The future-blind v. the realists

Michael Perelman michael at
Tue Jun 20 11:02:26 MDT 2000

My God!  Did you have this prepared before or did you just pump it out?

Louis Proyect wrote:

> Michael wrote:
> >Louis, would you please expand on the differences betweeen O'Connor (1) and
> >Forster (4)
> In a nutshell, John states that there is no reason why ecological ruin
> should bother the capitalist class. The notion that water is undrinkable,
> or air unbreathable, does not lead logically to the proposition that it
> will be imperative for them to address the problem and institute reforms.
> If you read O'Connor closely, btw, you will find scant attention to the
> problem of proletarian revolution. Ecological crisis seems more related to
> the problematic of deep-going structural reform rather than abolition of
> the capitalist system. For a fully developed critique of O'Connor along
> these lines, Paul Burkett's review of O'Connor's "Natural Causes" in
> Monthly Review pretty much jibes with what I've heard from John. Here is a
> relevant passage. The whole review is at:
> O'Connor's "two contradictions" framework is pleasing insofar as it
> explains why neither Keynesian demand-side policies nor neoliberal supply-
> or cost-side policies can overcome the contradictions of capital
> accumulation. The problem, however, is that O'Connor artificially divides
> the first contradiction from the second, even asserting that the "first
> contradiction ... has nothing to do with the conditions of production,
> whether these are interpreted economically or in socio-political terms."
> Since the first contradiction "expresses capital's social and political
> power over labor," it is difficult to see how it can be separated from the
> conditions of production. As we know from Marx, capital's power over labor
> and increases in the rate of exploitation (especially through increases in
> labor productivity which reduce the value of labor power itself) are both
> firmly rooted in capital's appropriation of natural and social conditions
> and the conversion of these conditions into means of exploiting labor power
> and objectifying surplus labor in vendible use values. As O'Connor himself
> notes, this situation presumes a "process of original accumulation" in
> which the direct producers are "freed ... from their land and other means
> of production." The social separation of labor power from necessary
> conditions of production is thus central to capital's power over labor,
> capital's exploitative and destructive combination of nature and labor in
> production, and over-accumulation problems. O'Connor's sharp line between
> the first and second contradictions unwittingly reproduces this separation
> by artificially dividing the "internal" and "external" barriers to capital
> accumulation, and this weakens his fusion of Red and Green perspectives on
> capitalist crisis and social movements.
> As for the "second contradiction," it is by no means clear that rising
> "external costs" from capital's use of natural and social conditions need
> translate into profitability problems for capital as a whole. All capital
> accumulation requires is exploitable labor power and material conditions
> conducive to extraction of surplus labor and its objectification in
> marketable use values. The qualitative nature of the production conditions,
> labor power, and produced use values is historically contingent. Pollution
> control and waste disposal, prisons (with exploitation of imprisoned labor
> power), and police and security services, are all quite profitable sectors,
> even though they represent private costs and/or tax bills from the
> standpoint of many individual enterprises. The fact is that the "external
> costs" of capital accumulation create profitable opportunities for the
> production and realization of surplus value not only for individual
> enterprises, but for capital as a whole-with or without a "corporate-type
> planning agency" to coordinate and distribute these opportunities. On the
> one hand, capital responds to its over-accumulation problems by developing
> and marketing new products featuring ecologically and socially destructive
> use values (plastic packaging, fast foods, the automobile, pesticides). On
> the other hand, capital accumulation increasingly takes the form of goods
> and services whose necessity or usefulness stems from the "external costs"
> of capitalist production and consumption. The whole
> automobile/petroleum/real estate complex, for example, feeds off of
> capitalism's "negative externalities" as much as it helps generate them;
> the same can be said of the medical and legal industries. The pollution
> control and waste treatment industry, with annual sales of between $200-300
> billion in 1990 (more than the entire global aerospace industry) is merely
> the latest member of this pantheon of externality-based activities.2
> The profitability of such destructive and/or externality-based activities
> does not resolve capitalism's "first contradiction." Indeed, insofar as
> private enterprise naturally gravitates toward the most profitable kind of
> pollution control and waste management activities, the problem of
> over-accumulation of potential surplus value is correspondingly
> worsened-all the more so as these activities are increasingly monopolized
> by a small number of larger, relatively profitable corporations. In this
> respect, the environment industry does not differ from other monopoly
> capitalist sectors. Still, the fact that the environment industry can
> itself contribute to over-accumulation problems shows very clearly that the
> real, fundamental contradiction of capitalism is the alienation of the
> conditions of production vis-à-vis workers and communities. O'Connor's two
> contradictions are both symptoms of this more basic contradiction.
> Once the underlying unity of O'Connor's two contradictions is recognized,
> we can see more clearly the limits of the reformist vision of a green
> capitalism. The environment industry is not only incapable of solving the
> problem of over-accumulation; it is also incapable of resolving
> capitalism's environmental crisis. Pollution control, waste management, and
> recycling may be profitable activities; but they do not directly address
> the tension between competitive capitalist growth and the limited character
> of natural conditions of any given quality.
> As matters stand, the competitive "success" of the environment industry
> itself depends upon and contributes to the ecologically unsustainable
> growth of capitalist production. The fact that "environmental maintenance"
> is itself a "growth industry" reveals the conflict between the conditions
> required for capital accumulation and the conditions required for a
> sustainable process of human and social development. To put it bluntly,
> capital can in principle continue to accumulate under any natural
> conditions, however degraded, so long as there is not a complete extinction
> of human life. This makes it essential to distinguish environmental crises
> of capital accumulation from environmental crisis in the sense of a general
> deterioration of the conditions for the development of people as a natural
> and social species. The latter type of crisis by no means automatically
> implies the former, even though both are products of capitalism-which is to
> say that, from the standpoint of human development, capitalism is an
> ecologically and socially irrational system.
> O'Connor does note that capital's destructive effects on the conditions of
> production represent "not only threats to profits and accumulation, but
> also to the viability of the social and natural environment as means of
> life and life itself." He also describes ecological and social movements as
> struggles "to determine what kind of use values production conditions will
> in fact be." Nonetheless, by treating the conditions of production as
> "external" to capital's exploitation of labor, O'Connor's "two
> contradictions" dichotomy tends to soften the distinction between the
> conditions required by capitalist production and the conditions required
> for human development. This is ironic given O'Connor's healthy desire to
> avoid economism. More importantly, the effect of this softening is to
> artificially divide labor and ecological struggles-with the latter still
> basically defined as "non-class" struggles. The dualism between "internal
> and external" capitalist contradictions thus weakens O'Connor's critique of
> the "post-Marxist" politics of difference and particularity.
> It is difficult to inform an anticapitalist ecological perspective using a
> framework in which natural conditions are "external" to capital
> accumulation. In order to accumulate as exchange value, capital must take
> the form of marketable use values combining social labor and nature. As a
> result, current "natural" conditions are largely a product of the
> capitalistic appropriation of nature. It follows that any Red-Green
> movement must be based on subjective and objective conditions growing out
> of capital's exploitation of labor and nature, and the struggles engendered
> by this exploitation. Along with its destruction and degradation of natural
> conditions, capital's development of social labor creates the potential for
> more universal, less restricted relations between people and nature. In
> this sense, contemporary ecological thinking is, to a significant degree, a
> product of capitalist development.3 But this knowledge can only be
> effectively applied insofar as capitalism's social separation of working
> people from necessary conditions of production is replaced by a system of
> democratic worker-community control over society's use of these conditions.
> As Engels puts it, the "regulation" of "our interference with the
> traditional course of nature ... requires something more than mere
> knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode
> of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary
> social order."4
> Engels' observation is not a prescription to sit back and "wait for the
> revolution." All worker and community struggles for greater popular control
> over production are objectively opposed to the treatment of labor and
> nature as mere means of capital accumulation. These struggles can work
> toward the de-alienation of the conditions of production required to
> overcome O'Connor's two contradictions and to create a healthy and
> sustainable coevolution of people, society, and nature. Despite the above
> qualifications, Natural Causes is a rich source of insights for anyone
> interested in contributing to this movement.
> Louis Proyect
> The Marxism mailing-list:

Michael Perelman
Economics Department
California State University
Chico, CA 95929

Tel. 530-898-5321
E-Mail michael at

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