[OPE-L] Paul Burkett on Capital and Nature

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Wed Apr 25 2007 - 08:53:59 EDT

An interview with OPE-L member Paul Burkett from _MRZine_.
In solidarity, Jerry

Capital and Nature:
An Interview with Paul Burkett
by Joćo Aguiar
1.  The year 2007 marks the 140th anniversary of the publication of the
first volume of Marx's Capital.  In your perspective, what is the main
contribution of that major work to the understanding of contemporary

Marx's Capital establishes three essential contradictions of capitalism
which grow in intensity as the system develops historically.  These
contradictions should be seen as interconnected.  First, there is the
contradiction between use value and exchange value.  This should not be
treated as merely a formal, abstract contradiction as is sometimes done in
modern theoretical interpretations of Marx's work.  Rather, it must be
seen as the historical development of the tension between the requirements
of money-making and monetary valuation on the one hand, and the needs of
human beings, of sustainable human development, on the other.  In Marx's
view, capitalism worsens this tension precisely insofar as it develops and
socializes productive forces (labor and nature) in line with the
requirements of competitive production for profit.

The second contradiction established by Marx is the essentially
class-exploitative nature of capitalism, its reliance on the extraction of
surplus labor time from the direct producers.  Marx shows how the
wage-labor form both conceals and is shaped by the fact that workers
perform surplus labor for the capitalist even insofar as they are paid the
value of their labor power.  He also shows that this exploitation is based
on capitalism's specific social separation of workers from access to and
control over necessary conditions of production.  This separation is what
forces workers to accept worktimes longer than those necessary to produce
their own commodified means of subsistence, even though the extension of
the length and intensity of worktime hinders their development as human
beings.  More specifically -- and this aspect has not been adequately
appreciated -- Marx shows how this forced surplus labor time involves
capital's appropriation of the labor power (potential work) that is
produced during workers' non-worktime, not only through rest and
recuperation but also through the domestic reproductive labors of workers
and other members of worker-households.

From these first two contradictions emerges the third main contradiction
established by Capital: capitalism's tendency to generate crises of
economic and social reproduction.  Marx outlined two basic kinds of
capitalist crisis.  The first, more specific type, which has been the
subject of much debate among Marxists, involves what might be termed
narrowly economic crises of accumulation due to falling profitability, or
an inability to reinvest profits in a way that yields more profit.
However, periodic accumulation crises should be seen as a specific
outgrowth of the more general, secular, and ever worsening crisis of
capitalism, namely, the inability of the system to create and maintain
natural and social conditions required for the sustainable development of
human beings.  Marx himself focused on this second form of crisis in his
discussion of the general law of capitalist accumulation in Chapter 25 of
Capital, Volume I, which showed capitalism's tendency to create a growing
reserve army of unemployed and underemployed workers even apart from its
periodic accumulation crises.  But he also dealt with the contradiction
between capital accumulation and the natural conditions of human
development, especially in his discussion of "Modern Industry and
Agriculture" in Chapter 15 of the same volume.  In fact, Marx's analysis
of the natural and social environmental crises generated by capitalism are
the main focus of John Bellamy Foster's quite important work, Marx's
Ecology (Monthly Review Press, 2000) and of my own book, Marx and Nature
(St. Martin's Press, 1999).

It must be stressed that, for Marx, both of these two forms of crisis are
inevitable historical outgrowths of the use value versus exchange value
contradiction and of the class-exploitative nature of capitalism.

2.  Contrary to many interpretations, Marx studied and included an
ecological analysis in Capital as you have shown in Marx and Nature.  How
does Marx integrate ecological insights into the theoretical body of

Marx's Capital integrates ecological insights in two general ways.  First,
Marx emphasizes the separation of workers from the land, from the earth,
as the foundation of capitalism.  Like other necessary conditions of
production which are appropriated by capital, the land (nature) appears to
wage-laborers as an external condition of their existence, one which they
can only gain access to by agreeing to sell their labor power to the
capitalist.  This specifically capitalistic separation of the producers
from reproductive access to the land is of course an ongoing historical
process.  As David Harvey has recently emphasized in his work The New
Imperialism (Oxford University Press, 2003), this kind of "accumulation by
dispossession" has become one of the main sources of profit in
capitalism's current, neoliberal phase.  Its ecological significance is
just as obvious.  By first separating land and laborers and then combining
them in production driven by competitive profit-making, capitalism
develops their combined productive powers in ways that are more and more
alienated from the requirements of ecological sustainability.  Unlike
earlier modes of production such as feudalism, in which workers were
socially tied to the land, capitalist production is not reliant on
particular natural conditions and ecosystems, and can therefore afford to
violate the conditions of ecological sustainability and "move on" (both
spatially and functionally) to the exploitation of new use values
producible by labor and nature.  Put differently, capitalism has an
historically unprecedented ability to sustain itself through the
production of ecologically unsustainable use values -- which is precisely
why it has the potential to create ecological crises that are
unprecedented in scope and depth, all the way up to the global, biospheric

Second, Marx incorporates ecological concerns through his analysis of
capitalist market valuation.  Although this claim may seem paradoxical,
the fact is that ecological criticisms of Marx's "labor theory of value"
wrongly interpret this theory as a normative assertion that, compared to
nature, labor is a more important or primary condition of production.  For
Marx, however, production of use values always requires both nature and
labor, and labor is itself a metabolic relationship between people
(themselves natural, albeit socially developed, beings) and nature.  Marx
did not himself reduce value to abstract, socially necessary labor time;
rather his claim is that capitalism, based on its separation of laborers
from necessary conditions of production, values commodities in this way.
Hence, the tension between labor values and the natural requirements of
sustainable production should be seen as an immanent outgrowth of the more
basic contradictions between use value and exchange value and between
labor and capital.  Capital accumulation relies on both nature and labor
as material vehicles for the production and realization of surplus value;
yet, in the aggregate, it values commodities only in line with the
abstract labor they contain.  Monetary rents are purely redistributive and
suffer from their own ecological contradictions -- see below.  In any
case, the norm under capitalism is the free appropriation and abuse of the
use values latent in nature for purposes of competitive production for

It must be emphasized that, for Marx, the production of values (in the
sense of exchange values) itself requires that these values be objectified
in saleable use values.  If a commodity (and the labor that produces it)
does not serve a human need (however illusory, uncivilized, or
ecologically damaging), then it will not count as value in the market.
This is precisely how the "social necessity" of value as socially
necessary labor time is anarchically enforced through the market.  Hence
capital accumulation, the production and reinvestment of surplus value,
remains dependent upon use values produced by both labor and nature.
Capital accumulation requires not only exploitable labor power but also
material, natural, conditions that enable labor power to be exploited and
surplus labor to be objectified in vendible commodities.  This helps
explain why capitalism has been so damaging to the environment throughout
its history and why it is currently threatening the livability of our
planet.  In short, far from being anti-ecological, Marx's critical
analysis of capitalist valuation is essential to an adequate understanding
of environmental crises both historical and contemporary.

3.  To confront our ecological problems adequately we need to understand
the interrelation between society (a certain mode of production) and
nature.  Can you explain to us how this metabolism works under capitalism?

As already noted, capitalism's specific forms of metabolism with nature
are shaped by its radical separation of the direct producers from
necessary conditions of production, starting with the land.

For example, it is only on the basis of the commodification of "free"
labor power (workers separated from the land and other production
conditions) that the commodity and money forms come to dominate society's
economic reproduction and hence its metabolic interactions (exchanges of
matter and energy) with nature.  Monetary valuation is of course a
necessity under capitalism, due to the need for a general equivalent of
value in the sense of abstract labor time.  The ecological contradictions
of monetary valuation and market pricing of the environment -- which, it
must be noted, apply fully to all kinds of rents, whether implemented
privately or by governments -- are thus intrinsic to capitalism and
therefore completely immune to all reforms that keep capitalist relations
of wage-labor and market exchange intact.  And these contradictions are
antagonistic indeed.  Money and monetary values are homogenous, divisible,
mobile, reversible, and quantitatively unlimited, by contrast with the
qualitative variety (and ongoing variegation), indivisibility, locational
uniqueness, irreversibility, and quantitative limits to natural use values
including ecological systems.  As I showed in my book Marx and Nature, the
ecological contradictions of monetary valuation are all logically implied
by Marx's value analysis, and in several cases were consciously
highlighted by Marx.  While many contemporary non-Marxist ecological
economists have also pointed out the shortcomings of market pricing, they
have done so without rooting their analysis in the system's basic
relations of production (see my book Marxism and Ecological Economics
[Brill, 2006 for a sympathetic critique of ecological economics).

Of course, capitalism's concrete effects on its environment cannot be read
off directly from the abstract ecological contradictions of money and
monetary valuation.  Their analysis requires detailed study of the
system's historical development as shaped by class and competitive
struggles on both national and global levels.  Marx himself showed how
capitalism's development of mechanized industrial productive forces -- the
factory system -- generated unprecedented advances in labor productivity
which translated directly into historically huge increases in the
throughput of matter and energy drawn from and emitted into the natural
environment.  This analysis can be located in terms of the two kinds of
capitalist crisis mentioned earlier.  On one level, capitalism's growing
appetite for raw materials (including ancillary materials used as energy
sources) inevitably results in shortages of these materials due to the
dependence of materials production on natural conditions which cannot be
reproduced by capitalist enterprise itself.  The main example of such
materials-supply problems treated by Marx was the 19th-century cotton
crises that afflicted England and other early industrializing countries.
Marx's theoretical analysis of these crises was quite sophisticated,
taking into account the interplay between value relations, technological
and other physical production constraints, rents, and the role of the
credit system and speculation in worsening materials shortages and price
fluctuations.  His analysis can easily be extended and adapted to
contemporary oil crises, for example.  (See Chapter 9 of my book Marx and

On another level, Marxism provides insights into how capitalism's specific
metabolism generates crises in the natural conditions of human
development.  One insight involves what the leading ecological economist
Herman Daly has termed the "breaking of the solar budget constraint"
through the utilization of fossil fuels, especially starting with the
industrial revolution.  The causes of this development are highly relevant
to any serious discussion of today's global warming problem, not to speak
of contemporary "oil shocks."  Here, ecological economists basically take
the discovery of fossil fuels as a given "original sin" and blame it --
together with exogenous cultural factors such as the "ideology of growth"
-- for the system's shift onto an ecologically unsustainable path.  (See
especially the work of the late great Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen.)  Marx's
analysis is quite different.  In Capital's chapter on "Machinery and
Modern Industry," he shows that an essential precondition for greater use
of fossil fuel-driven steam engines was the separation of workers from
control over the tools used in production and the installation of these
tools in machines which could then be powered not just by human and other
animate energy but by inanimate "motive forces."  In other words, it was
capitalism's specific production relations that generated the break with
the solar budget constraint.  (See the article co-written by John Bellamy
Foster and myself in the journal Theory and Society (February 2006).)

Finally, Marx showed that capitalism's spatial separation and industrial
integration of manufacturing and agriculture resulted in a failure to
recycle the nutrients extracted from the soil and the conversion of these
nutrients into unhealthy pollutants, side-by-side with the vitiation of
labor power by long and intensive worktimes and by enervating living
conditions in urban areas.  Informed by his studies of Justus von Liebig
and other scientists, Marx saw this development as a metabolic rift in the
circulation of matter and energy required for the sustainable reproduction
of human-natural systems.  Recent work by John Bellamy Foster, Brett
Clark, Richard York, Rebecca Clausen, and Philip Mancus has reconstructed
Marx's metabolic rift analysis and extended it to the contemporary
problems of global warming, depletion and degradation of oceanic
ecosystems by industrial fishing and aquaculture, and disruptions to the
global nitrogen cycle brought on by overuse of inorganic fertilizers in
industrial agriculture.  Foster, Clark, and Jason Moore have used the rift
approach to show how "ecological imperialism" (the guano trade, sugar
plantations, etc.) and resultant ecological crises have been central to
capitalist development and underdevelopment on a global scale.  (See
Chapter 9 of my book, Marxism and Ecological Economics.)

In sum, what Marxism provides that other theories can't is precisely a
demonstration that capitalism does have its own specific metabolism with
nature -- one shaped by its profoundly anti-ecological separation of
workers from conditions of production and its corresponding forms of
market exchange and monetary valuation.  From this perspective, any
solution for contemporary ecological crises must be explicitly
anti-capitalist, that is, based on the democratic socialization of nature
and other conditions of production by workers and communities.

4.  Many commentators see the Kyoto Protocol as a way to solve the main
environmental damages provoked by global warming.  What is your opinion
about the Kyoto Protocol?  Is it a tool to overcome the degradation of the
environment, or do we need further and deeper responses?  What larger
steps are needed to solve today's ecological crisis?

The Kyoto Protocol is obviously insufficient even if it were to be
successfully implemented.  Its goals for greenhouse gas emissions (GGE)
would only slow down slightly, not reverse, the global warming trend.  And
it is hard to view it as a success even on its own limited terms so long
as the United States, the number one source of GGE, is not a participant.
In addition, the Protocol is contradictory in the sense that it recognizes
the need for a global constraint on GGE, yet it endorses the use of market
mechanisms -- competition and monetary pricing -- as a path toward living
within this constraint.  This not only leaves intact the source of the
problem, production driven by the unlimited goal of monetary capital
accumulation, but also undercuts the cooperation needed to achieve any
given goal of GGE reduction.  That the United States is not a part of the
agreement is already a clear demonstration of this, as is the rapid
acceleration of GGE in the two most populous economies in the world, China
and India.  Any GGE reductions actually achieved in the developed
countries (and the outlook is not good even for that) are likely to be
more than offset by the growing automobilization and other fossil fuel
consumption in China and India as these latter economies are increasingly
shaped by the profit imperatives of transnational capital.

As environmental ethicist Michael Sandel and others have pointed out,
devices such as markets in GGE credits and other "buy-outs" for GGE
producers (individuals, corporations, and governments) undermine the
cooperative values needed to deal with global warming and other
environmental problems.  GGE and other ecological "externalities" become
just a cost of doing business, another form of monetary expenditure
substitutable with all other expenditures, which basically treats the
earth and privately produced commodities as substitutes.  At the same
time, GGE reduction becomes a luxury good most affordable to those who
have the most money.  The ethic of shared responsibility so crucial to the
preservation of global communal resources is lost.

To solve the global warming problem would require, at minimum, a clean
break with the current fossil-fuel based regime of capital accumulation.
(It should be noted that another significant source of GGE is the
production of meat as food, with accompanying growth of methane emissions
from livestock.)  It remains an open question whether capitalism is
capable of such a clean break.  As I said, the current outlook is not
good.  In the United States, the leading GGE source, there has been no
significant move toward de-automobilization, and residential solar power
continues to be a "non-economic" alternative for most households, both of
which verify the warped priorities of capital accumulation.  Fundamental
improvements in this situation would require a degree of government
planning, and of decentralized-democratic control over energy generation
and use, as well as over research and innovation priorities, that the
system has not shown an ability or willingness to accept.  More
importantly, let us suppose that capitalism can somehow resolve or live
with the global warming problem on its own terms.  After all, this system
can in principle reproduce itself as long as it can find exploitable labor
power and conditions enabling its exploitation.  Even in this case,
capitalism's vitiation of the conditions of human development would
continue in other forms.  Successful GGE reduction would, for example, do
nothing to solve the more general build-up of toxins, inorganic nitrates,
and other bio-nondegradables in the environment.  The corporate
privatization of the environment, and even of the basic genetic building
blocks of human life itself, would continue apace, as would the growing
tendency for the human metabolism with nature to be mediated by an
alienated soup of pharmaceuticals and unhealthy industrialized "food."  In
short, it would be a mistake for socialists to focus exclusively on the
global warming problem without addressing the more general and more
fundamental anti-ecological character of capitalism and the corresponding
need for a new system guided democratically by the requirements of
sustainable human development.

5.  Al Gore, ex-Vice President of the United States and cooperator on
American imperialist policy between 1993 and 2000, is now running all over
the world promoting his film on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth.
How can you explain that some of the major agents on the capitalist
political scene are now engaged in this kind of campaign?  Is it to erase
their responsibilities or is it just a maneuver to coopt ecological
struggles into the capitalist political-economic framework?

Before addressing this question one must first note the shocking extent to
which corporate capital still does not take global warming seriously.
This unreal attitude is not limited to the oil and coal companies.  Forbes
magazine, perhaps the leading journalistic mouthpiece of my country's
capitalist class, openly derides global warming as a hoax while suggesting
ways in which capitalists may profit from it by investing in nuclear
power, for example (for a critical account see Rebecca Clausen, "Straight
from the Billionaire's Mouth," MRZine, April 11, 2007).  Nothing shows the
insanity of capitalist media discourse more than the ongoing "debate" over
whether global warming is real on CNN and other television news networks.
The problem is more prominent as the butt of stupid jokes on late-night
talk shows than as a subject of serious public discussion.

Naturally, some capitalist representatives are genuinely concerned about
global warming.  This is not surprising given the overwhelming consensus
among climatologists that the problem is real and that time is running
short if humanity is to reverse it.  Moreover, the scientific evidence now
strongly suggests that many recent climactic shocks such as Hurricane
Katrina are an outgrowth of the global warming trend, that these shocks
are already multiplying and worsening rapidly, and that their impacts are
likely to be unevenly distributed -- with an inordinate share of the costs
borne by working people and high-poverty areas especially in
underdeveloped countries and regions.  Realizing this, some relatively
"far-sighted" capitalists and capitalist functionaries are quite concerned
(apart from any genuine humanitarian impulses they may have) about the
political-economic instability likely to result from climate change in the
absence of a pro-active elite-managed strategy consistent with the
continued dominance of "private property" and market "freedoms" (i.e., the
competitive production and realization of surplus value) over economic

This background helps explain the yawning gap between the grim diagnoses
and the glib policy prescriptions that characterize Gore's "Inconvenient
Truth" and other ruling-class reports on global warming.  They want to do
something about the crisis but without addressing the fundamentally
anti-ecological character of the system of capital accumulation that
generated it.  They talk as if the GGE problem was simply a matter of
faulty lifestyle choices made by people in general, or a generic cultural
shortcoming of some sort.  Hence, the initiatives based on this elite
approach make heavy use of market incentives that do not touch, and even
reinforce, the exploitative and alienated class and competitive relations
in and through which capitalism uses and abuses natural wealth.  As noted
above, this approach is likely to fail even on its own limited terms.  And
precisely because they are unwilling and/or unable to "name the system"
and confront its historically specific power relationships, the elite
discussions of GGE reduction treat global warming and other environmental
crises as separate, discrete issues.  As a result, even if these GGE
initiatives were to somehow "succeed" in allowing the capitalist economy
to reproduce itself, the whole system of plunder and poisoning of nature
-- and exploitation and impoverishment of the great majority of its human
inhabitants -- would continue to operate.  Our job as socialists is to
point out these contradictions and counter them with non-exploitative
ecological values informed by our active engagement with anti-capitalist
movements among workers and communities.

6.  About a year and a half ago you published an important article in
Monthly Review on communism and sustainable development.  How is a
classless society capable of developing a new mode of appropriation of
nature and how could it build a non-polluting economy?

In my Monthly Review article I tried to shift the debate over the
viability and attractiveness of Marx's vision of communism from its prior
focus on the allocative efficiency of planning versus the market, and
toward Marx's original emphasis on communism as a system of human
development.  Marx saw communism as a logical outgrowth not only of the
productive capabilities created under capitalism but also of
worker-community struggles to transform capitalist productive forces into
forms that are non-exploitative and non-alienated in terms of the
metabolism of humanity with nature.  Marx did not view communism as simply
a planned utilization of the productive techniques inherited from
capitalism, but as a revolutionary transformation of production itself --
an epochal, long-term process of qualitative changes in technology and
socio-economic relationships.  And he emphasized the centrality of
struggles against all forms of privatization and profit-driven
exploitation of nature ("the land") to this revolutionary process.  This
was the qualitative, human-developmental context in which he demonstrated
the necessity of planning and non-market allocation of human and natural
resources, as well as the need and potential for reductions in worktime.
I would add that Michael Lebowitz has done a great service in helping to
reconstruct this communism-as-human-development perspective not only
theoretically but through his direct engagement with the revolutionary
processes currently underway in Venezuela.  (See his books, Beyond Capital
[Second Edition, St. Martin's Press, 2003] and Build It Now [Monthly
Review Press, 2006].)

Generally speaking, in a communist society production is cooperatively and
democratically controlled by the direct producers and communities,
unmediated by capitalism's alienated forms of economic socialization, that
is, without markets, money, and the state.  (Of course, during the
revolutionary transition period to communism workers and communities will
need to democratically reshape and utilize state institutions to
disempower the capitalist class and as a weapon for the socialization of
the conditions of production.  This is what Marx meant by the dictatorship
of the proletariat, as Hal Draper shows in his monumental multi-volume
study Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution (Monthly Review Press).)  In place
of the competitive pursuit of private profit, communism makes use value,
in the sense of human needs and capabilities, the main priority of
production, distribution, and consumption.  This prioritization of use
value over exchange value is what creates the potential for communism to
reduce society's reliance on a growing productive, but ecologically
damaging, throughput of matter and energy.  It enables, for example, less
emphasis on mass production of differentiated material consumer goods and
more emphasis on the intellectual development (theoretical and practical)
of the producers and communities, especially given significant reductions
in worktime.  The use of planning and democratic deliberation instead of
the market is not the end or goal here, but rather the means for achieving
sustainable human development.  The communal, or public, "good" can
thereby be internalized into the whole system of economic calculation,
labor, and production instead of being viewed as an "external"
afterthought as it is under capitalism.

This vision does not provide a blueprint for a pro-ecological
re-engineering of production.  Nor is it a certainty that a
post-capitalist society of associated producers and communities will
transform and undertake production in ecologically sustainable directions.
 A communist restructuring of the productive metabolism is a necessary but
not sufficient condition of ecologically sustainable human development.
It all depends on the explicit integration of ecological and other
communal concerns into the anti-capitalist revolutionary process itself.
What we can say is that in order to be ecologically sustainable, an
economy must: (1) acknowledge and internalize society's responsibility to
sustainably manage our metabolism with nature, to protect the land as
communal wealth for current and future generations; (2) diffuse scientific
and technological knowledge among all producers and communities as
required for this ecological responsibility to be fulfilled throughout the
entire process of production and consumption; (3) recognize the
uncertainty and incompleteness of our knowledge about ecological and
biospheric systems and the corresponding need to follow the "precautionary
principle" in all production decisions (no specific actions taken without
a clear demonstration of the absence of significant ecological damages
therefrom); (4) respect the need for diversity in human economic
relations, due to the variegation of natural conditions and the need for
diverse paths of human fulfillment through productive and reproductive

It is hard to see how these four requirements can be fulfilled without a
clear break from capitalism's monetary/profit calculus and anarchic
competition, in favor of planning and cooperation in line with the
imperatives of human development.  The development of people as material
and social beings is both means and end here.  As Marx put it, "Freedom,
in this sphere, can consist only in this, that socialized man, the
associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a
rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being
dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least
expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for
their human nature" (Capital, Volume III [Vintage, 1981], p. 959).

This vision of communism, as a system dedicated to sustainable human
development growing out of anti-capitalist struggles, has a prominent
place for the efforts of indigenous peoples around the world to resist
transnational capital's "accumulation by dispossession" by revivifying
their communal property systems and culturally-embedded techniques for
sustainable use of water, soil, plant varieties, and other common
resources.  Industrial workers and communities can learn much from these
largely rural movements about the institutional and technological forms
needed to develop autonomous, self-sufficient, diversified, and
cooperative-democratic alternatives to capitalism's exploitative and
ecologically disastrous production (see David Barkin's important work,
Wealth, Poverty and Sustainable Development [Editorial Jus, 1998],
available at econwpa.wustl.edu/eprints/dev/papers/0506/05060003.pdf).

URL: <http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/aguiar240407.html>

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