A Commodified Earth

As a young thinker and activist, circa 1844, Karl Marx saw in the industrial working class universal humanity and saw in industrial production the means through which humanity would fulfill its highest aspirations of prosperity and freedom. Over the course of the 1850s, Marx came to question “the standpoint of the industrial proletariat,” taking up instead the value form of the commodity as the vantage point of his critique. Yet, as far as I can tell, he never explicitly called into question industrial production as the principle means for achieving the efficiencies upon which, he believed, “freedom from labor” could eventually be realized.

This deficiency is odd. In mainstream neoclassical economic thinking, labor remains bound to the production process through its contribution to the marginal product. This is because the marginal product of labor is equal to the ratio Δ Q/ Δ L, where Q represents some quantity of anything (or no thing) and where L represents some quantity of labor. Productivity arises whenever the change in Q is greater than the change in L: whenever more is produced for less. On its face, this appears to show why, eventually, the contribution of labor must become negligible when compared to a volume of goods. Obviously, however, since we are considering a ratio and not a quantity, it is just as reasonable to suppose that the quantity increases exponentially while the contribution credited to labor holds constant or, perhaps, even increases. This would be the case whenever the marginal product is distributed to an ever smaller portion of the population: to individuals at the very top of the income hierarchy. When therefore economists show that western European social democracies perform less efficiently than Great Britain or the United States, they are simply pointing out that the marginal product is distributed far less equally in Great Britain and the United States; i.e., that investors are credited with far more of the marginal product than working families.

While agreeing broadly with this analysis, Marx showed why, on its face, it meant that working families might never enjoy the benefits arising from their increased productivity. In order for working families to benefit from increasing productivity, the value of workers’ labor would have to be completely separated from the marginal product: Δ L would have to be eliminated from the formula for marginal productivity; leaving, e.g., ΔQ/ΔT, where T represents time and/or technology, but not actual labor. Did this hold true, then the goal of industrial production would no longer be coordinated with labor time. But, in that case, labor time expended would no longer mediate social relations.

Assuming that ΔQ was no longer correlated to labor, we might then wonder how investors would earn ever higher returns. Put bluntly, if the increase in goods were not relative to a change in labor, with what would consumers purchase the marginal product? Or, more generally, how would we value their contribution to the marginal product — and thereby compensate them — were their contribution no longer a factor in its production? In other words, what would mediate social relations under conditions where labor was factored out of the marginal product?

These questions strike at the heart of catastrophic climate change for the following reasons. While consumers purchase, trade, and consume what Marx called a commodity’s “surface form of appearance,” surface forms of appearance are valued differentially in terms of their contribution to the aggregate, i.e., gross, domestic product. We could say that consumer demand is the engine of production; i.e., that production, innovation, and investment are no more than responses to consumer demand. Or, in the alternative, we could say that for investors to realize ever increasing returns on their investments, they must generate ever increasing consumer demand for products produced ever more efficiently.

This might appear to be a “chicken-and-egg” argument: which is the driver and which the destination? Do we produce in order to consume? Do we produce in order to realize returns?

But the answer is clear. Were we able to produce without counting ΔL, the system would collapse. It would collapse because either L would acquire the means of consumption apart from its contribution to goods; or it would collapse because absent the ever increasing marginal returns they win from the marginal efficiency of labor, investors would no longer invest. But, in either case, it is the marginal profit investors win from labor that accounts for economic growth.

From this vantage point, the Earth in all its complexity can be seen as the surface form of appearance of a comprehensively integrated and commodified ecosystem and its subsystems. The Earth exists in order to win returns for investors. Or, in Marx’s terms, the Earth’s “surface forms of appearance” are mediated by abstract value.

This also means, however, that the Earth’s surface forms of appearance could be understood as a “fetish,” a social form whose “natural” powers and meanings are masked and overridden by the social power granted to the abstract value form of the commodity. Their fetishized form means that we cannot even recognize in these surface forms of appearance what they could possibly even be for — what their meanings might be — apart from their contribution to the marginal product. So that, even when we attempt to “balance” the Earth’s “non-economic value” against its “economic value” we cannot do so without reverting to marginal analysis.

The virus that has infected the Earth — that has hacked into and overridden its codes — is the commodity form and, in particular, the abstract value of this form. To restore the original code would require that we eliminate the ΔL from our model.

To this extent, Marx’s critique of the capitalist social form offers us a valuable insight into the reason why addressing merely surface forms of appearance — insurance schemes, tax schemes, regulatory schemes — without addressing the underlying model of economic expansion may not prove sufficient to prevent the impending climate change catastrophe.

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