The Tragedies of the Global Commons and the Global Working Class: Reflections on the Papal Encyclical

Michael A. Lebowitz (pictured) will be one of the keynote speakers at Socialism for the 21st century: Moving beyond capitalism, learning from global struggles being held in Sydney on May 13-15.

By Michael A. Lebowitz

Links International Journal of Socialist RenewalAn earlier version of this paper was presented at ‘The First World Congress on Marxism’ at Peking University, 10 October 2015 in Beijing, China.

‘On Care for Our Common Home’: the premises

Everybody is talking about it — the dangers presented by climate change. Adding significantly, though, to the emphasis upon the need to take dramatic action now has been Pope Francis’s recent Encyclical Laudati Si’, ‘On Care for our Common Home’. Its over-riding theme is that we must ‘protect our common home’. ‘The climate,’ the document stresses, ‘is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all’ and is ‘linked to many of the essential conditions for human life’ (23). Not only, however, are we destroying those conditions but, ‘the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth’ (21). How is it, the Encyclical asks, that we have ‘so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years’ (53)?

Here, for certain, is the essential starting point for finding answers: the earth is our commons. This is the first premise of the Encyclical. But there is a second critical premise, one that many economists as well as Marxists have obscured; it begins from the recognition that economic processes are a subsystem within a finite biosphere. Once you acknowledge that the economy is a subsystem of a larger but finite total ecosystem, then several propositions follow. First, sooner or later, there are limits to the ability of an ecosystem to support the continued material growth of the economy. Second, the closer the approach to those limits, the more that problems associated with that growth will appear. In this respect, the greater the signs of such problems, the higher the probability we should assign to the economy approaching its limits. As the document argues, the idea of unlimited growth is ‘based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit’ (106). In short, the second premise of the Encyclical is that the earth is limited and that we are approaching those limits.

Why, though, does the existence of limits mean the exhaustion of our commons? Within a particular finite space, what has been called ‘the tragedy of the commons’ occurs when there are separate and indifferent self-seeking actors, when there is no communal consensus as to how to manage the commons and where, accordingly, self-seeking actors take whatever they can from the commons. Further, this tragedy of the commons is deepened if there has been vastly unequal access to the commons. Although ‘the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone’, the document stresses that billions of people, the majority of the planet’s population, are excluded from those benefits and furthermore suffer the most from environmental degradation (93, 49).[1] The third premise of the Encyclical is that we are not managing our commons in a way that is consistent with its sustainability and justice. In particular, our world, the Encyclical insists, has a ‘grave social debt towards the poor’ and thus must hear ‘both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor’ (30, 49).

These three essential premises — the earth as our commons, encroachment upon its limits and the failure to manage that commons justly — provide the context for the Encyclical’s grasp of impending disaster.

The causes and solutions

The Encyclical is comprehensive in describing the despoiling of our common home: the pollution, toxic waste, global warming, rising ocean levels, acidification of oceans, deforestation, natural resource depletion, drought, food and water shortages, etc. However, it goes well beyond this to identify causes and thus to propose measures that must be taken.

At the core of the problem is Mammon — in particular, the worship of profit. Thus, Pope Francis attributes the destruction of the ecosystem to the search for ‘quick and easy profit’ (36), to the ‘principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations’ (195), to the one-sided ‘pursuit of financial gain’ (56) and, to finance, which ‘overwhelms the real economy’ (109). And, it is not merely the disastrous effects of this singular orientation toward profit, dramatically apparent in the ‘human and environmental liabilities’ left behind by multinational companies operating in less developed countries (51). There is also the political power of those responsible for this environmental destruction — the problem of ‘powerful financial interests’, reflected in the politics which involves ‘saving banks at any cost, making the public pay the price’ and thereby reaffirming ‘the absolute power of a financial system’ (57. 189). ‘Is it realistic to hope,’ the document asks, ‘that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations’ (190)?

The problem, though, is more than simply greed and avarice. There is as well the warping of human institutions and practices. In particular, the Encyclical stresses the deformation of technology. We should rejoice in the advances of science and technology which have ‘remedied countless evils which used to harm and limit human beings’. Technology, ‘when well directed, can produce important means of improving the quality of human life’ (102, 103). However, the basic problem we face is that ‘humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm’ (106). Indeed, ‘many problems of today’s world’ are the result of the tendency ‘to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm’ which, when imposed upon reality, destroys the environment (107). Precisely because there is an ‘alliance between the economy and technology’ that ‘ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests’, characteristic of this paradigm is that we accept ‘every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings’ (54, 109).

As well as the direct effects of this one-sided technological paradigm upon the environment, there is an important secondary effect because that technology is not neutral. Its technological products ‘create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups’ (107, 114). Flowing from that technological paradigm linked to business interests is the fostering of consumerism and a ‘consumerist vision of human beings’ (144). As a result, a minority believes ‘that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized’ because of the limits of the earth while billions are deprived of access to basic resources (50, 109). Indeed, the cultural product of this technological paradigm is a society which hears neither the cry of the earth nor the cry of the poor.

That is why a central theme of the Encyclical is ‘the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution’ (114). It calls for a new way of thinking and new policies which can ‘generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm’ (111). ‘Let us refuse to resign ourselves’ to this current situation in which ‘a constant flood of new products coexists with a tedious monotony’ (113). ‘We have the freedom’, the document argues, ‘needed to limit and direct technology; we can put it at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral’ (112). That means not only new thinking as members of society but changes in political direction as well.

‘Today,’ the Encyclical notes, ‘it is the case that some economic sectors exercise more power than states themselves’ (139). And, we know that ‘economic powers continue to justify the current global system’ and that ‘any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented’ (54, 56). However, ‘politics must not be subject to the economy, nor should the economy be subject to the dictates of an efficiency-driven paradigm of technocracy’ (189). To deal with the present crisis, we need ‘a politics which is far-sighted and capable of a new, integral and interdisciplinary approach to handling the different aspects of the crisis’ (139, 197).

In particular, the Encyclical calls for a politics that recognises the damage caused by the ‘principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations’, the one-dimensional technological paradigm, the one-sided pursuit of financial gain and the focus upon ‘quick and easy profit’ (30). It insists that ‘where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention’. The Encyclical thus calls upon us to ‘reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals’ (190).

The key word here is simply. This, after all, is not an argument against capitalism. Rather, the perspective of the Encyclical is to modify the one-sidedness of a focus in which ‘profits alone count’. It argues against the worship of the market (its deification) and pleads for responsible state policies that introduce regulations to check the destructive effects of the market through ‘an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded and at the same time protecting nature’ (197, 139). The Papal Encyclical is a call upon people to break with the dominant ideology, a call for a cultural revolution, a call to struggle against privatisation and against neoliberalism.

Who could deny the importance of this Encyclical at this time when we face such serious threats to our common home and to the common good? Who could deny the significance of its dramatic call for action now? But Laudati Si’ only touches the surface — missing is an understanding of capitalism.

The Marxist Premise

Karl Marx understood that the earth is our commons and that we have a responsibility to pass it on in an improved state, which is possible ‘so long as it is treated correctly.’.[2] Based upon his study of contemporary natural scientists, Marx argued that the ‘inalienable condition for the existence and reproduction of the chain of human generations’ is to understand the need for ‘systematic restoration as a regulative law of social production’.[3] We need to begin, in short, by recognising ‘the whole gamut of permanent conditions of life required by the chain of human generations.’[4]

Further, we need to build the social relations that will permit this. ‘Permanent communal property,’ Marx insisted, is the necessary condition for the ‘conscious and rational treatment of the land’.[5] Indeed, ‘from the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation,’ private ownership of portions of the earth would appear just as absurd as slavery:

Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias.[6]

Why isn’t that possible under capitalism? For one, Marx argued that ‘the entire spirit of capitalist production, which is oriented towards the most immediate monetary profit — stands in contradiction to agriculture, which has to concern itself with the whole gamut of permanent conditions of life required by the chain of human generations.’[7] But the problem is more than just short-sightedness. The problem is the very place of nature within capitalist relations of production.

The metabolic interaction between man and nature, Marx understood, always occurs ‘within and through a specific form of society.’[8] That is, ‘purposeful activity,’ which begins with a preconceived goal, always occurs within specific social relations of production. Under capitalist relations of production, that preconceived goal is the growth of capital rather than respect for the organic requirements of the earth for production and reproduction. Thus, the particular metabolic process that occurs within capitalist relations is one in which human labour and nature are converted into surplus value, the basis for the growth of capital.

Precisely because workers and nature are mere means for capital’s goal, Marx argued that ‘capitalist production, therefore, only develops the technique and the degree of combination of the social process of production by simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the worker.’[9] His comment with respect to capital’s drive to drain every ounce of energy from the worker describes as well capital’s relation to the natural world:

Après moi le deluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and every capitalist nation. Capital therefore takes no account of the health and the length of life of the worker, unless society forces it to do so.[10]

But can capitalist society force capital to protect our common home and promote the common good? The Marxist answer is that it will not and cannot. Here, then, is the fourth premise which Marxism adds to the three introduced by the Encyclical: to prevent the destruction of ‘the original sources of all wealth — the soil and the worker’, it is necessary to put an end to capitalist relations of production.

Capitalist Relations of Production: the side of capital

At the heart of capitalist relations is the process in which a worker relinquishes control over her productive activity and the property rights in the product of that activity to the capitalist and receives in return a wage. That transaction gives the capitalist the power to compel the performance of surplus labour in the process of production and the ownership of its results; the sale of labour-power, in short, is the condition for capitalist exploitation--- a process facilitated by the capitalist’s ability to increase the amount of work performed by workers (extensively or intensively) and to reduce the wage component (either by driving down wages or by increasing productivity relative to wages). One product of capitalist production, thus, is the creation of surplus value, the basis for capital’s growth.[11] This is the goal that drives capital forward.

Yet, capital cannot survive simply by exploitation within the sphere of production. It must sell the commodities produced under its reign to secure money, its true life-blood. Once it succeeds (in this ‘second act’) in making the surplus value contained in commodities real, it can use a portion of the proceeds (surplus value in its form as money) to expand. ‘The goal-determining activity of capital,’ Marx explained, ‘can only be that of growing wealthier, i.e. of magnification, of increasing itself.’[12] The accumulation of capital is the result of its ‘constant drive to go beyond its quantitative limit: an endless process.’[13]

Capital, though, continually comes up against barriers to its growth.[14] In the sphere of production, it faces the resistance of workers and the availability of raw materials; and, in the sphere of circulation, there is a ‘constant tension between the restricted dimensions of consumption on the capitalist basis, and a production that is constantly striving to overcome these immanent barriers’ and thus an ever-present tendency for ‘overproduction, the fundamental contradiction of developed capital’. [15]

Nevertheless, capital continually drives beyond those barriers and develops qualitatively in the process. On the one hand, it develops a ‘specifically capitalist mode of production’ and, developing the natural sciences, finds new sources of raw materials and substitutes; on the other hand, capital is driven to find ways to create a ‘constantly widening sphere of circulation’ and does so by producing new needs and ‘propagating existing ones in a wide circle’.[16] Inherent in the nature of capital, thus, is its tendency to develop by going beyond barriers in both the sphere of production and the sphere of circulation. Indeed, Marx commented that ‘the tendency to create the world market is directly given in the concept of capital itself. Every limit appears as a barrier to be overcome.’[17]

As indicated by Marx’s reference to the world market, capital’s tendency for growth without limit has a definite spatial dimension. Not only does capital drive forward ‘to tear down every spatial barrier’ to exchange and to ‘conquer the whole earth for its market’ but it also searches for a global fix to barriers within the sphere of production. Thus, a ‘condition of production founded on capital’ is ‘the exploration of the earth in all directions, to discover new things of use as well as new useful qualities of the old; such as new qualities of them as raw materials etc.’[18] As Marx explained at the time, capital goes beyond the barrier posed by ‘the availability of raw materials’ by supplying these ‘from a greater distance’ and indeed by ‘colonization of foreign lands, which are thereby converted into settlements for growing the raw material of the mother country.’

However, capital’s creation of a ‘new and international division of labour’ is not limited to the core/periphery pattern that Marx identified here.[19] As in the case of its replacement of skilled labour with unskilled labour, capital constantly searches for cheaper sources of labour and often finds these where workers for historical reasons are accustomed to lower standards of necessity.[20] Accordingly, given the possibility of intensified exploitation as the result of ‘the cheapness of the human sweat and the human blood’ available to be converted into capitalist commodities, inherent in the concept of capital is the tendency to ‘propagate production based upon capital’ throughout the world.[21] The world market, then, becomes the basis for the global spread of capitalist production; the result is ‘the ‘entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and, with this the growth of the international character of the capitalist regime’.[22]

Capital, in short, comes up against barriers to its growth but drives beyond them. As Marx insisted over and over again, capital ‘is the endless and limitless drive to go beyond its limiting barrier. Every boundary is and has to be a barrier for it.’[23] Is it possible, then, to regulate this endless impulse as the Encyclical and, indeed, all reformers of capital propose? Attempting to place limits upon capital merely introduces new barriers that it will drive over and beyond in order to continue to grow. Introduce pollution controls (through prohibition or financial penalties), and capital will go elsewhere so it can continue to grow (as in the case of steel producers who shift elsewhere). Exhaust fertility and water supplies in a particular area, and capital proceeds to acquire land elsewhere (e.g., in Africa).[24] The essential nature of capital is its drive for profit and thus its tendency to function as if its infinite growth is possible.

Further, there is no central committee of capital that could decide to stop growing in order to ensure that the planet will not be ‘squeezed dry beyond every limit’. Capital in reality exists as many individual capitals — each of which is driven ‘to go beyond its quantitative limit’, each of which embodies capital’s essential drive, its thirst for profits, that impulse for endless growth. Rather than a single capital (as implied in the concept of capital itself), there are many self-seeking capitals all seeking to expand. And, if some are checked (or restrain themselves), others are more than happy to push them out of the way. As Marx understood, ‘Après moi le deluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and every capitalist nation.’ Without question, this is the recipe for the tragedy of the global commons. The deluge is inherent in the nature of capital, and it will not be avoided unless we can put an end to capitalist relations of production.

Capitalist Relations of Production: the side of the working class

The Communist Manifesto insisted, of course, that the deluge can be avoided. Capitalism, it argued, produces, ‘above all, its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.’[25] But what is the working class that will put an end to capitalist relations of production? The working class is not (contrary to so many Marxian mystics) deus ex machina; it does not spring full-grown from Marx’s forehead as the pristine embodiment of the idea of capital’s finiteness. To understand the necessary condition for putting an end to capitalism, it is first essential to understand that capital tends to produce the working class it needs.

In every process of production, in every process of human activity, there are always two results — joint products: the change in the object of labour and the change in the labourer herself. Within capitalist relations of production, in addition to capital, there is a second product — the worker. We must never forget that second product. For Marx, it was obvious that workers are not only exploited under capitalist relations of production. They are also deformed. A particular kind of worker is produced within capitalism — a crippled human being.

Within the capitalist workplace, people are subjected to ‘the powerful will of a being outside them, who subjects their activity to his purpose.’[26] In Capital, Marx described the result of this subordination to that alien power — the mutilation, the impoverishment, the ‘crippling of body and mind’ of the worker ‘bound hand and foot for life to a single specialized operation’ that occurs in the division of labour characteristic of the capitalist process of manufacturing. But did capital’s development of machinery rescue workers from this fate? No, he said, it completes the ‘separation of the intellectual faculties of the production process from manual labour.’ It completes, in short, the crippling of body and mind.[27]

In this situation, Marx explained, head and hand become separate and hostile, and ‘every atom of freedom, both in bodily and in intellectual activity’ is lost. While capital develops productive forces to achieve its own preconceived goal (the growth of profits and capital), ‘all means for the development of production undergo a dialectical inversion.’ The result, Marx indicated, is that ‘they distort the worker into a fragment of a man,’ and they degrade him and ‘alienate from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process.’[28]

These are the human products of capital, which exist alongside the commodities containing the labour extracted from workers. Think of what this means in terms of the worker’s capacities. ‘Labour-power, or labour capacity,’ Marx indicated, is ‘the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in the physical form, the living personality, of a human being, capabilities which he sets in motion whenever he produces a use-value of any kind.’[29] In the ‘dialectical inversion’ characteristic of capitalism, the mental and physical capacities of individual producers are degraded, and the result is a ‘complete emptying-out,’ ‘total alienation,’ the ‘sacrifice of the human end-in-itself to an entirely external end.’[30]

Within capitalist relations of production, the world of wealth faces the worker ‘as an alien world dominating him.’ And that alien world dominates the worker more and more because capital constantly creates new needs to consume in order to realise the surplus value contained in commodities. Upon this creation of new needs, Marx noted, ‘the contemporary power of capital rests.’ Every new need for capitalist commodities is a new link in the golden chain that links workers to capital.[31]

How else but with money, the true need that capitalism creates, can we fill the vacuum? We compensate for that ‘emptying-out’ by filling the void with things. We are driven to consume. In short, the joint product of capitalist production that Marx identified in Capital is the fragmented, crippled human being whose enjoyment consists in possessing and consuming things. Workers need higher wages — not because they want wealth but because of the needs that capital constantly creates. Contrary to the wish expressed in the Encyclical, consumerism is not a bad habit that can be changed by exhortation; rather, it is inherent in capitalist relations of production.

Similarly, it is not an accident that the technology and productive forces developed within capitalist relations of production enrich capital and impoverish the worker. Productive forces do not drop from the sky — they emerge within particular relations and reinforce those relations. Contrary to the Encyclical, the problem associated with the current technological paradigm is not that it exalts the ‘methods and aims of science and technology’. Rather, it is the subordination of technology to capital. Where the goal is not the growth of capital, technology would enhance rather than cripple the original sources of all wealth — human beings and nature.

Why, then, is this system allowed to continue? To begin, the purchase of the worker’s creative power by capital fosters the mystification of capital: ‘all the productive forces of social labour appear attributable to it [capital], and not to labour as such, as a power springing forth from its own womb.’ Fixed capital, machinery, technology, and science all necessarily appear only as capital. On the surface, accordingly, ‘the accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain … appears as an attribute of capital.’[32] Thus, the message constantly transmitted to workers is that capital is everything, and they are nothing.

In short, capital appears necessary. As Marx explained in Capital:

The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, tradition and habit looks upon the requirements of that mode of production as self-evident natural laws. The organization of the capitalist process of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance.[33]

Breaks down all resistance! This mystification of capital is one source of its strength. Insofar as workers view capital’s requirements as ‘self-evident natural laws’, when workers struggle over wages and working conditions, they do so not to challenge its rule but to improve their position within capitalist relations.[34] But there is more. Capital is strong because workers are weak. They are weak because they are separated and divided.

Thus, workers compete to sell their capacities to particular capitalist purchasers; and the greater the number of competing sellers relative to employment opportunities (i.e., the higher the level of unemployment), the greater the tendency for lower wages, higher workdays and deteriorating working conditions. Further, insofar as they are successful in selling their labour-power, workers tend to identify their own interest with that of the particular capitals that employ them rather than with the workers employed by competing capitalists. Their separation, as Engels explained, ‘makes nothing else possible for them but restriction to their immediate, everyday interests, to the wish for a good wage for good work’; and it ‘restricts the workers to seeing their interest in that of their employers, thus making every single section of workers into an auxiliary army for the class employing them.’[35]

Capital’s drive to grow, too, tends to increase those divisions and the degree of separation among workers. Thus, its search for cheaper sources of labour and its ability to find workers who for historical reasons are accustomed to lower standards of necessity increases the intensity of competition among workers. Where they are unable to bridge the separation among them because of divisions of race, religion, sex, age, nationality or simply distance, their differences turn into antagonism. As in the case of English and Irish workers in the mid-19th Century, their competition and separation becomes hostility. The result, as Marx knew well, is that capital gains at the expense of workers. Indeed, he described these divisions as ‘the secret of the impotence of the English working class.’ It is the secret, Marx argued, ‘by which the capitalist class maintains its power.’[36]

Here, then, is the tragedy of the global working class. Insofar as workers are competitors and view themselves as such, ‘every single section of workers’ tends to identify its immediate interest with that of its capitalist employers. In addition to the view of capital’s requirements as ‘self-evident natural laws’, the division and dispersal of workers over great distances leads them to see each other as enemies. Their separation, Engels proposed, ‘renders it impossible for them to realise that their interests are common, to reach understanding, to constitute themselves into one class.’[37] This is the secret of the impotence of the global working class, the presupposed grave-diggers of capital.

Further, capital’s tendency is to preserve the separation of the working class. Describing the effect of capital’s displacement of workers with the introduction of new technology, Marx argued that capital’s generation of a reserve army of the unemployed ‘sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker.’ With the constant generation of a relative surplus population of workers, wages are ‘confined within limits satisfactory to capitalist exploitation, and lastly, the social dependence of the worker on the capitalist, which is indispensable, is secured.’ The capitalist, Marx explained, can then rely upon the workers’ ‘dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them.’[38]

Guaranteed in perpetuity by capitalist relations of production, thus, are divisions among the working class which prevent it from uniting against capital locally and globally. Guaranteed in perpetuity by capitalism, accordingly, is the continued destruction of the original sources of wealth — human beings and nature. Without a solution to the tragedy of the global working class and the end to capitalist relations of production, the deluge appears inevitable.

The socialist alternative

There is, however, an alternative. Workers are not only the products of capital; they also produce themselves through their own activities (the side of capitalism not explored in Capital).[39] Through their practice, through the simultaneous changing of circumstances and human activity or self-change that Marx named ‘revolutionary practice’, workers can develop the capacity to go beyond capital. Although Marx recognised the limits of wage struggles as such, he always stressed the second product — the human product.

Thus, in 1853 Marx insisted that wage struggles prevent workers ‘from becoming apathetic, thoughtless, more or less well-fed instruments of production’; without them, workers would be ‘a heartbroken, a weak-minded, a worn-out, unresisting mass.’ And he returned to the same point in 1865, noting that workers who did not engage in wage struggles ‘would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation.’ As a result, they would not be able to develop the capacity to go beyond capital: they ‘would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement’[40] Marx, in short, understood that it is right to rebel — not only to change circumstances but also to change ourselves.

In particular, it is essential to rebel against the capitalist inversion, that inversion in which ‘it is not the worker who makes use of means of production, but the means of production that make use of the worker.’[41] Subjects become objects, means become ends in ‘this inversion, indeed this distortion, which is peculiar to and characteristic of capitalist production, of the relation between dead labour and living labour, between value and the force that creates value.’[42] Indeed, within the capitalist system, Marx concluded, ‘all means for the development of production undergo a dialectical inversion so that they become means of domination and exploitation of the producers.’[43]

In the socialist alternative, the means for development of production are not means of domination and exploitation; rather, we struggle to build what Marx described in Capital as the ‘inverse situation, in which objective wealth is there to satisfy the worker’s own need for development.’[44] In that society, the capitalist inversion itself is inverted; we end ‘this distortion, which is peculiar to and characteristic of capitalist production’. Accordingly, rather than the crippling and fragmentation of the producers, workers develop their capacities: ‘when the worker co-operates in a planned way with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species.’[45]

Similarly, in the inverse situation, rather than the ‘squandering of the vitality of the soil’ that Marx described, a society can bequeath the earth ‘in an improved state to succeeding generations.’[46] The capitalist distortion is inverted when nature is no longer a means for capital, and its ‘systematic restoration’ is understood as the ‘inalienable condition for the existence and reproduction of the chain of human generations.’[47] Further, we negate the capitalist negation when the separation of people inherent in capitalist society is replaced by the fostering of community and solidarity — the nurturing, indeed, of a society (in the words of The Communist Manifesto) that recognises that ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’

At the core of the socialist alternative is the concept of our own need for development and, in particular, Marx’s key link of human development and practice.[48] Through revolutionary practice, we produce ourselves as ‘rich human beings’— rich in capacities and needs — in contrast to the impoverished and crippled human beings that capitalism produces. And, the struggles that develop us are not only over wages, hours, and working conditions. Workers are many-sided, and our various struggles (e.g., over housing, education, inequality, environmental destruction, racism, and patriarchy) do not not only change particular circumstances but also build the capacity for collective action and a strong working class.

If we are to avoid the tragedy of our commons, we must combine the protagonism that builds the rich human beings that Marx envisioned, the social ownership of the earth that is the condition for its ‘conscious and rational treatment’ and a society focused upon common needs and purposes. Indeed, we need to build all three sides of what President Chávez of Venezuela called the ‘elementary triangle of socialism’: social ownership of the means of production, social production organised by workers and production for the purpose of satisfying social needs.[49]

Without social ownership of the means of production, the original sources of wealth (human beings and nature) enrich private interests and reinforce unequal opportunity for the full development of human capacity. Without direction and protagonism by workers in the workplace and community, there can be no end to ‘the crippling of body and mind’ and the ‘complete emptying-out’ that fosters the endless need to possess ‘things’. Without a focus upon communal needs and purposes and the building of a conscious community, we interact as separate and indifferent individuals who strive to secure as much as possible for ourselves and thereby guarantee the tragedy of the commons.

Of course, this combination of production, distribution and consumption can not be realised fully overnight but, like the architect who first ‘builds the cell in his mind’, the concept of the ‘socialist triangle’ can serve as a vision that can ensure the ‘purposeful will’ to struggle on all three fronts. Unfortunately, this is not the vision that characterised socialism of the 20th Century. That was a vision which equated juridical state ownership of the means of production with social ownership, focused upon the development of material productive forces without the protagonism that is the condition for the all-round development of human productive forces and stressed the material self-interest that reproduces separation of workers and societies.[50] Limited to that 20th century vision of socialism, we will never escape the tragedy of our commons.

We have to reinvent socialism.’ With this statement, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez electrified activists in his closing speech at the January 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. ‘It can’t be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union,’ he stressed, ‘but it will emerge as we develop new systems that are built on cooperation, not competition.’ If we are ever going to end the poverty of the majority of the world, Chavez argued, capitalism must be transcended. ‘But we cannot resort to state capitalism, which would be the same perversion of the Soviet Union. We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project, and a path, but this must be a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything.’[51]

There, at its core, is the vision of socialism for the twenty-first century. Rather than expansion of the means of production or direction by the state, human beings must be at the center of the new socialist society. And, that vision marks a return to Marx’s concept of the worker’s own need for development — the culmination of his consistent stress upon the centrality of the development of human capacity, the ‘development of the rich individuality,’ as the real wealth and explicit goal of the new society.[52]

End the tragedies, avoid the deluge

Understanding that vision, too, points toward the solution to the tragedy of the global working class (and, thus, the tragedy of the global commons). If workers across the globe relate only as wage-labourers, their immediate interests collide; in their competition over jobs, incomes and working conditions, they inevitably view each other as enemies. Trade unions often have attempted to build international solidarity among workers by uniting them against the common enemy, capital; however, rather than focussing solely upon their interests as wage-labourers (the dimension in which capital rules), it is essential to recognise that workers are not one-dimensional, that they are not only wage-labourers. Human development (which necessarily incorporates being boni patres familias with respect to our common home) must be our central organising principle.

We need to develop a concept of socialist globalisation — one where producers accept the right of all within the world to share in our common social heritage, the right to be able to develop our potential through revolutionary democracy and protagonism in the workplace and society and the right to live in a society in which cooperation and solidarity rather than self-interest prevails. In short, we need to recognise our goal as an international ‘association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’.[53] The struggle on all three fronts is one that can end the tragedy of the global working class.

Our common home will be destroyed unless we put an end to capitalist relations of production. That is the Marxist premise missing from the Encyclical. The choice is clear: international socialism or international barbarism.


[1] The Encyclical notes that the poor of the earth, for example, are forced to migrate as the result of growing poverty as the result of the effects of climate change (25); they lack access to safe drinking water (‘a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights’ (30); and they are subject to a life without dignity and to premature death because of these grave imbalances (30, 48).

[2] Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (New York: Vintage, 1981), 911, 916. See Chapters 1 and 11 of Michael A. Lebowitz, The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015) for a discussion of Marx on nature.

[3] Marx, Capital, vol.3, 949; Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (New York: Vintage, 1977), 635-36. No one has retrieved this critical dimension of Marx’s concerns more than John Bellamy Foster, beginning with his classic work, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000).

[4] Marx, Capital, vol. 3::754n.

[5] Ibid., 949.

[6] Ibid., 911.

[7] Marx, Capital, vol. 3: 754n

[8] Marx, Grundrisse (New York: Vintage, 1973), 85, 87.

[9] Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 638.

[10] Ibid., 381.

[11] See my discussion of the nature of capital in Michael A. Lebowitz, Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

[12] Marx, Grundrisse, 270.

[13] Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 270.

[14] See the discussion of capital’s barriers in Michael A. Lebowitz, The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015), 15-9 and Lebowitz, Beyond Capital, Chapter 1.

[15] Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, 365; Marx, Grundrisse, 415.

[16] Marx, Grundrisse, 405, 407-8.

[17] Marx, Grundrisse, 408–10.

[18] Marx, Grundrisse, 539, 409.

[19] Marx, Capital, Vol.I, 579-80.

[20] See the discussion of differing standards of necessity (with particular reference to Marx’s consideration of Irish workers at the time) in Lebowitz, Beyond Capital, 128, 154-5, 158-60.

[21] Marx, Capital, Vol.1, 601; Marx, Grundrisse, 408-9.

[22] Marx, Grundrisse, 528; Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, 929.

[23] Marx, Grundrisse, 334.

[24] These particular examples were chosen because of their relevance to China.

[25] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 6 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 496.

[26] Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 450.

[27] Ibid., 482–84, 548, 607–8, 614.

[28] Ibid., 548, 643, 799.

[29] Ibid., 270.

[30] Marx, Grundrisse, 488.

[31] Ibid., 287; Lebowitz, Beyond Capital: 32–44.

[32] Marx, Grundrisse, 694; Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 1058; Lebowitz, Beyond Capital, 156–57.

[33] Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 899.

[34] Although at moments workers may elect governments to represent their interests, as long as they look upon the needs of capital as common sense, sooner or later they act to ensure the conditions for the expanded reproduction of capital.

[35] Frederick Engels, ‘The Constitutional Question in Germany’ in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 6 (New York: International Publishers, 1976), 83-4. See the discussion in Lebowitz, Beyond Capital, 157–58. Note Marx’s comment that ‘the competition among workers is only another form of the competition among capitals’ (Marx, Grundrisse, 651).

[36] Lebowitz, Beyond Capital, 156-60.

[37] Engels, op. cit.

[38] Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 899. 935.

[39] This theme is explored in Lebowitz, Beyond Capital.

[40] Karl Marx, New York Daily Tribune, July 14, 1853 in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 12 (New York: International Publishers, 1979): 169; Karl Marx, Value, Price and Profit, in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 20 (New York: International Publishers, 1985), 148.

[41] Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 988, 548.

[42] Ibid., 425.

[43] Ibid., 799.

[44] Marx, Capital, Vol. I, 772.

[45] Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 447.

[46] Marx, Capital, vol. 3: 911, 916.

[47] Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 635-6; Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 949.

[48] This theme is developed in Lebowitz, The Socialist Alternative:Real Human Development (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010).

[49] See the discussion of ‘the socialist triangle’ in Lebowitz, The Socialist Alternative. The emergence of the concept is described in Chapter 5 of Lebowitz, The Socialist Imperative.

[50] See my discussion of ‘real socialism’ in Michael A. Lebowitz, The Contradictions of ‘Real Socialism’: the Conductor and the Conducted (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012).

[51] Cleto A. Sojo, 2005. ‘Venezuela’s Chávez Closes WSF with Call to Transcend Capitalism,’ (January 31); Lebowitz, Build it Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006), 109.

[52] Marx, Grundrisse, 488, 541, 708. See the discussion of Marx’s concept of the ‘rich human being’ and the concept of human wealth in Lebowitz, Beyond Capital, pp. 131-3l; and in Lebowitz, The Socialist Alternative, 42-4

[53] The concept of socialist globalisation is explored in Michael A. Lebowitz, ‘Socialism for the twenty-first century and the need for socialist globalization’ in International Critical Thought, Vol. 1, No. 3 (September 2011).