[OPE] Anitra Nelson, "Fictitious Capital and Real Compacts"

From: Jurriaan Bendien <adsl675281@tiscali.nl>
Date: Fri Oct 17 2008 - 15:35:05 EDT

I would agree with Ian about that, except that (1) there is no true mastery without care (or stewardship) possible, and that assumes valuing something because you love it rather than loathe it, and (2) that the distinction of object and subject is, dialectically speaking, not so sharply defined, i.e. there is a transition (mediation) from one to the other (for example, human beings themselves are both part of nature and part of society, they are both biological beings and social beings with a human "Geist" (esprit, consciousnessness).

Because of (1) there are of course all sorts of more or less nutty or whacky theories possible about what real "mastery" would consist in (as frequently happens in promoting/imposing certain personal values or lifestyles, imputing trading prices to natural resources which have a non-commercial human value, etc.).

As regards (2), it would be unwise for an historical materialist to ignore the physical-biological substratum of human beings, and it is possible for instance to regard the avoidance of unnecessary cruelty to animals as an aspect of humanization, even if animal experiments are sometimes very necessary and beneficial for human life. For example, a civilized person does not have much regard for somebody who arbitrarily treats his animals in a cruel and brutal way, or indifferently pollutes parks; conversely, the love of animals, land and vegetation can be quite civilized and civilizing (although it can also be absurd and pretty ridiculous, as when people start to treat animals in a reified way as if those animals were wealthy human beings).

Marx famously argued that unimproved land (and more generally assets which are not reproducible products of human labour) have no economic value in capitalist society. The bourgeois reply is that a price can be imputed or attached to them, and thus that they have value, we can acknowledge that value, via a price. Environmentalist theorists, caught between those two viewpoints, often argue that these things do have a value for us, but not a commercial value, or something beyond a commercial value, or that they have an intrinsic value "in their own right" quite apart from human beings.

Value-theoretically I would say Marx is basically correct in his historical assessment; he never denied of course that a price can be attributed to all kinds of assets which are non-reproducible products of human labour - he says to explicitly - he is merely tracing out the capitalist logic of markets, the implication of which is that apparently "free" or near-free natural resources will be plundered for profit without regard for sustainable development - and they have been, that is one of the sins of bourgeois development. But that is just to say that bourgeois civilization cannot definitively solve the environmental problems, because to solve them you have to do many things which go against market logic and are not compatible with it. "Sustainable development" is obviously an intrinsically ambiguous concept insofar as it does not explicate "sustainable for whom" exactly.

But since there was also enormous, well-documented ecological devastation in the Stalin & Mao era of "domination of man over nature", non-market allocation techniques are not necessarily any better, in fact they could be worse. It turns out that the real issue is not about markets (trading transactions) per se, but about how we go about attaching property rights (not prices, but property rights). The obvious solution is to have due regard for scientific evidence which shows that some natural resources are reproducible, and that others are not reproducible, and not to destroy non-reproducible goods, unless there is a jolly good reason for it.

In my youth, I used to think that environmentalists did not take ecological issues seriously enough and I wrote some about that at the time - actually, they invented many silly crackpot schemes which dit not make a dent of a difference to environmental quality, being based more on emotional affinities and lifestyle preferences than sound scientific sense. But nowadays, I think the real problem is that we both underestimate and overestimate ecological problems at the same time, a sort of crisis of valuation, a crisis of the ability to reach some sort of objectivity about it. The important thing is always to fix precisely why that is, to free ourselves from illusions about that.

What I mean is, for example, that the same people who are extremely worried about the decimation of the gorilla population, do not spare a thought about the bidonvilles and favellas on the "planet of slums" (Mike Davis) in which human beings - yes, human beings - almost literally live in diseased rubbish heaps. In other words, in dealing with environmental problems there is often a serious problem about our ability to relativise things, place them in correct proportion - historically, spatially, humanly. When you have worked in statistical research, as I have for some years in the past, you don't just want to know if there is a problem, but how big the problem is, what its importance is.

The solution to environmental panics is to place things in their true proportion, which may be a work of science, and to emphasize all the things that we can do, rather than all the things we cannot do about it. We can, of course, extrapolate all sorts of dreadful scenarios from past trends, but that does not tell us what we may be able to do tomorrow. If we fall victim to believing in "inevitable laws of motion" in world development, somewhat mystically, we might in so doing downgrade the ability of active human subjects to do something practically about the problems, and indeed to solve them. I don't really think that the problems of the world are mainly ecological or economic, I think they are primarily social, that is one reason I am socialist by conviction, rather than something else.

To give an example of the pernicious role of ideology - a British Labour Party stalwart whom I quoted previously tries to highlight how Friedrich Engels optimistically hailed the economic crises of bourgeois society as a stimulus for revolution, whereas in the opinion of this stalwart they weren't funny at all. Well, as I have pointed out previously with regard to Zimbabwe, economic recession does not make ecological problems better, it makes them worse, to the extent that people bereft of wherewithal to survive will do anything to survive, never mind the environment. But that's exactly why you should be a revolutionary, rather than a Labour Party stalwart!


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Received on Fri Oct 17 15:38:52 2008

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