One of the nation's leading socialist thinkers and a key voice in the development of social ecology, John Bellamy Foster talks to the Student Insurgent about surviving capitalism, social transformation, and the importance of radical student uprisings.
“We are in a very unstable period,” says John Bellamy Foster as a zoom call warbles in and out of sync giving his voice that delayed synthesizer tone of a malfunctioning robot. For many this statement would not be a stretch to claim but Foster consistently interweaves scientific reality and historical citation into whatever assertions he offers. His replies to most questions are often long winded to say the least, but they contain the more important and distinctly creditable character of being exhaustive. Over his 35-year tenure at the University of Oregon, Foster has conspicuously been at the heart of many of the most dramatic movements in ecology and radical environmentalism. Almost the entire historical arc of what has become known as the eco-terrorist movement has developed in proximity to the ideas of social ecology and environmental socialism he helped establish. His development of Marx’s Ecology in the early 2000’s was a turning point in radical thought and for many addressed what he describes as the “ecological rift of capitalism.” Now in semi-retirement at UO, Foster still teaches Marxist Sociological Theory and Earth System Crisis, providing one of the few academic spaces where one can unravel the secrets of that ubiquitous Penguin Classics copy of Marx’s Das Capital. As a badge of honor, he consistently boasts of being on a right-wing list of the most dangerous professors in America.
The reality that Foster presents for us is not one of ambiguity. The most worrying reference he offers is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which he notes was so dire in its predictions that its public release was largely edited by participating governments. The first draft for policy makers was leaked and is now publicly available on the Monthly Review website, a major Marxist sociological journal of which Foster is editor. In the leaked IPCC report a scientific consensus agrees that a systematic transformation of social and productive capacities must occur. It says that capitalism is unsustainable, socialist reorganization is probably required, and a transition towards a low energy economy will be unavoidable.
For Foster this confirms that socialism is the solution to the climate crisis. But just as the complexities of the climate crisis are unfolding we are now forced to deal with a revived threat of nuclear annihilation. It would be disingenuous not to call the American intervention in Ukraine a proxy war with Russia, and with US military aid to Ukraine exceeding Russia’s annual military budget we are without doubt in a period of dramatically escalating tensions. This second layer of global instability has put humanity on a knife's edge and the future dynamic of socialism may be that of survival socialism in the wake of a collapsing capitalist hegemony.
Even with such a dire outlook, Foster sees points of partial successes amid the constant repression of an imperialist world system. Often any experiments of alternative economic and/or political systems are attacked by neo-liberal globalization. He expresses hope for Venezuela but recognizes that it is under siege from capital. The majority of Venezuelans have seen improved conditions, developed resiliency to sanctions, and support their socialist government. Much like Cuba this begs the question, why are they so effective at resisting capitalist hegemony? For Foster this implies that power has been distributed to the previously impoverished majorities of those countries. In many ways this has made the revolution irreversible, and he says “once one gives power to the people they will defend it.” Often holding views contradicting the western media narrative, he also cites dramatic progress in China, the incredible popularity of its government, the higher degree of political participation Chinese people have compared to the American political process. “The ability to elect Biden or Trump is not a sign of Democracy,” Foster wryly comments.
Though one might find points to disagree on here, there can be no denial that there are alternative economic and political systems other than the dominant global capitalist hegemony. Such qualitative differences become apparent in instances like the World Wildlife Reports assessment that Cuba is the only sustainable country on Earth.
From a more grass roots outlook Foster sees the Black Lives Matter movement as the most promising recent social development. He is quick to cite how working-class people crossed the color line to participate in the George Floyd uprising and this kind of mobilization was truly threatening to those in power. Ultimately Biden’s reaction to BLM was an 11% increase in spending on police and prisons. “There is no question that means repression,” says Foster.
During the pandemic the development of what has been termed the “great resignation” and service workers unionization has opened the door for what looks like a broader strategy of refusal and obstruction amid the capitalist core. And despite a temporary lull in the climate change movement, people below 30 are angry about the loss of their future, and are prepared for the type of mobilization necessary to address this issue. What Foster most succinctly touches on is that those in power are most fearful of such mass mobilizations. “A mobilized population will demand other things,” and he is quick to note how American and British mobilization during WWII created dramatic shifts in power when popular demands weren’t met after the war (this might be called the Churchill effect).
Previous pitfalls that created second class citizens or sold supposed economic equality between unequal participants should be recognized as the fallacies they are. Foster has no doubt that the ruling class is fully prepared to take out the knives. He goes back to Fredrich Engels who defined the various calamities of the working class as a system of, “Social Murder.” Only the broadest most unified movements possible will ensure peaceful change. But with the social and ecological circumstances we find ourselves in, this will be the most immense struggle humanity has ever seen, no matter the path taken.
Foster admits that much of the advanced Marxist theory courses remaining at UO are a remnant of the student uprisings of the 1960’s. This is also the legacy carried by past journals like the Sociological Insurgent and its bastard inheritor the Student Insurgent. Much of todays UO faculty grew up in a much more conservative period. “If you want a university with critical spaces it’s something students and faculty have to fight for,” says Foster. One of the most radical student movements that could take place on American campuses is a unified revolt for free tuition and elimination of student debt. In such circumstances Foster has no doubt that Marxist theory would see a resurgence in the American classroom. With a wink & nod Foster does not in any way call for student uprisings, revolts, sit-ins, strikes, occupations, or revolutions at UO. But in the waning days of his tenure it can be plain to see the encroachment neo-liberal policies that have negatively impacted faculty hiring decisions and student political power.
John Bellamy Foster is in many ways a previous chapter of UO’s radical legacy. Echo of the Battle of Seattle and the fury of Earth Liberation Front fall not too far from his footsteps. And from him come so many of the ideas of a continuously expanding anti-globalization and radical ecological movement. I can think of no better tools to be equipped with while moving into this uncertain period of global climate crisis.