Marx, my father used to say, was among the three most famous Jews of all time—the other two being Einstein and Jesus Christ. Capital (Das Kapital) is unquestionably his major work and for my purposes I will focus on its latter chapters: The Secret of Primitive Accumulation and more importantly, chapter 32, The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation. My goal in this work is not merely to restate the contents of these chapters, but to apply the ideology to the most pressing crisis humanity faces presently: Climate Change. As good Marxists we do not view the climate crisis as an issue that arises chiefly out of political indecision or collective action problems. Rather, the climate crisis is resultant of the relationships our current economic form imposes upon us, between workers and owners and between producer and mother nature. We begin necessarily, with Marx who in accordance with his general theoretical approach, examined the nature of the economy and especially the relations of production, for there were to be found the basic conditions out of which everything else grew.
We arrived at the present condition according to the liberal intellectual current–where workers own nothing and serve corporate masters of glass and steel because long ago there existed two kinds of men–the industrious and the lazy. And so, as years became decades, and decades became centuries and so on, the former became master of the latter when at last the lazy man had nothing left to sell but his skin. Or so the anecdote goes.
In actual history, writes Marx, “it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short, force, play the greatest part”. Take the Viking as an example; unable to accumulate because of their agricultural economy, they would sail south and plunder. This is primitive accumulation in action. The capital-relation necessary for the creation of capitalism, “presupposes a complete separation between the workers and the ownership of the conditions for the realization of their labor”. Thus, the historical process that unfolded, resulting in capitalism, “can be nothing other than the process which divorces the worker from the ownership of the conditions of his own labor”.
So, what’s the big deal? Has not serfdom and slavery been eliminated by this system (when the US is not actively creating slave economies in Libya for instance)? Was not all that blood and conquest worth it in the end? Shouldn’t we thank the warlord of feudal complexion for emancipating us from capital? Free workers, that which we have become, are neither “part of the means of production themselves, as would be the case with slaves, serfs, etc., nor do they own the means of production, as would be the case with self-employed peasant proprietors”. We are free therefore, from any means of production of our own. Of course, so long as this “freedom” is seized upon by capital, we remain in relationships of pure subservience.
Many early capitalist thinkers like Adam Smith saw the emergence of free workers, numerous sole proprietorships, and small-scale industry as the herald of an age of new-found freedom. This period in which the market was dominated by no one quickly gave way to concentrated corporate power. The mode of production envisioned by Smith “presupposes the fragmentation of holdings, and the dispersal of the other means of production. As it excludes the concentration of these means of production, so it also excludes cooperation, division of labor within each separate process of production, the social control and regulation of the forces of nature, and the free development of the productive forces of society”. It is, like the post-war period in the United States, anomalous. At a certain stage of capitalist development, the world envisioned by capitalist-idealists is torn asunder by the very conditions capitalism creates. Its inherent productivist drive annihilates the “dwarf-like property of the many”, becoming the giant property of the few.
The inevitable concentration of corporate power as foreseen by Marx in Capital, dashed the visions of thinkers like Adam Smith who saw early capitalism as an escape from the moribund power structures of god and king. Smith’s hope was that “freeing up markets would dramatically expand the ranks of the self-employed, who would exercise talent and judgment in governing their own productive activities, independent of micromanaging bosses”. He saw rightly, that the political and ideas such as freedom did not by some magic, come to be irrelevant in the workplace. To Smith, labor was inherently political and the capitalism of his time he hoped, would introduce freedom not just in name, but as a characteristic of everyday work.
As the entrepreneur gave way to the conglomerate, a new reality emerged. Capital’s need to expand infinitely, to extract and exploit at ever increasing levels, has led it to exercise an undeniable coercive power over the conditions of our lives. Berle and Means, in The Modern Corporation and Private Property warned of the concentration of economic power brought on by the rise of the large corporation, stating that “unchecked corporate power had potentially serious consequences for the democratic character of the United States”. Elizabeth Anderson, in her work Private Government took this idea a step further, characterizing the corporation as an island of dictatorial power, unbridled by the machinations of the broader “democratic”, “egalitarian” society. She writes, that “most workers in the United States are governed by communist dictatorships in their worklives”, dictatorships with the “legal authority to regulate workers’ off-hour lives as well—their political activities, speech, choice of sexual partner, use of recreational drugs, alcohol, smoking, and exercise”. Setting the hilarity of characterizing raw corporate power as in any way “communist” aside it is clear that even the most hackish, brain-dead liberal thinkers can see that democracy and freedom are farcical, when the centers of power lie away from the strictly political, when big business maintains hegemony over the social life—an idea that goes back to liberal philosophers like John Dewey.
As one capitalist is stricken down by another, corporate power becomes ever-more centralized. “Hand in hand with this centralization, or this expropriation of many capitalists by a few, other developments take place on an ever-increasing scale, such as the growth of the cooperative form of the labor process, the conscious technical application of science, the planned exploitation of the soil, the transformation of the means of labor into forms in which they can only be used in common, the economizing of all means of production by their use as the means of production of combined, socialized labor, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and, with this, the growth of the international character of the capitalist regime” writes Marx. The contradiction between the centralization of the means of production and the “socialization of labor reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument” he goes on.
Owners of the means of production necessarily subscribe to the notion that there is no motive but the profit motive. In this neoliberal age, workers find themselves largely economically and politically powerless—with almost no control over the conditions that shape their lives. The present period in capitalism’s development, when monopoly and consolidation have become the defining feature of the economy, has thusly produced a force more powerful than the worker and owner themselves. Just as the prisoner is doomed to the rack, so too is the executioner to the turning of the wheel. Corporations—capital itself has become the great power of the world and as a result all other spheres of power bend towards it.
Present day capitalism seems to be nearing its biospherical limit however. Despite its recent successes in kicking the can down the road on global socialist revolution, the tension between capital and worker ultimately resides within the social sphere. The hard barrier to its and our continued survival is nature itself. Mark Fisher write (yes I know), “the fantasy structure on which [late capitalism] depends: a presupposition that resources are infinite, that the earth itself is merely a husk which capital can at a certain point slough off like a used skin, and that any problem can be solved by the market”. The ultimate contradiction capitalism must reckon with is that increasing consumption diminishes the viability of the natural sphere, that which is required for capitalism’s continued existence.
A spectre thus haunts the capitalist world order—looming over its future and undermining the foundation that it rests upon—the spectre of climate change. Rather than meet this threat, the forces of capital have retreated to their own Potemkin world of board rooms and PR departments where capital and climate can coexist. The predominant fantasy they have thus produced and imposed upon the broader society, is that we can consume our way out of a fundamental truth—that we live in a world of finite limits.
This system’s inherent expansionist imperative as described by Marx, has “resulted in the appropriation of the global commons (i.e., the atmosphere and oceans, which are used as sinks for waste) and the carbon absorption capacity of the biosphere”. Under capitalism, there is a “systemic tendency for population, production and consumption to expand on increasingly large scales”. So long as this system dominates economic and social relations “individuals and businesses fall under a constant and inescapable pressure to purse economic growth”. Marx, in the third volume of Capital, recognized that the capitalist system violated ecological laws. He observed that “the soil was depleted continually of its necessary nutrients, decreasing the productive potential of the land. The degradation of the soil led to a greater concentration of agricultural land among a small number of proprietors who adopted even more intensive methods of production, including the application of artificial fertilizers, which placed demands on other natural resources”. Resulting agriculture production, it is argued, “has become the art of turning oil into food”, “constant inputs [being] needed simply to sustain this operation”. Marx’s observation illustrates a fundamental truism, that “an infinitely growing economy will sooner or later lead to an environmental impact on an increasingly large scale”.
Enter the fundamental ecological contradiction of capitalism. Despite its reliance on the natural world for its material operations, capitalism’s processes necessarily “maintain the production cycle, while disrupting natural cycles”. The contradiction between growth and sustainability results in capitalism’s tendency “to undermine the conditions of its own reproduction”. Put simply, it is a system that erodes the foundation of its own existence.
The institutions of capitalism cannot themselves address the climate crisis. There being no other goal than accumulation, expansion, and profit—the system at its most base level, liquidates nature and calls it profit, redounding to its own instability. The contradiction between growth and environmental sustainability cannot be overcome by working within the system.
The obstacle we must ultimately overcome if we are to survive, is a system and a culture that suffers from a case of profound Hirohitoism. Hirohito, the emperor of Japan, was chosen by god, indeed he himself was divine, yet the awesome power bestowed upon him had a paralyzing effect for if he were to act, and his actions fail, it would result in the collapse of the fantasy that was the basis of his power. Climate change and environmental degradation are inevitable byproducts of the capitalist system, yet it depends upon a pseudorealism that would deny these facts. As such, the system and its institutions are unable to commit to real climate action because to do so would be to attack the fantasy that is the basis of their power. To commit to real climate action is to threaten the forces of consumption and production, life and death, that grant capitalism divinity. Rather than undermine themselves, the forces of capitalism rush towards mass suicide.
It is so then, that a system born of conquest, of “fire and blood” as Marx writes, returns to the crucible. Undone perhaps, not by the contradiction between worker and owner, but by the inaction the aforementioned has produced in the face of the contradiction between production and nature.
Born to Soviet immigrants and raised in Seattle Washington, Nikita Valentinov is a graduate of the University of Washington and is intellectually inspired by Paul Cockshott, Stafford Beer, Wassily Leontif, Marx, and Lenin. Nikita is a former member of the all-volunteer CHAZ security team, along with a million other failed political start-ups. Despite disillusionment with the state of mass politics he is confident in the inevitability of the cause. Nikita works in an Amazon warehouse and is currently stealing company time to write this article.