A few years ago I came across a document called "The Ecosocialist Manifesto." It had been co-authored in 2001 by Joel Kovel and Michael Lowy.
Since then, I have been immersing myself in the literature of ecosocialism--elements of which I had first read many years earlier. It didn't take long to conclude that the single most important contribution to ecosocialism has come from US-based Marxist economist, James O'Connor.
It was in 1988 that Jim and his partner Barbara Laurence founded the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism. CNS brought together dozens of ecosocialists in several collectives around the world and sparked a vigorous intellectual discussion, which is still ongoing. Jim also acted as editor of a series of very important books for the Guilford Press. The series was titled Democracy and Ecology and included such titles as Is Capitalism Sustainable?, Green Production, Minding Nature and The Greening of Marxism.
CNS is still being produced, now under the editorship of Joel Kovel.
The second contradiction of capitalism
"Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Theoretical Introduction," O'Connor's title article in the very first issue of CNS, has had an enormous influence in shaping ecosocialism as a system of thought. Sometimes reprinted as "The Second Contradiction of Capitalism," the argument has put an enduring Marxist imprint on ecosocialism.
The first contradiction refers to capitalism's tendency towards overproduction with its virtually unlimited capacity to produce compared to consumption, which is constrained by competitive pressures on capital to cut costs by cutting wages and speeding up work (or, in Marx's terms, increasing the rate of exploitation).
O'Connor argues that capitalism suffers from a second contradiction, arising from capital's addiction to growth, causing degradation or depletion of what Marx called "the conditions of production." While O'Connor drew the concept from Marx, he also noted that "he [Marx] never dreamed that the concept would or could be used in the way that I will use it in this chapter and no one could have used the concept in this way until the appearance of Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation."
In this rich passage, talking about how the market treats land and labor as if they were mere commodities, Polanyi wrote:
To allow the market mechanism to be sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment ... would result in the demolition of society. For the alleged commodity "labor power" cannot be shoved about, used indiscriminately, or even left unused, without affecting also the human individual who happens to be the bearer of this peculiar commodity ... Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure ... Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighborhoods and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, ... the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed.
By the "second contradiction of capitalism," then, O'Connor means that capital accumulation can be jeopardized by so fouling the natural conditions of production that it totally breaks down--the likely effect of climate change; or by raising the cost of production arising from increasingly depleted raw materials and from the need to invent and develop substitutes; or by the state being forced to allocate increasing amounts of resources for improved health and safety provisions, for restoring ruined soil and forests, polluted lakes, rivers and oceans and shore lines.
Capital can't prevent itself from impairing its own conditions because it arises from capital's incessant need to grow. This is of course Marx's first law of capital accumulation: "accumulate, accumulate, that is Moses and the prophets." Capital has no choice. Only continuous growth allows businesses to survive the competition for market share and profit.
These tendencies have been analyzed in considerable depth beginning in the 1960s. Erich Fromm and Andre Gorz held that consumer satisfaction, which serves as the main ideological justification of economic growth, arises from our alienation from work and community. We may want good work and decent communities, but we learn to need only more consumer goods. As Fromm put it, "under capitalism man is transformed into a homo consumens who tries to compensate for this inner emptiness by continuous and ever-increasing consumption." Or, in Gorz's words, the corporation does not simply sell consumer goods. It sells means of distraction, "means of dreaming that one is human--because there is no chance of actually becoming such."
Gorz further elaborated on how capitalism avoided the saturation of markets by designing products with built-in obsolescence--reducing the durability of appliances to a half dozen years, for example; by introducing throw-away products; by filling our heads with new wants, thereby generating relative scarcities and new dissatisfactions.
In an essay he wrote in 1973 aptly titled "Affluence Dooms Itself," Gorz presciently described how capital...