Limits and scarcity

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For Marx and Engels, the issue of scarcity was always associated with the 'Malthusian problem': the attempt to trace scarcity back to some abstract account of the relation between food production and the 'human population' rather than the dynamics of a particular society. Hence reference to natural limits tends to be rejected in their thinking. Benton takes a different view: as we have already seen, the attempt to theorise the matter of the natural conditions of the process of production indicates limits. Benton readily acknowledges that such limits mustbe understood as relative; limits may be overcome but it is likely that other limits will subsequently take their place.26 Are there, then, limits in our knowledge of nature?

Benton argues in favour ofwhat he calls 'epistemic conservatism': limits in our knowledge of nature. He acknowledges that Marxism has tended to be triumphalist in its interrogation ofnature: nature is a social project, as Lukacs once noted; there is no such thing as nature 'in itself'. On this view, there is no sense to the claim that nature might, in however attenuated fashion, be the measure ofhumanity. However, Benton argues that there is a realist path between social constructionism and naturalism.27 It is not the case that, epistemologically speaking, nature knows best. However, neither is it the case that humanity knows best: if everything must go somewhere, to take another ofCommoner's ecological rules, it is not clear that humanity knows where that 'somewhere' is.

Tim Hayward has also pressed this theme ofepistemic conservatism in his critique of unsubtle views of ecological and Enlightenment rationality. Hayward draws on the theme of Enlightenment rationality as critique

26. Ted Benton, 'Ecology, Socialism and the Mastery of Nature: A Reply to Reiner

Grundmann', New Left Review 194 (1992), 55-74 (62).

27. Benton, 'Marxism and Natural Limits', pp. 56-8.

rather than domination as a way of stressing the importance of limit in our thinking on nature: 'Thus although enlightenment thinking is sometimes criticized for arrogance, in its best and most critical form it also emphasizes the limits to possible knowledge.'28 Of course, there are real difficulties, as Hayward readily acknowledges: does the appeal to reason, for example, validate the superiority of the human or only its epistemic primacy.? Yet Hayward holds to the view that central to Enlightenment rationality is the omnicompetence of criticism rather than the omnicompetence of reason. Rationality as critique, Hayward suggests, should be rethought in relation to ecological values.

However, the discussion of limits in Marxist circles is not restricted to epistemology. Benton argues that Marx and Engels, reacting strongly against the connection drawn by Malthus between human population and food production, tend instead to stress human productivity. Beyond noting the theme, Marx and Engels do not offer an adequate theoretical account of natural limits. We have already seen that, in Benton's view, Marx offers only one account of the production process: the transformative. Such a restriction is unhelpful, according to Benton, in that the focus of Marxist inquiry is not on the intentional structures governing other processes ofproduction, the eco-regulative and the extractive.

Furthermore, Benton sharpens his critique by adding that even Marx's account of the labour process as featured in the modality of transformation is too narrow. For the tendency ofMarxist discussion has been to concentrate on the antagonisms generated between labour and capital in the process of production. Thus, what has received less attention - even in the discussion of the transformative intentional structure - is the interaction between labour and nature. According to Benton, there are at least five aspects of the engagement with nature (human and non-human) left out of account or insufficiently attended to in Marxist theory.

These are: first, both the instruments and the objects of labour are material. As such, they enjoy certain resistances to human intentionality. Second, all processes have their origin - at whatever remove - in collection from nature. Third, Marx pays insufficient attention to the conditions of production, including the conditions of reproduction, of workers. Persistently undertheorised in Marx's account is, then, the 'domestic' sphere - birth and care ofchildren - which has eco-regulative aspects but also its own independent structure. Fourth, natural conditions are not

28. Tim Hayward, Ecological Thought: an Introduction (Cambridge: Polity, 1995), p. 11.

manipulable, especially when we are speaking of geographical or climatic conditions. Fifth, Marx pays too little attention to the unintended consequences - pollution, accidents - of human actions in production.29

From this perspective, Benton concludes that the ecological reconstruction of Marxism must include the following amendments: (1) contextual conditions of production are not instruments of labour and should be considered separately; (2) how these contextual conditions are to be maintained so as to permit the sustainability of productive processes is a vitally important issue; (3) some account of unintended consequences must be given: the use of fertiliser may have the unintended consequence of desertification; the generation of electricity by means of nuclear fission may have the unwelcome consequence ofcreating nuclear waste which is difficult to dispose ofsafely.

Although it is not clear from the argument, I take it that Benton intends these three points to be developed in relation to all intentional structures: transformative, eco-regulative and extractive. What account of natural limits emerges here.? First, Benton insists that the natural conditions of production need to be theorised separately. Thus, in steel production processes (car manufacture, for instance), the source of iron would need to be noted; or, in paper production, the source of the wood pulp needs to be acknowledged; with regard to human work, the care and raising of children is an important theme. Second, what is required is more than just bringing these conditions to mind, it is also attending to the conditions of their long-term maintenance. Different considerations will apply in connection to the sustainability of different conditions. Third, unintended consequences which flow directly from processes of production and which may, for a variety of different reasons, react back on the production processes, need to be treated. What emerges as significant is the ways in which various natural conditions are drawn into production processes, how these conditions are used and how renewed, and whether or not polluting outcomes threaten the integrity of the production process itself.

The work of James O'Connor is less concerned with the issue of natural limits considered abstractly from the processes of capitalist accumulation. O'Connor readily concedes that nature has its own laws to which Marx and Marxists have not always paid sufficient attention. The 'active, autonomous role of nature' was too often ignored in Marx's work. Furthermore, 'no account of production conditions can ignore the fact

29. Benton, 'Marxism and Natural Limits,' pp. 165-6.

that external nature has its own autonomous "laws" or developmental principles'.30

However, the central issue, as O'Connor presents it, is not limits -strictly, capitalist expansion has no limits31 - but rather how capitalist accumulation engages the conditions of production. Recall that the conditions of production refer to the external, physical conditions (ecosystems and like) as these enter into productive processes, the reproduction of labour power (including the 'domestic sphere') and the matter of social infrastructure (transport systems, education). The key issue is: if there are no limits to capitalist expansion, then the matter of ecological limit will be encountered only in the form of economic crisis. If there are genuine limits to the conditions of production, under capitalism these will only take the form of crisis. How then does capitalist accumulation employ external conditions through periods both of accumulation and crisis.? If there are two basic modalities of capitalist accumulation - expansion and crisis - how do these relate to the production ofpollution and waste, the treatment of nature as a free good, etc.?

It is likely, O'Connor contends, that through periods ofexpansion capitals will use up natural resources more quickly than at other times: resource depletion and pollution can be expected to increase through 'good times'. It may also be the case, of course, that capital seeks to improve its profitability by reducing the costs of the reproduction of labour power and the costs of sustaining the infrastructure.32 There is an important opportunity here for environmental groups in that, through periods of high profitability, capital firms do at least have resources to invest in more efficient ways of using materials and undertake the clean-up of the environment. However, capital may also accumulate through crisis: here capitals seek the cheapest raw materials, whatever their ecological cost, and wish to avoid the costs of clearing up pollution, etc. In summary: capital always accumulates, sometimes through expansion, sometimes through crisis. (In fact, O'Connor argues, most of the time capital accumulates through both crisis and expansion at one and the same time.33)

Hence, O'Connor insists, there are two dynamics of ecological degradation operative in capitalism; there are two ways in which capitalism depletes resources; there are two ways in which it generates pollution. In general, these dynamic tendencies are operative simultaneously. The

30. O'Connor, Natural Causes, p. 147. 31. Ibid., p. 181.

32. Cf. Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference, pp. 195-6.

33. O'Connor Natural Causes, pp. 180-6.

analytical task is therefore to ascertain which sectors of capitalist production are accumulating through expansion and which through crisis and, of course, to take into account a set of further circumstances concerning the reproduction of workers, infrastructure and what have you. We should not be surprised that through these processes, combined and uneven as they are, that capitals degrade, and sometimes destroy, their conditions of production.

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