Marx, humanity and the rift in nature

From 1840 to 1880 guano was the most prized fertiliser. At its height in 1870, the Chincha Islands, off Peru, shipped 70,000 tons throughout the world.

The Robbery of Nature: Capitalism and the Ecological Rift
By John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark
Monthly Review Press, 2020

John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology, published in 2000, brought awareness of Karl Marx and Fredrich Engel’s writings on and relevance to, environmental thinking. His latest work, The Robbery of Nature, written with Brett Clark, demonstrates the importance of understanding nature and society with a Marxist perspective.

In the section of Capital titled “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry” Marx concludes “All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil … simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the worker.”

While issues such as pollution, deforestation and the over-extraction of resources such as coal concerned Marx and Engels, it was around the issue of the degradation of the land through capitalist agriculture that their ecological thinking most evolved.

While writing Capital, Marx studied the work of German chemist Justus von Liebig, a pioneer in the field of agricultural chemistry.

Liebig wrote that the soil was not an inexhaustible resource. It requires the replenishment of eight substances (more have since been discovered) in order to remain fertile.

While these substances might once have been returned to soil through plant and animal decay or excrement, this cycle was broken as capitalist industrialisation led to an increasing disconnection of the population from agriculture and its concentration into urban industrial centres.

Instead, these substances were transported as agricultural products to the towns and exported internationally.

This process provoked, Marx wrote, “an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the 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.”

This led to a clamour to find means with which to replenish the soil. Foster and Clark cite Liebig’s claim that Britain was led to expropriate resources from other nations: “In an attempt to compensate for lost nutrients, ‘the battle-fields of Leipsic, Waterloo, and the Crimea’ and the ‘catacombs of Sicily’ were plundered for bones to pulverise for phosphorus fertiliser.”

From 1840 to 1880 guano was the most prized fertiliser. At its height in 1870, the Chincha Islands, off Peru, shipped 70,000 tons throughout the world.

This, together with the practice of driving away or killing the nuisance birds that produced the guano, inevitably led to its depletion.

A chapter of the book is devoted to the Irish famine of the mid-19th century, during which a million people died and a million emigrated.

Though often blamed solely on the potato blight, for Marx, the devastating effect of the disease was due to the Britain’s colonial imposition of an agricultural regime designed to suit its own ends: “For a century and a half England has indirectly exported the soil of Ireland, without even allowing its cultivators the means for replacing the constituents of the exhausted soil.”

The central ecological concept which Foster draws from Marx is the “metabolic rift”.

Scientists had used the term “metabolism” to refer to the interactions and exchanges between a cell and its surroundings or between an organism and the biophysical world. Liebig used it to understand the exchange of nutrients between the Earth and humans.

In Marx’s worldview, the “universal metabolism of nature” refers to the biophysical world in which, in Foster and Clark’s words, “Specific cycles and processes constitute and help regenerate ecological conditions.”

Operating within this is the “social metabolism” through which humans interact with nature to produce goods, services and needs. But, in the specific form of capitalist commodity production, a rift is created between and within the metabolism of nature and social metabolism.

This rift, as exemplified in humanity’s destruction of the soil’s ability to continue to help humanity feed itself, undermines the necessary conditions for maintaining natural and social metabolism.

Engels wrote in 1870: “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforseen effects which only too often cancel out the first … we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we … exist in its midst”.

A more familiar element of Marx’s work, which provides an important element in his ecological thinking, is his concept of value. It is well known that he argued that the value of goods and services, in the sense of economic or exchange value, is dependent upon human labour – his labour theory of value.

This is not, for Marx, the same as use value – the plain usefulness of humanly-created or natural objects or processes.

But, when it comes to capitalism, it is exchange value not use value around which it revolves.

Marx encapsulated capitalism in the formula M-C-M’ – a process that starts with value M, in the sense of exchange value, as money, which can, through the purchase of commodities including labour, create commodities which can then realise an expanded value M’.

The process can then start again beginning with M’ in an endless cycle of accumulation of value.

While use value is involved in this process, for instance the commodities involved must generally have some sort of use value so that they can realise their economic value through exchange, this is just a stepping stone to the goal of accumulating exchange value.

For Marx, capitalism operates on the basis of the labour theory of value. In this, nature may have a use value but, not being a product of labour, it does not have an exchange value (albeit that, when natural resources are monopolised, a price can be demanded for them).

Thus, while nature has a use value in the production of commodities, from the perspective of the capitalist circuit of exchange value M-C-M’, it has no value. For capitalism, it appears as a “free gift”.

Foster and Clark also discuss here the parallel case of the reproduction of labour, the domestic work, the burden of which largely falls to women, which takes place outside the circuit of capital, contributing to it as a free gift.

Foster and Clark also argue that in the modern capitalist economy “production is no longer dominated by social use values, C, but increasingly by specifically capitalist use values, CK, having as their sole purpose the promotion of exchange value.”

That is, the accumulation of capital is expanded, M- CK-M’, with an enormous proportion of production dedicated to advertising, unnecessary packaging, planned obsolescence and military expenditure.

The United States alone spends more than a trillion dollars a year on both marketing and the military. These are expenditures which satisfy the needs of capital accumulation but not of human beings.

Some environmental critics of Marx have objected that his labour theory of value does not credit nature as having any value.

Foster and Clark point out that this conflates two different meanings of value, intrinsic value and commodity value. For Marx nature has the former but not the later.

Out of this conflation, some have sought to theorise that nature has value just as commodities do.

This is also the logic behind environmental schemes to put a price on environmental costs and internalise nature into the commodity system.

Marx, on the other hand, was a critic of capitalist society built around commodity values where commodities for sale on the market are all that count.

For him, this sort of society is a historically specific form. It and its interaction with nature via the logic of commodity value needs to be replaced with a society built around the rational regulation of the metabolism of nature and society.

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