Eco-socialism, National Liberation & A People’s GND: Interview with Max Ajl

This interview is featured in the February issue of Polen Journal.

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Interviewer: İbrahim Erkol

Türkçesi için tıklayın.

1) Could you first briefly introduce yourself to Polen Ekoloji and your to-be Turkish-speaking readers? 

I am a postdoctoral fellow at Wageningen University, and an associate editor at Agrarian South. I have been living in Tunisia for the last eight years, doing research on the history of decolonization and development, the intellectual history of heterodox regional thinking about alternatives to the dominant development paradigms, and Tunisian and Arab agrarian questions. I have also been very involved with supporting efforts to end US support for Israel as part of broader work in support of national liberation in the Arab region.

2) How did you get engaged with climate change as a researcher who has focused only mostly on rural sociology and post-colonization in his previous PhD studies? What was your starting point when you decided to write on such a topic as burning as it is itself? 

I have been very interested in ecological issues since I was a child, and spent around two years doing public-facing science journalism on climate change. So, the topic is not new for me. Furthermore, the way I learned about sustainable and ecologically restorative agriculture was very much connected to climate change. My doctoral supervisor, Philip McMichael, has been one of the scholars making those linkages for over a decade. That research has been often in support of the movements around food sovereignty and agroecology in Latin America and elsewhere, which have put climate issues front-and-center when it comes to the relative merits from an emissions and resilience perspective when it comes to climate change. So overall Cornell was a very propitious place to blend the study of agrarian development/underdevelopment with understanding agrarian questions of ecology, particularly as they connect to climate change. Overall, agrarian questions related to the role of peasant/smallholder wellbeing, ecology, and national liberation are central to just climate transition in the Third World. Almost ten years ago  now I wrote an essay on this topic entitled “Planet of Fields,” which first appeared in Jacobin and then Neil Brenner encouraged me to develop it for a volume which he edited. There, I first put forward some of the ideas I developed in A People’s Green New Deal. The pressure to write the book, however, came from my maybe-naïve shock at how quickly the discussion about a Green New Deal was becoming an arena to smuggle in a very hardened economistic, industrial-fetishizing, reformist, and usually imperialist northern climate “justice,” and thinking through how we could connect a more international internationalist northern climate discussion to burning questions of southern national liberation to lead to world-wide development convergence.

3) How do you think “A People’s Green New Deal” can be achieved? In this sense, what kind of a political organization models do you think is necessary for achieving “A People’s Green New Deal”.  Do you see the necessity of a political avant-garde to canalize and guide the movements throughout the process of transition that you thoroughly described and explained in your book? 

We need political vehicles that can suture the North-South ideological and developmental divide, mobilize the poor portions of the North in clear and explicit support of national liberation and ecological development in the periphery, and block northern interference with southern national liberation. This is a tall task, and the system is designed to prevent it from happening. I am sympathetic to the classical Leninist project of party building, and I am apprehensive of the various alternatives which have been proposed. However, I am not sure we can expect one political vehicle in the core, certainly in the US, to canalize the movements I described; something akin to a coalition of political parties might be more reasonable to expect, which gain political clarity by being directly accountable to popular parties, movements, and states in the South, perhaps through “A New Bandung.”

4) As in the rest of world, ecological movement is brimmed with in-systemic and “at best” reformist organizations, NGOs and discourses in Turkey. And at a historical period, the studies like yours is of utmost importance to us. Could you briefly explain us why we need to dismantle the liberal and compromising stances in climate change context?

The liberal and compromising stances are neither just on a global level nor feasible on their own terms. No revolutionary movement in history has ever achieved all of its aim, even when taking state power. Aiming for allegedly “easier” horizons means not even hitting them. So, why would any person who believes in the good life for everyone (communism) accept such a strategy or an outcome? I believe everyone has the right to be free of exploitation, a right to ecologically appropriate development, equivalent per capita access to energy and other physical resources, etc. No one can deny that imperialism and uneven accumulation are ways of preventing people in the South from accessing those rights. Logically and morally we need to dismantle the liberal stances which do not target those patterns of exploitation, and which are generally propped up by northern capital, whether through the leftist foundations which gate-keep the ecological discourse, or through publication outlets which rely on capitalist funding and recognition to have their ideological impact. These compromising stances are deliberately-engineered mechanisms of ideological control, and it is important to be crystal-clear about their nature and purposes. 

5) I believe the reason why AOC and her so-called “associates” get so popular and are seen as kind of “saviors” is that people do want to hold onto anything that resembles to hope for things even as small as they pledge. At this point, I think the meme that I shared with you below pretty much sums up the situation of the masses and also unfortunately a considerable portion of radical left. How do you think the hope of the masses can be directed into socialism again?  

In the US, in Latin America, and elsewhere, many people, or at least, many more people than previously, have a hope in socialism. But it is true that hope works alongside some acceptance of more “moderate” change from “saviors” like AOC (it is not clear to me that AOC is very popular amongst the US working class, however). So people do find hope where they can and where they may see it as reasonable. The best way to convince people who do not believe that socialism is on the agenda is victories achieved by forces which advocate socialism. That is an organizational task. But there is also the task of intellectual combating reformism and imperialism within “the left.” We need to simply insist that socialism is on the agenda, that a class-attentive internationalism aware of the need for serious attention to the national question is on the agenda, and for those of us in the privileged position of disproportionately producing analysis must reject any and all forms of opportunism. That includes, really, especially, amongst our peers, the self-identified left. That does not mean a position which rejects the strategic use of left-liberal anti-racist legislators taking office, wherever that may be, or even strategic engagements with parliamentary or electoral politics more broadly. But to conflate that with socialism, as has been done throughout the US social democratic left, is to insist on something which is not true. And to create an actual publishing industry devoted to blurring that distinction is also not helpful. Why would anyone have hope in eco-socialism if prominent self-identified defenders of socialism paint those who vote to send weapons to colonial Israel as socialists? 

6) How do you think “imperialism-proof” international alliances can be formed in the Third World countries and how “historical” defeats of revolutionaries can be avoided in the following periods? In this sense, some leftist organizations claim that we may even have to disrupt and utilize ecological services to be able to fight against the enemy. Their primary argument is that their governments have to be economically much more powerful than those of capitalist states. What’s your position in this sort of a discussion? 

The only imperialism-proof international alliance is one which follows the Maoist dictum that class struggle continues amidst socialist construction: “never forget class struggle,” and one which wins. This might seem obvious point, but imperialism as the political practice of the ruling class on a world scale will not relinquish its power. Nor can imperialism be reasoned with or conciliated. Look what happened to Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qadhaffi who accepted disarming, or the Islamic Republic and its acceptance of the so-called “Iran Deal.” All of these decisions on the part of these republics which traced back to radical-nationalist coup d’états or revolutions, often with extremely severe democratic failures internally, did not palliate imperialism, because imperialism seeks the constant expansion of its power. The reverse-side of this problem is that in the US/European left, there are varying degrees of support for these processes. So we have serious ideological deficiencies North and South which need to be dealt with. Venezuela, however, has for the most part proved coup-proof not just because of the party-military alliance, but also because of the degree of ideological commitment amongst its people, at least in the past. That’s another lesson, linked to the first one, since class struggle means popular empowerment. 

To more precisely respond to you question about the need to build up the forces of production for national self-defense: This was the explicit position of the Soviet leadership, and was part of the reason for headlong Soviet industrialization, which was necessary to destroy the Nazi armies. It also accounted for China’s partially urban-biased developmental strategy, which likewise was based on the desperate need to industrialize for self-defense, the shadow of the US apocalypse in Korea. We cannot know in advance if those levels of development of the forces of production are in excess of what is required for national self-defense and deterrence; we can realistically only know if they have been sufficient for those purposes. In the absence of effective anti-war and anti-imperial movements in the North, it is clear that southern states will have to continually devote massive portions of their industrial plant to defense at the expense of more narrowly-defined social and ecological needs. New comparatively “light” technologies such as those developed in Iran may provide an equal deterrent capacity. But they also might not. Who would want to risk it?

7) Your book has rather “unfamiliar” terms in itself for new readers such as “Environmentally Unequal Exchange”, “semi-periphery” that you frequently use. Would you explain the terms for beginners? 

Environmentally unequal exchange is a theory which refers to a range of physical phenomena linked to capitalist market exchange. One: damage to the environment and human health through commodity production. Those damages have been systematically exported to the poorer countries through the relocation of the most polluting industries from North to South. Second is that insofar as commodity exchange produces CO2 emissions, the impacts from those emissions almost universally fall harder on the periphery. Since those “externalities” are already priced into the world-wide system of prices and global patterns of commodity exchange, there is an “unequal” exchange of vulnerability to climate damages. Finally, there is a question of raw materials: the price system ensures that the northern countries have a greater access to world-wide natural resources. Some of this work really adds quantitative flesh to arguments long made by Latin American or other scholars like Samir Amin working on the uneven terms of trade, but it is nevertheless valuable, and the work on the re-siting of polluting industries and unequal exposure to pollution is new and valuable. 

Semi-periphery is a loose term referring to those countries which have much higher per-capita incomes than the poorest countries and may indeed import value/labor-hours from poorer countries, but which are in a position of subjugation with respect to the North, and which overall export value: consider Brazil or China, which even apart from size are very developmentally different from Haiti or Yemen.

8) Lastly, as any other academic discussion prevailing academic thought, eco-socialist ideology is one of those that has lately begun to be discussed in Turkey We can call this case as some kind of “delay”. So, for readers being able to understand more out of the book, would you explain what is eco-socialism in your perspective and how it is relevant to today’s climate change discussions? 

Eco-socialism is a slight modification of Marx’s conception of socialism as “socialized man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature.” By eco-socialism we mean rationally regulating to the extent possible our interchange with nature, and producing the use-values we collectively need, while also ensuring that the non-human world is no longer being damaged by human productive activities, but rather is slowly being restored: toxic metal concentrations remediated, forests sustainably managed, fisheries recovered, etc. Eco-socialism is just a reminder that Marxism has to be attentive on a world-scale to the conditions of reproduction of labor, which includes the natural environment, or non-human nature, and taking care of it has to be part of a transition to humane social relations which are not ruled by capitalism, or the law of value.

9) How do you think climate justice and reparations can be achieved? After all, the capitalist countries will not one day decide out of blue to “right” the historical wrongs. What kind of a political empowerment you consider is necessary for said goals in this sense?

Revolutionary movements in the North will only be able to seriously put a committed internationalism on the agenda on a wide scale when southern movements are more consolidated than they currently are, especially around demands for reparations. One can imagine two scenarios in which reparations flow from North to South. One, there is a revolutionary movement in the North which has as one of its demands climate debt, and the northern ruling class grants this demand to try to demobilize that movement. The second is that the revolutionary movement takes power. Both scenarios are quite far off. 

10) Do you think alternative movements such as Glasgow agreement are promising in the sense that they can help the people’s voice raised in climate justice issue? Moreover, we know that the demands such as climate justice, reparation, and ecological struggles were originally born on the Third World. Nevertheless, what we’re currently observing is that many articles focusing on these issues are from the Global North. So, in a sense, voice of the Third World is suppressed. What are your opinions on this change? 

More and more I am convinced that national liberation needs to be the departure point for first world-third world eco-developmental convergence. Keep in mind that for Amilcar Cabral, national liberation was basically coterminous with a socialist planned economy. No matter what agreements are made on the international stage, climate justice concords can only take policy form within the nation-state system, and against the background of, and trying to resist, uneven accumulation. That is, climate justice has a nation-class aspect which structures the initial strategy. The reason I take the Cochabamba People’s Agreement as such an important touchstone is that it developed in the context of a re-assertion of national sovereignty on the part of Bolivia, linked to the Chavista project of putting national-popular socialism back on the agenda in the South. I think some important technical work may come from movements such as those in Glasgow, but it is critical that the national liberation framework is the anchoring point.

There is often excellent work on eco-socialism in the North, but building on what I just said, the importing of northern ideas can often come with unexamined Eurocentrism and inattention to the national question. Furthermore, they may reflect a sort of academic dependency, where the North theorizes and the South gathers empirical data. This division of labor is not acceptable on several fronts. Critically, these “northern” ideas – including my own, if the term applies – have to be examined and very possibly re-tooled before they can be re-deployed for purposes of southern eco-socialist organizing. I am thinking of some of Archana Prasad’s critiques of northern eco-socialist discourse, for example. Another problem is that the northern work, while often “theoretically” sophisticated, often does not engage in a serious way with planning. Furthermore, there is a need to return to the classic work which came from the South. There is no shortage of research on eco-development in Latin America from the 1980s, or appropriate technology in the Arab region, or people’s science in China and India. Those are all past and present lines of investigation which need to be re-invigorated or simply become points of reference for more South-South theoretical work on eco-socialism.