| The Green Marx. Democratising Society’s Relation to Nature

November 2018  Druckansicht
by Alex Demirovic

The critique of Marx put forward by parts of the environmentalist movement and subsequently the Green Party targeted a central aspect of Marxian theory.[1] Marx’s notion presented in the Foreword to the ‘Critique of Political Economy’, according to which the development of the productive forces is determined by social relations, was interpreted by environmentalists in the sense that Marx simply favoured endless economic growth, a permanent expansion of man’s technological domination of the natural world allowing for the infinite appropriation of natural resources. From this perspective, socialism seemed to imply that the abolishment of capitalist ownership relations would mark only the beginning of unrestricted technological development. The result would be ever-increasing consumption, continuous destruction of the environment, and a depletion of natural resources robbing future generations of the latter. Despite the good intentions on behalf of humankind, the destruction of nature would ultimately bring suffering upon humans as well. It was pointed out that environmental destruction in the state-socialist countries did not lag behind that in capitalist states in the least. The causes appear to have been identical: the model of industrial-technical appropriation of nature, catch-up modernisation, military armament, and a naïve faith in science and technology. As a result, socialism and not capitalism was discredited, although the latter ultimately served as a blueprint for many state-socialist models. The ecological debate of the 1980s thus appeared as though it was attempting to exceed Marx’s radicalism in this question. Given Marxism’s supposed faith in progress, and based on an extremely reductionist understanding of materialism according to which people’s prosperity and happiness depended solely on a constantly improving supply of goods, it was alleged that Marx had not proceeded from the actual roots of industrialism and the scientific-technical domination of nature itself, but instead assumed a permanent rise in wealth without taking planetary limits and ecological consequences into account. The capitalist dream of unrestricted growth and infinite prosperity was attributed to socialism.

The Silent Drive for Accumulation

The ecologically-driven critique of Marx’s theory led to a renewed engagement with his writings, resulting in the realisation that Marx in fact rejected the expanding subordination of nature and its transformation into capitalist forms of wealth. This was not a question of virtue for Marx—whether or not humans are greedy and always seek to grow richer and turn everything into gold and money is irrelevant. For everything depends on the conditions providing the opportunities for greed’s advancement, on the laws governing capitalist wealth production which drive capitalists to pursue never-ending accumulation. Threatened with their own demise, they are forced to invest in order to continuously produce greater volumes at lower prices. This requires rationalisation, a vast expansion of workers’ labour output, and intensification of the workload per time unit—to be achieved through more effective machinery, new products based on the specific pre-processing of materials, and a more efficient use of energy. The drive for accumulation—or, in the language of market ideology: growth and competitiveness—are thus the product of the competition between different owners of capital producing for the sake of their own private profits. This creates a situation in which even sickness or destruction can lead to value creation and affect growth rates. The category of growth is used by capital owners not to denote individuals’ material wealth or affluence with regard to time, education or health, nor their happiness or overall satisfaction, but rather the average growth of achievable Profit.

This accelerated accumulation on a continuously expanding scale necessarily also leads to the depletion of land, people and nature, and ultimately to their destruction. ‘Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker.’ (Marx/Engels 1982 [1867], Capital Vol. I, chapter 15, p. 638) Here, Marx critically opposes bourgeois economics and Social Democratic notions which regard labour as the sole source of all wealth, instead highlighting a tendency inherent in the mode of production—even if he was unable to anticipate many of its concrete consequences: soil degradation, urban sprawl, overfishing, food containing antibiotics and/or chemical additives that pose a health risk, water shortages or contaminated water supplies, desertification, forest decline, climate change, or the loss of rain forests and biodiversity.

Marx’s deliberations in fact state the opposite of what commentators claimed, whether from an affirmative or critical standpoint. Capitalism has developed the social forces of production and prosperity to such a degree and in such a one-sided manner that they are uncontrollable under capitalist conditions. There is a degree of social cooperation at the global level based on appropriation or conservation of nature, facilitated by technology and science. Nature has been socialised: humans no longer interfere with nature here and there, but rather control the entire planet as well as all life living on it. The level of global knowledge allowing for a rational and sustainable relation to nature was reached long ago, when the development of science and technologies attained a degree of sophistication that could have made it possible to bring the accumulation process to a halt and selectively provide a certain number of products and services based on actual need. No growth would be necessary, but rather satisfaction of demand at a democratically-specified level in accordance with society’s relation to nature. Furthermore, a democratically-controlled reduction of the scale of production, services, or consumption is not only conceivable but plausible.

Yet this is impossible under the existing relations of production and ownership geared towards further bursts of growth, innovation and competitiveness. The goal of overcoming the accumulation dynamic is not represented in mainstream politics, nor is the demand for at least a reduction of growth. Instead, growth is to become ecologically and socially sustainable and climate-neutral. The supposed key to reaching this goal is a transformation in the fields of energy, urban planning and land use, as well as changes in production, consumption patterns and lifestyles. It is an attempt at squaring the circle, so to speak, namely reconciling a sustainability-oriented relation to nature and capital’s accumulation dynamic. The underlying assumption is that capitalist growth can be decoupled from resource consumption and fossil energy replaced by renewable energies. Experiences with previous capitalist crisis solutions suggest that this strategy will lead to a new level of valorisation and realisation dynamic and a reproduction of the crisis on an enlarged scale. Should the Green Economy become a success story, meaning should capital valorisation really be possible and profits exceed the levels of previous phases of capital accumulation, then this would result in a continuous process of investment and growth complete with corresponding profits. The outcome would most likely be the opposite of the desired effects, however: new machines, more consumption, and more waste—using more rather than less nature. Any consequences for the natural environment will be mitigated through capital-intensive strategies of geo-engineering and substantial changes in society’s relation to nature, including the genetic manipulation of ‘life’—such as the development of crops requiring less water.

If such a negative impact on nature and society is to be avoided, we require new resource cycles and incentives for recovering used resources, developing more compact settlement patterns, new forms of food production and raw material extraction. Such a mode of regulating capitalist accumulation in harmony with the natural metabolism is currently not in sight. One reason why it is unlikely to materialise is that it would require natural and resource management on a global scale, effectively overseeing a process of competition for the most rational use of scarce resources.

Marx’s Categorical Imperative

Green Socialism is supposed to create the space of freedom allowing for new forms of decision-making based on democracy and a democratic relationship between society and nature. It is not simply a matter of conserving nature. With view to many rapidly-advancing destructive processes, even comprehensive social change would come very late if not too late. Any potential emancipatory society will first have to deal— for decades, if not centuries—with the ecological damage left behind by capitalist and state-socialist modernisation projects. Yet Marx also included a positive aspect in his list of categorical imperatives, going beyond mere conservation and damage control. Not only are all relations in which individuals are enslaved and degraded to be overcome; the tasks of the living also include handing, or ‘bequeathing’ the earth to succeeding generations in an improved state (Marx/Engels 1991 [1894], Capital Vol. III, Chapter 46, p. 911).

The development of the original sources of wealth does not imply the infinite exploitation of nature and labour, but rather a reconciliation of the two, of social labour and nature. The bourgeois project of the Enlightenment, by contrast, was quite limited. It sought to dominate nature so as to take away people’s fear of its ferocity and ensure their self-preservation; nature was to be subordinated to human purposes. This is facilitated by knowledge of its laws and principles, while technical means allow for the latter’s practical application. Nature and society oppose one another in a dualistic and irreconcilable manner. Nature and its inherent laws appear to be without alternative and must therefore be subordinated and dominated by society. The latter in turn appears entirely void of natural processes and thus comprehensible only out of its own nature. The dualistic and unreconciled relationship between nature and society is reproduced by those who view nature as an obstacle to be conquered through technical means: fast cars, skyscrapers, cosmetic surgery. Here, nature is understood as an assemblage of resources whose constantly advancing development, appropriation and exploitation humans are entitled to. It is thus little more than a sign of precautionary foresight in the context of this kind of exploitative appropriation of nature to be vigilant of the potential depletion of resources and corresponding conflicts and to explore new resources and develop substitutes.

Environmentalists and ecologists oppose this approach. Their aim is to conserve the natural world, individual species, ecological systems, or defend nature as such. In their view, individuals and society must respect nature and perhaps even adapt to natural cycles. It is an ambivalent position: on the one hand, the destruction of the natural world is to be slowed down or even avoided altogether; on the other, the argument can appear to proceed from a kind of anti-Enlightenment stance if demands are put forward—on behalf of harmony or an equilibrium with nature—that people should adopt a lifestyle governed by ‘nature’. The dichotomy of nature and society is also retained here, as environmental protection is ultimately subordinated to the dynamic of accumulation and modernisation. This is particularly noticeable wherever the surgical manipulation of the human body or the genetic modification of living beings become the strategic object of corporate interests and arguments on behalf of the integrity of Creation or the subject are largely unable to prevent such practices. What is obscured here is that nature is socialised, that the so-called natural laws also represent specific, historical, collective practices of society, and that, reversely, humans not only relate to the outer natural world in dominant ways but also to their own inner nature: that they control their impulses, modulate their vocal chords or train or move their body in a certain way, not to mention dietary habits, sickness, birth and death. Nature and society are thus inextricably linked to one another, albeit not fully merged. They form a relation, or, more precisely: countless relations between nature and society. There is not one global society-nature relation. Rather, distinct modes of production and distinct constitutive social classes or genders or social groups establish distinct relations with nature. Nature is defined in different ways in these distinct relations (energy, food, time and space, relation to one’s own body). That is why conflicts between humans always extend beyond the social realm and affect nature (as well as humans’ concrete relation to it); domination is practiced as rule over both people and nature. Yet not all these relations can be understood exclusively as domination, as they also contain instances of reconciliation.

Green Socialism seeks to bring to bear the instances of reconciliation and overcome both forms of domination. One precondition of this is overcoming the drive for accumulation. This includes entering—on the basis of newly-established social relations to nature—into a new kind of metabolism with nature, preserving it and processing and appropriating it in a way that it is handed on to future generations in a better state than it was before. In other words, it means adjusting modes of living to the socially identified and historically specific boundaries of nature. That such boundaries exist on a planetary scale is itself a rather recent insight that moreover constitutes a new relation of global society to nature. The exact course of these boundaries is contested, while the corresponding discussions, it should be added, are not entirely unrestricted considering the efforts by corporate or state actors to block learning processes, discourses and possible action in this regard. Discussions must take place in a form that includes (at least virtually) all those affected by the consequences in having a say in what is defined as sustainable and sufficient.

The common goal would be a way of life that ensures equality—also in relations to nature.

1 | Equality, first and foremost, must rule out the possibility of one group profitably exploiting raw materials such as metals or foods to the detriment of another group. Alongside this kind of imperial creation of inequality is a structural inequality as well: poor people frequently have no access to clean drinking water, are particularly vulnerable to unhealthy foods, and exposed to insufficient services or unhealthy working conditions. Inequality is further created in temporal terms, namely through the depositing of toxic waste in places where no one is harmed immediately but long-term damage is likely.

2 | Another aspect is the level of equality. Many practices only reveal the damage they cause after reaching a certain degree of proliferation: equality at a high level would entail far-reaching negative ecological consequences in terms of the number of cars, vastly expanding air travel, high meat consumption, or the expansion of ski tourism. Given that such lifestyles are based on major capital investment, exploitation and profit, and can therefore be reconciled with social considerations only to a very limited degree, an adjustment of economic laws and principles is necessary. The result may be that equality entails abstention from specific habits for a certain segment of the population, or at least a sustainable change in their preferences. That said, equality will never be achieved in all regards.

Ultimately, certain positional goods which may be associated with inequality will always remain: the location of a house, the size of an apartment, the unpleasant aspects of certain types of work. There will still be a need for certain raw materials, the extraction of which damages the natural environment and thus affects individual living conditions. The same is true with regard to various forms of industrial processing. If the relation between human beings and nature cannot be changed in a way that eliminates all inequality, it is still crucial to cause as little damage as possible, take rehabilitation measures, offer those affected alternative options and rule out the possibility that ecological detriments affecting individuals determine their fates.

Liberal Democracy and Society’s Relation to Nature

This brings us to the ‘problem of democracy’ and the question of whether democracy can reasonably be applied to the relation to nature in the first place. Today’s way of life is mediated by the market and in many ways represents the product of a corporate dictatorship: a few select professionals develop products on behalf of profit-oriented companies which then produce and market them. Individual needs are secondary, although they are elaborately surveyed by consumption and marketing research and constantly invoked and encouraged with view to consumption preferences. What matters is solvent demand. Green Socialism is not about replacing the market diktat with state coercion. This Social Democratic conception has long become obsolete—as has the market itself, as it were. The alternative to both of these forms of coordination—although known for a long time by the name of socialism—has only been tested in embryonic forms so far: the democratically-regulated self-coordination of individuals, i.e. forms in which they collectively decide on matters like demand, the products which may satisfy this demand, the required amount and form thereof, the working conditions under which they are produced and distributed. That said, the question arises whether the relation to nature can actually be democratised in the first place and, secondly, if such forms of democratic self-coordination can prevent environmentally harmful consequences.

Green Socialism entails special and novel challenges for democracy. This is true with regard to nature just as much as society and politics. If nature is conceived as an external restraint, democratic decision-making processes must necessarily be subordinated to it. If, by contrast, nature is seen as a mere resource, democracy becomes equally irrelevant—or, at best, attains marginal importance whenever there is a democratic decision concerning the appropriation or use of resources or the construction of infrastructure. However, social interests must take centre stage in these instances, as well; and it is likely that the domination of nature will engender the formation of new power blocs.

The common liberal-democratic notion displays no aspiration to expand democracy in any specific way to apply to nature, nor to prevent the valorisation of nature. It insinuates that democracy is the result of a contractual relationship between individuals. They enter into this contract for the sake of their own self-preservation. Society constitutes itself as a political community in which everyone is subject to the same set of laws as well as virtually being the latter’s authors. The law specifies the rights of individuals vis-à-vis one another and towards the state; it prevents individuals from abusing their rights and restricting those of others. The rule of law and democracy tie even the state itself to the law. This practice has far-reaching implications for the constitution of a certain, dominant relation to nature.

1 | Regardless of the fact that corporations have a major impact on people’s lives due to their decisions pertaining to investment, jobs, products, marketing channels and consumption forms, which essentially constitute society’s relation to nature, such practices are considered private decisions and ways of life. Democratic decisions may influence the underlying framework conditions at best.

2 | It is implied that the scope of national legislation comprehensively codifies citizens’ entire range of conduct. This is not the case. In protecting the freedom of owners, the state intervenes in their mode of living and market behaviour only to a very limited extent. Consumers cause the import of foods or raw materials through their market-mediated demand. During the actual purchasing act, they are only rarely held accountable for the ecological and social consequences of their Actions.

3 | Parliaments can only intervene in society through legislation, taxation or subsidies. Given their limited temporal horizon, they are hardly able to adequately factor long-term ecological effects into their decisions. Furthermore, parliamentary democracy implies that every decision passed by the popular sovereign can be reversed through the formation of a new political majority. This represents democracy-political idealism, for, effectively, society’s relation to nature and therefore the basis of all decisions, is—irreversibly—changed. Consequently, the task at hand would be to collectively determine the form of this irreversibility.

4 | The state is the state of capital—not exclusively, but according to its law of gravity. It issues laws and provides resources to support knowledge, technologies, infrastructures, a certain trained relation to one’s own body, to health and to our species’ reproduction, with the purpose of promoting the private appropriation of socially produced wealth. This way, society’s relation to nature and processes of capital valorisation are conflated, thereby appearing to be without alternative.

Proceeding from these four aspects concerning (1) the constitution of a democratic community, (2) the processes of will-formation and decision-making, (3) the latter’s scope, and (4) the processes of implementation, there is little we can expect from democracy in its current state in terms of changing society’s relation to nature. As it were, it appears that a new relation between society and nature will require a reconstitution of democracy itself—one which transcends the liberal boundaries between politics, economy and nature so as to democratise complexity itself.

On the Democratisation of Society’s Relation to Nature

To begin with, demand, technologies, investments and production, i.e. the appropriation and processing of nature, distribution and consumption forms of products need to become the subject of democratic decision-making, framed in terms of the consequences for and shaping of the natural environment. Corresponding procedures must include decisions about certain future paths of technological and infrastructural development, just as much as those about the mode of operation and products, meaning their material, energy, aesthetic and utility aspects. Like parliaments, economic-democratic institutions represent crucial nodes in such a democratic complex. Furthermore, the spatial-ecological context of decisions must also be considered: even those affected only from a distance must be able to participate in such decisions. The notion that the appropriation of nature or construction of infrastructure represent decisions of universal relevance must be firmly implanted throughout society.

Furthermore, the temporal scope of decisions must be extended. The appropriation or processing of nature (e.g. waste management) must be reconsidered with a view for the longer term. The current temporal scope of decisions pertaining to the future encompasses 20 to 80 years and is based on countless uncertainties, whereas decisions concerning the choice of certain technologies encompass centuries or even millennia to come. In such cases, it must be possible to challenge decisions and put them to a vote, given that any chance of reversal is ruled out. Finally, the state—with its abstract-general forms of control and its administrative mechanisms—must be replaced with institutions of self-administration, bound by democratic decisions and subject to comprehensive public scrutiny, which implement decisions in a transparent bottom-up manner according to the subsidiarity principle. Democracy is decoupled from the state and represents a self-determined procedural mode of self-coordination. Everyone participates in decisions concerning the places of production, their respective mode of operation, technology, research and development, amounts and forms of products, services, the mode and volume of work, in accordance with their own experience in the process of appropriating nature. There would have to be collective decisions on what is needed and how much is sufficient, what can be improved in which way, which amount of labour can be performed in which way and by whom. Decisions ought to be based on historical and ecological sustainability, that is to say they must pursue the ultimate goal of improving the planet. That said, all this is always based on the criteria of the present. Expectations concerning the rationality of democratic decision-making ought to remain reasonable. Democratic decision-making cannot eliminate the unknowability of the unknown. It does, however, provide a modicum of assurance that certain forms of appropriation and exploitation of nature will cease to occur. In the event of new experiences or insights, past decisions may of course be reversed or certain lifestyle habits reviewed, even if this means accepting the loss of resources already allocated or spent. Given that there would no longer be any powerful interests with the ability to blackmail (ownership of means of production, power to issue credit, legislative and military-police means) and there would be a generally high level of education, obstacles would be reduced. Irrational results of decision-making as occur today may well be expected, raising the simple question of the extent of irrationality and the containment thereof. Under democratic conditions of Green Socialism, everyone would at least tend to be involved in the decision-making process, everyone could contribute to avoiding mistakes and have a positive impact. Universal prosperity emerges from individual security, possibilities for co-determination and democratic control, and the egalitarian organisation of social labour. Irrational decisions and corresponding costs cannot be ruled out, but everyone would bear such costs collectively. Given that all members of society would be aware of this circumstance, they would likely make an effort to prevent any decisions to the detriment of nature both near their home and in distant places. And they would be able to do so precisely because they would not have to worry about their existence, life, civil liberties or participation rights.

Translated by Jan-Peter Herrmann


Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 1982 (1867), Capital Vol. I, London

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 1991 [1894]), Capital Vol. III, London


[1] I would like to thank Ulrich Brand, Christina Kaindl, Tadzio Müller, Rainer Rilling, Thomas Sablowski and Rahel Wolf for their helpful comments.