I’m writing this post essentially as a review for my parcial (midterm exam) tomorrow afternoon… however I do find this stuff important and interesting and I’ve been pleasantly surprised in my studies to find Marx’s opinions on the human-nature relationship both logical and… agreeable — not generally the word people would associate with the author of such world-infamous revolutionary dogmata. But my goal, by the end of this (hopefully concise) post is to convince you that Marx was not only an extremely progressive ‘environmentalist’, but furthermore founded his entire body of academic work on the necessity of repairing the human-nature relationship. Which (spoiler alert) he eventually says is impossible to do within the context of our current capitalist system, and thus suggests socialism or communism, and.. yeah. Revolution, yadda yadda etc.
So let’s start off tens of thousands of years ago, when the first human-ish populations were hunting and gathering and hadn’t quite figured out how to plant seeds in a row. At that point, humans did effect their ecosystems, but only proportionately similarly to any other animal specie of our size and reproductive prowess. All of that Native-American-Pocahontas lore of living with nature and respecting (her) natural flows? That, according to Marx, is the only sustainable state that humans have ever known. We had to respect nature’s flows, because even early humans’ primative ‘ecology’ enlightened them to realize that if you overuse a resource, it dries out, whether it be animal/plant/fish/bug/water. Even then, if early humans DID overuse a resource, they often would pack up camp and leave, allowing for nature to naturally replenish itself, causing (as far as we know) little long term harm.
Then we discovered how to plant seeds in a row. Agriculture, that crazy paradigm shift that allowed humans to generate food surplus which allowed for some humans to specialize and craft goods which could then be traded with other humans so that we could build massive, dirty campsites and generally distance ourselves from soil toils; this, the dissociation the human producer from the source of his production (nature) is problematized by Marx as the metabolic rift, (referencing the action of intaking and transforming (labor) resources and outputting goods as a type of metabolism). Since we are not directly connected to our own production from natural resources, Marx says we are alienated from nature; capitalism inserts labor between man and nature, which indicates, given the emergence of large-scale agriculture, long-distance trade, and general globalization, that this metabolic rift is only intensifying.
And the result of this metabolic rift is the ideology that modern capitalism was built upon: the Great Chain of Being; Natural Theology; the teleological notion that nature was created by God or a higher power for man to use and abuse (the bible actually says that we should act as a “shepherd” to nature, implying an element of caretaking, but that was conveniently overlooked by Christian colonialism). Ownership by divine providence, says Marx, is a philosophical idealism which has been used to justify and encourage the domination of nature by man. Hence, we have private property, anthropocentric arrogance, and the earth and her resources are commodified whilst man is elevated to a semi-devine, non-animal, non-God, ‘superior being’.
In contrast to this idealism is Marx’s materialism, which could be understood as ‘thinking scientifically.’ We are comprised of matter, and even though we can’t see them, atoms, and we are the product of millions of years of evolution by way of natural selection according to the laws of nature. According to this epistemology, man is clearly not anything divine or superior, and even though we’ve operated (..since hunter-gatherer days) on the false ideology that we’re not part of nature and are not subject to the same set of natural rules and regulations as the rest of our biotic community, we are just as much a production of our evolutionary pathway as is a flea.
Though, says materialist philosophy, we are different, in that we have actually changed the earth itself over time, and as we went about transforming the world, we transformed ourselves:
primates, who constituted the ancestors of human beings, descended from the trees, erect posture developed first (prior to the evolution of the human brain), freeing the hands for tool-making. In this way:
…the hand became free and could henceforth attain ever greater dexterity and skill, and the greater flexibility thus acquired was inherited and increased from generation to generation. Thus the hand is not only the organ of labour, it is also the product of labour.
Our brain is perhaps the most remarkable result of this reflexive socio-natural relationship— as we developed cultural items, such as the ability to use tools or pass on knowledge or ultimately develop language, natural selection also acted to favor those who were most adept at participating in such culture, leading to our current cranial capacities which we’ve neatly abused to figure out the most creative freaking ways to destroy the earth that birthed us. Anyways,
So now we’re here today with our titanic chasm of a metabolic rift, and frankly it’s not even the religion idea that motivates our further worldly destruction but rather flat anthropocentrism, justified by the exalted pursuit of profit (which is still part of the idealist philosophy, as anthropocentrism is a teleology)— where does sustainability fit in? What happened to respecting the laws of nature, which are still-and-forever-will-be conditions of the human existence? How can we justify ownership of this land? Finally in line with his esteemed manifesto, Marx writes:
From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household].
We’ve been shitty heads of the household. And I’m certain we will continue, if not worsen, our reign of terror.
Capitalism, writes Marx, “creates the material conditions for a new and higher synthesis, a union of agriculture and industry…” — in other words, capitalism is a powerful engine which has led us to a point where we’ve got the brains and brawn to figure out a path towards a “higher synthesis”, which he suggests to be a system of “rational agriculture, which needs small independent farmers producing on their own…” and the regulation of associated producers. HOWEVER, since we’re humans, and we’ve got to have free will and self determination and especially-in-God-bless-AMURICA, this sort of regulation is immediately termed socialism or communism, which it very well could be, except it won’t, because these systems fail, or at least we’re convinced they do.
DOOM AND GLOOM, we’ll probably keep hacking and fracking until Iceland is an anachronism and Sweden is the only place with no garbage.
Until then, VIVA LA REVOLUCION
~~ Keep in mind, Marx was convinced of the omnipotence of reestablishing our metabolic link in ~1850’s, long before the Teddy Roosevelts and Rachel Carsons of modern environmentalism. Environmentalism wasn’t even around yet, heck, the idea of the “scientist” had just been coined in the ’30’s, and the concept of “ecology” in ’69… progressive ‘environmentalist’? I think so.
And I would call that damn concise. Have you ever read Marx????