For Marxist

’s, The Problems Facing Humanity Arise Not From Nature, But From Society. Discuss Essay, Research Paper

We are constantly bombarded with visual images of the problems facing humanity every day in the news, from overpopulation and famine to AIDS and the greenhouse effect, and more often than not these are presented to us as ‘natural’ occurrences. In fact, concern for the environment has reached such a fever pitch that a Green political party has emerged to gather these ‘aware’ votes. But how ‘aware’ are they? Marxists would have us believe that the problems facing humanity derive solely from society and that any denial of this is a result of our conditioning within the capitalist system. In this essay I aim to examine this Marxist interpretation of the situation mankind finds himself in via the use of several case studies and a comparison with the Green movement. The emergence of a ‘Green’ political party that promises to focus most of its attention on environmental issues is symbolic of a recent shift in society’s attitude that can be partly attributed to the efforts of organisations such as Friends of the Earth. For many years these organisations have run campaigns with titles like “Help the Earth fight back”, that are aimed at increasing society’s awareness of environmental issues; highlighting the ecological problems acid rain, the greenhouse effect and nuclear power etcetera, will cause in the future. They claim that “[mankind] knows enough to reverse [some of] the [environmental] damage, and to manage the Earth’s astonishing wealth more fairly and sustainably. But the political will to bring about such a transformation is still lacking” (Friends of the Earth, date unknown). The Green’s have attempted to offer society this will. Formed approximately twenty years ago the majority of Greens are deterministically ecocentric, believing that man is part of the global ecosystem and subject to ‘natural’ limits (on population and economic growth). Their ecological stance emerged as a result of dissatisfaction with the existing anthropocentric world view that “license[s] the human species to exploit the rest of nature as if from above and outside it” (Capra and Spretnak, 1984, ppxxiv). Rather than this exploitative relationship the ecocentric perspective prefers to stress mankind’s need to re-relate with nature via the adoption of an anti-industrial (and therefore anti-capitalist) ideology and a return to a more rudimentary way-of-life. This formal political ‘policy’ is the manifestation of the Green’s primary concern, that “modern technology is out of control, threatening the balance between human society and the natural world” (Richards, 1989). This extremist perspective does however, have its flaws. The first problem is that the Green’s utopian vision of a return to a pre-industrial society would result in them being unable to launch an effective global response to some of the global threats that face humanity, since the technological expertise which would have inevitably developed and solved the problems would not be pursued. As Frank Richards (1989) says in an article for Living Marxism, “the experience of history is that every advance creates new problems but that it also creates the means of solving them”, a fact the Green’s do not seem to put much emphasis on. From a similar Marxist viewpoint, the Green’s want of an economic status-quo would result in the relationship between the proletariat and bourgeoisie also remaining static, preventing the liberation of the ‘prole’ via the contradictions inherent in capitalist society, and the death of any ‘potential’ for a socialist state. Although this may well prevent further industrial output and pollution in the short-term, Marxists would argue that the motivating power of capital (linked to our conditioning in a capitalistic mode of production) would result in a return to the existing pattern of production, and hence pollution, in the long-term. As far as the Marxist would be concerned this attempt to solve the environmental problems via the manipulation of the superstructure, rather than the political reform (not regress as the Green’s would have us believe) of the base, is a half-hearted attempt, doomed to failure. So, if a Marxist critique of the Green’s can reduce their political credibility, what do they themselves have to offer in terms of an analysis of the current threats to humanity? Marxist’s believe that before you can understand any change (political, economic, environmental etc.), you first need to understand the processes that keep society reproducing; these processes are the material processes of production and distribution of food, goods and services (Matley, 1966). They see this productive activity as a way of obtaining a means of subsistence through interacting with nature via the labouring activities of men, and that through this labour both man and nature change; “in the process of struggle against nature, man not only changes the character of nature, but also himself, by acquiring new qualities, habits and experience” (Matley, 1966). The theoretical reasoning behind this assumption, that man and nature change in unison, is that the transformation of nature allows “an expanded reproduction of productive forces” (Corbridge, 1986) over time, which enables society to exist at a higher level, in both demographic and materialistic terms. With society and nature developing as a result of man’s labour, it follows that man must also develop; enabling him to reach continually higher intellectual planes which demand the satisfaction of associated new needs and wants. Once these new needs and wants have been satisfied, as they inevitably will be, man will reach an even higher plane of existence through the further development of nature, that will create a new set of needs and wants, and so the futile attempt to satisfy humanity’s insatiable lust for ‘more’ continues (this process is known as a dialectic and was seen by Marx as the logical evolution of society; stopping only when everyone was fulfilled in what would then have become a socialist state). For Marxist’s, this drive to continually achieve ‘more’ is an integral part of the capitalist system, whereby ‘more’ translates as the potential for the bourgeoisie to increase the amount of capital they have accumulated, either via consumers increased consumption or by producers increasingly efficient production. For the bourgeoisie to maximise surplus value (profit), they have to ensure that the exchange value is greater than the amount of labour invested in the product. However, to sell the product (which is a prerequisite to making profit), it is necessary for the labour force to have enough purchasing power to constitute a significant market. It therefore follows that to provide enough work to have a workforce that can buy the product and to create a continually widening profit-margin (surplus value), production must constantly expand (Smith, 1984). This ‘expansion at all costs syndrome’ is related to the current mode of production and can be viewed as one of the primary explanations for ‘industrial’ pollution of the environment, since “the drive for short-term profit forces capitalists to disregard the potential long-term dangers of industrial processes…..[and] policies to protect and conserve natural resources are antithetical to profit-making” (Richards, 1989). This view that it is capitalism and capitalists who are to blame for the current problems facing humanity contrasts starkly with the Green’s who believe that it is “modern technology [which] is out of control” (Richards, 1989); a remarkable achievement for inert machinery. One of the best, although not the most widely appreciated, examples of this myopic interest in short-term capital accumulation leading to environmental problems, is in the farming industry – a sector that is normally perceived as ‘caring’ about nature. In recent years developments in Western agricultural practices have resulted in there being vast increases in the yields of most crops, so much so that huge mountains of food are now being stored in warehouses to keep prices artificially high. However, although these new practices have increased the farmers (the bourgeoisie) short-term profits, concerns are now mounting that their long-term future as food producers may be in doubt as a result of their short-term activities having a detrimental effect on soil fertility (Curtis, Courtney and Trudgill, 1976); “in its uncontrolled drive for universality, capitalism [has] create[d] new barriers to its own future” (Smith, 1984). The practices causing the most concern are the high inputs of artificial fertilisers, chemical pesticides, herbicides and the use of machinery (as opposed to machinery itself); all elements introduced to increase the short-term efficiency of the soil. These practices have resulted in the eutrophication of rivers and water, land pollution with antibiotics used in animal rearing, deterioration in soil drainage and structure through over ploughing, soil erosion following hedgerow removal for larger more ‘efficient’ fields and a long-term pH decrease through increasing use of inorganic fertilisers (Curtis, Courtney and Trudgill, 1976). Although some of these practices have been scientifically proven harmful to the environment (such as inorganic fertilisers), all of them will continue to be utilised by the farmer (the bourgeoisie) since they guarantee their economic survival. This type of strategy, pursuing anything that increases the profit-margin, is adopted through all types of industry, including those that have the potential to alter the environment on a global scale. Marxist’s view this as the bourgeoisie attempting to externalise the costs of production to society, so that they, as the owner of the production facility, incur less of them. They believe that capitalists are unlikely to recycle residues or remove pollutants from industrial production at their own cost (reducing their profit) when these costs can be diffused throughout society as metals in the air, acid rain or chemicals in the sea. Neither would the current Green view that ‘the polluter pays’ work, since the bourgeoisie would inevitably externalise the costs by passing them on to the consumer rather than decreasing their profits. So, in the case of pollutant orientated problems, the Marxist perspective offers an invaluable insight into the analysis of why the problem is as large as it is but, unlike the Green’s, appears to make few suggestions as to how they can be solved. Predictably, the response they do make is that under a socialist mode of production there would never be an environmental crisis, since the factor causing the problem, capitalism, would no longer exist. Instead of working for private gain, people would “lose [their] preoccupation with private interests” preferring instead to “find their own happiness in working for the good of all” (Singer, 1980), the result being that excesses in the form of pollution would be a thing of the past. However, Marxist’s believe the only way they will ever achieve this goal (of a socialist mode of production) is if the full development of productive forces proceeds unabated. They see the division of society into classes as the result of insufficient production, so growth towards a sufficiency is needed before people will begin to think about the structure of the society in which they live; in this sense they see technology as an emancipatory force for the proletariat (Smith, 1984). But what is sufficient? And will this state of sufficiency ever be reached by everyone, as long as capitalists continue to exploit the working-class? In my opinion ’sufficient’ for the masses is liable to be a considerable function of ‘that which the capitalists have got’. However, they are never likely to achieve this since any improvement in the standard of living for the proletariat is only going to be as a result of a three-fold increase for the bourgeoisie, an equation that culminates in the sufficiency-threshold increasing. So, if the Marxist’s are awaiting the arrival of sufficiency for the proletariat before any societal revolution begins, they are, in my opinion, likely to be waiting a long-time; so long in fact, that at the present rate of environmental deterioration, they may not want to ‘inherit’ the decrepid remains of a society they have been patiently ‘waiting’ (rather than politically ‘fighting’) for. So far, I have only included in my study of the problems facing humanity, those broad environmental problems that can be attributed to capitalist society’s drive to accumulate capital in the short-term; no discussion having taken place on other pressing issues such as overpopulation. But before I can discuss this, I must first clarify what is meant by the term ‘overpopulation’. In an article in The Independent (23/4/92) Prince Charles was quoted as saying “the issues of population growth and poverty [need to be addressed] in the same breath”, a logical link. However, we may also say that overpopulation is evidenced by the existence of people who do not have enough to eat, since this is an element of poverty, and it is this that I am going to concentrate on. When we see newsreel on famines such as those in Ethiopia and Sudan we normally see Michael Berk introducing them as ‘natural disasters’, but this does not necessarily follow. Rather than the famine being the result of overpopulation or the absolute inability of the earth to produce any more food, it could well be the result of some of the population being unable to buy (or trade) the food, simply as a result of economics (although admittedly this is not always true). For Marxist’s this is more likely to be the case, basing their analysis of food shortages on Marx’s theoretical ‘reserve army’. Marx showed that it was fundamental to the operation of a capitalist system that wages must be kept as low as possible (to increase surplus value) and that to do this there must be a pool of unemployed labour (the reserve army). This ‘pool’ acts as a depressant to wage levels since there are a continuous stream of unemployed people waiting to take any positions if the occupants decide to strike for more wages; the competition for jobs keeping the wages low. The result of this ‘pool’ is that the unemployed and the marginally employed struggle to buy enough food to survive. This Marxist interpretation of a massive population suffering from food shortages offers an interesting alternative to Malthus. Malthus believed that shortages were the ‘natural’ result of food production increasing at an arithmetic ratio and population increasing at a geometric ratio, the difference being met by the starving hordes. He believed that the only way this shortage could be prevented was for the working classes to restrain their own passions and that the “threat of poverty and the difficulty of feeding children [was] needed [as discouragement]” (Richards, 1989). Marxist’s believe that this ill-founded fact was used by capitalists to justify the low wages and widespread poverty that the labouring classes experienced in the nineteenth century. Although, this perspective may be somewhat out of date, the Marxist view maintains its relevance. In 1943 Bengal suffered an atrocious famine in which one quarter of its population died. This famine had nothing to do with food shortages, it was all related to economics. The quarter of the population that died were the rural labourers, who from a Marxist perspective would have constituted the marginally unemployed and reserve army. The problem arose out of a massive expansion of economic activity, related to the war effort at the time, which favoured the capitalists in the urban centres at the expense of the rural labouring classes. These rural classes, as a result of the capitalists attempts to maximise profits, lost out in the battle to command food (and were forgotten in the euphoria of the (urban) moment) since their exchange entitlements (Sen, 1981) were significantly reduced because their wages had not increased at the same rate as the food prices. It was the severity of this decrease in their real income and the maintenance of such a large reserve army by the urban capitalists, rather than any natural disaster, that caused the terrible number of deaths experienced in Bengal. However, although it is evident from the case studies reviewed so far that the Marxist perspective on Green issues, such as environmental pollution and overpopulation, places the blame on the current mode of (capitalist) production, as opposed to ‘nature’ itself, how do they see problems related to medicine etcetera, that are not part of the Green agenda? There can be no doubt that illnesses such as cancer and AIDS are threats to humanity, but how can the Marxist’s explain these in terms of the capitalistic world market? Apart from tenuous links to nuclear power and radiation, cancer does not seem easily explained, neither for that matter does AIDS, other than with contentious references to its apparently ‘unnatural’ (homosexual) origins. But if these threats cannot be satisfactorily explained by the drive to accumulate capital (that is an inherent part of capitalism), it must be assumed that similar problems would arise under a socialist mode of production, a fact that somewhat tarnishes the Marxist ideal of a utopian society and casts suspicion over some of their previous claims. To conclude then, it is evident from this study that a Marxist analysis of Green issues is a useful way of viewing the current environmental and demographic problems that face humanity. Whereas the Green’s considerations revolve around a deterministic epistemology, Marxist’s, in offering a critique of the capitalist mode of production, have presented us with an interesting alternative to the ‘naturalistic’ view of the problems facing society, and one that offers hope for a solution. However, although a Marxist analysis of problems such as those medically related is unsatisfactory, suggesting that their claims for perfect happiness under a socialist mode of production are ill-founded, what is most worrying about this view is that although they recognise the dangers presented to mankind, they are in no hurry to begin the process of solving them. Rather than “Helping the Earth fight back” they seem prepared to wait for the onset of socialism, sure in themselves that this is the only way to solve the problem. Lets hope we do not have to wait that long.Bibliography Capra, F and Spretnak, C (1984) Green Politics, Hutchinson and Co. Ltd Corbridge, S (1986) Capitalist World Development, Macmillan Curtis, L, Courtney, F and Trudgill, S (1976) Soils in the British Isles, London, Longmans Friends of the Earth (date unknown) Help the Earth Fight Back Matley, IM (1966) The Marxist Approach to the Geographical Environment, AAAG, 56, 97-111 Richards, F (1989) Can capitalism go Green?, in Living Marxism, no.4 Sen, A (1981) Poverty and Famines, Oxford University Press Singer, P (1980) Marx, Oxford, Oxford University Press Smith, N (1984) Uneven Development, Oxford, Blackwell Sunday Times, 25/6/89, ppA7a The Independent, 23/4/92, pp22 Times 26/6/89, pp14b Times, 24/9/90, pp12c



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