It seems obvious that capitalism is the root cause of the ecological crises. Its factories delivering products around the globe; products that end up in the ocean as plastic waste. Its suburbs. Its food. Its musics. But there are also roots to capitalism, and these can be found in the last 10,000 years or so of city-building. Urbanization. Ecological disasters connected to city-building had previously been on a smaller scale though. When Sumer used up the natural resources surrounding the city, the people dispersed, returning to sustainable, smaller, rural communities, especially pastoral activities. The region couldn’t support as large a human population; but those smaller groups still musicked. They still lived and died full, human lives. Later the Greek and then Roman empires represented a larger scale of conquest and destruction. When Rome collapsed due to loss of soil, climate change and resultant pandemic diseases, the area of destruction was much larger than earlier cities; but smaller than the urbanized "developed" world today.
Sustainable, local agricultural cultures took over where the Western Roman Empire had collapsed. And soil gradually was tended, cared for, and rebuilt by generations of peasants. Real people, living sustainable, place-infused lives. Its funny that this is the era many call the "Dark Ages," even though technological advancement continued and the small continent’s ecosystems were placed back into balance. Civilization progressed even while human systems remained small and viable. However, during the last 800 years or so, European civilization has become synonymous with increased urbanization and marketization, which has been increasingly exported globally. The capitalist era, beginning with the Industrial Revolution (which continues today), has been colonial, even where colonial apparatuses are hidden in flowery words (like "Information Age," as if information as defined doesn't require plastic industrial goods) and good intentions (often the result of Western "rights" exported through global NGOs to the non-Western world).
Next month I’m talking about Marx’s concept of species being at the International Symposium for the Philosophy of Music Education. There has been an interesting conversation on Marx, non-human animals, and sustainability in the most recent issues of Monthly Review, a well-known socialist magazine. It began with two critiques by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Christian Stache of earlier scholarship; and Ted Benton’s (one of the primary scholars being critiqued) response.
In Benton’s 1993 “Natural Relations,” he portrays Marxist scholars as floating between the humanist impulse and the materialist impulse; both of which are apparent in Marx's evolving thought. Critical theory distinctly emphasized Marx’s humanist side. Lukáks, Bloch, Gramsci, Benjamin, Marcuse, Fromm, Lefebvre, Freire, Fanon, Peter McLaren have all been described as Marxist Humanists, and are all highly used in critical scholarship today. Benton’s critique seems relevant. He writes in Monthly Review, “their humanism came at the neglect of the naturalist and materialist underpinning of classical historical Marxism.”
Of particular interest to me is Benton’s discussion of “the contested concept,” species being, which I use to underpin my most recent paper on compostable culture. Humans are historical beings who transform nature, including their own nature, to fulfill needs. Species being is what has been alienated in capitalism. Humans are distinct from non-human animals by our sense of history. Humans are historical beings. Benton critiques readings of Marx’s species being that render action with “no room for a more contemplative, curious, noninterventionist love of nature for its own sake.” Marx, indeed, writes about aesthetic and spiritual needs for nature. But Benton suggests Marx didn't emphasize non-human animal needs enough. Benton suggests that we need a strong love of nature if we are going to effectively struggle against capitalism's destruction of nature. Stache emphasizes that Marx recognized the needs of non-human animals, as well as humans. Using Marx, he recommends ending capitalist social relations “by a rational design of these relations that considers the needs of animals and the reproductive requirements of nature. This includes the self-realization of humans as natural and social beings enabled by their special species character, their species being.” What does human character, as natural and social beings, mean for music education philosophy? We seem to have emphasized the social and neglected the natural. If we are going to assert meaningful change, we need to emphasize our humanity as both social and natural.
For music educators, the ongoing species being conversation should help us direct our attentions to the roots of the ecological crises we need to confront. Capitalism. What people are--our species being and the social situation we exist in--matters for how we teach and learn music. Our social relations under capitalism are destructive to human autonomy and thriving, and also, just as important, to non-human animal thriving, to the survival of specific ecosystems, and for the ability of our shared home, our planet, to sustain the lives of large mammals like ourselves. We need to explore solutions that involve, through music, different, sustainable relations. We need what music educator Charlene Morton called, a teaching practice "for all my relations."