Protestors demonstrating against the Enbridge Line 3 Pipeline in northwestern Minnesota. Credit: Sarah LittleRedfeather/Honor the Earth.
The Line 3 pipeline was a major recent target of the Left. Though the project has been completed over and above the Left’s heroic resistance, the latest iteration of the Red-Green partnership has solidified the Left’s commitment to indigenism. Water, we are told, is a resource so fundamental to human life that it should not be subject to the whims of the market. Since some indigenous nations have consistently echoed this point ever since the advent of colonization, the Left looks to them to provide a model of a collectivist, harmonious future after capitalism. What this issue represents, therefore, is a fusion of environmentalism and indigenism into what advocates hope will be a movement unstoppable due to its intersectionality.
Now, it’s pretty hard to argue with the morality of water access. Perhaps that is precisely why a moral line has been adopted for the last 50 years. But such a stance is not necessarily leftist. In fact, it clashes sharply with how the Marxist Left understood itself and its relation to capitalism, history, and even water ‘rights.’ Indeed, upon closer inspection, this hot-button issue actually reveals itself to be a microcosm of the changes in the Left’s self-consciousness.
Today’s Left would no doubt justify its existence by proclaiming the need to move away from the marketization of water. It would make its appeal through a redistributive vision of a future in which the rich have no claim to own or control access to water; rather, all would simply have as much as they needed, and no individual’s use would deprive that of anyone else. The Left, according to its contemporary self-identification, exists to bring water to the thirsty so that everyone has the same basic starting point to then live up to their fullest potential. After all—and they’re right about this—one can’t live a life worth being called ‘human’ without reliable access to sufficient water.
But this is not how the Left always understood itself. The Marxist Left would have actually called such a vision ‘reactionary.’ Now Marx himself certainly would have been on the side of those wishing to right the wrongs of this world. But the Left’s task was not, for him, the immediate, moralistic alleviation of suffering. Rather, it was to advance the crisis of history to the point of revealing its own solution in no uncertain terms. The unfreedom characteristic of capitalism was thus for Marx the necessary, if brutal, condition for a future kind of freedom that could only be fashioned therefrom. To seek to implement a social justice vision based on ancient values, whether Christian or ‘indigenous,’ would be to obscure a higher and more fitting type of society, the potential for which the marketization of water, however absurd, reveals.
Perhaps this will become clearer if we trace humanity’s relationship to water historically.
We can imagine that we began our relationship to water collectively, naturally. For a long time, perhaps, human groups lived enmeshed in nature as any other animal. Humanity encountered nature not as a medium to enhance its own self-possession but rather as the necessary backdrop to its animal life. We may think of our relationship to nature much as we imagine the fish’s relationship to water.
Of course, going all the way back to Rousseau, it has been posited that the notion of private property was alien to this, dare we say, state of nature. This is perhaps well illustrated by the example of water. Something so life-giving, so dangerous, and so obviously out of anyone’s individual control would have literally been inconceivable in bourgeois market terms. Reliable access to potable water was probably a pressing concern for our earliest ancestors. Undoubtedly, individuals and perhaps whole groups fought and killed each other for it. No wonder then that so many endowed water with divine or anthropomorphic characteristics. Water took its place as another being alternatively aiding and hindering us in our bleak and pointless struggle to survive.
But obviously humanity did not persist in this state forever. Eventually, occurring at different paces in different times and places, we began to change our relationship to nature. Instead of a collective of forces necessary to our survival but ultimately out of our control, nature became a source of investigation, manipulation, and eventually mastery for human beings. Rather than scrounge and hunt we learned to farm and raise animals. We forced the earth to become more productive by learning the laws that governed it and taking conscious control over them. As a result, we changed the relationships that bound us to each other. Out of small groups arose societies and the first cultures. Material reality changed what it meant to be and become human and empowered us to express ourselves scientifically, artistically, religiously, poetically, gastronomically, etc.
But this change could only have come about through a novel problematization of what had hitherto been uncritically accepted. We could no longer relate to nature naturally, carelessly, or collectively. To bring about and institutionalize the agricultural revolution, we began to relate to nature in an appropriative way. Nature may have retained its divinity, spirituality, or anthropomorphism, but our default mode of interacting with it as a communal species began to hinder us.
As we left the state of nature to inhabit the state of society, our old relationship to water raised a new problem: that of our dependence on nature. Just as we were coming into awareness of becoming beings for ourselves, nature reminded us just how much we still had to learn in order to define our own destiny self-consciously. The freedom that society offered was superior to that enjoyed in the state of nature and ultimately incompatible with the social relationships underpinning it. Our relationship to water thus had to change in order for us to achieve higher iterations of our own potential.
So we solved the problem in a sense, or translated it in another. Access to water (and now we’re no longer talking exclusively about potable water but also shipping, hydraulics, etc.) became subject to the hierarchy of class. In direct proportion as our ability to tame water grew (think of Roman aqueducts or the irrigation channels of the Yellow River), our access to it was reduced. If everyone in the natural community could freely access water, now such a ‘right’ or ‘freedom’ was refracted through the inequalities of class society. Those at the top would have had the best and most ready access, with those at the bottom likely having to fend for themselves. What’s more is that everyone, regardless of their position in this hierarchy, would have defended it if transgressed. If a lowly slave, serf, Untouchable, etc., attempted to usurp the ‘rights’ of the elites and arrogate water for themselves, even their fellow low-lifes would punish them. It doesn’t matter that water is essential for life itself. In exchange for solving the problem of scarcity, we elected to enter into unequal social relationships that cost much human life.
But that is not the point. Rather, in expressing a biological need as a function of social reality, class society elevated the problem of what it means to be human. Humanity’s potential is to be a self-defining species, i.e., to become whatever it wishes to be and to be whatever it is capable of becoming. Human beings can objectify their own consciousness and imagination of how the world could be through their productive interaction with the world as it is. We can change the world simply because we want to, and this in turn endows us with great power, power that we have still not fully tapped into. It may be ludicrous to think that we’re the only such species, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. We are the universe on a crash course to full self-consciousness and -determination. We are nature transforming itself. Nature becomes human through our productive labor.
At least, all of the history of class society revealed this truth to the great bourgeois thinkers from Rousseau to Marx. This is why they could observe that what we gained by becoming social beings was worth what we lost when we ceased to be natural beings. However, the freedom society offers is also just as corrupting, regressive, and even naturalizing. As society comes to take on a natural, self-evident, alien quality, then the wonders of civilization appear as “glittering misery,” in the words of Kant. Society remains a project to be actualized. The longer it lies stagnant, the more we romanticize the ancient past. But more on this later.
Bourgeois social relations obviously mark not so much a break with class society as a further heightening of its transformative potential. The modern world is driven by the dynamo of human beings relating to each other via their labor. The oppressive ties of caste, community, compulsory religion, gender—in short, the unpurposive, eternal reproduction of social life along the same well-worn wagon ruts—burst open when political institutions were established to guarantee the right to labor. Labor in turn became the ground of all other rights: people (as citizens) are free to the extent that they labor.
Again, obviously paradise is still a long way off. But the point is that such an arrangement raises the stakes. Human ingenuity, unleashed and objectified through the regime of private property, can find a solution to the fact that every human being needs around two to four liters of water per day just to get out of bed the following morning. We no longer need to depend on the fickle bounty of nature to receive our daily drink. And now, society itself reveals how increasingly absurd it is to wait our turn in the social hierarchy until the elites have quenched themselves, leaving the thirsty with next to nothing. Only on the basis of humanity’s journey through class society has a means of overcoming this most recent obstacle revealed itself. And we call this capitalism.
Capitalism presents the problem of water as one of our dependence on society. The self-contradiction of unemployment in an industrial mode of production reveals the self-undermining nature of labor. It reveals that we no longer need to coerce people to work in order to reproduce the vastness of society and its wealth. The mode of production could work autonomously as a function of technology, thereby freeing people to choose to work and infinitely expand our species’ capacity for freedom through their voluntary labor. Indeed, the increasing technologization of life shows ever-more the farce that is the daily societal drama of going to work, simultaneously willingly and yet coerced. But for the profit needs of a few, we could very easily invent machines to artificially synthesize drinking water. We could line the salty coasts of the world with free desalination. We could cooperate and compromise to rationally organize everyone’s access to shipping lanes, fishing spots, etc. We could even artificially create fish in a lab for a fraction of the cost and with more taste and nutrients. Why not turn that technology back on our own bodies and come up with a way to eliminate the biological need for water itself? Then we would truly fulfill the bourgeois ethos and drink not on biological command but purely for pleasure’s sake.
But of course, capitalism means nothing but the self-contradiction of our own freedom. Any technological attempts to resolve this contradiction only end up deepening and entrenching it. That is why the machines have not automatically made us free. Instead, they have rendered redundant more and more people, not jobs. Only socialism would allow us to confront the problem of our dependence on society head-on. For all its likely horrors, socialism would thus constitute the higher stage of what is already the highest stage of history. It would bring us one giant step closer to complete self-determination as a species. We could, in other words, elevate the problem of water from its current manifestation as a question of society to a question of technology.
I mentioned earlier that the longer the world must wait for socialism, the more undesirable such a transition seems. Freedom in and through society must be actively exercised; and much like an inconsistent but earnest gym-rat, skipping workouts altogether makes it that much harder to go back.
Today’s Left fetishizes indigeneity into an anti-capitalistic impetus for turning back the historical clock. The Left seems willing to revert to a time of primitive communism before class society. It wishes to dramatically and instantaneously democratize access to water such that we revert to an earlier stage of our collective existence, to a time when nature dominated us as an insurmountable horizon. The Left would fight to preserve a mode of existence that history has already revealed to be insufficient and irreversibly outdated: namely, the ‘indigenous’ tribal unit.
Human beings are not meant to live like they did 10,000, 1,000, or even 100 years ago. There is no moral or Eurocentric reason for this. It is simply made true by the way in which history has moved on since the misty days of our species’ youth. Yet the Left would return us there. It would cancel those who see the potential of capitalism and perhaps violently arrest the dynamism of the modern era. Its motivation is spot-on, though. Let’s not equivocate on that. The Left’s discontent and resentment at how the world has turned out is justified. So justified, in fact, that it alone, and not the Right, holds the keys to unlocking the future. But that does not mean it must be left to its own devices. That does not mean that we should consider sacrosanct every ‘exotic’ alternative to ‘Western’ solutions. Defeating Line 3, returning guardianship of water to indigenous nations, communalizing water utilities (as opposed to, say, the most quintessentially modern example of water privatization: Chile), improving the quality of public water, democratizing shipping and fishing rights, destroying bottled water companies—all these initiatives may improve people’s lives. But that is not the point of the Left, at least not as Marx envisioned it.
For Marx, socialism was merely the vehicle for raising the problem of human freedom to consciousness. It was not a moral vision equal to, say, a secularization of the Beatitudes. Socialism was to be the logical fulfillment of capitalism, the extension of private property to all of society, and thus would make good on the history of humanity’s meandering through the confusing maze of its own transformative potential. Socialism may be nasty, brutish, and short, perhaps even more so than capitalism, but this would all be for a purpose. The violence unleashed consciously by the dictatorship of the proletariat would serve to empower humans to eliminate the violence of their own social relations. The privatization of all of society, the forced labor, all of it would exist to demonstrate practically both the obsolescence of private property and the practical ability to move beyond it.
Today’s Left may no longer wish to be ‘Marxist.’ That is fine, so long as it is honest. The desire to make the world better is genuine but naive. Its naivete rests on the fact that it fails to grasp how it reconstitutes the status quo with every attempt to transcend it. Marxism once posited socialism as necessarily possible due to the unfreedom and brutality of capitalism. That is, capitalism exists for the purpose of socialism. You don’t have to believe that. Indeed, the intervening history since Marx’s time makes such a statement seem ridiculous. No wonder the Left turns to indigenous nations who supposedly lie ‘outside’ of ‘Western’ history. They are made into the keepers of traditions of justice that have persisted in the face of hundreds of years of colonialism and that, as a result, have hardened into the only viable path into a harmonious future.
But what is this except the rankest essentialism? It is not only farcical to think that indigenous nations have resisted or not participated in Hegel’s “slaughter-bench” of history, but it is also racist. Indigenous nations of this hemisphere and beyond all have played an integral role in making the world as it is today. As such, they are no more guilty or innocent than anyone else (and everyone is ‘indigenous’ to somewhere). To exoticize indigenous nations is to condemn them. The Left, in order to be consistent, would thus have to cancel itself over such blatant racism.
Our only salvation is history. The fact that history, including Marxism, has appeared Western, colonial, or violent does not mitigate this fact. Only by embracing it so as to overcome it can we make good on its promises. Only then could we make the tragic fact of human beings dying of thirst mean something. It falls on us to redeem the past, not return to it. Thus the Left ought to reconsider its anti-history, Stalinist, racist indigenism when it comes to water rights. Justice that subverts the hard-won gains of history, justice that reverts a higher-order problem into a retrograde one, is no justice at all.
Wes Vanderburgh is a member of the Communist Party USA based in Washington, D.C. They strive to create the conditions for the reemergence of the revolutionary left in the United States and beyond.