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Promise Li returns to the HKRB to review the latest from Haymarket, discussing how and why to move forward as political activists today.

Michael Lowy, Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015) pp. 120.

Michael Lowy’s Ecosocialism is written for activists. Its definition of ‘ecosocialism’ that begins the text is unmistakably clear and succinct: ecosocialism, as a burgeoning “political current” is based on the view that ‘preserving the ecological equilibrium of the planet […] is incompatible with the expansive and destructive logic of the capitalist system” (vii). The “accumulationist obsession” of capitalism, as Lowy argues, is completely antithetical to sustaining a planet that can provide for human needs. Writing from historical analysis and concrete activism, he signals the need for a movement that unifies the ‘reds’ and the ‘greens’ – forms of Marxism or socialism that continue to function on a mechanistic view of production and progress are “dead ends” (xi) and environmental activism that refuses radical or revolutionary outlook is equally doomed to failure.

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The first chapter opens with a lengthy list of “irreparable calamities” fostered under the current system – from “unmanageable accumulation of waste” to the disastrous accidents of Chernobyl. Lowy charges traditional forms of Marxism as bearing “insufficiently critical attitudes toward industrial civilization […] in its destructive relationship to the environment” (3). A truly effective radical Marxist engagement needs to overcome what Lowy calls “a productivist ideology of progress” (7) – it is necessary for activists to understand that an uncritical adherence to promoting “infinite expansion of modes of production and consumption” (7) will literally destroy nature. On the other hand, the efforts of green organizations have mostly amounted to a reformist attempt to ameliorate ecological conditions from within the system but to no avail, as they do not recognize “the intrinsic contradiction between […] unlimited expansion of capital and accumulation of profits and the preservation of the environment” (20). The co-opting of these green efforts by governments results in what Lowy labels as “illusions of a ‘clean capitalism’” (5) – ‘agro-taxes’, hybrid cars, recycling, and other consumerist ventures. In fact, as Lowy argues, while the productivist ideology of “dominant sectors of the labor movement’ must be criticized, ecosocialism recognizes that “workers and their organizations are an indispensable force for any radical transformation of the system” (6). While Lowy views “the ecological issue” as “a great challenge for a renewal of Marxist thought” (3), it also holds the answer for Marxism to radically break from a deterministic teleology and properly address Leon Trotsky’s ‘transitional demands’ (12) for revolutionary change.

While proposing various forms in which this activism would take, Lowy also emphasizes the importance of ‘democratic planning’ in the formation of an ecosocialist politics. Here, his demands for bold structural changes in the capitalist economy are in line with the traditional Marxist concept of transitional demands. Lowy calls for “discontinuing certain branches of production like nuclear plants, certain methods of mass/industrial fishing” and “a revolution in the energy system” to replace fossil fuels with other alternatives – all of which should be accomplished “under the necessary condition of full and equitable employment” (23). Lowy writes that the problem is not “excessive consumption in the abstract”, but a “prevalent type of consumption […] based on massive waste, obsessive acculumation, etc” (32). These demands are necessary not “by the iron laws of history”, but because of the imminence of “dramatic ecological disasters” that threaten the survival of our species itself. Following the Marxist tradition of transitional demands, Lowy argues that the dream of envisioning a new “way of life that is richer while consuming less’ (33), “for a green socialism […] does not mean that one does not fight for concrete and urgent reforms” (37). Lowy later devotes a chapter to elaborate the ideological and powerful effects of advertising under the capitalist system. Through that analysis, he articulates an example for a counter-hegemonic tactic by calling to “fight […] to rein back advertising’s frenzy”, arguing that “each success, even if limited, is a step in the right direction” (51). Here, however, a contradiction may be speculated. To what extent can these ‘partial victories’ truly “lead [one] immediately to a higher demand”? Does that not contradict with Lowy’s earlier statement that “one cannot predict the future, except in conditional terms” (37)? The author explicitly references Gramsci in advocating a sort of counter-hegemony with ecosocialism (38), but as he himself states, “time is running out” – can the left afford to take its time to usher in its ‘partial victories’ in the face of an ecological threat that, like our political conjuncture, does not abide ‘by the iron laws of history’?

This contradiction between a view of the world as quickly changing and requires necessary and immediate preparation for mobilization and a symptomatic belief in capitalism as a necessarily decaying force in its imminently ending moments (to quote Trotsky again, the ‘death agony’ of capitalism) exists throughout the text – and Lowy may be quite aware of it. But this is not merely the perennial debate within Marxism about the ‘timing’ or the necessity of the revolution – Lowy’s own activism and research, which led him to the conclusion that ecological engagement is inseparable from radical politics, bring these questions to a new ground. In the face of the increasingly real threat of catastrophic ecological disasters, the debates on economism and teleology are further complicated. The book provides further contexts in its last two chapters about the history, the ‘uneven geographical developments’, as David Harvey would have called it, of capitalism’s threat to indigenous and Amazon peoples. Under this treatment, Lowy implies that not only are systemic ecological consequences of capitalism, from the destruction of biodiversity in Amazonian rainforests (53) to the ‘ecocide’ of Latin American indigenous communities, existent in local levels, but that concrete resistance to the system may be found in local levels as well (62).

Throughout the text, and most especially in the series of manifestos and declarations presented in the text’s appendices, Lowy gestures toward the recent steps taken by various activists to address the ecological issue. Since the 70’s, there has already been a current of thought from countries like UK, France, U.S., discussing the ecological issues with radical activism. The beginning decade of the current century has seen an explosion of interest to this burgeoning current of ‘ecosocialism’ that continues now, from the First International Ecosocialist Meeting in Paris in 2007, to the various Declarations that appeared since 2009 (Belem 2009; Copenhagen 2009; Lima 2014). Lowy’s text functions as another milestone in this burgeoning dialogue. Ecosocialism, despite its theoretical tensions, transforms all forms of Marxism and green activism in a fundamental level. Old questions of activism are revived in new forms as ‘the ecological issue’ surfaces as another significant contradiction of capitalism needed to be addressed. The conception of a ‘Revolution’ resurfaces, in a new way, as a necessary alternative once again.


Promise Li is a student at Occidental College, where he studies the intersections of critical theory, late medieval and early modern literature and culture, and queer/performance studies. He is serving as an editorial assistant at Decalages, a peer-reviewed academic journal devoted to scholarship on Althusser, and as an editor at Critical Theory and Social Justice Journal for Undergraduate Research.

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