Ben Campbell interviewed Paul Burkett, Professor of Economics at Indiana State University, and the author of Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective, and Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy
You often hear Marxism criticized by environmentalists for being Promethean or productivist. How did this conception begin, and why do you think it mischaracterizes the position of Marx and Engels?
It comes from two basic sources. One was the development of environmental thinking in different branches of social science: not only deep ecology, but also the development of environmental thinking among political scientists, sociologists, feminists, and even some neo-Marxist thinkers, who have been highly critical of so-called productivism in Marx and Engels. Secondly, there was the actual experience of Soviet-type economies and the associated environmental damage. I can’t really get into the experience of the Soviet Union at this point, but largely what I think happened is that the circumstances of the revolution were such that they were forced to develop productive forces in an essentially capitalist way in order to compete with and defend themselves against established capitalism.
I think another aspect here is that in Marx and Engels’ writings you have a lot what seems to be almost unqualified praise for the capitalist development of productive forces in increasing humanity’s control over nature. I think it’s important to recognize here that when Marx and Engels talk about capitalism developing productive forces they’re taking this largely as an empirical situation that humanity and workers movements have to grapple with. They tried to develop a view of the potential for human development that was created by capitalism’s development of the productive forces, while at the same time offering a highly critical approach to this capitalist development. Their approach was critical not only with respect to exploitation of workers, but also with respect to the way capitalism treats nature.
There are three basic points that they make that I want to emphasize. One is that, for Marx and Engels, human wealth was not reducible to labor; they always recognized nature as an inherent component of human wealth. When Marx was criticizing the Gotha program, a proposed merger of two socialist parties in Germany, he was quick to criticize the statement that “labour is the source of all wealth,” by pointing out immediately that wealth isn’t simply labor, that “Nature is just as much the source of use values”.
Second, in their writings Marx and Engels always pointed out that human production, both under capitalism and other systems, is constrained by natural, physical, biological, and even ecological laws. We will return to this point later, but the ecological element (even though they didn’t call it that) is very strong in Marx and Engels’ writings.
The third point is that Marx and Engels were highly cognizant of the tendency of the ecologically unsustainable development of productive forces to destroy natural wealth. They recognized that this resulted from a general break with the natural laws required for production to be sustainable, and in their view this was an outgrowth of capitalist relations of production. In some of their writings Marx and Engels even recognized the possibility of human-induced global climate change. Moreover, natural science was always an important interest for Marx and Engels; the extent to which they engaged with natural science has until recently gone mostly unrecognized, but has been increasingly revealed by recent studies.
I think the important thing is that we can’t treat capitalist development of the productive forces and its effect on nature as though it were a big mistake; we have to understand how it happens and look at the potential for a more sustainable system to grow out of this development of the productive forces. We need to look at how this development shapes things like class struggle and international conflict.
So I think that the Promethean interpretation takes a very one-sided view of Marx and Engels’ writings. There is a sense in which they viewed humanity as having a more autonomous relationship with nature compared to other species, given the greater ability of human production to utilize and reshape the environment (and to damage it). This isn’t something that Marx and Engels simply applauded; rather they took it as an object of critical analysis.
So, in this sense would you say that many of these criticisms of Marxism are really criticisms of capitalism?
The ability of capitalism to develop productive forces is way beyond all previous societies because of the way it socially separates labor power and the means of production (starting with the land) and then reunites them under competitive production for profit. If we want to explain the impact of human production on nature on a global scale, apart from particular ecological systems that have been overstretched by previous societies, most of the impact has been associated with capitalist production and the systems that have developed largely under conditions dictated by capitalism, like the Soviet Union.
The question is how can we get a grasp on how this has happened, instead of just sort of morally criticizing it. So capitalist development of the productive forces was something that was praised by Marx and Engels as historically progressive, yet they struggled in their thinking and in their support of different movements for a new type of social economy: a new kind of relationship between nature and production, in which the connection between labor and nature would be cooperative, democratic, and more explicitly planned for the purposes of sustainability.
Such an economy would develop people not just in terms of consumption of goods and services, but in a holistic sense. They were interested in human development and the potential that capitalism creates for human development interacting with nature. Production is only part of this. Human capabilities include intellectual capacities, planning capabilities, and the ability to cooperate. In modern terms, the question was really how to redirect and recast the productive abilities created by capitalism into more pro-ecological, human developmental directions.
There is a kernel of truth in the criticism of Marx’s value theory by environmentalists; this involves the reduction of value to labor time in the abstract. But this isn’t a valid criticism of Marx; rather it should be treated as a criticism of capitalism. Capitalism’s reduction of value to labor time is not Marx’s preference; it’s a result of his analysis of capitalist relations of production and exchange.
There’s an important distinction that Marx and Engels make in their work, although they don’t always phrase it this particular way, between the conditions that are required by capital accumulation and the conditions required for a sustainable, non-exploitative human development and relationship with nature. And this is something that is often missed. Even Marxists often reduce the question of environmental crisis to one of capital accumulation crisis, treating environmental crises in terms of their impact on capitalist profitability and sustainability of the profit-making system. But for Marx and Engels, capital accumulation can persist through environmental crisis. In fact, this is one thing that makes capitalism different from previous societies. It has the ability to continue with its competitive profit-driven pattern of accumulation despite the damage that it does to natural conditions.
Previous societies were often tied more closely to particular ecosystems — regions of soil and water resources, for example — and if they overstretched these conditions the entire system would be immediately thrown into a crisis. Capitalism has the ability because of its global biospheric scope to take a more “slash and burn” attitude towards particular natural conditions, to continue accumulating on a global scale despite the damage it causes to nature. This distinction between capital accumulation crises and the general environmental crisis caused by capitalism is something that is often underrated by Marxists. Marx analyzed accumulation crises from disruptions in the supply of cotton, but there’s also a broader notion of environmental crisis in his work, in which the natural conditions of human life are threatened even as — indeed, precisely because — capital continues to accumulate.
Speaking of Marxism and environmental crises, Marx characterized the commodity form as the “economic cell-form.” In what sense can we think of ecological crisis as contained within Marx’s basic analysis of value and the commodity form?
When Marx talks about economic crises he talks about the basic commodity exchange from the capitalist’s standpoint: money exchanging for commodities and then commodities exchanging for money, what he calls the M-C-M circuit. According to Marx, this circuit of capital only shows the possibility of economic crises; the actual crises are much more complicated to analyze, because they are historically specific.
But I think the circuit of capital also shows the possibility of environmental crises in that there are certain tensions or contradictions between the basic form of value as exchange value and the natural environment within which production takes place. According to Marx, at a basic level capitalism reduces value to labor time in the abstract: a kind of qualitatively homogenous labor time as represented by money in exchange. At the same time, he comments at many points on how capitalism’s abstraction of labor time is in real tension with the natural conditions of production and of human life. Of course Marx also recognized that labor and the ability to work, which he called labor power, are natural substances that can only be understood biologically in connection with the environment.
This real tension between natural conditions and capitalism’s basic form of valuation contains the kernel of the possibility of environmental crises.
Under capitalism, exchange value represents the substance of value, labor time, as an homogenous thing. One dollar is just as good as any other dollar, and one hour of labor time in the abstract is just like any other hour of labor time in the abstract. It’s a purely quantitative thing, whereas in nature we have all sorts of qualitative distinctions and this is something that leads to all kinds of tensions between production driven by money-making and the natural environment.
In capitalist production the only possible goal is to make more money. The goal of production is by definition to increase the amount of value that the capitalists attains. There is no limit to this goal of monetary capital accumulation. Obviously natural conditions are not unlimited. So it’s a very basic tension between the goal of capital accumulation versus the limited character of natural conditions.
Further, value and exchange value are perfectly divisible; you can divide up the dollar to a miniscule amount. Nature itself is not divisible in this way. And if we consider the fact that profit-driven production occurs within a particular time period, there is a tendency of accumulation to try to accelerate production, and this also comes into contradiction or tension with the natural rhythms of ecological systems. Different kinds of production and the ability of nature to absorb waste take time to occur. If we want agriculture to occur in a healthy, sustainable way we can’t simply try to accelerate it without limit. We see some of the problems that stem from this in modern agriculture.
And so on a basic level, within capitalism’s value form there are various implicit tensions with the natural basis of wealth and sustainable development. Of course the actual crises that occur develop from the whole system of capital accumulation historically. Marx did quite a bit of this analysis, analyzing accumulation crises from disruptions in supplies of raw materials, as well as the broader crisis in the natural conditions of human development generated by capitalism.
This is something John Bellamy Foster’s work has pushed forward considerably. Marx wrote about a metabolic rift between human production and natural laws of environmental sustainability. This rift is associated not just with agriculture, but with the separation between town and country, with the industrialization of agriculture on the one hand, and the concentration of industry in urbanized areas on the other. Marx looked at how the circulation of materials into and out of the soil was disrupted by this division under capitalism, leading to a break with the natural laws of sustainable life. Marx based this on a very detailed study of natural and agricultural science of his time, especially the work of Justus von Liebig. If you look at his analysis it all stems at a very basic level from the contradictory nature of the basic forms of value under capitalism, once these forms are understood both materially and socially.
So that is the defense of Marx and Engels from ecological critique; but your work goes further, in suggesting that Marxism has something essential to offer ecological economics. What is it that ecological economics, as a heterodox discipline, is lacking that a Marxian analysis provides?
Well, first of all, I really think ecological economics is an important development within the economics profession. Ecological economics was largely developed in opposition to the shortcomings of mainstream neoclassical economics and how it treats nature. Mainstream neoclassical economics basically focuses on the price system, supply and demand, optimization by individual decision-makers, and the purported efficiency of market systems. But the material constraints on production have not been dealt with very well by neoclassical economics, either by microeconomic models of markets or by growth models. Neoclassical economics basically treats nature as a substitutable asset in production, saying that when natural resources become in short supply, there are always substitutes; technological change can solve the problem. Even if there are environmental problems, these can be solved by recasting the price system through various taxes and subsidies so that environmental costs are more adequately reflected in prices. Ecological economics has made the important point that the price system is, for various reasons, unable to deal with different forms of ecological problems.
At the same time ecological economics has really treated the production system on the material level, without saying much about the social relationships through which production occurs. This is something that it basically shares with neoclassical economics. I think that if we’re going to analyze environmental crises, we have to treat the system of production, not only in a material way, but also in a socially specific way.
Marx provides that kind of connection through the class approach. He treats class relationships as particular relationships between, say, workers and the means of production, on the one hand, and between workers and the owners or controllers of the means of production on the other hand. So class is both a material and a social relationship; it’s a question of power over decision-making, and how different classes have different degrees of power. It also explains the unplanned character of capitalism, growing out of these production relationships; it treats the dominance of markets as an outgrowth of the underlying class relationships.
In this respect any theory of environmental crisis has to operate on two dimensions. One is on a holistic level, as it’s the whole system that damages nature especially at a global level. At the same time we must also view the system as differentiated relationally: different parts of the system are often in contradiction to each other, there are tensions, the natural conditions are not the same everywhere, nor are the positions people have with respect to the environment. Environmental crises, for example, mean something quite different depending on which class you’re in. This treatment of human production as a holistic, internally differentiated and conflict-ridden structure which is both material and social is a very important aspect of Marxism that is helpful for looking at environmental crises. And it is something that ecological economics really lacks.
At the same time any theory of environmental crises is presumably interested in overcoming these crises and moving towards a more sustainable system. So any analysis has to look at how society can increase its own self-critical and self-transformative capabilities in pro-ecological directions. How is it that society will develop the capability to overcome environmental crises?
Again Marx’s class perspective says something about this. It looks at the special position of the working class, with workers not having the goal of monetary accumulation so much as the goal of attaining use value and developing themselves as human beings. This is something that has potential for analyzing and pushing forward environmental conflicts and struggles.
Most people view industrial workers struggles as often in opposition to environmental struggles. I think Marx’s view was quite different and richer than that. I think he viewed working class struggles in a broader sense, as including environmental struggle. Again, considering class as a material and social relationship is helpful in this regard.
Finally, sustainable development is an area that ecological economics has brought to the table, and serves as an advance over prior economic thinking. But again there’s confusion between the sustainability of capitalism versus the sustainability of production in a broader sense. This is a distinction that Marxism can make, based on its class analysis. So I would say that Marxism should have a sympathetic but critical approach to ecological economics. I think there’s a lot of things Marxism can bring to the table with regards to ecological economics.
You have suggested that a Marxist critique of ecological economics has some parallel to Marx’s critique of the Physiocrats. What was the physiocratic view of nature and value, and how did Marx critique it?
Basically the view of the Physiocrats was that non-agricultural production lives off agriculture, in the sense that industrial and non-agricultural production depend on the means of subsistence and materials provided by agricultural and other land-based sectors (including things like mining and livestock grazing). This relates to what they called the net product or surplus product, the amount over and above that necessary to keep the workers going. This is the basis for accumulation and growth; you can’t have growth if you consume the entire product.
Marx’s engagement with the Physiocrats was scattered through a lot of his writings; he talks about it a little bit in Capital, but his main engagement was in a historical treatise entitled Theories of Surplus Value, not published until after his death. The way Marx responded to the Physiocrats will surprise those who criticize him for being against nature. Marx agreed with the Physiocrats by arguing that there is a natural basis for a surplus product, in the sense that agricultural workers must produce a surplus for there to be accumulation in a material sense. Moreover, since a surplus product is a precondition of surplus value, Marx repeatedly referred, not only in his engagement with the Physiocrats but throughout his writings, to what he called the natural basis of surplus value. The ecological and environmental critics of Marx haven’t referred to this very often, which isn’t surprising as it shows a natural element in Marx’s thinking.
At the same time, Marx criticized the Physiocrats because they identified surplus value with surplus product. They treated value simply as use value, not distinguishing between use value and exchange value, and thus not considering the specific form of wealth valuation under capitalism. By confusing surplus value with surplus product, they confused the value dimension with the material forms it is carried in. And so the Physiocrats established the natural basis of surplus value, but ultimately they weren’t able to analyze the production of surplus value because they stayed on the level of use value.
For this reason they couldn’t really come up with the kind of critique of capitalism that could be used by ecological economists today. This analytical limitation of the Physiocrats is related to the shortcomings of [much of] ecological economics.
There are some strands of ecosocialist thought that attempt to attribute value to nature and apply the concept of exploitation to nature. What difficulties does this run into?
Many of these ecosocialists suffer from confusion about nature and value, because they don’t really distinguish between value as use value, what Marx often called “wealth”, versus value as exchange value, which represents a historically specific way of valuing things under capitalism. Prices aren’t specifically capitalist; they occur under various systems. But the dominance of exchange value over production is specific to capitalism, because capitalism is based on the market exchange of labor power itself. This leads to market exchange dominating production — not only through the wage-labor exchange, but through commodity exchange more broadly, as workers must now purchase means of subsistence, and capitalist firms purchase tools and materials of production in the marketplace. Even the land becomes a kind of quasi-commodity.
Those who attempt to treat nature as itself having value ignore the mediations, the specific social relationships, through which production and exchange take place. That really cripples their criticisms not just of Marx, but also of capitalism itself. They don’t make clear distinctions between value, exchange value, and use value. For example, Marx recognizes that particular natural resources can have an exchange value under capitalism in the form of a rent or a price, but that doesn’t give them value. There are deviations of exchange value from the underlying values that take place through the market, and these have to be analyzed in a detailed way. Those who ascribe value to nature run into all kinds of contradictions by not taking into account the complex relationship between exchange value and value.
For example, some writers claim that capitalist production extracting wealth from nature involves an exploitation of nature. But then the question becomes what form does this exploitation take in exchange? And how do capitalists profit from it? There is a contradiction because they say on the one hand that natural resources used by industry are priced below their real value; they’re underpriced by the market system, and that’s how capitalists profit. But on the other hand they claim that firms that actually extract the resources, like mining companies and agricultural enterprises, overcharge; they’re overpriced. So apparently we have an overpricing and an underpricing of natural conditions at the same time, and in the aggregate there is no reason why the overpricing of natural conditions couldn’t be offset by the underpricing of natural conditions. So it’s not clear how nature could be exploited. This is all a result of the failure to distinguish between value, use value, and exchange value. It’s not really clear what the exploitation of nature would mean, apart from particular social relationships.
Sometimes people claim this occurs at the expense of future generations. But then we’re not talking about exploiting nature anymore; we’re talking about exploiting future generations. But what does exploitation of future generations mean? It means there’s less natural wealth or use values available to future generations. So then you’re saying value is the same as use value, and we’re not one step further along in analyzing the actual valuation of nature under capitalism.
So basically the criticism of Marx’s value theory for downgrading nature completely misunderstands and misses the boat about the richness of his value approach and how it can be used to analyze capitalism and its environmental crises. I agree, for example, that labor values don’t actually treat nature as real wealth; it’s the same way that the value of labor power does not reflect labor power’s real use value to individuals or to society as a whole, as a condition and form of human development. But again this is something that is an analytical, not a normative, result.
Now, another criticism of Marx, which gets us into the topic of natural science, revolves around the “Podolinsky business.” There has been a view, historically, that Marx and Engels downplayed thermodynamic considerations. How did this get started, and how did your own investigations lead you to dismiss this?
This basically got started through the work of Joan Martinez-Alier, who is a Spanish environmental theorist. Martinez-Alier focused on two letters from Engels to Marx (at the very end of Marx’s life) after Marx had sought Engels’s opinion about the work of Sergei Podolinsky, a Ukrainian socialist working in France. In seeking to reconcile thermodynamics with Marx and Engels’ approach to value, Podolinsky tried to quantify energetic inputs and outputs in agriculture. Podolinsky had sent Marx some of his work and asked Marx to comment. In replying to Marx, Engels criticized Podolinsky’s reduction of production to pure energy, while pointing out various forms of energy waste that had evaded Podolinsky’s treatment of agricultural energy flows.
Strangely, some of the environmental economists, especially Martinez-Alier, took this as a critique of using any kind of thermodynamic considerations in analyzing production. They developed the idea that Marx and Engels never took account of thermodynamics in their writings, including the first and the second laws of thermodynamics. And Martinez-Alier even claimed that Engels rejected the second law, the entropy law. This was all taken out of the context of Marx and Engels’ writings. But in reality, with respect to the entropy law, what Engels was criticizing was not the law itself, but rather the theory of the heat death of the universe, which is a quite distinct, though related, concept.
To repeat: Engels criticized Podolinsky’s reduction of production to pure energy flows. There is, however, a thermodynamic element in Marx and Engels’ own analysis of capitalism, even though they also highlight qualitative aspects that involve biology and environmental systems that can’t be reduced to purely energetic terms. As John Bellamy Foster and I have demonstrated, there is a thermodynamic dimension in Marx’s Capital when he writes about the exploitation of labor power, different forms of capital, capital accumulation, and the metabolic rift. To give just one example, he brings thermodynamics into his analysis in demonstrating that the exploitation of labor power can create surplus value, consistent with the conservation of energy.
The criticism of Marx and Engels for not adequately taking advantage of Podolinsky’s attempt to bring thermodynamics into Marxism seems to be completely misplaced. This is something that Foster and I have established in detail over the last several years.
Marx’s analysis of capitalism was centered around class struggle. In our contemporary situation, how would we expect the increased importance of ecological degradation to affect the nature of this class struggle?
There are two different visions of class struggle leading to revolution that one can find in Marx and Engels. One is what I call a narrowly industrialist vision, where basically the proletariat in factories would become more and more conscious and concentrated and ultimately lead a socialist revolution. This vision was very influential in some of the twentieth century socialist and social democratic movements, especially in Western Europe. But there’s another vision of revolution and change that is much broader, in which the working class movement is discussed as including all sorts of social and cultural movements. This second vision is more consistent with an environmental revolution being part of the socialist revolution.
We have to recognize that for Marx and Engels the historical limits of capitalism would not be reached simply through a breakdown of accumulation. There’s a whole historical controversy in Marxism about breakdown theory which we can’t really get in to, but their view was not that capital accumulation would somehow automatically break down. Their view was that there would be a worsening contradiction between the conditions required by capital accumulation and the conditions required for human development in a sustainable healthy sense. Their idea was that capitalism’s development of the productive forces would create the basis for a more sustainable human development path, but there had to be a change in the relations of production in order for this to take place.
If you take a class perspective on capitalism, the perspective of the working class is opposed to that of capital. Whereas capital’s goal is simply accumulation of value in the form of money, the working class is in a position where, at least potentially, its goal is the pursuit of use value, in the sense of human needs. If we look at things in this way, combined with the fact that nature is part of this use value, then the working class potentially has a more environmentally friendly position in the class struggle than capital does.
This is something that Michael Lebowitz has writen quite a bit about, in his development of Marx’s views on socialism. He really emphasizes socialism as a new concept of human development, as opposed to simply the development of more productive forces and the piling up of commodities for workers to consume.
Finally, briefly, what does your analysis of Marxism and ecology tell us about the necessary social basis on which a sustainable relation between humanity and nature must be based?
In Marx and Engels’ view, socialism really means a broader conception of human development. As they say, it’s a system in which the development of each individual is the condition for the development of all. The basic principles for this are actually very clear. They outline them, although they don’t really try to draw up a blueprint for post-capitalist society, because it must develop out of struggles that occur. But they talk about the fact that sustainable production has to use forms of exchange and distribution that are different than market exchange and production through the competitive pursuit of profit: a system in which use value is placed in command rather than exchange value.
This means that production must be planned. Planned production is, in principle, consistent with a pro-environmental perspective, even though the history of planning in the post-1920s Soviet Union wasn’t exactly pro-environmental. But if we think of planning in a broader sense, it is consistent with environmentalism. Planning in the service of use value would obviously mean making much greater use of renewable energy, and a pro-ecological restructuring of both production and of human settlements, including, for example, a reduction of dependence on automobile transportation.
At the same time, this kind of environmental planning requires the development of human intellectual capabilities throughout society, and for this we need to have a reduction in work time and an increase in cultural and intellectual forms of production. This would increase the ability of people to self-administer the system of production and cooperate in doing so to increase democracy. Right now, even in the advanced capitalist countries, most people are basically on a treadmill of work, consumption, and rising debt. In order to have a worker-community controlled economy with cooperative planning, we have to reduce work time and increase production in cultural and intellectual areas. This would increase human capabilities and enhance the richness of human life in directions that are environmentally sustainable.
Ernest Mandel has written about a “hierarchy of needs” in the context of developing the Marxist vision of communism. There’s a misconception that Marx’s vision of communism is one that would approach unlimited material production of the things that are now produced under capitalism. But if you look at the hierarchy of needs, once basic material needs are satisified then it becomes possible to move toward the satisfaction of more intellectual and cultural needs that place less pressure on the environment than industrially produced consumer goods, and also enhance human capabilities.
A sustainable system of production has to place use values in command rather than exchange values, and capitalism is incapable of doing this. There are some, even some “post-modern” neo-Marxists who suggest that the concept of a green capitalism is feasible. I don’t think this is consistent with a sober Marxist analysis of actually existing capitalism. Given the environmental contradictions of money and market pricing, market environmentalism is the wrong way to go. If we want to have a realistic grasp of environmental problems and the scope of the needed changes, we need a deep-rooted critique of capitalism and its market forms. We need the courage to envision and engage with popular struggles against these forms, in favor of explicitly cooperative, democratic, non-exploitative, and non-market alternatives.