Under the title “The Great Transformation”, the Hungarian-Austrian economic sociologist Karl Polanyi described in 1944 the far-reaching transformation of the western orders of the 19th and 20th centuries using England as an example. These went hand in hand with the independence of a liberal market society that was largely unmolested by political intervention. Ever since work, land and money were declared “fictitious” commodities and disconnected from their relationship to the resources necessary for life, barter relations have dominated. As a result, not only did inequality grow, threatening the market system, according to Polanyi, but also increasingly the basis of subsistence that supports humanity.
It is no coincidence that this work was rediscovered in the 1980s, when capitalist overexploitation of nature became obvious and a growing environmental awareness was looking for theories that captured what we now call the ecological crisis. Since then, Polanyi has become an integral part of the thinking of economic sociologists and bioeconomists. Polanyi is also an important keyword for the French philosopher Pierre Charbonnier, who was born in 1983 and works at the Center National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris. Because this helped the socialist theory at least to some extent on its ecological feet.
In his study “Abundance and Freedom”, Charbonnier is concerned with examining the history of political ideas on their material foundations and solving and politicizing the “ecological problem” from the atmosphere of what he calls a “separatist” environmental history. The two title terms are thus the railing on which the investigation is oriented. They stand for the “liberal pact” that has made it possible since the end of the 18th century to make a paradox the guiding principle: the promise to redeem mankind from the shortages and vicissitudes of nature through constant growth and thus to freedom fire.
On the other hand, the philosopher sets three categories that are supposed to lead out of the “dead ends of the concept of nature”, i.e. the idea of an extraterritorialized “nature” which, in addition to natural resources, also includes women and foreign territories and peoples who have been declared natural. The three categories are: substitute , inhabit, recognize. The first refers to the basic living conditions, the second to the living space as a place of security through property and the third to the articulation of authority, how things are to be used meaningfully.Because the “forms of cognition of the world are inseparable from the way the social recognizes and defines itself.”
Charbonnier’s journey through the history of ideas, starting with the “affordances”, i.e. the functional usefulness of soil, begins with John Locke, who proposed cultivating the abundance of soil through targeted human labor. The division of land, peaceful from Locke’s point of view, was the origin of law. The urban elites and the idle agrarian nobility benefited from the surpluses, while the impoverished peasant masses were driven to the cities.
The father of political economy, Adam Smith, finally brought up the idea of even more intensive exploitation through the division of labor and declared the economy autonomous. This was the capitalist founding myth – prosperity through growth – in the world. It was a philosopher arguing from the perspective of German small-stateism, namely Fichte, who pointed out that this was only possible at the price of colonizing lawless spaces.
The author follows a series of idea providers who are not so well known in this country, such as François Guizot or William Jevons. While the French politician pointed out that the autonomy assumed to be unlimited (of the French people) required self-control, the English economist recognized that coal, as a guarantor of autonomy, was threatened with exhaustion because new technological innovations led to its increased exploitation. In the transition to the new forms of energy (coal, later oil), the transformation of work into goods and money into capital in the course of the Industrial Revolution, these paradoxes become all the more effective as colonial access extends to the entire world.
Early socialist critics like Proudhon or Saint-Simon seek salvation in corporatism and technocratic solutions. The American economist Thorstein Veblen, on the other hand, declares war on the waste of resources through efficiency and makes the engineer the leading figure. Marx had an ambivalent relationship to the soil because the revolutionary subject had said goodbye to the field and he adhered to a “productionist” partnership between man and nature. The ecological costs of the socialization he had hoped for escaped him. Emile Durkheim, on the other hand, clairvoyantly pointed out the psychosocial consequences associated with abundance, showing that abundance is uncorrelated with happiness and that too much consumption disrupts social relationships.
Charbonnier agrees with Polanyi that the neglect of nature in socialist thought opened the gates to a reactionary discourse that glorified the soil and invoked space as a place of collective integration and identity. The discrepancy between the pace of the independent economy, its work of destruction and the non-fulfilment of the liberal pact’s promises of justice harbors potential that can unfold to the left and the right.
While nature was previously understood as a constraint from which one had to emancipate oneself in order to create freedom from the excess wrested from it, this relationship was reversed after the Second World War. Herbert Marcuse imagines nature as a space free of work, whereby he, like many left-wing theorists, sees “the other” in it.
Only the growing criticism of growth since the 1970s does not perceive the surplus as a promise of freedom, but as a pathology of the capitalist economic system and urges either moderation or, as the bioeconomists later did, the pricing of ecological costs in the accounts for society as a whole. However, according to Charbonnier, they clung to an “energy fetishism” that ultimately has no solution other than regulatory slowdown. Following Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, the philosopher considers this to be insufficient because, according to the principle of entropy, external energy must always be supplied to the system. Seen in this light, the circular economy is an illusion.
According to Charbonnier, one should not draw the conclusion from this criticism of the ecological economy simply to wait for the redeeming collapse or to adapt to the circumstances. Rather, we would have to face the insight that “our” modernity represents a double exception with regard to power and authority relations. It’s not the norm of history. Because the expectations of justice associated with the Enlightenment “are linked to a bet on the mutual reinforcement of democratization and enrichment” – at the expense of nature, other territories and the social.
Charbonnier, on the other hand, proposes an intellectual movement that aims at “symmetrization” of both nature and the non-human and the colonized, requiring a fundamental departure from modernity’s property-based “productionism” with its dichotomy between acting subjects and serving objects . The author makes no secret of the fact that this is only possible within the framework of a completely rethought socialist movement, with new axes of theorizing that make space, subsistence and democratic knowledge the starting point. However, the collective subject that sets this in motion has yet to be found.
Our idea of freedom, as Charbonnier shows in his stylistically unwieldy book, has a material history and is linked to the possibilities of the soil and the conflicts that develop from it. The challenge in the face of geo-ecological upheaval is to decouple freedom from the abundance that once made it possible – without giving it up.