What if there was a way to make capitalism environmentally friendly and more economically robust, in a way that benefited workers in particular? Liberals like Bernie Sanders and celebrity congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (‘AOC’) are claiming that a ‘Green New Deal’ would do just that.
In February 2019, AOC introduced to Congress a non-binding resolution, titled ‘Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.’ In it, she touts the Green New Deal as an ‘opportunity’ to ‘create millions of good high-wage jobs,’ ‘provide unprecedented levels of prosperity and economic security,’ and ‘counteract systemic injustices’ while also securing ‘for all people of the United States for generations to come’ such benefits as ‘clean air and water,’ ‘climate and community resiliency,’ ‘healthy food,’ and a ‘sustainable environment.’
The economic claims for the Green New Deal are based on the Keynesian belief that government-funded infrastructure spending can generate economic growth and overcome crisis. Since many articles in our literature have exposed the limits of Keynesianism, here I focus not on the Green New Deal as economic policy but on its underlying assumption that capitalism can be transformed into an environmentally sustainable system.
What is it about the nature of capitalism that makes it far more destructive to the environment than other modes of production?
At the most general level, capitalism is no different from any other form of society that has existed (or could ever exist), insofar as human beings must transform the materials that exist in nature to create useful things that satisfy their own needs. This is accomplished through labor, which Marx describes as ‘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’ (Capital, ch. 7, Penguin edition, p. 283). He points out that this ‘appropriation of what exists in nature for the requirements of man’ through the activity of human labour is the ‘everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence’ that is ‘common to all forms of society in which human beings live.’
Since human beings must ‘appropriate’ materials from nature to live, perhaps no society could be described as truly ‘friendly’ to the environment. Certainly past societies have also damaged the environment in their pursuit of natural materials to satisfy human needs. One example is the soil depletion and erosion in ancient Greece and Rome resulting from deforestation. However, it should be equally clear that, compared to earlier forms of society, the damage to the natural environment in the period since capitalism arose as a global system is far greater in scale.
A key aspect of capitalism that sets it apart from past societies, and partially accounts for its fundamental inability to be ‘sustainable,’ is that products of labour under this system are only able to satisfy human needs after first passing through the market, where they are bought and sold. Products thus have both a ‘use value’ as objects that satisfy needs and an ‘exchange value’ on the market (expressed in price). Marx uses the term commodity to refer to products of labour as the unity of those two elements. Of course, commodities (and money) existed within other forms of society, but only under capitalism do the vast majority of products take the commodity form, so that wealth presents itself, in the opening words of Capital, as an ‘immense collection of commodities.’
What makes widespread commodity production so potentially harmful to the environment? Isn’t the market just an efficient way to distribute useful goods to people?
Even if the market economy were nothing more than an alternative way to distribute use values to human beings, it would still pose problems to the environment. This is because in producing for the market, rather than directly to human beings, there are many unknown and unknowable factors.
Any commodity producer (whether an individual, a corporation, or a state-run firm) must rely on past experience and recent trends to determine what to produce and in what quantity. Whether the production decisions taken will match the reality of the market today can only be known at the point of sale.
Many things can go wrong. The demand for a commodity might not be as strong as expected; or even if there is demand, the price could be too high for a sufficient number of consumers to afford. Competitors might enter the market for high-selling products, resulting in a glut of new products. Or a financial crisis could break out just as goods are coming off the assembly line. And so on. Marx thus describes the sale of the commodity as the salto mortale of the commodity. If the commodity falls short in this fatal leap, it can end up on the scrapheap. Here we have one fundamental cause of the vast squandering of natural resources under capitalist production.
Unrelenting Drive for Profits
But the wasteful nature of the market, as mediator between producer and consumer, is hardly the only negative environmental factor associated with capitalism. A far more fundamental cause of the destruction of the natural environment is the system’s unrelenting drive toward profit.
The essence of capitalism is not commodity (C) producers selling their wares and then using the money (M) to buy the useful things they need (i.e., commodity circulation: C–M–C), but rather the investment of money in commodity production as a means of generating more money (i.e., the circuit of capital: M–C–M′).
Whereas the human capacity to consume use values has an upper boundary, the desire for profit is without limits; as Marx explains in Capital:
Use values must therefore never be treated as the immediate aim of the capitalist; nor must the profit on any single transaction. His aim is rather the unceasing movement of profit-making (ch. 4, p. 254).
That the ‘boundless drive for enrichment’ of capitalists could result in environmental destruction goes without saying. We see examples of this every day. But understanding the method behind this mad behaviour requires that we identify the ultimate source of profit.
From Marx, we learn that profit is not some trick of ‘buying low, and selling high’ or the result of the frugality of capitalists, as economic textbooks might claim. Rather, profit can be traced to the additional value generated in the production process. This ‘surplus value’ is the difference between (1) the labour time workers actually expend in the production process and (2) the amount of labour time embodied in the commodities the workers themselves must consume to reproduce their capacity to labour, which Marx terms ‘labour power’.
In other words, so long as (1) is greater than the value of (2), surplus value (and hence profit) can be generated. This occurs even when workers are paid a ‘fair wage’ that corresponds to the value of their labour power. This exploitation of labour as the basis of profit accounts for the merciless drive of capitalists to extend the working day, so as to squeeze out every last drop of surplus value.
The desire for surplus value also drives capitalists to increase the intensity of labour. If an individual capitalist is able to raise the productive power of labour by introducing new technologies or machinery, so that products can be produced for less labour time than the current average among competitors who have yet to do the same, then the capitalist can sell commodities at a price that undersells rivals but still secures a profit (i.e., below the average price on the market but above the individual commodity’s value).
Capital’s unceasing drive to push the outer boundaries of the duration and intensity of labour to obtain greater profit underlies the environmental devastation under capitalism. Capitalists treat the resources of nature, like their expendable ‘human resources’, as mere inputs for generating profit, indifferent to natural and human limits. Over a century and a half ago, in his terrifying chapter 10 on the working day in Capital, Marx described this heartless attitude of capitalists (as the personification of capital):
Après moi le déluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Capital therefore takes no account of the health and the life of the worker, unless society forces it to do so. Its answer to the outcry about the physical and mental degradation and premature death, the torture of over-work, is this: Should that pain trouble us, since it increases our pleasure (profit)? (section 5, p.381).
The capitalists of our own day, addicted to the pleasure of profit, are just as little troubled by the environmental pain their system is inflicting. They behave as if natural resources were infinite – and will push every limit unless forced to do otherwise by ‘society’. And even when society does curb some of the worst excesses of capital, the manner of (state) intervention is governed by the same logic of profit.
In that same chapter on the working day, Marx depicts how the English state intervened to impose legal limits on the length of the working day. Since this reform was clearly in the interest of workers, and was initially opposed by many capitalists, it might seem a case of an enlightened policy based on sincere concern for one’s fellow human beings.
But if this was a case of ‘seeing the light’ it was only in the sense of English capitalists finally realising that the ‘unnatural extension’ of the working day had the side-effect of driving up the value of labour power. Marx explains that, since the value of labour power includes all of the costs necessary to raise and train a worker, if a worker is worn out prematurely from extremely long working hours, the reproduction costs for his labour power will be spread over a shorter period of time, so that its daily value increases. Marx compares this to how ‘in a machine the part of its value to be reproduced every day is greater the more rapidly the machine is worn out’.
Threat to Profits
In pursuing their Carpe lucrum approach of seizing the day (from workers), the English capitalists ended up depleting the source of their own profits. The legislation to limit working hours only emerged when the majority of them finally concurred that ‘the interest of capital itself points in the direction of a normal working day’ (ch. 6, p 272).
A similar dynamic is at work with regard to environmental legislation today. As always, each individual capitalist firm will pursue its own profit with extreme singlemindedness. Not surprisingly, this can result in all sorts of damage to the environment. But the state is most likely to introduce legislation to push back against those destructive tendencies when they also pose a threat to profitability – whether that of other (more powerful) capitalists or of the system as a whole.
Moreover, many of the reforms and laws that have blunted the destructive force of capital did not prove to be ‘sustainable’ under the profit system over the long-term. More than a century and a half after the struggle to limit the working day in Europe and North America, long working hours remain widespread there and throughout the world. Social welfare systems that were expanded during the long post-war boom are being dismantled today under less favourable economic and demographic conditions. And we could add that the Kyoto Protocol, introduced to great fanfare in 1997, has proved to be a farce.
Experience should have taught us by now that the concern capitalists and their politicians have for protecting natural or human resources is only to the extent necessary to allow for their continued exploitation. And usually resources have to be on the verge of depletion before any action will be taken to protect them.
Clean air and water, healthy food, and everything else that should be a human right, and would be in a truly sustainable social and natural environment, remain luxuries for many under capitalism. Environmental and economic reforms premised on the continuation of the profit system, like the Green New Deal, will never fulfil their promise of delivering sustainability, prosperity, and personal security.