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Labor and human social metabolism (part 1): An anthropological perspective

The labour process, as we have just presented it in its simple and abstract elements, is purposful activity aimed at the production of use-values. It is an appropriation of what exists in nature of the requirements of man, It is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction [Stoffwechsel] between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, and it is therefore independent of every form of that existence, or rather it is common to all forms of society in which human beings live. (Marx 1867, p. 270)

Our global ecological crisis has created an increasing interest in Marx’s theory of metabolic rift as a crucial aspect of capitalism (Foster 2013). To appreciate fully how capitalism creates this rift, it is important to examine the human metabolic relation with nature in general and theoretical terms.

The concept of metabolism, as the material and energetic flows that sustain life (Foster 2000, p. 162), has broad applicability from the cellular level through species and ecosystems. All animals, including humans, must eat, that is they must ingest the matter and energy needed to sustain their life. To do this, they must act in a purposeful way, that is, they must expend energy to locate and ingest their food.

The social metabolism of all animal species, then, involves two interconnected energetic systems, basically the energy going in and the energy going out. The food energy system, or the energy coming in, connects the species to the total flow of energy through the ecosystem, entering as sunlight and flowing through the various trophic levels until it is ingested by the animal in question and emerges as animal behavior. The behavioral energy system, or the energy going out, involves expenditure of energy by the animal in various ways, including harnessing more energy.

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Human behavioral energy systems are unique in that they involve a distinctively human behavior, labor. If, as sociobiologist E.O. Wilson suggests, “milk is the key to the sociobiology of mammals” (Wilson 1975, p. 456), labor is the key to the sociology of humans.

Let us examine this more closely and turn to an examination of the metabolic process in humans and non-human animals. How does labor transform the social metabolism of animals into the social metabolism of humans?

As Marx notes, an “immense interval of time” (we can now say about five million years) separates the earliest appearance of labor among our ancestors from the time when workers began to sell their labor power on the market. During that time, not only has labor been both universal among and unique to humans, humans have transformed themselves and become products of labor. As Engels first noted, and more recent research has confirmed, our distinctive features, including our upright posture, our hands, and our large brains, capable of language and conceptual thought, are all adaptations to the labor process (Engels 1876; Ruyle 1976; Woolfson 1982). In another essay, we will discuss this process of how Homo faber emerged and developed into Homo sapiens.

As indicated earlier, all animals must expend energy to find and consume the use values upon which their life depends. In the case of humans, there is an intermediate process, the labor process, which intervenes between our needs and the satisfaction of those needs. Before use-values can be consumed, they must be produced. In Chapter One of Capital, Marx examines how the labor energy involved in their production becomes embodied in those use values. Although the precise social relationships may differ, a comparable process occurs in all forms of human production. In energetic terms, the labor process pumps labor energy into a deeper substratum from which it is drawn to satisfy human needs. Although the germs of this energetic substratum may exist in other species, it is fully developed in humans and constitutes an essential feature of our species.

This decisive difference in metabolic patterns between animals and humans is diagramed in Figure 1. (NEXT PAGE) Animals typically expend energy in direct and individual appropriation of naturally occurring environmental use values. Humans, by contrast, expend energy in producing a social product, the component use values of which are then consumed according to socially established rules. This makes all humans dependent upon other people’s labor energy and creates a deep flow of labor energy as embodied in the social product.

Figure 1. Social Metabolism Among Non-Humans and Humans

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Human social life, then, operates on two levels. First, there is, the surface level of immediate day-to-day behavior in which people interact directly with one another. But there is also this deeper level in which people expend labor energy to produce the use values making up the social product and then, in consuming those use values, consume the labor energy embodied in them. This deep flow of energy, though exiting in rudimentary form (“in the germ,” as Marx put it) in other mammalian species, such as beavers, apes, and social carnivores, is the unique and universal feature of human social metabolism.

As we go about our daily lives, we consume the energy of countless individuals around the world. When we sip our coffee in the morning, we are drinking the labor energy of Juan, the Guatemalan peasant who picked the coffee beans. When we put on our Nike shoes, we are wearing the labor energy of Maria, the young Indonesian woman who made the shoes. When we jump in our BMW to drive to work, we are driving the labor energy of Willie, the British worker who helped assembled the vehicle. When we boot up our laptops and begin to write on the nature of imperialism, we are writing with the labor energy of Kim, the Korean worker who assembled our computer. We are thus immersed in a set of definite social relations with these individuals upon whose labor our lives depend.

At the same time, we are also influencing the lives of countless individuals across the globe. As we meekly pay our taxes, we are supporting a powerful military machine and intelligence apparatus which keep in power the repressive governments which in turn force Juan, Maria, Willie, and Kim to fulfill their function in the global economy.

We usually don’t conceptualize things in this way. We are usually concerned only about our things, how to enjoy them, how we can get more of them, and how much they will cost. We are concerned, in short, with use values and exchange values. We are concerned with our relationship to the objects (do they satisfy our needs?) and the relationship between objects (how much do they cost?). We rarely if ever consider that in buying, selling, and consuming we are entering into definite social relations with the people who produce our goodies.

There is more to human life than labor energy, of course. When we sip our coffee, play with our iPhones, and gossip with our friends and family, we are participating in a richly textured social world of meanings and emotions.

Our lives are pretty much lived in this surface level, of buying and selling, hanging out with friends and family, searching for partners, appreciating music and the arts. But if we are concerned with the well being of our species and our planet, we must look at this deeper level, for it is where production, distribution, consumption, and exploitation take place. It is the world of the giant corporation and the state, and the military and intelligence agencies that have such a great, but unseen, influence on our lives.

The study of our human social metabolism provides a way of understanding the social relations of production, distribution, and consumption, of exploitation, domination, and oppression—and of liberation.

Marx’s labor theory of value is, essentially, an analysis of the social metabolism of capitalism, providing a way of cutting through the superficial level of the fetishized commodity world to the deeper level of value, the socially necessary labor time embodied in commodities. As Sweezy notes,

The entire social output is the product of human labor. Under capitalist conditions, a part of this social output is appropriated by that group in the community which owns the means of production. This is not an ethical judgment, but a method of describing the really basic economic relation between social groups. It finds its most clearcut theoretical formulation in the theory of surplus value. As long as we retain value calculation, there can be no obscuring of the origin and nature of profits as a deduction from the product of total social labor. The translation of pecuniary categories into social categories is greatly facilitated. In short, value calculation makes it possible to look beneath the surface phenomena of money and commodities to the underlying relations between people and classes. (Sweezy 1942, pp. 128-130)

There are, of course, issues about how to apply the labor theory of value under conditions of contemporary imperialism, in which some of our most successful corporations (Google) make money by giving things away for free and treating (some of) their workers virtually like royalty. These are not insurmountable issues, but before addressing them (in a later essay), it is important to examine the matter in general and theoretical terms.

Marx’s labor theory of value enables us to track the flow of labor energy through capitalist society, from the time it expended by workers through whatever exchanges may be made in the market to the time it is ultimately consumed by human beings.

In capitalism, this flow is effected through market exchange, but a similar flow of labor energy occurs in all human societies. Marx developed the labor theory of value to understand systems of commodity production and capitalism in which embodied social labor takes a fetishized form that requires the specific conceptual tools developed by Marx for its analysis,

In non-capitalist systems, by contrast, “The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour on the basis of commodity production, vanishes therefore as soon as we come to other forms of production.” Marx then considers in turn, Robinson Crusoe, Medieval Europe, the Patriarchal Peasant Family, and an Association of Free Individuals..” (Marx 1867, pp. 169-171)In each case, Marx stresses how the total labor time is expended to produce the social product that supports the entire society.

Marx notes that, “ancient social organisms of production are, as compared with bourgeois society, extremely simple and transparent.” However, all systems of class rule throw up ideological veils which conceal their workings from the lower classes, and one cannot understand any present or historical human society on its own terms. We must employ an analytical tool to cut through their mystical veil and penetrate to the underlying level of social metabolism—the production of use values by social labor and the consumption of these use values, and the social labor they contain, by human beings.

All human societies, and all human beings, are dependent upon this deep flow of social labor energy. As Marx noted, “Every child knows that any nation that stopped working, not for a year, but let us say, just for a few weeks, would perish.” (Marx 1868). This is equally true for children in modern societies and children in band and tribal societies, for our complex global civilization is built upon the metabolic principles first developed by our ancestral hunter-gatherers.

Two interrelated points of clarification are essential.

First, the labor energy embodied in the social product is no longer physical energy for it has been transformed from a physical into a social reality, As Marx stresses, “So far no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value either in a pearl or a diamond.” And, “Not an atom of matter enters into the objectivity of commodities as values.” From this, Marx concludes that “their objective character as values is therefore purely social.” (Marx 1867, pp. 138-139, 177)

Elsewhere, Marx observes that, “when Galiani said: Value is a relation between persons . . .he ought to have added: a relation concealed beneath a material shell.” (Marx 1867, p. 167)Value is indeed a social relationship, and therefore has no material substance. Its existence is purely social and must be understood as such.

Second, the labor energy embodied in the social product must be carefully distinguished from the auxiliary energy of fossil fuels and other resources used up in the productive process. Marx notes the existence of this auxiliary energy system and regards it as part of the means of production, which only passes on the value already in it to the finished product. It does not create any new value. Marx is clear on this point:

Some means of production do not enter materially into the product. Such are auxiliary materials, which are consumed by the instruments of labour themselves in the performance of their functions, like coal consumed by a steam-engine; or which merely assist in the operation, like gas for lighting, etc. It is only their value which forms a part of the value of the products. The product circulates in its own circulation the value of these means of production. . . . this portion of the auxiliary materials does not pass bodily into the product but enters into the value of the product only according to its own value, as a portion of that value, . . . The analysis of the labour-process and of the process of producing surplus-value [Vol I Ch. VII.—Ed.] showed that these different components behave quite differently as creators of products and as creators of values. The value of that part of constant capital which consists of auxiliary and raw materials—the same as of that part which consists of instruments of labour—re-appears in the value of the product as only transferred value, while labour-power adds an equivalent of its value to the product by means of the labour-process, in other words, actually reproduces its value. (Marx 1885, 238-239)

Both of these points are crucial for understanding human social metabolism, but are not fully appreciated in previous attempts to integrate energetic concepts into economics (Podolinsky 1881; Ostwald 1907; Soddy 1912; Lotka 1922; White 1949; Cottrell 1955; White 1959;Georgescu-Roegen 1971; Martinez-Alier 1987; Odum and Scienceman 2005). There is much to be learned from these attempts, even though serious criticisms have been leveled at them (e.g. Schwartzman 2008). However, their fundamental error, in my view, is their failure to recognize these essential features of Marx’s analysis, and this hampers their usefulness for social analysis.

They all miss the crucial point that labor energy, as it becomes embodied in use values, becomes transformed from a physical entity into a social entity. Its reality is no longer physical, but, as Marx says, “purely social,” and therefore can only incompletely be analyzed by the tools of physical science. Auxiliary energy, on the other hand, does not create any new value, or surplus value.

I recognized the thermodynamic aspect of Marx’s work long ago (Ruyle 1977), and I have learned much from others who have drawn upon thermodynamics to understand human societies. But it is necessary to make a clear and systematic distinction between human labor and other, non-human forms of energy, from draft animals to fossil fuels and nuclear energy, even solar. This helps us understand that it is only labor energy that becomes embodied in use-values. In so doing it loses its physical character but acquires a peculiar social significance.

In Marx’s analysis, then, value is a social relationship, but what is the nature of that relationship? Clearly, it is a relationship in which the labor of one individual satisfies the needs of some other individual. It is only in capitalism, however, that this takes its particular fetishized form described in Capital. Among our ancestral hunters and gatherers, it was direct and humane, according to the communist principle, “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” In slave and feudal societies, it was immersed in relations of domination and subordination. In capitalism, it is accomplished through buying and selling. The form may vary, but the essence is the same, and all human societies are built upon this relationship. Truly, labor is the key to the sociology of humans.

The study of social metabolism, then, focuses on the flow of energy through the human ecosystem and provides a way of studying social relations as well as ecology. It provides a set of conceptual tools for penetrating the surface of our social consciousness and examining the essential thermodynamic substratum that underlies all human life. It provides a way to understand how the total labor time of society is used to provide the goods and services essential to the members of society, some more than others.

There is more to human life than labor energy, of course. When we listen to our iPhones, sip our coffee and chat with our friends, we are participating in a richly textured social world of meanings and emotions. The study of our social metabolism is not directly concerned with this world, but neither is it entirely irrelevant to it. We are also consuming labor time and natural resources and therefore impacting the global environment and economy. We are participating in the destruction of the rain forests, contributing to global warming, and hastening the extinction of endangered species. All this is important and needs to be analyzed using appropriate conceptual tools, ranging from formal bourgeois economics to textual deconstruction. It is misleading, however, to think that such tools alone will provide understanding of social reality. They must be used in conjunction with an understanding of the social metabolism of the society in question

The goal of social metabolic analysis is the understanding of the social relations of production, distribution, and consumption, of exploitation, domination, and oppression—and of liberation.

The complexity of such labor flows in modern global capitalism is truly mind-boggling, but the existence of these flows goes far back in history, to the very origins of our species. The first basic principle, on which modern capitalist civilization depends, is our dependence upon social labor, which as Marx stresses, is a universal condition of human societies.

But although all humans are dependent upon production through labor, not all humans actually engage in labor. Indeed, the last five thousand yeas of human development have been dominated by classes which, although they do not produce anything, are nevertheless abundantly provided with the good things of life that are produced by other people’s labor. How is such a thing possible?

We shall turn to this question in our next essay.


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