[OPE-L:1217] Preliminary thoughts on value, use value, & ecology

glevy@acnet.pratt.edu (glevy@acnet.pratt.edu)
Sun, 25 Feb 1996 14:25:29 -0800

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Paul B. wrote [OPE-L:1215]:

> I have a few conjectures (87 lines worth) as to what Michael
> Perelman [OPE-L:1207] might have in mind by the notion of Marx
> "using his analysis of values as a means of showing . . . the
> weakness and vulnerabilities of capitalism". <snip>
> One possible starting point is the venerable contradiction
> between use value and exchange value.

Still more conjectures ....

Paul Z asked about the distinction between accumulation of capital and
capitalism. One could argue that the accumulation of capital (and the
"law of value") is the dominant force within the capitalist mode of
production *from the standpoint of capital*. In addition to the
accumulation of capital, though, there is a *accumulation of material
goods* including means of production and means of consumption for both
workers and capitalists.

Expressing the issue somewhat differently, the valorization process not
only promotes the accumulation of capital (as value), but also the
accumulation of use-values (represented by the increasing production of
material goods). The question of the relationship between the
accumulation of means of production in relation to labor (represented by
the technical composition of capital) and the organic composition of
capital has been widely discussed by Marxists in relationship to the
"absolute general law of capitalist accumulation" and the
"law of the tendency for the general rate of profit to decline." What
about the implications, though, of an increasing TCC from the standpoint
of *use-value*? This has been less widely discussed. What, for instance,
are the implications from an environmental perspective of the increasing
TCC and the destruction of capital values during a crisis and through the
process of "moral depreciation"? Further, what are the consequences of
increasing masses of constant circulating capital being used up in the
production process when many of those materials are non-renewable? As
regards, constant fixed capital, I don't think that recycling is a
satisfactory or sufficient answer. Additionally, many of these objects
are non-biodegradeable and may have other side effects such as the
production of toxic chemicals. [BTW: I don't think that we can simply
look to ideas from welfare economics, like externalities, for answers].

Also, what about the implications of an increasing production of
use-values in relation to means of consumption?

While workers standards of living can go up alongside the accumulation of
capital and as a result, in part, of the class struggle (whereby the
"social", "historical" and "cultural" factors that go into the
determination of the wage change), are there not problems over the
long-term with this process?

For instance, a higher standard of living generally manifests itself,
from the standpoint of workers, as an increasing bundle of consumption
goods. The increased ownership of material goods, though, has
environmental implications as well. One could certainly argue that
capitalists foster this process in large part though advertising, but
the fact remains that workers (and peasants) have come to expect and
demand an increasing title to material goods.

This has major political implications in today's world. For instance, are
there physical and/or social limits related to how far this process can
continue? [Perhaps Paul C, or someone else, could explain how laws of
thermodynamics relate to the natural processes].

Looking towards the future, even with a a change in income
distribution under socialism and technological change in terms of
increasing productivity in the production of means of consumption, how
far can this process continue (given the strains on the eco-system and
the existence of non-renewable resources)?

When we consider the above from a *global* perspective, the issues are even
more troubling. Given the international disparities of wealth and the
persistence of large-scale poverty in many places of the world, I find
each of the following "answers" to be unsatisfactory:

(1) The standard of living for workers in the advanced capitalist
countries should be defended while, at the same time, the lower standard
of living for workers in other parts of the world should be perpetuated
[Not only is this a violation of workers' solidarity internationally, but
what kind of "socialism" would it be and do we even want it?].

(2) The standard of living for workers in the advanced capitalist nations
should be lowered while the standard of living for workers in other
parts of the world should be raised. [I find it somewhat utopian to
believe that workers in the advanced capitalist nations will accept a
declining standard of living in the name of increasing equality

(2) The standard of living of all workers internationally should be
raised to the current level of workers in the most advanced capitalist
nations. [This has a number of problems: 1) needs, socially understood,
change historically and, therefore, workers in the more advanced
capitalist economies might be expected to want *higher* standards of
living and access to the ownership of *more* material goods; 2) are there
enough resources for this?; 3) isn't it utopian to simply say, the future
will solve this problem? -- BTW: I find Marx's dictum that humans only
pose those questions that they can solve to be rather problematic in
this regard].

There is also a political context to the above questions which should be
addressed. Many political ecologists and Greens have accused Marxists of
being "productivists" and have embraced an alternative political ideology.
This trend has claimed recently at least one major Marxist -- Alain
Lipietz, who describes in his book _Green Hopes_ the transition from
Red (and Marxist) to Green.

In recent years, an increasing number of Marxists are examining these
questions. The journal _Capitalism, Nature, Socialism_, for instance,
has published many articles related to these themes (see the book by
Martin O'Connor ed. for a representative sampling). Elmar Altvater,
also, has written some very important thoughts on these questions
(particularly as it relates to use value). I think that Mike L's project
also deals, in part, with these types of questions. I imagine that there
has been quite a discussion in Japan as well among Marxists (and wonder
if Iwao and/or Makoto could tell us about some of those discussions).

[BTW: Paul B has also written on these subjects. I would like to hear

I think, though, that we have to explain these issues theoretically in a
more satisfactory manner than posing questions and making analogies (as I
have done above). Clearly, this whole question is related to a number of
other questions as well such as international trade, the state, the world
market, imperialism, socialism, etc. On that last subject, I would say
that _in Marx's time_ a discussion of the specifics of socialism may have
been utopian. In out time, it is not. First, we have the experience of
"really existing socialism" (note the " marks). Second, it is an
important political question. Simply saying that one is in favor of a
planned socialist economy and workers' democracy, won't cut it any more.
Workers demand and have a right to know more.

We don't have to discuss these issues now. However, if we were able to
deal with only some of these questions in the same rigorous way that we
discussed topics like Ch. 5, then I think we could potentially be doing
something very important.

In OPE-L Solidarity,


Elmar Altvater "Ecological and Economic Modalities of Time and Space" in
Martin O'Connor ed. _Is Capitalism Sustainable?_, pp. 76-90

Elmar Altvater _An Essay on the Regulation of Money and Nature after the
Collapse of 'Actually Existing Socialism"_, London, Verso, 1993

Michael A. Lebowitz _Reading Capital: Marx's Political Economy of the
Working Class_, NY, St. Martin's Press, 1992

Alain Lipietz _Green Hopes: The Future of Political Ecology_ Cambridge,
UK, Polity Press, 1995

Alain Lipietz _Towards a New Economic Order: Postfordism, Ecology and
Democracy_, NY, Oxford University Press, 1992

Martin O'Connor ed. _Is Capitalism Sustainable?: political economy and
the politics of ecology_, NY, The Guilford Press, 1994