Thursday, 28 April 2016

How Will the Greens and other parties do in the Local and National Elections on 5 May?

On the 5 May, elections will be held across the UK. In England local council and Police Commissioner elections and elections for the Mayor of London and London Assembly will take place. In Wales, the national Assembly and Police Commissioner elections will be held. Scotland will elect its Parliament and Northern Ireland its own national Assembly.

This will be a big test of public opinion, the first since last year’s general election and much is at stake for all the political parties involved. The Tory government has been rocked by a series of public relations disasters in the last six months or so. Everything from the budget unravelling, Ministers resigning, the Prime Minister’s tax dodging antics, and the deep split opening up in the Tory Party over the EU membership referendum. How will all of this play out in May’s various elections? I expect some fall in support for the UK governing party, but how much?

For the Labour Party, this is new leader Jeremy Corbyn’s first nationwide electoral test, and portents are not all that good. The Scottish National Party (SNP) continues to hold onto huge support in Scotland, much of it at Labour’s expense. Labour could well finish up third in Scotland, behind the SNP and Tories. The English Council elections will be difficult for Labour too. Labour is also split, between MPs and members, over the leadership of Corbyn. The last time these councils were elected was a good result for Labour, so it is likely they will lose quite a few seats. But how many seats…perhaps, as many as 200?

In these circumstances, with both of the larger parties split, it should be good news for the Lib Dems. But after their participation in the coalition government with the Tories, they remain in the doldrums. In some areas of England, they may do reasonably OK in the council elections, but I can’t see them advancing much, and I can’t see any joy for them in the other elections, in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and and London.

Then there is UKIP, being so close to the their raison d’etre issue of the UK’s membership of the EU referendum, with all the media attention this brings, will probably do well at the English and Welsh elections at least. 

In Scotland, our sister party, the Scottish Greens, look set to gain a number of seats in the Scottish Parliament, probably double figure representation, maybe as high as 13 or so MSPs. In Wales, the Greens could win representation on the Welsh national Assembly for the first time. Forgive me for not being up to speed on Northern Irish politics, but we have a seat at present there to defend.

In England, the council elections often come down to specific local factors and candidates, but I think generally we will maintain the quiet, steady progress of recent years, and make some modest net gains.

In London, the Greens hold two seats on the Assembly currently and we have a good chance of retaining these seats, with a chance of a gain. What makes me nervous, is that UKIP will gain at least a seat, possibly two. One of these seats will come from the Lib Dems, but if they gain a second, from where will it come? 

These are the first nationwide elections after Corbyn became Labour leader, and it will be interesting to see how the Green Party does, since we are fishing for many of the same voters as Corbyn’s Labour. My hunch is, we will not be overly affected. Our quiet consolidation of electoral success will probably continue unabated. 

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Paris Agreement on Climate Change: Interview with Daniel Tanuro, Ecosocialist

An interview with Daniel Tanuro, ecosocialist. First published at New Politics

More than 130 of the leaders of the world’s nations are about to sign the Paris agreement on climate change, New Politics had the opportunity to interview Daniel Tanuro, the founder of Climate and Social Justice, a Belgian based environmental organization and author of Green Capitalism, Why it Can't WorkTanuro’s writings on ecosocialism are well known to those in the European ecosocialist movements.  New Politics co-editor Dan La Botz had an opportunity to interview Tanuro about the Paris agreement at the Swiss Solidarity Spring University.

New Politics: Do the Paris agreements begin to solve the environmental crisis?

Tanuro: No. The Paris agreement won’t solve the climate crisis. The nations signing the agreement have adopted the goal of a global temperature increase of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius. But this is a phony claim. The important things in this agreement are the INDCs, that is the “intended nationally determined contributions,” or each nation’s contribution to reducing the global temperature. If one takes the INDCs and globalizes them and make projections on that basis, the likely increase in warming will between 2.7 and 3.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, or double what the agreement says.

There are among the world’s leaders, some smart people, who understand the seriousness of global warming and the threat it poses to the capitalist system. For example, the former U.S. Vice-President Al GoreMark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England; and Nicholas Stern, a professor at the London School of Economic. They want to fight within the bourgeoisie over climate change. The Paris agreement is a victory for this current. Their problem will be to find a way to make up the difference between the goal of 1.5 degrees of warming and the INDCs 2.7 degrees, which is the overall objective of the agreement. If they’re serious in their strategy against climate change, they will have to find ways to make up that difference, at least partially.

NP: How might they that do that?

Tanuro: It’s extremely difficult because given the climate budget remaining for this century, in order to have a 66% chance of achieving the 2 degree goal, the world must emit less than 1,000 gigatons (GT) of carbon between 2011 and the end of the century. The carbon budget for 1.5 degrees is only 400 GTs. The annual emissions at present are about 40 GTs, so the remaining budget today for 2°C is about 800 GTs and for 1.5°C only about 200 GTs.

To stay within those budgets is totally incompatible with capitalism because it is incompatible with growth, and capitalism without growth is a contradiction in terms. There's no doubt that the carbon budget will be exceeded, so the only way to try to fill the gap, even partially, between 1.5C and 3.7°C will be the use of the so-called “negative emissions technologies.” That's why I say the agreement is not only insufficient, but it entails new threats, threats from geo-engineering on the one hand and threat of a massive appropriation of the ecosystems to capture carbons on the other.

NP: What do you mean by geo-engineering?

Tanuro: The British Royal Society’s definition is this: Geoengineering is human intervention to change the climate system. The massive use of fossil fuels from the beginning of the industrial revolution until today was a kind of geo-engineering, so those who want to stop global warming will have to find something similar to reverse our current direction.

NP: They need a technological solution then. Is there one?

Tanuro: Yes, there are various things that can be done. The first thing would be planting trees, for example. Some research suggests that one could capture10 GTs of carbon yearly simply through the planting trees on a massive scale.

But, there are two social problems with this. One is the appropriation of ecosystems and the other is competition with other land use, such as the production of food, of course. The appropriation of ecosystems would mean a new era of enclosures, something like Marx’s description of “primitive accumulation of capital.” For example, in Africa, where this is already happening, businesses investing in the carbon market expropriate the land from farmers and then turn those former farmers into workers to plant trees.

We should be very critical of this approach because of its social implications. But there are also environmental issues. They aren’t planting forests. They’re engaging in monoculture, that is, planting just one specie such as eucalyptus tress. Or they may plant genetically modified fast-growing trees. I think we should oppose all GMOs, including trees, because new problems can be introduced. If one, for example, one introduces GMO trees, they might create new allergies that would affect humans

NP: What about more high tech solutions?

Tanuro: The major technology is called BECCS, that is, bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration. The idea is to combine the use of biomass as an energy source with the technology of geological capture and sequestration. This is very hypothetical. It has been done in Norway on a small scale and there are a few pilots in Europe financed by the European Union, but nobody knows if the gas will stay in the ground or how long it will stay in the ground.

If there is an earthquake the gas could escape. Or perhaps the storage of gas might cause earthquakes.

This has already occurred in the North Sea where Norway is experimenting and it also happened in British Columbia, where there was a 4.5 Richter scale earthquake last summer.

BECCS is really the priority for these people and this would be one way that they might try to make up the gap between the goal and the global projection on the basis of the INDCs. According to some researchers, the technical potential of the BECCS could be greater than the 2°C carbon budget.

There are other technologies of course. One is ocean liming. If you disperse lime in the ocean, the CO2 in the ocean will react with this lime and Calcium carbonate will precipitate to the bottom of the ocean. This would create a virtuous circle, because as the captured CO2 fell to the bottom, the water could also absorb more atmospheric CO2. This could be one of the most massive responses in order to lower the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and in the ocean (thus lowering the acidification), but nobody knows what might be the effect on the marine ecosystems—nobody knows that. Technically it would be quite tricky to organize. If you want to distribute enough lime to have an impact, you would also have to build as many new ships as currently exist on earth.

NP: Are there other technologies?

Tanuro: One technique is quite similar to the ocean liming, partly the same reaction between CO2 and lime, not at sea, but on the earth. After the reactions take place, the CO2 could be released to be stored in the ground. This would require an enormous economic investment in order to build the thousands of huge of devices that would be necessary.

The problem then becomes, how does this affect economic growth. The consumption of matter - thus of energy - must be lowered in absolute terms if we are to solve the climate crisis. Certainly the developed countries should lower their consumption of matter and energy, or there is no possible solution to the climate crisis. Because the situation is worsening so quickly, it might even prove to be necessary to lower consumption of matter and energy on a world scale.

The discussion of degrowth, therefore, is not absurd in my view. However, degrowth is not a project for a different kind of society. It is not a social alternative.
This is a problem for these smart people that I’ve mentioned, because they know from the economist Joseph Schumpeter that you can’t have capitalism without growth. So they will want to use geo-engineering to deal with the issues.

All of this can be seen in Nicholas Stern’s Report on climate change made for the English government. We need to stabilize at 450 parts per million CO2 equivalent, but that would cost 3 percent of the world’s GDP. To stabilize the climate at 550 ppm would take 1 percent of the world’s GDP. The economic costs thus lead Stern to recommend that we not do too much too fast. For him it’s all too expensive and too disruptive. But 550ppm most probably means a 3 to 4°C warming by the end of the century.

NP: Well, what should those of us concerned about these issues do then?

Tanuro: We need to block investments in fossil fuels. We need to throw sand in the productivist machine as happened with the XL Pipeline, and with the struggle against the new airport in Notre Dame des Landes in France, and as is happening with the struggle against the exploitation of brown coal and coal in general in Germany. The German government decided to phase out the nuclear plant but they didn’t change the nuclear power with renewable but by coal. So there’s a very important movement to block the mines. We need to throw more sand in the machine and stop these fossil fuel investments.

At the same time, we have to put forward a program for the transition towards an ecosocialist society.

Key demands are the expropriation of the energy and finance sectors - which are deeply interconnected- the development of the public sector and the reduction of hours in the workday. This is the only way to simultaneously solve the ecological crisis and the social crisis, particularly the problem of unemployment.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

“Green” Capitalism builds Big Solar: Should we throw the baby out with the bathwater?

Written by David Schwartzman and first published at Capitalism, Socialism, Nature Journal

A recent news headline reported: “Wind and Solar Are Crushing Fossil Fuels, Record clean energy investment outpaces gas and coal 2 to 1.” Should we welcome this trend, or focus only on the fact that capitalist-driven solarization is fraught with problems?

In his article, “The Ouarzazate Solar Plant in Morocco: Triumphal ‘Green’ Capitalism and the Privatization of Nature,” Hamza Hamouchene provides a very thoughtful and thorough critique of how capitalist-driven creation of renewable energy infrastructure is lacking social management and planning. Further, the article points out that while such large projects in the Global South should prioritize the elimination of energy poverty, in this case in Morocco and North Africa, this is not apparently the plan. These challenges should thus be on the front burner for ecosocialist intervention in ongoing class struggles in energy transition.

In an earlier article, Hamouchene critiqued an even bigger solar project on the drawing boards, Desertec, on precisely the grounds I warned twenty years ago in my Solar Communism article where I noted: “plausible scenarios of continued neocolonial subjugation of the “south” under the rubric of promoting solar energy are conceivable (e.g., a Saharan photovoltaic network controlled by transnationals supplying power to Europe under highly unequal arrangements of exchange)”, although the actual plan has been to build a huge concentrated solar power infrastructure much bigger than Ouarzazate, rather than photovoltaics in the Sahara. Such a project could potentially supply the current global electricity consumption on less than 6 percent of the Saharan land area.

Nevertheless, I have some disagreements with Hamouchene regarding the following statements in the Ouarzazate Solar Plant in Morocco article.
“One needs to say it clearly from the start: the climate crisis we are currently facing is not attributable to fossil fuels per se, but rather to their unsustainable and destructive use in order to fuel the capitalist machine. In other words, capitalism is the culprit, and if we are serious in our endeavors to tackle the climate crisis (only one facet of the multi-dimensional crisis of capitalism), we cannot elude questions of radically changing our ways of producing and distributing things, our consumption patterns and fundamental issues of equity and justice.”
Yes to the last sentence, but the first is problematic. Surely we cannot replay the history of fossil fuel consumption driven by fossil capital. Carbon emissions come from the actual burning of fossil fuel, a physical process. This is the prime driver of the climate crisis, to be sure, a result of the historical use of this fuel as the energy source in the reproduction of capital. I cannot imagine what would have been the alternative to fossil fuels’ “unsustainable and destructive use” while still consuming fossil fuels, except in a rapid transition away from these fuels in a solar transition.
“It follows from this that a mere shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, while remaining in the capitalist framework of commodifying and privatizing nature for the profits of the few, will not solve the problem. In fact, if we continue down this path we will only end up exacerbating, or creating another set of problems, around issues of ownership of land and natural resources.”
Well if this “mere shift” can be accelerated, as climate science tells us is imperative to have any remaining chance to avoid climate catastrophe, with the majority of humanity living in the Global South bearing the heaviest impact, then such a shift to renewable energy could have a stupendous positive result: the end of energy poverty in the Global South and the capacity to bring down the atmospheric carbon dioxide level below the safe upper limit of 350 ppm, preventing climate catastrophe!

And yes, ecosocialists and the movement for climate and energy justice should not accept this transition while remaining in the capitalist framework. On the contrary, we should use this unprecedented opportunity to end the rule of capital on our planet.

We are now confronting a clean energy transition that is still too slow. And only when a more robust renewable creation is coupled with rapid phase-out of fossil fuels—starting with the highest carbon footprint ones (i.e., coal and natural gas because of methane leakage to the atmosphere) and tar sands oil—will there be any chance of avoiding climate catastrophe. There is every reason to believe that a full transition with these characteristics cannot be generated in the capitalist framework. The Military Industrial Fossil Fuel Complex must be dissolved, both as the main obstacle to both a solar energy transition as well as to end of the rule of capital itself.

While ecosocialist class struggle is still too weak to prevent the deficiencies in these big solar projects, and as the global climate and energy justice movement gains strength, then the opportunity to create a sustainable and just solar transition will grow. But the creation of a wind/solar energy infrastructure should be welcomed now even with all the problems pointed out by Hamouchene. We cannot wait for the end of the rule of capital to start building this renewable infrastructure; it will be too late.

About the author

David Schwartzman is Professor Emeritus, Howard University (biogeochemist, environmental scientist, PhD, Brown University) and an active member of the DC Statehood Green Party/Green Party of the United States. He runs with his older son Peter Schwartzman.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

The Only Force That Can Combat Imperialism Today Is a Worldwide Struggle of Workers

John Bellamy Foster, Monthly Review

Interviewed by Mohsen Abdelmoumen

Mohsen Abdelmoumen: Can we consider you a modern Marxist?

John Bellamy Foster: What is meant by "modern" nowadays is always a complex topic, but setting that aside I would answer Yes, in the concrete sense that I am engaged in the development of historical materialism in the present and see my analysis as part of a broad revolutionary intellectual heritage and scientific tradition going back to Marx.  I am particularly concerned with the reunification of Marxism in theory and practice, transcending the Cold War divisions, which split apart Marxism as well, and building on the classical historical materialist tradition.  Central to this reunification is the challenge represented by the ecological crisis -- along with the political-economic crisis of our time, and the new fissures opening up in contemporary imperialism.  The left has to be open to new strategies for the development of socialism reflecting the changing conditions of the present as history.  Western Marxism needs to free itself from Eurocentrism and put imperialism at the center of its analysis.

Is Marx an ecologist?

He certainly deserves to be considered one.  In 2000 I published a book called Marx's Ecology.  The original working title was Marx and Ecology but as a result of my research it was clear that nothing but the more affirmative form of the title would do.  Although the term "ecology" was introduced by Ernst Haeckel in 1866, the year before the publication of volume 1 of Marx's Capital, it did not receive much attention until the very end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Marx, influenced by his friend, the communist physician Roland Daniels, as well as the prominent chemist Justus von Liebig, adopted the concept of metabolism (Stoffwechsel).  Based on the revolution in physics, associated with the development of thermodynamics, Daniels in his manuscript Mikrokosmos, which Marx read, extended the concept of metabolism to explain the interdependencies between plants and animals.  Influenced by this, and later by the work of Liebig, Marx introduced the concept of "social metabolism" to define the labor process, which he described as the metabolism between human beings and nature.  The social metabolism, in his conception, was part of what he called the larger "universal metabolism of nature."

Under the alienated conditions of capitalist commodity production, Marx argued, a metabolic "rift" developed in the human relation to the earth (the social metabolism), which he illustrated in terms of the loss of soil nutrients, which were shipped to the city in the form of food and fiber under an increasingly industrialized system of agriculture.  Marx argued that capitalism thus tended to disrupt the eternal, nature-imposed conditions of production itself.  This demanded the "restoration" of the metabolism between humanity and nature, which could only be achieved through the rational regulation of the metabolism between nature and society by the associated producers.  Marx thus saw ecological crisis as what he called an "unconscious socialist tendency."  He went on to provide what was perhaps the most radical conception of sustainability of his time, or perhaps anytime, arguing that human beings do not own the earth, that not even all the people on the earth own the earth, that they were merely responsible for maintaining and improving it for future generations as good heads of the household.

Marx's ecological understanding grew out of his earliest works, including his doctoral dissertation on the Epicurean philosophy of nature.  He followed developments in natural science quite broadly throughout his lifetime, connecting these to his critique of political economy.  As Kohei Saito has shown, Marx's ecological notebooks, written during his last two decades, demonstrate that he was more and more concerned with ecological contradictions in the context of what has come to be known as his theory of metabolic rift.  For example, Marx took detailed notes on the shifts in isotherms and their relation to species extinction -- a crucial issue today in the context of climate change.

Marx's approach to metabolism anticipated much of modern ecology.  Ecology in the modern sense only really took off with the development of the ecosystem concept, which was modelled on the basis of the concept of metabolism.  We now speak of the earth metabolism in ways that are closely related to Marx's approach.  In the social sciences Marx's concept of social metabolism and his concept of the metabolic rift have become crucial to our understanding of the ecological problem.  Indeed, Marx's theory of metabolic rift coupled with what is known today as his ecological value-form analysis (building on the dual conceptions of use value and exchange value) -- both of which were integrated within his overall critique of political economy -- provides us with the only truly comprehensive social-ecological critique of capitalism available to us today.

The capitalist system has failed.  In your opinion, what are the consequences?

Eric Hobsbawm's magisterial history of the short twentieth century was called The Age of Extremes.  What many people don't realize is that one of these extremes was monopoly capitalism (today this is taking the form of monopoly-finance capital, more commonly referred to in terms of its ideology of neoliberalism).  From an early age my work has focused on three dimensions of the structural crisis of monopoly capital: imperialism, the crisis of accumulation, and the ecological emergency, which together represent the failure of capitalism.  No one can say what the consequences of this structural crisis will be.  As Georg Lukács wrote, "[t]he . . . heterogeneity of natural [and social] beings means that every activity is continuously affected by accidents."

What we do know is that under "business as usual" (to adopt the term used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to refer to our present structural reality) the world is in the midst of a Great Climacteric that can either lead to cascading catastrophes or to a new sustainable order -- and that the more positive outcomes require a movement toward socialism.  Right now, without such a shift, the outcomes are primarily negative.  Imperialistically, we are seeing the emergence of a more polarized global order, only partly disguised by the shift of actual production increasingly to the global South (with monopolies of capital, technology, finance, trade, and military power concentrated in the global North).

Militarism, military intervention, war, and the use of force in the widest sense are now extremely difficult to track, since continual, occurring on a day-to-day basis, and crossing all boundaries.  Economically, at the center of the world economy monopolization, stagnation, and financialization dominate, with the global working class suffering from the kind of precariousness that Marx associated with the industrial reserve army of labor.  Ruling over all of this and consolidating it is a kind of surveillance capitalism, which is the means of domestic control under monopoly-finance capital.  Ecologically, the crossing of planetary boundaries, most notably climate change, points to the almost inevitable collapse of human civilization under business as usual.  To speak of the failure of the system when it displays such deep contradictions is an understatement.

Fortunately, in the Marxian conception, history moves by way of contradictions, and we always have to wait for the other shoe to drop.  In the Great Climacteric of the present that can only mean -- if humanity is to retain its forward movement -- an acceleration of history such that humanity enters a new phase of ecological revolution.

If Marx is inescapable, is studying John Bellamy Foster as a modern Marxist inescapable?

Marxism as a philosophy of praxis is inescapable, since it sums up the revolutionary potential for human emancipation and sustainable human development.  I could hardly say that my own work is inescapable, except insofar as it partakes of and stands for this larger, developing whole.  An historic advantage of Marxian social science is that it is more collective and less individualistic than liberal social science -- more in the mode of natural science in that respect.  It is not so tied to possessive individualism in the bourgeois context, which makes a commodity even of thought.  Genuine Marxist thinkers see themselves as engaged in a collective project -- not only in the sense in which thinkers as varied as J.D. Bernal and Robert Merton said that science by its very nature is communistic (meaning knowledge is shared), but also in the sense of an abiding collectivist commitment to the oppressed.

The aim is to promote a unified critical vision of the present as history.  In these terms, the work of any given individual is much less important than what is generated by the whole (which of course encompasses all sorts of debates and self-criticism).  That does not mean that individual contributions are ignored, but the key is the collective building on each other's work to consolidate a new critical praxis.  I see my own work as a part of this collective struggle to develop a constructive synthesis, a doorway to praxis, stretching back to Marx (and even further back to Epicurus) and forward into the twenty-first century.  Much of what I have written on ecology, for instance, has been concerned with Marx's theory of metabolic rift.  This, I insist, is Marx's own conception, not mine.  It arose as an integral part of his whole critique of political economy and has to be seen in that way.  It is a concept, however, that we need to develop and apply dynamically in the context of the challenges and burdens of our time.  Likewise, I have worked at understanding the long history of the development of Marxian ecology, which has been all too often ignored.

As you know, imperialism strikes everywhere, spreads chaos and establishes its order.  Must we resist this system by a worldwide resistance or can we just be content with a local resistance?

The answer I think is obvious, or should be to all those on the left not falling prey to postmodernist despondency and confusion.  Even in the nineteenth century Marx argued that the only way of promoting the struggle was through the creation of an International.  Today, as István Mészáros has argued, and as Hugo Chávez was prepared to argue on a world stage, we need a New International.

The only force that can combat imperialism today is a worldwide struggle of workers (what I like to call an emerging "environmental proletariat," reflecting the extended material struggles of our time) through which human solidarity is globalized.  In my book Naked Imperialism I argued that the present, "potentially most dangerous phase of imperialism" (as Mészáros calls it) was brought into being by the demise of the Soviet Union, which allowed the United States as the sole remaining superpower -- though relying also on NATO -- to initiate regime change in parts of the Middle East, Central Asia, northern Africa, parts of Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.  Thus began what the Council of Foreign Relations in the United States (the main think tank of U.S. imperialism) has called a "New Thirty Years' War."  Any mere standing back and letting this happen without resistance -- for example under the delusion that this is simply "anti-terrorism" or "humanitarian intervention" -- is to sign over the world to the global forces of destruction.  Local struggles against imperialism will always occur; the global struggle means that the world's people as a whole must link to these local struggles and come to the aid of them, creating an unbreakable chain.  Fortunately, again, there are contradictions, in the economic, political, and ecological realms, that are driving people together.

Today's imperialist intervention might even be seen as a desperate effort by the powers that be to prevent the emergence a more unified global revolt, by seeking to drive a wedge in between.

What is your opinion on the very low level of debate of current U.S. elections?  And how do you explain Clinton maintains her candidacy while the FBI investigates her and her incompetence the Benghazi case is revealed?

A low level of debate in the U.S. elections is of course nothing new.  It has been going on for decades.  The United States, as Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy noted in Monopoly Capital in 1966, is "democratic in form and plutocratic in content" -- although one might say that today it is increasingly plutocratic in form as well as plutocratic in content.  In contemporary U.S. elections this has reached a heightened form with all sorts of talk of unaccounted "dark money" (that is unaccounted campaign financing from billionaires, cento-millionaires, and corporations) permeating every aspect of the electoral process.

Still, the debate in the United States is now widening in some ways in response to long-term stagnation and growing working-class precariousness.  Bernie Sanders is receiving millions of votes in the primary elections by advocating a social democratic strategy -- a possible turning point in the United States not seen since the Great Depression and the New Deal, reflecting the depth of the overall crisis.

Equally portentous is Donald Trump's support, which is coming mainly from a kind of fascistic combination of outright racism and jingoism and political corporatism aimed at appeals to white working-class voters on the right.  What makes him unique is not his open racism and anti-immigrant stance, which he shares with all the Republican candidates, but rather his opposition to free trade agreements, his commitment to universal national health insurance, his promise to support Social Security, etc. (economic positions antithetical to the Republican Party and Wall Street and traditionally associated with the more trade union-oriented segment of the Democratic Party).

Despite the deplorable character of the exchanges (witness the Republican candidates' aspersions on national television on how well-endowed they were sexually) this is objectively an opening up of the debate in the United States -- at least at the level of the primary elections.  The surprise in the election at this stage is the rage, rebellion, and revolt among lower-income voters who normally have no say and who are alarmed by the nature of the system -- but who are themselves divided between left and right.

As for Hillary Clinton, the investigations into Benghazi and other scandals will not come to anything. She was serving the imperialist cause.  Consequently, any attacks on her from the top will be blunted by that fact -- however much her Republican critics, for their own political ends, may seek to criticize her for incompetence and cover-ups.  The imperial order takes care of its own.  Her aggressiveness in military interventions as U.S. secretary of state, where she embraced the military aspect probably more than any previous holder of that office, is seen as her strongest card.  She frequently makes it clear that she is symbolically running for commander-in-chief even more than for president, and suggests that she is the best possible military leader for the country.  She is, indeed, the most openly hawkish of all the candidates at this point.

In one of your books, you talk about ecology as being an anti-capitalist stream, while we note that various ecological parties are part of the capitalist system and are integrated into it.  Don't you think that ecology as a political movement was absorbed by capitalism?  Isn't capitalism quite simply against life?

The title of my book Ecology Against Capitalism, to which you refer to here, was inspired by the title of Ellen Meiksins Wood's book Democracy Against Capitalism.

The issue of whether ecological politics has been integrated into capitalism is much the same as the issue of whether democracy has been integrated into capitalism.  Capitalism and liberalism (i.e. the political philosophy of possessive individualism) have been historically opposed to democracy, that is the politics of the demos, i.e. of the poor, the working population.  Eventually, however, systems of representative government, liberal democracy, and so-called "economic democracy" or "polyarchy" were developed that were fundamentally undemocratic, designed to legitimate systems of power under capitalism by taming democracy. The truth is that democracy in any genuine sense is diametrically opposed to capitalism.

The same general logic applies to the system's so-called integration of ecology.  Although there has been some integration of green parties, representing ecological modernization, this is restricted simply to those very limited forms of environmental action that the system can support and that do not conflict with capital accumulation and the amassing of wealth by the top as the driving force of society.  Genuine ecology is forced to confront Capitalism's War on the Earth (the subtitle of The Ecological Rift written by me with Brett Clark and Richard York).  Today all the ecosystems on the planet are threatened along with the earth itself as a safe place for humanity.  And it is the regime of the accumulation of capital -- placing profits before people and the planet -- that drives this.

You offer to humanity many opportunities in your many rich writings.  Your description of capitalism is very modernist, particularly concerning the digital era and the technological revolution.  What prevents reflections of valuable intellectuals like you from being heard, while capitalism has failed?  Why are you systematically blocked?

The "Why" that you ask here is not very difficult to answer in broad terms.  No class-hierarchical order willingly commits suicide.  So it has to find a way of promoting ideas that reinforce its own existence while marginalizing all others.  "The ruling ideas of society," Marx and Engels wrote in The German Ideology, "are the ideas of the ruling class."  The reason they gave: the class that controls "the material means of production" also controls the main "intellectual means of production."  Capitalism is a system of power, complete with a supporting ideology, and institutions of control at every level.  It is not a system that readily allows alternative views into the major media, and when it does it generally determines the parameters.  Although radical ideas may have a marginal role in higher education (in which the relatively privileged get some exposure to alternative ideas) it is generally in a way that is unfavourable to radicalism.  Often left academics operate on a level so abstract and convoluted, so removed from any conceivable praxis, as to support the status quo by default.  Public intellectuals on the left are more dangerous, but they are mostly kept out of the mainline media, even if their ideas circulated widely in other ways.  Such organs of the establishment as the New York Times rarely cover a first-rate, uncompromising dissident like Noam Chomsky, despite his extraordinary influence globally.  Nor does he seek out such attention.  He refuses to play the game enforced by the status quo.

It is not that intellectuals on the left could not have their voices heard in a muffled way in the mass media.  But the price of admission is often rightly deemed too high to pay.  For a socialist it means downplaying important aspects of the truth, to the point that one's message is most often obscured even if it is heard by many more people.  There are a few individuals who manage to cross "a river of fire" (William Morris's term) into socialism while still somehow retaining access to the corporate media.  But usually their access remains extremely limited, in comparison to conservative, conformist thinkers of equal weight, and they have to be more careful about overstepping certain proscribed limits.  The sound-bite structure of the dominant media is inhospitable to ideas that do not rest on the current ideology, and therefore raise complex and challenging questions, which requires of course providing a whole different history and analysis on the spot.

Left, and particularly Marxian, ideas are often treated in the United States as officially invisible, not in the sense that they are not present and are not known and even studied, but rather in the sense that they are considered illegitimate, outside the accepted parameters of civil discourse.  Because of this it is deemed perfectly acceptable according to the hegemonic rules of the game to treat ideas developed on the left as non-existent, even as they are being directly appropriated for establishment purposes -- unacknowledged and stripped of much of their original radical content.  For example, emeritus Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff has made a big splash recently by coming out with the notion of "surveillance capitalism."  However, Monthly Review had a whole issue entitled "Surveillance Capitalism" and a powerful analysis of the phenomenon, with world-class contributors and a deep theoretical-historical perspective, published in print and posed online in July 2014 -- four months before Zuboff wrote her first article on the subject and nine months before her article was published.  The lead article for that issue of Monthly Review, written by me and Robert W. McChesney, was itself entitled "Surveillance Capitalism."  Nevertheless, she did not acknowledge Monthly Review nor has she done so more recently -- in her March 2016 article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, she referred simply to "what I call surveillance capitalism."

Consider as well the issue of secular stagnation that has become so big of late.  Its reincarnation is credited to Larry Summers, long associated with Harvard economics.  Summers and the various other liberal economists within the mainstream involved in the promotion of the idea, which was associated with Alvin Hansen at Harvard, pretend that no one has discussed it for more than half a century.  But this is disingenuous.  In Monthly Review there have been some 500 articles published on the tendency to stagnation, with emphasis on the role of monopoly power and the development of financialization as a response -- precisely the ideas that are now being picked up, though in a scattered and generally superficial way, in the current stagnation discussion.  Marxian, post-Keynesian, and institutionalist economists, all of whom are to the left of the neoclassical mainstream, have been writing about the stagnation issue for decades.  Many ideas developed with great sophistication on the left are being duplicated in the mainstream discussion with no acknowledgement whatsoever.  In this connection it should be noted that Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy published their Stagnation and the Financial Explosion three decades ago in 1987.

Take another example: Paul Crutzen is widely credited with having developed the hot, new concept of the Anthropocene in 2000.  Certainly, the concept gained from his prestige.  Yet, few seem to know -- and Crutzen himself is not inclined to point out -- that the term "Anthropocene" first appeared in English in the early 1970s in a prominent article on "The Anthropogenic System" in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia; and that it goes back to the geologist Aleksei Pavlov in the early 1920s in the Soviet Union, who used it to refer to a new epoch in which human beings have become the leading geological force in the biosphere.  Pavlov was working closely at the time with Vladimir Vernadsky, who developed the modern concept of the biosphere.

The examples could go on and on.  The problem is not that left ideas are not powerful and are not heard, but that minus a truly powerful movement from below (which has to include a commitment to defend its own paradigms) we cannot control the use and misuse of our ideas within the power structure, which presents itself as the sole legitimate voice of public opinion.  (Weber famously stated that the state is defined by its monopoly of the legitimate use of force.  Today's media is defined in a parallel way by its monopoly of the legitimate use of ideas.)  In this context, defending the intellectual legacy of historical materialism is a vital part of the advancement of praxis.  This means that to a certain extent we must build our own media and forums for analysis, our own cultural institutions, our own centers of scientific inquiry, as a basis for our own movement -- a kind of dual structure of intellectual power.  Indeed, this exists to some extent today -- a global Samizdat of the left, though lacking the resources and the prestige borne of power of the corporate media.  The Internet has helped.  In the United States there are publications like Monthly Review, Counterpunch, and Jacobin.  Internationally, there is a vast left communication network tied to global movements.

The current development of Marxian analysis exists to a large extent in these interstices.

If the left tries to exist simply on the visible, i.e. accepted, margins of "public opinion" managed and controlled by the prevailing power structure, it will lose its analysis and its voice and ensure its own defeat.  Marx ended his preface to Capital with an insistence on socialists charting their own separate critical-scientific course, with the aim of developing a real revolutionary movement.  This required breaking free, as he indicated, from an alienated "public opinion" as projected by the system.

He closed with a paraphrase of a line from Dante's Divine Comedy, "Follow me, and let the people talk": "Follow your own course, and let people talk."  That in the last analysis is the only rational intellectual strategy for the left.  We need to build (and defend) our own analysis and our own movement for the struggle ahead.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Comment on London Greens Decision not to Recommend a Second Preference Vote for London Mayor

At a meeting of the London Green Party on Monday night this week, the Greens decided to break with recent tradition and not make a recommendation to supporters on who they should give their second preference vote to for Mayor of London, in the ballot to be held on 5 May.

Sensibly, the only two contenders for this recommendation were the Tory candidate, Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan the Labour candidate. I say that because there is really no doubt that these two candidates will gain the most and second most first preference votes, and so second preferences for any of the other candidates will not count in the final run off.

The decision appears to have caused a fair amount of controversy. Owen Jones, Guardian columnists and Labour Party member tweeted:

“The Green Party refusing to back a second preference in London's Mayoral election - as though Labour and Tories are the same - is shocking.” 

I think shocking is over egging it a bit, but some Labour people do seem to think that they are entitled to Green leaning voters second preferences, without really offering anything to them.

I didn’t attend the meeting, being reasonably confident that Goldsmith would not get the nod, from a largely left wing party, but I did think that Khan would probably get a reluctant endorsement. 

Reluctant, because the London Greens set out four ‘red lines’ which Khan and Goldsmith would have to agree to, to gain our recommendation. Both candidates failed to even engage with these conditions, let alone compromise their stance on the issues, but the fact that Goldsmith is the Tory candidate, whatever his ecology friendly (questionable) image might be, rules him out.

For the record the red lines were policy positions on inequality, road building, airport expansion, and estate demolition.

Back in January I revealed my own personal intentions on second preference voting for London Mayor on this blog. This was prompted by outgoing Green Party Assembly Member, Jenny Jones’ musings in the London Evening Standard that Greens might second preference Goldsmith, because he was greenish, and I basically said ‘you can count me out, I’m not voting for a Tory.’ I am voting second preference for Khan (reluctantly).

This was before the election campaign proper began, and I must say that my resolve to keep Goldsmith out has strengthened since. The vile campaign by Goldsmith and the Tory party generally, to try and paint Khan as some sort of Islamic terrorist sympathiser, is utterly disgraceful. All of this on the flimsy pretext that Khan, ‘shared a platform’ with an Islamic imam, Suliman Gani. It was later revealed that Goldsmith had allowed himself to be photographed with Gani, and it doesn’t seem to have convinced many Londoners to back Goldsmith instead.   

After the London Green Party meeting Sian Berry the party’s Mayoral candidate said:

“I know my supporters will have their own thoughts about who will get their second preference vote. But Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan have both failed to provide the guarantees that they will not make a bad situation worse in London either by increasing pollution with new roads and expanded airports or making the housing crisis even worse with the loss of thousands of council homes in estate demolitions.”

Deputy leader of the Green Party, Shahrar Ali, writing at Left Foot Forward today expanded on the reasons behind the party’s decision, he says:

“The failure of Sadiq Khan to engage with the red lines was in stark contrast to his predecessor, Ken Livingstone, who spoke at well attended meetings in order to persuade Greens to vote his way….In Sadiq Khan’s case, he wouldn’t meet with us. He wouldn’t pledge practical support to residents having estate demolition forced upon them by Labour councils. He supports the expansion of Gatwick airport. He clearly didn’t want our endorsement and didn’t merit it. So he didn’t get it.”

Livingstone actually sought to build bridges with the Green Party, where Khan obviously thinks he doesn’t need the backing of Greens, and he may well be right, since he has had a consistently healthy lead in the opinion polls.

My personal recommendation is that Greens should second preference Khan, but I can see why London Greens withheld an official endorsement for him, and I think it is perfectly reasonable. Khan will only have himself to blame if he loses out on second preferences, although I have no doubt Labour will try to blame the Greens for another election failure, should this come to pass. 

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Is the Citizens Income idea becoming Mainstream?

In my youth, back in the 1970s, it was a common assumption that people in advanced economies would work much reduced hours in the future. It was said that this would lead to an expansion of leisure time, which in turn would lead to more jobs in the leisure industries.

There was the feeling around that traditional jobs would be reduced by technological developments, and that this would lead to what was left job wise, being shared around by the workforce. The creation of these extra leisure type jobs would then additionally take up some of the slack left by reduction in traditional jobs. Indeed, it was moving a little in that direction in the 1970s, with working hours reducing alongside a fall in jobs in heavy industry in the UK.

Sadly, the less hours scenario was reversed in the 1980s, by the Thatcher Conservative government’s decimation of British industry with those now surplus workers left to languish on unemployment benefit, which to be fair, in those days, was not subject to the condition of ‘actively seeking work.’ Unemployment benefit was too low (although, allowing for inflation higher than today) for people to live on, but a black market of ‘off the cards’ working developed, at least in the south east of England where there was some work to be had.

Jobs in services, which includes leisure activities, also grew during the 1980s and the number of women in the workforce increased quite dramatically to largely fill these service jobs, but working hours increased for many in these new jobs, which were usually low paid and uninspiring.

I first came across the idea of a Citizens Income (CI), or Social Wage as it was then referred to, in the early 1980s, and found that it was proposed from the 1970s onward by the Ecology Party, the forerunner of the Green Party. Although I later discovered that it was a much older idea, with Tom Paine, amongst others advocating it as far back as the late eighteenth century.  

Last week, John Harris, wrote an interesting piece in The Guardian newspaper, on the rise in popularity of the Citizens Income. Harris points out that the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) spring conference last month passed a motion supporting the idea of CI and that 23 of the SNPs MPs, along with a few Labour and Northern Ireland’s SDLP MPs voted in favour of the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas’ early day motion in Parliament on the issue.

The Green Party of course campaigned, to an extent, on CI in last year’s general election (it wasn’t in the manifesto but is a long standing policy aim for the party), which aroused a fair bit of (critical) media comment.

The usual sort of thing that is said against CI, is that it encourages ‘work-shy scroungers’ and a ‘something for nothing society’ was repeated during in the election, along with some spurious calculations on the likely very high cost of the scheme. The Greens duly retreated behind the line that this was only a long term aim.

There are potentially huge cost savings in CI, as it a very easy and cheap to administer, saving on means tested benefits, which would largely be unnecessary under an automatic CI system, and I think the Green Party should be more ambitious about the level of CI (£72 per week was the recommended figure by the Greens at the election). It really should be at least double this amount to have real value, I think.

This would give some basis for financial security in an economy that produces more and more temporary and zero hours jobs, as well as allowing for caring and other unpaid work to be undertaken.

Reduced working hours also appears to make us more productive. An Australian study of people over 40 by Melbourne University, reported by the BBC, found that a part-time job keeps the brain stimulated, while avoiding exhaustion and stress, and increases productivity. Those taking part were asked to read words aloud, to recite lists of numbers backwards and to match letters and numbers under time pressure. In general terms, those participants who worked about 25 hours a week tended to achieve the best scores.   

I’ll leave the final word on this to Caroline Lucas, as quoted in John Harris’ Guardian piece:

“This idea works on so many levels,” she says. “It’s a very practical policy, in terms of ensuring that people don’t fall between the cracks of the welfare system. But it’s also a deeply radical idea in terms of its feminist potential, and what we do in a world in which more and more work is going to be automated. It also gets you into a sense of contributing to your community, cleaning up the beach, visiting an elderly friend who might be lonely. There’s a whole freedom and liberation that it gives you, and I think it takes you into really deep questions about whether we really exist simply to spend a third of our lives working for someone else.”

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Report and Photos of the People's Assembly Demonstration London

On a cold and intermittently rainy April Saturday in London, the People's Assembly march and demonstration drew 'tens of thousands' according to media reports. The organisers claimed 150,000 people attended the demonstration.

Personally, I think there was probably about 20,000 to 30,000, but it is always hard to tell with these events. It was a vibrant and diverse gathering and the DJ in Trafalgar Square played some classic grooves, whilst we were awaiting the marchers.

Despite the weather, a feel good factor was in evidence and over in one corner of the square, it was like a party, dancing etc.

There was no trouble, and I did think that the use of a police helicopter was a waste of tax payers money. How much must it cost to fly these things, and to what purpose?

Anyway some photos of the day.

Romayne Pheonix of Green Left and the People's Assembly

Friday, 15 April 2016

Marx’s Ecological Notebooks

Written by  and first published at Monthly Review

Karl Marx has long been criticized for his so-called ecological “Prometheanism”—an extreme commitment to industrialism, irrespective of natural limits. This view, supported even by a number of Marxists, such as Ted Benton and Michael Löwy, has become increasingly hard to accept after a series of careful and stimulating analyses of the ecological dimensions of Marx’s thought, elaborated in Monthly Review and elsewhere. The Prometheanism debate is not a mere philological issue, but a highly practical one, as capitalism faces environmental crises on a global scale, without any concrete solutions.

Any such solutions will likely come from the various ecological movements emerging worldwide, some of which explicitly question the capitalist mode of production. Now more than ever, therefore, the rediscovery of a Marxian ecology is of great importance to the development of new forms of left strategy and struggle against global capitalism.

Yet there is hardly unambiguous agreement among leftists about the extent to which Marx’s critique can provide a theoretical basis for these new ecological struggles. “First-stage ecosocialists,” in John Bellamy Foster’s categorization, such as André Gorz, James O’Connor, and Alain Lipietz, recognize Marx’s contributions on ecological issues to some extent, but at the same time argue that his nineteenth-century analyses are too incomplete and dated to be of real relevance today. In contrast, “second-stage ecosocialists,” such as Foster and Paul Burkett, emphasize the contemporary methodological significance of Marx’s ecological critique of capitalism, based on his theories of
value and reification.1

This article will take a different approach, and investigate Marx’s natural-scientific notebooks, especially those of 1868, which will be published for the first time in volume four, section eighteen of the new Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe(MEGA).2 As Burkett and Foster rightly emphasize, Marx’s notebooks allow us to see clearly his interests and preoccupations before and after the publication of the first volume of Capital in 1867, and the directions he might have taken through his intensive research into disciplines such as biology, chemistry, geology, and mineralogy, much of which he was not able fully to integrate into Capital.3 While the grand project of Capital would remain unfinished, in the final fifteen years of his life Marx filled an enormous number of notebooks with fragments and excerpts. In fact, a third of his notebooks date to this period, and almost one half of them deal with natural sciences. The intensity and scope of Marx’s scientific studies is astonishing. Thus it is simply invalid to conclude, as some critics have, that Marx’s powerful ecological arguments in Capital and other writings were mere asides, while ignoring the mass of contrary evidence to be found in his late natural-scientific researches.

Looking at the notebooks after 1868, one can immediately recognize the rapid expansion of Marx’s ecological interests. I will argue that Marx’s critique of political economy, if completed, would have put a much stronger emphasis on the disturbance of the “metabolic interaction” (Stoffwechsel) between humanity and nature as the fundamental contradiction within capitalism. Furthermore, the deepening of Marx’s ecological interests serves to complicate Liebig’s critique of the modern “robbery system,” which I discuss below. The centrality of ecology to Marx’s late writings remained hard to discern for a long time because he was never able to complete his magnum opus. The newly published notebooks promise to help us comprehend these hidden but vital aspects of Marx’s lifelong project.

Marx and Liebig in Different Editions of Capital

It is by now a well-known fact that Marx’s critique of the irrationality of modern agriculture in Capital is deeply informed by Justus von Liebig’s Agricultural Chemistry and James F. W. Johnston’s Notes on North America, works which argue that neglect of the natural laws of soils inevitably leads to their exhaustion.4 After intensive study of these books in 1865–66, Marx integrated Liebig’s central ideas into volume one of Capital. In a section called “Modern Industry and Agriculture,” Marx wrote that the capitalist mode of production collects the population together in great centres, and causes the urban population to achieve an ever-growing preponderance…. [It] disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e., it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil. Thus it destroys at the same time the physical health of the urban worker, and the intellectual life of the rural worker.5

This justly famous passage has become the cornerstone of recent “metabolic rift” analyses.6 In a footnote to this section, Marx openly expresses his debt to the seventh edition of Liebig’s Agricultural Chemistry, published in 1862: “To have developed from the point of view of natural science the negative, i.e., destructive side of modern agriculture, is one of Liebig’s immortal merits.” Such remarks are the reason the “metabolic rift” approach has focused on Liebig’s critique of modern agriculture as an intellectual source for Marx’s ecological critique of capitalism.

However, it is hardly known that in the first German edition of Capital (1867), which is unfortunately not available in English, Marx went on to state that Liebig’s “brief comments on the history of agriculture, although not free from gross errors, contain more flashes of insight than all the works of modern political economists put together [mehr Lichtblicke als die Schriften sämmtlicher modernen politischen Oekonomen zusammengenommen].”7 A careful reader may immediately notice a difference between this version and later editions, although it was pointed out only recently by a German MEGA editor, Carl-Erich Vollgraf.8 Marx modified this sentence in the second edition of Capital published in 1872–73. Consequently, we usually only read: “His brief comments…although not free from gross errors, contain flashes of insight.”9 Marx has deleted the statement that Liebig was more insightful “than all the works of modern political economists put together.” Why did Marx soften his endorsement of Liebig’s contributions relative to classical political economy?

One might argue that this elimination is only a trivial change, meant to clarify Liebig’s original contributions in the field of agricultural chemistry and separate them from political economy, where the great chemist made some “gross errors.” Also Marx, as these pages show, was very enthusiastic about one particular political economist’s understanding of the soil problem, namely James Anderson, who, unlike other classical political economists, examined issues of the destruction of the soil. It was Liebig’s own recognition of “the destructive side of modern agriculture,” which Marx characterized as “one of Liebig’s immortal merits.” Hence, Marx might have thought that his expression in the first edition of Capital was rather exaggerated.

Nonetheless, it should also be noted that Liebig’s Agricultural Chemistry was eagerly discussed by a number of political economists at the time, precisely because of his alleged contributions to political economy, especially ground-rent theory and population theory.10 For example, the German economist Wilhelm Roscher recognized the relevance of Liebig’s mineral theory to political economy even before Marx, and added some passages and notes dedicated to Liebig in his fourth edition of National Economy of Agriculture and the Related Branches of Natural Production [Nationalökonomie des Ackerbaues und der verwandten Urproductionen] (1865), in order to integrate Liebig’s new agricultural findings into his own system of political economy. Notably, Roscher praises Liebig in similar terms: “Even if many of Liebig’s historical assertions are highly disputable…even if he misses some important facts of national economy, the name of this great natural scientist will always maintain a place of honor comparable to the name of Alexander Humboldt in the history of national economy as well.”11 In fact, it is very likely that Roscher’s book prompted Marx to reread Liebig’s Agricultural Chemistry in 1865–66. Both authors’ similar remarks reflect a widespread opinion about Liebig’s Agricultural Chemistry at the time.

Furthermore, it is reasonable to assume that Marx in the first edition of Capital was intentionally comparing Liebig to those political economists who postulated a trans-historical and linear development of agriculture, whether from more productive to less productive soils (Malthus, Ricardo, and J. S. Mill), or from less productive to more productive (Carey and later Dühring). Liebig’s critique of the “robbery system” of cultivation instead denounces precisely the modern form of agriculture and its decreasing productivity as a result of the irrational and destructive use of the soil. In other words, Liebig’s historicization of modern agriculture provides Marx with a useful natural scientific basis for rejecting abstract and linear treatments of agricultural development.

Yet as seen earlier, Marx somewhat relativizes Liebig’s contribution to political economy between 1867 and 1872–73. Could it be that Marx had doubts about Liebig’s chemistry as well as his economic errors? In this context, close study of Marx’s letters and notebooks helps us comprehend the larger aims and methods of his research after 1868.

Debates on Liebig’s Agricultural Chemistry

Looking at the letters and notebooks from this period, it seems more probable that the change regarding Liebig’s contribution in the second edition represented more than a mere correction. Marx was well aware of the heated debates surrounding Liebig’s Agricultural Chemistry, so after the publication of the first volume of Capital, he thought it necessary to follow up on the validity of Liebig’s theory. In a letter to Engels dated January 3, 1868, Marx asked him to seek some advice from a long-time friend and chemist, Carl Schorlemmer:

I would like to know from Schorlemmer what is the latest and best book (German) on agricultural chemistry. Furthermore, what is the present state of the argument between the mineral-fertilizer people and the nitrogen-fertilizer people? (Since I last looked into the subject, all sorts of new things have appeared in Germany.) Does he know anything about the most recent Germans who have written against Liebig’s soil-exhaustion theory? Does he know about the alluvion theory of Munich agronomist Fraas (Professor at Munich University)? For the chapter on ground rent I shall have to be aware of the latest state of the question, at least to some extent.12

Marx’s remarks in this letter clearly indicate his aim at the beginning of 1868 to study books on agriculture. He is not just looking for the recent literature on agriculture in general, but pays particular attention to debates and critiques of Liebig’s Agricultural Chemistry. It is important to note that in the manuscript for volume three of Capital, Marx uncharacteristically points to the importance of Liebig’s analysis while essentially indicating that this needs to be filled-in in the future. That is, this was part of the argument that he was continuing to research—and in such basic areas as “the declining productivity of the soil” related to discussions of the falling rate of profit.13

Liebig, often called the “father of organic chemistry,” convincingly demonstrated that the healthy growth of plants requires both organic and inorganic substances, such as nitrogen, phosphoric acid, and potassium. He claimed, against dominant theories centered on humus (an organic component of soil made up of decayed plant and animal matter) or nitrogen, that all necessary substances must be provided in more than a “minimum amount,” a proposition known as Liebig’s “law of the minimum.”14 Although Liebig’s insight into the role of inorganic substances remains valid today, two theses derived from it, the theories of mineral fertilization and of soil exhaustion, sparked immediate controversy.

According to Liebig, the amount of inorganic substances in soils remains limited without constant replenishment. It is thus necessary regularly to return to the soil those inorganic substances that plants have absorbed if one is to grow crops sustainably. (These can be returned in either inorganic forms or organic forms, which are converted [mineralized] into inorganic forms.) Liebig calls this necessity the “law of replacement,” and holds that the full replacement of inorganic substances is the fundamental principle of sustainable agriculture. Since nature alone could not provide enough inorganic material when such a large quantity of nutrients was being removed annually, Liebig argued for the use of chemical mineral fertilizer. He maintained that not only the humus theory of Albrecht Daniel Thaer’s Principles of Practical Agriculture, but also the nitrogen theory of John Bennett Lawes and Joseph Henry Gilbert were seriously flawed, because they gave no attention to the limited quantity of available inorganic substances in soil.

Based on his theory, Liebig warned that violations of the law of replacement and consequent soil exhaustion threatened the whole of European civilization. According to Liebig, modern industrialization created a new division of labor between town and countryside, so that foods consumed by the working class in large cities no longer return to and restore the original soils, but instead flow out into the river through water toilets without any further use. In addition, through the commodification of agricultural products and fertilizer (bone and straw), the aim of agriculture diverges from sustainability and becomes the mere maximization of profits, squeezing soil nutrients into crops in the shortest possible period.

Disturbed by these facts, Liebig denounced modern agriculture as a “robbery system,” and warned that the disruption of the natural metabolic interaction would ultimately cause the decay of civilization. Shifting from his rather optimistic belief in the early to mid-1850s in the cure-all of chemical fertilization, Liebig’s 1862 edition of Agricultural Chemistry, especially its new introduction, emphasized the destructive aspects of modern agriculture much more fervently.

As Liebig strengthened his critique of this robbery system in 1862 and corrected his earlier optimism, Marx understandably felt a need to review the debate on soil fertility from a new perspective. At the same time, Liebig’s critique of the robbery system and soil exhaustion inspired a number of new arguments among scholars and agronomists. Marx’s letter to Engels makes clear that even after the publication of volume one of Capital, he tried to examine the validity of Liebig’s theory from a more critical perspective.

Notably, various political economists other than Marx and Roscher also joined in this debate. As described by Foster, Henry Charles Carey had already referred to wasteful agricultural production in the United States and claimed that the irresponsible “robbery from the earth” constituted a serious “crime” against future generations.15 Liebig was also interested in Carey and cited his work extensively, but Marx may not have been entirely clear about their relationship when he read Agricultural Chemistry in 1865–66. Marx had corresponded with Carey, who had sent him his book on slavery, which contained some of his arguments about soil exhaustion, and Marx studied Carey’s economic works.16 However, Carey’s role in the overall soil debate likely became more apparent when Marx encountered Eugen Dühring’s work. Marx started studying Dühring’s books in January 1868, after Louis Kugelmann sent him Dühring’s review of Capital—the first review of the book anywhere—published in December 1867.

Dühring, a lecturer at the University of Berlin, was an enthusiastic supporter of Carey’s economic system. He also integrated Liebig’s theory into his economic analysis as further validation of Carey’s proposal to establish autarchic town-communities in which producers and consumers live in harmony, without wasting plant nutrients and thus without exhausting soils. Dühring maintained that Liebig’s theory of soil exhaustion “builds a pillar on [Carey’s] system,” and claimed that soil exhaustion, which has already become quite threatening in North America, for example, will…be halted in the long run only through a commercial policy built upon the protection and education of domestic labor. For the harmonious development of the various facilities of one nation…promotes the natural circulation of materials [Kreislauf der Stoffe] and makes it possible for plant nutrients to be returned to the soil from which they have been taken.17

In the manuscript for volume three of Capital, Marx envisioned a future society beyond the antagonism between town and country in which “the associated producers rationally regulat[e] their metabolic interchange with nature.” He must have been surprised to learn that Dühring similarly demanded, as the “only countermeasure” against wasteful production, the “conscious regulation of material distribution” by overcoming the division between town and country.18 In other words, Marx’s claim, together with Dühring’s, reflects a popular tendency of the “Liebig school” at the time. In subsequent years Marx’s view of Dühring grew more critical, as Dühring began to promote his own system as the only true foundation of social democracy. This likely reinforced Marx’s suspicion of Dühring’s interpretation of soil exhaustion and its advocates, even if he continued to recognize the usefulness of Liebig’s theory. In any case, at the beginning of 1868, the discursive constellation already prompted Marx to study books “against Liebig’s soil-exhaustion theory.”

Liebig’s Malthusianism?

Marx was particularly concerned that Liebig’s warnings about soil exhaustion carried a hint of Malthusianism. They rehabilitated, to borrow Dühring’s expression, “Malthus’s ghost,” as Liebig appeared to provide a new “scientific” version of old Malthusian themes of food scarcity and overpopulation.19 As noted above, the general tone of Liebig’s argument shifted from one of optimism in the 1840s up through the mid-1850s to a quite pessimistic one in the late 1850s and 1860s. Sharply critical of British industrial agriculture, he predicted a dark future for European society, full of war and hunger, if the “law of replacement” continued to be ignored:

In a few years, the guano reserves will be depleted, and then no scientific nor, so to speak, theoretical disputes will be necessary to prove the law of nature which demands from man that he cares for the preservation of living conditions.… For their self-preservation, nations will be compelled to slaughter and annihilate each other in never-ending wars in order to restore an equilibrium, and, God forbid, if two years of famine such as 1816 and 1817 succeed each other again, those who survive will see hundreds of thousands perish in the streets.20

Liebig’s new pessimism appears quite distinct in this passage. While his view of modern agriculture as a “robbery system” shows its superiority over the widespread ahistorical “law of diminishing returns” of Malthus and Ricardo, his conclusion leaves his relation to Malthusian ideas ambiguous. Indeed, Marx was particularly concerned about Liebig’s references to the Ricardian theory. Liebig in fact personally knew John Stuart Mill and may have been directly influenced by the latter. Ironically, however, as Marx points out, Ricardian rent theory originated not with Ricardo or even with Malthus—and certainly not with John Stuart Mill, as Liebig mistakenly supposes—but with James Anderson, who had given it a historical basis in the degradation of the soil. What worried Marx, then, was the frequent linking in his day of Liebig with Malthus and Ricardo—representing a logic opposed to Marx’s own analysis, and which, in contrast to Malthus and Ricardo, emphasized the historical nature of the soil problem.21

The question of Liebig’s Malthusianism may seem like an arcane detail in the larger debate over soil exhaustion, but it is one of the main reasons why his Agricultural Chemistry became so popular in 1862.22 For Dühring, this Malthusianism was not so problematic because he believed that Carey’s economic system had already dispelled “Malthus’s ghost,” showing that the development of society made it possible to cultivate better soils.23 Of course, Marx could hardly accept this naïve presupposition, as he wrote to Engels in November 1869: “Carey ignores even the most familiar facts.”24

Thus in 1868 Marx began reading the work of authors who took a more critical stance toward Liebig’s Agricultural Chemistry. He was already familiar with arguments such as Roscher’s, which held that the robbery system should be criticized from the point of view of “natural science” but could be justified from an “economic” standpoint insofar as it was more profitable.25 According to Roscher, it was only necessary to stop the robbery just before it became too expensive to recover the original fertility of the soil—but market prices would take care of that. Adopting Roscher’s arguments, Friedrich Albert Lange, a German philosopher, argued against Dühring’s reception of Liebig and Carey in his J. St. Mill’s Views of the Social Question [J. St. Mills Ansichten über die sociale Frage] published in 1866. Marx read Lange’s book at the beginning of 1868, and it is no coincidence that his notebook focuses on its fourth chapter, where Lange discusses the problems of rent theory and soil exhaustion. Specifically, Marx noted Lange’s observation that Carey and Dühring denounced “trade” with England as a cause of all evils and regarded a “protective tariff” as the ultimate “panacea,” without Lange’s recognizing that “industry” possesses a “centralizing tendency,” which creates not only the division of town and country but also economic inequality.26 Similar to Roscher, Lange argued that “despite the natural scientific correctness of Liebig’s theory,” robbery cultivation can be justified from a “national economic” perspective.27

Related ideas can be also found in the work of the German economist Julius Au. Marx owned a copy of Au’s Supplementary Fertilizers and their Meaning for National and Private Economy [Hilfsdüngermittel in ihrer volks- und privatwirtschaftlichen Bedeutung] (1869), which he marked up with marginal notes and comments.28 Although he recognized the scientific value of Liebig’s mineral theory, Au doubted that the theory of soil exhaustion could be regarded as an “absolute” natural law. It was instead, Au argued, a “relative” theory with little meaning for the economies of Russia, Poland, or Asia Minor, because in these areas agriculture could be sustained, presumably through extensive development, without following the “law of replacement.”29 Yet Au seemingly forgot that Liebig’s main concern was Western European countries. Moreover, Au ended up uncritically accepting the price-regulation mechanisms of the market, which he, like Roscher, expected to hinder excessive exploitation of soil power because it would simply cease to be profitable. What remains of Liebig’s theory for Lange and Au is the simple fact that soil could not be improved infinitely. They were, after all, neo-Malthusian supporters of overpopulation theory and the law of diminishing returns.

Reacting to all this, Marx comments “Idiot!” [Asinus!] and writes many incredulous question marks in his copy of Au’s book.30 His evaluation of Lange’s books is similarly hostile, as he ironically comments on Lange’s Malthusian explanation of history in his letter to Kugelmann dated July 27, 1870.31 In addition, it is safe to assume that Marx was not attracted to the idea of realizing sustainable agriculture through fluctuations in market prices. Since Marx was also unable to support Carey and Dühring, he set out to study the problem of soil exhaustion more intensively in order to articulate a sophisticated critique of the modern robbery system.

To sum up: Marx thought at first that Liebig’s description of the destructive effects of modern agriculture could be used as a powerful argument against Ricardo and Malthus’s abstract law of diminishing returns, but began to question Liebig’s theory after 1868, as the debates over soil exhaustion increasingly took on a Malthusian tone. Marx therefore backed off from his somewhat uncritical and exaggerated claim that Liebig’s analyses “contain more flashes of insight than all the works of modern political economists put together,” in preparation for the more extensive research into the problem that he clearly intended for volumes two and three of Capital.

Marx and Fraas’s Theory of Metabolic Interaction

If Liebig’s Malthusian tendencies constituted a negative reason for Marx’s alteration of the sentence on Liebig in the second edition of Capital, there was also a more positive one: Marx encountered a number of authors who became as important as Liebig to his ecological critique of political economy. Carl Fraas was one of them. In a letter from January 1868, Marx asks Schorlemmer about Fraas, a German agriculturist and professor at the University of Munich. Although Shorlemmer could not offer any specific information about Fraas’s “alluvion theory,” Marx nevertheless began reading several books by Fraas in the following months.

Fraas’s name first appears in Marx’s notebook between December 1867 and January 1868, when he notes the title of Fraas’s 1866 book Agrarian Crises and Their Solutions [Die Ackerbaukrisen und ihre Heilmittel], a polemic against Liebig’s theory of soil exhaustion.32 When Marx wrote in a letter to Engels in January 1868 that “since I last looked into the subject, all sorts of new things have appeared in Germany,” he was likely thinking of Fraas’s book.

Just as Fraas’s book was published, his relations with Liebig grew very strained, after Liebig criticized the scientific ignorance of agricultural educators and practical farmers in Munich, where Fraas taught as a professor for many years. In response, Fraas defended the agrarian praxis in Munich, and argued that Liebig’s theory had been oversold and represented a retreat into Malthusian theory—one that ignored various historical forms of agriculture that maintained and even increased productivity without causing soil exhaustion. According to Fraas, Liebig’s pessimism arose from his tacit presupposition that humans must be able to return inorganic substances and thus the soil demanded—if the division between town and country is not to be dissolved—the introduction of artificial fertilizers, which, however, would turn out to be too costly. In contrast, Fraas suggests a more affordable method, using the power of nature itself in order to sustain the fertility of the soil, as represented in his “theory of alluvion.”33

In Charles Lyell’s definition, alluvion is “earth, sand, gravel, stones, and other transported matter which has been washed away and thrown down by rivers, floods, or other causes, upon land not permanently submerged beneath the waters of lakes or seas.”34 Alluvial materials contain large quantities of the mineral substances vital for plant growth. Consequently, soils developed from regular deposition of such materials—usually adjacent to rivers in valleys—produce rich crops year after year without fertilizer, as in the sandbanks of the Danube, the deltas of the Nile or the Po, or the tongues of land of the Mississippi. The rejuvenating sediments in floodwater are derived from erosion further up the watershed. Hence, the richness of the alluvial soil is a result of the impoverishment of upriver soils, most likely from slopes of hills and mountains. Inspired by these examples in nature, Fraas suggests constructing an “artificial alluvion” by regulating river water through the building of temporary dams over agrarian fields, cheaply and almost eternally providing them with essential minerals. Marx’s notebook confirms that he carefully studied Fraas’s arguments for the practical merits of alluvion in agriculture.35

What interested Marx most about Fraas, however, was probably not the theory of alluvion. After reading Fraas eagerly, documenting various passages in his notebooks, Marx writes to Engels in a letter dated March 25, 1868, praising Fraas’s book Climate and the Plant World Over Time [Klima und Pflanzenwelt in der Zeit]:

Very interesting is the book by Fraas (1847): Klima und Pflanzenwelt in der Zeit, eine Geschichte beider [Climate and the Plant World Over Time], namely as proving that climate and flora change in historical times.… He claims that with cultivation—depending on its degree—the “moisture” so beloved by the peasants gets lost (hence also the plants migrate from south to north), and finally steppe formation occurs. The first effect of cultivation is useful, but finally devastating through deforestation, etc.… The conclusion is that cultivation—when it proceeds in natural growth and is not consciously controlled (as a bourgeois he naturally does not reach this point)—leaves deserts behind it, Persia, Mesopotamia, etc., Greece. So once again an unconscious socialist tendency!36

It might seem surprising that Marx found even “an unconscious socialist tendency” in Fraas’s book, despite Fraas’s harsh critique of Liebig. Climate and the Plant World Over Time elaborated how ancient civilizations, especially ancient Greece—Fraas had spent seven years as an inspector of the court garden and professor of botany at the University of Athens—collapsed after unregulated deforestation caused unsustainable changes in the local environment. As indigenous plants could no longer adapt to the new environment, steppe formation or, in the worst case, desertification set in. (Although Fraas’s interpretation was influential, some would argue today that what occurred was not “desertification” as such, but rather the growth of plants that required less moisture—because so much of the rainfall was lost as runoff instead of infiltrating into soil.)

In our context, it is first of all interesting to note that Fraas emphasized the significance of a “natural climate” for plant growth, because of its great influence on the weathering process of soils. It is therefore not enough simply to analyze the chemical composition of soil alone, because mechanical and chemical reactions in the soil, which are essential for the weathering process, depend heavily on climatic factors such as temperature, humidity, and precipitation. This is why Fraas characterized his own research field and method as “agricultural physics,” in clear contrast to Liebig’s “agricultural chemistry.”37 According to Fraas, in certain areas where climatic conditions are more favorable and the soils are adjacent to rivers and flood regularly with water containing sediments, it is possible to produce large amounts of crops without fear of soil exhaustion, as nature automatically fulfills the “law of replacement” through alluvial deposits. This, of course, would apply to only some of the soils in any particular country.

After reading Fraas’s books, Marx grew more interested in such “agricultural physics,” as he told Engels: “We must keep a close watch on the recent and very latest in agriculture. The physical school is pitted against the chemical.38 Here it is possible to discern a clear shift in Marx’s interests. In January 1868, Marx was mainly following debates within the “chemical school,” in terms of whether mineral or nitrogen fertilizer was more effective. As he had already studied the issue in 1861, he now thought it necessary to study recent developments “to some extent.” After two and a half months and intensive examination of Fraas’s works, however, Marx grouped both Liebig and Lawes into one and the same “chemical school” and treated Fraas’s theory as an independent “physical” school. Notably, this categorization reflects Fraas’s own judgment, for he complained that both Liebig and Lawes made abstract, one-sided arguments about soil exhaustion by putting too much emphasis on only the chemical component of plant growth.39 As a result, Marx came to believe that he “must” study the newest developments in the field of agriculture much more carefully.

Fraas’s uniqueness is also evident in his attention to the human impact on the process of historical climate change. Indeed, Fraas’s book offers one of the earliest studies on the topic, later praised by George Perkins Marsh in Man and Nature (1864).40 Drawing on ancient Greek texts, Fraas showed how plant species moved from south to north, or from the plains to the mountains, as local climates gradually grow hotter and dryer. According to Fraas, this climate change results from excessive deforestation demanded by ancient civilizations. Such stories of the disintegration of ancient societies also have obvious relevance for our contemporary situation.

Fraas likewise warned against the excessive use of timber by modern industry, a process already well underway during his time that would have a huge impact on European civilization. Marx’s readings of Fraas introduced him to the problem of Europe’s disappearing forests, as documented in his notebook: “France has now no more than one-twelfth of her earlier forest area, England only 4 big forests among 69 forests; in Italy and the southwestern European peninsula the stand of trees that was also common on the plain in the past can be no longer found even in the mountains.”41 Fraas lamented that further technological development would enable the cutting of trees at higher mountain elevations and only accelerate deforestation.

Reading Fraas’s book, Marx came to see a great tension between ecological sustainability and the ever-increasing demand for wood to fuel capitalist production. Marx’s insight into the disturbance of “metabolic interaction” between human and nature in capitalism goes beyond the problem of soil exhaustion in Liebig’s sense and extends to the issue of deforestation. Of course, as the second edition of Capital indicates, this does not mean that Marx abandoned Liebig’s theory. On the contrary, he continued to honor Liebig’s contribution as essential to his critique of modern agriculture. Nonetheless, when Marx wrote of an “unconscious socialist tendency” in Fraas’s work, it is clear that Marx now regarded the rehabilitation of the metabolism between human and nature as a central project of socialism, with a much larger scope than in the first edition of volume one of Capital.

Marx’s interest in deforestation was not limited to reading Fraas. In the beginning of 1868, he also read John D. Tuckett’s History of the Past and Present State of the Labouring Population, noting the numbers of important pages. On one of those few pages Marx recorded, Tuckett argues: the indolence of our forefathers appears a subject of regret, in neglecting the raising of trees as well as in many instances causing the destruction of the forests without sufficiently replacing them with young plants. This general waste appears to have been greatest just before the use of sea coal [for smelting iron] was discovered when the consumption for the use of forging Iron, was so great that it appeared as if it would sweep down all the timber and woods in the country.… However at the present day the plantations of trees, not only add to the usefulness, but also tend to the embellishment of the country, and produce screens to break the rapid currants of the winds.… The great advantage in planting a large body of wood in a naked country is not at first perceived. Because there is nothing to resist the cold winds, cattle fed thereon are stunted in growth and the vegetation has often the appearance of being scorched with fire, or beat with a stick. Moreover by giving warmth and comfort to cattle, half the fodder will satisfy them.42

Forests play an important economic role in agriculture and stock farming, and this is clearly what interested Marx in 1868.

Although Marx does not directly mention either Fraas’s or Tuckett’s work after 1868, the influence of their ideas is clearly visible in the second manuscript for volume two of Capital, written between 1868 and 1870. Marx had already noted in the manuscript for volume three that deforestation would not be sustainable under the system of private property, even if it could be more or less sustainable when conducted under state property.43 After 1868, Marx paid greater attention to the problem of the modern robbery system, which he now expanded from crop production to include deforestation. In this vein, Marx cites Friedrich Kirchhof’s Manual of Agricultural Business Operations [Handbuch der landwirthschaftlichen Betriebslehre] (1852), in support of the incompatibility between the logic of capital and the material characteristics of forestation.44 He points out that the long time required for forestation imposes a natural limit, compelling capital to try to shorten the cycle of deforestation and regrowth as much as possible. In the manuscript to volume two of Capital, Marx comments on a passage from Kirchhof’s book: “The development of culture and of industry in general has evinced itself in such energetic destruction of forest that everything done by it conversely for their preservation and restoration appears infinitesimal.”45 Marx is certainly conscious of the danger that this deforestation will cause not only a wood shortage but also a changing climate, which is tied to a more existential crisis of human civilization.

A comparison with the writing of the young Marx illustrates this dramatic development of his ecological thought. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels write of the historic changes brought by the power of capital:

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground.46

Michael Löwy has criticized this passage as a manifestation of Marx and Engels’s naïve attitude toward modernization and ignorance of ecological destruction under capitalist development: “Paying homage to the bourgeoisie for its unprecedented ability to develop the productive forces,” he writes, “Marx and Engels unreservedly celebrated the ‘Subjection of Nature’s forces to man’ and the ‘clearing of whole continents for cultivation’ by modern bourgeois production.”47 Löwy’s reading of Marx’s alleged “Prometheanism” might seem hard to refute here, although Foster provides another view.48 However, Löwy’s criticism, even if his interpretation accurately reflects Marx’s thinking at the time, can hardly be generalized across Marx’s entire career, since his critique of capitalism became steadily more ecological with each passing year. As seen above, the evolution of his thought subsequent to volume one of Capital shows that in his later years, Marx became seriously interested in the problem of deforestation, and it is highly doubtful that the late Marx would praise mass deforestation in the name of progress, without regard to the conscious and sustainable regulation of the metabolic interaction between humanity and nature.

The Further Scope of Marx’s Ecological Critique

Marx’s ecological interests in this period also extended to stock farming. In 1865–66, he had already read Léonce de Lavergne’s Rural Economy of England, Scotland, and Ireland, in which the French agricultural economist argued for the superiority of English agriculture. Lavergne offered as an example the English breeding process developed by Robert Bakewell, with its “system of selection,” enabling sheep to grow faster and provide more meat, with only the bone mass necessary for their survival.49 Marx’s reaction in his notebook to this “improvement” is suggestive: “Characterized by precocity, in entirety sickliness, want of bone, a lot of development of fat and flesh etc. All these are artificial products. Disgusting!”50 Such remarks belie any image of Marx as an uncritical supporter of modern technological advances.

Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, Bakewell’s “New Leicester” sheep had been brought into Ireland, where they were bred with indigenous sheep to yield a new breed, Roscommon, meant to increase Ireland’s agricultural productivity.51 Marx was fully aware of this artificial modification of regional ecosystems for the purposes of capital accumulation, and rejected it despite its apparent “improvement” of productivity: the health and well-being of animals were being subordinated to the utility of capital. Thus Marx made clear in 1865 that this kind of “progress” was really no progress at all, because it could only be achieved by annihilating the sustainable metabolic interaction between humans and nature.

When Marx returned to the topic of capitalist stock farming in the second manuscript for volume two of Capital, he found it unsustainable for the same reason that marked capitalist forestation: The time of production is often simply too long for capital. Here Marx refers to William Walter Good’s Political, Agricultural and Commercial Fallacies (1866):

For this reason, remembering that farming is governed by the principles of political economy, the calves which used to come south from the dairying counties for rearing, are now largely sacrificed at times at a week and ten days old, in the shambles of Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, and other large neighboring towns.… What these little men now say, in reply to recommendations to rear, is, 

“We know very well it would pay to rear on milk, but it would first require us to put our hands in our purse, which we cannot do, and then we should have to wait a long time for a return, instead of getting it at once by dairying.”52

No matter how fast the growth of cattle becomes, thanks to Bakewell and other breeders, it only shortens the time of premature slaughter in favor of a shorter turnover for capital. According to Marx, this too does not count as “development” of productive forces, precisely because it can only take place by sacrificing sustainability for the sake of short-term profit.

All these are just examples found in the notebooks of 1868. Marx at the time was also intrigued by William Stanley Jevons’s Coal Question (1865), whose warning about the coming exhaustion of England’s coal supply provoked intense discussion in the Parliament.53 Without doubt, Marx was studying the books mentioned above as he prepared the manuscripts of Capital, and continued to do so into the 1870s and 1880s. So it is quite reasonable to conclude that Marx planned to use these new empirical materials to elaborate on issues such as the turnover of capital, rent theory, and the profit rate. In one passage, Marx actually writes that premature slaughter will ultimately cause “big damages” to agricultural production.54 Or, as Marx discusses in another section of the manuscript of 1867–68, the exhaustion of soils or mines could also reach such an extent that the “diminishing natural condition of productivity” in agriculture and extractive industry could no longer be counterbalanced by increasing labor productivity.55

Not surprisingly, Marx’s calculations of profit rates in the manuscript include those cases where profit rates sink due to price increases in the “floating” parts of constant capital, suggesting that the law of the falling profit rate should not be treated as a mere mathematical formula. Its real dynamic is tightly linked to the material components of capital and cannot be treated independently of them.56 In other words, the valorization and accumulation of capital is not an abstract movement of value; capital is necessarily incarnated in material components, inevitably taking on an “organic composition”—a term taken from Liebig’s Agricultural Chemistry—constrained by concrete material elements of the labor process. Despite its elasticity, this organic structure of capital cannot be arbitrarily modified, or made to diverge too far from the material character of each natural element of production. Capital ultimately cannot ignore the natural world.

This does not mean that capitalism will inevitably collapse one day. Fully exploiting the material elasticity, capital always tries to overcome limitations through scientific and technological innovation. Capitalism’s potential for adaptation is so great that it can likely survive as a dominant social system until most parts of the earth become unsuitable for human habitation.57 As Marx’s notebooks on natural science document, he was particularly interested in comprehending the rifts in the process of metabolic interaction between humans and nature that result from endless transformations of the material world for the sake of the efficient valorization of capital. These metabolic rifts are all the more disastrous because they erode the material conditions for “sustainable human development.”58

Marx understood these rifts as a manifestation of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism, and thought it necessary to study them carefully as part of the building of a radical socialist movement. As shown in this article, Marx was well aware that the ecological critique of capitalism was not completed by Liebig’s theory, and tried to develop and extend it by drawing on new research from diverse areas of ecology, agriculture, and botany. Marx’s economic and ecological theory is not outdated at all, but remains fully open to new possibilities for integrating natural scientific knowledge with the critique of contemporary capitalism.


  1. See John Bellamy Foster, preface to the new edition of Paul Burkett,Marx and Nature (Chicago: Haymarket, 2014).
  2. Funding and support for the MEGA project has now been extended for the next 15 years. This article is based on my research as a visiting scholar at the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences in 2015. I am especially thankful to Gerald Hubmann, who supported my project from the beginning.
  3. Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster, “The Podolinsky Myth,”Historical Materialism 16, no. 1 (2008): 115–61.
  4. Foster,Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), chapter 4; Kohei Saito, “The Emergence of Marx’s Critique of Modern Agriculture,”Monthly Review 66, no. 5 (October 2014): 25–46.
  5. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels,Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (MEGA) II, vol. 6 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1975), 409.
  6. John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York,The Ecological Rift (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), 7.
  7. MEGA II, vol. 5, 410.
  8. Carl-Erich Vollgraf, Introduction to MEGA II, vol. 4.3, 461. It is important, however, to note that Marx had said the same thing in a letter to Engels on February 13, 1866. See Karl Marx and Frederick Engels,Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1975), vol. 42, 227. There he wrote, “I had to plough through the new agricultural chemistry in Germany, in particular Liebig and Schönbein, which is more important for this matter than all the economists put together.”
  9. Karl Marx,Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 638; emphasis added.
  10. Liebig’s introduction includes a section called “National Economy and Agriculture”; Marx begins his excerpts with this section, then returns to the beginning of introduction.
  11. Wilhelm Roscher,System der Volkswirthschaft, 4th ed., vol. 2 (Stuttgart: Cotta’scher, 1865), 66.
  12. Karl Marx and Friederick Engels,Collected Works, vol. 42, 507–8.
  13. See especially Karl Marx,Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin, 1981), 878.
  14. For an introductory discussion of Liebig’s theory, see William H. Brock,Justus von Liebig: The Chemical Gatekeeper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), chapter 6.
  15. Foster,Marx’s Ecology, 153.
  16. Michael Perelman, “The Comparative Sociology of Environmental Economics in the Works of Henry Carey and Karl Marx,”History of Economics Review 36 (2002): 85–110.
  17. Eugen Dühring,Carey’s Umwälzung der Volkswirthschaftslehre und Socialwissenschaft (Munich: Fleischmann, 1865), xiii.
  18. Eugen Dühring,Kritische Grundlegung der Volkswirthschaftslehre (Berlin: Eichhoff, 1866), 230.
  19. Dühring,Carey’s Umwälzung, 67. Though Dühring does not use this expression to characterize Liebig’s theory, Karl Arnd claims that it is haunted by a “ghost of soil exhaustion.” See Karl Arnd,Justus von Liebig’s Agrikulturchemie und sein Gespenst der Bodenerschöpfung(Frankfurt am Main: Brönner, 1864).
  20. Liebig,Einleitung in die Naturgesetze des Feldbaues(Braunschweig: Friedrich Vieweg, 1862), 125.
  21. On the importance of Anderson to Marx’s whole argument see Foster,Marx’s Ecology, 142–47.
  22. Liebig intentionally wrote in provocative terms in hopes of restoring his professional fame, and in that sense the seventh edition was quite successful. See Mark R. Finlay, “The Rehabilitation of an Agricultural Chemist: Justus von Liebig and the Seventh Edition,”Ambix 38, no. 3 (1991): 155–66.
  23. Dühring,Carey’s Umwälzung, 67.
  24. Marx and Engels,Collected Works, vol. 43, 384.
  25. Roscher,Nationalökonomie des Ackerbaues, 65.
  26. Marx-Engels Archive (MEA), International Institute of Social History, Sign. B 107, 31–32. Albert Friedrich Lange,J. St. Mill’s Ansichten über die sociale Frage und die angebliche Umwälzung der Socialwissenschaft durch Carey (Duisburg: Falk and Lange, 1866), 197.
  27. Ibid., 203.
  28. MEGA IV, vol. 32, 42.
  29. Julius Au,Hilfsdüngermittel in ihrer volks- und privatwirtschaftlichen Bedeutung (Heidelberg: Verlagsbuchhandlung von Fr. Bassermann, 1869), 179.
  30. MEGA IV, vol. 32, 42.
  31. Marx and Engels,Collected Works, vol. 43, 527.
  32. MEA, Sign. B 107, 13.
  33. Carl Fraas,Die Ackerbaukrisen und ihre Heilmittel (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1866), 151.
  34. Charles Lyell,Principles of Geology, vol. 3 (London: John Murray, 1832), 61.
  35. MEA, Sign. B 107, 94; Carl Fraas,Die Natur der Landwirthschaft, vol. 1 (München: Cotta’sche, 1857) 17.
  36. Marx and Engels,Collected Works, vol. 42, 559.
  37. Fraas,Natur der Landwirthschaft, vol. 1, 357.
  38. Marx and Engels,Collected Works, vol. 42, 559.
  39. Fraas,Die Ackerbaukrisen und ihre Heilmittel, 141.
  40. George Perkins Marsh,Man and Nature (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003), 14.
  41. MEA, Sign. B 112, 45. Carl Fraas,Klima und Pflanzenwelt in der Zeit: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte beider(Landshut: J. G. Wölfle, 1847), 7.
  42. MEA, Sign. B 111, 1. John Devell Tuckett,A History of the Past and Present State of the Labouring Population (London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1846), vol. 2, 402.
  43. MEGA II, vol. 4.2, 670.
  44. Friedrich Kirchhof,Handbuch der landwirthschaftlichen Betriebslehre (Dessau: Moriz Ratz, 1852). Marx owned a copy of this book (MEGA IV, vol. 32, 673).
  45. MEGA II, vol. 11, 203; Karl Marx,Capital, vol. 2 (London: Penguin, 1978), 322.
  46. Marx and Engels,Collected Works, vol. 6, 489.
  47. Michael Löwy, “Globalization and Internationalism: How Up-to-date is the Communist Manifesto?Monthly Review 50, no. 6 (November 1998): 20.
  48. John Bellamy Foster, The Ecological Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009), 213–32.
  49. Léonce de Lavergne,Rural Economy of England, Scotland, and Ireland (Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1855), 19–20, 37–39.
  50. MEA, Sign. B 106, 209; William Walter Good,Political, Agricultural and Commerical Fallacies (London: Edward Stanford, 1866), 11–12.
  51. Janet Vorwald Dohner, ed.,The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 121.
  52. MEGA II, vol. 11, 188.
  53. MEA, Sign. B 128, 2.
  54. MEGA II, vol. 11, 187.
  55. MEGA II, vol. 4.3, 80.
  56. For a more mathematical treatment of the law, see Michael Heinrich,An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital(New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012), chapter 7.
  57. Burkett,Marx and Nature, 192.
  58. John Bellamy Foster, “The Great Capitalist Climacteric,”Monthly Review 67, no. 6 (November 2015): 9.