Capitalism, nature, socialism
A theoretical introduction1
Those who insist that [environmental destruction] has nothing to do with Marxism merely ensure that what they choose to call Marxism will have nothing to do with what happens in the world.
In 1944, Karl
Polányi published his masterpiece, The Great Transformation
, which discussed the ways in which the growth of the capitalist market impaired or destroyed its own social and environmental conditions.2
Despite the fact that this book is alive with insights into the problem of economic development and the social and natural environment, it was widely forgotten. The subject of the ecological limits to economic growth and the interrelationships between development and environment were reintroduced into Western bourgeois thought in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The results have been mixed and highly dubious. Polányi’s work remains a shining light in a heaven filled with dying stars and black holes of bourgeois naturalism, neo Malthusianism, Club of Rome technocratism, romantic deep ecologism, and United Nations one-worldism (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987
exploitation, capitalist crisis, uneven and combined capitalist development, national independence struggles, and so on are missing from these kinds of accounts. The results of these and most other modern efforts to discuss the problem of capitalism, nature, and socialism wither on the vine because they fail to focus on the nature of specifically capitalist scarcity: that is, the process whereby capital is its own barrier or limit because of its self-destructive forms of
proletarianization of human nature and appropriation of labour and capitalization of external nature.3
The usual approaches to the problem – the identification of “limits to growth” in terms of “resource scarcity,” “ecological fragility,” “harmful industrial
technology,” “destructive cultural values,” “tragedy of the
commons,” “overpopulation,” “wasteful consumption,” “production treadmill,” etc. either ignore or mangle Marx’s theories of historically produced forms of nature and capitalist accumulation and development.
This should not be surprising since Marx wrote little pertaining to the ways that capital limits itself by impairing its own social and environmental conditions, hence increasing the costs and expenses of capital, thereby threatening capital’s ability to produce profits, i.e., threatening
economic crisis. More, he wrote little or nothing about the effects of social struggles organized around the provision of the conditions of production on the costs and expenses and variability of capital. Nor did he theorize the relationship between social and material dimensions of production conditions, excepting his extended discussion of ground rent (i.e., social relation between landed and industrial capital and material and economic relation between raw materials and industrial production).
Marx was, however, convinced of at least three things. The first was that deficiencies of production conditions or “natural conditions” (“bad harvest”) may take the form of economic crisis.4
Second, he was convinced of the more general proposition that some barriers to production are truly external to the mode of production (“the productiveness of labour is fettered by physical conditions”)5
but that in capitalism these barriers assume the form of economic crisis.6
Put another way, some barriers are “general,” not “specific” to capitalism. What is specific is the way these barriers assume the form of crisis. Third, Marx believed that capitalist agriculture and silviculture are harmful to nature, as well as that capitalist exploitation is harmful to human
In sum, Marx believed that capitalist farming (for example) ruined soil quality. He was also clear that bad harvests take the form of economic costs. However, although he did state that a rational agriculture is incompatible with capitalism,7
he never considered the possibility that ecologically destructive methods of agriculture might raise the costs of the elements of capital, which, in turn, might threaten an economic crisis of a particular type: namely, underproduction of capital.8
Put another way, Marx never put two and two together to argue that “natural barriers” may be capitalistically produced barriers, i.e., a “second” capitalized nature.9
In other words, there may exist a contradiction of capitalism which leads to an “ecological” theory of crisis and social transformation.
Two kinds of crisis theory
The point of departure for the traditional Marxist theory of economic crisis and the transition to
socialism is the contradiction between capitalist productive forces and production relations.10
The specific form of this contradiction is between the production and realization of
value and surplus value, or between the production and circulation of capital. The agency of socialist
revolution is the
working class. Capitalist production relations constitute the immediate object of social transformation. The site of transformation is politics and the state and the process of production and exchange.
By contrast, the point of departure for an “ecological Marxist”11
theory of economic crisis and transition to socialism is the contradiction between capitalist production relations (and productive forces) and the conditions of capitalist production, or “capitalist relations and forces of social reproduction.”12
Marx defined three kinds of production conditions. The first is “external physical conditions,”13
or the natural elements entering into constant and variable capital. Second, the “labour power” of workers was defined as the “personal conditions of production.” Third, Marx referred to “the communal, general conditions of social production, e.g., ‘means of communication.’ ” (Marx 1973
, 533; see also Folin 1979
Today “external physical conditions” arc discussed in terms of the viability of ecosystems; the adequacy of atmospheric ozone levels; the stability of coastlines and watersheds; soil, air and water quality; and so on. “Labour power” is discussed in terms of the physical and mental well-being of workers, the kind and degree of socialization, toxicity of work relations and the workers’ ability to cope, and human beings as social productive forces and biological organisms generally. “Communal conditions” are discussed in terms of “social capital,” “infrastructure,” and so on. Implied in the concepts of “external physical conditions,” “labour power,” and
“communal conditions” are the concepts of space and “social environment.” We include as a production condition, therefore, “urban space” (“urban capitalized nature”) and other forms of space which structure and are structured by the relationship between people and “environment,”14
which in turn helps produce social environments. In short, production conditions include commodified or capitalized materiality and sociality, excluding
commodity production, distribution, and exchange themselves.
The specific form of the contradiction between capitalist production relations (and forces) and production conditions is also between the production and realization of value and surplus value. The agency of social transformation is “new social movements” or new social struggles, including struggles within production over workplace health and safety, toxic waste production and disposal, and so on. The social relationships of reproduction of the conditions of production (e.g., state and family as structures of social relations and also the relations of production themselves insofar as “new struggles” occur within capitalist production) constitute the immediate object of social transformation. The immediate site of transformation is the material process of reproduction of production conditions (e.g., division of labour within the family, land use patterns, education, etc.) and the production process itself, again insofar as new struggles occur within the capitalist workplace.
In traditional Marxist theory, the contradiction between production and realization of value and economic crisis takes the form of a “realization crisis,” or overproduction of capital. In ecological Marxist theory, economic crisis assumes the form of a “liquidity crisis,” or underproduction of capital. In traditional theory, economic crisis is the cauldron in which capital restructures productive forces and production relations in ways which make both more transparently social in form and content, e.g., indicative planning, nationalization, profit-sharing, etc. In ecological Marxism, economic crisis is the cauldron in which capital restructures the conditions of production also in ways which make them more transparently social in form and content, e.g., permanent yield forests, land reclamation, regional land use and/or resource planning, population policy, health policy, labour market regulation, toxic waste disposal planning, etc.
In traditional theory, the development of more social forms of productive forces and production relations is regarded as a necessary but not sufficient condition for the transition to socialism. In ecological Marxism, the development of more social forms of the provision of the conditions of production also may be regarded as a necessary but not sufficient condition for socialism. It should be quickly added that an “ecological socialism” would be different than that imagined by traditional Marxism, first because, from the perspective of the “conditions of production,” most struggles have strong, particularistic “romantic anti-capitalist” dimensions (i.e., are “defensive” rather than “offensive”) and second because it has become obvious that much capitalist technology, forms of work, etc., including the ideology of material progress, have become part of the problem, not the solution. In sum, there may be not one but two paths to socialism or, to be more accurate, two tendencies which together lead to increased (albeit historically reversible) socialization of productive forces, production relations, conditions of production, and social relations of reproduction of these conditions.
The traditional Marxist account of capitalism as a crisis-ridden system
In traditional Marxism, the contradiction between the production and circulation of capital is “internal” to capitalism because capitalist production is not only commodity production but also production of surplus value (i.e., exploitation of labour). It is a valorization process in which capitalists extract not only socially necessary labour (labour required to reproduce constant
and variable capital) but also
surplus labour from the
working class. Everything else being the same,15
any given amount of surplus
value produced and/or any given rate of
exploitation will have the effect of creating a particular shortfall of
commodity demand at market
prices. Or, put the opposite way, any particular shortage of commodity demand presupposes a given amount of surplus value produced and/or a given rate of exploitation. Further, the greater the amount of surplus value produced and/or the higher the rate of exploitation, the greater the difficulty of realizing value and surplus value in the market. Thus, the basic problem of capitalism is, where does the extra commodity demand which is required to buy the product of surplus labour originate? Time-honored answers include capitalist class consumption; capital investment which is made independently of changes in wage advances and consumer demand; markets created by these new investments; new investment, consumption, or government spending financed by expanded business, consumer, or government credit; the theft of markets of other capitals and/or capitals in other countries; and so on. However, these “solutions” to the problem of value realization (that of maintaining a level of aggregate demand for commodities which is sufficient to maintain a given rate of profit without threatening economic crisis and the devaluation of fixed capital) turn into other kinds of potential “problems” of capitalism. Capitalist consumption constitutes an unproductive use of surplus value, as does the utilization of ...