Work, workers' needs and an alternative political economy
Final Call: 8th Annual Wheelwright Lecture: Erik Olin Wright

New and Green Materialism

by Anitra Nelson on July 29, 2015

A Green Agenda Panel at the recent Historical Materialism Australasia 2015: Reading Capital, Class & Gender Today conference at University of Sydney (17–18 July) was chaired by Hall Greenland with speakers Ariel Salleh, Terry Leahy and Anitra Nelson.

My paper — a shortened version of which follows — argued that Marx’s ‘new materialism’, elaborated in his Theses on Feuerbach (1845), is realised today as a ‘green materialism’, with the key characteristics and strategies of anti-capitalist movements offering the bases for replacing the organising principle of our society, money, by direct democracy.

The challenge and ecosocialism

The natural environment, which has succumbed in various ways to our appropriation, now reveals its capacity to reappropriate us. Global warming is just the tip of the iceberg of broader environmental crises. Even if we manage to reduce carbon emissions, capitalism is eroding soils, polluting waters and air, and eliminating so many species that Earth is becoming uninhabitable for the very species that has caused its demise.

Marx’s work very self-consciously and conscientiously approached the world as full of potential for a future that breaks with the present, not just the past. His ‘new materialism’ was a form of philosophical realism acknowledging a world ‘out there’ beyond individual or collective control. In contrast to the ‘old materialism’ Marx’s materialism was sensuous, practical, real, critical and revolutionary. His views were based on a philosophy of revolutionary being and practice, of us as active agents.

lowyWith such agency growing numbers of activists are aware of, and dedicated to, practices aligned to visions of ‘ecosocialism’ described by Michael Löwy (in Ecosocialism 2014: xi) as ‘a radical proposition’ based on addressing the cause of environmental crises, distinct from the productivism of social democracy and visions of capitalist sustainability.

Anti-capitalists — of which ecosocialists are just one stream — adopt a full and holistic field of action against state and markets, replacing individualistic, bourgeois society with a collective, social and creative sense of humanity.


Evolving in the mid-1990s, typified by the Mexican Zapatista, anti-globalisation and subsequent Occupy movements, ‘anti-capitalism’ is often characterised as a break with the traditional Left rather than — as I argue here — a flowering of Marxism.

Narrow interpretations of the traditional Left read Marxism as workerist, organising in parties and communist states. Yet precursors to most twentieth century socialist uprisings included anarchist, syndicalist, peasant and national liberationists.

Similarly, 1960s and 1970s New Leftists integrated environmental, peace, women’s liberationist and autonomist strains arguing with and against narrow revolutionary organisation and intent. Today global resistance, radical ecology and left variants of identity politics continue and develop that heritage.

Adamovsky_AntiCapitalism_largeIn Anti-Capitalism, Argentinian Adamovsky (2011: 89–124) distinguishes current anti-capitalism from the traditional Left because of its focus on ten ways of operating:

  1. Anti-power, counter-power
  2. Autonomously
  3. With immediacy and presence
  4. Using horizontalist structures
  5. In de-centred ways
  6. Integrating a multitude of people and causes
  7. Strategically, responding to specifics, learning through listening rather than laying down a general program
  8. In local–global —vs national state-focused — struggles against capitalism
  9. Using direct action and civil disobedience
  10. Developing a constructive creative, rather than ‘them–us’, culture.

These descriptors show a characteristic unity of purpose and organisation within anti-capitalist movements. They reflect an ecologist’s holistic framing of the way nature is interlocking, antagonistic yet balancing, self-sufficient and dynamic. They are remarkably close to Marx’s radical view of what it really means to be a social human.

Marx’s ‘new’ materialism

ElderlyMarxMarx developed his radical, revolutionary materialist view of the world and our role in it as a reaction to prevailing conservativism that tended to rationalise traditional, religious and capitalist ways of being and operating.

The nonsensical views of climate change deniers, who argue that there is no observable evidence of global warming, and pro-capitalists who say ‘there is no alternative’ parallel the idealistic old materialists that Marx challenged. The source for such ‘phenomenalist’ views is the mind and ideals. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is such an idealist.

Capitalism reinforces idealism. Investors see the world as a blank sheet that they can throw money at and voilá — they are gods creating the world, as we know it. Marx was especially curious as to the way the market worked beyond our control as a social, behavioural politico-economic reality.

This market-based reality evolved as we instituted money as the organising principle of our society — creating use values and exchange value, joined and opposing like the two sides of the one coin. Significantly, capitalism forces us to subjugate social and environmental use values to abstract, magical — even godly — exchange values.

Socio-economic inequality is intricately bound to the monetary dynamic of more and less. Similarly, the values necessary to account for ecological sustainability are eliminated, dominated or mangled in a world where monetary values, prices and profits, rule.

Marx saw money as the ‘form’ of capital, while its content was the key dynamic between worker and capitalist. Marx used ‘form’ in an intrinsic way. We could not extricate this monetary form from its capitalist relation any more than we could talk about a self beyond our bodies — only an idealist would do that.

The Green agenda

Today, we have to address the social and environmental crises of capitalism by agreeing to fulfil everyone’s basic needs — rather than continue living in an unequal world of overconsumption and starvation — and by taking account of the regenerative limits and ecological needs of the Earth.

nelsonMarx’s philosophy appreciated the risks to humanity of being falsely alienated from nature and being forced to work for money and capitalists. Instead, Marx argued, we could collectively engage directly with nature, as in organising as commoners producing and exchanging for collective sufficiency — replacing the organising principle and power of money on which capitalism is formed with direct democracy (Life Without Money by eds Nelson & Timmerman, 2011).

Imagine a global network of collectively sufficient, cell-like communities each responsible for the sustainability of the environments they live off. Each diverse community empowered, relatively autonomous, present, organised horizontally internally, networked in seamless ways locally and globally, caring for the Earth. Collectively satisfying everyone’s basic needs, we would be fulfilling our real human potential as creative active beings.

The defining characteristics of anti-capitalist currents offer the democratic and materialist bases for replacing money as the organising principle of society. The Green agenda is in front of us. This is what needs to be built on, what needs to be done.

Anitra Nelson
Anitra Nelson is an activist-scholar and Associate Professor at RMIT University’s Centre for Urban Research, author of Marx’s Concept of Money: The God of Commodities (1999), co-editor of Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies (2011), and her Small Is Necessary: Shared Living on a Shared Planet was published by Pluto Press (London) in January 2018.

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