Degrowth or Mastery? Note on ‘Eco-Marx’


Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. — Grundrisse, Chapter 14.

The good folks over at the Synthetic Zero have debuted a new series of curated articles on the topic of “The Ecological Marx”, highlighting in particular “life-long interest in the relationship between our ‘species being’ and the life conditions within which we evolve as humans and as societies” as a means to gain some sort of purchase on how to deploy these theories in the context of climatological breakdown and the disjunction between industrial progress and ecological durability.

The first essay is one by Gareth Dale titled “The Emergence of an Ecological Marx: 1818-2018”, which posits an Eco-Marx against the oft-critiqued Promethean Marx (these are my terms, not Dale), not one unlike that which has been developed by various theorists like Jason Moore, Paul Burkett, and John Bellamy Foster. Following in the footsteps of the latter, Dale hones in on the so-called ‘metabolic rift’ theory that peppers Marx’s writings and spans the typical division of his work between a ‘young’ and ‘old’ or ‘mature’ phase. This metabolism is a reflection of the interdependence between human and nature which becomes ruptured and divergent with the advent of the capitalist mode of production. The classic example is that of the relationship between soil and agriculture: this production process requires a nutrient-rich soil, but with the arrival of industrial agricultural (Marx was writing in the context of the British agricultural revolution, which saw booming food production following alongside a rapid expansion of the population), the rate at which soil degraded accelerated. This had many implications, ranging from temporary food shortages to an increased demand for guano (usable as a nitrogen and phosphate-rich fertilizer), which in turn spurred the expansion of overseas markets, so on and so forth. Today, we might say that what Marx was grappling with was the persistence of externalities that necessarily arise from developmental processes, precisely due to the sort of metabolic interface that exists between the processes that characterize what we call civilization and those of nature.

For Dale, the realization of the Eco-Marx via the metabolic rift theory means

no longer can Marx be read as a cheerleader for economic growth or material progress. Those who continue to read him in this way should acquaint themselves with his metaphor of human progress under capitalism. It resembles, says Marx, “that hideous, pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain”.

The newly discovered ‘ecological’ Marx was a sharp critic of the growth paradigm, and in Volume One of Capital he draws attention to the trampling of the natural realm by bourgeois progress.

He then proceeds to offer the following quote from Volume One:

All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress toward ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility…Capitalist production, therefore, only develops the techniques and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.

But does this, or the overall structure and position of the metabolic rift in the theory really imply a Marx that is against “economic or material growth”? The short answer to this is no, and the slightly longer answer is that to craft a Marx who rejects such things on these grounds to generate a Marx who is, in fact, anti-Marxist—and not in the sense of the pithy “I am not a Marxist quote”. I mean in the sense of a real theoretical antagonism. One would wonder, then, why one would even try to build such a theory through a Marxist frame?

Let’s unpack this a bit more.

Nature holds, as indicated by the metabolic rift theory, a central place in Marx’s philosophy. In the opening blast of Gothakritik (written in 1875, but not published until 1891), Marx tore asunder vulgar interpretations of labor-value theory by declaring “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”. These words called back to the comments made in the first chapter of Capital, that “[l]labour… as the creator of use-values, as useful labor, is a condition of human existence which is independent of all forms of society; it is an eternal, natural necessity which mediates the metabolism between man and nature, and therefore human life itself”. Part of what makes the capitalist mode of production unique to human history is the way that it takes ahold of this mediating labor-activity, capturing and twisting and compelling it towards ends that are alien to itself. As described in the quote used by Dale above, the worker comes to robbed, as the capitalist appropriates an increasing share of surplus value.

But whereas one might expect that the revolutionary solution is to create a situation in which the worker receives the full share of the proceeds of their labor, that is, the full value (as the mutualists both old and contemporary might have it), Marx throws a twist. A supersession of the capitalist mode of production entails getting out from under the law of value in full. The worker doesn’t receive the full value; instead, value is eliminated as a category and a substance that organizes society. What’s more is that this is already a tendency at work in the development of the productive forces under capitalism.

Thus we have the situation in which the solution isn’t to halt the undermining of this “source of wealth” or to dial back to some earlier, “original” form (as the above quote might be read as implying, if taken if complete isolation)—it’s to carry out this undermining in a way that capitalism will tend inexorably towards, but fall short of. Similarly, we should disabuse ourselves any notion that ceasing to ‘rob the soil’ will entail falling backwards towards some earlier state of socio-ecological regulation or to sidestep away from the level of development installed by the capitalist mode of production.

One might object at this point and suggest that just because we’re not going backwards doesn’t mean that Marx is continuing to endorse growth or material progress. But to the contrary—he absolutely is. For Marx, the capitalist mode of production as a historical epoch is something of a midway point in which humanity is gradually disembedding itself from domination by nature and coming, instead, to exert its own domination of nature. Hence the following questions from the Grundrisse:

…when the limited bourgeois form is stripped away, what is wealth other than the universality of individual needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces, etc., created through universal exchange? The full development of human mastery over the forces of nature, those of so-called nature as well as of humanity’s own nature? The absolute working-out of his creative potentials, with no presupposition other than the previous historical development, which makes this totality of development, i.e. the development of all human powers as such the end in itself, not as measured on a predetermined yardstick?

The ‘previous historical development’ here refers, first and foremost, to the capitalist mode of development. This is not a Marx who sees as there being, as Howard Parsons interprets him (in Marx and Engels on Ecology), an absolute contradiction between the development of the productive forces with the “system of nature”. As John Clark points out in his own critique of Parsons, Marx sees this disjunction as less a critical contradiction and more a phenomenon of relative tensions that are capable of rupturing, from time to time, into something that can be detrimental to human development and flourishing.

Furthermore, it stands that if such an absolute contradiction exists as an element in the text, then Marx’s critique of Malthus becomes unintelligible elsewhere, as it posits that contrary to an ultimate limit to growth is a ceiling that is constantly extended and deferred through technological and scientific development. Neither of these were regarded as specifically contrary to the capitalist mode of production, and in the Grundrisse as well as the Gothakritik the Malthusian problem comes to be regarded as something that is solved precisely through what capitalism had already engendered.

This disembedding from nature and expansion of techno-scientific prowess are part and parcel of the same development processes that strike value out from the productive process, and we can easily take them as interdependent, mutually-reinforcing elements. This is because the elimination of value proceeds by way of accelerating gains in productivity, itself dependent on the increasingly mechanized character of production. This process, which is intimately tangled with explosive development of ‘techno-science’ (characterized in the Grundrisse as the general intellect), is inseparable from growth, as it continually marks greater productive capacities through more efficient processes.

At the limit—or barrier—of the capitalist production, a two-fold process unfolds. As the demand for labor is progressively shuttered, the mediating relation that it served, as that vital link between human and nature, is fundamentally and irrevocably transformed. As this occurs, nature itself is subordinated, brought under the control of an industrial system that is increasingly interlinked and automated. Marx’s vision, detailed in the fourteenth chapter of the Grundrisse, depicts how these two processes run together and open the historical beyond the capitalist mode of production:

…to the degree that large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labour time, whose ‘powerful effectiveness’ is itself in turn out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production. (The development of this science, especially natural science, and all others with the latter, is itself in turn related to the development of material production.) Agriculture, e.g., becomes merely the application of the science of material metabolism, its regulation for the greatest advantage of the entire body of society. Real wealth manifests itself, rather – and large industry reveals this – in the monstrous disproportion between the labour time applied, and its product, as well as in the qualitative imbalance between labour, reduced to a pure abstraction, and the power of the production process it superintends. Labour no longer appears so much to be included within the production process; rather, the human being comes to relate more as watchman and regulator to the production process itself. (What holds for machinery holds likewise for the combination of human activities and the development of human intercourse.) No longer does the worker insert a modified natural thing [Naturgegenstand] as middle link between the object [Objekt] and himself; rather, he inserts the process of nature, transformed into an industrial process, as a means between himself and inorganic nature, mastering it. He steps to the side of the production process instead of being its chief actor. In this transformation, it is neither the direct human labour he himself performs, nor the time during which he works, but rather the appropriation of his own general productive power, his understanding of nature and his mastery over it by virtue of his presence as a social body – it is, in a word, the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation-stone of production and of wealth. The theft of alien labour time, on which the present wealth is based, appears a miserable foundation in face of this new one, created by large-scale industry itself.

If there is Ecological Marx, it is at once also a Promethean Marx.


5 thoughts on “Degrowth or Mastery? Note on ‘Eco-Marx’

  1. Pingback: Labor Between the General and the Restricted – DI Research Zone 22

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