Posts tagged Marx

Marx, Population and Plenitude

A final challenge to Marx’s model, and also to his picture of the future, comes from something he did see very clearly and prophetically, the extraordinary productive power of capitalism. He saw how capitalism would transform the surface of the planet and impact on the life of every single person alive. There is, however, a crack or flaw close to the heart of his analysis. Marx saw the two fundamental poles of economic, and social and political, life as labour and nature. He didn’t see these two things as static; he used the metaphor of a metabolism to describe the way our labour shapes the world and we in turn are shaped by the world we have made. So the two poles of labour and nature don’t stay fixed. But what Marx doesn’t allow for is the fact that nature’s resources are finite. He knows that there is no such thing as nature unshaped by our assumptions, but he doesn’t share our contemporary awareness that nature can run out. This is the kind of thing which is sometimes called ironic, but is closer to tragedy, and at its heart is the fact that the productive, expansionist, resource-consuming power of capitalism is so great that it is not sustainable at a planetary level. The whole world wants to have a First World bourgeois lifestyle, and the whole world can see what that looks like by glancing at a television set, but the world can’t have it, because we will burn through its resources before we get there. Capitalism’s greatest crisis is upon us, and it is predicated on the unavoidable fact that nature is finite.

This is a point that Marxists for the most part have been reluctant to address, and for a very good reason: the problem of resources in the world today, whether food or water or power, power in all senses, are to do with inequitable distribution and not with the total supply. There is more than enough of all those things for all of us. Writers and activists in the Marxist tradition have tended to stress that point, and they’re right to do so, but we need also to face the fact that the world is heading towards ever greater consumption of and demand for resources on the part of everybody. Everybody simultaneously. That fact is capitalism’s most deadly opponent. To give just one example in relation to one resource only, the American average consumption of water is one hundred gallons per person per day. There isn’t enough fresh water on the planet for everyone to live like that.

So the question is whether capitalism can evolve new forms, in the way it has so far managed to do, and come up with property and market-based mechanisms which deflect the seemingly inevitable crisis that will ensue, or whether we need some entirely different social and economic order. The irony is that this order might in many respects be like the one Marx imagined, even if he saw a different route to getting there. When Marx said that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction he wasn’t talking about climate change or resource wars. If we feel a natural gloom and despondency at the prospect of the difficulties ahead, we should also take comfort in the fact of our imaginative adaptability and the ingenuity which has brought us so far so fast – so far, so fast, that we now need to slow down, and don’t quite know how. As Marx wrote, towards the end of the first volume of Capital, ‘man is distinguished from all other animals by the limitless and flexible nature of his needs.’ Limitless needs we see all around us and they’ve brought us to where we are, but we’re going to have to work on the flexible part.