Capital vs Nature and Humanity

The Double Deformation

Economic exploitation is only one aspect of capitalism. The crisis of humanity and the crisis of the earth system are inseparable

Michael A. Lebowitz is professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. His books include The Socialist Imperative, The Contradictions of Real Socialism, and Between Capitalism and Community, all published by Monthly Review Press. This article is excerpted, with permission, from “Know Your Enemy: How to Defeat Capitalism,” published this month in LINKS: International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

Find citations and extended arguments in Between Capitalism and Community (Monthly Review Press, 2020).

by Michael A. Lebowitz

The exploitation of workers is at the core of capitalism. It explains capital’s drive to divide workers in order to grow. Exploitation is the source of the inequality characteristic of capitalism. To fight inequality, we must fight capitalist exploitation. However, inequality is only one aspect of capitalism. In and by itself, exploitation is inadequate to grasp the effects of capital’s drive and thus the products of capitalism. Focus upon exploitation is one-sided because you do not know the enemy unless you understand the double deformation inherent in capitalism.

Recall that human beings and Nature are the ultimate inputs into production. In capitalist production, they serve specifically as means for the purpose of the growth of capital. The result is deformation — capitalistically-transformed Nature and capitalistically-transformed human beings. Capitalist production, Marx stressed, “only develops the technique 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 why?

The Deformation of Nature

By itself, Nature is characterized by a metabolic process through which it converts various inputs and transforms these into the basis for its reproduction. In his discussion of the production of wheat, for example, Marx identified a “vegetative or physiological process” involving the seeds and “various chemical ingredients supplied by the manure, salts contained in the soil, water, air, light.”

Through this process, inorganic components are “assimilated by the organic components and transformed into organic material.” Their form is changed in this metabolic process, from inorganic to organic through what Marx called “the expenditure of nature.” Also part of the “universal metabolism of nature” is the further transformation of organic components, their deterioration and dying through their “consumption by elemental forces.”

In this way, the conditions for rebirth (for example, the “vitality of the soil”) are themselves products of this metabolic process. “The seed becomes the unfolded plant, the blossom fades, and so forth.” Birth, death, renewal are moments characteristic of the “metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.”

This universal metabolism of Nature, however, must be distinguished from the relation in which a human being “mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature.” That labor process involves the “appropriation of what exists in nature for the requirements of man. It is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between man and nature.” This “ever-lasting nature-imposed condition of human existence,” Marx pointed out, is “common to all forms of society in which human beings live.”

As we have indicated, however, under capitalist relations of production, the preconceived goal of production is the growth of capital. The particular metabolic process that occurs in this case is one in which human labor and Nature are converted into surplus value, the basis for that growth.

Accordingly, rather than a process that begins with “man and his labour on one side, nature and its materials on the other,” in capitalist relations the starting point is capital, and “the labour process is a process between things the capitalist has purchased, things which belong to him.” It is “appropriation of what exists in nature for the requirements” not of man but of capital.

There is, as noted, “exploration of the earth in all directions” for a single purpose— to find new sources of raw materials to ensure the generation of profits. Nature, “the universal material for labour,” the “original larder” for human existence, is here a means not for human existence but for capital’s existence.

As we have seen, while capital’s tendency to grow by leaps and bounds comes up against a barrier insofar as plant and animal products are “subject to certain organic laws involving naturally determined periods of time”, capital constantly drives beyond each barrier it faces.

However, there is a barrier it does not escape. Marx noted, for example, that “the entire spirit of capitalist production, which is oriented towards the most immediate monetary profit — stands in contradiction to agriculture, which has to concern itself with the whole gamut of permanent conditions of life required by the chain of human generations.” Indeed, the very nature of production under capitalist relations violates “the metabolic interaction between man and the earth,” it produces “an irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself.”

That “irreparable” metabolic rift that Marx described is neither a short-term disturbance nor unique to agriculture. The “squandering of the vitality of the soil” is a paradigm for the way in which the “metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself” is violated under capitalist relations of production.

In fact, there is nothing inherent in agricultural production that leads to that “squandering of the vitality of the soil.” On the contrary, Marx pointed out that a society can bequeath the earth “in an improved state to succeeding generations.” But this requires an understanding that “agriculture forms a mode of production sui generis, because the organic process is involved, in addition to the mechanical and chemical process, and the natural reproduction process is merely controlled and guided.” The same is true, too, in the case of fishing, hunting, and forestry. Maintenance and improvement of the vitality of the soil and of other sectors dependent upon organic conditions requires the recognition of the necessity for “systematic restoration as a regulative law of social production.”

With every increase in capitalist production, there are growing demands upon the natural environment, and the tendency to exhaust Nature’s larder and to generate unabsorbed and unutilizable waste is not at all limited to the metabolic rift that Marx described with respect to capitalist agriculture.

Thus, Marx indicated that “extractive industry (mining is the most important) is likewise an industry sui generis, because no reproduction process whatever takes place in it, at least not one under our control or known to us,” and, he noted as well “the exhaustion of forests, coal and iron mines, and so on.” Given its preoccupation with its need to grow, capital has no interest in the contradiction between its logic and the “natural laws of life itself.” The contradiction between its drive for infinite growth and a finite, limited earth is not a concern because for capital there is always another source of growth to be found.

Like a vampire, it seeks the last possible drop of blood and does not worry about keeping its host alive.

Accordingly, since capital does not worry about “simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the worker,” sooner or later it destroys both. Marx’s comment with respect to capital’s drive to drain every ounce of energy from the worker describes capital’s relation to the natural world precisely:

“Après moi le deluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and every capitalist nation. Capital therefore takes no account of the health and the length of life of the worker, unless society forces it to do so.”

We are seeing the signs of that approaching deluge. Devastating wildfires, droughts, powerful hurricanes, warming oceans, floods, rising sea levels, pollution, pandemics, disappearing species, etc., are becoming commonplace — but there is nothing in capital’s metabolic process that would check that. If, for example, certain materials become scarce and costly, capital will not scale back and accept less or no growth; rather, it will scour the earth to search for new sources and substitutes.

Can society prevent the crisis of the earth system, the deluge? Not currently. The ultimate deformation of Nature is the prospect because the second deformation makes it easier to envision the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

The Deformation of Human Beings

Human beings are not static and fixed. Rather, they are a work in process because they develop as the result of their activity. They change themselves as they act in and upon the world. In this respect there are always two products of human activity — the change in circumstances and the change in the human being. In the very act of producing, Marx commented, “the producers change, too, in that they bring out new qualities in themselves, develop themselves in production, transform themselves, develop new powers and new ideas, new modes of intercourse, new needs and new language.”

In the process of producing, the worker “acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature.”

In this “self-creation of man as a process,” the character of that human product flows from the nature of that productive activity. Under particular circumstances, that process can be one in which people are able to develop their capacities in an all-rounded way.

As Marx put it, “when the worker co-operates in a planned way with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species”. In such a situation, associated producers may expend “their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force”, and the means of production are “there to satisfy the worker’s own need for development.”

For example, if workers democratically decide upon a plan, work together to achieve its realization, solve problems which emerge and shift in this process from activity to activity, they engage in a constant succession of acts which expand their capacities. For workers in this situation, there is the “absolute working-out of his creative potentialities,” the “complete working out of the human content,” the “development of all human powers as such the end in itself.”

Collective activity under these relations produces “free individuality, based on the universal development of individuals and on their subordination of their communal, social productivity as their social wealth.” In the society of the future, Marx concluded, the productive forces of people will have “increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly”.

But that’s not the character of activity under capitalist relations of production, where “it is not the worker who employs the conditions of his work, but rather the reverse, the conditions of work employ the worker.” While we know how central exploitation is from the perspective of capital, consider the effects upon workers of what capital does to ensure that exploitation. We’ve seen how capital constantly attempts to separate workers and, indeed, fosters antagonism among them (the “secret” of its success); how capital introduces changes in production that divides them further, intensifies the production process and expands the reserve army that fosters competition.

What’s the effect? Marx pointed out that “all means for the development of production” under capitalism “distort the worker into ah fragment of a man,” degrade him and “alienate him from the intellectual potentialities of the labour process”. In Capital, he described the mutilation, the impoverishment, the “crippling of body and mind” of the worker “bound hand and foot for life to a single specialized operation” that occurs in the division of labor characteristic of the capitalist process of manufacturing.

But did the subsequent development of machinery end that crippling of workers? Marx’s response was that under capitalist relations such developments complete the “separation of the intellectual faculties of the production process from manual labour.” Thinking and doing become separate and hostile, and “every atom of freedom, both in bodily and in intellectual activity” is lost.

In short, a particular type of person is produced in capitalism. Producing within capitalist relations is what Marx called a process of a “complete emptying-out,” “total alienation,” the “sacrifice of the human end-in-itself to an entirely external end”. Indeed, the worker is so alienated that, though working with others, he “actually treats the social character of his work, its combination with the work of others for a common goal, as a power that is alien to him.”

In this situation, in order to fill the vacuum of our lives, we need things — we are driven to consume. In addition to producing commodities and capital itself, thus, capitalism produces a fragmented, crippled human being, whose enjoyment consists in possessing and consuming things. More and more things. Capital constantly generates new needs for workers, and it is upon this, Marx noted, that “the contemporary power of capital rests.”

In short, every new need for capitalist commodities is a new link in the golden chain that links workers to capital.

Accordingly, rather than producing a working class that wants to put an end to capitalism, capital tends to produce the working class it needs, workers who treat capitalism as common sense. As Marx concluded:

“The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, tradition and habit looks upon the requirements of that mode of production as self-evident natural laws. The organization of the capitalist process of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance.”

To this, he added that capital’s generation of a reserve army of the unemployed “sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker.” That constant generation of a relative surplus population of workers means, Marx argued, that wages are “confined within limits satisfactory to capitalist exploitation, and lastly, the social dependence of the worker on the capitalist, which is indispensable, is secured.”

Accordingly, Marx concluded that the capitalist can rely upon the worker’s “dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them.”

However, while it is possible that workers may remain socially dependent upon capital in perpetuity, that doesn’t mean that capital’s incessant growth can continue in perpetuity. In fact, given that workers deformed by capital accept capital’s requirement to grow “as self-evident natural laws,” their deformation supports the deformation of Nature.

In turn, the increase in flooding, drought and other extreme climate changes and resulting mass migrations which are the product of the deformation of Nature intensify divisions and antagonism among workers. The crisis of the earth system and the crisis of humanity are one.


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  • This article didn’t point out that Marx was a revolutionary who fought to overthrow capitalism—it feels fatalistic and incomplete without a follow-up about resistance, about how the future society will come to be.

    • Joshua — One of the most annoying and least useful features of much left-wing writing is the insistence that every article must give the complete “line,” as though readers will never read anything else. Climate & Capitalism does not do that. We have dealt with the subjects you mention many times, and all of those articles are easily available on line. We also recommend books for readers who want more detail and depth — in fact this article includes a link to Michael Lebowitz’s excellent new book, which I hope you will read.