Thursday, October 31, 2013

Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature - John Bellamy Foster

While it is universally accepted that the work of Charles Darwin has revolutionized the natural sciences, lesser known is the impact it had on another of the 19th century's most formative figures. The publication of The Origin of Species helped cohere Karl Marx's ideas about the dialectical principles within the world. Much like Marxism was a philosophy rooted in the interactive, joint production of people and the world, Darwinian thought struck at two of the fundamental tenets of contemporary western thought: essentialism and teleology. By grounding history and society in a "materialist ontology of emergence" (p. 233) both Darwin and Marx would transform how humans conceived of their relations with the world.

John Bellamy Foster sets out to reveal a forgotten history of Marx's (and Engels') ecological thought. Tracing the intellectual development of a young Marx through his dissertation examining Epicurean philosophy, Foster sows the materialist seeds that will blossom into Marx's central works. Overlooked in western recountings of Marxist thought, Foster argues, is an almost proto-ecological ethic. This is was not because Marx was some closeted, dreamy-eyed romantic, but rather because he drew sharp connections between the alienation of men from the landscape, and the domination of the capitalist. In Marx's estimation, the progression of capitalism relied on a double alienation of the worker both from himself (his human-ness) and from access to the land. Only the disconnect of town and country fostered a people abstracted from the world. In a passage that presages our own modern ecological concerns, Marx writes:

"Man lives, from nature, i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man's physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature."

It was, Marx thought, that only through such an awareness could the formative ensemble of relations between people and the world be adequately conceived. Attempts to separate Marx's political economy from his ecological theory will, Foster argues, incorrectly assess both the home-ground and the implications of Marxist thought.

For Marx, the true dialectic requires a proper situating of relations. Marx was a thoroughgoing materialist, one who saw the relational interaction of things as the constant reinvention of the world. In this materialism Marx was echoing the words of Epicurus and Lucretius: in materialism he too imagined the fundamental premise by which men could be freed to make their own history. For Marx, the materialist conception of nature and the materialist conception of history went hand-in-hand. As such, he and Darwin can be heard to speak the message, registering in different octaves.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What Hath God Wrought - Daniel Walker Howe

One can almost book-end what Daniel Walker Howe terms the formative years of the American republic with the political career of John Quincy Adams. As Secretary of State for President Monroe, Quincy Adams would pen the Monroe Doctrine, asserting the rights of the United States to the continent and setting the course for American expansion. On February 21, 1848, Old Man Eloquent would die serving at his post in the House of Representatives, speaking out against the country's continued insistence of celebrating the Mexican-American War, ambivalent about the expansion he had helped to nurture. Though he was only one of what might be considered the grandest generation of statesmen (including Webster, Clay, Calhoun and Hart Benton, among others), Adams cast a special shadow as the conscience of the young and fitful nation. His death was the final knell sounded for an older America, as it receded into history.

Interweaving growing industrialization, the increasing power of differing sects of Protestantism, and the advent of the two-party political system, Howe persuasively argues that the thirty years from 1815 - 1845 set the course for America beyond the Civil War and into the twentieth century. Though Howe's work sets itself the ambitious task of reviewing the entirety of the nation's history for the period, as an introduction and overview it ably casts a broad scope while pulling out salient and memorable details which provide a flavor of the politics and personages of the time. Throughout he emphasizes the speed and abilities of communication and the development of infrastructure as forces that would shrink time and space and bring the frontiers of empire to the door of civil-society.

The work succeeds as both a top-down review of political power and a bottom-up examination of the role that burgeoning social movements played in the growth of the empire and the American psyche. Howe's work is perhaps at its most insightful where these two concerns meet: the emergence of the modern US political party system. From virtual one-party rule under the Monroe Administration to the splintering of both the Whigs and Democrats in the run-up to the Civil War, the unsettled issues and contestations of debate are shown to interact within evolving nested contexts. Concepts of person-hood and rights, state versus federal power, and the privilege of the many versus the protection of the few, were far from settled by the Constitution and Bill of Rights. As the Congress and the Supreme Court struggled to enumerate the roles of government and the rights of citizens, the parties jockeyed for position and influence. With such uncertainty the political winds of influence blew in great gusts, swinging between seeming Democratic hegemony and Whig ascendancy. Shying away from simply defining all politics through the lens of slavery, Howe argues that the "peculiar institution" is better understood as one of a host of political (and ethical) concerns - though this too would evolve over the period. Yet it was often the cleavage point of slavery which continued to divide North and South, and served as the discursive shorthand for the opposition of different ways of life and conceptualization of the relationships between government and the people.

Here we see the adolescence of America in all its fits and starts. From the halls of the Capitol to the swamps of Louisiana. Within the percolations of such an era of global uncertainty we glimpse the formations of time and space; and are given room to imagine a world as it has been, as it would come to be, and, what did not come to pass.