Marx and Nature

The reissue of Paul Burkett’s classic Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective (Haymarket Books, 2014) might be a good opportunity to think about just how far one can get within Marx’s value theory in understanding 21st century problems. Quite a ways, it turns out, although I remain agnostic about value theory.

Pretty much all of our political, social and historical theories were made on another planet and may describe only that other planet. The differences may turn out to be significant. It was a planet with a different atmosphere, for example, one containing less carbon and methane. Certain complex molecules that are now everywhere on this planet simply didn’t exist on that other one. The theories of that other planet assumed certain constants about the planet which on this one don’t hold.

Marx is a liminal figure here, from that other planet, but who might have had some intuitions about this one. He almost got it. He understood metabolic rift as a local process, where for example molecular flows containing phosphorus or nitrogen were no longer closed loops, where those elements extracted from the soil could return. He understood a little about thermodynamics, even if he did not quite grasp the planet itself as a heat-engine. In the Marxist tradition a more systematic view comes later, with Alexander Bogdanov, for example.

Yet Burkett insists that Marx’s treatment of nature is a coherent and defensible one. “The power of Marx’s approach stems, first, from its consistent treatment of human production in terms of the mutual constitution of its social form and its material content.” (1) Burkett argues against too-hasty dismissals or supplements to Marx’s value theory, by Joel Kovel, Michael Löwy, James O’Connor and Ted Benton. It is a somewhat ‘Marxological’ exercise, but not without ‘value’.

What Burkett has in common with most of those post-Marxist thinkers is a refusal of the dominant modes of discourse about how to think the Anthropocene. This tends to oscillate between the poles of a sort of tech / ethics dualism. On the one hand, there will be technical fixes, on the other individuals will just have to change their behaviors. But under neither heading are major changes in the mode of production itself countenanced. For both Burkett and the post-Marxists, “rather, society must become self-critical and self-transformative” (18)

Marx sees each mode of production as both an historical necessity but also a limit. Burkett stresses Marx’s working from within capital, generating a critique of it. He did not attempt an affirmative model of an alternative political economy, as if there was some Archimedean point entirely outside of it. His work is a work of negation, in-and-against.

Marx was not a Promethean, regardless of what some of the accelerationists, such as Ray Brassier might think. Capitalism is at one and the same time dynamic, expansive, transformative, even accelerating, and yet it comes up against limits which its very form can only misrecognize. Within the capitalist mode of production, the natural conditions of any production can’t be recognized as such: “Marx sees the evolution of humanity as primarily shaped by the changing social forms of production, but he sees these social forms as being themselves reshaped by production as a material process dependent upon natural conditions.” (6)

While this is not Burkett’s language, in a way what he points to is a reading of Marx as being about the specific form of misrecognition of its conditions of production that is capitalist. Marx then proceeds negatively from a recognition of this misrecognition: “For Marx, the goal is not to evade this historical specificity in a misguided search for ‘value-free’ conceptions of society and nature but rather to engage it consciously and critically in order to assist the transition to a non-exploitative society less restrictive of people’s development as natural and social beings.” (6)

What might justify the Marxian method is that it offers four qualities of perception and conception: 1. That it has a material and social specificity, rather than pretending to eternal concepts. 2. A relational holism, which tries to understand the totality of capital-nature relations. 3. That it could open towards both qualitative and quantitative forms of analysis, and 4. Pedagogical potential: that it can help explain the world to those who make it.

Burkett’s reading of Marx draws on the value-form analysis of I. I. Rubin and others, which stresses the tensions in the qualitative form of value. Burkett’s reading highlights the contradiction between the source of wealth, which is labor’s engagement with nature, and capital’s representation of abstract labor time. “Value and capital treat wealth as homogenous, divisible, and qualitatively limitless, thereby contradicting nature’s qualitative variegation, ecological interconnection, and quantitative limits.” (11) And yet, like Marx, for Burkett capitalism could be a stage towards a more universal and differentiated human-nature relation. There’s no going back to some prior ecology, only a going forward.

The main problem with capitalism is the widening gap between production for profit and the satisfaction of human needs. “… Marx argues that capital’s development and socialization of production creates needs not satisfiable, human-developmental potentials not realizable, and social problems not resolvable within capitalist relations of private appropriation and competition.” (12)

In this view, Marx’s thought straddles the border between social history and natural history. Its usefulness on this other planet may reside in this double understanding of natural history as external constraint, but also that natural history only appears within specific forms determined in part by social history.

Under capitalism, the totality of its relations appear as a “contradictory unity of material and social, objective and subjective, exploiting and exploited elements…” (21) So what then is capital’s particular antagonism with nature? Why does it appear to ‘undervalue’ nature? Perhaps the problem is with the specifically capitalist value-form itself, and in particular with the tension between its two aspects, use-value and exchange-value.

Capitalism is a mode of production that subordinates the production of use-values to the production of exchange-values. As such, it depletes its own means of existence, the land and the worker. At first this depletion is local, but as capitalism becomes global, it moves from exploiting and discarding particular ecosystems to a biospheric practice of depletion and exhaustion.

This is an admitted ‘vulgar Marxist’ view of the world, which sees history first and last as the production wealth, understood as use values, or that which satisfy human needs. As Donna Haraway also stresses, we have to live first in order to make history.

But the worker and the capitalist stand in a different relation to nature. The worker is opposed to nature, and yet at the same time is one of nature’s forces. (Yes, one of those dialectical concepts one just has to get used to in reading Marx). There is a non-identity of labor (natural) and production (social). The metabolic process of nature is independent of labor, and yet labor is an undecidable category between nature and the social. Useful labor is a category imposed by nature, but labor assumes a social form. “The production relation between people and nature must be treated as a socially mediated natural relationship.” (29)

There is a divergence of social history from natural history. Under capitalism, social labor cannot be what Asger Jorn so elegantly described as an ornamentation of the earth. The separation of the human and its natural conditions derives from the separation of the worker from appropriator of the surplus. Wealth production becomes relatively autonomous from nature itself – at least for a time. The subject of critique is this separation: “only by recognizing how a particular social form of production uncouples its necessary conditions of production from the extra-human evolution of nature can one investigate the material sustainability of this form.” (31)

Significant here is that Marx does not begin from an affirmation of ecological holism, homeostasis and unity. There isn’t a positive model. In Burkett’s reading, I think one can see already in Marx an anticipation of Sartre’s concept of labor as a negation of negation, as working in and against that which would defeat and undo the human. In this Marx, there’s no going outside the task of the critique of capital, as if there was a ready-made positive model of another natural history – social history relation to be restored. Burkett: “We may want a harmonious co-evolution of society and nature, but it is misguided to blame Marx for recognizing and explaining why it has not historically taken place.” (31) Marx starts from where we are, not from a lost unity or the utopian promise of its return.

In one aspect, then, labor in a natural force, and use-value always contains a natural element. Natural conditions can make surplus labor possible, but do not determine its form. Commodities are made by labor on nature. The fertility of nature sets a limit on what labor can produce, but can enable surplus labor and extraction of that surplus by a nonproducing class. Like the Physiocrats, Marx understands the productivity of agricultural labor as a basis of everything else.

Capital incorporates both land and labor into its self-expanding body. But the result is a metabolic rift. The separation of town and country, and the domination of the country by the town, interrupts molecular flows and depletes the soil. Competitive capitalism is not really compatible with sustainable agriculture, as Marx already knew from his studies of Leibig. At the time, artificial fertilizer appeared as a fix, but it is temporary. The phosphorus and nitrogen extracted from the soil in agriculture still ends up in the shit and piss of the urban proletariat, which still mostly drains off into the sea, to the point where the metabolic rift in the phosphorus and nitrogen cycles starts to become a serious constraint and one of the marks of the Anthropocene.

Labor is in one aspect a natural force, with natural needs. Humans eat and drink and need shelter. Yet labor is a social force also, and social production changes human needs. The feudal peasants satisfied many needs through their own communal handiwork, but the industrial proletariat is stripped of those capacities, and appears with quite different, socially determined needs. “Marx’s conception of labor and labor power as natural and social forces thus encapsulates the peculiarly historical character and potential of humanity as a natural yet self-positing and social species.” (54) This is what Henri Lefebvre understood as a dialectic of need and desire.

All societies need a division of labor, and some means of determining however imperfectly which labors are necessary. In capitalism, labor only becomes socially necessary after the fact, after it passes through exchange. The sum total of necessary labor time is what Marx calls abstract labor. When a commodity is sold, the concrete labor that accreted in it become socially necessary abstract labor, regardless of how that labor was actually deployed. What is necessary is what sells, and what sells is what is necessary. Not everything that might actually be necessary takes a commodity form, however. Capitalism might then be said to misrecognize the necessary.

Both the (pseudo)Promethean achievement of capital and its limit derive from the separation of direct producers from their conditions of production. The expropriation of the peasant from the soil is this historical basis. The peasants were separated from their means of subsistence, and also from the means via which they supported a non-producing class. Capitalism is not constrained by local ties between direct laborers and their immediate natural conditions. But there is a tension in the capital-labor relation. Capital still depends on the labor-nature relation that is its basis, but in an abstracted and attenuated form. Capital subsumes both labor and nature in all their differences and their qualities to the abstraction that is exchange value.

Capitalism is thus historically first the separation of labor from the conditions of production and then the eternal expansion of production separated from direct determination by need: “… natural conditions now appearing as ‘separate’ conditions for the reproduction of ‘free’ labor power…” (65) Meanwhile capital appears as its own eternal self-reproduction on an ever-expanding scale. “An economic system in which the laborers are socially separated from natural conditions of production can only accelerate the divergence of human production’s evolutionary path from the (hypothetical) evolution of extra-human nature sans human intervention.” (65) I emphasize ‘accelerate’ here, to highlight its distinct meaning here.

The separation of the peasant from the land hastens the division of labor. The division of labor makes production less determined by local natural conditions, and more determined by social connections between producers mediated by exchange values. The division of labor sets labor free, for the discovery of new processes by experimenting with all of nature. It also enables what we would now recognize as exchanges between biomes. Ever branching labor subjecting all aspects of nature to itself. And, one might add, changing in the process what ‘nature’ might be understood to be. Burkett: “the subsumption of labor under capital implies a parallel subsumption of nature under capital.” (67) This might be the ‘real’ meaning of the term real subsumption.

Ecological post-Marxists (and non-Marxists such as Manuel DeLanda) are often dismissive of the way nature does not even appear to have value in Marx. As Marx says in Capital vol. 3, capital receives many a “free gift” from nature. (71) Capital freely appropriates natural, social and scientific conditions into itself that it doesn’t pay for. Of course, no gift is ever free, but the point is rather that it is not capital that ever reciprocates these gifts. Hence metabolic rift, not to mention the piling up of social costs for communities strip-mined of their free social gifts to capital. The free gifts of nature to capital are only free in that no labor is involved. The air is just there to be utilized, or the river, etc.

The thing is to understand what Marx is doing, which is to see the world as capital sees it, but to recognize how capital misrecognizes that world. Thus, for capital, there can be use values without value, where no labor is involved in its making. That is nature’s free gift. But use value is subordinated to exchange value and accumulation. Capital appropriates the free gift of nature into accumulation, taking natural conditions away from direct producers.

Under capital, value appears as abstract social labor time objectified in commodities, as a social abstraction from use value. Value is the substance of wealth in its capitalist form. It differs from simple exchange, where money mediates between commodities, as c-m-c’. It is rather that commodities mediate between magnitudes of money, or m-c-m’. The latter expresses value as a self expanding process where value is alternately the commodity and money, but with the emphasis in the latter beat, with the commodity as the medium via which value accumulates in the money, or exchange value form.

Capital is in a sense a series of separations and abstractions, which ground an ever-expanding, quantitative form of value. But it can’t go on forever. “Capital… overcomes particular natural limits only by placing increasing pressure on the global biosphere as a whole.” (79) So much is fairly clear just from looking at the results. But for Burkett this is a result of the value form itself: “… the germ of capitalism’s tendency to degrade the natural conditions of human existence is arguably revealed by Marx’s basic analysis of exchange values.” (79)

Actually, more than a circuit with the accent on the m rather than the c beat, the capitalist value form is a subordination of both use and exchange under value as a more general form. Exchange value is a form of value and not the reverse, and value arises in production, not exchange. Money and commodity are just alternating beats of value itself.

Burkett: “… the contradiction between exchange value and use value intrinsic to the commodity form is also a contradiction between wealth’s specifically capitalist form and its natural basis and substance.” (82) The capitalist form of value, for Marx, values nature according to the labor time it takes to produce use values out of it to bring to market. But valuing nature according to labor time misrecognizes what other value it might at least notionally have. The relation between nature and the social in its entirety is a kind of metabolic rift.

Use values are only produced as a way of creating exchange value. Money is a necessary form because of this contradiction. Money is a form of social existence separated from natural existence. Money abstracts from the qualitative variability of nature. Money contributes to simplification of natural conditions, imposing its own form. It makes not only labor but also nature over in its image.

Exchange value is thus the negation of the worker’s whole natural existence. The alienation from nature is experienced differently by different classes. For the bourgeoisie, money is a way of cutting property into units. One can, for example, value the fish independently of the water in which they swim. For the bourgeoisie, money is a disruptor of natural entanglements and limits. It drives without limit against its limits. Money overcomes local limits, but comes up against global ones. For example, exhausting the soil here and moving on to there, or shipping fertilizer around the world.

Burkett usefully brings back into focus the category of rent as a way of underlining capital’s relation to nature. Rent is surplus profit over and above the general rate. Rent is derived from monopolizing a force of nature. Rent is a tribute extracted for permission to be on the earth. Rent as barrier to capital. Rents redistribute surplus value, but are derivative of its production elsewhere. “The valuation of wealth by abstract labor here meets with a barrier posed by use value and nature in particular, as represented socially by landed property.” (92) Under capitalism, natural constraints can only appear as rent. Common goods not thinkable. This is the tragedy, not of the commons, but of the private.

Burkett stresses that it is not Marx but capitalism that assigns no value to nature. The labor theory of value is not Marx’s normative model of value. But it is not so easy to attribute value directly to nature. Price forms don’t necessarily capture what about nature is ‘valuable’, or rather value may unavoidably be a distorting or misrecognizing way to mediate the world.

Simply putting a higher money price on a natural resource, making it more ‘valuable’ through rent, does not necessarily help the situation. Higher prices for natural resources can have the reverse effect of limiting their exploitation. For example, higher oil prices drove the rush into tar sands oil and risky deep sea drilling. The more fundamental questions here are: What is nature as value? As value for who or what?

Marx did not quite grasp how the metabolic rift opened up by the misrecognition of the natural conditions of production could become global. But he did see how capitalism accelerated material through-put, or “capital’s tendency to accelerate material through-put beyond its natural limits…” (108) Capitalism accelerates with the rising productivity of labor and the embedding of living labor ever deeper in a technical apparatus. But this merely quantitative acceleration could only ever be temporary. The historical task is to extrapolate from the forms of both natural and social history some other matrix of forms of a qualitatively different kind to the value form.

But Marx did not connect ecological crisis with capital’s crisis. While it is beyond the scope of Burkett’s book, one might mention here that Bogdanov did in his Marxist-utopian fiction, Red Mars, and after a fashion in his Tektology. As the editor of all three volumes of Marx’s Capital in Russia, Bogdanov likely knew pretty well those pages of Capital vol. 3 where Marx begins to grasp how the barrier to capital is capital itself.

Burkett has a broad vision of what Marx meant by the crisis of capital. Accumulation crisis is just one example of a larger concept of crisis. Profitability crises are more symptoms than the crisis itself. The real source of crisis is the separation of production for exchange from need. As commodities come to have more and more value, the worker comes to have less and less. Production is driven by competitive money accumulation. The conditions of labor come to dominate labor. The forces of production developed by destroying the sources of wealth – land and labor. Hence the actual crisis of capital is something separate from its periodic profitability crises. (Of course one might want to subject the whole rhetorical figure of crisis to some scrutiny here, as Janet Roitman suggests. It may not be helpful in the way it structures narratives in advance).

Capital is both a progressive force and an alienating one at the same time. Its alienation from its natural conditions of possibility returns as limit. “This would occur, for example, when capital’s development of production itself makes capitalist relations increasingly inadequate to the further development of the productive forces, where these forces are defined in terms of the ability to satisfy the needs developed by capitalism.” (183)

A 3-dimensional thinking about crisis might encompass three aspects: 1. The tension between social production and private appropriation. 2. The inadequacy of value as measure of wealth, and 3. The uselessness of class exploitation as a development engine.

Is capitalist production itself now parasitical and rent-seeking? Technical changes to the conditions of production make matter animate and intelligence merely vegetative. This socialized production renders labor time irrelevant as a measure, and yet the whole capitalist mode of extracting surplus value still rests on exploiting labor time.

But direct labor time is no longer much of a measure of value produced. “With the socialization of production, wealth becomes more and more a function of the social division of labor and general scientific knowledge combined with natural conditions, and less and less dependent upon individual direct labor and its particular material implements.” (188) The theft of labor time is just not much of a basis for vast, complex industry. And yet capital keeps exploiting the producers rather than developing them.

Ecologies are limited; monetary economies are endlessly expansive. Capital’s tendency is to erode its own conditions of production. Where for O’Connor this is a second contradiction of capital, for Burkett it is part of the first, between social need and production for exchange. The eroding of natural conditions is a side-effect of accumulation, and one it can even incorporate, up to a point. “To put it bluntly, capital can in principle continue to accumulate under any natural conditions, however degraded, so long as there is not a complete extinction of human life.” (196)

If there is a principle contradiction within capitalism it is between wealth for capital and wealth for the producer and their communities. Burkett takes a holistic approach to labor’s antagonism in and against capital, and does not limit it to the point of production. Such an “industrialist vision” of agency is too limited. (200) And one might add, was always too masculinist. It is not just direct labor time that is expropriated from the worker, but what Raymond Williams would call a whole way of life.

And yet capital contains its own negation in the form of wealth. It’s a matter of extending the association of labor in production to all spheres of exchange, as Karatani would put it. Hardt and Negri draw attention to the increasing socialization of production, to which Burkett adds capital’s reliance on the free appropriation of natural conditions. In the overdeveloped world, capital is in a continual struggle with both the natural and social conditions of its own existence. The property form is always in tension between its privatization within the accumulation process and its socialization as the necessary matrix within which privatization necessarily rests.

Burkett rather optimistically proposes that “…labor does not share capitalism’s necessary antagonism towards nature.” (215) But certainly, it is in the interests of those most likely to feel the effects of the negative aspect of metabolic rifts to struggle for a vision of nature as ends rather than just as means. As Burkett was already arguing in the 1990s: “The insufficiency of the competitive price system to deal with capitalism’s biospheric malfunctions is shown by the threat of global warming.” (219) And in several other metabolic rifts – the Anthropocene as symptomatology – as well. And yet the solution most commonly offered is simply more of the same: “Market-based environmental policies codify and rationalize capital’s restricted identification of natural wealth as a condition of monetary accumulation.” (220)

Burkett is not prescriptive about the whole ways of life that might exist outside the separation, alienation and abstraction of the value form that is capital. There might be diverse ecological ethics and cultures. Here one might look to the science fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy as a thought experiment in negotiating between diverse forms of post-capitalist life. But his overall point is this: “So if we want to live with nature, we must master our social organization.” (257)

There’s a bit too much residual humanism in Burkett’s tentative suggestion of a communist production as democratic planning. It underestimates the infrastructural and technical aspects of our species-being. The task is, as Benjamin Bratton once suggested, the question of whether this infrastructure can build a qualitatively different one. Perhaps one not based on value in its capitalist form.

Burkett usefully stresses the need for fluency in both natural sciences and democratic-cooperative procedures. Organizing a future necessarily entails both a folk politics and something more of the order of a re-engineering of systems. Burkett: “A holistic perspective, one that breaks down artificial barriers between natural and social sciences and between all science and the subaltern members of society is absolutely essential for such a development.” (20) Burkett doesn’t mention it, but this was exactly the project of Bogdanov’s tektology and proletkult.

What Engels called “the monopolization of the earth by a few” has reached absurdist proportions as I was writing this. (60) It would appear that the 1% now own more than half the wealth of the planet. It is the greatest concentration of wealth ever, and yet it corresponds to an era of social disaster. No wonder, as Debord cannily noted, the rulers of this broken spectacle prefer to be judged by their enemies and not by their results.

McKenzie Wark

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