Eco-Marxist analysis of “Economy”

Thoreau muses throughout “Economy” on the way men spend their lives in a capitalist America, and he betrays himself as feeling rather disenfranchised by the circumstances. He argues, “He has no time to be any thing but a machine” (7), and further, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (8). The first statement can be linked to the eco-Marxist idea that capitalism commodifies nature and humans, reduces everything to a resource and thereby dismisses intrinsic value. Thoreau’s second assertion is also clearly linked to a Marxist conception of the working-class male as overworked and undervalued in a consumer society.

The thread of a solution to the ills of capitalism running through “Economy” seems to be a redefining of the “necessaries of life” (11). Garrard discusses the eco-Marxists claim that “‘scarcity’ is not simply an objective fact about the natural world, but a function of the will and means of capital: the purposes that guide production, and the technologies that facilitate it” (28). In other words, humans assign value to things arbitrarily in order to serve economic growth. Thoreau argues only the necessaries of life—“Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel” (11)—should be so heavily valued. In this way, he depicts an alternative to consumerism resembling low-impact commune life.

Garrard also explains how eco-Marxists straddle the division between monism and dualism in their conception of where humans belong in nature. They tend to view humans as having two natures, the first with which we’re born and that connects us in some way to nature at large, and the second that we craft over time, a socioeconomic identity that has ultimately come to separate us from nature. I would argue Thoreau is of rather the same belief, evident in his frequent assertion that there is a plurality of viewpoints in the world. In “Economy”, he writes, “What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one [star] at the same moment! Nature and human life are as various as our several constitutions. Who shall say what prospect life offers to another?” (10) This exuberant argument simultaneously suggests a fundamental connection between all beings and a clear distinction between humans and a broader idea of nature, creating a sort of spectrum with monism on one side and dualism on the other.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. I agree with your acknowledgement of the ideological critiques in “Economy”, it is clear that one could take a marxist reading of Thoreau. However, I think that it is dangerous to reduce his perspective in this way because you remove the potential for a transcendental understanding of his work. While his arguments about capitalism and the socioeconomic nature of American society are important to this text, I think that there are other themes equally as important.

  2. I think you articulated the monism and dualism of Eco-Marxicism very eloquently and have a very fluid understanding of Thoreau’s theology. Being born into the world connected with nature and then developing our own socioeconomic identities within our environments says to me that culture IS the disconnect between man and nature. Thoreau makes some valid arguments as to how civilization has separated the two, but moreso he acts on his beliefs by stepping away from society and reconnecting himself to nature. However, I’m not sure if his alternative to consumerism could realistically apply to everyone. I think going back to the basic necessities of life would be better for both humankind and the natural world, but much like the criticism of bioregionalism, is it not a panacea. For one, there has been irreperable damage to our environments and secondly civilized people are not likely to abandon their higher standard of living that capitalism affords them. The ‘green’ movement in America is as radical as I think the mass population is willing to go.

    The reductionist theory you approach in the first paragraph is also very complex. If you think about Thoreau’s arguments together, not only does capitalism devalue our environment to the extent of exploiting natural resources, but it also allows us to exploit humans, devaluing the human workforce to a mere resource to maximize profit. According to Garrard, social ecologists understand this, “In place of a worker’s revolution, social ecologists promote exemplary lifestyles and communities that prefigure a more general social transformation and give people practice in sustainable living and participatory democracy (Garrard 30).” We need to combat the reductionist ideology by being aware of how we treat the environment and how we treat each other.

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