markjones011 at tiscali.co.uk
Sun Jan 12 16:49:26 MST 2003
Of course, one might well respond that the Cotton
Famine was an occurrence unique to the period of the
United States Civil War. One cannot raise scarcity to a
major theoretical status on the basis of Marx's references
to an individual event of more than a century ago.
Keep in mind that Marx did not explicitly assert the
importance of cotton. Just the opposite! Cotton, or even
resource scarcity, typically appears in his work as an
example of a more general principle, one which is
apparently unrelated to natural resource scarcity. Thus,
the significance of Marx's discussion of the Cotton
Famine is that he did "not emphasize its importance.
Instead, he underplayed it.
Marx, apparently, did not feel free to assert directly that
shortages of raw materials were responsible for crises. To
take that position would play into the hands of the
Malthusians. Rather than risk getting bogged down in
debates that he hoped to avoid, he used very abstract
categories that seemed to have little to do with natural
resource scarcity, even when addressing the momentous
impact of the Cotton Famine.
For Marx, raw-material shortages reflected the inability
of capital to master the environment. He was confident
that under socialism such problems could be overcome,
but the specifics of that victory could not be given in
detail. Otherwise, he would have to begin a series of
endless debates about the specifics of the appropriate
form of socialist organization. That sort of activity could
only divert energies from more important tasks. The
'hidden socialist tendency' would have to remain hidden
within the formulae of the rising organic composition of
The inability of capital to obtain a sufficient supply
of raw materials can explain the rising organic
composition of capital, just as easily as the increasing
reliance on heavy machinery. Judging by Marx's
examples, expansion in the organic composition of
capital was, to a great extent, the result of the lagging
productivity in cotton. [can it??? surely raw material
shortage might lead (in neoclassicla terms) to falling
privces under condsitions of substituion; and graw
material do not only form part of C, but also V, since they
are ultimatrely consumed either ythru wear and tear of
macvhinery, passed on in vaoue terms as a small part of
the value of each commodity, or as food, clothing, goods
etc, consumed by people; shoretage of raw materials
mnight increase all relative prices uniformly, so a specific
shortage might be undetectable, and even if hsortages of
primary inputs (energy, food) led to higher historic rates
of exploiutation, longer working day etc, it might not
depress the profiut rate or even the longrun rate of
If this hypothesis is correct, it does provide a solution to
an important riddle. Many modern commentators are
struck by the relative lack of sophistication in Marx's
rather formalistic two-sector theory of the tendency of the
rate of profit to fall. This anomaly is especially obvious
when comparing his theory of the falling rate of profit
with the mathematical virtuosity, which he displayed in
his two sector models of the second volume of "Capitalo.
For Marx, the law of the falling rate of profit was "in
every respect the most important law of modern political
economy, and the most essential for understanding the
most difficult relations" (Marx 1974, p. 748). His search
for a mare's nest was compelling enough, but the
alternative approach, suggested here, also raised grave
political risks. Not surprisingly, he opted to continue his
quest for an automatic law of the falling rate of profit.
Siegel has pointed out that Marx's section on the falling
rate of profit contained numerous uncharacteristic slips,
which suggest that Marx's own doubts about this part of
his theory persisted despite his strong commitment to
discover a law that necessitated a fall in the rate of profit
(Siegel 1978, Ch. 11). In addition, Siegel has shown how
Engels' skepticism about this part of Marx's theory led
him to edit this section in a way that minimized the
deterministic aspects of this part of Marx's analysis
(Ibid.). Moreover, Engels himself, even though he was
the chief interpreter of Marxist theory for twelve years
after Marx's death, never wrote anything about the falling
rate of profit (see King 1985).
Scarcity may, in fact, play a much more significant role
in Marx's theory than has been previously suspected.
Judging from the frequency in which Marx associated
difficulties in producing raw materials, a rising organic
composition of capital, and a decline in the rate of profit,
provides a further clue to what Marx's intentions may
have been. To have noted the importance of scarcity, even
in a rich dialectical fashion, apparently meant less to
Marx than the discovery of an important law of the falling
rate of profit. Moreover, the issue of scarcity opened up
serious political risks, not to mention that it could lend
support to the enemies of socialism. Consequently,
scarcity was downplayed, while the supposed law of the
falling rate of profit was emphasized.
If my hypothesis is correct, Marx's tactic impoverished
marxist theory. The rehabilitation of Marx's notion of
scarcity opens marxist theory up to a rich line of analysis
that can help to put marxist analysis at the forefront of the
inevitable future debates about the political economy of
natural resource utilization.
Observations of raw material shortages, soil erosion,
rising food prices, or apparent overpopulation elicited a
consistent political and methodological response from
Marx. What appears as a "Malthusian problem" was, in
reality, a reflection of a contradiction within capitalist
Unemployment or poverty cannot be reduced to natural
laws. Furthermore, such phenomena must not be merely
interpreted in terms of human suffering or devastation of
nature or even irrationality; they reveal fundamental flaws
in capitalist society. In fact, problems concerning
agriculture and the appropriation of natural resources first
seem to have drawn Marx's attention to social questions
(Marx 1970a, pp. 19-20; and Engels to Richard Fischer,
15 April 1895; in Marx and Engels 1973: xxxix, pp. 466-
67). For example, a rise in raw material prices was one of
the preconditions of Louis Napoleon's coup in France
(Marx 1969, p. 287).
Marx taught that the "ever growing wants of the people
on one side" and "the ever increasing price of agricultural
produce on the other" offered an excellent opportunity to
organize for the nationalization of the land (Marx 1872,
p. 289). He attempted to seize upon such contradictions
in order to further social progress.
Lenin stood firmly in this tradition. He observed that
"the more capital is developed, the more strongly the
shortage of raw materials is felt, the more intense the
competition and hunt for sources of raw materials
throughout the world, the more desperate the struggle for
the acquisition of colonies" (Lenin 1964, p. 260). He
added that "to try to belittle the importance of facts of this
kind by arguing that ... the supply of raw materials 'could
be' increased enormously by 'simply' improving the
conditions of agriculture" would be to repeat the mistakes
of bourgeois reformists such as Kautsky (Ibid., p. 261).
To carry on with Marx's project is no mean task. It is
made no easier by the methodological tools with which
we have saddled ourselves. Terms such as scarcity,
shortage, or depletion conjure up images of technical
needs. They suggest that if only more oil or better
methods for handling resources were available, then
economic problems would disappear. This perspective
leads in circles. Each new technique is followed by new
problems and the need for still newer techniques.
Marx attempted to forge a new set of categories to
analyze these 'Malthusian problems' to the betterment of
human society (cf. Harvey, 1974). In place of
overpopulation, he referred to the reserve army of the
unemployed. Instead of allowing us to become bogged
down in ahistorical concept of resource scarcity, he tried
to grasp the social content of each situation. Marx's
distinction between "historically developed" and
"naturally conditioned productive forces" illustrates the
manner in which 'natural' and organizational phenomena
are bound together (Marx 1977, p. 651). The frequency
with which he used examples of natural resource scarcity,
when explaining the organic composition of capital,
suggests another methodological alternative to the concept
of scarcity he may have had in mind. His work was never
completed. It is left to us to carry on.
While we can be of some use in rounding out Marx's
work on the social relations of natural resource scarcity,
Marx can be of great use to us in learning how to
interpret the contemporary problems of natural resource
depletion and contamination which plague our society
today. Living in an age in which cost benefit analyses
coldly calculate "appropriate" levels of destruction of our
our heritage of natural resources, Marx's analysis points
the way toward acting in a way to preserve our birthright
and create a humane society.
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