Nature and Value

Do Bees Produce Value? 2017

ES argues that “exploitation” is not applicable to nature; one must say “destruction.”

GK writes that I wonder what would a labour theory of value look like if one started from the premise that value is produced from whoever does work (human or non-human, paid or unpaid) and then draw the implications from there.

ES responds that I doubt any valuation system can be implemented that would account for the real value of nature in a way that is compatible with the survival of capitalism except for limited experiments. In fact, a different valuation that would recognize and value nature as a “commons” would correspond to the end of capitalism, shifting the dominant organizing form from economic valuation to democratic political intermediation and collective decision. This is where the key battle resides.

As long as we have private property (and thus perceive resources as privately held or annexed for use), nature will be destroyed (not even exploited under Marxist thought). Capitalism cannot account for nature as producing Value; nature is only perceived as use-value, it is free for the taking, under the laws of ownership???

Must one be a human worker to produce surplus-value?
I mean, nature CAN be pressed and squeezed to produce more surplus value (fracking, deforestation, intensive monocropping).

How did feminists argue that surplus-value is generated by social and reproductive labor, and should be compensated????

If workers are organizing (unionizing) to dismantle the system of ownership & profits of production, but to free up reciprocal care for and access to the commons , then our #MSU makes sense. If we are happy to organize on behalf of nature, in order to remain in a free market system, then all we can do is perform the impossibility of that project.

In a search for “does nature produce Marxist surplus-value?” I came across these two articles:
Marx, Value, and Nature, John Bellamy Foster, 2018
Marx and Nature, Elizabeth Terzakis, 2018
I have some pull quotes below from the Terzakis work below.

ES: Marx uses three forms of value: “Use-value,” the physical-organic-sensory that have a use to someone. Honey definitely has a use value. “Exchange-value” is what permits universal exchange. What permits the making of a universal market exchange of equivalents is “Value,” the “socially necessary labour time” (SNLT) (or the average time) to produce a commodity under given social and technical conditions. Of course, the latter change all of the time (influence of competition and class struggle), usually getting lower (as it takes less time to produce a commodity). Honey, as the work of bees, has both use-value and exchange-value, but no Value. Capitalists are not interested in use-value per se; they are interested in surplus value. Labour power, also a commodity, produces more Value during a given period than the value of labour power itself. This difference is surplus value. This reasoning holds only for capitalism.

No surplus value>no profit = no capitalism. GK: BUT… Capitalists are appropriating free work and free value from the commons that should not be theirs (gifts of nature should belong to everyone). If we accept that Value is not produced only by humans, but also by ecosystems, then the worker is robbed not only of her work, but also robbed of the work freely made available by the commons.

ES: To paraphrase Marx, capital robs the fertility of the soil and power of the worker. The possibility of doing so, I would argue, resides precisely in the exclusive ownership of nature under capitalism (private property). That is why capitalism systematically attempts to enclose the commons. In a common or communal regime of engaging with nature, capitalism would not be possible. The decision about what sorts of nature to use by whom and for what purpose would have to be a political process (and not an economic process rooted in private ownership).

(N)ature contributes massively to reducing SNLT (socially necessary labor time). But nature is not valued at all. Capitalism cannot reproduce the natural conditions of its own production. That is why capitalism is by definition destructive of nature. Smart capitalists now desperately try to diminish their dependence on nature (solar energy, or wind do not require socio-physical reproduction). I doubt they will succeed — this search itself comes at an extraordinary social, economic and environmental cost.

The extraordinary productive powers of, say, oil, disappears in the pockets of all sorts of people, including of course the expanding middle classes (if class struggle is successfully fought by the working class). Nothing of it returns to nature in any way.

ES: For me, the key ingredients to get there are:
Getting rid of the trans-generational hereditary transmission of wealth/assets
– Getting rid of the separation between mental and manual labour
– Getting rid of the liberal nation-state as we know it today
– Organise the management of the commons in equal, democratic and self-governing manner
– Getting rid of the private ownership of nature

(Marx, Value, and Nature, Foster)
Key here is Marx’s distinction between APPROPRIATION and EXPROPRIATION:

Marx’s crucial distinction between appropriation and expropriation, around which his ecological as well as economic critique of capitalism revolves, is evident in his response to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, as dramatically portrayed in The Young Karl Marx. Proudhon is shown giving a speech in which he makes his famous declaration that “property is theft.”4 From the audience, Marx asks, “what kind of property, bourgeois property?” Proudhon answers, “property in general.” Marx remarks that this is “an abstraction.”

For Marx…the latter’s statement is logically untenable, for if property in general is defined as theft, and all proprietary claims are thus invalid, then the question arises: what is theft? It was necessary, in Marx’s view, to distinguish appropriation, or property in its many varied historical forms, from expropriation, i.e., appropriation without an equivalent (in Marx’s terms, also without exchange and without reciprocity).6 Classical political theory, from John Locke to G. W. F. Hegel to Marx, locates the basis of civil society and the state in appropriation—the active term for property or the right to possession through labor.

As Marx explained in The Poverty of Philosophy and in the Grundrisse, all human society rests on free appropriation from nature, which is the material basis of labor and production. This is another way of saying that all society depends on property. There can be no human existence without the appropriation of nature, without production, and without property in some form. “All production is appropriation of nature on the part of an individual within and through a specific form of society. In this sense it is a tautology to say that property (appropriation) is a precondition of production.” For Marx, to declare that “property is theft,” as Proudhon did, was therefore to skirt the fundamental issue—the development of various forms of appropriation in human history from the communal to the more extreme forms of private commodification.8 This approach allowed Marx to develop a powerful critique of capitalist society that was both economic and ecological.9 Proudhon’s conception left no way out for humanity; since appropriation in some form was a universal basis of society and life itself, to declare that property in general was theft, irrespective of particular property forms, was a dead end for revolutionary movements.

In the classical historical materialist view, the free appropriation of nature by humanity (the use of nature’s free gifts) is not to be condemned out of hand as theft. Indeed, “actual labor,” for Marx, “is [nothing but] the appropriation of nature for the satisfaction of human needs, the activity through which the metabolism between man and nature is mediated.”16 Nor should the concern be primarily, as in bourgeois society, with the mere “cheapness” of nature.17 Rather, it is the expropriation of nature in the sense of the appropriation of land or resources without reciprocity (maintenance of the “conditions of reproduction”) by capital that constitutes theft in this sphere.18 In Marx’s view, this reflects the “law of ‘expropriation’ not ‘appropriation’” underpinning capitalism.19 It is associated in its environmental aspects with capitalism’s systematic violation of what the nineteenth-century German chemist Justus von Liebig called the natural-material “law of replenishment” (or “law of compensation”) necessary for ecological reproduction.

Capitalism’s destructive relation to the ecological realm depends on this robbery of what Marx referred to as “the elemental powers of nature”—robbery not in the sense that these elements are not “paid,” as Moore says, but rather in the violation of the law of replenishment.

(Marx and Nature, Terzakis)
while the ruling class can imagine an end to the world, neither they nor many ecologists can imagine an end to capitalism. For this reason, all of their solutions must fall within the bounds of the market system. But the market system, with its need for constant growth and its inability to see the natural world as anything other than an exploitable resource, is in direct and inherent antagonism to the preservation of nature. Consequently, there is no solution to the problem of climate change without an end to capitalism, a fact that becomes very clear when we examine Karl Marx’s writings on nature.

The fact that value under capitalism is inextricably tied to exploitation is one obstacle to capitalism having a nonexploitative relationship with nature. Another is the competitive drive for accumulation. 

The upshot is that capitalist competitive accumulation is an engine for endless expansion and it necessarily comes into conflict with nature, which has limits. It also leads to the short-termism noted above—that is, the making of decisions about how to allocate resources and interact with nature based on the ability to secure profits rather than on the safeguarding of human lives, the environment, or the coevolution of both.

Marx advocated a society in which the “associated producers”—the majority of society—voluntarily and democratically decide the direction of the economy in the interest of human need rather than of profit, with statelessness as one ultimate goal. 

The author outlines Marx’s thinking around increasing leisure time for all associated producers. And she cites writers who claim Marx thought about TEK (traditional ecological knowledge) –subsistence, pastoralism, and other pre-industrial forms of harmonious negotiation with the more-than-human world, as options to technological “progress.”

I mentioned that Marx’s analysis of capitalism could help to save us from two traps that ecological thinkers and the environmental movement have fallen into in the past—a faith in and a commitment to the greening of capitalism and the projection of a purified, abstract nature that has no relationship to human beings and is better off that way. I want to point out that these two views are not incompatible, nor are they progressive.

The author goes on to correct some mis-characterizations of Marx on ecology and nature.
Marx stated that capitalism has forced a metabolic rift between nature and humans (alienations, land enclosures, polluted urban environs, and their connection to precariousness and further alienation)

The use values . . . of commodities, are combinations of two elements—matter and labor. If we take away the useful labor expended upon them, a material substratum is always left, which is furnished by Nature without the help of man. . . . We see, then, that labor is not the only source of material wealth, of use values produced by labor.

However, in his labor theory of value Marx is not laying out the way he thinks the world should be or what he thinks is valuable in terms of human need. He is describing economic behavior as it is under capitalism. It is not Marx, but capitalism, that equates only abstract socially necessary labor time with value—that is, value under capitalism is determined by exploited labor (labor expended over and above its own cost) because exploited labor is the source of profit.

Use values—those things provided to us by nature to meet our natural needs—are not valued by capitalism: use values are irrelevant to capitalism except inasmuch as they are “vendible”; that is, only if they have exchange value, which allows for the realization of surplus value or the portion of socially necessary labor time that goes into the production of commodities over and above what the worker needs for the reproduction of her or his labor, which, when realized through exchange, becomes profit.

Marx’s discussion of rents is key to understanding this attitude to nature, as well as to understanding what Marx means when he writes about use values being “free gifts” from nature to capitalism. Because no exploited labor goes into the production of, say, a naturally occurring forest, when a capitalist monopolizes that forest and charges rent for its use, there is no increase in capital to the system as a whole. That is, no labor has gone into producing the forest, so no surplus value can be extracted from it. Nor has it taken up any investment of capital. What’s more, all the conditions that make labor possible—land, air, water—are, at the outset at least, free gifts of nature. This is perhaps why they are also the targets of capitalism’s “externalization” of costs.

MZ: what about an IKEA (monoculture) forest?

As Sara Volle points out in her review of Frank Webster’s Theories of the Information Society:
It is in fact still impossible to live on thin air. And yet that is precisely what an “information” or “post-industrial society” (PIS) feigns to do. The reality, of course, is a far less tidy one—a world inconveniently occupied by sweatshop labor, polluted rivers, credit default swaps, melting polar ice caps, etc., etc.—those familiar yet often sanitized casualties of the “more for less” ethos of a “post-industrial” society.

Compared to this, Marx’s vision of a society of associated producers with scads of free time and a healthy relationship with both nature and technology developing our abilities to touch, taste, smell, see, feel, hear, think, love, and dream to their fullest seems infinitely more attractive and, more importantly, possible. This vision—along with an understanding of why environmental degradation is built into capitalism—is what Marx’s ideas can contribute to the movement against ecological destruction.