8/12 Marx (and Engels) on nature : Daniel Tanuro
- 1 Karl Marx, HUMAN METABOLISM, NECESSITY AND FREEDOM
- 2 Karl Marx, LARGE SCALE INDUSTRY AND AGROBUSINESS
- 3 Karl Marx, PRIVATE PROPERTY, AGRICULTURE AND FORESTRY
- 4 Karl Marx, RENT, PRICE OF THE SOIL AND ABSURDITY OF ITS PRIVATE PROPERTY
- 5 Karl Marx, LABOR IS NOT THE SOURCE OF ALL WEALTH AND CULTURE
- 6 Karl Marx, MODERN INDUSTRY AND AGRICULTURE
- 7 Karl Marx, SOCIAL AND NATURAL PRODUCTIVITY
- 8 Trotsky:Dialectical materialism and science (1925)
- 9 D.TANURO:ENERGY AND ECOLOGY:THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
Karl Marx, HUMAN METABOLISM, NECESSITY AND FREEDOM
(Marx, Capital, III, Penguin Classics, p. 959)
Surplus labour in some form must always remain, as labour beyond the extent of given needs. It is just that in the capitalist, as in the slave system, etc., it has an antagonistic form and its obverse side is pure idleness on the part of one section of society. A certain quantum of surplus labour is required as insurance against accidents and for the progressive extension of the reproduction process that is needed to keep pace with the development of needs and the progress of population. It is one of the civilizing aspects of capital that it extorts this surplus labour in a manner and in conditions that are more advantageous to social relations and to the creation of elements for a new and higher formation than was the case under the earlier forms of slavery; serfdom, etc.
Thus on the one hand it leads towards a stage at which compulsion and the monopolization of social development (with its material and intellectual advantages) by one section of society at the expense of another disappears ; on the other hand it creates the material means and the nucleus for relations that permit thissurplus labour to be combined, in a higher form of society, with a greater reduction of the overall time devoted to material labour. For, according to the development of labour productivity, surplus labour can be great when the total working day is short and relatively small when the total working day is long. If the necessary labour-time is 3 hours and surplus labour also 3 hours, the total working day is 6 hours and the rate' of surplus labour 100 per cent. If the necessary labour is 9 hours and the surplus labour 3 hours, the total working day is 12 hours and the rate of surplus labour only 33-}- per cent. It then depends on the productivity of labour how much use-value is produced in a given time, and also therefore in a given surplus labour-time. The real wealth of society and the possibility of a constant expansion of its reproduction process does not depend on the length of surplus labour but rather on its productivity and on the more or less plentiful conditions of production in which it is performed. The realm of freedom really begins only where labour determined by necessity and external expediency ends ; it lies by its very nature beyond the sphere of material production proper. Just as the savage must wrestle with nature to satisfy his needs, to maintain and reproduce his life,so must civilized man, and he must do so in all fo rms of society and under all possible modes of production. This realm of natural necessity expands with his development, because his needs do too; but the productive fo rces to sati sfy these expand at the same time. Freedom, in this sphere, can consist only in this, that socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power ; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for their human nature. But this always remains a realm of necessity. The true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as an end in itself, begins beyond it, though it can only flourish with this realm of necessity as its basis. The reduction of the working day is the basic prerequisite.
Karl Marx, LARGE SCALE INDUSTRY AND AGROBUSINESS
(Marx, idem, page 949-950)
Small-scale landownership presupposes that the overwhelming majority of the popUlation is agricultural and that isolated labour predominates over social; wealth and the development of reproduction, therefore, both in its material and its intellectual aspects, is ruled out under these circumstances, and with this also the conditions for a rational agriculture. On the other hand, large landed property reduces the agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum and confronts it with an ever growing industrial population crammed together in large towns ; in this way it produces conditions that provoke an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The result of this is a squandering of the vitality of the soil, which is' carried by trade far beyond the bounds of a single country. (Liebig.) If small-scale landownership creates a class of barbarians standing half outside society, combining all the crudity of primitive social forms with all the torments and misery of civilized countries, large landed property undermines labour-power in the final sphere to which its indigenous energy flees, and where it is stored up as a reserve fund for renewing the vital power of the nation, on the land itself. Large-scale industry and industrially pursued large-scale agriculture have the same effect. If they are originally distinguished by the fact that the former lays waste and ruins labour-power and thus the natural power of man, whereas the latter does the same to the natural power of the soil, they link up in the later course of development, since the industrial system applied to agriculture also enervates the workers there, while industry and trade for their part provide - agriculture with the means of exhausting the soil.
Karl Marx, PRIVATE PROPERTY, AGRICULTURE AND FORESTRY
(Marx, idem, footnote p. 754)
Quite conservative agricultural chemists, such as Johnston, for example, admit that private property places insuperable barriers on all sides to a genuinely rational agriculture. So too do writers who are professed defenders of the monopoly of private property in the earth, such as M. Charles Comte, * for instance, in a two-volume work which has the defence of private ownership as its special purpose. 'A people,' he says, • cannot attain the degree of wellbeing and power that their nature grants them unless each part of the land that sustains them receives the destiny that stands most in harmony with the general interest. In order to give their riches a substantial development, a single will, and above all an enlightened one, if possible, must take in hand the disposal of each individual piece of their territory, and make each portion contribute towards the prosperity of all others. But the existence of such a will . . . would be incompatible with the division of the land into private holdings . . . and with guaranteeing the ability ,of each proprietor to dispose of his wealth in an almost absolute manner ' [Traite de fa propriete, Vol. I, Paris, 1 834, p. 228]. Johnston, Comte, etc., in considering the contradiction between property and a rational agronomy, are simply thinking of the cultivation of the land of a single country as a whole. But the way that the cultivation of particular crops depends on fluctuations in market prices and the constant changes in cultivation with these price fluctuations - the, entire spirit of capitalist production, which is oriented towards the most immediate monetary profit - stands in contradiction to agriculture, which has to concern itself with the whole gamut of permanent conditions of life required ' by the chain of human ' generations. A striking example of this is provided by forests, which are managed in the common interest - and even then only to a limited extent - solely in those rare cases when they are not private property but are subject to state administration.
Karl Marx, RENT, PRICE OF THE SOIL AND ABSURDITY OF ITS PRIVATE PROPERTY
(Marx, Capital III, idem P. 911)
It is necessary to distinguish whether the rent flows from an independent monopoly price fo r the products or the land itself, or whether the products are sold at a monopoly price because there is a rent. By monopoly price here we mean any price determined simply by the desire and ability of the buyer to pay, independently of the price of the product as determined by price of production and value. A vineyard bears a monopoly price if it produces wine which is of quite exceptional quality but can be produced only in a relatively small quantity. By virtue of this monopoly price, the wine-grower whose excess over the value of his product is determined purely and simply by the wealth and the preference of fashionable wine-drinkers can realize a substantial surplus profit. This surplus profit, which in this case flows from a monopoly price, is transformed into rent and accrues in this form to the landowner by virtue of his title to the portion of the earth endowed with these special properties. Here, therefore, the monopoly price . creates the rent. Conversely, the rent would create the monopoly price if corn were sold not only above its price of production but also above its value, as a . result of the barrier that landed property opposes against the rent-free investment of capital on untilled land. The fact that it is only the title a number of people have to property in the earth that enables them to appropriate a part of society's surplus labour as tribute and in an ever growing measure as production develops, is concealed by the fact that the capitalized rent, precisely this capitalized tribute, appears as the price of land, which can be bought and just like any other item of trade. For the buyer, therefore, his claim to rent does not appear as something obtained for nothing, Without labour, rIsk or the entrepreneurial spirit of capital, but rather as the return for his equivalent. Rent seems to him, as we have already noted, simply interest on the capital with which he has purchased the land, and with it the claim to rent. In exactly the same way, it appears to the slave owner who has bought a Negro slave that his property in the Negro is created not by the institution of slavery as such but rather by the purchase and sale of this commodity. But the purchase does not produce the title ' it simply transfers it. The title must be there before it can be bought, and neither one sale nor a series of such sales, their constant repetition, can create this title. It was entirely created by the relations of production. Once these have reached the point where they have to be sloughed off, then the material source, the economically and historically justified source of the title that arises from the process of life's social production, disappears, and with it all transactions based on it. From the standpoint of a higher socioeconomic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man III other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias
Karl Marx, LABOR IS NOT THE SOURCE OF ALL WEALTH AND CULTURE
(Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, Part I)
First part of the paragraph: "Labor is the source of all wealth and all culture." Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. the above phrase is to be found in all children's primers and is correct insofar as it is implied that labor is performed with the appurtenant subjects and instruments. But a socialist program cannot allow such bourgeois phrases to pass over in silence the conditions that lone give them meaning. And insofar as man from the beginning behaves toward nature, the primary source of all instruments and subjects of labor, as an owner, treats her as belonging to him, his labor becomes the source of use values, therefore also of wealth. The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor. He can only work with their permission, hence live only with their permission.
Karl Marx, MODERN INDUSTRY AND AGRICULTURE
Karl Marx. Capital Volume One
Chapter Fifteen: Machinery and Modern Industry
SECTION 10. MODERN INDUSTRY AND AGRICULTURE
The revolution called forth by modern industry in agriculture, and in the social relations of agricultural producers, will be investigated later on. In this place, we shall merely indicate a few results by way of anticipation. If the use of machinery in agriculture is for the most part free from the injurious physical effect it has on the factory operative, its action in superseding the labourers is more intense, and finds less resistance, as we shall see later in detail. In the counties of Cambridge and Suffolk, for example, the area of cultivated land has extended very much within the last 20 years (up to 1868), while in the same period the rural population has diminished, not only relatively, but absolutely. In the United States it is as yet only virtually that agricultural machines replace labourers; in other words, they allow of the cultivation by the farmer of a larger surface, but do not actually expel the labourers employed. In 1861 the number of persons occupied in England and Wales in the manufacture of agricultural machines was 1,034, whilst the number of agricultural labourers employed in the use of agricultural machines and steam-engines did not exceed 1,205. In the sphere of agriculture, modern industry has a more revolutionary effect than elsewhere, for this reason, that it annihilates the peasant, that bulwark of the old society, and replaces him by the wage-labourer. Thus the desire for social changes, and the class antagonisms are brought to the same level in the country as in the towns. The irrational, old-fashioned methods of agriculture are replaced by scientific ones. Capitalist production completely tears asunder the old bond of union which held together agriculture and manufacture in their infancy. But at the same time it creates the material conditions for a higher synthesis in the future, viz., the union of agriculture and industry on the basis of the more perfected forms they have each acquired during their temporary separation. Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centres, and causing an ever-increasing preponderance of town population, on the one hand concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil. By this action it destroys at the same time the health of the town labourer and the intellectual life of the rural labourer.  But while upsetting the naturally grown conditions for the maintenance of that circulation of matter, it imperiously calls for its restoration as a system, as a regulating law of social production, and under a form appropriate to the full development of the human race. In agriculture as in manufacture, the transformation of production under the sway of capital, means, at the same time, the martyrdom of the producer; the instrument of labour becomes the means of enslaving, exploiting, and impoverishing the labourer; the social combination and organisation of labour-processes is turned into an organised mode of crushing out the workman’s individual vitality, freedom, and independence. The dispersion of the rural labourers over larger areas breaks their power of resistance while concentration increases that of the town operatives. In modern agriculture, as in the urban industries, the increased productiveness and quantity of the labour set in motion are bought at the cost of laying waste and consuming by disease labour-power itself. Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction.  Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the labourer.
Karl Marx, SOCIAL AND NATURAL PRODUCTIVITY
(Marx, idem, page 901)
Assume that labour-saving machinery, chemical ancillaries, etc. take up a greater share, so that the constant capital grows in relation to the labour-power applied not just in value but in quantity too. In agriculture, however (as also in mining), we not only have the social productivity of labour to consider but also its natural productivity, which depends on the natural conditions within which labour is carried on. It is possible for the increase in the social productivity of agriculture to simply compensate for the decline in natural productivity, or not even to do this much and this compensation can only be effective for a certain period - so that despite the technical development, the product does not become cheaper but is simply prevented from becoming dearer.
Trotsky:Dialectical materialism and science (1925)
D.TANURO:ENERGY AND ECOLOGY:THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
The challenge of climate change cannot be met without a revolution in energy use involving a significant reduction in energy consumption and therefore in the transformation of matter. Can Marx’s work assist us in developing our conception of this gigantic transformation? The reply is contradictory. On the positive side there is in Marx’s work the analysis of the eco-destructive impact of capitalist ground rent and the concept of a rational regulation of material exchange between humanity and nature. On the negative side, Marx did not grasp the difference between stochastic energy (which is renewable) and stored energy (which is exhaustible). This is a serious error, resulting in the coexistence in Marx’s thinking of two antagonistic development schemas: on the one hand, a linear and utilitarian schema of “resource>product>waste”, similar to that of the classical economists, and on the other a premonitory ecosocialist schema based on the prudent management of natural cycles transformed by human activity. The 20th century Marxists generally overlooked the latter. However, the impending environmental catastrophe requires that it be adopted now and that we draw from it the necessary strategic implications.
Something like “Marx’s ecology”
Greens of all shades never lose an opportunity to accuse Marxism of productivism and that Marx had no conception either of nature or of the finite character of resources. These statements do not stand up to serious scrutiny. Marx and Engels focused on human development within the framework of a comprehensive conception of natural history as a whole. Moreover, the use of environmental resources is very present in their analysis of capital. For example, they grasped the slow decomposition of feudalism as a movement of appropriation of these resources by the ruling classes, separating the producer from the means of production, land in the first place. This reading led them to develop a theory of capitalist ground rent that is based primarily — and this is not sufficiently emphasized — on a consideration of the finite nature of arable land and other natural resources. According to this theory, it is the existence in limited quantities of soil, minerals, water power and other resources that conditions their appropriation by land-owners, thus determining the latter’s’ ability to divert a portion of the overall surplus- value and therefore realize super-profits and perpetuate them in the form of rent.
In agriculture, for example, the monopoly of cultivable land allows owners to impose production prices fixed according to the return on the worst instead of average lands. Consequently, the more productive the land, the more it generates a surplus profit greater than the average: this is what Marx calls differential rent. From this it also follows that the greater the amount of capital invested in the exploitation of the soil (in the form of inputs or machines), the greater the increase in differential rent. The importance and relevance of this theory are generally misunderstood. Claude Gindin has described it as a somewhat archaic curiosity: “The question of ground rent is prominent in Marx’s work because it is important in the societies of his day.” Jean-Paul Deléage laments that Marx envisaged “the relationship between society and nature within the framework of a purely economic theory”. Both these statements miss the essential point. In reality, the Marxist theory of rent remains very contemporary, especially from an ecological point of view. For example, it provides the key for comprehending the capitalist intensification of agricultural and mining operations — one of the major manifestations of the eco-destructive dynamic of capitalism — and starkly demonstrates the criminal inertia of this system faced with the threat of climate change.
Global petroleum rent, a particular form of ground rent, is estimated at some € 1.3 trillion per year. Thirteen hundred billion in addition to the average profit: it’s not surprising that the beneficiaries of this fortune are trying to burn fossil fuels for as long as possible! And not surprising that they are generously funding the climate-skeptic think-thanks that have been purchasing scientists, politicians and journalists for 20 years! What is less known, however, is that parallel to this the oil lobbies, well aware of the inevitability of peak production, are throwing their weight behind efforts to get governments concerned with developing renewable energy sources to favor those that will give them maximum opportunities to safeguard this rent. Here is one example of these pressures and their effectiveness: the Obama administration has chosen to give priority to the biomass/ethanol technology instead of the photovoltaic/hydrogen technology as an alternative to petroleum-powered transportation. This is quite consistent with the strategic orientation of such giants as ExxonMobil or BP which, after some hesitation, have invested heavily in agrofuels. Renamed “Beyond Petrol”, BP has invested at least $500 million in the creation of a research institute, the Energy Bioscience Institute, whose mission is to mobilize “genetic engineering” to develop second and third generation agrofuels from genetically modified plants, algae and bacteria. Besides providing guarantees of maximum continuity in terms of fuel distribution systems and automobile technology, this strategy offers the hope that they can gain some form of monopoly over solar energy which, once transformed into organic matter on lands owned by the multinationals, will be able to generate ground rent and hence super-profits. This contributes to explain the huge wave of land purchases in the tropical and subtropical countries by a series of major multinational groups.
Marx’s theory of rent attests to an awareness of the finite nature of resources, notwithstanding certain somewhat ambiguous formulations. This assessment is amply confirmed when we examine his concept of rational regulation of material exchanges (or “social metabolism”) between humanity and nature. The point of departure is prosaic. Thanks to the work of Liebig, a pioneer of soil chemistry, Marx understood that capitalist urbanization interrupts nutrient cycling: human manure and vegetable wastes do not return to the field and soil nutrients are depleted, with resulting fertility loss. But the author of Capital is not content with what Michael Löwy calls “a simple story of manure”: he generalizes the problem and poses the global question of “material exchange” (or metabolism) between the human race and the environment. As work is an inalienable imperative, characteristic of a species that produces its existence socially, he concludes that “Freedom, in this sphere, can consist only in this, that socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way”. Armed with this concept, he then returns to the problem of the soils and concludes that the separation between town and country, indeed, between global production and consumption of agricultural products, must be overcome.
This methodological approach of Marx can rival the best contemporary conceptualizations of global environmental problems , and the way in which he deals with the question of soils deserves to be listed in any anthology of ecology. Today, the notion of a social metabolism of humanity and nature is particularly operational in the analysis of climate change. An examination of the carbon cycle reveals that the rapid exchanges between the biosphere/hydrosphere and the atmosphere are virtually in equilibrium. Fundamentally, it is the use of fossil fuels that upsets the system; their combustion short-circuits, so to speak, the long loop of the carbon cycle, which passes through the lithosphere and spreads over hundreds of millions of years. At present, about one half of the carbon sent into the atmosphere each year cannot be absorbed, and accumulates. This saturation of the atmosphere is the most striking capitalist example of “irrational management of material exchanges” at the global level.
To complete this rapid overview, it must be acknowledged that there is much more in Marx than the “ecological intuitions” conceded by Daniel Bensaïd. But how much? John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett go so far as to say that there is a “Marx’s ecology” and even that ecology is at the heart of Marxism. Notwithstanding the foregoing, this statement seems excessive. It is true that, inspired by Liebig, the author of Capital unfurls a series of conclusions that confer on his work an ecological depth that is as astonishing as it is unknown. It is also true that the radical critique of commodity production is indispensable for understanding the environmental crisis as a crisis of the relationship between humanity and nature, and thus as social crisis. Finally, we will agree that the alternative indicated by this critique — the democratically organized production of use values and the re-appropriation of free time — is fundamentally the exact opposite of productivism, industrial gigantism and a linear conception of progress. But Foster and Burkett exaggerate: an overall vision of the ecological dimension of the socialist transformation appears only fleetingly and indistinctly in Marx. Moreover, this vision is rendered largely inoperative by a serious error in the treatment of energy. This seems decisive to us.
An error with major implications
It is striking that, in their analysis of the Industrial Revolution, Marx and Engels simply did not grasp the enormous ecological and economic implications of the passage from a renewable fuel, produced through the photosynthetic conversion of the solar flux – the wood - to an historically non-renewable fuel — the coal as a result of the fossilization of the solar flux. We will return shortly to the environmental consequences of this error. First, we want to draw attention to the fact that it affects the analysis of capitalism in general by introducing four types of incoherence:
1. A defect in the completion of the analysis of the system. Marx is a thinker of inclusivity par excellence. But in this specific case, a decisive aspect eludes him: he distinguishes in the Industrial Revolution the continuity of the social process of appropriation of resources (begun several centuries earlier with wood) but overlooks a factor of major discontinuity: the transition from wood to coal as an energy resource. As a result, while he understood perfectly that the tendency of capital for unlimited growth generally exhausts “at the same time the two sources from which are obtained all wealth: the earth and the laborer” , he does not notice the incompatibility between this dynamic of accumulation and the energy base on which it develops — the limited stock of fossil fuels. This is a true “defect of inclusiveness”.
2. Incoherence in relation to “ human metabolism” as conceptual tool. From the standpoint of material exchange, the two questions of soils and energy resources are analogous. In both cases the problem pertains to the difference between the rate of exploitation of the resource and the speed with which it is naturally reconstituted, thus the rational management of the cycles and therefore of human intervention in that process. One is tempted, therefore, to say that Marx, in this case, overlooked the ecological gold watch: had he been aware of the qualitative difference between stochastic energy and stored energy, his own brilliant concept of “human metabolism” would have led him to foresee the energy impasse into which capitalism was to drag humanity — and to infer the necessity, eventually, of a virtually complete stop to the exploitation of fossil energies. But he did not do so and, on this key point, his system is defective.
3. A lack of understanding of the preconditions for rational regulation of “human metabolism”. It would be overdoing it to criticize Marx and Engels for failing to foresee climate change. However, it is unfortunate that they did not extend their thinking about the limits of soil availability to equally systematic thinking about the limits to coal stocks. This inconsistency affects their “ecology”: the failure to grasp the qualitative leap from wood to coal prevented them from seeing that the necessary “rational management of material exchanges” offers a perspective of sustainable management if, and only if, one resorts to renewable energy sources. Indeed, there is no “rational regulation” possible in the long term using stock resources that are not only limited but exhaustible, non-recyclable and irreplaceable historically, if not geologically.
4. A flaw in the critique of capitalist technology. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels cite mechanization as an example of the fact that capitalism transforms the productive forces into “destructive forces”. In Capital, referring to the fate of the embryonic class of wage-laborers prior to the Industrial Revolution, Marx notes that “[t]he subordination of labour to capital was only formal, i.e. the mode of production itself had as yet no specifically capitalist character.” Hans Jonas is clearly wrong, therefore, to impute to Marx the idea of technological neutrality. And yet, our analysis suggests that, notwithstanding, there might indirectly be some unconscious truth in this criticism. The failure to take into account the difference between renewable and non-renewable energies leads more or less spontaneously to the implicit conclusion that energy sources are neutral. But if the sources are neutral, why should the technologies not be neutral? This point leads us to pass from the global implications of Marx’s error to the implications from the standpoint of ecology.
Technically, a wood-fired boiler does not differ qualitatively from a coal-fired boiler, and a steam engine put in motion is the same in both cases. In terms of social and economic organization, a biomass system involves smaller and more dispersed converters — which, viewed through our present ecological lenses, may seem more propitious to democratic management. But biomass would have been incapable of supplying the necessary steam for the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, we must avoid romantic visions: far from favoring any local democracy or “harmony with nature”, the capitalist wood-fired system involved the super-exploitation of dispersed workers, while the concentration of coal-based industry facilitated the struggle of the proletariat. It is necessary to bear in mind these considerations when asking ourselves today how the founders of Marxism could have believed in the neutrality of energy sources. But, most probably, they did not even ask themselves any questions in this regard.
Anyway, what is certain is that the problematic of the (non-)neutrality of sources remained virtually imperceptible in Marx’s time. It became evident with the technological development of capitalism. Today, there is no avoiding it: if we compare the classical thermal systems to the nuclear system we find immediately that the different sources involve different technologies and that they are not neutral. In other words, Marxists who accepted the hypothesis of the neutrality of energy sources and who persist in this are now trapped because they are in contradiction with a fundamental premise of historical materialism — the historically and socially determined character of technology. This is what has happened to the French Communist Party, but also to an anti-Stalinist organization like Lutte Ouvrière, which claims to adhere to anti-capitalism based on a rigorous knowledge of the evolution of science.
That is why it can be said that the energy question represents a Trojan Horse in “Marx’s ecology” and in Marxism in general, irrespective of tendency. Let us synthesize the steps in the possible slippage:
(a) the failure to take into account the qualitative difference between renewable and non-renewable energy can lead to the idea of energy source neutrality; (b) the presumed neutrality of energy source may suggest that the choice between technologies would be determined for all time — including in post-capitalist society — in favor of large facilities and centralized systems, because the concentration of production creates the most favorable conditions for workers’ struggle; (c) to the degree that different energy systems involve different technologies, the idea of neutrality of sources and systems may mean bringing in through the window the idea of technological neutrality that Marx put out through the door.
“From a scratch to the danger of gangrene,” Trotsky’s expression, used in another context entirely, is quite applicable here. Viewed in the context of the day, the initial error seems relatively unimportant, almost a detail. But this detail is not such, because it is addressed to an absolutely central question: energy. By definition, energy is the sine qua non of all labor, of all human activity. Minimal as it may be, an error at this level cannot help but acquire a systemic nature.
Two antagonistic schemas of development
In Marx’s own work, the amalgam between renewable and non-renewable energies has no direct consequences: rather, it constitutes a sort of blind spot, a shadow zone. But this shadow zone is potentially dangerous because it conceals the de facto coexistence of two schemas:
- a progressive cyclical schema: starting with the problem of soils, as we have seen, the foundations are laid for an authentic socio-economic thinking built around the notion of regulation of material exchanges, and thus the rational management of natural cycles modified by human impact. The vision is cyclical, but not rigid: humanity transforms nature by balancing, to the extent possible, the exchanges within the environment; - a linear schema: the cyclical approach applied to the soils question is not transposed onto the terrain of energy. Here, because he does not grasp the difference between renewable and non-renewable energies, Marx in fact reiterates the utilitarian schema — resource > use > waste (CO2) — which is that of classical economics. There is no mastery of the impact because the conditions for completing the carbon cycle are not taken into account.
These two schemas clearly follow two different logics. The first tends to favor a prudent intervention in natural mechanisms (for societies are only the “beneficiaries” of the earth and “have to bequeath it an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias”, as Marx writes in Capital) , while the second is informed by the productivist peril (“The constantly accelerated development of the productive forces” and “the unlimited increase of production” thanks to the “deliverance of the means of production from the bonds that the capitalist mode of production had imposed upon them”, as envisioned by Engels) . Between the two, there is not just a contradiction but an antagonism. If the system is to be coherent, one of the two logics must necessarily yield to the other.
It will be objected that this antagonism is far from explaining all of the difficulties of Marxism or of those who claim to approach the ecology question from a Marxist perspective. That is obvious. It would be absurd, for example, to attribute to Marx the energy policy of the Stalinist regimes. Khrushchev’s goal of “overtaking capitalism” by every possible means, including the dirtiest and most dangerous technologies, does not stem from Marx’s error but from the existence of a privileged bureaucracy that betrayed Marx’s thinking by coexisting with capitalism and which, by aping productivism, ended up with its own disintegration. The rational management of materials exchanges is incompatible with “socialism in one country” .
Having said that, it would be even more fallacious to argue that Marx’s error is of no significance to the “failed encounter” between Marxisms and ecology. On the contrary, it is our view that it has played an extremely important role. Indeed, a review of the intellectual production of the 20th century Marxists indicates that the antagonism between the two logics was resolved in practice by the disappearance, pure and simple, of the first. Quickly, soundlessly and without debate among Marxists the linear schema became established as the exclusive model in practice. The audacious anticipatory thinking about “social metabolism” sank into complete oblivion. In our view, it is beyond debate that this disappearance helps to explain why Marxists were caught unprepared when the ecological question suddenly appeared as a major issue in the 1960s.
A typical example in this regard can be found in Ernest Mandel’s critique of the Mansholt report in 1972 on “zero growth”. Mandel stood out among the Marxists of his generation by his great sensitivity to social problems, and he was without a doubt the opposite of a productivist. Faced with Mansholt, however, his quandary was obvious: he rightly denounces the apology for austerity which, under cover of ecology, is aimed above all at preserving profits, but he seems unable to admit that the finite nature of resources poses some limits on human development. It is quite noteworthy that Mandel simply alludes vaguely to the capitalist break with “social metabolism”. As an excellent Marx specialist, he is acquainted with the notion but apparently does not know what to make of it. Worst of all, he superficially cites The Closing Circle by the great ecologist Barry Commoner without even noting the homage therein to Marx’s cyclical schema.
How are we to explain this selective amnesia of the Marxists? A reply is beyond the scope of this contribution. However, I will suggest four possible explanations:
- The objective centrality of the energy question. It seems obvious that this had to favor the linear schema, which was, in fact, Marx’s in this regard; - The historical context. The revolution triumphed in Russia, a backward country which could not reasonably be rebuilt after the war and civil war without relying on fossil fuels. This context profoundly influenced all communist currents, including the anti-Stalinist opposition; - The contradictory situation of the workers movement, in particular the trade-union movement. As a class, the workers have an interest in defeating capitalism. But in isolation, or on a company-by-company basis, their jobs and wages from day to day depend on business prosperity; - The erasure of the question of soils. With the invention of synthetic fertilizers by the late 19th century, capitalism produced its own solution to the break in the nutrient cycle, the basis for Marx’s thinking on the management of cycles. The concept of social metabolism might have been used to question this solution (from the point of view of sustainability) and address further problems of resources management (such as energy), but no successor of Marx did so.
An indispensable and urgent overhaul
As the foregoing illustrates, the “ecologization” of Marxism involves more than the mere glassy-eyed rediscovery of “Marx’s ecology” to which Foster and Burkett invite us. And it involves more than a consideration of the “second contradiction” (more accurately, the antagonism) of capital and nature that James O’Connor would add to the contradiction between capital and labor. In fact, both approaches overlook the need for a clarification at the very heart of Marxism: it is necessary to bring out into the light of day the Trojan Horse — the amalgamation between renewable and non-renewable energy; and its avatar, the linear resource>product>waste schema. This is indispensable if Marxists are to set to work on the basis of what Marx produced in terms of ecology: the brilliant schema of the rational management of natural cycles evolving under the impact of human activity.
The objective situation makes this overhaul very contemporary and very urgent. According to the IPCC, and following the precautionary principle, to reduce global warming trends we must begin to curtail global greenhouse gas emissions by 2015 at the latest in order to attain a 85% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, at least. Considering that the developed countries are more than 70% responsible for climate change, this effort shall have to be adjusted as follows: (i) the industrialized countries must reduce their emissions by 95% by 2050, with an intermediary reduction of 40% by 2020 (compared to 1990); (ii) the developing countries will have to “deviate substantially” (by 15 to 30%) from the “business as usual” reference standard by 2020 (2050 for Africa).
In the present state of scientific and technical knowledge — and if we exclude nuclear energy, massive agrofuels production for the world market and large-scale geological stockpiling of CO2, as we must — these objectives can be achieved only by substantially reducing the consumption of energy in the developed countries. In Europe, for example, a reduction of close to 50% is necessary for a successful transition from fossil sources to renewable sources. In the US, a reduction by 75% could be necessary.
Although the relationship is not linear, this reduction in energy consumption necessarily implies a certain decline in material production. Here the ecological and social crises are so inextricably mingled as to impose a search for an outcome common to both. The situation can be summarized quite simply: on the one hand, material production must be reduced in order to avoid a climate catastrophe; on the other hand, the satisfaction of the fundamental human needs of billions of people necessitates the production of more housing, food, clothing, health centers, schools, public transportation, books, heating facilities, sewer and water treatment systems, etc.
It is obvious that both these requirements can be met simultaneously only if wealth is redistributed, if we stop manufacturing useless things (advertising expenses, gadgets of all kinds), harmful things (weapons!) and prematurely obsolescent things, and if we replace the production of commodities for the profit of a minority with the production of use values for the satisfaction of real needs, democratically determined by the majority (for example by the radical extension of the public sector, nationalization of energy and the banks under democratic control, etc.). In this, the activists rediscover their bearings: the outcome can only be anti-capitalist, and Marx is more current than ever.
Yes, Marx is more current than ever. But both requirements, social and environmental, must be met at the same time. Those four little words — at the same time — encapsulate the difficulty and the novelty in the situation. Generalized commodity production has brought humanity so close to the abyss that a new long wave of growth — whether “green”, “selective”, or “left-wing” — would result in a dreadful climate shift. Maybe it already is, given that greenhouse-gas levels due to the combustion of fossil fuels is higher now than at any moment in the 700.000 years before, at least. Postponing the ecological question on social emergency grounds would amount to condemning hundreds of millions of the world’s poor to a brutal degradation of their conditions of existence.
For Marxists, the moment of truth has arrived: productivism must be eradicated, and a clear choice must be made between the two schemas of Marx. The “rational [and, we would add, prudent] management of material exchange between humanity and nature” is more than ever, and literally, “the only freedom possible”. Overlooked in the 20th century, the ecosocialist schema sketched in Capital must now be seen as the immediately necessary framework for human development on a world scale. The task is to deepen and expand the concept and develop from it demands, forms of struggle and strategies for party-building.
Who will be the agent of these demands, these struggles? Where is the historical subject of this red-green revolution? Ultimately, that is the question. The difficulty cannot be eluded: the link with the day-to-day class struggle is far from obvious, especially in the ultra-defensive context of today, of a recession that is sending millions of workers to the unemployed lines. Because of their subordinate position, workers are led spontaneously, company by company, industry by industry, to seek nothing more from their boss than a job and increased purchasing power. New products, new markets, new commodities, therefore. New commodity fetishes to compensate for social malaise. This is a major obstacle, owing to the economic alienation of the workers, shackled as they are to the capitalist mode of production on which they depend for their day-to-day existence.
To be sure, provided it is selective, determined by genuine social needs and coupled with the redistribution of wealth, a decline in material production is compatible with an improvement in well-being, in the richness and quality of life of the immense majority of humanity. The logic must even be turned around: it becomes increasingly a condition of such improvement, for it is synonymous with a radical reduction in workloads, decreased pollution, improved health, extension of free services, preservation of the beauty and diversity of ecosystems, etc. But this can only be comprehended and achieved at the level of the exploited class as a whole, and it postulates a radical anti-capitalist orientation that is both social and ecologist, that is, ecosocialist.
The task is immense, of unprecedented complexity. It is totally illusory to think that it might be accomplished spontaneously, in the heat of mass action. It has to be prepared, politically and practically. To rise to this historical challenge, a political instrument is indispensable. A new party of the exploited and oppressed that is not only anti-capitalist but ecological. A century later, faced with another “imminent catastrophe”, we confront the kind of problematic maligned by so many in Lenin’s What is to be Done?: ecosocialist consciousness must be brought to the working class from outside.
Translated by Richard Fidler for Capitalism, Nature, Socialism