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By Niu DongJie, Ming Haiying
Chinese Social Sciences Today
May 6, 2016
Zhang Yunfei was born in 1963 in Fengzhen City, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. He attended Renmin University of China, where he earned a doctorate in philosophy. Currently, he is a professor at the university’s School of Marxism Studies and a doctoral supervisor in basic principles of Marxism.
The concept of ecological Marxism emerged in the mid-20th century as theorists sought to transcend the capitalist system while resolving mankind’s conflict with nature and realizing true human freedom. A reporter from Chinese Social Sciences Today (CSST) sat down with Zhang Yunfei to talk about ecological Marxism and how it can be applied in a contemporary context to realize sustainable social development.
CSST: What are the connections between the ecological Marxism and Marxism?
Zhang: The connections between the two are viewed from three perspectives.
Some see ecological Marxism as orthodox Marxism. Based on Marxist texts and the history of the discipline, some theorists tried to explore the resources involving ecological thought in Marxism and established a framework of ecological thinking within Marxism. Marxism thus can serve to solve ecological issues.
Others view it as revisionary Marxism. Some scholars thought that Marxism didn’t offer solutions to the issue of “alienated consumption,” which is the cause of ecological crisis. Therefore, a view on ecological issues should be supplementary to Marxism. Other scholars contended that Marxism only dealt with the first contradiction—between productive forces and productive relations—while neglecting the contradiction between them and production conditions, but the second contradiction is the source of ecological crisis.
Hence, the second contradiction became the starting point for ecological Marxism. In fact, Marx and Engels have touched upon these issues. They just didn’t give a clear and detailed explanation of them. To introduce an ecological approach is a revision of Marxism, but the theory is not necessarily “revisionism.”
The third perspective is that ecological Marxism is an innovation of Marxism. After examining the ecological dilemmas facing mankind, some scholars have proposed various theoretical schemas and practical plans to resolve ecological problems and strive for sustainable development, sticking to the stance of Marxism while combining the viewpoints and methods of Marxism with practice in environment protection. In this way, the ecological thinking in Marxism can be enriched and developed.
CSST: Can ecological problems be radically solved through ecological Marxism?
Zhang: In terms of the means of production, ecological Marxism opposes private ownership, especially capitalist private ownership. American scholar Joel Kovel criticized the neoliberalism preached by advocates of the “Tragedy of the Commons” theory. For the purposes of production, John Bellamy Foster, author of Marx’s Ecology, argued that basic needs and long-term environmental protection should be emphasized. When it comes to distribution, Foster held that only by adhering to “environmental equality” can environmental movements avoid becoming alienated from the working class, who stand firm against capitalism in terms of the means of production. James O’Connor argued that the essence of bourgeois justice is “distributive justice,” while productive justice is the aim of ecological socialism.
Ecological Marxism replaces capitalism with socialism as an economic model, which facilitates the ultimate solution of ecological problems. Only by adhering to the notion of popular sovereignty can the ecological transformation of society be achieved.
As for a cultural model, ecological Marxism sees the impact of culture reforms on harmony between humans and nature. Mechanistic thinking, a major factor that leads to ecological problems, should be converted to ecological thinking. Kovel held that to have an ecological understanding is to recognize the fact that humans are part of nature and inseparable from their environment. In terms of values, Foster pointed out that the perspective should be people oriented and focused on poor people in particular. Kovel argued that justice is essential to the mission of liberating the workforce and relieving ecological crisis.
As for social models, ecological Marxism has observed the severity of ecological crisis brought by high consumption in capitalist consumer society, and thus calls for reasonable and ecological consumption. In addition, as the basic unit of society and life, communities directly affect the efficiency of ecological management. Therefore, ecological Marxism emphasizes community and advocates community justice. However, some eco-socialists equte community with anarchism, which should be dealt with based on special cases.
Socialist environmentalist Fred Magdoff put forth a general model for “harmony culture.” “Harmony culture is equal to socialism plus the economic goal of meeting the basic needs of humanity while protecting the environment plus equality in essence plus simplicity in life.” This model is quite inspiring for the establishment of a sound ecological system in socialist society.
CSST: Does ecological Marxism face any limitations or dilemmas in theory and in practice?
Zhang: There are several problems facing the development of Marxism. First, Marxist philosophical ontology is not unified or clear. Realizing this, Kovel introduced the concept of “intrinsic value” of eco-centrism into Marxism, contending that ecological Marxism refers to achieving intrinsic value through a socialist means. However, eco-centrism belongs to the realm of green thought, which does not involve politics, whereas ecological Marxism pertains to red thought, which is dedicated to political issues. Therefore, there are theoretical and political barriers to integrating the two concepts. In addition, issues concerning ecological Marxism are mostly debated using historical materialism, while dialectics of nature are seldom referenced.
Second, emphasis should be placed on constructing a sound ecological system in China. The perception of ecological civilization, the creation of Marxism in a Chinese context, is an innovative development in Marxist ecological thought. Socialist ecological construction in China is an innovation to achieve this goal. Therefore, as Chinese scholars need Marxism as guiding principle, ecological Marxism need to be devoted to Chinese practices. “Organic Marxism” recently proposed by some American scholars highlighted the construction of socialist ecological civilization in China.
CSST: What efforts should be made to promote Marxist ecology studies in China?
Zhang: First, most research on ecological Marxism centers on the thoughts of representative figures, while not many touched on introducing general theoretical logic and contributions. Therefore, what we need now is a comprehensive comparative research perspective and an overall grasp of ecological Marxism to find out its significance relative to global Marxism as a whole.
Second, past research was mostly concerned with the theoretical contributions of ecological Marxism, but more attention should be paid to praxis. Future research worthy of investigation includes ecological Marxism and the Western environment movement, the relationship between environmental NGOs and the Green Party, and whether these NGOs have driven the ecological management in the West to effectively prevent ecological damage caused by capitalism. It is essential to introduce the fruits of ecological Marxism into Chinese practice while pondering the role ecological Marxism has played in global ecological management.
Of course, we must consider all the difficulties and disadvantages facing ecological Marxism. The construction of an ecological society should be promoted by running with rather than nitpicking the theory.
The origins of ecological Marxism can be traced to O’Connor’s (1988) article, “Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Theoretical Introduction,” which he wrote as an introduction to the new journal he founded, “Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Journal of Socialist Ecology.” In setting up this argument, O’Connor referred to the 1944 book, The Great Transformation, by Karl Polanyi, who O’Connor notes examined the ways in which capitalism destroys nature as one of its inherent contradictions. Polanyi’s works point out that there are limits to economic growth attached to ecological factors, an idea that resurfaced in the 1970s in limits to growth arguments. Those ecological limits to growth are the factors that impede the relentless effort of capital to grow, and present a barrier to the ideological claim of capitalism regarding limitless growth potential.
As an economist, O’Connor well understood the traditional Marxist arguments about economic crisis and the forms in which those crises appear under capitalism. Previously, he had made significant contributions to that literature. In proposing an ecological Marxism, O’Connor sought to move beyond traditional crisis theories of capitalism (e.g., under consumption, over production, the realization of surplus value, the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, the extension of credit, wage deflation, etc.,.). While these issues remain important and useful to ecological Marxism, ecological Marxism directs its attention to the “capitalization of nature.” Part of that view relates to the ways in which the distribution of ownership in capitalist society affects access to nature and its raw materials and forces access to raw materials to become class linked. Another important aspect of this argument involves the ways in which capitalism produces adverse ecological conditions that threaten its stability along with the stability of nature.
—An excerpt from a online databse Green Criminology, by Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida
Niu DongJie and Ming Haiying are reporters at the Chinese Social Sciences Today.
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By Joseph Stiglitz
Social Europe Journal
March 3, 2014- No country in recorded history has grown as fast – and moved as many people out of poverty – as China over the last thirty years. A hallmark of China’s success has been its leaders’ willingness to revise the country’s economic model when and as needed, despite opposition from powerful vested interests. And now, as China implements another series of fundamental reforms, such interests are already lining up to resist. Can the reformers triumph again?
In answering that question, the crucial point to bear in mind is that, as in the past, the current round of reforms will restructure not only the economy, but also the vested interests that will shape future reforms (and even determine whether they are possible). And today, while high-profile initiatives – for example, the government’s widening anti-corruption campaign – receive much attention, the deeper issue that China faces concerns the appropriate roles of the state and the market.
When China began its reforms more than three decades ago, the direction was clear: the market needed to play a far greater role in resource allocation. And so it has, with the private sector far more important now than it was. Moreover, there is a broad consensus that the market needs to play what officials call a “decisive role” in many sectors where state-owned enterprises (SOEs) dominate. But what should its role be in other sectors, and in the economy more generally?
Many of China’s problems today stem from too much market and too little government. Or, to put it another way, while the government is clearly doing some things that it should not, it is also not doing some things that it should.
Worsening environmental pollution, for example, threatens living standards, while inequality of income and wealth now rivals that of the United States and corruption pervades public institutions and the private sector alike. All of this undermines trust within society and in government – a trend that is particularly obvious with respect to, say, food safety.
Such problems could worsen as China restructures its economy away from export-led growth toward services and household consumption. Clearly, there is room for growth in private consumption; but embracing America’s profligate materialist life-style would be a disaster for China – and the planet. Air quality in China is already putting peoples’ lives at risk; global warming from even higher Chinese carbon emissions would threaten the entire world.
There is a better strategy. For starters, Chinese living standards could and would increase if more resources were allocated to redress large deficiencies in health care and education. Here, government should play a leading role, and does so in most market economies, for good reason.
America’s privately-based health-care system is expensive, inefficient, and achieves far worse outcomes than those in European countries, which spend far less. A more market-based system is not the direction in which China should be going. In recent years, the government has made important strides in providing basic health care, especially in rural areas, and some have likened China’s approach to that of the United Kingdom, where private provision is layered atop a public base. Whether that model is better than, say, French-style government-dominated provision may be debated. But if one adopts the UK model, the level of the base makes all the difference; given the relatively small role of private health-care provision in the UK, the country has what is essentially a public system.
Likewise, though China has already made progress in moving away from manufacturing toward a service-based economy (the GDP share of services exceeded that of manufacturing for the first time in 2013), there is still a long way to go. Already, many industries are suffering from overcapacity, and efficient and smooth restructuring will not be easy without government help.
China is restructuring in another way: rapid urbanization. Ensuring that cities are livable and environmentally sustainable will require strong government action to provide sufficient public transport, public schools, public hospitals, parks, and effective zoning, among other public goods.
One major lesson that should have been learned from the post-2008 global economic crisis is that markets are not self-regulating. They are prone to asset and credit bubbles, which inevitably collapse – often when cross-border capital flows abruptly reverse direction – imposing massive social costs.
America’s infatuation with deregulation was the cause of the crisis. The issue is not just the pacing and sequencing of liberalization, as some suggest; the end result also matters. Liberalization of deposit rates led to America’s savings and loan crisis in the 1980’s. Liberalization of lending rates encouraged predatory behavior that exploited poor consumers. Bank deregulation led not to more growth, but simply to more risk.
China, one hopes, will not take the route that America followed, with such disastrous consequences. The challenge for its leaders is to devise effective regulatory regimes that are appropriate for its stage of development.
That will require the government to raise more money. Local governments’ current reliance on land sales is a source of many of the economy’s distortions – and much of the corruption. Instead, the authorities should boost revenue by imposing environmental taxes (including a carbon tax), a more comprehensive progressive income tax (including capital gains), and a property tax. Moreover, the state should appropriate, through dividends, a larger share of SOEs’ value (some of which might be at the expense of these firms’ managers.)
The question is whether China can maintain rapid growth (though somewhat slower than its recent breakneck pace), even as it reins in credit expansion (which could cause an abrupt reversal in asset prices), confronts weak global demand, restructures its economy, and fights corruption. In other countries, such daunting challenges have led to paralysis, not progress.
The economics of success is clear: higher spending on urbanization, health care, and education, funded by increases in taxes, could simultaneously sustain growth, improve the environment, and reduce inequality. If China’s politics can manage the implementation of this agenda, China and the entire world will be better off.