Josť F. Morales wrote:
> I don't know of another term that describes the deeply encrusted
> position of opposition to technological developments that frequently
> inhabits the left.
Are you part of the left? I get no sense from your intervention around
this question that you are engaged with the Marxist critique of
capitalist agriculture, which differs substantially from various types
of neo-Luddism, including green spirituality, etc.
All technological "advances" in farming take us further and further away
from the necessary solution, which is the resolution of what Karl Marx
called the metabolic rift. This has been the subject of numerous
articles published by John Bellamy Foster.
Here is my take on the matter:
John Bellamy Foster on the Marx-Liebeg connection
John Bellamy Foster has been doing some very interesting research into
the question of whether Marx was an ecological thinker. He gave a
presentation on his findings at the Socialist Scholars Conference this
weekend at a panel titled "Marx's Contribution to Ecological Theory."
What follows is a report on John's talk, peppered with my own observations.
There are 3 takes on this question. Some view Marx as explicitly
anti-ecological. This is the case for social ecologists like John Clark
and certain "brown Marxists." Others think that Marx had some
interesting observations on environmental questions, but they were
sidebars rather than essential features of his thought. Finally, there
are people like Michael Perelman and John Foster who make the case that
the ecological dimension to Marx's thought is central.
The attempt to bring Marx's ecological dimensions into the foreground
have only gathered momentum over the past five years or so. When the
modern ecology movement first took shape in the late 1960s, the analysis
tended to be of a "post-materialist" character. It saw the ecological
crisis in the framework of the "affluent society." This is
understandable since the long boom of the post-WWII period tended to
accentuate problems of this nature. Pollution was related to the
indulgences of a consumer society and the eco-socialist critique--such
as it was--had a strong Frankfurt orientation. The solution was to
moderate the out-of-control growth of consumerist societies rather than
to address underlying questions of political economy. Also, the debate
was framed in terms of anthropocentrism versus eco-centrism. Marx, it
was argued, erred in the direction of anthropocentrism.
Since the 1980s, the classical Marxist approach has taken the offensive.
This has meant that economics plays much more of a role. The
accumulation of capital rather than cultural questions is central. It
has also meant that the problem is seen in global terms rather than one
isolated to affluent societies. The overarching concern is to discover a
form of sustainable development that takes environmental justice into
account. Poor nations should not make sacrifices on behalf of rich
nations. In rich nations, the poor and the racial minorities should not
bear the brunt of toxic dumping, etc. The only solution, needless to
say, is socialism which will bring economic development under the
rational control of the producers themselves.
The ecological crisis has prompted nearly every school of thought to
return to its ideological foundations in order to come up with a
solution. For neo-Classical economists, this means trying to bring
nature into the sphere of commodities. They argue that the problem is
that natural resources like soil and water are not properly priced. If
the same market laws that dictate the price of manufactured goods
operated in realm of nature, then the "invisible hand" would protect
such precious commodities as the soil and water.
For Marxists, an analogous effort has taken place, which seeks to
discover either explicit or implicit concerns with nature in the central
body of Marx's work. Foster has come up with some very interesting
insights into the rather explicit concern that Marx had with the central
ecological crisis of the 19th century: soil fertility.
There is actually a long tradition of Marxist research into agrarian
questions going back to Marx and Engels. Lenin and Kautsky also wrote
important articles on the question. Michael Perelman, the moderator of
PEN-L, has also written on the topic: "Farming For Profit In A Hungry
World: Capital And The Crisis In Agriculture." I plan to read and report
on this book before long.
The context for Marx's examination of the agrarian question was the
general crisis of soil fertility in the period from 1830 to 1870. The
depletion of soil nutrients was being felt everywhere, as capitalist
agriculture broke down the old organic interaction that took place on
small, family farms. When a peasant plowed a field with ox or
horse-drawn plows, used an outhouse, accumulated compost piles, etc.,
the soil's nutrients were replenished naturally. As capitalist
agriculture turned the peasant into an urban proletariat, segregated
livestock production from grain and food production, the organic cycle
was broken and the soil gradually lost its fertility.
The need to artificially replenish the soil's nutrients led to
scientific research into the problem. Justin Von Liebeg was one of the
most important thinkers of the day and he was the first to posit the
problem in terms of the separation between the city and the countryside.
While the research proceeded, the various capitalist powers sought to
gain control over new sources of fertilizers. This explains "guano
imperialism," which I referred to in my post on Peru the other day.
England brought Peru into its neocolonial orbit because it was the most
naturally endowed supplier of bird dung in the world. In 1847, 227
thousand tons of guano were imported from Peru into England. This
commodity was as important to England's economy as silver and gold were
in previous centuries.
There was also a desperate search for bones. Over a ten year period, the
value of English imports rose from 14,000 pound sterling to 254,000.
Raiding parties were dispatched to battlefields to scavenge bodies of
dead soldiers. Their bones were desperately needed to replenish sterile
The United States followed suit. There had been a big crisis in upstate
NY and the mid-Atlantic states in the mid 1800s. This prompted Congress
to pass the "Guano Act" of 1856, which eventually led to the seizure of
94 islands in the Pacific Ocean, rich sources of guano.
Von Liebeg theorized that such measures would eventually fall short.
Even with such substitutes, the soil tended to lose its nutrient
properties so long as the artificial divide between town and countryside
was maintained. Not only was the countryside losing its productivity,
the town was being swamped with human waste which was no longer being
recycled. London had such a terrible problem with open sewers that
Parliament was forced to relocate to a location outside the city during
the summer months. The stench was unbearable.
The neo-Classical economists tended to view soil fertility as a given,
like some kind of natural law. Ricardo and Malthus both regarded it as
an exhaustible resource. Thus, the problem of overpopulation was tightly
coupled to the existing practices of capitalist agriculture, which was
to exploit the soil and then abandon it when it lost its fertility. This
has been the main character of Malthusianism until the modern era. It
accepts the limits imposed by the capitalist mode of production as eternal.
Scientists like Von Liebeg, on the other hand, supported the notion of
soil improvement. This meant looking at the relationship between society
and nature in ecological terms. The solution to the problem was the
reintegration of the town and country. This overlapped with Marx's own
exploration of the problems in Capital. In volume three of Capital, the
discussion of farming is framed within this general dialectic. Soil
fertility could only be ensured over the long run through the abolition
of the capitalist system, which would allow food production to take
place along sound, ecological guidelines.
The concluding paragraphs of the chapter on "The Transformation of
Surplus Profit into Ground-Rent" in V. 3 of Capital are a succinct
description of the problematic:
"All criticism of small-scale landownership is ultimately reducible to
criticism of private property as a barrier and obstacle to agriculture.
So too is all counter-criticism of large landed property. Secondary
political considerations are of course left aside here in both cases. It
is simply that this barrier and obstacle which all private property in
land places to agricultural production and the rational treatment,
maintenance and improvement of the land itself, develops in various
forms, and in quarreling over these specific forms of the evil its
ultimate root is forgotten.
"Small-scale landownership presupposes that the overwhelming majority of
the population is agricultural and that isolated labour predominates
over social; wealth and the development of reproduction, therefore, both
in its material and intellectual aspects, is ruled out under these
circumstances, and with this also the conditions for a rational
agriculture. On the other hand, large landed property reduces the
agricultural population to an ever decreasing minimum and confronts it
with an every growing industrial population crammed together in large
towns; in this way it produces conditions that provoke an irreparable
rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism, a metabolism
prescribed by the natural laws of life itself. The result of this is a
squandering of the vitality of the soil, which is carried by trade far
beyond the bounds of a single country.
"If small-scale landownership creates a class of barbarians standing
half outside society, combining all the crudity of primitive social
forms with all the torments and misery of civilized countries, large
landed property undermines labor-power in the final sphere to which its
indigenous energy flees, and where it is stored up as a reserve fund for
renewing the vital power of the nation, on the land itself. Large-scale
industry and industrially pursued large-scale agriculture have the same
effect. If they are originally distinguished by the fact that the former
lays waste and ruins labour-power and thus the natural power of man,
whereas the latter does the same to the natural power of the soil, they
link up in the later course of development, since the industrial system
applied to agriculture also enervates the workers there, while industry
and trade for their part provide agriculture with the means of
exhausting the soil."
The Marxism list: www.marxmail.org