A critique of Marxist Criticism of Captialisms role in Environmental Depredation

This Progress Report submitted by Martin H. Coggin [e-mailto: cogginmh@miavx1.acs.miamioh.edu ] on 12/18/97.

So this is sort of lit review stuff and sort of a beginning of an introduction and its kinda sketchy, but what I have written so far:


Marx is known for his writings on economics and social theory. His thoughts have been so influential that “Marxist” perspectives are included in almost all disciplines across universities. However, this exposure to Marxist perspectives usually is narrow in scope, perhaps appropriately only addressing that limited part of Marxist thought which directly pertains to the specific discipline being discussed. This approach gives a very incomplete view of Marxism. Marxist theory has been a rich source across disciplines because it was developed not only as a criticism of a social order or economic system, but as a worldview. The ontology is, appropriately, basic to all of Marxist thought. As with any worldview, there are necessary and deep links among attitudes toward history, sociology, psychology, economics, politics and philosophy. To get a richer understanding of any Marxist critique it is useful to have some basic sketch of whole of the worldview. This more fully developed understanding allows for a more comprehensive critique of any criticism that arises from the Marxist perspective. As with any worldview, complexity and the risk of inconsistency are proportional. However, identifying inconsistency does not necessarily invalidate the criticisms which arise from that worldview. It is the task of this paper to lay out the basics of the Marxist worldview; present it’s critique of capitalism’s role in environmental depredation, including the alternatives offered; evaluate that critique for logical coherence; and evaluate that critique for consistency with Marxist ideology. An inconsistency with Marxist ideology does not necessarily refute the critique of capitalism. However, a logical inconsistency internal to the critique is much more devastating for our use and application of that technique.


*** denotes thought on nature/environment

Marx and Hegel:
(begin with metaphysical basis)

Marx’s name is often linked to Hegel. This is in many ways appropriate, as Marx borrows some important and fundamental ontological and epistemological Hegellian techniques. Yet in his early University career Marx had rejected Hegel- though not through a thorough reading of him. Rather the rejection was a natural course of following Kant and Fichte as a romantic subjectivist who thought that that the highest being was separate from earthly reality. Sometime during his studies at Berlin, Marx underwent a very sudden and profound metaphysical conversion and began operating under the belief/assumption that the idea was immanent in the real. “For However much he was to criticize Hegel, accused him of idealism, and try to stand his dialectic ‘on its feet,’ Marx was the first to admit that his methods stemmed directly from that of his master of the 1830s.” ( McLellan, p20) It seems then that a good starting place for an investigation into Marxism would be to look at the relationship between him and Hegel.

Hegel begins with the idea that “man’s existence has its center in his head, i.e., in Reason, under whose inspiration he builds up the world of reality.” Hegel asserts that the human mind, or spirit, can attain absolute knowledge. “He analyzed the development of human consciousness from its immediate perception of the here and now to the stage of self-consciousness, the understanding that allowed man to analyze the world and order his own actions accordingly. Following this was the stage of reason itself, understanding of the real, after which spirit, by means of religion and art, attained to absolute knowledge, the level at which man recognized in the world the stages of his own reason. These stages Hegel called ‘alienations,’ insofar as they were creations of the human mind yet thought of as independent and superior to the human mind.” (McLellan, p. 21)
This process of moving up the stages was a kind of recapitulation of the human spirit, as each stage retained elements of the previous one while moving beyond it. There is a tension here between the present state of affairs and what it was becoming. Hegel termed this tension “the power of the negative,” as any present state of affair was in the process of being negated and changed into something else. This process is what Hegel meant by the dialectic. (McLellan, p. 21)


first economic addresses/thoughts

Marx then took these principles and applied them to the “real” world.
As editor of the Rheinische Zeitung Marx found himself writing on such sociopolitical issues as the law on the thefts of wood and the poverty of the Moselle winegrowers- which for the first time occupied him with questions of economics and impressed upon him how closely the laws were formed by the interests of those in power. About this time the Rheinische Zeitung was being accused of floating communist ideas, and though Marx denied that the paper supported these ideas or even found them practical, it was suppressed. In the ensuing 18 months Marx read a lot on the French Revolution and tried to discover why a movement which started out with excellent principles failed to solve the fundamental problem of redistribution of wealth.


first religious thoughts

Another early and basic influence on Marx was Ludwig Feuerbach. Marx found himself doing extensive readings on Feuerbach in conjunction with his readings of the French revolution. These, in combination with Marx’s interests in Hegel are identifiable as strong influences on Marx’s developing ideology.
Feuerbach was interested in religion and postulated that God was merely a projection of human attributes, desires, and potentialities. Once men realized this they would be in a position to appropriate these attributes to themselves and thus restore their alienated “species-being” or communal essence. [This idea of a species-being is unclear and needs to be puzzled over until a clear explanation can be given.] The basis for this claim is perhaps the most important idea that Marx borrows from Feuerbach: “The true relationship of thought to being is this: being is the subject, thought the predicate. Thought arises from being- being does not arise from thought.” (quoted in McLellan, p. 24)


first political structure thoughts

In a manuscript composed summer of 1843, Marx used borrowings from Feuerbach as a basis for both criticism and synthesis- in true dialectic fashion- of Hegellian philosophy. Hegel’s political philosophy postulated that human consciousness manifested itself objectively in man’s juridical, social and political institutions which alone permitted man to attain to full liberty. Only the State- the highest social organization- was capable of uniting particular rights and universal reason. Man was not free by nature, but in fact only the State had the capabilities of making man’s freedom real. And though in “Civil Society” economic problems are created by an economic structural war which pits all against all, the State is somehow able to harmonize these conflicts into some higher unity. Here, applying Feuerbach’s ideas, “Marx’s fundamental criticism of Hegel was that, as in religion, men had imagined God to be the creator and man to be dependent on Him, so Hegel mistakenly started from the Idea of the State and made everything else- the family and various social groups- dependent on this Idea.” ( McLellan, p.25)
So too did Feuerbach lead Marx to support democracy: “Just as religion does not create man, but man creates religion, so the constitution does not create the people but the people create the constitution.” (quoted in McLellan, p. 25) Further, bureaucracy encouraged the political divisions that were essential to its own existence and thus pursued its own ends to the detriment of the community at large. Finally, toward the end of the manuscript, Marx described how he expected universal suffrage to inaugurate the reform of civil society by bringing back to it the social essence of man as a communal being that had been stolen from him and transferred to the sphere of constitutions that had no effect on his real life.


Relation between political and human emancipation

There is a question, a problem here because “man has a life both in the political community, where he is valued as a communal being, and in civil society, where he is active as a private individual, treats other men as means, degrades himself to a means, and becomes the plaything of alien powers.” (quoted in McLellan, p. 26) The rights of man then are only the rights of the atomize, mutually hostile individuals of civil society. Thus, “the right of man to freedom is not based on the union of man with man, but on the separation of man from man. . . The right of man to property is the right to enjoy his possessions and dispose of the same arbitrarily, without regard for other men, independently of society, the right of selfishness. It is the former individual freedom together with its latter application that forms the basis of civil society. It leads man to see in other men not the realization but the limitation of his own freedom.” (quoted in McLellan, p. 27)
“Human emancipation will only be complete when the real, individual man has absorbed into himself the abstract citizen: when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his individual relationships, he has become a species-being: and when he has recognized and organized his own powers (forces propres) and social powers so that he no longer separates the social power from himself as political power.” (Quoted in McLellan, p. 27)


on the means to achieve human emancipation

“The foundation of irreligious criticism is this: man makes religion, religion does not make man. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state, this society, produces religion’s inverted attitude to the world, because they are an inverted world themselves. Thus the struggle against religion is indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. . . Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless circumstances. It is the opium of the people. . . “ (quoted in McLellan, p. 28) But this does not lay out a method, only a force with which to be reckoned. Marx deemed politics to be the appropriate activity for addressing human emancipation. For Marx, the vehicle of revolution was clear: the proletariat was destined to assume the universal role that Hegel had misleadingly assigned to the bureaucracy.
Marx recognized that politics was one dimension, but inexorably linked to the politics was economics.


Economics- drawn from Engels

An essay published in Deutsch-französische Jahrbücher along side Marx’s essays gave him some insights into the importance of economics. The essay by Engels indicted private property and its concomitant spirit of competition. Growing capitalist accumulation necessarily entailed a lowering of salaries and accentuated the class struggle. Uncurtailed growth of the economy meant recurrent crises, and the progress of science only server to increase the misery of the workers.” (P. 29)

From the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (EPM)

I. A. Failings of economists’ approach (p. 30)
1. While admitting that labor was fundamental to the working of the economy, they acquiesced in assigning to it an increasingly poverty-stricken role
2. They did not view the economic system as one of interacting forces, that is they took the laws of capitalism to be immutable and could not explain the origins of the system they were describing
3. They took a one-sided view of man simply as a cog in the economic wheel and did not consider him in his free time, as a human being.

I. B. Alienated Labor (p. 31)
1. The worker was related to the product of his labor as to an alien object: it stood over and above him, opposed to him as an independent power.
2. The worker became alienated from himself in the very act of production; the worker did not view his work as part of his real life an did not feel at home in it.
3. Man’s “species-life,” his social essence, was taken away from him in his work which did not represent the harmonious efforts of man as a “species-being.”
4. Man found himself alienated from other men.

II. Communism as a solution to the problem of alienation
While Marx had thought of communism as dogmatic and one-sided while in Germany, his time in Paris made him change his mind.
1. Communism was a historical phenomenon whose genesis was “the entire movement of history.” (Quoted p. 33) at the present stage, the essential problem was the abolition of private property.
***2. Everything about man-starting with his language- was social. Even man’s relationship to nature was included in this social dimension: “thus society completes the essential unity of man with nature, it is the genuine resurrection of nature, the fulfilled naturalism of man and humanism of nature. . . For not only the five senses but also the so-called spiritual and moral senses (will, love, etc.), in a word, human love and the humanity of the senses come into being only through the existence of their object, through nature humanized. The development of the five senses is a labor of the whole previous history of the world.”
3. The stress on man’s social aspects only served to enhance the individuality of communist, unalienated man, whom he described as “total” or “all-sided.” For just as the state of alienation vitiated all human faculties, so the suppression of this alienation would be total liberation. It would not just be limited to the possession and enjoyment of material objects: all human faculties would, in their different ways, become means of appropriating reality. This was difficult to imagine for alienated man, since private property had so blunted men’s sensibility that they could only imagine an object to be theirs when they actually possessed it: all physical and intellectual senses had been replaced by the single alienation of having.
4. The reciprocal relationship between man and nature would be reflected in a single all-embracing science: “natural science will in time comprise the science of man, as the science of man will embrace natural science: there will be one single science.”

III. Critique of Hegel’s dialectic as found in his The Phenomenology of Spirit
1. Hegel’s strength in the dialectic is that he “conceives of the self-creation of man as a process, objectification as loss of the object, as externalization and the transcendence of this externalization. This means that he grasps the nature of labor and understands objective man, true because real man, as the result of his own labor.” (Quoted p. 35)
2. However, Hegel’s entire approach was one of abstraction and idealism.

***Marx, however, started from “real man of flesh and blood, standing on the solid round earth and breathing in and out all the powers of nature” and defended his position as a consistent naturalism or humanism that avoided both idealism and materialism. (Quoted p. 35) Hegel saw man as a disembodied consciousness and the world as necessarily inimical to man’s fulfillment, but Marx considered that it was only man’s present relationship to the world that was askew: man needed to interact with external objects tin order to develop or “objectify” himself. For Hegel, all objectification was alienation; for Marx, man could overcome alienation only if he objectified himself by using nature in cooperation with his fellow men.

These early Marx writings conclude that the fundamental activity of man was one of productive interchange with nature; that this activity was vitiated by the class divisions of capitalist society with its institutions of private property and the division of labor; and that this present alienation could be overcome by a proletarian revolution inaugurating communism.


Relationship Between Marx and environment in the context of Population

The nature and basis of Marxist criticism of Capitalism’s role in environmental depredation will be interesting: Marx is very concerned with the human person. I wonder what he might think of the idea of value being intrinsic in nature, or even if value can be separated from-that is, exist outside of- human assignment of value. I doubt that he would see a value existing outside of the human sphere, as he wants us to appropriate the characteristics of God. This emphasis on the pre-eminence of humans would inform any thoughts on pollution I think. It seems that there can be, I wonder if there will be, a split between criticizing capitalism for allowing pollution, and criticizing it for miss-apprehending the human relationship with nature.

Some of the pre-eminence of the human can be seen in the debate on population control. In 1789 Parson Malthus issued is warning on population: mankind’s propensity to beget would soon outstrip the earth’s capacity to provide. Fifty years later Marx declared him “a shameless sycophant of the ruling classes” and “a bought advocate” of those who opposed a better life for England’s poor. While Malthus’s idea that subsistence increases in an arithmetic ratio was unfounded, and he did not take into account demographic transitions in child bearing, his ideas have still been studied and reworked. Paul Ehrlich’s famous book The Population Bomb reignited the debate in the 1970s. People who were formerly linked together on issues such as imperial adventure, poverty and racism can find themselves fighting each other across ill-defined barriers. Professional ecologists chastise the political left for “blindly following the outdated Marxist line that the population problem can be ignored until we reform the economic system.” And a new generation of unregenerate Marxists yell back that “the population bombers only divert attention from the real issues and pave the way for world-wide race war and genocide.” (Meek/Weissman, p. ix)


Neo-Marxist links between capitalism and environmental depredation

The “teeming masses” are discovering that there is too much food and too few people who can afford to buy it. According to Steve Weissman, “the reason is simple: the green revolutionaries are not growing food for people, they are producing commodities for profit. The Rockefeller and Ford foundations produce seeds which require costly applications of fertilizer and pesticide; the petro-chemical companies (like the Rockefellers’ Standard Oil) produce the fertilizer and pesticides to sell at a profit; the larger farmers find it easier to afford the new methods if they displace already underemployed farmhands and tenants with new machinery; the ‘excess farm populations,’ many of them now in cities, have no money to buy bread. Let them eat cake?. . . .it is capitalism which creates this irrationality and hastens the destruction of the environment in most of the world, and without destroying capitalism, neither green revolutions nor population control will put food in the mouths of those who cannot afford to pay for it.

In _The Population Bomb_ Ehrlich paints a devastating picture of our dying planet: “too many cars, too many factories, too much detergent, too much pesticide, multiplying contrails, inadequate sewage treatment plants, too little water, too much carbon dioxide” and all of these are traced to the single source. . . “too many people.” (quoted in Meek- forward by Weissman, p. xiii) Yet pollution is now growing, by rough estimate, some six or seven times faster than population growth. Demands for power are growing about eight times faster, the growth of detergents correlates less with population growth than with merchandising budgets and soap operas, while growing automobile populations seem to have a very close relationship to suburban sprawl, planned obsolescence, the organization of our cities, and -again-advertising. Thus, Weissman makes the assertion that the growing number of people is less the cause of environmental destruction than our society’s dynamic efforts, direct and indirect, to get more people to have more “needs,” to buy more products and to accept more waste. Merchandisers, to make their work a little easier, might prefer baby booms and population explosions. But if these should wane, they will simply sell more second cars and recreational vehicles, more “anti-pollutant” gasoline, summer homes, electric toothbrushes, and paper sleeping bags to help enjoy the wilds. Industrial polluters are already arguing that people are the problem behind pollution, and no wonder. They know it’s cheaper to create consumers out of a smaller population than to clean up production or possibly cut it back. (Meek/Weissman, xiv)

This then is capitalism, and it’s the same system which the two nineteenth-century political-economists Marx and Malthus described so differently. Though this differing description still divides socialists and bourgeois economists, Weissman identifies both approaches as inadequate. “Marx and the socialists, basing their theories on labor as the measure of value, are unsatisfying in their explanations of prices, the workings of the market, and the sphere of consumption; Malthus and the capitalists, taking the self-serving categories of the marketplace for science, ignore power and celebrate the crucifixion of mankind on the iron cross of supply and demand. Yet both sides, with some quibbling over language, would have to agree that it is capitalism which determines the way in which we in the ‘free world’ dominate ourselves and or environment.” (Meek/Weissman, p.xv)

Weissman further points out that other societies, those based on communism or socialism, can and usually do choose to follow in our footsteps, trampling both people and nature. But, it is inherent in capitalism to try to continue growth and expansion, creating new needs and new wastes, and our social institutions have no choice but to fall in line. The private, profit-seeking control of capital removes this choice. If one producer slows down in the race, then that producer has become fodder for the competitors. And if all conspire together to restrain growth, then the unemployment and cutbacks and the consequential social unrest will be devastating. Thus, as long as we retain the profit-seeking capitalist economics, we have no choice. (Meek/Weissman, p. xv)

attitude to history- materialism and its importance to nature%0

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