I’d like to comment on Edmund Berger’s post on the “ecological” Marx which you can read here.
The nub of the issue he raises is summarised in the following:
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”…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.
As Edmund emphasizes, the primary disjunction envisioned by Marx is not between man and nature but is structured into capitalist social relations on the ground of the collective transformation of the givens of nature into the means of subsistence.
Marx’s vision is an inversion of the Hegelian dialectic – the idealised movement of spirit, working through history to resolve an opposition in it’s own alienated essence. Stood on its materialist feet, the dialectic is conceptualised as the working out of an opposition interior to the dyad “forces of production and mode of social relation”. The further development and full exploitation of the potential of the productive forces is “fettered” by commodity exchange, competition, speculation, and the anarchic nature of the market. The deployment of industrial power, instead of producing an abundance of goods for use, produces periodic crisis of over production, the pauperisation of the worker and the creation of a social world standing over and against the human as an alien force.
Although the ground of the socialisation of production is the biological individual and her need to transform nature into subsistence, for Marx this necessary interaction is not simply an outside or other of the social, envisioned as a bifurcation of nature and culture, for example. As Edmund points out, quoting Marx:
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.
The socialisation of the production process, expressed in the division of labour, takes up natural processes into the industrial process via science and inserts them between the individual and the inorganic as socialised nature. Culture is, in other words a worked nature, in the sense not only of the deployment of natural human energy and intelligence to transform “raw materials” but also in the sense of the harnessing of the latent power of natural forces in a scientific way, deploying them for human ends.
This humanising or socialising thrust is already in operation at the heart of the capitalist mode but in a distorted form. In the process of transforming the givens of nature through work the worker re-produces himself as the effect of a social configuration or structure, as an abstract entity functioning within a system of commodity relations -labour time, surplus value, cost of production, profit and loss, etc; in other words as a function within an economy abstractly designated as exterior to his own processes and ruling over him. Human beings are, first and foremost, biological organisms embedded within an eco-system, (an organism which must replicate itself by the internalisation of bits of its environment). This whole gestalt, as it were, is transformed in the processes of production, producing a social being able to cooperate in conscious ways to ameliorate the difficulties encountered during the transformation of nature into sustenance. Capitalism is, in essence, a system of harvesting the socialised energy of the worker as surplus, by way of the circulation and exchange of the use-values he naturally creates in the process of replicating himself.
Nature is, in other words, already and always at the heart of the capitalist process as a distortion of the tendency to socialisation and co-operation. Marx did not, of course, ordinarily use an explicitly “metabolic” way of speaking but preferred to construct his concepts using Hegelian terminology, such that a structure of oppositions was the internal “motor of history” propelling the evolution of social relations from “lower” to higher unities, and ultimately to a synthesis on a “higher plane”on the basis of the biological individual.
What was required was a revolution in the social relations to liberate the full potential of industrial power at a “higher level”, undoing the alienating effect of commodity production and the unpredictability of the market form. The already established socialization of the worker brought about by mass factory culture in combination with the deployment of the productive capacity of the capitalist mode would together lay the foundations for a new form of social organisation; one which would utilise mass production and the scientific exploitation of land and natural resources to produce an over abundance of use-values, from which the individual could draw on the basis of need. Key here was the overturning of the existing social relations. Without that, the power of the capitalist mode produced pauperisation, alienation, crisis and, if allowed enough time, the eventual depletion of finite resources and the destruction of habitats, undoing the ground of the whole process.
The revolution in social relations was, of course, indefinitely postponed, an outcome interpreted by Marxists as a failure of revolutionary politics on the one hand and the complexity of the “inner” workings of an objective “dialectic of history” on the other. This was encapsulated in Marx’s observation that “Man was free but only under certain conditions”, a statement which made the making of the revolution conditional on the revolution being makable and expressed the necessarily circular nature of philosophical postulates.
In fact the dialectic, which purportedly “stood Hegel on his feet”, was a cumbersome philosophical amphibology projected onto the situation, at best a quasi-scientific model and not a law of social relation or development. It was a model that was not adequate to the complexities of the rapid evolution of productive forces, social relations, science, the state, ethnic differences, chance social configurations and the general unpredictability of the subjective experiential continuum expressed as the mass of hopes, fears, existential sufferings, religious projections, desires, aversions and intuitions of personal and collective liberation or escape; in short it was not adequate to the actuality of life lived as what Marx call human sensuous practice. At best, it needed supplementation by an ongoing empirical investigation of the particularity underlying any globalised view; at worst it was a simplistic conceptual reduction of the biological, social and conceptual/ideological/ matrix.
Note, though, that when I say an empirical investigation I do not mean rule by scientists, a form of technocratic rule by experts from above, or an ideology of empiro-scientism. I mean, firstly, rule from below, allowing the free expression of knowledge arising directly out of the experience of those living the actuality of what is, in hindsight, abstracted as “the empirical”. That includes scientists making their methodological investigations, an instance, first and foremost, of the lived, a truth made explicit by the ethnological study of scientific practices always and already embedded in the social life of human beings.
At any rate the question is now only a scholastic one. Nature herself has spoken from the heart of the social to tell us that there never was a guarantee that we could overthrow capitalism and seek to control the forces it/they/we have unleashed. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle. Paradoxically this puts us back where Marx envisioned we would sooner or later be: facing the general pauperisation of humanity as capitalism self-implodes, but without the assurance of an acceptable outcome for the mass of sufferers provided by a quasi-philosophical/scientific determinism of the social. That is to say, the neat philosophical amphibology called Marxism will be trumped (maybe literally Trumped) by an “outside” of philosophy in the form of that great unwashed horde which will include a good number of pauperised professors of philosophy galvanised into action by ideologies of the right; swept up into rejuvenated religious fundamentalism and an eschatology of end-time retribution. Where that will lead us nobody knows.
Even so, there are prophets (of sorts) able to make inspired guesses. Margaret Atwood was one such prophet. “The Handmaids Tale”, is a more accurate vision of what is to come than the predictions of all of academia put together. The horrible truth is that the state will probably not wither away on the basis of the collapse of the economy. It will instead reveal itself as the guarantor of the rights of the rich and powerful over the poor and powerless by way of naked aggression, as it always has. In fact so called collapse— into geo/political entities, city states, novel socio-techno islands of utopian zeal, reversions to pre-industrial agri-systems etc.– is nothing more than the falling away of the ideological illusion of bourgeois consensus. The splintering of global state power into a proliferation of mini-powers, no less dangerous for being smaller in scale, does not auger the collapse of the social but only of its bourgeois form of compromised class relations. In fact such splintering announces a period of intense political struggle as powerful interests vie for dominance in a more confined social and psychical space. That it will be a very bloody struggle is confirmed by the proliferation of weapons, their ease of use (even children can learn in a short while how to use sophisticated weaponry, they have already honed their skills on their smart phones) and the unresolved oppositions based on class, ethnic, religious and geographical allegiances.
If one were to look for a past situation which mirrored what might now come to pass, one could look to the period when an incipient form of social organisation-capitalism-was thwarted by feudal social relations based on hereditary privilege and an armed state power intent on preserving that privilege at the expense of the “commons”. This tumultuous struggle, in it’s most intense form, took place over a period of twenty years on the island of England during the seventeenth century. It produced revolution, war, dictatorship, famine, factionalism, eschatological cults, powerful new media, a proliferation of new ideas, religious fundamentalism, political innovation and, finally, the restoration of the old system and its slow undoing over the centuries that followed. For all of those who went through it, it was a time in which the world was “turned on it’s head”, a world in which every living being was touched by the “times that were”. Many never lived to tell the tale.
Just so, our world and the illusions that validate it will crumble. We will have to remake ourselves as political subjects. Very few will escape this necessity in an era when power, politics and means of sustenance are revealed as the tripartite essence of what it means to be a social being. Once all of the bourgeois rights fall away and rule by force of arms becomes the norm, and once the production of surpluses no longer presupposes a distribution guaranteeing the survival of the producers, only then will politics, work, and food reveal themselves as one and the same process of transformation of nature into subsistence, that very essence of the social that Marx sought to explicate on the theoretical plane
As in England in the seventeenth century, the outline of a more just, humane and more rationally organised world is discernible in the womb of the old order, even as the world slides into a period of unprecedented chaos. The difference now is that we are playing for higher stakes, even, perhaps, for the continued existence of our species.