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Marx and crisis of the dead tigress

Originally published: Ecological Society on July 18, 2019 by Gurudas Nulkar (more by Ecological Society) (Posted Mar 15, 2023)

A single bullet snuffed the life out of Avni 1. The tigress had crossed our line of tolerance for other species. In the Western Ghats, the earth movers closed in on the forest. Notwithstanding the recommendations of the WGEEP 2, minerals must be mined. Industry can no longer tolerate the forest’s impunity which stops us from taking it away. We love our country and respect her denizens to the extent they don’t challenge our sovereignty on the land. Marx would have smiled at Avni’s death and the barren land where the forest once stood. His conceptualization of the ‘metabolic rift’ has now turned into an insurmountable crevasse–humans on one side and nature on the other. The promise of technology and the dazzle of the market economy has placed us in a continually confrontative position with nature.

Few thinkers have had the privilege of having their name appended by an ‘ism’, Karl Marx being one of them. While Marxism is synonymous with communist ideology, Marx’s arguments on the capitalists’ exploitation of nature are relatively under researched. Perhaps they were too early to be considered important, or perhaps the social issues of his times deprecated their gravity. Either way, historians label him as a revolutionary socialist and not as an ecologist.

While the ecological approach to sustainability has evolved largely in the last hundred years, Marx displayed a deep understanding of this in the nineteenth century. His resentment of the class system probably took roots in his University history classes where social oppression is so graphically described by historians. But his angst for capitalism developed during his journalistic phase. In Friedrich Engels he found an ally and their theses on the conditions of the labour class launched an assault on the industrial revolution. Although their works formed the foundations of communism, much of Marx’s writing is an ecological critique of capitalism. However, contemporary critics considered his dialectics on nature-economy relation to be peripheral to his mainstream ideology. It is only in the last few decades that ecological Marxism has been a subject of deep study. In recent times, authors like John Bellamy Foster, Paul Burkett and Kohei Saito have expounded his works from the ecological perspective.

Marx saw that in the capitalistic system regarded industry’s raw materials derived from nature, as free gifts. They were assigned an exchange value in the market, but the intrinsic value of their existence in ecosystems was ignored.

At a time when the last remaining tigers are being shot and life supporting forests are denuded in the pursuit of growth, Marx’s metabolic rift 3 is conspicuously visible in society. Foster argues that concept of metabolic rift is the backbone of Marx’s ecological ideology. In this, Marx extends his interpretation of labour to the human-nature relation. Metabolism is the process by which organisms draw upon material and energy from their environment for sustaining life. Inspired by this relation Marx described labour as

….an appropriation of what exists in nature for the requirements of man. It is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence….4

Marx argued that capitalism inflicted an antagonistic relation upon man and nature, which violated the ‘everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence’. This leads to a metabolic rift between man and nature. Manual labour, Marx believed, keeps the rift within nature’s assimilative capacity, but energy intensive labour of the industrial revolution, widens it.

Furthermore, he saw that in the capitalistic system regarded industry’s raw materials derived from nature, as free gifts. They were assigned an exchange value in the market, but the intrinsic value of their existence in ecosystems was ignored. Moreover, there was no consideration of the social and environmental costs of their depletion in nature. Marx regarded this as the ‘robbery of nature’, and this, he said, shaped society’s attitude towards nature. Readers will no doubt be reminded of the brilliant lectures by Leonard Elmhirst and Rabindranath Tagore at Calcutta University in 1922, titled “Robbery of the soil” 5.

Marx was influenced by the German scientist Justus von Liebig6. Liebig condemned the intensive farm practices calling them a ‘robbery system’. Liebig saw that crop trade created a one-way flow of nutrients, as the soil which produced the crop supplied nutrients to cities where they were consumed but did not return to the place of extraction. Marx recognised that agriculture is the foundation of an economy and was critical of intensive farming triggered by industrial progress. In analysing the destructive side of modern agriculture Marx’s comprehension of ecological processes is evident. He warns that large-scale agriculture and long-distance trade under a capitalist economy only intensifies and extends the metabolic rift. Applying Liebig’s analysis of nutrient flows, Marx writes

In London, they can find no better use for the excretion of four and a half million human beings than to contaminate the Thames with it at heavy expense.

| Das Kapital | MR OnlineIn another chapter Marx critiques the of growth of cities.

Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centres, and causing an ever-increasing preponderance of town population, on the one hand concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil. By this action it destroys at the same time the health of the town labourer and the intellectual life of the rural labourer. 7

While the word sustainability was not in vogue during his time, Marx’s understanding of the term comes out brilliantly in this famous passage from Capital

Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth, they are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].8

Humanity’s separation from nature, Marx believed, was not a natural state but an outcome of the capitalist system. For Marx, the original sources of wealth were soil and the worker–nature and man–the capitalist system relegated both as factors of production. Marxian eco-socialism has been severely criticised and debated. However, it has also influenced the evolution of ecological economics. Today, in the debates of sustainable development, Marx’s analysis of ecology and equity are even more relevant, as is the question whether capitalism is sustainable.

A society which trusts economic growth to bestow happiness upon it, is a society on a divergent metabolic rift. It is no surprise that they would be averse to living alongside tigers and unmindful of the life supporting services of natural forests.

Further reading on Marx’s ecological critique:

  • Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature; John Bellamy Foster. Monthly Review Press, 1999.
  • The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth; John Bellamy Foster, Robert York and Brett Clark. Monthly Review Press, 2011.
  • Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective; Paul Burkett. Haymarket Books 2014.
  • Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy; Kohei Saito. Monthly Review Press (2017)

Cited book chapters, articles and papers:

  1. Read here https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/mumbai/tigress-avni-cubs-maharashtra-5435319/
  2. Report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, 2011. Read here http://www.moef.nic.in/downloads/public-information/wg-23052012.pdf
  3. Marx uses the German word ‘Stoffwechsel’ which literally means material exchange. Early translations of Capital use this term and not metabolism. John Bellamy Foster has used the term metabolic rift. In one translation (Pelican, 1981) predating Foster’s article, the term ‘irreparable rift in the interdependent process of social metabolism’ is used.
  4. Capital, Vol 1 Ch 7 sec 1 available here https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch07.htm
  5. Available here http://www.tonu.org/tag/robbery-of-the-soil/
  6. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Justus-Freiherr-von-Liebig
  7. Capital Vol 1 Ch 15 Sec 10 available here https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch15.htm#a244
  8. Capital Vol 3 Ch 46 available here https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1894-c3/ch46.htm
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