Monday, December 21, 2015

Marxism and the Environment: Environmental Problems as Problems of Practice

Arjun Sengupta

Over the last few decades, a view has gained currency amongst certain sections interested in social change that Marxism or historical materialism has little to contribute to a resolution of contemporary environmental problems. There are different versions of this claim. A particularly strong version, held by a number of deep or “radical” ecologists, is that Marxism is positively inimical to environmentalism, sharing as it does in a “productivist” “Enlightenment” ethic which is itself, in the first place, responsible for the environmental problems of today. A relatively weak version, popular amongst certain sections of Marxists themselves and others sympathetic to the left, is that while Marxism is not incompatible with environmentalism (far less responsible for environmental problems), it does however suffer from a theoretical “blindness” to environmental issues. Marxism would thus have to be supplemented with a dose of environmentalism, from the outside as it were, to make it serviceable in the environmentalist cause. Differences notwithstanding, however, the various versions of the claim (and their proponents) share a basic opposition to the central thesis of historical materialism – that the principal motor of historical change is the contradiction between relations of production, on the one hand, and forces of production, on the other. The attribution of causal primacy to the development of the forces of production, in the explanation of historical transformation, is diagnosed as the chief reason why Marxism, as a theoretical paradigm, is unsuited to tackling environmental problems.

Even unabashedly Marxist commentators such as Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster, who have otherwise extensively argued for the necessity of Marxism in adequately addressing environmental issues, have displayed discomfort with the main thesis of historical materialism. In analyzing the relationship between capitalism and environmental problems, they pay scant regard to where this relationship stands with respect to the contradiction between relations and forces of production in capitalist society. In other words, they adopt, in their theoretical enterprise, a Marxism cleansed of historical materialism. Contrary to such a view, I would like to argue that the manner in which any social formation, including capitalism, deals with environment problems is an expression of the contradiction between relations and forces of production. Historical materialism, therefore, is not only compatible with the objective of effectively addressing environmental issues, but is in fact indispensable for the same. Recognition of this fact requires an appreciation of what exactly constitutes production or practice in the Marxist worldview, and relatedly how one is to conceive of forces of production, relations of production, and environmental problems.    

  1.       Forces of Production – The Dialectic of Quality and Quantity

Human beings interact with nature principally through labour or practice. Practice involves modification of nature for the satisfaction of needs. What defines practice as human practice, further, is that it entails transformation of nature as already transformed by prior practice. Individual human labour or practice, therefore, involves transforming the products of other labour or practice. Human practice, in other words, is fundamentally social. It involves a complex of different kinds of labour that are qualitatively or causally connected. The labour of each is causally dependent on the labour of all. A carpenter’s labour is made possible, for instance, by the labour of the lumberjack, the labour of those transporting the wood, the labour of the artisans making the tools, the labour of the masons who built her work shed, the labour of those who cooked her food, etc. Each of these of other kinds of labour, in turn, is causally dependent on a range of different kinds of labour. And so on and so forth. Human production, thus, can be seen to constitute an organic complex where each kind of individual labour is concretely connected to every other kind. 

Two points are important to note here. First, the qualitative unity of different kinds of labour is a part of the unity of nature itself. Different kinds of labour are casually connected because the different objects of labour are themselves causally connected. Thus, if the wood, obtained through the labour of the lumberjack, did not have the inherent ability of being crafted in specific ways by specific operations of the carpenter’s tools, no relationship would have existed between the labours of the lumberjack, the carpenter, and the artisans making the tools. The causal connections between different kinds of practice, thus, are a part of the causal connections between objects.

Second, the qualitative unity of different kinds of labour has a quantitative dimension as well. Because different kinds of practice are causally interdependent – i.e. because they constitute a single social process, they are also quantitatively commensurable. Thus, because the qualitatively distinct labours of the lumberjack, the carpenter, and the tool artisans, causally depend on each other, they are quantitatively comparable as instances of human labour in general. In other words, the labour expended by the lumberjack over a certain amount of time is equivalent to the labour expended by the carpenter or the tool artisans over the same amount of time. It is precisely this quantitative equivalence between different kinds of labour, incidentally, that makes commodity production possible.

What ought to be stressed here is that quantitative equivalence is only an expression of qualitative unity. Without the causal interdependence of different labours, the latter could not have borne any quantitative relationship to each other. Bourgeois social science, on account of its class moorings, is incapable of understanding this dialectic of quality and quantity. For instance, while Adam Smith and David Ricardo made a genuine scientific advance in discovering that the value of a commodity is determined by the amount of labour time expended in producing it, they remained in bewilderment over how qualitatively distinct kinds of labour could compare with each other quantitatively. This led them to erroneously suppose that the expression of labour as pure quantity – i.e. the alienated and abstract form which labour assumes under capitalism – is an inherent or transhistorical feature of labour. This fatal inability to understand that quantitative equivalence is an aspect of qualitative unity is what eventually resulted in the wholesale abandonment of the labour theory of value within bourgeois economics.

Forces of production, as a concept in the Marxist theoretical outlook, refers precisely to this concrete complex of qualitatively distinct and united labours which, by virtue of this unity-in- difference, are also quantitatively equivalent. Development of the forces of production, therefore, means an elaboration of this complex of social practice. Each significant productive advance in human history, from the emergence of settled agriculture, to the introduction of iron tools, to the invention and use of the computer, has involved a deepening of the causal interdependence between different kinds of practice. Each such technological improvement has, in other words, diversified the complex of human practice.

This qualitative elaboration of the complex of labour also expresses itself quantitatively. This is so in two related ways. First, diversification of practice implies an increase in the number of different kinds of practice. There is, thus, an increase in the number of different kinds of labour that each particular kind of labour is dependent upon, and an increase in the number of different kinds of labour that depend on each particular kind of labour. Development of the forces of production, therefore, involves an increase in the number of concrete social connections of individual practice. Second, an increase in the causal connections of each kind of practice also means that a greater quantity of each kind of product is produced. This is precisely the reason why technological development, historically, has entailed an increase in the productivity of labour. For instance, the introduction of the iron plough, while it elaborated the complex of casually interdependent labours – the labour of the tiller now being dependent on the labours of the miner, smelter, forger etc., also meant an increase in the amount of land that could be tilled over a given period of time.

Again, this dialectical unity between qualitative elaboration and quantitative expansion is lost sight of by all strands of bourgeois social science. Thus, while, on the one hand, neoclassical triumphalist accounts of economic development see in technological advance nothing but increasing productivity and efficiency conceived purely quantitatively (i.e. abstracted from the complex of social labour), postmodern skeptical views of technology, on the other, understand technological development  only in terms of scale and quantity (and, therefore, their preoccupation with purely quantitative dichotomies like “big” versus “small” technology, “industrialism” versus “non-industrialism” etc.). Both perspectives, seemingly antithetical, are united in erroneously conceiving the development of the forces of production exclusively in its quantitative dimensions. Both fail to realise, in other words, that the quantitative growth of production is an expression of the qualitative deepening of the complex of social practice.

2.      Why do the Forces of Production Develop? – The Dialectic of the Finite and the Infinite

Viewing the development of the forces of production as the qualitative elaboration of the complex of labour has another important implication. We have already seen how the causal unity of labour is a part of the causal unity of the objects drawn into labour. It follows from this that as the forces of production develop a greater variety of objects are drawn into social practice. This, of course, then means that such development involves the practical utilization of a greater number of causal properties of each of these objects. Thus, for instance, the introduction of the use of clay pots in cooking raw meat, as against direct exposure of the meat to fire, involved the use of a greater number of properties of each of the objects involved – the fire, the uncooked meat, and the clay pot.

This consideration leads us directly to an inherent contradiction of practice. While social production, at any point in its development, involves the use of certain properties of objects, there are always properties that are not utilized. In other words, while practice is always qualitatively finite in character, the objective world – the world that we transform through practice – is qualitatively infinite. This contradiction between finite practice and an infinite world means that no matter what the level of development of our practice, it will always be partial and limited – i.e. there will always be objective properties and relations which our practice has not reckoned with and which will therefore present themselves as practical problems. Thus, for instance, in the Paleolithic period, the development of various techniques – hunting tools such as the bow, the trap, the boomerang, the bolas and the harpoon, elaborate techniques of chipping, flaking, polishing and grinding stones, a fairly well developed system of language etc., enabled hunting communities to hunt game with increasing efficacy. But what this complex of social practice did not reckon with were the natural rates of reproduction of species of game. As a result, the increasingly elaborate and successful practice of Paleolithic hunters led to serious depletion in the population of game species, which threatened to undermine the very basis of that practice itself. Practice, thus, always throws up problems for itself.

Now, since each such problem originates in certain causal properties of objects not being reckoned with – not being utilized – by social practice, its resolution lies in drawing such properties into the ambit of the latter. Such utilization of previously unutilized qualities, of course, amounts to a qualitative elaboration of the complex of practice. The resolution of problems thrown up by current practice involves, therefore, the emergence of new kinds of practice. Thus, for instance, the crisis of the hunting economy of the Paleolithic period was resolved principally through what is often referred to as the Neolithic revolution – the emergence of agriculture and the domestication of animals. Agriculture and stockbreeding involve the utilization of precisely the casual property unutilized by the Paleolithic hunter – i.e. the natural rates of reproduction of species that serve as sources of food. The Neolithic revolution entailed conscious control over the entire life cycle of these species, and thus resolved the problems thrown up by Paleolithic production.

It is this dual character of practice - as being, at the same time, both problem-solving and problem-yielding – that accounts for the historical development of the forces of production. Practice develops because it necessarily throws up problems which can only be solved through a further elaboration or enrichment of practice. In other words, it is the contradictory character of practice itself, being finite transformation of an infinite world, which impels it to change. It is in the nature of production - being necessarily limited, partial and incomplete - to develop. The reason for the development of the forces of production, therefore, must not be sought in any abstract unfolding of “human genius”, or in a teleologically pre-determined drive to perfection, or, for that matter, in any “Promethean, productivist, Enlightenment rationality”, but in the objectively contradictory character of production itself.

A few things need to be noted here. First, the dialectic of quality and quantity we have discussed so far implies that the qualitative problems of practice, and their solutions, have a quantitative aspect as well. Qualitative problems and solutions, in other words, are also quantitative problems and solutions. Thus, the crisis of Paleolithic production was also, at the same time, a quantitative crisis involving sharply diminishing production of food. By the same token, the Neolithic resolution of the crisis involved a qualitative development of production which was, at the same, a major expansion in terms of the sheer quantity of what was produced. It was precisely this quantitative expansion, incidentally, which, for the first time in history, made possible the production of a social surplus – a prerequisite for the emergence of class divisions.

Second, since a problem originates in the non-utilization of causal properties in the current complex of practice, it is impossible to define it as a problem independently of current practice. To put the point more generally, a problem is a problem only for social practice at a given point of historical development. Thus, while the content of a problem is objective, it is constituted as a problem only relative to practice at a certain point in its qualitative elaboration. There are, therefore, no problems which stand outside the history of the development of production. All problems are problems for human beings engaged in social production. No production, no problems.

3.      Relations of Production – The Dialectic of Form and Content

The dialectic of the finite and the infinite involves a historically developing relationship between individual practice, on the one hand, and the overall social complex of practice, on the other. This relationship can also be understood in terms of a dialectic of the form and content of practice. Let us examine how. We saw that the infinite nature of the world implies the ever-present need for finite practice to solve problems. The objective of practice, therefore, is not just the maintenance of practice at its current level of elaboration but also its qualitative development. Practice, in other words, involves not only the transformation of the objective world but also its own transformation

The relationship, however, between the maintenance and development of practice is a historical one. It is vitally dependent on the level of qualitative development of practice itself. The reason for this is quite simple. The qualitative finitude of practice also implies its quantitative finitude. Therefore, a finite quantity of total social labour must be apportioned between the tasks of maintaining and of developing practice. Such apportionment, of course, means apportionment of a finite amount of social labour time. Further, we have seen that the qualitative elaboration of labour also entails its quantitative expansion – i.e. increase in the productivity of labour. Thus, as practice qualitatively develops, the social labour time required for the maintenance of practice, as a proportion of total social labour time, decreases. This, of course, means an increase in the proportion of total labour time available for the development of practice.   
But the social complex of labour, which is expressed quantitatively as total social labour time, is carried out by real individuals engaged in social production. Therefore, the determinate apportionment of total social labour between the tasks of maintenance and development of practice means that the practice of each individual must stand in a determinate relation to this apportionment.  And since this apportionment changes historically, its relation with individual practice changes historically as well. Thus, in pre-class societies, the limited development of production meant that the task of the maintenance of practice occupied almost the entire work day of the individual producer. At the same time, and for the same reason, the production of a social surplus which could sustain individuals specializing in the development of practice was impossible. Each individual was necessarily almost completely occupied in the task of maintaining production at its current level of qualitative elaboration.

Under class society, which presupposes a more developed complex of practice, the social apportionment between the maintenance and development of production assumes the nature of a difference between the immediate objective of the practice of different individuals. While the majority of individuals are still involved in the direct maintenance of practice, a minority can devote themselves exclusively to the task of developing the complex of practice. In other words, the said social allocation assumes the character of a division between mental and physical labour.

In all such societies – both pre-class and class-divided - the immediate practical objective of individuals engaged in the maintenance of practice, i.e. engaged in physical labour, is not the development of practice.  But such practice, where the objective of individual activity is not its own development – i.e. where the situation is not one in which “the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle”[i], has a specific requirement.  The objective of individual practice can be exhausted by the maintenance of current practice only if the objects drawn into practice are socially conceived as possessing only those properties which are utilized in current practice. In other words, it requires that the objective world be socially understood as qualitatively finite. Such an objective involves, therefore, an abstract conception of objects - a conception which abstracts from their concrete, i.e. qualitatively infinite, character. An abstract conception of objects also implies, of course, an abstract conception of practice, wherein the causal connections between individual labours are socially posited as fixed. Thus, a standard of practice as the maintenance of current practice requires that concrete production be socially understood as – i.e. appear as – abstract. It is this abstract expression or phenomenal form of concrete production that is referred to as the relations of production. Relations of production, in other words, designate the abstract social conception of concrete practice which mediates such practice. They are the abstract form within which concrete production is carried out.

In all pre-capitalist societies, from the classless hunting economies of the Paleolithic period to feudal societies, production is socially conceived as qualitatively fixed. The causal connections of individual labour are regarded as unchanging. Thus, the activity of hunting, in Paleolithic times, stands in a socially fixed relationship to a specific number of other kinds of activity - tool-making, pottery, cooking etc. Similarly, in feudalism, the labours of tilling, sowing, harvesting, animal rearing, weaving, tanning etc. are bound together in stable socially established ties of personal dependence. In all such societies, the standard of individual practice is to maintain social practice at its current level of qualitative elaboration. The objective of individual activity is not its own development but simply its preservation.

Under capitalism, the form of production continues to be abstract, but with a key difference. The qualitative connections of objects, instead of being socially posited as finite, are now posited as non-existent. Commodity production, where production is carried out on private account for exchange in the market, posits the quantitative equivalence between different kinds of labour in abstraction from their qualitative unity. Concrete, qualitatively specific labour, in other words, assumes an undifferentiated and homogenous form – abstract labour – different instances of which are related to each other only in terms of the amount of such labour performed. Labour, thus, appears as simply the exertion of the capacity to labour, regardless of the specific character of such labour, over a certain amount of time. The relationship between objects, thus, is expressed purely quantitatively – in terms of the values of different objects as commodities, value merely being congealed labour time. The causal, qualitative determinations of the object as use value are expressed as the purely quantitative determinations of the object as value.

The contradiction between the abstract form and concrete content of practice is precisely the contradiction between relations and forces of production. It must be remembered that the qualitative development of practice – because it involves a greater number of objective qualities being drawn into production – is itself a movement from the abstract to the concrete. In a social form which posits the objective world abstractly, this real movement from the abstract to the concrete must itself be carried out abstractly. An abstract form of concrete production, therefore, implies an abstract mode of problem resolution. Thus, in pre-capitalist societies, practical problems have to be solved and the complex of practice developed within the constraints imposed by a rigid social structure. Under capitalism, problem resolution takes a fundamentally anarchic form with maximization of the profits of the individual capitalist typically serving as the chief motive. In both, the rational resolution of problems takes place in a fundamentally irrational way.   

But an abstract mode of resolving problems is itself a practical problem. Thus, in any society where production is carried out within an abstract form, problems of practice also exist as directly social problems. In other words, practical problems have a two-fold character in such societies: they exist both as problems of the relationship between human beings and nature, and as problems of the relationship between human beings. Thus, for instance, in medieval England, the frequent recurrence of plague epidemics and the devastating toll they took on human lives were as much problems of the feudal order as they were of control over natural processes. Similarly, the widespread persistence of diseases under contemporary capitalism is as much a problem of capitalism as it is of medical science and practice. Therefore, when forces and relations of production are in contradiction, problems of changing the natural world are, at the same time, problems of changing the social world.         

4.      Environmental Problems as Practical Problems.

Environmental problems, if we are to meaningfully view them as problems at all, must be conceived as problems of human practice. The foregoing discussion, then, has several implications for how such problems are to be understood. First, there can only be anthropocentric (i.e. centred around human practice) standards for defining and resolving environmental problems. Tremendous confusion reigns on this question. Most contemporary environmentalist literature broadly agrees, and quite correctly, on three points: a) environmental problems are definitionally anthropogenic – i.e. they are consequences of human practice; b) environmental problems undermine the continuation of the current complex of practice; and c) environmental problems require practical intervention for their resolution. The trouble, however, is that most such literature, while asserting all three, fails to see their causal unity. Thus, for instance, deep ecologists see no contradiction between maintaining, on the one hand, that environmental problems are anthropogenic in origin, and denying, on the other, that the standard of defining (and, therefore, resolving) such problems has anything to do with human practice. On such accounts, therefore, the objective of environmental interventions should not be the development of human practice but the preservation or restoration of some fictitious, ahistorical, and static “balance of nature”.       

The Marxist view sketched above brings out the basic error of such a position. The three aspects of environmental problems, far from being causally disconnected, stem in fact from the same contradiction of practice – that it involves qualitatively finite transformation of a qualitatively infinite world. It is precisely because practice, at any point in its development, is necessarily finite in a specific way (i.e. it encompasses a finite number of qualitatively specific properties), that it undermines its own continuation in a specific manner or, in other words, throws up specific problems for itself, which can in turn be resolved only through specific kinds of practice. There is a necessary unity, therefore, between the origin of environmental problems, their content, and their resolution. The definitional standard of environmental problems must be anthropocentric precisely because such problems are anthropogenic. And it is for the same reason that they can be resolved through practice itself.          

Of course, if one operates with an abstract notion of the objective world and its transformation through practice, one loses sight of the basic contradiction of production. Thus, if the objective world itself is understood as qualitatively finite, then finite practice ceases to contradict it. Or, if production and the objects drawn into it are conceived purely quantitatively, then again the contradiction disappears as pure quantity cannot, in any meaningful sense, contradict itself. Strands of “back to nature” environmentalism which argue for a certain set of “stable” and “appropriate” technologies the adoption of which would supposedly solve, once and for all, all environmental problems, commit the first kind of mistake. Neoclassical apologetic economics, which views production and the world of objects exclusively in their quantitative dimensions, commits the second kind of error. Both, because they conceive production abstractly, see it as contradiction-free. Further, and similarly, the contradiction also disappears if the objective existence of the world itself is denied. If the world lacks any objective quality of its own, and is “created” by our practice itself, as social constructivism and certain strands of political ecology would have it, then our practice necessarily coincides with the totality of qualitative properties and is, therefore, bereft of any contradiction. In all such cases, the unity of the origin, content and resolution of environmental problems will be missed.  

Second, since problems of production, where practice takes place within an abstract social form, have a dual character – being at the same time both problems of control over natural processes and of social relations, environmental problems must be understood as a part of specific socio-historical contradictions. In other words, the specific character of an environmental problem in a specific social formation cannot be understood in abstraction from the specific contradiction between the forces and relations of production obtaining therein. Thus, for instance, the problem of contemporary global climate change must be seen as a part of the contradictions of contemporary global capitalism. No characterization of climate change as an environmental problem would be possible, thus, without a characterization of different aspects of this contradictory social form – imperialism, for instance. Further, if environmental problems exist today as a part of the contradictions of capitalism, the resolution of the former cannot be divorced from the question of the resolution of the latter. Environmental questions exist today, in other words, as class questions.  

A note of caution must, however, be sounded here. As we pointed out earlier, there is an increasingly salient tendency within environmentalism, particularly political ecology, to reduce contemporary environmental problems to capitalist relations, while abstracting the latter from the concrete production that takes place within these relations. Such reduction, or abstraction of form from content, is illegitimate. It amounts to a fundamental distortion of both the nature of environmental problems and of capitalism. Environmental problems, even when they assume the character of problems of capitalism, remain problems of production – i.e. problems of our conscious transformation of nature. Indeed, as must be quite evident from the account sketched here, it is precisely because they are problems of production in the first place that they can at all be, at the same time, problems of capitalist production.    
This directly brings us to our final point. The conception of environmental problems as problems of production – as problems emerging from our practical transformation of the world – implies that environmental problems will not cease under socialism. Socialism, by ending the blind anarchy of capitalist production and bringing all of social production under direct social control, is a decisive step towards ending the contradiction between the relations and forces of production – i.e. between form and content. Being a social form of production, however, it would still continually throw up problems including environmental ones. The character of such environmental problems, as problems of socialism, would depend, among other things, on the extent to which the social objective of production remains abstract. Environmental problems will continue to have a dual character, as both problems of the human-nature relationship and problems of social form, as long as the objective of social practice is not the free development of individual practice – i.e. till a situation is reached where the “free development of each is the condition for the free development of all”[ii]. But this requires, as we have seen, a certain degree of qualitative development of production. It requires also a progressive deepening of the control of the working people over production and its objectives. The perils, challenges, and opportunities attending these enormous tasks are evident from the experiences of socialist construction in the twentieth century, compounded though they were by numerous historical contingencies. But while a close study of these experiences might win us a broad understanding of the nature of environmental problems under socialism, fine-grained prognoses and predictions would amount to idle, if not counter-productive, speculation. The environmental problems that confront us today are problems of contemporary capitalism, as manifested in concrete and specific contexts. That is how we must tackle them.                                  


[i] Karl Marx, Capital Vol. I, available at
[ii] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Communist Manifesto, available at

The Author is doing his PhD from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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