photo credit: Walden Pond in 2010 By ptwo from Allahabad, India – 985Uploaded by Ekabhishek, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16428533