Permaculture and Marxism

July 14, 2007

It is often thought that concern for the interconnection of living systems is a modern development. But Karl Marx's talked about it repeatedly throughout his Capital.

Marx didn't use the word "ecology" — it was coined in 1866 — but metabolism . He argued that capitalist accumulation shatters basic processes of ecological sustainability "by destroying the circumstances surrounding [natural] metabolism". Marx called this "metabolic rift". So, he said, what is needed is the "systematic restoration [of natural metabolism] as a regulating law of social reproduction".

In other words: farming and other productive activities have to restore the ecological balance, and this can only really be achieved under a system where people and the environment come before profits — socialism.

Australian-developed permaculture farming principles aim at restoring this balance. Within capitalist Australia, permaculture remains a fringe movement. But in socialist Cuba, it has become mainstream. Viewers of the inspiring film The Power of Community can see with their own eyes the depth of meaning that Marx attached to "healing the metabolic rift". It is a physical healing of the land, combined with a spiritual rejuvenation of human society.

As Roz Paterson and Jack Ferguson reported in the May 25 Scottish Socialist Voice: "In the 1990s, Cuba made the transition from an industrial society, where farming was conducted on a massive scale, with a heavy reliance on fossil fuel-based pesticides and fertilisers, to a sustainable one, with a food economy based on small organic farms, workers' co-operatives and urban gardens."

In Havana, more than 90% of perishable produce is grown within or near the city limits. "Nowadays", Paterson and Ferguson explained, "while the children of much richer nations begin to fall prey to diet-related diseases we thought we'd seen the back of, such as malnutrition and rickets, as well as life-shrinking levels of obesity, and at a time when we're throwing away a third of all the food we buy, Cubans are chowing down on the kind of food we can only aspire to — local, organic, fresh — and learning to waste nothing".

The SSV reported that instead of artificial fertilisers, Cuban farmers use micro-organisms that enrich the soil, earthworms, compost, animal and green manure, and the integration of grazing livestock.

Unfortunately, Australian agribusiness treats the soil like dirt. Similar to using the earth as a hydroponic growth medium, synthetic fertilisers and pesticides are flung around and water pumped through. Farmers who resist these trends are subjected to financial pressure; meanwhile the soil turns acidic and the rivers choke with algae.

Another concern for Marx was the struggle over the Corn Laws, which between 1815 and 1846 were tariffs protecting rich British farmers against foreign competition. Manchester-based industrialists successfully overturned the laws to reduce the amount that they had to pay in wages.

The factory bosses knew that keeping food cheap helps keep wages low. The "reproduction" of labour means workers have to arrive at work with enough food in their bellies to create surplus value for the boss. Cheapening food means that bosses can drive wages down towards a minimum sustenance level.

But cheap food isn't always good food: often it isn't really food at all. In Marx's day, cheap workers' bread contained stone dust, chalk, pearl ashes, soap and other such choice items. In Capital, Marx quoted testimony to the 1855 parliamentary inquiry into food adulteration that, because of contamination, "the poor men who lived on two pounds of bread a day did not take in one fourth of that amount of nutrition".

The modern equivalent of such contamination is food colourings and other additives. Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation gives the 50 or so ingredients that constitute the typical artificial strawberry flavour.

The artificial flavour industry took off in the 1950s, when the gas chromatograph and mass spectrometers were invented, allowing the detection of gases in minute quantities. This allowed for tiny amounts of odour and colour to be attached to questionable foods.

We can often tell whether food is fresh or stale by its colour, odour or taste. But artificial additives disguise this. What was ground up rock to our great grandparents is today the mystifying list of numbers on labels. The modern equivalent to the factory owners' victory over the Corn Laws is our cheap, mass-produced "food" — the modern McDiet.

As a marginal product in Australia, organic food is a little more expensive. But its price shows the real cost of producing authentic food. The artificial number soup slopped out by the Australian food industry simply isn't worth eating.

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