marx & mother nature: an eco-materialist conception of history
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Marxs Materialism: A ReviewThe central insights of Marxs theory of history were reached by asking: What activities & relationships must always be present to sustain any form of social life whatsoever?For Marx, once this key question was framed, the answer became strikingly obvious:The necessary condition for any society is that humans must work together to extract their means of survival from nature.He called this activity PRODUCTION
The Mode of ProductionThe tools, skills & work relationships that keep any society alive Marx called the economic base, or mode of production.
He divided the mode of production into 2 closely related components:
Forces & Relationsof Production
Forces of ProductionThe Nexus Between Society & NatureMarx called the tools & skills needed to extract resources from nature the forces of production.
Technology discloses mans mode of dealing with nature, the process of production by which he sustains life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them. -Marx
Relations of ProductionThe way society organized itself to produce, exchange, & distribute resources Marx called the relations of production. This includes property relations; the way labor is recruited, organized, & compensated; markets or other methods of exchanging goods; & the methods developed by controlling classes to claim & command societys surplus product.Class structure is societys most basic production relation.
Marxs view of history focused on changes in production relations:
Tribal SocietyPrimitive CommunismAsiatic SocietyDespotismAncient SocietySlaveryFeudal SocietySerfdomCapitalist SocietyWage LaborSocialistCommunist?
The Base-Superstructure RelationshipForces & relations of production are societys economic base. This base has a dominant but reciprocal relationship with the superstructure: the political, legal, cultural, religious & educational aspects of society.In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of consciousness. Marx
The Productive Forces:Dynamo of Social ChangeIn acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production. Changes in productive forces could induce changes in class relations.The hand mill gives you society with the feudal lord, the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist. Thus, dominant classes often resisted changes in the forces of production that could transform class relations.
Deep Economic Forces Create Revolutionary TransformationsMarx concluded that:No social order ever disappears before ALL the productive forces, for which there is room in it, have been developed; and new higher relations of production NEVER appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society.-Preface to the Critique of Political Economy
What is a Revolutionary Class?Marxs study revealed that feudalism collapsed because it could not accommodate emerging industrial forces of production.The bourgeoisie was the most potent revolutionary element in the anti-feudal alliance because its fortune relied upon these emerging forces of production.Peasants often rebelled, but could not transform society with new productive forces.The working class was still small & disorganized.
The Industrial Capitalist SystemThe industrial capitalist mode of production was based on:Mechanized forces of production.Commodified relations of production (wage labor & private ownership of the means of production).Instead of lord & serf, the new class relations were worker & capitalist.
Would Capitalism Block Growth?Marx did not apply the logic he derived from his analysis of feudalisms demise to his vision of capitalisms limits.He did not envision the emergence of qualitatively new productive forces that capitalism couldnt accommodate, championed by an incipient revolutionary class.Instead, he reasoned that capitalist relations would become incompatible with its own industrialized means of production.Unlike peasants under feudalism, the working class would assume the revolutionary role of advancing the industrial forces that capitalists refused to develop.
Capitalisms Productive Limits?Marx asserted that the socialized nature of the industrial forces unleashed by capitalism were incompatible with privatized production relations.
Symptoms:Crises of over-production.Falling rate of profit.Centralization arrests development.Further development requires the working class to abolish the private appropriation of socially produced wealth.
Underestimating CapitalismLooking back, we now know that Marxs assumption that capitalism would soon arrest the development of its own productive forces was mistaken. To this day, capitalism continues to develop its productive forces.This raises the question:
Do industrial forces of production become fundamentally incompatible with capitalism?
Fatal Contradictions?So far, the serious contradictions Marx identified have not proven fatal.Capitalism has side-stepped these barriers & crises by a process of destructive regeneration.Capitalisms solution to each new crisis has been to destroy & rebuild its forces of production in a uneven process of long-term growth.As long as capitalism has the energy to regenerate itself after each collapse or war, it will continue to do so.
The Working Class:Revolutionary or Rebel Force?Unlike the bourgeoisie under feudalism, the working class has not introduced qualitatively new productive forces that industrial capitalism cannot accommodate.Despite deep crises, world wars & revolutions that aspired to socialism, the working class has been unable build genuine, enduring socialist relations of production upon an industrial foundation.
Traditional Marxists AssumedThe working class could create socialism by seizing control of & developing the existing industrial means of production.
Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky & Mao all promoted centralized industrial production, assuming it was compatible with socialist relations of production.
Industrial Socialism?Time after time, efforts to establish real working class control over industrial productive forces have eventually failed.At best, the result has been state managed industrialism which eventually reintegrated itself into the world capitalist system.
Industrial Forces RequireHierarchical CentralizationIndustrial production systems require labors subordination to the demands of giant, highly mechanized, fast-paced, repetitive systems of energy/resource conversion & vast, complex chains of production & distribution.These systems resist decentralized, democratic control & foster an industrial elite of CEOs or central planners.No modern society, whether it claims to be capitalist or socialist, has successfully resisted the hierarchical, undemocratic restraints imposed by industrial forces of production.
Reframing the PictureIf we recall Marxs premise that productive forces shape production relations in light of this history, we must askWhat if the industrial mode of production requires some form of hierarchical, undemocratic, worker-management production relations?The capitalist form: Corporations extract surplus value through wage labor exploitation for capital expansion.The statist form: Central planners extract surplus product as use values to maintain their positions of privilege & power.
If the best revolutionary efforts & intentions have failed to overcome the material restrictions of industrial societyWe must re-examine Marxs conclusion with new eyes:
No social order ever disappears before ALL the productive forces, for which there is room in it, have been developed; and new higher relations of production NEVER appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society.
Is the Industrial Order Finished & Pregnant With a New One?For this to be true todayIndustrialism would have to be exhausting its productive capacity.Emerging technologies that capitalism cannot fully accommodate would have to be maturing in the womb of industrial society.New social movements, linked to these emerging technologies, would begin offering society a revolutionary alternative to global industrialism.To advance their interests, these movements would begin fashioning a political alliance to replace dead-end industrialism with a sustainable alternative.
Updating Marxs InsightWhen we realize that modes of production are actually modes of energy extraction & conversion, their basic limitations stand out.Marx acknowledged this energy exchange by referring to production as metabolism: The social activities required to convert the Earths life sustaining energies to human use.
Domination or Dance?But notice the direction of action in Marxs description of labor as metabolism: Labor is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and nature.For Marx, man is the active force, nature is passive.
Production As Co-EvolutionHumans are not the only active agent at work here.This co-evolutio