The Robbery of Nature: Capitalism and the Ecological Rift
by John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark
$22.00 / 386 pages / 978-1-58367-839-8
Reviewed by Chris Stewart (Socialist Party Northern Ireland) and Bill Hopwood (Socialist Alternative Canada)
The Robbery of Nature builds on the previous work of Foster, Clark and others (York, Burkett, Saito, Sheehan, etc.) in reclaiming Marx and Engels’ analysis of capitalism and its inevitable damage to the natural world that has caused the current ecological disasters. Marxism’s historical materialist analysis contains an inherently ecological understanding.
Two of the book’s core themes are that capitalism’s riches come from the expropriation (robbery) of nature and the exploitation of labour and that capitalism’s only concern is increasing profits, and therefore it focuses solely on exchange value while disregarding use values. This analysis is rooted in the dialectical materialist understanding of the interrelations between humans and nature.
Metabolism and Historical Materialism
Marx and Engels recognized that human society is part of a broader “metabolism” of nature. This metabolism refers to the complex Earth-system, which is made up of countless biogeochemical processes, material and energetic flows, which are constantly interacting. All life is based on the metabolism of energy and matter.
Human society evolved from, and exists within, this metabolism of nature. Humans have always appropriated the resources of nature through labour to meet humanity’s needs and wants.
The ways humans meet their needs, to Marx, was both a physical and a social metabolism — a constant dialectical process whereby material and energy flows from the natural world, through human societies and human bodies, and back into nature. The specific character of these metabolisms is determined by changes in the social relations of production — who does the labour, who controls the labour, how food is produced, and so on.
Marx explained that the evolution of human society flowed from changes in how humanity produces and reproduces the means of existence. “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development or organic nature”, said Engels at Marx’s funeral, “so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.”
The advent of capitalism dramatically changed the character of humanity’s interaction with nature, driving the destruction of ecosystems, the mass extinction of species and the catastrophic pollution of the biosphere.
Understanding how capitalism arose and functions is crucial to understanding the current global ecological crisis. Robbery shows how capitalism was born in the expropriation of the Earth itself, and that this expropriation continues daily.
The Expropriation of Nature
Capitalism is based on the division of society between a small property-owning class and a large propertyless working class. However, there is nothing natural about this division. Before capitalism could develop it violently severed the masses of people around the world from access to land, tools and resources — the “natural conditions of their existence.”
Marx wrote that capitalism entered the scene of history “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” Crucial to its birth was the vicious robbery of the earth. Across Europe, land and resources, which had previously been held in common, were violently expropriated and turned into private property. Forced evictions left peasants landless with no means of subsistence.
In Africa, Asia and the Americas, expropriation was based on genocide and enslavement. The land and resources were violently stolen from Indigenous people, a process which continues in parts of the world today. This robbery and the horrors of slavery — the buying, breeding, and selling of human beings as commodities, ignoring entirely their humanity — produced great riches for the rising capitalist class. Land was concentrated into the hands of a few and a new class of propertyless proletarians was created by means of the “gallows, pillory and whip.”
Capitalism has at its very basis the unnatural alienation of human beings from the resources of nature. Workers are alienated from the ability to realise their own labour-power and are forced to sell their labour-power to the property-owning capitalist class in order to survive.
In Robbery, the authors describe a “dialectic of exploitation and expropriation,” the way capitalism expands through the interrelation between the expropriation of the Earth’s resources and the exploitation of human labour.
As Marx said, capitalism sees nature as a “free gift” that it can expropriate at will. This constant expropriation of nature fuels the exploitation of the working class by furnishing production with resources, energy and food. In turn, the labour of the working class fuels the further expropriation of nature.
The authors point to the further expropriation that is the systematic devaluation of human labour that falls outside of capitalist production. Much of the domestic and care-related labour necessary for the reproduction of human society is seen by capitalism as a “free gift” to be expropriated without repayment. Expropriation and exploitation are the two “robberies” that capitalism rests upon.
Chief amongst Marx’s ecological contributions was his theory of the “metabolic rift.” This theory developed from the work of the chemist Liebig, who held that capitalist agriculture was a “robbery system,” depleting the soil of nutrients.
Food and fibre were intensively farmed and exported to the rapidly growing cities, now densely populated with the propertyless working class. Moving food and crops, often long distances from where it was grown, prevented the return of essential nutrients to the soil, as decomposing matter, urine and faeces, thus violating the soil’s metabolism.
Marx, building on this, argued that capitalism was disturbing “the metabolic interaction between man and Earth.” Capitalism, in its pursuit of profit, expropriates as much from nature as it can and in turn disrupts nature’s metabolism, its flows of chemicals and materials. This metabolic rift is central to the Marxist analysis of capitalism’s ecological disasters.
Marx applied the metabolic rift to an example of social and ecological catastrophe in his day —the Irish famine. He explained that the crisis was created by the system of land ownership and use imposed by British colonialism, with the dominant absentee English landlords living lavish lifestyles by hyper-exploiting their tenants through the “rack-rent” system.
The tenant farmers faced a “constant drain of rent” under threat of eviction, and they had to pay higher rents for any improvements to the land such as enriching the soil — leading to its spoliation. Most of the crops were exported to England; as Marx wrote, this “exported the soil of Ireland.” The robbery of the soil created a fragile agroecology, which was highly susceptible to the potato blight that arrived in 1845.
The authors write, “the failure to maintain the soil metabolism was central to Marx’s understanding of the extreme ecological degradation of colonial Ireland.” The peasant farmers, cottiers, lived on a substandard diet, mainly of potatoes. The combination of the economic and ecological system led to the famine that killed one million people and the social collapse that forced another million to emigrate.
While Ireland’s unique history gave the famine a particular form, the lessons of social and ecological catastrophe resulting from capitalist agriculture are relevant today. An estimated 40 percent of all land is now degraded, mostly due to intensive farming and the overuse of chemical fertilisers. The Amazon, one of the most important ecosystems on the planet, is on the brink of total collapse largely due to the intrusions of industrial agriculture. The threat to the world’s food system today is real.
Food production is a stark example of the metabolic rift, based on huge inputs of chemicals and energy, in part to compensate for the robbing of nutrients: in a sense people are eating gasoline. Animals are bred to mature, and be slaughtered, quickly. Marx wrote that animals are raised in “an abnormal way by aborting bones in order to transform them to mere meat and a bulk of fat.” The overcrowding of animals boosts the risk of diseases. Marx protested the cruelty of capitalist animal raising. “In these prisons animals are born and remain there until they are killed off.” Most food production today treats animal as machines in factory farms.
Marx and Engels consistently stressed the bodily needs of humans and workers, needs that included enough healthy food to sustain life. They wrote about the terrible diet of the English working class and rural poor, who were constantly malnourished, living mainly on bread with little protein or fresh vegetables. Much of the food was adulterated, often with toxic substances — alum, chalk, copper, lead, etc. Food is a commodity produced to boost profits and to this day many foods are adulterated with added fats, salt and sugar and many people rely on the same high carb and fat diets as 150 years ago.
Profit Before Everything
Capitalism’s goal is to increase profits for the owners of capital; everything else is secondary or even irrelevant. This is the opposite of most of humanity’s goals now and throughout history. Humans want to meet their bodily needs, have a rewarding life, raise healthy children, and enjoy friendship and culture. Profit comes from exchange values while human well-being comes from use values.
“The contradiction between natural-material use values and economic exchange values lay at to the core” of Marx’s ecological critique. Capitalism robs nature of resources, exploits labour-power to produce commodities that it sells for profits and produces only garbage and pollution at the end.
Labour is the natural activity of humans to meet our bodily needs and produce art and culture. In a class society, it becomes alienated and a drudge.
The authors explain that in pre-capitalist societies, wealth included public wealth and use values. Capitalism, and most economists, are only interested in privately-owned riches and disregard “natural wealth.”
Scarcity, which diminishes public wealth, boosts private riches. Air is free: it has no exchange value but has extreme use value. If it could be made scarce and be sold, the owners would enormously increase their private riches at the expense of public wealth. Menger, whose ideas were a precursor to neoliberalism, argued that wealth was based only on exchange and that increased scarcity adds to wealth, stating that “a long continued diminution of abundantly available (non-economic) goods (e.g., air, water, natural landscapes) must finally make them scarce in some degree — and thus components of wealth, which is thereby increased.” This logic drives the privatization of public goods and services to boost profits. Corporations around the world are salivating at the profits that are available as water becomes scarce.
Capitalism pushes scarcity with built-in obsolescence, advertising for the newest model or fashion style. Just as scarcity is good for capitalism, plenty is not — only under capitalism is plenty of things bad news: it is called a crisis of over-production.
One of the insanities of capitalism today is the idea from some economists, including ones who claim to understand climate change, that the way to avoid ecological destruction is yet more capitalist growth. They argue that “there is no contradiction between unlimited accumulation of capital” and “the preservation of the earth.”
The profound contradiction between the perspectives of scientists and the ideas of economists is because capitalism excludes nature’s contribution to wealth and the destruction of the natural world.
Labour, Nature and Values
Marx and Engels strongly disagreed with this, stressing the disastrous consequences of only caring about exchange values. Marx consistently criticized capitalism for robbing nature. The first sentence in Critique of the Gotha Program states: “Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much a source of use values (and it surely of such that material wealth consists!).”
Some critics of Marx attack the labour theory of value, arguing that nature contributes to value. Fundamentally this challenge arises from a misunderstanding of the difference between use value and commodity value.
These critics argue that the unpaid labour of animals or even the unpaid energy of millions of years to produce fossil fuels should be included in a theory of value. While nature, as Marx often stressed, contributes enormously to use values, it does not contribute to exchange value — the only value of interest to capitalism. Animals’ labour or geology’s energy do not create commodity value. A tree, an earthworm or time have no use for money; who or what would be paid for the labour of animals or of geological time?
These critics have a non-historical view, failing to understand, or at least recognize, the very specific forms of exploitation, production and consumption that are intrinsic to capitalism. Instead, they try to create some universal analysis outside of history and context. “Attempts to generate a more harmonious view of reality by incorporating all of nature into the system of economic valuation fail to perceive that the existing system of production is not a harmonious, but rather an alienated, one.”
These ideas end up seeking to subsume nature into society, rather than recognizing that nature exists before and outside of humanity and it is humanity and society that rests within nature, albeit in a dialectical way. If nature was included in value exchange this would end up turning all of nature into commodities — the ultimate goal of capitalism is to make everything a commodity. This would not solve the ecological rift and the climate crisis; it would make it worse. Capitalism’s answer to ecologic disasters is hyper-technology and more production, reproducing at an even greater scale the rupture between humanity and nature…..
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