Cotton and Scarcity

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Jan 15 17:09:50 MST 2003

David Schanoes wrote:
>And by the way Marx called for the unification of town and
>country not to provide the farms with the  untreated sewage of London or
>bigger and better compost heaps, but separation of town and country was the
>sin qua non of  private property in agriculture and the beginning of
>wage-labor and  condemned both town and country to cultivation of poverty.
>And Marx also loathed the "idiocy of rule life."

David, you seem unfamiliar with this aspect of Marx and Engels's work,
which specifically points in the direction of those compost heaps you
deride. In the "Housing Question", Engels writes:

"The abolition of the antithesis between town and country is no more and no
less utopian than the abolition of the antithesis between capitalists and
wage workers. From day to day it is becoming more and more a practical
demand of both industrial and agricultural production. No one has demanded
this more energetically then Liebig in his writings on the chemistry of
agriculture, in which his first demand has always been that man shall give
back to the land what he takes from it, and in which he proves that only
the existence of the towns, and in particular the big towns, prevents this.
When one observes how here in London alone a greater quantity of manure
than is produced by the whole kingdom of Saxony is poured away every day
into the sea with an expenditure of enormous sums, and when one observes
what colossal works are necessary in order to prevent this manure from
poisoning the whole of London, then the utopian proposal to abolish the
antithesis between town and country is given a peculiarly practical basis.
And even comparatively insignificant Berlin has been wallowing in its own
filth for at least thirty years."

The Liebig cited above was a soil chemist, who had a big impact on Marx's
thinking. For Liebig, the problem of soil depletion was tied to the
pollution of cities with human and animal wastes. In the chapter "The
Genesis of Capitalist Ground Rent" of v.3 of Capital, Marx cites Liebig
once again and puts the soil chemist's findings into the overall context of
capital accumulation:

"Small landed property presupposes that the overwhelming majority of the
population is rural, and that not social, but isolated labour predominates;
and that, therefore, under such conditions wealth and development of
reproduction, both of its material and spiritual prerequisites, are out of
the question, and thereby also the prerequisites for rational cultivation.
On the other hand, large landed property reduces the agricultural
population to a constantly falling minimum, and confronts it with a
constantly growing industrial population crowded together in large cities.
It thereby creates conditions which cause an irreparable break in the
coherence of social interchange prescribed by the natural laws of life. As
a result, the vitality of the soil is squandered, and this prodigality is
carried by commerce far beyond the borders of a particular state (Liebig).
[ Liebig, Die Chemie in ihrer Anwendung auf Agricultur und Physiologie,
Braunschweig, 1862. -- Ed.]"

The context for Marx's examination of the agrarian question was the general
crisis of soil fertility in the period from 1830 to 1870. The depletion of
soil nutrients was being felt everywhere, as capitalist agriculture broke
down the old organic interaction that took place on small, family farms.
When a peasant plowed a field with ox or horse-drawn plows, used an
outhouse, accumulated compost piles, etc., the soil's nutrients were
replenished naturally. As capitalist agriculture turned the peasant into an
urban proletariat, segregated livestock production from grain and food
production, the organic cycle was broken and the soil gradually lost its

The need to artificially replenish the soil's nutrients led to scientific
research into the problem. Justin Liebig was one of the most important
thinkers of the day and he was the first to posit the problem in terms of
the separation between the city and the countryside.

While the research proceeded, the various capitalist powers sought to gain
control over new sources of fertilizers. This explains "guano imperialism,"
which I referred to in my post on Peru the other day. England brought Peru
into its neocolonial orbit because it was the most naturally endowed
supplier of bird dung in the world. In 1847, 227 thousand tons of guano
were imported from Peru into England. This commodity was as important to
England's economy as silver and gold were in previous centuries.
There was also a desperate search for bones. Over a ten year period, the
value of English imports rose from 14,000 pound sterling to 254,000.
Raiding parties were dispatched to battlefields to scavenge bodies of dead
soldiers. Their bones were desperately needed to replenish sterile soil.

The United States followed suit. There had been a big crisis in upstate NY
and the mid-Atlantic states in the mid 1800s. This prompted Congress to
pass the "Guano Act" of 1856, which eventually led to the seizure of 94
islands in the Pacific Ocean, rich sources of guano.

Liebig theorized that such measures would eventually fall short. Even with
such substitutes, the soil tended to lose its nutrient properties so long
as the artificial divide between town and countryside was maintained. Not
only was the countryside losing its productivity, the town was being
swamped with human waste which was no longer being recycled. London had
such a terrible problem with open sewers that Parliament was forced to
relocate to a location outside the city during the summer months. The
stench was unbearable.

The neo-Classical economists tended to view soil fertility as a given, like
some kind of natural law. Ricardo and Malthus both regarded it as an
exhaustible resource. Thus, the problem of overpopulation was tightly
coupled to the existing practices of capitalist agriculture, which was to
exploit the soil and then abandon it when it lost its fertility. This has
been the main character of Malthusianism until the modern era. It accepts
the limits imposed by the capitalist mode of production as eternal.

Scientists like Liebig, on the other hand, supported the notion of soil
improvement. This meant looking at the relationship between society and
nature in ecological terms. The solution to the problem was the
reintegration of the town and country. This overlapped with Marx's own
exploration of the problems in Capital. In volume three of Capital, the
discussion of farming is framed within this general dialectic. Soil
fertility could only be ensured over the long run through the abolition of
the capitalist system, which would allow food production to take place
along sound, ecological guidelines.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list:

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