John Bellamy Foster
John Bellamy Foster (born August 15, 1953) is a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon and also editor of Monthly Review. He writes about political economy of capitalism and economic crisis, ecology and ecological crisis, and Marxist theory.
Interview with Left Voice, 2017
- A Resistance Movement for the Planet - Full Interview (July 02, 2017), Left Voice.
- We are in an emergency situation in the Anthropocene epoch in which the disruption of the Earth system, particularly the climate, is threatening the planet as a place of human habitation. However, our political-economic system, capitalism, is geared primarily to the accumulation of capital, which prevents us from addressing this enormous challenge and accelerates the destruction. Natural scientists have done an excellent and courageous job of sounding the alarm on the enormous dangers of the continuation of business as usual with respect to carbon emissions and other planetary boundaries. But mainstream social science as it exists today has almost completely internalized capitalist ideology; so much so that conventional social scientists are completely unable to address the problem on the scale and in the historical terms that are necessary. They are accustomed to the view that society long ago “conquered” nature and that social science concerns only people-people relations, never people-nature relations. This feeds a denialism where Earth system-scale problems are concerned. Those mainstream social scientists who do address environmental issues more often than not do so as if we are dealing with fairly normal conditions, and not a planetary emergency, not a no-analogue situation. There can be no gradualist, ecomodernist answer to the dire ecological problems we face, because when looking at the human effect on the planet there is nothing gradual about it; it is a Great Acceleration and a rift in the Earth system. The problem is rising exponentially, while worsening even faster than that would suggest, because we are in the process of crossing all sorts critical thresholds and facing a bewildering number of tipping points.
- Right now alternative energy is still treated as a supplement rather than a substitute for fossil fuels within the energy industry as presently constituted. The rapid growth of alternative energy should not therefore be seen as a radical break with the domination of fossil fuels. That still needs to occur.
- We are on a runaway train headed over the climate cliff as we stoke the engine with more coal to increase its speed.
- Unless we change ourselves as individuals and our culture—the way we relate to the earth—we can’t expect to make the overall changes in society that our necessary.
- It has been long understood that “consumer sovereignty” is a myth. To make fundamental changes in the commodity economy it is necessary to have power over production.
- Marx once said that workers (and this would perhaps go for consumers even more) are in their purely economic action in a capitalist society always the weaker side, and therefore they need to organize politically.
- Socialists have all too often failed to take ecological issues seriously enough. However, this is not a fault of socialists alone, as the fault applies even more to the liberal tradition taken as a whole. But whatever we choose to say about socialism in the twentieth century, it has to be emphasized that no one can be truly socialist and indeed Marxist in the twenty-first century and fail to acknowledge the full severity of the planetary ecological crisis. We are either at the forefront of the struggle to protect the earth as a place of human habitation (and as a home for innumerable species) or we are on the side of the system’s creative exterminism of the Earth system as we know it.
- Capitalism imposes its laws of motion on the environment, irrespective of the biogeochemical cycles of the planet and the earth’s metabolism, so that it creates rifts or ruptures in the biogeochemical cycles of the Earth system, disrupting ecosystem relations in ways that transcend the mere scale-effects of economic growth. It is this problem of the metabolic rift that is our deepest challenge. Sustainability is more and more compromised at ever higher levels—a continually accelerating threat to civilization and life itself.
- We are already facing growing catastrophes due to climate change. It is too late to avoid soaring temperatures, scarce water, and extreme weather. That ship has in many ways already sailed. The earth is going to be much less hospitable to human beings in the future.
- What we need is courage and determination in facing up to seemingly insurmountable odds. What we have to do is not so difficult on the face of it, if we just look at the direct ecological measures that we need to take. What makes it seem like an insurmountable problem is the monstrosity of global capitalist society.
- With Trump neofascism has entered the White House—its aim is a different way of managing the capitalist economy. It is both a break with neoliberalism and at the same time its successor on the right—a sign of the deep crisis of our times. Not only does the administration stand for climate denialism and has declared environmentalist enemies of the people, it is also threatening to undermine liberal democracy, and is attacking the racially oppressed, immigrants, women, LGBTQ people, environmentalists, and workers. The resistance movement to this thus needs to be a defense of humanity itself in all of its aspects.
Capitalism Has Failed—What Next?, 2019
- Less than two decades into the twenty-first century, it is evident that capitalism has failed as a social system. The world is mired in economic stagnation, financialization, and the most extreme inequality in human history, accompanied by mass unemployment and underemployment, precariousness, poverty, hunger, wasted output and lives, and what at this point can only be called a planetary ecological “death spiral.” The digital revolution, the greatest technological advance of our time, has rapidly mutated from a promise of free communication and liberated production into new means of surveillance, control, and displacement of the working population. The institutions of liberal democracy are at the point of collapse, while fascism, the rear guard of the capitalist system, is again on the march, along with patriarchy, racism, imperialism, and war.
- To say that capitalism is a failed system is not, of course, to suggest that its breakdown and disintegration is imminent. It does, however, mean that it has passed from being a historically necessary and creative system at its inception to being a historically unnecessary and destructive one in the present century.
- Indications of this failure of capitalism are everywhere. Stagnation of investment punctuated by bubbles of financial expansion, which then inevitably burst, now characterizes the so-called free market. Soaring inequality in income and wealth has its counterpart in the declining material circumstances of a majority of the population. Real wages for most workers in the United States have barely budged in forty years despite steadily rising productivity. Work intensity has increased, while work and safety protections on the job have been systematically jettisoned. Unemployment data has become more and more meaningless due to a new institutionalized underemployment in the form of contract labor in the gig economy. Unions have been reduced to mere shadows of their former glory as capitalism has asserted totalitarian control over workplaces. With the demise of Soviet-type societies, social democracy in Europe has perished in the new atmosphere of “liberated capitalism.” The capture of the surplus value produced by overexploited populations in the poorest regions of the world, via the global labor arbitrage instituted by multinational corporations, is leading to an unprecedented amassing of financial wealth at the center of the world economy and relative poverty in the periphery.
- Adequate health care, housing, education, and clean water and air are increasingly out of reach for large sections of the population, even in wealthy countries in North America and Europe, while transportation is becoming more difficult in the United States and many other countries due to irrationally high levels of dependency on the automobile and disinvestment in public transportation. Urban structures are more and more characterized by gentrification and segregation, with cities becoming the playthings of the well-to-do while marginalized populations are shunted aside. About half a million people, most of them children, are homeless on any given night in the United States.
- At the instigation of giant corporations, philanthrocapitalist foundations, and neoliberal governments, public education has been restructured around corporate-designed testing based on the implementation of robotic common-core standards. This is generating massive databases on the student population, much of which are now being surreptitiously marketed and sold. The corporatization and privatization of education is feeding the progressive subordination of children’s needs to the cash nexus of the commodity market. [...] Having been reduced to intellectual dungeons, many of the poorest, most racially segregated schools in the United States are mere pipelines for prisons or the military.
- More than two million people in the United States are behind bars, a higher rate of incarceration than any other country in the world, constituting a new Jim Crow. The total population in prison is nearly equal to the number of people in Houston, Texas, the fourth largest U.S. city. African Americans and Latinos make up 56 percent of those incarcerated, while constituting only about 32 percent of the U.S. population. Nearly 50 percent of American adults, and a much higher percentage among African Americans and Native Americans, have an immediate family member who has spent or is currently spending time behind bars. Both black men and Native American men in the United States are nearly three times, Hispanic men nearly two times, more likely to die of police shootings than white men. Racial divides are now widening across the entire planet.
- Violence against women and the expropriation of their unpaid labor, as well as the higher level of exploitation of their paid labor, are integral to the way in which power is organized in capitalist society—and how it seeks to divide rather than unify the population. More than a third of women worldwide have experienced physical/sexual violence. Women’s bodies, in particular, are objectified, reified, and commodified as part of the normal workings of monopoly-capitalist marketing.
- The mass media-propaganda system, part of the larger corporate matrix, is now merging into a social media-based propaganda system that is more porous and seemingly anarchic, but more universal and more than ever favoring money and power. Utilizing modern marketing and surveillance techniques, which now dominate all digital interactions, vested interests are able to tailor their messages, largely unchecked, to individuals and their social networks, creating concerns about “fake news” on all sides. Numerous business entities promising technological manipulation of voters in countries across the world have now surfaced, auctioning off their services to the highest bidders. The elimination of net neutrality in the United States means further concentration, centralization, and control over the entire Internet by monopolistic service providers.
- [M]ajor energy corporations continue to lie about climate change, promoting and bankrolling climate denialism—while admitting the truth in their internal documents. These corporations are working to accelerate the extraction and production of fossil fuels, including the dirtiest, most greenhouse gas-generating varieties, reaping enormous profits in the process. The melting of the Arctic ice from global warming is seen by capital as a new El Dorado, opening up massive additional oil and gas reserves to be exploited without regard to the consequences for the earth’s climate. In response to scientific reports on climate change, Exxon Mobil declared that it intends to extract and sell all of the fossil-fuel reserves at its disposal. Energy corporations continue to intervene in climate negotiations to ensure that any agreements to limit carbon emissions are defanged. Capitalist countries across the board are putting the accumulation of wealth for a few above combatting climate destabilization, threatening the very future of humanity.
- Capitalism is best understood as a competitive class-based mode of production and exchange geared to the accumulation of capital through the exploitation of workers’ labor power and the private appropriation of surplus value (value generated beyond the costs of the workers’ own reproduction). The mode of economic accounting intrinsic to capitalism designates as a value-generating good or service anything that passes through the market and therefore produces income. It follows that the greater part of the social and environmental costs of production outside the market are excluded in this form of valuation and are treated as mere negative “externalities,” unrelated to the capitalist economy itself—whether in terms of the shortening and degradation of human life or the destruction of the natural environment.
- We have now reached a point in the twenty-first century in which the externalities of this irrational system, such as the costs of war, the depletion of natural resources, the waste of human lives, and the disruption of the planetary environment, now far exceed any future economic benefits that capitalism offers to society as a whole. The accumulation of capital and the amassing of wealth are increasingly occurring at the expense of an irrevocable rift in the social and environmental conditions governing human life on earth.
- [C]hinese development has its roots in the 1949 Chinese Revolution, carried out by the Chinese Communist Party headed by Mao Zedong, whereby it liberated itself from the imperialist system. This allowed it to develop for decades under a planned economy largely free of constraints from outside forces, establishing a strong agricultural and industrial economic base. This was followed by a shift in the post-Maoist reform period to a hybrid system of more limited state planning along with a much greater reliance on market relations (and a vast expansion of debt and speculation) under conditions—the globalization of the world market—that were particularly fortuitous to its “catching up.” Through trade wars and other pressures aimed at destabilizing China’s position in the world market, the United States is already seeking to challenge the bases of China’s growth in world trade. China, therefore, stands not so much for the successes of late capitalism but rather for its inherent limitations. The current Chinese model, moreover, carries within it many of the destructive tendencies of the system of capital accumulation. Ultimately, China’s future too depends on a return to the process of revolutionary transition, spurred by its own population.
- An understanding of the failure of capitalism, beginning in the twentieth century, requires a historical examination of the rise of neoliberalism, and how this has only served to increase the destructiveness of the system. Only then can we address the future of humanity in the twenty-first century.
- For many people on the left, the answer to neoliberalism or disaster capitalism is a return to welfare-state liberalism, market regulation, or some form of limited social democracy, and thus to a more rational capitalism. It is not the failure of capitalism itself that is perceived as the problem, but rather the failure of neoliberal capitalism. In contrast, the Marxian tradition understands neoliberalism as an inherent outgrowth of late capitalism, associated with the domination of monopoly-finance capital. A critical-historical analysis of neoliberalism is therefore crucial both to grounding our understanding of capitalism today and uncovering the reason why all alternatives to neoliberalism and its capitalist absolutism are closed within the system itself.
- John Bellamy Foster's personal website
- (April 17, 2017)"Blacklisted: The Fight For Freedom of Expression on Campus". Ethos Magazine 9 (2): :22-25.