Magazine article Monthly Review

The Enemy of Nature

Magazine article Monthly Review

The Enemy of Nature

Article excerpt

It is a great privilege to be here and share with you these reflections about the global crisis of ecological destruction. I believe Cuba to be the one place on earth where this, perhaps the greatest crisis in human history, can receive a full and deep analysis. Cuba has earned the distinction by becoming the first modern society to embrace an agricultural policy capable of sustainability. While we know that this transformation was the fruit of painful circumstances, we also appreciate it as a manifestation of the heroism of the Cuban people and their defense of socialism.

The ecological crisis is defined by the brutal fact that the normal course of social production inexorably destroys the natural basis of society. Until as recently as the 1960s nature was able to buffer the effects of production. Now this function is breaking down in a proliferating and incalculable way across multiple ecosystems. Climate change, species loss, disease, depletion of soils and groundwater, intoxication by pollutants ... the list can be extended, but its message is clear and harrowing: survival depends upon coming to grips with what is wrong at the mainspring of our civilization.

We need to be able to call things by their right name if we are to change them. To find the right name for something in this sense is to follow Marx's method in the Grundrisse, where he writes of the importance of finding the proper level of abstraction in order to grasp the concrete nature of things. "As a rule," Marx writes, "the most general abstractions arise only in the midst of the richest possible concrete development, where one thing appears as common to many."(1) It follows that we need to go beyond partial explanations in order to track down the actual, efficient cause of the ecological crisis at that level of abstraction where the individual causes all act together.

We should not, therefore, look for "development," nor "corporations," nor "markets," nor "industrialization," nor "technology," nor "greed," nor "consumerist lifestyles," as being at the heart of the ecological crisis. Nor are population, patriarchy, or the basic philosophical attitudes of Western civilization central, either. All these things are implicated, but none of them occupies that place where the concrete determinants come together. We find, rather, when we explore that center, that it is occupied by the elusive entity known as capital, which to Marx was the "all-dominating economic power of bourgeois society."(2) It is capital that conditions and drives separate determinations in an ecologically destructive way, and so becomes the efficient cause of the crisis. Development, or industrialization, as such, is an empty construct. But development or industrialization under capitalist aegis, in which capitalist corporations, markets, lifestyles, even psychologies and character structure, all interact, is what destabilizes ecosystems all over the planet.

Capital is elusive because it cannot be singled out in isolation from anything else. It is a social relation grounded in the commodification of labor-power, in which labor is subject to the law of value - a relation expressed through wage labor, surplus value extraction, and the transformation of all means of production into capital. As such an order of things took hold and spread, capital became "self-expanding," through the dominion of exchange value over use value, and the rule of quantification which this implies. It must be emphasized that such an "abstracting" of society does not happen abstractly, but through the coordinated development of a capitalist state, capitalist social relations, and a capitalist world system as the framework for the economy. With the state firmly in bourgeois hands, and with industrialization permitting a stupendous advance in productive capacity, the capitalist era as such was launched.

In capitalism, economic relations are advanced above all others. Therefore the economy rules capitalist society, and the economy itself is ruled by the demands of capital, which becomes, in a chilling metaphor that happens to be all too true, the actual god of this world, expressed in the form of money. …

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