Romantic anti-capitalism: an interview with Michael Löwy

Winter 2024 #44
written by
Michael Löwy with Jonny Gordon-Farleigh
illustration by
Andrei Nicolescu

Your 2019 book Romantic Anti-capitalism and Nature argues there is an “elective affinity” between romanticism, anti-capitalism, and ecology. Through the works of the likes of Cole – a landscape painter, Morris – an artist and activist, Benjamin – a social philosopher, and Williams – a cultural critic, you explore the “essential links” between the destruction of nature and the rise of capitalism in different historical periods and cultural contexts. 

Can you outline your conception of ‘romantic anticapitalism’, and explain its historical, political, and anthropological (and so on) sources? 

I developed the concept of “romantic anticapitalism” in several writings with my friend Robert Sayre. For us, romanticism is much more than a literary school of the early nineteenth century. It is a world-view (Weltanschauung) that is present in all fields of cultural life: poetry, literature, art, philosophy, anthropology, political theory, historiography – and even political economy (Lenin wrote an essay in 1897, A characterisation of romantic economicism). Romanticism appeared by the mid-eighteenth century, with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and one of its first representatives was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In 1755 he published his treatise, Discourse on the origin and foundations of inequality among human beings: a sort of inaugural manifesto of political romanticism. And against the established wisdom, romanticism does not end by 1830 nor 1848. It continues until today.

What is the “rational kernel” of the romantic world-view? It is a social and cultural protest against the modern industrial capitalist civilisation, in the name of past, pre-capitalist, pre-modern values. Romantics denounce the capitalist disenchantment of the world, the quantification (monetisation) of everything, the replacement of human relations by the “cash nexus”. They rejected capitalism because, to paraphrase Marx in the The Communist Manifesto, capitalism has drowned religious fervour, chivalrous enthusiasm, and common sentimentalism “in the icy waters of egotistical calculation”. There is a passage in Marx’s Grundrisse which remarkably summarises the issue: in previous stages of development, life had a greater plenitude. The romantics would like to return to this past plenitude, but this is as absurd as to accept the present bourgeois emptiness. However, as long as the bourgeois society exists, its legitimate romantic critique will exist too. The only thing missing in this passage is the revolutionary, or utopian, romanticism. 

One of the principal challenges to the ‘romantic critique’ is that it can become backward-looking – overly focused on “loss” or a return to an imagined or real past.

Against these reactionary perspectives, you argue not for a return to but rather a “detour” through the past, one that ultimately rescues ‘pre-modern values’ as inspiration for a more democratic future. Can you firstly explain why romanticism has been perceived as controversial, and secondly, how the “romantic rebellion” has been politically useful in recent centuries? 

As the romantic world-view refers to past values, or past forms of life, it has been often considered as “reactionary” by progressive thinking in general, and by many Marxists. That is the reason why any attempt to reclaim the romantic heritage from a Marxist perspective has been highly controversial. Of course, there has always existed a “regressive” romanticism, which dreamt of “returning” to the lost paradise (of Christianity, of aristocracy, of medieval culture, etc). But there existed also a democratic, utopian and/or revolutionary romanticism, which did not propose a “return” but, as you mentioned, a “detour” through the past, towards the utopian future. The reference to the past, to pre-capitalist values, is used to criticise the capitalist present; in the emancipated future these lost values will be retrieved, but in a new, “modern”, form. 

Rousseau was the first of those revolutionary romantics; and he inspired, as we know, the French Revolution. Many nineteenth-century romantics, such as William Blake, or Hölderlin, or Victor Hugo, were partisans of the French Revolution. Marx and Engels were not romantics, but the romantic anti-capitalist critique of Sismondi, Balzac, or Carlyle, was one of their most important sources, usually neglected. At the end of the nineteenth century we find an eminent Marxist romantic thinker and socialist activist, William Morris. During the twentieth century, we had the revolutionary movement of surrealism, defined by André Breton in 1930 as “the queue of the romantic comet”. In Latin America, José Carlos Mariátegui represents a “de-colonial” version of romantic Marxism: he believed that the “Inca communism” which existed before the Spanish colonial conquest is still alive in the collectivist traditions of the indigenous communities, and could be the foundation for a modern communist movement in Peru and Latin America. 

In terms of recent ecological movements, many have been motivated by romanticism in ways that figures such as Raymond Williams might criticise as “non-political.” These approaches can also be non-systematic, such as having a narrow focus on certain pathologies, such as “fossil capital”, while also being in favour of market solutions to the climate crisis.

How can the romantic critique more reliably lead to widespread criticism of capitalism? 

The focus of “non-political” ecological movements on certain pathologies, instead of the capitalist system itself, is not exclusive to the romantic approach: it has to do with a more general narrowing of the critical approach to immediate partial issues. However, one can hardly conceive of a romantic ecologist who favours market (i.e. capitalist) solutions: from the perspective of Robert Sayre and myself, those who accept the rules of the capitalist system cannot be considered as “romantic”. 

However, those who emphasise the fight against “fossil capital” are in fact dealing with a very essential element of the system: one can hardly imagine a capitalist economy without the fossil capital in the large meaning – oil, coal, gas and the related industries of chemicals, plastics, cars. Many capitalist governments speak of “ecological transition” and development of renewable energies, but show no sign of stopping the massive exploitation and use of fossil energies. At the recent COP28 meeting in Dubai, there has been talk of “reducing” fossil fuel exploration, but only one government, that of Colombia, has committed not to explore new sources of oil, coal, or gas. Meanwhile OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) plans to increase their production and maintain that oil will continue to be explored for many years in the future.

There are widely different sorts of romantic-anti-capitalist criticism, some of which focus only on certain aspects, while others develop a much broader and “anti-systemic” approach. Most of the authors or artists which we discuss in our book belong to this second category. Of course, the combination of romanticism with Marxism – as with William Morris, Walter Benjamin, Raymond Williams – leads, logically, to a global rejection of the capitalist system.

It’s true, a sectoral battle against “fossil capital” will probably undermine an essential element of the system. At the same time, it is often underestimated how the process of decarbonisation could also lead to an almost unimaginable reindustrialisation of the economy. From the perspective of capital, the shift to renewable energy sources will be nothing less than an industrial transition. It will not be as destructive as “fossil capital”, but it will certainly be undesirable from the Romantic perspective. 

One of the current expressions of romantic anticapitalism is ‘localism’, with its attractive images of small-scale communities, and its inherent critique of scale – or more specifically “bigness”. While localism is a legitimate response to the abstractions of the economy, it can also create false prescriptions and undermine wider capacities to effect structural change. 

Is localism a useful form of ‘romantic rebellion’? If so, how can it be connected to a more universal approach? 

Localism is not necessarily related to romantic anticapitalism. There are partisans of localism which are not romantic, nor opposed to capitalism. But of course, there exists a sort of “romantic localism”, which refers to an idealised past of village life, or small artisan shops, or communitarian bonds, to reject capitalist “big” structures. 

The connection to a broader perspective can be achieved by linking these local experiences to a social-political anti-capitalist movement, struggling against the system. Let us think, for instance, of the Zapatista villages of Chiapas, where the local administration of the indigenous communities, based on their communal pre-capitalist traditions, is part of a broad revolutionary movement. Or of the struggle of the Sioux tribes against the Dakota XL Pipeline in the US, which received the wider support of ecologists, trade-unionists, and other leftists, and became a central political fight. 

Illustration by Andrei Nicolescu

Departing from the literary definition of romanticism, where it is typically placed between the late-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, your study extends the “period” through to the twenty-first century – a stage of history that has experienced the almost uninterrupted “destruction of nature”. 

Where do you currently see an opportunity for the ‘romantic critique’ to make a return in modern society? 

We (Sayre and myself) deal with this question in our conclusion. We believe that the strong intellectual, emotional, and cultural relation between the Romantic Zivilisationskritik and ecology, or, in other words, the Romantic protest against capitalist modernity and the care for “Mother Nature”, as documented in the works of the six authors discussed in our book, is not a thing of the past, but quite relevant for contemporary – and, probably, future – times.

Let us choose an example that is at the same time a social movement, a political discourse, and a cultural sphere: one could call it indigenism. This term has many and contradictory meanings, but the most relevant here refers to social and political movements aiming at the emancipation – or self-emancipation – of the indigenous populations of the Americas. It appears with the Mexican Revolution of 1911-17, and receives a Marxist interpretation in the writings of the Peruvian socialist Jose Carlos Mariategui in the late 1920s. It became widespread in the twenty-first century, even being adopted as official policy by some leftist governments, such as Evo Morales in Bolivia. 

During recent years, in the American continent, from Canada and the United States to Latin America, indigenous communities are fighting in defence of their land, water, and forests, against pipelines, gold mines, oil companies, and industrial agro-business. They have become the centre of the struggle for the environment. This is true not only through their local actions, but also in that they propose an alternative way of life to that of neo-liberal globalised capitalism. The political culture of indigenism, as expressed in documents of the movements and of their supporters in the broader society, in songs, prayers, literary works, movies, and theoretical essays, has a powerful romantic and ecological dimension: criticism of modern (capitalist) devastation of “Mother Earth” is inspired by pre-capitalist communitarian traditions, spiritual values, and a magical relation to Nature as a sacred realm. 

Resistance by indigenous peoples, then, has very concrete and immediate motivations – to save their forests or water resources – in their battle for survival. However, it also corresponds to a deep antagonism between the culture, way of life, spirituality, and values of these communities and the “spirit of capitalism” as Max Weber defined it: the subjection of all activity to profit calculations, profitability as sole criterion and the quantification and reification (Versachlichung) of all social relations. There is a sort of "negative affinity" between indigenous ethics and the spirit of capitalism – the converse of the elective affinity between the Protestant ethic and capitalism – a profound socio-cultural antagonism. 

This example illustrates two important arguments: firstly, the connection discussed in our book is not limited to Europe, but has a universal dimension. Secondly, it can be expressed in a social movement and not only in individual authors or artists. ∞

Michael Löwy is a French-Brazilian Marxist sociologist and philosopher. He is emeritus research director in social sciences at the CNRS (French National Center of Scientific Research) and lectures at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales.

Winter 2024 #44

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