Nature and the economy: Marxism in an American labyrinth

by Chris Gilbert

The elements are conspiring with us, destruction is soon coming.
―Mephistopheles, in Faust―

Although it is true that real socialism often made a fetish out of the development of productive forces, a Promethean or productivist disregard for the natural limits of growth is more capitalist than socialist in its inspiration. Still the productivist schema maintains such sway over the left that this radically anthropocentric attitude has often distorted Marxism or even supplanted the authentic Marxist view.

This might have been a minor problem at one point in history, but these days, with environmental disaster breathing down our necks, it constitutes an undeniable debacle on the level of theory.

The contradiction between the Promethean or productivist attitude on the one hand and Marxism on the other has had an especially bumpy trajectory in the Americas.[1] In his reflections on capitalist modernity, the late Bolívar Echeverría charts how capitalism, migrating from its Mediterranean origins, found new terrain for expansion in northern Europe and later in the Americas (especially North America). In these regions there was an opportunity for purer versions of capitalism, free from the complicated compromises with earlier social forms that had characterized capitalism in southern Europe.

Yet Echeverría also charts how northern capitalist behaviors — and the productivist, puritan attitudes they entailed — whatever their relevance in situations characterized by absolute scarcity, were clearly out of whack with the exorbitant natural abundance of the Americas.[2]

“Natural abundance” … “absolute scarcity”? In principle these factors should not have any role in economics, Marxist or otherwise. Classical economic science focuses — this is really how it defines its field of scientific investigation — on exchange values, prices, markets, etc., all of which are on the near side of the social-natural dyad.

Yet the key thing to keep in mind is that Marx was not so much an economist as a critic of economy (let’s not forget that Capital is subtitled “critique of political economy”). The critique, I would argue, comes precisely from the perspective of extra-economic use-values. Use values — in particular that use-value which is the proletarianized human being and his “inorganic body” or nature — are the Archimedean point by which the economic system is put into question.

The relevant form of abundance in the Americas is of course the abundance of natural wealth, non-produced riches. Let’s say that Marxism limits itself to arguing for the worker’s right to the product of his labor. Carlos Fernández Liria, with his “republican” Marxism, puts a great deal of emphasis on this idea: “the concept of property with which modern society represents itself”[3]; and it appears from recent studies that Abraham Lincoln also went this far, believing that a worker has a right to the disposition of his own labor capacity (hence to be free from slavery) as well as to his product[4].

All of this fits within a more or less workerist perspective. If we make an imaginary geography of North America, it is easy to see how this could have passed for a liberating doctrine in the densely-populated East Coast of the nineteenth century.

Yet Marx was not workerist, and with good reason.

In his Critique of the Gotha Program and in Capital, Marx emphasized that riches do not only come from labor: if labor is the “father” of wealth, then nature is wealth’s “mother”, he argues in the first pages of Capital.[5]

In more philosophical writings, such as the Manuscripts of 1844 or the Grundrisse, Marx claims that in precapitalist forms of property, property was seen as a natural or semi-natural condition, not a produced thing. In 1844 he had written that nature was the worker’s “inorganic body.”

What all of this implies is that in a good society, what human beings need is not only the right to their product but also to their natural conditions: the human being has to be at home in the natural environment to which he belongs. He must have these conditions because human life is a relation of metabolic interchange with them.

Important thoughts for our times!

Today, the phenomenon of exploitation (the appropriation without pay of a part of the product of labor) remains the central contradiction of the capitalist economy, but now another grave problem insists with ever greater urgency: capitalism’s mining the natural conditions for human life.

It is sometimes maintained that the Monthly Review circle of Marxists fell into serious error because its founder Paul Sweezy and collaborator Paul Baran often favored the vaguely Keynesian term “economic surplus” in lieu of the more strictly Marxist category “surplus value”.[6] Whatever the truth (or falsity) of this claim, these writers by avoiding a simplistic focus on surplus value were able to pave the way for the recovery of a set of authentically Marxist questions that many others have tragically ignored: Marx’s reflections on the necessary natural conditions of human life, the metabolic exchange between society and nature, and the question of sustainability.[7]

In the American continent, as indicated above, the productivist idea that wealth is essentially “made stuff” was evidently problematic in the shadow of the continent’s immense natural resources, not to say natural wonders. In this sense it is interesting to be reminded of the powerful myth developed by autonomists such as Paulo Virno in regard to North American migration: Virno and Toni Negri held it to be of great interest that workers of the East Coast would rapidly abandon exploitive factory employment to colonize the free or low-cost land of the West (implying that man-made wealth is nothing compared to what was just out there in frontier zones).[8]

To get a sense of the centrality of natural abundance in American thought, you just have to read Gabriela Mistral’s poetry about the Andes. The theme is also common throughout José Martí’s work, but with a special beauty in Versos Sencillos. With the celebrated verse “Arte soy entre las artes/En los montes, monte soy” (I am art among the arts/mountain among the mountains). Martí seems to be saying, as Marx did, that whatever the importance of production (“arte”), nature is his inorganic body.

Even better might be to read the Peruvian José María Arguedas; then you understand how indigenous people’s thinking, and its integrated co-extensive attitude toward nature, precedes and influences the literary and philosophical attitudes of the continent’s best writers.

All of this may have contributed to an apparent clash between the most serious American thinking on the one hand and Marxism on the other, but the real clash (I have been arguing) is with vulgarized workerist or productivist Marxism.

In Venezuela, Bernard Mommer and Asdrúbal Batista have charted the difficulty experienced by the country’s economists (even Marxists) in analyzing the special kind of use-value that the petroleum resource comprises. In fact, petroleum is a use-value that is not only an incredible (and dangerous) source of energy, but, by means of the mechanisms of differential and absolute rents, it can capture a large part of the profits from other economic sectors.

Straightforwardly bourgeois thinkers in the earlier part of the 20th century faced this problem more or less directly, if deceptively: since what they held in esteem was productive capital, they simply baptized petroleum -erroneously — as “natural capital.” Later progressive or even Marxist tendencies either saw the petroleum rent simply as an obstacle to a “normal” economy or approached it with a euphoria that celebrated assistentialist policies and even consumerist behavior, as for example in Rómulo Betancourt’s first government.[9]

Here, as in other cases, the blind spot is produced by the Promethean or productivist distortion of Marxism. For this reason, a careful examination of the phenomenon of territorial or mining rents, since this can force us to recognize the tremendous economic importance of certain use-values, provides a thread that can help lead out of the labyrinth of exchange values and societal relations which too narrowly defines conventional economic science.

Of course, the larger and very urgent question is to recuperate the double perspective on labor and the earth that Marx affirms in the Critique of the Gotha Program and other texts. Marx’s authentic view is based on the recognition that the production of material wealth by human beings requires the control and preservation of the natural conditions for this metabolic relation.

Human beings belong to a natural context that José Martí refers to with a rich vocabulary: phrases such as “bosque eterno” (eternal woods) or “mi templo, en la montaña” (my temple, on the mountain). Following Martí, we can affirm that however much we may feel at home in the arts or production (especially after eradicating capitalism’s perverse control over the processes of production), we cannot forget that natural things, mountains and woods, are us too.

Superficial versions of Marxism — at times diametrically opposed to Marx’s own views — have occasionally led us to ignore that the recovery of social property, of what is “ours” in the fullest sense, means not only the recovery of what is produced but also recovery of the many nonproduced things that make up our lived context. Social property therefore includes, or should include, a rich and just relation to the many and diverse natural components of our lived context.

Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science at the Universidad Boliviariana de Venezuela and co-producer of the television program in ViVe Televisión “Escuela de Cuadros.”

Copyright © 2013 by Chris Gilbert

Reference Notes

[1] Throughout the text, the expressions “America,” “American,” “the continent,” and of course “the Americas” refer to the totality of North, South and Central America.

[2] Bolívar Echeverría, Modernidad y blanquitud (Mexico D.F.: Ediciones Era, 2010). See especially the fifth chapter, “La modernidad americana”: 87-114.

[3] Carlos Fernández Liria y Luis Alegre Zahonero, El Orden de El Capital (Akal, 2010): 277.

[4] Vicenç Navarro, “Lo que la película “Lincoln” no dice sobre Lincoln,” in Rebelió The article relies on recent investigations by John Nichols.

[5] The Critique of the Gotha Program‘s historical context is relevant: Ferdinand Lassalle, whose ideas are represented in the Gotha Program, collaborated with the junker landowner class. By promoting the idea that labor alone produces all wealth, Lassalle’s ideology would permit this class to amass and control the natural conditions for work, riches and life. With petroleum and the “second nature” of technology substituting for arable land, this is in some ways the story of recent decades.

[6] See for example, Juan Kornblihtt, Crítica del Marxismo Liberal (Buenos Aires: Ediciones RyR, 2008): 39; or Tickten, Hillel, “Homenaje a Paul Sweezy,” Revista Herramienta No 26.

[7] John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000).

[8] Paulo Virno, Gramática de la multitud: para un análisis de las formas de vida contemporáneas (Traficantes de Sueños, 2003).

[9] Asdrúbal Batista and Bernard Mommer, El Petróleo en el pensamiento económico venezolano: un ensayo (Caracas: IESA, 1987); Bernard Mommer, La Cuestión Petrolera (Cararcas: Ediplus, 2008). The idea that petroleum is “natural capital” is most famously associated with Arturo Uslar Pietri.

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