Ljubodrag Simonović: Capitalist exploitation of soil


Ljubodrag Simonović
E-mail: comrade@orion.rs
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             Marx’s analysis in Capital of the capitalist exploitation of the soil indicates his understanding of the relationship of capitalism to nature. Marx: “Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centers, and causing an ever-increasing preponderance of urban population, on the one hand, concentrates the historical driving force of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., it prevents the return to the soil of those of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and fabric; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to the continued fertility of the soil. By so doing, it at once destroys the health of the urban laborer and the intellectual life of the rural laborer… In modern agriculture, as in the manufacturing industries, the increased productivity and output of labor are bought at the cost of pathologically laying waste to labor-power, itself. Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art not only of robbing the laborer, but of robbing the soil, as well; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a period of time is progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country bases its development on the foundation of modern industry, as does the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction.”

            Marx does not relate to nature in terms of its possible obliteration as a life-generating whole, but as an object of labor, and he criticizes capitalism for its excessive exhaustion of the soil, which deprives it of fertility. The same critique can be applied to previous historical periods: exhaustion of the soil and the working people is typical of both slavery and feudalism. What is the specificity of capitalist exploitation of nature and man? Departing from Marx’s critique of capitalism, the key difference between capitalism and previous social-economic formations is that production under capitalism is aimed at making profit and not at meeting human needs. Rather than the “ever-increasing preponderance of urban populations”, itself, it is the intensified process of agricultural production aimed at profit that results in the increased exhaustion of the soil, regardless of its potential for fertility and people’s real needs. In addition, capitalism increases the fertility of the soil by ruining the soil as the “lasting source of that fertility”. Marx realized that the problem is not primarily in the limited potential of the soil, but in the capitalist method of soil cultivation, which deprives it of its most important quality – natural fertility. However, Marx does not understand that the specificity of the capitalist method of soil exploitation is that it ruins the natural fertility of the soil through artificial fertilization, which means by turning the soil into a technical space and man into a technical vehicle for ruining nature. Moreover, contemporary food production indicates that capitalism does not even need the soil. In the food industry, raw material is obtained artificially and the whole process of production is carried out in technical conditions, by technical means and in a technical manner. The ultimate result of capitalism’s ecocidal barbarism is that capitalism obviates not only the soil, but also the very planet on which we live, as well as man as a natural and human being. Capitalistically degenerated scientists and their “sponsors” from the world of capital and politics have discarded the Earth as man’s cosmic home, along with “traditional humanity”.

              Marx’s critique of the capitalist exploitation of nature is presented within the context of the critique of hyper-production. For Marx, capitalism is not an ecocidal, but an exploitative order. The issues are taken at the level of production and consumption. Marx overlooks the fact that capitalist production implies not only the consumption of raw materials, energy and human labor, but also the destruction of nature as a life-generating force and man as a natural and human being. For Marx, rather than implying the ecocidal nature of capitalism, and, in that context, the endangered survival of humanity, ruining the soil is one of the harmful effects of industrialization. At the same time, Marx overlooks the fact that the exhaustion of natural resources does not only have a mechanical and quantitative character, but also a qualitative character, which means that it conditions the concrete nature of capitalist progress, the nature of the bourgeoisie and the working class, the nature of the class struggle and socialist revolution, the relationship to the future and even the possibility of a future… As far as the working process is concerned, by developing technical means intensively to cultivate of the soil, capitalism magnifies the productivity of labor and reduced the amount of physical labor and, thus, the physical exhaustion of workers.

             According to Marx, capitalism transforms nature by turning it into useful objects and thus increases the certainty of human survival and expands the borders of human freedom through material goods and the development of man’s creative powers. At the same time, Marx indicates the danger in exploiting the soil to such an extent that it is robbed of its natural fertility and the survival of future generations is threatened, because a future society should be based on a rational cultivation of nature that involves its regeneration. Marx relativizes the importance of the truth that capitalism threatens the survival of future generations. He criticizes capitalism for its exhaustion of the soil, but the consequences are projected into the future, which acquires an abstract dimension. Given the fact that capitalism creates possibilities for artificial fertilization of the soil and manages increasingly to penetrate the Earth and thus provide new raw materials and energy resources, and their more efficient exploitation, the question of the soil’s exhaustion is being relativized. Indeed, capitalism has been threatening the survival of future generations by increasingly ruining nature ever since its beginning. What was perceived by Marx as a possible existential danger, unless in the meantime the working class abolishes capitalism and establishes a qualitatively different relation to the soil, has actually been in place since the emergence of capitalism (which was indicated by Fourier in early 19th  century and, half a century later, by the chief of the Seattle tribe), reaching its peak in the “consumer society“. What appears in Marx as a potential existential threat to future generations, in the form of excessive exhaustion of the soil, has turned today into a real threat to the survival of humankind, in the form of the destruction of nature as a life-generating whole. At the same time, capitalism threatens humankind’s survival not only by robbing the soil, but also by robbing man of his own fertility. As a totalitarian destructive order, capitalism will make future generations face in an increasingly dramatic way not only a fatal ecological crisis, but also their own biological degeneration. The capitalist mode of developing the productive forces has doomed man to biological demise not only by cutting the organic link between man and nature, but also by robbing nature of its natural qualities and man of his human qualities. This comes about by the de-naturalizing of nature and the de-humanizing and de-naturalizing of man, turning nature into a technical space and man into a technical object.

Marx’s “labour theory of value“, according to which the land acquires value through its cultivation, indicates Marx’s reductionist approach to nature. Above all, nature is reduced to the object of labor, and man’s relation to nature is reduced to its cultivation. According to John Foster and Brett Clark, man and nature are for Marx “two original agencies“ in the creation of wealth that “continue to cooperate“. They “defend“ Marx by citing his quotation of William Petty (“founder of classical political economy“) at the beginning of Capital: “Labour is the father of material wealth, the Earth is its mother“. What is important in Foster and Clark’s analyses is that they observe Marx’s difference between “value“ and “wealth“. Marx’s warning that Earth is the wealth that belongs to humanity and must, therefore, not become private property and the object of limitless exploitation is one of the basic principles on which a contemporary critique of capitalism should be based.

             Foster and Clark’s relation to Marx’s views on the capitalist exploitation of the soil comes from their (mis)understanding of the nature of capitalism and the character of its relation to nature. Like Marx, they do not differentiate between the exhaustion of the soil as a source of raw material and the destruction of nature as a life-generating force. Capitalism not only deprives the soil of its fertility, it also changes the climate, exterminates animal species, pollutes the air, contaminates water, destroys forests, genetically disfigures man and neuters his life-creating potential, creates technical means by which to annihilate humankind and other life on the planet within seconds… Foster and Clark also claim that, according to Marx, the capitalists’ relation to the world is based on the principle: “Après moi le déluge!“ (“After me, the Flood!“) and that Marx often mentioned capitalism’s vampirical treatment of nature, akin to a living corpse that survives by sucking blood from the world. However, the capitalists’ relation to the world is not based on the principle “After me, the Flood!“, since capitalism avails itself of the consequences of global destruction for its own development. Capitalists do not see the future relative to capitalism, they see it as the future of capitalism, which is “eternal“. In that context, a myth has been created about “limitless possibilities for the development of science and technology“ and, deriving from that, the illusion that capitalism is capable of  “endless regeneration“ and “perfectioning“. Modern Olympism, as the pinnacle of the ideology of globalism and the means for deifying the capitalist order, indicates the capitalist relation to the future. The Olympic Games are a “spring festivity“ (Coubertin) and thus represent the restoration of the life force to capitalism, whereas the quadriennial recurrence of the Olympics (the Olympiads) indicates the endless character of the capitalist future.

               In their fragmentary approach to Marx’s thought, Foster and Clark seek to shift the main emphasis of Marx’s critique of capitalism to those issues that are becoming the key existential concerns in the contemporary world. Thus, Marx’s thought loses its historical authenticity, and the ideas constituting the essence of his thought are called into question. If certain of Marx’s views on the capitalist exploitation of nature are to be used as the basis for a critique of capitalism as an ecocidal order, it cannot be done independently of Marx’s most important ideas and the basic intention of his critique of capitalism. Marx’s views on the capitalist exchaustion of the soil undoubtedly acquire a greater importance with capitalism’s increasingly dramatic destruction of the environment. What is arguable is whether they should be given a dominant position in Marx’s thought. Considering the ever more plausible possibility of the destruction of global life, the question is whether Marx’s views on the excessive exhaustion of the soil can serve as the basis for the development of a contemporary critique of capitalism. In any case, they can acquire a proper place only in the context of a critique of capitalism as a totalitarian destructive order. This refers also to Marx’s warning that nature cannot become a privately owned property and, as such, a limitless object for capitalist exploitation. From being a generator of the development of productive forces, private property has turned into the generator of global destruction.

               The specificity of the capitalist exploitation of nature is not only the fact that capitalism deprives the soil of its fertility, but that it destroys nature as a life-generating whole and that its relation to nature has a “creative“ character. Capitalism does not create a humanist or naturalist but a “technical civilization“ and thus turns nature into a technical space and man into a machine. Rather than creating a possibility (based on a greater productivity of labor, reduction of working time and humanization of working processes) for the “leap from the realm of neccesity to the realm of freedom“ (Engels), capitalist development of the productive forces is reduced to a technical “perfectioning“ of the existing world, in practice becoming a means for the degeneration and destruction, through technology, of nature and man as a cultural and biological being. The life power of capitalism is based on its de-humanized and de-naturalized creative powers: capitalism destroys the natural and human world by creating a “new“ – “technical world“ and a man suited to that world. Destruction through creation – this is the driving force of capitalist progress. Through that process, capitalism absorbs people into its existential and moral orbit, turning man’s creative potential into a destructive power and giving the entire process a spectacular dimension (the esthetics of destruction). Instead of increasing the certainty of human survival and creating a possibility for the final liberation of humanity from the natural elements, the development of capitalism’s productive forces calls, ever more dramatically, into question the survival of humanity survival as well as man’s freedom. Marx’s view that capitalism exhausts natural resources, and consequently threatens the survival of future generations, also leads to the conclusion that the capitalist mode of development of its productive forces, rather than assuring humanity’s survival, calls it into question. However, according to Marx, the uncertainty of humanity’s existence is not based on the destructive nature of capitalism, but on the chaotic character of the market economy, which acts as a natural law and is based on the absolutized principle of profit maximization. Indeed, capitalism is not based on naturalistic irrationalism, which implies the struggle of living beings for survival and has a fecund character, but on destructive irrationalism, based on the fight between capitalist corporations for survival according to the principle “Destroy the competition!“.

               In spite of the efforts of dominant propaganda machinery to convince the public that, with science and technology, capitalism is capable of “healing“ its negative consequences, in view of its increasingly dramatic ecocidal practices, capitalism has dispelled the illusion that science and technology can repair its effects toward the destruction of nature and man. Instead of developing a faith in the future, capitalist progress creates a fear of the future. In the most developed capitalist countries, the greatest fear is of failure. In response, through their propaganda machinery, capitalists seek to turn the fear of capitalism into a “fear of nature“, which, due to the prospect of destruction, becomes the source of the immediate threat. Contemporary man’s “fear of nature“ surpasses “primitive“ man’s fear of the natural elements, since today it is not based on local elementary disasters, but on the more and more likely probability of complete annihilation of all life on the planet. Capitalism has exhausted natural resources, polluted the environment, ruined the living world and changed the climate to such an extent, producing at the same time the means and the technique for such horrible destructive power, that the annihilation of humankind has become its immediate future. Humankind stands between the contemporary Scylla and Charybdis: “wild“ nature and the death agony of capitalism, while its rulers, in an attempt to stop its collapse through the creation of a new world, are only too ready to annihilate the whole of humanity. The probabilities for the survival of humankind and the planet, itself, are approaching absolute zero.

Translated from Serbian by Vesna Todorović (Petrović)
English translation supervisor Mick Collins

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