Commodity Fetishism, Sustainable Development, and Marx's Capital


11-14-07, 9:43 am

The year 2007 marks the 140th anniversary of the publication of Karl Marx’s Capital, Volume 1. After these many years it can be asked whether this great book still has anything relevant to say about social problems now at the forefront of human concern. This article will illustrate the enduring significance of Capital, V. 1 by showing that it contains abundant material useful for understanding and solving the most daunting problem currently faced by humankind: the problem of sustainable development.

“Sustainable development” is defined by the United Nations (1987) as socio-economic development that meets “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The problem of sustainable development has ecological, political, and economic aspects, but most discussions emphasize its environmental aspects because the problem is obviously bound up with the global environmental crisis, particularly the issues of resource depletion, global warming, and the threat of catastrophic climate change. Clearly, methods of development that undermine the future viability of human societies must be recognized as unsustainable and in need of replacement with sustainable methods.

Many readers will be surprised that Marx is being put forth as a source of solutions to the problem of sustainable development. Marx has long had the reputation of being utterly unconcerned with ecology and other issues of sustainability. For years he has been caricatured as a proponent of the conquest of nature by humankind, who advocated a crudely materialistic notion of the good life as consisting of sheer material abundance based on ever-increasing industrialization. On the contrary, it will be shown that Capital, V. 1 has important things to say about the root causes of unsustainable development, about the political, economic, and ecological aspects of sustainable development, and about the kind of social system we need to achieve sustainability.

Capital, V. 1 is focused on revealing the economic laws that govern capitalist society (Marx, 1996, p. 10). Marx’s analysis of these laws reveals that capitalism is a model of unsustainability, not just economically or politically, but ecologically as well. Thus, Capital, V. 1 is actually a primer on the nature of unsustainable development, and in fulfilling this function it says vitally important things – albeit often indirectly – about the nature of sustainable development. The significance of Capital, V. 1 for our understanding of sustainable development can be clarified by examining, and drawing a few logical conclusions from, four themes developed in the book: commodity fetishism, the status of nature, the labor process, and the law of value.

Commodity Fetishism

The most important statement in Capital, V. 1 might be its opening sentence: 'The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as an ‘immense collection of commodities', its unit being a single commodity' (Marx, 1996, p. 45). From this short statement, which is deeply penetrating in its insight, and beautiful in its simplicity and succinctness, flows the recognition of an essential feature, as well as an entire critique, of capitalism. Capitalist society is dominated by commodity production and exchange to a degree never before reached in human history.

From the recognition that capitalism establishes the dominance of the commodity form, there ultimately arises the conviction, which all Marxists share, that social progress necessitates overcoming capitalism by liberating mankind from slavery to commodity production. The opening sentence of Capital, V. 1 is also a chilling description of life under capitalism. The entire wealth of society is reduced to a vast conglomeration of commodities produced for sale on the market. This includes humankind's most precious and useful faculty – the ability to satisfy material and psychic needs through purposeful, creative labor. Under capitalism, even this essential capacity is commodified and put up for sale. The logic of the system dictates that human labor power and the values it creates must be objectified in the commodity form, and man forced to live primarily as a producer, consumer, and seller of commodities.

Humanity’s domination by commodities and the demands of commodity production illustrate what Marx called 'the fetishism of the commodity,' in which commodities, and the requirements of their production and exchange capture and enthrall human communities, controling individual and social life like the fetishes and totems of primitive religion. Marx's views on commodity fetishism are fleshed out at the end of the first chapter of Capital, V. 1, in the section entitled “The Fetishism of the Commodity and Its Secret.” Commodity fetishism masks the domination of human beings by changeable social relations and makes it appear as domination by things (Gogol, 1981, p. 38). As Marx put it, the collection of commodities and the regime of production and exchange that makes up capitalist society 'is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things' (1996, p. 83).

In other words, capitalist society is so completely dominated by commodities that it seems like social life is governed by the eternal natural laws of commodity production and exchange when in fact it is human beings who are doing the dominating. One class of human beings (the capitalists) oppresses another class of human beings (the working class) through control of commodity production. Commodity fetishism causes people to view this form of domination as perfectly normal and immutable.

In Capital, V. 1, Marx said that the source of commodity fetishism is the commodity form itself (1996, p. 82). What is the “commodity form”? A commodity is a product of human labor produced for sale on the market for the purpose of maximizing profit. The commodity has a dualistic nature: its use-value (its capacity for satisfying human needs) is separate from its value, which Marx defined as the quantity of labor time necessary to produce the commodity (1996, p. 45-61). The dualistic nature of the commodity permits this separation of market-value from use-value, and the goal of maximizing profit causes the fetishization of the former. Thus commodity fetishism is the domination of humankind by fetishized market-values. This causes use-value, as a criterion of social utility and desirability, to be lost sight of and eclipsed by the fetish of market-value, and market-value to be falsely equated with social usefulness and desirability. The fetishization of market-value over use-value guarantees that under capitalist production, profitable goods and services will be produced in abundance and unprofitable ones will not be produced. Whether the product causes social harm or social benefit is of no importance. Thus, fundamental human needs will be met inadequately by capitalist societies, in many instances they won’t be met at all, and, most significantly for the present discussion, the need for sustainable development will be unacknowledged because such concerns are considered irrelevant to the pursuit of maximum profits. All else being equal, capitalism will favor production of highly profitable but socially less useful or even harmful forms of commodity production and consumption over those which are less profitable but socially beneficial. That is why, to unprejudiced observers, capitalist societies exhibit a perverse set of priorities in which war and the production and marketing of military hardware, luxury goods, high-performance vehicles, upscale housing, shopping malls, sports facilities, toys, games and gadgets, and all types of elaborate spectacles and entertainments is actually considered more important and more worthy than peace and production for vital human needs such as affordable housing, healthcare, childcare, and education. Of course, ecological sustainability is largely ignored due to the above-mentioned obsession with profit maximization. It is not the case that the denizens of capitalist societies fail to notice this problem – although many individuals who are highly susceptible to commodity fetishism, or who have a vested interest in preserving capitalism, do not perceive it as a problem – the problem is that the logic of the capitalist system guarantees that decisions about the allocation of resources will favor commodity production for maximum profit instead of production of commodities with high social utility, but relatively lower potential for profit.

From the fetishization of market value follows fetishization of the market itself. Social life is viewed as little more than a series of market exchanges among isolated individuals and the commodities they produce, buy, and sell. The market replaces that other old fetish, God, as the all-powerful, ultimate regulator of social life. Like medieval theologians absorbed in disquisitions on the attributes of God, people in capitalist society actually attribute knowledge, wisdom, beneficence, and reason to this God-like Market, instead of to human beings. They start believing that the market, in the form of an “invisible hand” guided by the wisdom of the marketplace, actually makes rational judgments regarding value and resource allocation (Smith, 1981, p. 456). The capitalist market becomes a semi-divine, all-powerful, all-embracing authority to which all human values, needs, and desires are sacrificed. This includes needs as urgent as sustainable development. For instance, Americans have been told for decades that clean and affordable alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power cannot be utilized on a mass scale because the “market” has not yet “decided” that they are profitable. This is an excellent example of the social effects of the fetishization of the market – which, incidentally, also belies the claim that the market is rational and beneficent.

Commodity fetishism forms a noxious combination with individualism by causing people to perceive their personal decisions about production and consumption as strictly individual, morally neutral calculations of self-interest in relation to market value. Recognition of and regard for communal interest and the social significance of production and consumption is overshadowed by the scramble for profit and individual competitive advantage. This undermines the motivation to improve society, because the lone individual feels powerless against the market, and individualism undercuts the potential for organized mass dissent. Individual despair contributes greatly to the toleration of socially harmful production and marketing. Most everyone living in capitalist societies has heard the familiar refrain from producers or sellers of harmful commodities such as cancer causing agents or addictive narcotics: “If I didn’t do it [produce or sell these commodities] someone else would!” For societies in which commodities, market-values, and the market itself have become fetishes, regard for the social effects of production and consumption is gravely weakened, and it becomes virtually taboo to attempt to hold individual decisions accountable in the court of communal interest.

There is a passage near the end of Capital, V. 1, Chapter 1 that sheds light on the close relationship between commodity fetishism and the problem of unsustainable development. Marx says that fetishes, whether in the form of gods or commodities, will disappear only “when the practical relations of every-day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellow men and to Nature” (1996, p. 90). This implies that commodity fetishism mystifies not only man’s relations to commodities and other men, but to nature as well. As will be seen in the next section, reflection on the status of the natural world in capitalist societies confirms that Marx is correct; capitalism treats nature like a collection of commodities even though it is not a product human labor. If capitalism commodifies nature, and man's real relationship of dependence upon nature is ignored due to commodity fetishism, then human beings will not perceive the need for sustainable development.

Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism suggests an important conclusion regarding the characteristics of sustainable societies. Sustainability requires society to acknowledge humanity's dependence on nature and to conduct rational management of resources with the emphasis on conservation and maintenance of environmental quality, while at the same time meeting fundamental human needs. For this to be achieved, resource management and production decisions must be guided by the findings of ecological and other environmental sciences regarding the best sustainable development strategies. Satisfactory implementation of these strategies will not occur in capitalist societies, because commodity fetishism ensures that decisions about resource allocation and use are made by capitalist profiteers whose goal of maximum profit blinds them to the need for sustainable development. Construction of a sustainable society requires ending commodity fetishism and the commodification of nature, in short, it requires the abolition of capitalism.

The Status of Nature

In Capital, V. 1 Marx construes nature as the material foundation of all life, and acknowledges its function as the arena and material basis of human existence and all human activities, including productive labor. It supplies humankind with materials and tools for agriculture, fishing, and industry. Granted, these points are obvious and non-controversial. A capitalist might even agree to them, because, taken by themselves, they do not refute the view that nature is just a vast collection of commodities. We need to examine some passages from Capital V. 1 more closely to understand how Marx’s views on nature’s status align with the need for sustainable development.

Marx was no romantic or mystic regarding the relationship between nature and man. Nature, for Marx, is something that man must use in order to survive and develop. In chapter 7 of Capital, V. 1, Marx wrote of the various ways in which nature supplies man with useful materials: The soil (and this, economically speaking, includes water) in the virgin state in which it supplies man with necessaries or the means of subsistence ready to hand, exists independently of him, and is the universal subject of human labour. All those things which labour merely separates from immediate connection with their environment, are subjects of labour spontaneously provided by Nature. Such are fish which we catch and take from their element, water, timber, which we fell in the virgin forest, and ores which we extract from their veins. (1996, p. 188)

Of course Marx knew that not all material for human labor is “spontaneously provided by Nature.” Besides spontaneously provided materials, which are simply plucked out of their natural element, nature is also a source of “raw material” for human industry. Marx used the term raw material in a technical sense denoting natural articles that must be worked on and altered by human labor before they can be used in the production process. “If. . .the subject of labour has, so to say, been filtered through previous labour, we call it raw material; such is ore already extracted and ready for washing. All raw material is the subject of labour, but not every subject of labour is raw material; it can only become so, after it has undergone some alteration by means of labour' (1996, p. 188).

Capital, V. 1 also calls nature humanity’s “original tool house,” one that provides human beings with “instruments of labour” that encompass everything from sticks and stones to chemical reactions. What is most interesting about this discussion is Marx’s unique perspective on these instruments of labor. The parts of nature that serve as labor’s instruments are not what we would normally think of as mere tools that exist to be used up and discarded. Marx actually thinks of them as organs of the human body: An instrument of labor is a thing, or a complex of things, which the labourer interposes between himself and the subject of his labour, and which serves as the conductor of his activity. He makes use of the mechanical, physical, and chemical properties of some substances in order to make other substances subservient to his aims. . . . Thus Nature becomes one of the organs of his activity, one that he annexes to his own bodily organs . . . As the earth is his original larder, so too it is his original tool house. It supplies him, for instance, with stones for throwing, grinding, pressing, cutting, &c. The earth itself is an instrument of labour . . . (1996, p. 189)

For Marx, an instrument of labor is an organ annexed to the human body. Since nature is an instrument of labor, nature in its entirety can be construed as an organ of the human body. The implication for sustainable development is clear: nature must be conserved and cared for as if it were part of one’s own body, for in fact it is part of one’s own body. Since nature is an organ of the human body, the commodification of nature by a propertied class represents, by extension, the enslavement of humanity. Clearly, this idea, conjoined with Marx’s views on commodity fetishism, represents an unequivocal rejection of the commodification of nature and endorsement of the idea that nature should be treated as a vital part of the human body.

By serving as the material basis of human existence, nature makes available for human use spontaneously provided materials, raw materials, food, tools and other instruments of labor, including the physical and chemical properties of natural substances. Nature performs this function throughout human history and across all modes of production. Peculiar to capitalism is that nature in its entirety is treated as a vast collection of objects, processes and properties destined to be transformed into private property and commodified. Once commodification occurs, all aspects of commodity fetishism that affect capitalist society are transferred to nature as well. Fetishization of nature as commodified nature causes humanity to ignore its utter dependence on the natural world for resources, tools, and sustenance despite the long history of this relationship, the findings of science, and the protests of ecological dissenters within capitalist society. It also perpetuates humankind’s ignorance of the fact that nature is an organ of the human body which is indispensable to the survival of the species.

Capitalism fundamentally misconstrues the status of nature in relation to man. Instead of viewing nature as an integrated system consisting of interdependent life forms, properties, processes, and natural resources, as well as the complete, irreplaceable material basis of human and other life, capitalist man views nature as both a vast commodities market and a limitless garbage dump, an inexhaustible collection of separate objects, and vast swaths of land and water that exist merely to be exchanged, consumed, and polluted by individual commodity producers and consumers according to the market’s dictates. In the capitalist worldview these acts possess significance only as behaviors of isolated consumers and producers acting in accordance with market-defined notions of self-interest. Nature has no significance as a collectivity or system of living beings, natural objects, and natural processes – let alone as the organ of the human body that Marx held it to be – the conservation and healthy functioning of which is vital for the preservation of life and for the continuation of the very possibility of productive labor – in short for humanity’s collective interest in its continued existence. For capitalism, in all its irrationality and heedlessness in the face of this reality, acknowledges no such integrated natural system and no such collective interest. The Labor Process

Marx’s discussion of the labor process in Capital, V. 1 shows that his regard for nature as an organ of the human body is more than a mere metaphor. This has important implications for his understanding of the labor process. Now the relationship between beings that interact and exchange material in the process of maintaining life is appropriately described as a metabolic relationship. Thus, if Marx is serious about his characterization of nature as a life-sustaining organ that is annexed to the human body, it should be reflected in his discussion of the labor process, because it is through labor that humankind interacts with nature. It can be shown that Marx does indeed regard the labor process as a metabolic relationship between humanity and nature, although this is more readily apparent in some English translations of Capital, V 1 than others. In the International Publisher’s edition of Capital, V. 1, Marx's discussion of the labor process in chapter 7 reads as follows: Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material reactions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. (1996, p. 187)

Through the labor process, humanity, which is itself a force of nature, opposes itself to the rest of nature in order to adapt the natural world to human needs. Yet Marx also recognizes that the labor process includes cooperative interaction and material exchange between living man and living nature, with both poles of the relationship accorded an active role. True, the passage above does not describe these “material reactions” as a type of metabolism, but some scholars argue that the above passage, when properly translated, explicitly describes the labor process as a metabolic process between humanity and nature (Foster 2000, p. 157). The German word “Stoffwechsel,” which Marx used in the German edition of Capital and which is translated above as “material reactions,” is literally translated as “metabolism,” and it is translated as such in some English editions of Capital, V. 1. For instance, in the Vintage edition, the above passage is rendered as: Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates, and controls, the metabolism between himself and nature. (1977, p. 283)

Metabolism consists of the physical and chemical processes necessary for the maintenance of life. If two living things are in a metabolic relationship, that relationship can only be maintained if both parties remain alive and healthy, and each one contributes, through the process of metabolic exchange, whatever is necessary to maintain the other in a condition conducive to continuation of the metabolic relationship. If Marx conceived of the labor process as a type of metabolism in which both man and nature participate, then it follows that the process is one in which nature (obviously) plays an indispensable role in maintaining the lives of human beings, while humanity in turn participates in maintaining nature as a system capable of metabolic interaction with humankind. This interpretation is not farfetched in light of other passages in which Marx discusses the natural world. We have already examined a passage from chapter 7 in which Marx called nature an “organ that man annexes to his own bodily organs” (1996, p. 189). This clearly shows that Marx’s views are compatible with the notion that the worker (and by implication the working class, not to mention the rest of humankind) must take just as vital an interest in maintaining nature in a healthy condition as she would in regard to any other part of her body. This conclusion is reinforced by other passages in Capital, V. 1. In chapter 15, section 10, for example, Marx presupposes the need for human care and maintenance of nature when he comments on the damage capitalism has done to the agricultural labor process, understood as a metabolic, or life sustaining, interaction between the soil and human communities: Capitalist production, by collecting the population in great centres, and causing an ever-increasing preponderance of town population, on the one hand concentrates the historical motive power of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the circulation of matter [again the operative term is Stoffwechsel, translated as “metabolism” in Marx, 1977—DSP] between man and the soil, i.e., prevents the return to the soil of its elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; it therefore violates the conditions necessary to lasting fertility of the soil. . . . all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. . . . Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the labourer. (1996, pp. 506-508)

Clearly, Marx's indictment of poor capitalist stewardship of the soil can be applied to capitalist treatment of the entire natural world. Marx's discussion of the labor process in Capital, V. 1 shows that he viewed it as a metabolic relationship which must be kept in balance for the relationship to be sustained. Humanity’s metabolism with nature must be properly managed and maintained if both are to thrive, and in that respect the relationship can also be considered, in a sense, symbiotic. In regards to agriculture as a metabolic relationship between humankind and the soil, sustainability requires that humanity regularly return to the soil the nutrients that the earth originally supplied. Human life can only be sustained if human beings conduct a sustainable relationship with nature. They must manage the relationship in a way that periodically returns to nature that which humanity has taken; only in that way will it be assured that nature can continue to support the metabolic needs of humankind. Capitalism destroys this metabolism by debilitating both poles of the relationship through robbery aimed at achieving maximum profit – robbery of the worker through extraction of surplus value, and robbery of the soil by depriving it of nutrients.

The Law of Value

We have seen that capitalist society consists of an immense collection of commodities possessing value. How is value determined? In Capital, V. 1, chapter 1, Marx holds that the value of a commodity is determined by the amount of socially necessary labor time required for its production. . . . that which determines the magnitude of the value of any article is the amount of labour socially necessary, or the labour time socially necessary for its production. . . . Commodities, therefore, in which equal quantities of labour are embodied, or which can be produced in the same time, have the same value. The value of one commodity is to the value of any other, as the labour time necessary for the production of the one is to that necessary for the production of the other. ‘As values, all commodities are only definite masses of congealed labour time.’ (1996, p. 50)

Capitalist society is devoted to producing values to be sold on the market at maximum profit. Thus, decisions regarding production and resource allocation are controlled by the 'law of value' which controls the effects of value (measured in terms of socially necessary labor time) on the cycles of capitalist economies. More specifically, the law of value explains how the exchange-values, or prices, of commodities relate to their values, how this relationship affects supply and demand, and how it determines production decisions. Assuming private property and competition, the exchange-values of commodities will “gravitate towards their values,” which are equivalent to the socially necessary labor time expended in producing them (Kuusinen et al, 1963, p. 216). All things being equal, a commodity representing 10 hours of socially necessary labor time and a commodity embodying one hour of labor time, will exchange at a ratio of 10:1.

Under economies subject to the law of value, the equalization of supply and demand, and the resulting tendency of commodities to exchange at prices reflecting their values, is accomplished through an anarchic process characterized by constant changes in supply and demand along with related price fluctuations. In this process, each commodity producer competes with other producers, all of whom have limited knowledge of actual demand. When supply is greater than demand, prices fall, and commodities exchange at prices below their actual values; when demand exceeds supply, commodity prices rise above their values. In the former instance, falling prices lead to decreased production, decreased supply, and an eventual rise in commodity prices to their actual values. In the latter case, rising prices cause increased production, oversupply, and a gradual reduction of prices to levels reflective of actual values (Katikhin, 1980, p. 701).

The law of value is highly abstract, but it has far-reaching concrete effects. The operation of this law creates the objective conditions which support commodity fetishism and capitalism’s dysfunctional labor process. It also guarantees that production for maximally profitable exchange will eclipse production for maximum social benefit. This is because the law of value dictates that in capitalist society, products exchange at prices reflecting the amount of socially necessary labor time that they embody, regardless of whether the results of this are beneficial to society – and it is demonstrable that the results of capitalist production are frequently not socially beneficial. For example, from the standpoint of sustainable development, it would be beneficial to society if non-fossil fuel automobiles were cheaper to buy than conventional automobiles; but this cannot happen in capitalist society, because commodity exchange is governed by the law of value, which ensures that the product requiring more socially necessary labor time to produce – the technologically sophisticated, alternative energy car – will exchange at a higher rate than a less sophisticated, conventional automobile. In order for alternative energy vehicles to become items of mass consumption, state intervention would be needed to curtail the effect of the law of value on the prices of the vehicles. In effect, a subsidy would have to be provided to compensate producers for the value of the labor power that could not be recouped by an artificially – from the standpoint of the law of value – low selling price. Under capitalism, social utility can have no bearing on the prices of alternative energy automobiles because exchange-value is fetishized. It is considered taboo to forthrightly acknowledge the negative effects of the law of value on society, to attempt to privilege social utility over exchange-value, and to attempt intervention in the economy in order to place fetters on the law of value. Abolition of this taboo, that is, liberation of economic activity from the law of value, would of course require a successful transition to socialism.

Conclusion: Sustainable Development and the Significance of Capital, V.1

Application of the lessons of Capital, V. 1, to the problem of sustainable development reveals the following general conclusions:

1) If sustainable development is ever to be achieved, commodity fetishism must be brought to an end, because, in addition to other negative effects, commodity fetishism blinds human beings to the ecological and social significance of their economic activities;

2) For sustainable development to be achieved, nature cannot be treated as a mere collection of commodities, nor as a dumping ground for the waste products of the production process. It is scientifically demonstrable that nature is a system that provides the basis of life and which must be carefully managed and preserved in order to continue performing that function;

3) Sustainable development cannot be achieved as long as the labor process is allowed to destroy the metabolism between nature and humankind. The labor process must be organized in ways that promote both human well-being and a thriving natural world;

4) Sustainable development cannot be achieved as long as humanity is controlled by the law of value. Instead, the influence of the law of value must be mitigated so that production can be focused on satisfaction of human needs and maintenance of metabolic harmony between nature and humankind.

Since the law of value, commodity fetishism, an unscientific view of nature, and ecologically destructive labor processes are integral and essential parts of the capitalist mode of production, it is clear that capitalism cannot achieve sustainable development. These systemic flaws make capitalism politically, economically, and ecologically unsustainable because simply dealing with these problems will require transformation of capitalism into a different social system. Capitalism must be replaced by a society in which the law of value, the status of the commodity, the treatment of nature, and the labor process are brought under rational, scientifically-informed, and socialist-oriented control, exercised cooperatively by the vast majority of humanity, the working class. For it is the working class, not the capitalists, which has a vested interest in achieving sustainable development. In Capital, V. 1, Marx noted that commodity fetishism cannot be overcome until production is carried out by “freely associated men, and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan” (1996, p. 90). This statement applies not only to commodity fetishism per se, but to the problem of sustainable development as a whole. Capitalism must be transformed into socialism, as socialism is the form of society which represents the initial stages of a fully sustainable, communist society in which commodity fetishism is eliminated and people are free consciously to pursue a sustainable society through a socialist approach to management of the labor process and mitigation of the negative effects of the law of value on the use of natural resources. This is not to say that socialism guarantees sustainable development, but socialism gives humanity the best chance at achieving sustainable development.

It is clear that Capital, V. 1 provides a theoretical basis for thinking about sustainable development that is more profound than the typical productions of bourgeois scientists, scholars, and journalists. It helps us to see that unsustainability is a systemic problem of capitalism and that sustainability can be accomplished through a transition to a socialist system. To the bourgeois mind, sustainable development is a relatively shallow problem, a narrow, technical issue that can be remedied by environmental scientists, engineers, policy makers, planners, and other specialists working within the capitalist system; or else it is seen as a problem of individual choice that can be solved by encouraging consumers to choose a so-called “green” lifestyle.

Bourgeois views on sustainable development are myopic and superficial because the bourgeoisie are in denial about capitalism’s systemic problems, and they want to avoid any changes that would involve getting rid of capitalism. For them, sustainable development is really the question of how to continue carrying out capitalist exploitation of the working class and the natural environment, how to extend this mode of exploitation throughout the world, and how to create conditions that will allow future generations of capitalists to continue extracting surplus value to perpetuity. Capitalists are all in favor of sustainability as long as it means that capitalism will spread further and last longer; they want capitalism to be around not just for another one-, two-, or three-hundred years, but forever. In bourgeois circles, concern about future generations of capitalists is the real content of the oft-quoted formula “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The capitalist notion of sustainable development means managing exploitation in a way that preserves the absolute supremacy of capitalist society along with its very reason for being: extraction of maximum profit. Even though capitalists can make limited adjustments to their practices when the environmental effects become intolerable even to them, an ecologically aware capitalism will still seek to maximize profits through exploitation, war, and despoliation of nature. Sustainable development can be achieved by socialist society because its fundamental concern has always been rational, democratically managed development for the satisfaction of the needs of the whole society. Freedom from concern for capitalist profit allows a socialist society to adapt its production decisions to the requirements of sustainable development in a timely fashion, because adaptation is not held back by the law of value; indeed, in a socialist society the law of value is not made the main basis of planning, and this allows the economy to serve the entire people, not the minority of capitalist exploiters. Serving the whole people includes sustainable development, because it is in line with the fundamental interests of all humanity

If Capital, V. 1 and the whole Marxist tradition can teach us one essential truth in this regard, it is that the battle for sustainable development is part of the world historical conflict between socialism and capitalism. Fundamentally this is not a question of proper technique or choice of lifestyle; it is a question of political economy, of competing social systems, of class struggle. Sustainable development is a problem that must be tackled by the whole working class, by the vast majority of humankind which does not profit, but rather suffers, from unsustainable development, and it can only be solved through the genius, creativity, and concerted efforts of the entire working class.To view sustainability in this way is to understand that the mismanagement of natural resources and the degradation of the natural environment cannot end until the capitalist exploitation and degradation of humanity and nature is replaced by a social system in which workers are empowered to manage production and distribution in accordance with sound ecological principles for the benefit of humankind. Ecological science is all for nothing unless humanity is free to act upon it, and this cannot happen until the workers put an end to capitalism. That is why Marxists must not shrink from proclaiming the view that the achievement of sustainable development hinges upon the outcome of the class struggle and the socialist revolution.


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