"Second contradiction" of capital and green politics

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Wed Apr 24 18:47:33 MDT 1996


Dogmatic Marxism tends to sneer at green politics as reformist. After
all, if Vice President Al Gore can write a book called "Fate of the
Earth" that incorporate a number of environmental themes, how
anticapitalist can the green movement be?

In discussing the particular problem of cattle-ranching, it is not to
hard for most list members to see that it is extremely destructive to
precious resources such as soil, water and vegetation. Capitalist
exploitation of these resources in order to provide cheap beef to the
population of the advanced capitalist nations threatens to upset
ecosystems that preserve all life, including human life. While in the
process of upsetting ecosystems that took thousands of years to
develop, capitalism also destroys the lives of campesinos who are
expelled from precious land. That land which can produce corn and
beans for the downtrodden of the South is instead used to satisfy the
craving for beef in the North.

James O'Connor, the founder and editor of the journal "Capitalism,
Nature and Socialism", has traveled farther in developing a Marxist
critique of these problems than any other contemporary thinker. His
has articulated a theory of the "second contradiction of capitalism" that
explains why environmental degradation is an integral element of
capitalism today and not subject to reformist solutions.

In an essay "Is Sustainable Capitalism Possible" that appears in a
collection "Is Capitalism Sustainable" edited by Martin O'Connor (no
relation), he defines both the first and second contradictions of
capitalism.

The first contradiction is generated by the tendency for capitalism to
expand. The system can not exist in stasis such as precapitalist modes
of productions like feudalism. A capitalist system that is based on
what Marx calls "simple reproduction" and what many greens call
"maintenance" is an impossibility. Unless there is a steady and
increasing flow of profits into the system, it will die. Profit is the
source of new investment which in turn fuels technological innovation
and, consequently,  ever-increasing replacement of living labor by
machinery. Profit is also generated through layoffs, speedup and other
more draconian measures.

However, according to O'Connor, as capital's power over labor
increases, there will be contradictory tendency for profit in the
capitalist system as a whole to decrease. This first contradiction of
capital then can be defined as what obtains "when individual capitals
attempt to defend or restore profits by increasing labor productivity,
speeding up work, cutting wages, and using other time-honored ways
of getting more production from fewer workers." The unintended
result is that the worker's loss in wages reduces the final demand for
consumer commodities.

This first contradiction of capital is widespread throughout the United
States and the other capitalist countries today. No amount of capitalist
maneuvering can mitigate the effects of this downward spiral.
Attempts at global management of the problem are doomed to fail
since the nation-state remains the instrument of capitalist rule today,
no matter how many articles appear in postmodernist venues about
"globalization".

The second contradiction of capital arises out of the problems the
system confronts in trying to maintain what Marx called the
"conditions of production". The "conditions of production" require
three elements: *human labor power* which Marx called the "personal
conditions of production", *environment* which he termed "natural or
external conditions of productions" and *urban infrastructure*, the
"general, communal conditions of production".

All three of these "conditions of productions" are being undermined by
the capitalist system itself. The form this takes is viewed in an
amorphous and fragmented manner as the "environmental crisis," "the
urban crisis", the "education crisis", etc. When these problems become
generalized, they threaten the viability of capitalism since they
continue to raise the cost of clean air and water, raw materials,
infrastructure, and consequently labor itself.

During the early and middle stages of capitalism, the satisfaction of
the "conditions of production" were hardly an issue since there was
apparently an inexhaustible source of natural resources and the
necessary space to build factories, etc. As capitalism reaches its latter
phase in the twentieth century, these problems deepen until they reach
crisis proportions. At this point, capitalist politicians and ideologues
start raising a public debate about the urban and environmental crisis
(which are actually interconnected).

What they don't realize is that these problems are rooted in the
capitalist system itself and constitute what O'Connor calls the
"second contradiction". He says, "Put simply, the second contradiction
states that when individual capitals attempt to defend or restore profits
by cutting or externalizing costs, the unintended effect is to reduce the
'productivity' of the conditions of production and hence to raise
average costs."

O'Connor cites the following examples: Pesticides in agriculture at
first lower, then ultimately increase costs as pests become more
chemical-resistant and as the chemicals poison the soil. In Sweden
permanent-yield monoforests were expected to keep costs down, but
the loss of biodiversity has reduced the productivity of forest
ecosystems and the size of the trees themselves. A final example is
nuclear power which was supposed to reduce energy costs but had the
opposite effect.

If capitalism was a rational system, it would restructure the conditions
of production in such a way as to increase their productivity. The
means of doing this is the state itself. The state would, for example,
ban cars in urban areas, develop non-toxic pest controls and launch
public health programs based on preventative medicine.

Efforts such as these would have to be heavily capitalized. However,
competition between rival capitalisms, engendered through the
pressures of the "first contradiction" (in other words, the need to
expand profits while the buying power of a weakened working-class
declines), destroys the possibility for such public investment. As such
possibilities decline, the public infrastructure and the natural
environment continue to degrade. Each successive stage of degradation
in turn raises the cost of production.

It is the combination of these two contradictions that will mark 21st
century capitalism. Marxists have to be sensitive to both and devise
ways to mobilize workers and peasants in a revolutionary struggle to
abolish these contradictions once and for all. In my final post in this
series, I will suggest a manner in which green politics can move in a
pro-working class direction.

Louis Proyect


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