Capital and Nature: An Interview with Paul Burkett

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 capitalism?

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 Capital?

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 level.

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 profit.

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 Nature.)

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 life.

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 activities.

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

João Aguiar is a sociology student at the Faculty of Humanities of Oporto University (FLUP) in Portugal.  The Portuguese version of this interview will appear in O Diário:

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