i’ve wanted to start reading the works of John Bellamy Foster for some time now, and one of the ‘rads got me his first book on ecology, The Vulnerable Planet, for Christmas.  Foster, along with Paul Burkett, have been credited with popularizing a Marxist approach towards ecology.

both Foster and Burkett have been important for Marxism because, for a time, Marx has been accused by elements within ecology movement as either having no position on the subject, being Promethean in his attitude to the natural world, or that Marx failed to recognize any natural limits to production.

i’ve just read Foster’s “Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift” (or, for the pdf) which provides a good introduction to Foster’s efforts, and takes up these criticisms.

metabolic rift and sustainability

“metabolism” is the term Marx uses to describe the relationship between human beings and the natural world.  not missing a beat, Marx understands this material exchange and transformation between humanity and the natural world through the aspects of materialist and dialectical philosophy that permeate his work.  he reasons that 1) human beings are constantly interacting with the physical/material/natural world, and 2) people are, themselves, physical/material/natural beings.  every time we change their environment, we change the conditions in which we live, and subsequently ourselves in the process.

if the natural world is one set of material conditions for our existence, then it follows that it poses its own set of limitations in the form of scientific natural law and resource scarcity, and society poses its own set of limitations in terms of both technological capability and social organization of production (production for profit or freedom?).  Marx understood the failure to recycle material back into production and the resulting environmental devastation to be the metabolic rift between humanity and the natural world (see “Utilization of the Refuse of Production” in Capital vol. 3).  Foster describes this as the estrangement of people from the natural conditions of their existence.

Marx’s proscriptions for ecological sustainability, however, were never posed as a guaranteed characteristic of the new society (what Marx called communism).  in fact, Marx saw the limitations of technological innovation in solving ecological crises without a differing social organization of production.

rather, he argued that capitalism creates the material conditions for a higher synthesis of “agriculture and industry on the basis of the forms that have developed during the period of their antagonistic isolation” (Capital vol. 1).  it would be up to the new society to govern this metabolism and “synthesis” sustainably.

while Foster was vague in detailing this development towards a higher synthesis between agriculture and industry, …town & country, Marx did go so far as to define an ecological sensibility as the need to maintain the earth for “successive generations.”

the town and country divide

Foster does a good job of debunking the first claim — that Marx had no perspective whatsoever on the question of ecology.  he cites two important passages from volume 3 and 1 of Capital that detail the infamous paradigm of the town and country divide that has contributed to environmental analyses both socialist and non.

Marx makes two points about the divide.  first, the development of capitalism concentrates the population into urban centers which shifts the mode and balance of “metabolism” between humanity and natural world.  the enclosure movement, primitive accumulation and the expansion of capitalism means more and more people become industrial producers and consumers.  in Marx’s time this was a characteristic of the proletarianization of the British peasantry and craftsmen.

second, as more people poured into the cities, greater areas of agricultural production were reserved for particular urban centers creating an increasing divide between the areas of agricultural production and consumption.  this accelerated the development of capitalist agricultural production.  the increasing geographic distance between the town and country meant that the refuse after consumption was not recycled back into the soils, which were a great distance away.  the soil fertility crisis which developed in the nineteenth century was the focus of Marx’s ecological writings in Capital.

Foster goes on to explain that British capitalists responded to the soil fertility crisis with another round of imperial expansion.  Peru became the site of British imperial conquest in order to arrest large amounts of guano to be shipped back to Britain as artificial fertilizer.  this was also the beginning of the artificial fertilizer industry.

i wonder to what extant the sort of environmental devastation that Marx wrote about was particular to the form of capitalist expansion he witnessed.  in addition, Rosa Luxemburg’s theory on the permanent characteristic of primitive accumulation — as opposed to only being present in the initial phase of capitalist development — are worth considering.  from Marx’s analysis it seems that the expansion of capital entails a qualitative and quantitative degradation of the environment, and at times colonial conquest.  this point is important in the debates over “green jobs” and “green capitalism”.

value between labor and the environment

another accusation leveled against Marx was that he was Promethean in his approach to the natural world.  the roots of this argument stake themselves in the notion attributed to Marx that all value comes from labor, implying that the natural world is a free input in the process.

Foster doesn’t dispute this characteristic of capitalism, but argues this can’t be understood as a moral precept of Marx, but as a contradiction of capitalism itself.  Marx, in fact, in his Economic Manuscripts of 1861-63 argued against the liberal notion that nature was a free input, and instead posed this status given to nature as a result of a certain set of social relations, namely capitalism.  value under capitalism is rooted in commodity production, which entails the contradiction between use-values and exchange-values.

Marx starts with the premise that production is at the center of human society, although it has taken different forms… slavery, feudalism, capitalism, etc.  in every society people come together to produce a living and distribute what they produce.  despite what some Stalinists might argue, production, however, should not be limited to the manufacturing of physical goods.  culture, art, relationships, etc. are all aspects of social production.

in pre-capitalist, subsistence societies the bulk of production was for immediate consumption, and many could produce a wide array of things needed to live.  use-values mediated exchange.  in contrast to this, under capitalism the private ownership of the means of production by the capitalists means large amounts of workers are concentrated in the workplace to produce a single product.  without the means or resources to produce their own livelihoods, exchange becomes the necessary in almost all regards if people are to attain all the accouterments needed to live.  Marx calls this generalized commodity production.  in addition, the only way to establish a medium rate of exchange for these products is by abstracting the production process and measuring value by labor time.

people now relate to each other mainly through the market, and value is only realized after the commodities have been sold.  the latter fact points to the inability of capitalist society to determine how much time and labor should be devoted to a particular task.  if value is not realized on the market — meaning the products are not sold — then no socially necessary labor time was involved in production.  this drives capitalist competition and the endless need for capital to expand; production and consumption now serve themselves in their own right and are endless.

it’s under capitalism that labor is the sole source of value, but this isn’t a universal characteristic of humanity for all time.  the slogan “production for use – not for profit,” gets at the heart of this contradiction.  a system of production based on use-values rather than exchange-values would acknowledge the value of nature.