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John Bellamy Foster: The ecology of Marxian political economy

[This article is an extended version of a talk delivered at the Marxism 2011 Conference, University College of London, July 3, 2011. Click HERE to view a video of that talk. Readers of Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal are urged to consider subscribing to Monthly Review, where this article first appeared. John Bellamy Foster will be a featured international guest at the second World at a Crossroads: Climate Change – Social Change Conference, Friday, September 30 – Monday, October 3, 2011, Melbourne University.]

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By John Bellamy Foster

September 1, 2011 -- Monthly Review -- It is no secret today that we are facing a planetary environmental emergency, endangering most species on the planet, including our own, and that this impending catastrophe has its roots in the capitalist economic system. Nevertheless, the extreme dangers that capitalism inherently poses to the environment are often inadequately understood, giving rise to the belief that it is possible to create a new “natural capitalism” or “climate capitalism” in which the system is turned from being the enemy of the environment into its savior.1 The chief problem with all such views is that they underestimate the cumulative threat to humanity and the earth arising from the existing relations of production. Indeed, the full enormity of the planetary ecological crisis, I shall contend, can only be understood from a standpoint informed by the Marxian critique of capitalism.

A common weakness of radical environmental critiques of capitalism is that they rely on abstract notions of the system based on nineteenth-century conditions. As a result many of the historically specific underpinnings of environmental crises related to twentieth- (and twenty-first) century conditions have been insufficiently analysed. Marx’s own indispensable ecological critique was limited by the historical period in which he wrote, namely, the competitive stage of capitalism, and thus he was unable to capture certain crucial characteristics of environmental destruction which were to emerge with monopoly capitalism. In the following analysis, therefore, I will discuss not only the ecological critique provided by Marx (and Engels), but also that of later Marxian and radical political economists, including such figures as Thorstein Veblen, Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy and Allan Schnaiberg.

Marx and the capitalist Raubbau

It is seldom recognised that Marx’s very first political economic essay—“Debates on the Law on Theft of Wood”, written in 1842 during his editorship of Rheinische Zeitung—was focused on ecological issues. A majority of those in jail in Prussia at that time were peasants arrested for picking up dead wood in the forests. In carrying out this act the peasants were merely exercising what had been a customary right, but was disallowed with the spread of private property. Observing the debates on this issue in the Rhineland Diet (the provincial assembly of the Rhineland), Marx commented that the dispute centered on how best to protect the property rights of landowners, while the customary rights of the population in relation to the land were simply ignored. Impoverished peasants were viewed as the “enemy of wood” because the exercise of their traditional rights to gather wood primarily as fuel for cooking and warming their homes transgressed the ownership rights of private property holders.2

It was not long after this that Marx began his systematic research into political economy. It therefore should not surprise us that as early as his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 he was already focusing on the issue of primitive accumulation, i.e., the dispossession of the peasantry, who were being removed from the land in the course of capitalist development. It was this separation of workers from the earth as means of production that he was later to refer to in Capital as the “historical precondition of the capitalist mode of production” and its “permanent foundation”, the basis for the emergence of the modern proletariat.3 Capitalism began as a system of encroachment on nature and public wealth.

Here it is important to recognise that at the very root of Marx’s critique of political economy was the distinction between use value and exchange value. Every commodity, he explained in the opening pages of Capital, had both a use value and an exchange value, with the latter increasingly dominating the former. Use value was associated with the requirements of production in general and with the basic human relation to nature, i.e., fundamental human needs. Exchange value, in contrast, was oriented to the pursuit of profit. This established a contradiction between capitalist production and production in general (that is, the natural conditions of production).

This contradiction was most evident in Marx’s time in terms of what came to be known as the Lauderdale Paradox, named after James Maitland, the eighth Earl of Lauderdale (1759–1839). Lauderdale was one of the early classical political economists, author of An Inquiry into the Nature of Public Wealth and into the Means and Causes of its Increase (1804). Public wealth, he explained, consisted of use values, which, like water and air, oftentimes existed in abundance, while private riches were based on exchange values, which demanded scarcity. Under such conditions—he charged against the system—the expansion of private riches went hand in hand with the destruction of public wealth. For instance, if water supplies that had previously been freely available were monopolised and a fee placed on wells, then the measured riches of the nation would be increased at the expense of public wealth.

“The common sense of mankind”, Lauderdale declared, “would revolt” at any proposal to increase private riches “by creating a scarcity of any commodity generally useful and necessary to man.” But the bourgeois society in which he lived, he recognised, was already doing that. Thus Dutch colonists had in particularly fertile periods burned “spiceries” or paid natives to “collect the young blossoms or green leaves of the nutmeg trees” to kill them off; while planters in Virginia by legal enactment burned a certain share of their crops to maintain the price. “So truly is this principle understood by those whose interest leads them to take advantage of it”, he wrote, “that nothing but the impossibility of general combination protects the public wealth against the rapacity of private avarice.”4

Marx saw the Lauderdale Paradox, arising out of “the inverse ratio of the two kinds of value” (use value and exchange value), as one of the chief contradictions of bourgeois production. The entire pattern of capitalist development was characterised by the wasting away and destruction of the natural wealth of society.5 “For all its stinginess”, he wrote, “capitalist production is thoroughly wasteful with human material, just as its way of distributing its products through trade, and its manner of competition, make it very wasteful of material resources, so that it loses for society [public wealth] what it gains for the individual capitalist [private riches].”6

The domination of exchange value over use value in capitalist development and the ecological impact of this can also be seen in Marx’s general formula of capital, M-C-M′. Capitalism is commonly described as a system conforming to simple commodity production, C-M-C, in which money is simply an intermediary in a process of production and exchange, beginning and ending with particular use values embodied in concrete commodities. In sharp contrast, Marx explained that capitalist production and exchange takes the form of M-C-M′, in which money capital is advanced for labour and materials with which to produce a commodity, which can then be sold for more money, i.e., M′, or M + Δm (surplus value), at the end of the process. The crucial difference here is that the process never really ends, since money or abstract value is the object. The M′ is reinvested in the following period, resulting in M′-C-M′′, which leads to M′′-C-M′′′ in the period after that, and so on.

In order to maintain a given share of wealth under this system, the capitalist must continually seek to expand it. The law of value therefore constantly whispers to each individual capitalist and to the capitalist class as a whole, “Go on! Go on!” This, however, requires the incessant revolutionization of production to displace labour power and promote profits in the service of ever-greater accumulation. Moreover, as production grows “the consuming circle within circulation” must grow correspondingly. Intrinsic to the capital relation, Marx insisted, was the refusal to accept any absolute boundaries to its advance, which were treated as mere barriers to be surmounted. These propositions, intrinsic to Marx’s political economy, constituted the foundations for what Schnaiberg was later to call the “treadmill of production” model.7

Marx’s most pointed ecological contribution, however, lay in his theory of metabolic rift. Building on the work of the great German chemist Justus von Liebig, Marx argued that in shipping food and fiber hundreds and thousands of miles to the new urban centres of industrial production, where population was increasingly concentrated, capital ended up robbing the soil of its nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, which instead of being returned to the earth created pollution in the cities. Liebig called this “Raubbau” or the robbery system. As Ernest Mandel put it in his Marxist Economic Theory:

Serious scientists, notably the German Liebig, had drawn attention to a really disturbing phenomenon, the increased exhaustion of the soil, the Raubbau, resulting from greedy capitalist methods of exploitation aimed at getting the highest profit in the shortest time. Whereas agricultural societies like China, Japan, ancient Egypt, etc., had known a rational way of carrying on agriculture which conserved and even increased the fertility of the soil over several thousand years, the capitalist Raubbau had been able, in certain parts of the world, to exhaust the fertile layer of soil…in half a century.8

For Marx this capitalist Raubbau took the form of “an irreparable rift” within capitalist society in the metabolism between humanity and the earth—“a metabolism prescribed by the natural laws of life itself”—requiring its “systematic restoration as a regulative law of social production.” In the industrialization of agriculture, he suggested, the true nature of “capitalist production” was revealed, which “only develops…by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the worker.”

In order to understand the significance of this ecological critique for Marx’s overall critique of capitalism, it is necessary to recognise that the labour and production process was itself designated, in his analysis, as the metabolic relation between human beings and nature. Marx’s primary definition of socialism/communism was therefore that of a society in which “the associated producers govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way…accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy.” Along with this, he developed the most radical conception of sustainability possible, insisting that no one, not even all the countries and peoples of the world taken together, owned the earth; that it was simply held in trust and needed to be maintained in perpetuity in line with the principle of boni patres familias (good heads of the household). His overall ecological critique thus required that instead of the open rifts developed under capitalism, there needed to be closed metabolic cycles between humanity and nature. This allowed him to incorporate thermodynamic conceptions into his understanding of economy and society.9

The totality of Marx’s ecological insights went, of course, beyond the foregoing points. Space, however, does not allow full treatment of them here. Still, it is worth noting that his analysis together with that of Engels also touched on such critical issues as the “squandering” of fossil fuels and other natural resources; desertification; deforestation; and regional climate change—already understood by scientists in Marx’s day as resulting in part from the human degradation of the local environment.10

Monopoly capital and the environment

Elements of Marx’s general ecological critique resonated with developments in material science, providing inspiration directly and indirectly for a number of important materialist scientists and philosophers of science in the decades that followed. Things were quite different, however, within Marxian political economy, where Marx’s critique of the capitalist Raubbau was rarely acknowledged (or drawn upon) between the close of the nineteenth century and the close of the twentieth century.11

The main discoveries of Marxian and radical political economy in the ecological realm in the twentieth century can be seen as arising out of responses to the changed conditions associated with the monopoly stage of capital, and the altered environmental regime that it brought into being. The earliest theorists of monopoly capitalism were Rudolf Hilferding in Germany and Thorstein Veblen in the United States. Hilferding, although building his analysis directly on Marx’s political economy, had surprisingly little to say about environmental conditions. In contrast, Veblen—a socialist economist influenced by Marx but not himself a Marxist—saw the transition from free competition to the age of the monopolistic corporation as having immense implications for the environment, resource use, and economic waste.

In his final, 1923 work, Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times, Veblen stressed that “the American plan” of resource exploitation was one of accumulation by encroachment on both the environment and on the indigenous population. In line with the Lauderdale Paradox, it took the form of “a settled practice of converting all public wealth to private gain on a plan of legalised seizure.” The “custom”, he wrote, was “to turn every public need to account as a means of private gain, and to capitalise it as such.”

In the stage of free competition, Veblen argued, “staple resources” had been overexploited “by speeding up the output and underbidding on the price”, leading to “a rapid exhaustion, with waste, of the natural supply.” This set the stage for monopoly capital (absentee ownership) with its more collusive methods of turning public wealth to private gain, by means of the careful regulation of scarcity and monopolistic pricing. This evolution was especially evident in the timber, coal, and oil industries, each of which initially involved prodigious waste, and led to eventual monopoly control by a relatively few absentee owners. As a result of these developments, Veblen noted, the “enterprise of lumbermen during the period since the middle of the nineteenth century has destroyed appreciably more timber than it has utilised.”12

Veblen’s more important ecological insights, however, had to do with the transformation of use value and consumption under the new regime of big business. A characteristic of monopoly capitalism was the virtual elimination of price competition by corporations, which was accompanied by the restriction of output. This allowed for monopolistic (or oligopolistic) pricing, which produced large gains for the giant enterprises. With price warfare effectively banned, “competitive strategy” was primarily “confined to two main lines of endeavour:—to reduce the production-cost of a restricted output; and to increase their sales without lowering prices.” Veblen pointed out that the very effectiveness of monopoly capital in containing production costs—by holding down wages and thereby, in Marxian terms, increasing the rate of surplus value—meant that at any given price the margin available for increases in sales costs (without cutting into profit margins) expanded. Thus a larger and larger share of the total cost of goods was associated with promotion of sales as opposed to the production of the commodity.13 The implications of this for the use value structure of the economy were profound. “One result”, he stated,

has been a very substantial and progressive increase of sales-cost; very appreciably larger than an inspection of the books would show. The producers have been giving continually more attention to the saleability of their product, so that much of what appears on the books as production-cost should properly be charged to the production of saleable appearances. The distinction between workmanship and salesmanship has progressively been blurred in this way, until it will doubtless hold true now that the shop-cost of many articles produced for the market is mainly chargeable to the production of saleable appearances.14

He saw this as applying especially to the “vogue of ‘package goods’”:

The designing and promulgation of saleable containers,—that is, to say such containers as will sell the contents on the merits of the visual effect of the container,—has become a large and, it is said, a lucrative branch of the business of publicity. It employs a formidable number of artists and “copy writers” as well as of itinerant spokesmen, demonstrators, interpreters; and more than one psychologist of eminence has been retained by the publicity agencies for consultation and critical advice on the competitive saleability of rival containers and the labels and doctrinal memoranda which embellish them. The cost of all this is very appreciable….It is presumably safe to say that the containers account for one-half the shop cost of what are properly called “package goods”, and for something approaching one-half the price paid by the consumer. In certain lines, doubtless, as, e.g., in cosmetics and household remedies, this proportion is exceeded by a very substantial margin.15

The upshot of the infiltration of “salesmanship” into production was the proliferation of economic waste—defined by Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class as “expenditure” that “does not serve human life or human well-being on the whole.” Indeed, much of the initial demand for purchased goods under monopoly capitalism was due to “invidious pecuniary comparison”, i.e., status distinctions arising from having something beyond the reach of others, as well as the various forms of “conspicuous consumption” and “conspicuous waste” associated with this. The more one could display the ostentatiousness of one’s life the higher one’s social prestige. Corporate advertising encouraged such invidious comparisons first among the rich and then within the middle and working classes, often by instilling in people a fear of loss of social status.16

It is crucial to understand that the problem, raised by Veblen, of the transformation of consumption and the distortion of use values under capitalism played no significant role in the earlier work of Marx or his immediate followers (or indeed in that of other nineteenth-century critics of the system). To be sure, Engels wrote that under capitalism “the useful effect” of a commodity “retreats far into the background, and the sole incentive becomes the profit to be made on selling.”17 Implicit in this view was the notion that use values could be subordinated to exchange values and the structure of consumption to the forces of production.

Yet, nowhere in Capital did Marx provide any analysis of the “interaction of production and consumption resulting from technical change” and the accompanying transformation of the use-value structure of the economy. The reason was that, in nineteenth-century competitive capitalism, workers’ consumption goods (as distinct from capitalist luxury goods) were not yet subjected to the gargantuan “sales effort”, which was to arise fully only with monopoly capitalism.18 While waste was commonplace in competitive capitalism—arising from the irrationality and duplication inherent to competition itself—such waste did not have the same “functional” role for accumulation that it was later to acquire under monopoly capitalism, where the chief problem was no longer efficiency of production, on the supply-side, but the generation of markets, on the demand-side. For this reason, advertising and marketing in general, along with such factors as product differentiation, played only a miniscule role in the nineteenth century. Analysis of these developments thus had to await their appearance in the early twentieth century. This analysis was accomplished first by Veblen, and then—in a synthesis of Marx and Veblen—in Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital in 1966.

For Baran and Sweezy the principal problem under monopoly capitalism was the absorption of the enormous economic surplus resulting from the constantly expanding productivity of the system. This economic surplus could be absorbed in three ways: capitalist consumption, investment, or waste.19 Capitalist consumption was limited by the drive to accumulate on the part of the capitalist class, while investment itself was constrained by market saturation (due principally to the repression of wage-based consumption and conditions of industrial maturity). Hence, capitalism in its monopoly stage was threatened by a problem of markets and a declining rate of utilisation of both productive capacity and employable labour.20 Under such circumstances, the deepening reliance on economic waste served to keep markets going, becoming a necessary part of the monopoly-capitalist economy.

Baran and Sweezy argued that economic waste took various forms, notably military spending and the sales effort, the latter including: “advertising, variation of the products’ appearance and packaging, ‘planned obsolescence,’ model changes, credit schemes, and the like.” The sales effort preceded capitalism’s monopoly stage, but it was only under monopoly capitalism that it assumed “gigantic dimensions.”

The most obvious form of the sales effort was of course advertising, which grew by leaps and bounds in the twentieth century. Perhaps the “dominant function” of advertising for the system, Baran and Sweezy observed, was “that of waging, on behalf of the producers and sellers of consumer goods, a relentless war against saving and in favour of consumption.”21 Yet, advertising, they recognised, was only the tip of the iceberg where modern marketing was concerned, which today also includes targeting, motivation research, product management, sales promotion, and direct marketing.22 According to Blackfriars Communications, the United States in 2005 spent over $1 trillion, or around 9 percent of GDP, on various forms of marketing.23

However, the main structural impact of the sales effort on the system for Baran and Sweezy, following Veblen, was to be found in “the emergence of a condition in which the sales and production efforts interpenetrate to such an extent as to be virtually indistinguishable.” This marked “a profound change in what constitutes socially necessary costs of production as well as in the nature of the social product itself.” Under these circumstances, constant model changes, product obsolescence, wasteful packaging, etc., all served to reorder the relations of consumption—altering the use value structure of capitalism and enlarging the waste incorporated within production. They estimated that automobile model changes alone were costing the country some 2.5 percent of its GDP. In comparison to this the expenditures of the automobile manufacturers on advertising were miniscule.

“In the case of the automobile industry”, they wrote, “and doubtless there are many others that are similar in this respect, by far the greater part of the sales effort is carried out not by obviously unproductive workers such as salesmen and advertising copy writers but by seemingly productive workers: tool and die makers, draftsmen, mechanics, assembly line workers.” They concluded, “What is certain is the negative statement which, notwithstanding its negativity, constitutes one of the most important insights to be gained from political economy: an output the volume and composition of which are determined by the profit maximization policies of oligopolistic corporations neither corresponds to human needs nor costs the minimum possible amount of human toil and human suffering.”24

Adopting a related perspective, Michael Kidron conservatively estimated in his Capitalism and Theory that in 1970, 61 percent of US production could be classified as economic waste—i.e., resources diverted to the military, advertising, finance and insurance, waste in business, conspicuous luxury consumption, etc.25 Increasingly, what was being produced under monopoly capitalism were formal or specifically capitalist use values, the primary “usefulness” of which lay in the exchange value they generated for corporations.26

Rational standards of human welfare and resource use, Baran and Sweezy claimed, required an entirely different approach to production. As early as 1957, in The Political Economy of Growth, Baran suggested that the optimum economic surplus in a planned economy would be less than that of maximum-potential economic surplus—requiring a slower rate of economic growth—due, among other reasons, to the need to curtail certain “noxious types of production (coal mining, for example).”27 Likewise Sweezy argued in the 1970s that the need for every worker to have a car to go to work was not a product of human nature but artificially generated as a result of the whole “automobile-industrial complex” of so-called “modernised” capitalist society. The system of privatised (but publicly subsidised) transportation “externalised” costs such as air pollution, urban decay, and traffic fatalities onto the rest of society, while generating huge profits for corporations. In contrast, a more rational society would produce social use values: “functional, aesthetically attractive and durable”, meeting genuine human needs, utilising “methods of production compatible with humanised labor processes.”28

Other thinkers in the same period developed related notions. John Kenneth Galbraith advanced his famous thesis of the “dependence effect” applicable to oligopolistic capitalism in The Affluent Society in 1958. He argued that the very process of “production of goods creates the wants that the goods are presumed to satisfy”—a thesis designed to overthrow the neoclassical theory of consumer sovereignty. Joan Robinson in her Richard T. Ely Lecture to the American Economic Association in 1971 (with Galbraith as the chair) raised the issue of the “Second Crisis of Economic Theory.” Mistakenly assuming that Keynes had provided the solution to “the first crisis”, i.e., the level or quantity of production, Robinson went on to contend that now was the time to turn to the “second crisis”, i.e., the quality or content of production. Military production, pollution, inequality, and poverty were all being generated, she argued, not in spite of—but because of—the strategies adopted to expand capitalist growth. In the same year Barry Commoner in his The Closing Circle highlighted the ecological dangers associated, in particular, with the petrochemical industry, which he argued was deeply embedded in an increasingly toxic mode of production driven by profit.29

Elements of this general ecological critique of monopoly capitalism were drawn together in Allan Schnaiberg’s 1980 treatise, The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity, one of the founding works of environmental sociology. Already in the 1970s, environmentalists had begun to speak of environmental impact as a result of three factors: population, affluence (or consumption), and technology—with the last two factors, consumption and technology, standing for the role of the economy.30 The structure of Schnaiberg’s book was clearly derived from this, with chapters two through five focusing, successively, on population, technology, consumption, and production. Schnaiberg’s brilliance was to draw on Marxian and radical political economy to show that the first three of these were conditioned by the fourth, making what he called “the treadmill of production” the fundamental environmental problem. He wrote of the “monopoly capital treadmill”, and insisted: “Both the volume and source of…treadmill production is high-energy monopoly-capital industry.”

For Schnaiberg, the monopoly stage of capitalism was geared to labour-saving, energy-intensive production. By constantly displacing labour and producing ever-greater economic surplus, which overflowed corporate coffers, the system generated a growing problem of effective demand—which it then attempted to solve by introducing various extraordinary means of expanding consumption. Contemporary consumption, he argued in Galbraithian terms, did not reveal consumer preferences so much as the profitability requirements of corporations—with consumer choices circumscribed by modern marketing and the technology of the treadmill. Schnaiberg’s realistic conclusion was that attempts to address the ecological problem by focusing on population, consumption, or technology would inevitably fail—since the real problem was the treadmill of production itself.31

The treadmill of production (or of accumulation), as we have seen, can be explained in Marx’s terms, using the general formula for capital—or M-C-M′, which in the next period of production, becomes M′-C-M′′, and in the period after that M′′-C-M′′′, ad infinitum. For Marx, capital was a system of self-expanding value. It had, as Sweezy was to say, “no braking mechanism other than periodic economic breakdowns.”32 This is the basis of the standard ecological critique directed at capitalism, which emphasises the scale effect of capitalist growth in relation to the earth’s limited carrying capacity. Hence, it is rightly assumed that to solve the ecological problem it is necessary to intervene in order to slow down, stop, reverse, and eventually dismantle the treadmill, particularly at the center of the system. Nevertheless, the standard treadmill perspective, if taken by itself, tends to reduce the ecological problem to a quantitative one, deemphasising the more qualitative aspects of the dialectic, represented today by the promotion of specifically capitalist use values and thus economic waste.

Here it is useful to stress that the C in the M-C-M′ relation, standing for the concrete use value aspect of the commodity, has now become transformed under monopoly control into a specifically capitalist use value, which we can designate as CK—to stand for the almost complete subordination of use value to exchange value in the development of the commodity. The problem of M-C-M′ then becomes one of M-CK-M′, in which the qualitative as well as quantitative problems of accumulation/ecological destruction assert themselves through the creation of formal use values. In today’s packaged goods, the package, designed to sell the commodity and incorporated into its production costs, is now the larger part of the commodity. Thus Campbell soup marketers commonly refer to the soup as the mere substrate of the product.

Or to take a more economically significant example, since the 1930s the production cost of the motor vehicle has only been a small part of the final sales price, most of which is related to marketing and distribution. As Stephen Fox stated in his Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising, today’s cars are “two-ton packaged goods, varying little beneath the skins of their increasingly outlandish styling.” The average automobile sold in the United States today has lower fuel efficiency than the Model T Ford.33 All of this suggests that use value, C, associated with the conditions of production in general, has increasingly given way under monopoly capitalism, to specifically capitalist use value, CK—incorporating all sorts of socially unproductive features, with the object of generating higher sales, and hence realising profit, M′.

It is this relentless reduction of consumption to the needs of capital accumulation by means of the alienation of use value (e.g., making plastic wrapping part of the production price of a loaf of bread) that lies behind the worst aspects of what is mistakenly thought of as “consumerism”: the seemingly endless demand for superfluous, even toxic, products associated with today’s throwaway society.34 How else do we explain that, worldwide, upwards of 500 billion and perhaps as many as a trillion plastic shopping bags (given away for free) are consumed every year; that some 300 billion pounds of packaging are disposed of every year in the United States; and that 80 percent of all US goods are used once and then thrown away? Much of this is toxic waste; Americans discard seven billion tons of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic—the most hazardous plastic product—annually. In 2008 the Center for Health, Environment and Justice issued a report indicating that an ordinary new shower curtain, which uses PVC plastic, released 108 separate volatile compounds in the home environment over twenty-eight days of ordinary usage, creating a level of these compounds that was sixteen times beyond what was recommended by the US Green Building Council.35

Quite apart from its toxic nature, the economic and ecological waste embedded in the production and consumption process is enormous. “To say that ‘capitalism has been simultaneously the most efficient and the most wasteful productive system in history,’” Douglas Dowd wrote in The Waste of Nations, “is to point to the contrast between the great efficiency with which a particular factory produces and packages a product, such as toothpaste, and the contrived and massive inefficiency of an economic system that has people pay for toothpaste a price over 90 percent of which is owed to the marketing, not the production, of the dentifrice.”36

William Morris, who saw the very beginnings of monopoly capitalism, referred to “the mass of things which no sane man could desire, but which our useless toil makes—and sells.”37 Today we have to recognise that many of these superfluous goods carry enormous costs to the environment and human health. Indeed, many of our most common use values, as Commoner explained, are the products of modern chemistry—introducing synthetic chemicals that are carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic into production, consumption, and the environment. These goods are cheap to produce (being energy- and chemical-intensive, not labour-intensive), they sell, and they generate high profit margins for corporations. The fact that many of them are virtually indestructible (non-biodegradable) and if incinerated—to prevent them from overwhelming landfills—give off dioxin and other deadly toxins, is viewed by the economic system as simply beside the point.38

In the face of such contradictions, radical economist Juliet Schor has written of the “materiality paradox”, which suggests that people in our society are not too materialistic, but rather are not materialistic enough. We no longer retain, reuse, and repair products, because we have been taught to expect them to break down or fall apart due to product obsolescence, and then quickly to discard them. Indeed, as a society, we have become entrapped in a still deeper pattern of psychological obsolescence, promoted by modern marketing, encouraging us to throw away what we have only just bought—as soon as it is no longer “new.”39

The meaning of revolution

The ecological critique generated by twentieth-century monopoly capital theory—the bare outlines of which I have sought to present here—only adds additional force to Marx’s classical ecological critique of capitalism. Every day we are destroying more and more public wealth—air, water, land, ecosystems, species—in the pursuit of private riches, which turns consumption into a mere adjunct to accumulation, thereby taking on more distorted and destructive forms.

The metabolic rift in the relation of humanity to the earth that Marx described in the nineteenth century has now evolved into multiple ecological rifts transgressing the boundaries between humanity and the planet. It is not just the scale of production but even more the structure of production that is at fault in today’s version of the capitalist Raubbau. “Such is the dialectic of historical process”, Baran wrote, “that within the framework of monopoly capitalism the most abominable, the most destructive features of the capitalist order become the very foundations of its continuing existence—just as slavery was the conditio sine qua non of its emergence.”40

It is the historic need to combat the absolute destructiveness of the system of capital at this stage—replacing it, as Marx envisioned, with a society of substantive equality and ecological sustainability—which, I am convinced, constitutes the essential meaning of revolution in our time.


  1. Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism (New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 1999); L. Hunter Lovins and Boyd Cohen, Climate Capitalism (New York: Hill and Wang, 2011).
  2. Marx and Engels, Collected Works (New York: International Publishers, 1975), vol. 1, 224–63; Franz Mehring, Karl Marx (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1979), 41–42.
  3. Karl Marx, Early Writings (London: Penguin, 1974), 309–22; Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (London: Penguin, 1981), 754.
  4. James Maitland, Earl of Lauderdale, An Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Public Wealth and into the Means and Causes of its Increase (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable and Co., 1819), 37–59; Lauderdale’s Notes on Adam Smith, ed. Chuhei Sugiyama (New York: Routledge, 1996), 140–41.
  5. Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy (New York: International Publishers, 1964), 35–36.
  6. Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 180.
  7. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Works in One Volume (New York: International Publishers, 1968), 90; Karl Marx, Grundrisse (London: Penguin, 1973), 408; Allan Schnaiberg, The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 220–34.
  8. Ernest Mandel, Marxist Economic Theory (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1968), vol. 1, 295.
  9. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1976), 283, 290, 348, 636–39, 860; Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 911, 949, 959. On Marx and thermodynamics see Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster, “Metabolism, Energy, and Entropy in Marx’s Critique of Political Economy”, Theory and Society, 35, no. 1 (February 2006), 109–56.
  10. On Marx’s specific ecological insights in these areas see John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 165–66, 169. Engels and Marx addressed the issue of local climate change primarily in relation to changes in temperature and precipitation resulting from deforestation. See Engels’ notes on Carl Fraas in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, MEGA IV, 31 (Amsterdam: Akadamie Verlag, 1999), 512–15; Paul Hampton, “Classical Marxism and Climate Impacts”, Workers’ Liberty, August 5, 2010,; Clarence J. Glacken, “Changing Ideas of the Habitable World”, in Carl O. Sauer, Marston Bates, and William L. Thomas, Jr., eds., Man’s Role in the Changing Face of the Earth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), 77–81.
  11. On the relation of Marx’s ecology to later scientific developments see John Bellamy Foster, The Ecological Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009), 153–60. The Liebig-Marx argument on ecological metabolism was influential in Marxian political economic discussions through the end of the nineteenth century—for example, in the work of August Bebel and Karl Kautsky—but it was lost sight of during most of the twentieth century (an exception being K. William Kapp in The Social Costs of Private Enterprise [Cambridge, Massachusetts; Harvard University Press, 1950], 35–36).
  12. Thorstein Veblen, Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1964), 127, 168, 171–72, 190.
  13. Ibid, 285–88, 299–300.
  14. Ibid, 300.
  15. Ibid, 300–301.
  16. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: New American Library, 1953), 78–80; Veblen, Absentee Ownership, 309.
  17. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 25, 463.
  18. Paul M. Sweezy, “Cars and Cities”, Monthly Review, 24, no. 11 (April 1973), 1–3; Paul A. Baran and Paul M. Sweezy, Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966), 131–32.
  19. Baran and Sweezy, Monopoly Capital, 79.
  20. On “The Decreasing Rate of Utilization Under Capitalism” see István Mészáros, Beyond Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1995), 547–79.
  21. Baran and Sweezy, Monopoly Capital, 114–15, 128. Baran and Sweezy’s concept of economic waste (based on Marx’s analysis of unproductive labour) was complex, taking into account both: (1) waste as perceived from the standpoint of capital in general (but not recognised as such by the individual capitalist), and (2) waste from the standpoint of a rational society, representing the viewpoint of society as a whole (equivalent to Veblen’s definition). For a detailed discussion see John Bellamy Foster, The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1986), 97–101.
  22. For a thorough analysis of modern marketing see Michael Dawson, The Consumer Trap (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003).
  23. Metrics 2.0 Business and Market Intelligence, “US Marketing Spending Exceeded $1 Trillion in 2005”, June 26, 2006,; Dawson, The Consumer Trap, 1. The estimate by Blackfriars Communications is clearly a vast underestimate since they are not incorporating the full effects of product management, i.e., the penetration of the sales effort into the production process.
  24. Baran and Sweezy, Monopoly Capital, 131, 137–39. It might be argued that Baran and Sweezy’s argument (like Veblen’s) was directed at the critique of capitalism from the standpoint of a rational socialist society, in line with what they called “the confrontation of reality with reason” (Monopoly Capital, 134) and was not, therefore, an ecological argument per se. Yet, it is precisely this “confrontation of reality with reason” that today unites the arguments for ecology and socialism. See, for example, Paul M. Sweezy, “Capitalism and the Environment”, Monthly Review 41, no. 2 (June 1989), 1–10.
  25. Michael Kidron, Capitalism and Theory (London: Pluto Press, 1974), 35–60.
  26. Henryk Szlajfer, “Waste, Marxian Theory, and Monopoly Capital”, in John Bellamy Foster and Henryk Szlajfer, ed., The Faltering Economy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984), 302­­­–04, 310–13; John Bellamy Foster, The Theory of Monopoly Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1986), 39–42.
  27. Paul A. Baran, The Political Economy of Growth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1957), 42.
  28. Paul M. Sweezy, “Comment”, in Assar Lindbeck, The Political Economy of the New Left (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 144–46.
  29. John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society (New York: New American Library, 1984), 121–23; Joan Robinson, Contributions to Modern Economics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978), 1–13; Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971).
  30. This was the famous “IPAT formula”: Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology. On the history of the IPAT formula see Marian R. Chertow, “The IPAT Equation and Its Variants: Changing Views of Technology and Environmental Impact”, Journal of Industrial Ecology 4, no. 4 (October 2000), 13–29.
  31. Schnaiberg, The Environment, 245–47; John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), 193–206. Schnaiberg’s analysis, while drawing heavily on Marxian political economy, never directly addressed the fundamental problem of the interpenetration of the sales effort and production raised by Veblen and Baran and Sweezy. In subsequent work, his model was de-historicised and reduced to a more reified, mechanical form, with the connection to the Marxian theory of monopoly capital, and even the critique of capitalism itself, systematically de-emphasised. Hence, in his last published book—Kenneth A. Gould, David N. Pellow, and Allan Schnaiberg, The Treadmill of Production (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008)—capitalism makes only a cameo appearance. Nevertheless, Schnaiberg never repudiated his earliest views and continued to treat The Environment as his classic, fundamental contribution.
  32. Paul M. Sweezy, “Socialism and Ecology”, Monthly Review 41, no. 4 (September 1989), 7.
  33. Dawson, The Consumer Trap, 88–92; Douglas Dowd, The Waste of Nations (Boulder: Westview Press, 1989), 65–66; Stephen Fox, The Mirror Makers: A History of American Advertising and Its Creators (New York: William Morrow, 1984), 173; “Car Mileage: 1908 Ford Model T-25 MPG 2008 EPA Average All Cars—21 MPG”,; Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Table, 4-23, “Average Fuel Efficiency of US Light Duty Vehicles”, Baran and Sweezy referred in Monopoly Capital, 136–37, to the decline in gas mileage of US automobiles from 1939–1961.
  34. The evolution of bread manufacture under monopoly capitalism, including the changing of wrappings for bread, was used by Baran to explain how the sales effort, waste, and unproductive expenditures are built into the production process of monopoly capital. See Baran, The Political Economy of Growth, xx.
  35. Susan Freinkel, Plastics: A Toxic Love Story (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2011), 145–46; Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff (New York: Free Press, 2010), 68–71; Heather Rogers, “Garbage Capitalism’s Green Commerce”, in Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, eds., The Socialist Register, 2007 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2007), 231.
  36. Douglas Dowd, The Waste of Nations (Boulder: Westview Press, 1989), 65.
  37. William Morris, News from Nowhere and Selected Writings and Designs (London: Penguin, 1962), 121–22.
  38. Commoner, The Closing Circle, 138–41; see also John Bellamy Foster, The Vulnerable Planet (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1994), 112–18.
  39. Juliet Schor, Plenitude (New York: Penguin, 2010), 27, 40–41. See also Raymond Williams, Problems in Materialism and Culture (London; Verso, 1980), 185.
  40. Baran, The Political Economy of Growth, xv.

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