Saturday, 31 August 2019

ON THE CONCEPT OF FREEDOM - Marx, Darwin and Weil

Marx n'explique jamais pourquoi les forces productives tendraient à s'accroître ; en admettant sans preuve cette tendance mystérieuse, il s'apparente non pas à Darwin, comme il aimait à le croire, mais à Lamarck, qui fondait pareillement tout son système biologique sur une tendance inexplicable des êtres vivants à l'adaptation. De même pourquoi est-ce que, lorsque les institutions sociales s'opposent au développement des forces productives, la victoire devrait appartenir d'avance à celles-ci plutôt qu'à celles-là ? [p.15]
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La grande idée de Marx, c'est que dans la société aussi bien que dans la nature rien ne s'effectue autrement que par des transformations matérielles. « Les hommes font leur propre histoire, mais dans des conditions déterminées. » Désirer n'est rien, il faut connaître les conditions matérielles qui déterminent nos possibilités d'action ; et dans le domaine social, ces conditions sont définies par la manière dont l'homme obéit aux nécessités matérielles en subvenant à ses propres besoins, autrement dit par le mode de production. (Weil, Reflections, p.17.)

Simone Weil erects a barrier between social relations of production and forces of production that in Marx does not exist. In Marx, as Weil correctly perceives stressing the Hegelian derivation of his worldview, the social relations of production are already intrinsic part and parcel of what he calls “the forces of production”. The famous Marxian distinction between “base” and “superstructure” is meant to refer to the “dialectical contradiction”, in Hegelian parlance, that Marx believed to exist between the forces of production, which include the social relations of production, and those social relations that are not “productive” but are rather “ideological”. The historical materialism propounded by Marx is a direct excrescence of the Hegelian dialectic according to which “human beings make their own history”. But “they do so in determinate conditions” not because, as Weil believes, Marx is erecting a barrier – ontological or epistemological – between objective natural forces of production and subjective historical social relations: - because for Marx no such barrier or hiatus can exist between Nature and History. Rather, the “determinate conditions” to which Marx is referring are those self-same “social relations of production” that ultimately prevail over the ideological superstructure whenever the two come into conflict.

For Marx, all human reproduction, simple or expanded, all “forces of production” relate purely and solely to relations between human beings inter se! Nature quite simply plays no autonomous role – again, ontological or epistemological – in determining social relations of production. Indeed, Hegel and Marx have this in common – that there is no separation or schism or hiatus between Nature and History because Nature does not and cannot play an autonomous role in the course of human history. In this respect, it may be argued that ultimately Hegel’s and Marx’s systems share a historicist Vichian foundation and a Judaeo-Christian eschatological teleology. Nowhere in Marx’s entire oeuvre is there any hint of preoccupation with the effect that “the development of the forces of production”, dictated by humans, can have on the natural environment that humans share with all other living things. As Weil herself points out, Marx believed firmly in the unlimited development of human forces of production. Perhaps the only area in which Marx comes close to setting a lower limit to human production is in the notion of “socially necessary labour time”, which seems to refer to the labour time needed for the reproduction of human populations in line with the most basic human needs. – Although even in this regard Marx is quick to note that this “necessity” and these “needs” are more of a historical than of a biological nature. And the unlimited “growth” or “development” of the forces of production in Marx can be construed only in relation to a notion of “growth” or “development” that indicated a linear qualitative progress in these forces of production – something that Weil is clearly going to contest.

Enfin pourquoi [Marx] pose-t-il sans démonstration, et comme une vérité évidente, que les forces productives sont susceptibles d'un développement illimité ? Toute cette doctrine, sur laquelle repose entièrement la conception marxiste de la révolution, est absolument dépourvue de tout caractère scientifique. Pour la comprendre, il faut se souvenir des origines hégéliennes de la pensée marxiste. Hegel croyait en un esprit caché à l'œuvre dans l'univers, et que l'histoire du monde est simplement l'histoire de cet esprit du monde, lequel, comme tout ce qui est spirituel, tend indéfiniment à la perfection. Marx a prétendu « remettre sur ses pieds » la dialectique hégélienne, qu'il accusait d'être « sens dessus dessous » ; il a substitué la matière à l'esprit comme moteur de l'histoire ; mais par un paradoxe extraordinaire, il a conçu l'histoire, à partir de cette rectification, comme s'il attribuait à la matière ce qui est l'essence même de l'esprit, une perpétuelle aspiration au mieux. Par là il s'accordait d'ailleurs profondément avec le courant général de la pensée capitaliste ; transférer le principe du progrès de l'esprit aux choses, c'est donner une expression philosophique à ce « renversement du rapport entre le sujet et l'objet » dans lequel Marx voyait l'essence même du capitalisme. L'essor de la grande industrie a fait des forces productives la divinité d'une sorte de religion dont Marx a subi malgré lui l'influence en élaborant sa conception de l'histoire. Le terme de religion peut surprendre quand il s'agit de Marx ; mais croire que notre volonté converge avec une volonté mystérieuse qui serait à l'œuvre dans le monde et nous aiderait à vaincre, c'est penser religieusement, c'est croire à la Providence. (P.16.)

There are at least three distinct implications in Weil’s trenchant critique of Marx’s own critique of political economy. The first is that, as we pointed out above, all economic activity, whether analysed from the bourgeois viewpoint or from his own “critical” standpoint, is seen by Marx as involving purely and solely relations between human beings and not also between human beings and their environment. Even in the charitable hypothesis that Marx regards “social relations of production “ as also involving the natural environment to the extent that they satisfy “human needs”, there can be no doubt whatsoever that Marx regards “nature” as a wholly passive entity, as an object open entirely to human use and abuse. The second corollary implication is that Marx sees the development of the forces of production purely and solely in quantitative terms – in terms, that is, of the “socially necessary labour time” needed for the reproduction of human society. And the third implication is that Marx sees this growth or development as a totally unlimited, unstoppable process of technological progress in the human exploitation of the environment both in qualitative and in quantitative terms!

The notion of progress indeed contains within itself by implication the linearity of the changing forces of production in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense – a growing perfection of these forces (a defecto ad perfectionem). And in turn, this linear perfectibility of the forces of production implies the univocal ability of human beings to adapt to their environment and to transform it in a suitable manner. Yet, this Marxian “scientific” belief in the progress of the forces of production – a belief in what he considered a scientific discovery of Darwinian proportions - is precisely what Weil calls into question, and with justifiable reason! For not only does the human transformation of the environment inevitably raise the possibility of its irreparable degradation, but also, and consequentially, this degradation calls into question the linearity of human adaptation both in terms of conscious human agency and in terms of perfectibility in the sense that this adaptation cannot be determined, judged or least of all measured ex ante, but can only be determined, if at all, ex post facto! This is why Weil insists on disabusing Marx about the “Darwinian” basis of his social theory: as Weil rightly points out, Marx’s social theory is in truth “Lamarckian” in that it relies on the principle that “the function shapes the organ”. But Lamarck’s functionalist, or better, interventionist theory of evolution runs directly counter to, where it does not contradict, Darwin’s genetic theory of evolution! For Lamarck, just as for Marx, it is the positive activity of a species that leads to the physiological development of organs that are most fitted to its surviving the existing environment. This interventionist or functionalist theory is founded on the twin premises that (a) a species pursues actively a function to which it is pre-disposed, and (b) this active pursuit then brings about the organs or instruments that will lead to the function’s fulfilment. Quite to the contrary, for Darwin, “the survival of the fittest” occurs not through active physiological adaptation by a species, but rather through its genetic pre-disposition to adapt to a changing environment!

The difference between the two theories could not be starker. Whereas for Lamarck’s theory, the survival of a species is due – in line with what Marx theorized for the human species - to a process of active and, in the human case even conscious, adaptation, for Darwin instead this process is entirely passive in the sense that survival of a species or of some of its members is due entirely (a) to changes in the environment, and (b) to reproductive competition between its members! In neither case, however, can a species change its genetic make-up actively to ensure its eventual survival – because both conditions are constraints external to the collective activity of the species. In other words, for Darwin, and contrary to Marx’s thesis, no species can ensure its survival ex ante: for Darwin, and again contrary to Marx, “survival of the fittest” is an attribute that can be assigned only ex post facto – after the event, not beforehand!

The epistemological and, above all, deontological and therefore practico-political repercussions of this fundamental reversal of our understanding of our relation to our natural environment are quite earth-shattering because, forcefully put, they invert the order of our understanding of how human action affects the natural environment and, consequently, also our understanding of how human beings should conduct themselves with regard to that environment. The universal attitude or orientation of humans toward the environment is that it is a passive “tool” or inert “recipient” of human activity. But seen from this novel perspective, it turns out that “nature”, far from being a passive or inert receptacle and quarry for human activities, is in fact a very active or at the very least “reactive” agent in our complex interaction with the world.

First to be subjected to critical reappraisal is the ubiquitous notion that human beings are masters of their own destiny, that indeed human beings can shape the external world or “nature” in conformity with the demands of their needs and the ideality of their spirit or minds. This pervasive ideology of human sovereignty over the lifeworld is something that can be traced from the myth of Prometheus all the way to German Idealism, Marxist theory and the most recent capitalist ideologies of political and social transformation through the development of “the forces of production”, a process figuratively known as “progress” or “civilisation”.

Even if we agree, against Weil, that Marx intended “the forces of production” (“the base” as distinct from “the superstructure”)) to constitute a socially-defined historical and dialectical force and not a mechanical one, still Weil is entirely right to expose the fallacy of Marxist thought in terms of the “passivity” or at best the “neutrality” or inertness of “nature” with regard to human action (cf. in this regard, as a corrective, Hannah Arendt’s homonymous work, Human Action. We shall address the oblique link between Arendt and Weil presently). We could identify Marx’s original mistake highlighted by Weil in his insistent use of the dialectic as a “positive” tool of historical analysis. For the question then arises of why the development of the forces of production should result, at a determinate point in history, in the elimination of social oppression:

La réflexion sur cet échec retentissant, qui était venu couronner tous les autres, amena enfin Marx à comprendre qu'on ne peut supprimer l'oppression tant que subsistent les causes qui la rendent inévi-
Simone Weil,  Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934) 30
table, et que ces causes résident dans les conditions objectives, c'est-à-dire matérielles, de l'organisation sociale. Il élabora ainsi une conception de l'oppression tout à fait neuve, non plus en tant qu'usurpation d'un privilège, mais en tant qu'organe d'une fonction sociale. Cette fonction, c'est celle même qui consiste à développer les forces productives, dans la mesure où ce développement exige de durs efforts et de lourdes privations ; et, entre ce développement et l'oppression sociale, Marx et Engels ont aperçu des rapports réciproques. Tout d'abord, selon eux, l'oppression s'établit seulement quand les progrès de la production ont suscité une division du travail assez poussée pour que l'échange, le commandement militaire et le gouvernement constituent des fonctions distinctes ; d'autre part l'oppression, une fois établie, provoque le développement ultérieur des forces productives, et change de forme à mesure que l'exige ce développement, jusqu'au jour où, devenue pour lui une entrave et non une aide, elle disparaît purement et simplement. Quelque brillantes que soient les analyses concrètes par lesquelles les marxistes ont illustré ce schéma, et bien qu'il constitue un progrès sur les naïves indignations qu'il a remplacées, on ne peut dire qu'il mette en lumière le mécanisme de l'oppression. Il n'en décrit que partiellement la naissance ; car pourquoi la division du travail se tournerait-elle nécessairement en oppression ? Il ne permet nullement d'en attendre raisonnablement la fin ; car, si Marx a cru montrer comment le régime capitaliste finit par entraver la production, il n'a même pas essayé de prouver que, de nos jours, tout autre régime oppressif l'entraverait pareillement ; et de plus on ignore pourquoi l'oppression ne pourrait pas réussir à se maintenir, même une fois devenue un facteur de régression économique. Surtout Marx omet d'expliquer pourquoi l'oppression est invincible aussi longtemps qu'elle est utile, pourquoi les opprimés en révolte n'ont jamais réussi à fonder une société non oppressive, soit sur la base des forces productives de leur époque, soit même au prix d'une régression économique qui pouvait difficilement accroître leur misère ; et enfin il laisse tout à fait dans l'ombre les principes généraux du mécanisme par lequel une forme déterminée d'oppression est remplacée par une autre.
Simone Weil,  Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934) 31

For it is undeniable that Marx regarded “progress” in a linear as well as functionalist dimension, in terms of socially necessary labour time: for him, the specific “exploitation” of the worker by the capitalist consists crucially in “the theft of labour time”, that is, in the quantitative difference between the labour time that is “socially necessary” to ensure the reproduction of a society and the “surplus labour time” enforced by the capitalist to realise a monetary profit. Clearly, then, as Weil argues above in opposition to Marx, the origin of social oppression and its final elimination cannot be found and sought solely in the relation between humanity and “nature” through “socially necessary labour time” or “human needs” – that is to say, through an unavoidably mechanical “social function” that pre-destines human beings to subjugate “nature” actively – consciously and intentionally. Rather, the origins and eventual elimination of oppression bear an essential and fundamental relation to the objective “conditions of existence” that constrain how and to what extent humans can actively “exploit” this (presumably passive) “nature”. The vice or error of Marx’s critique of capitalism is that it locates its oppression and its eventual supersession in a purely functional dimension whereby human beings in the historical semblance of the working class or proletariat are “destined” to overcome the “historical dialectical contradictions” that this oppression expresses.

Emancipation from labor, in Marx's own terms, is emancipation from necessity, and this would ultimately mean emancipation from consumption as well, that is, from the metabo- lism with nature which is the very condition of human life.83 Yet the developments of the last decade, and especially the possibilities opened up through the further development of automation, give us reason to wonder whether the Utopia of yesterday will not turn into the reality of tomorrow, so that eventually only the effort of consumption will be left of "the toil and trouble" inherent in the biological cycle to whose motor human life is bound. However, not even this Utopia could change the essential worldly futility of the life process. The two stages through which the ever-recurrent cycle of biological life must pass, the stages of labor and consumption, may change their proportion even to the point where nearly all human "labor power" is spent in consuming, with the concomitant serious social problem of leisure, that is, essentially the problem of how to provide enough opportunity for daily exhaustion to keep the capacity for consumption intact.84 82. The classless and stateless society of Marx is not Utopian. Quite apart from the fact that modern developments have an unmistakable tendency to do away with class distinctions in society and to replace government by that "ad- ministration of things" which according to Engels was to be the hallmark of socialist society, these ideals in Marx himself were obviously conceived in accordance with Athenian democracy, except that in communist society the privileges of the free citizens were to be extended to all. 83. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that Simone Weil's La condition ouvriere (1951) is the only book in the huge literature on the labor question which deals with the problem without prejudice and sentimentality. She chose as the motto for her diary, relating from day to day her experiences in a factory, the line from Homer: poll' aekadzomene, kratere d'epikeisef anagke ("much against your own will, since necessity lies more mightily upon you"), and concludes that the hope for an eventual liberation from labor and necessity is the only Utopian element of Marxism and at the same time the actual motor of all Marx- inspired revolutionary labor movements. It is the "opium of the people" which Marx had believed religion to be. (Arendt, HC, p.131.)


Thus, in Weil’s justified critique, the Marxian theory of social oppression and exploitation fails to confront the specific ways in which oppressive social relations of production have a deleterious destructive, even cataclysmic effect on the human “exploitation” of nature itself – and therefore Marx also neglects the reality that at least part of this “social oppression” may be due to the inalterable limits and constraints that this “nature” imposes on humanity! In this Marxian functionalist perspective, the relation between human beings and “nature” is mediated by the forces of production and obstructed by the social relations of production in such a manner that “nature” appears irrevocably as a “tool” open to human evolutionary manipulation. This functionalist and intentionalist perspective vitiates the entire Marxist exegesis of the phenomenon of oppression.
Bien plus, non seulement les marxistes n'ont résolu aucun de ces problèmes, mais ils n'ont même pas cru devoir les formuler. Il leur a semblé avoir suffisamment rendu compte de l'oppression sociale en posant qu'elle correspond à une fonction dans la lutte contre la nature. Au reste ils n'ont vraiment mis cette correspondance en lumière que pour le régime capitaliste ; mais de toute manière, supposer qu'une telle correspondance constitue une explication du phénomène, c'est appliquer inconsciemment aux organismes sociaux le fameux principe de Lamarck, aussi inintelligible que commode, « la fonction crée l'organe ».

Consequently, for Marx and Marxism, the elimination of social oppression is simply the inevitable future outcome of humanity’s functional and progressive domination of “nature”.
Furthermore, and perhaps even more erroneously, Darwin’s theory of evolution itself(!) is turned upside down – by Marx and by all evolutionary science after Darwin - and misconstrued as a Lamarckian process of conscious (for humans) and wilful or intentional (for all animals) “adaptation”! As Weil impetuously yet quite correctly stresses in the passage below, all science after Darwin has misconstrued his theory of evolution as an internal “adaptation” by species to their external environment that ensures “the survival of the fittest”. But the “adaptation” and “fitness” that Darwin meant is an attribute that is determined entirely by factors external to the actions and intentions of species – as something that can be attributed only after and not before the eventual “survival” of a species! In other words, evolution is an objective process quite independent of the actions and intentions of species.

La biologie n'a commencé d'être une science que le jour où Darwin a substitué à ce principe [i.e. le fonctionnalisme de Lamarck] la notion des conditions d'existence. Le progrès consiste en ce que la fonction n'est plus considérée comme la cause, mais comme l'effet de l'organe, seul ordre intelligible ; le rôle de cause n'est dès lors attribué qu'à un mécanisme aveugle, celui de l'hérédité combiné avec les variations accidentelles. Par lui-même, à vrai dire, ce mécanisme aveugle ne peut que produire au hasard n'importe quoi ; l'adaptation de l'organe à la fonction rentre ici en jeu de manière à limiter le hasard en éliminant les structures non viables, non plus à titre de tendance mystérieuse, mais à titre de condition d'existence ; et cette condition se définit par le rapport de l'organisme considéré au milieu pour une part inerte et pour une part vivant qui l'entoure, et tout particulièrement aux organismes semblables qui lui font concurrence. L'adaptation est dès lors conçue par rapport aux êtres vivants comme une nécessité extérieure et non plus intérieure. Il est clair que cette méthode lumineuse n'est pas valable seulement en biologie, mais partout où l'on se trouve en présence de structures organisées qui n'ont été organisées par personne. Pour pouvoir se réclamer de la science en matière sociale, il faudrait avoir accompli par rapport au marxisme un progrès analogue à celui que Darwin a accompli par rapport à Lamarck.

Thus, there are two orders of objections that Weil moves against Marx, and indeed against nearly all Western political and economic theories of social oppression, as well as against the ubiquitous misinterpretation of Darwin’s theory of evolution as a theory of (conscious and intentional) “adaptation”.  The first order is that Marx’s theory seeks to establish a mechanical, functionalist link between human needs, forces of production and oppressive social relations of production. The second order is that this functionalist link, unlike and contrary to Darwin’s genetic theory of evolution, has a deterministic or even teleological bias in that human beings are deemed to be capable of dominating consciously and intentionally their environment or “nature” in accordance with their “ideation” or planned intentions. Marx himself, in one of the most deservedly renowned passages in the first Book of Das Kapital, refers to this “ideal” ability of the human species to plan beforehand in its mind its intended projects in the external world. Marx calls this Gattungs-Wesen (“species-conscious being”). By contrast and in total opposition to this erroneous belief, Darwin establishes that the survival of species is due entirely to factors wholly external to the actions and intentions of existing species – factors such as genetic heredity and competition within and between species, on one side, and environmental factors, on the other. Adaptation is therefore seen by Darwin as “an external necessity”, that is, a necessity independent of the will, actions and intentions of a species. That explains the overriding role and weight that Darwin attributes to “chance” or “hazard” in the survival and evolution of species! In the Grundrisse, Marx fails to understand his own theory of overpopulation engendered by capitalist accumulation as an external barrier in terms of the unsustainable human demands this places on the ecosphere. Instead, throughout his writings, Marx always believed, in line with the Hegelian dialectics of nature, that “the barrier to capital is capital itself” – in other words, an “internal barrier”!

But this “hazard” or “chance” is not pure fortuitousness, sheer contingency: it is rather itself constrained by the objective “conditions of existence” of a species which, although they do not indicate the evolutionary process in a particular or specific direction, nevertheless delimit or constrain the evolutionary outcomes for that species.

Les causes de l'évolution sociale ne doivent plus être cherchées ailleurs que dans les efforts quotidiens des hommes considérés comme individus. Ces efforts ne se dirigent certes pas n'importe où ; ils dépendent, pour chacun, du tempérament, de l'éducation, des routines, des coutumes, des préjugés, des besoins naturels ou acquis, de l'entourage, et surtout, d'une manière générale, de la na-
Simone Weil,  Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934) 32
ture humaine, terme qui, pour être malaisé à définir, n'est probablement pas vide de sens. Mais étant donné la diversité presque indéfinie des individus, étant donné surtout que la nature humaine comporte entre autres choses le pouvoir d'innover, de créer, de se dépasser soi-même, ce tissu d'efforts incohérents produirait n'importe quoi en fait d'organisation sociale, si le hasard ne se trouvait en ce domaine limité par les conditions d'existence auxquelles toute société doit se conformer sous peine d'être ou subjuguée ou anéantie. Ces conditions d'existence sont le plus souvent ignorées des hommes qui s'y soumettent ; elles agissent non pas en imposant aux efforts de chacun une direction déterminée, mais en condamnant à être inefficaces tous les efforts dirigés dans les voies qu'elles interdisent.

In this optic, in this per-spective, from this a-spect, “nature” cannot be seen as mere ob-ject, as passive op-position, as Gegen-stand, but rather as an active containment - indeed, says Weil, as an inter-diction (!), a prohibitive dictation or in-junction that limits human action by con-straining and re-straining it! It is, if you please, a barrier in guise of “un-intended con-sequences”. Human beings illude themselves to be demi-gods who can actively determine the direction of life and the world – to mould the cosmos in our likeness; when in fact we find that we are in the cosmos and that we must therefore be conscious of the unintended consequences of our actions due to the restraint and constraint – the containment – of these actions by our environ-ment, our sur-rounds, our Um-welt, ambi-ence – “the natural milieu,” says Weil -  that con-ditions, hence erects barriers, to our activity. We pro-pose but nature dis-poses, like a divinity. Nature is the Epi-metheus (hind-sight) to our Pro-metheus (presumed fore-sight). Nature is both a hostel for us and hostile to us: it is our host, yet we are its hostile hostages! Nature both entertains and constrains us.

These are, precisely, the “conditions of existence” – ec-sistence, Da-sein – our being “thrown” and de-jected in the world, in the cosmos, to which Weil refers repeatedly. And great part of these conditions of ec-sistence is also our own human nature – by means of con-flict (a mutual in-fliction of pain) and com-petition (a mutual craving) between and even within so-called in-dividual (indivisible) humans.

III. Simone Weil.

Au reste la notion du travail considéré comme une valeur humaine est sans doute l'unique conquête spirituelle qu'ait faite la pensée humaine depuis le miracle grec ; c'était peut-être là la seule lacune à l'idéal de vie humaine que la Grèce a élaboré et qu'elle a laissé après elle comme un héritage impérissable. Bacon est le premier qui ait fait apparaître cette notion. À l'antique et désespérante malédiction de la Genèse, qui faisait apparaître le monde comme un bagne et le travail comme la marque de l'esclavage et de l'abjection des hommes, il a substitué dans un éclair de génie la véritable charte des rapports de l'homme avec le monde : « L'homme commande à la nature en lui obéissant. » Cette formule si simple devrait constituer à elle seule la Bible de notre époque. Elle suffit pour définir le travail véritable, celui qui fait les hommes libres, et cela dans la mesure même où il est un acte de soumission consciente à la nécessité. (Reflections, p.80.)

There we have it, then: - final confirmation of the affinity between Weil’s view of Nature and that first articulated centuries earlier by Francis Bacon in the Novum Organum. (We examined this Baconian view in our Descartes’s World.) In this view, Nature is not a mere passive “tool” to be exploited and moulded by humans as they please, without giving thought as to how Nature might “react” – or better, with the presumption that Nature cannot possibly “react”. Such human thoughtless Hubris, according to Bacon and Weil, takes no account of the fact that Nature is much bigger than we are: - that it is not a “tool” for our gratification, but rather that we are a subordinate part of it, that we are wholly reliant on Nature for the very survival of our species. If not curbed and contained by obedience to our natural milieu, on which we are entirely dependent, our Hubris will be fatally met by Nature’s vengeful Nemesis in the shape of those “unintended consequences” that only now we are finally experiencing in the guise of the ecological catastrophe that we are confronting. (Bacon invoked the myth of Proteus to describe Nature: - as an old man that changes shape to elude all constraints and binds by means of which humans seek to restrain him. Cf. S. Weeks, “Francis Bacon and the Art-Nature Distinction.”)

Our illusion to be able unilaterally to command Nature, to dictate to it, is curbed and nullified invariably and fatefully by Nature in ways that often do not become evident to us until it is perhaps too late. This is not a surrender to fatalism: Weil is not propounding the absurd notion that there is an entity, a goddess (Nature) that actively imposes its will on humans. Instead, she is reminding us of the need to treat Nature as sacramental by considering, first, that we are an indissoluble part of it, and second that because of this we must always consider the “unintended consequences” of our activities. There is no mysticism here: Weil is not saying that Nature is a conscious entity in some kind of animistic universe. Hers is no pantheism either. Yet, we should treat Nature more like simpler human groupings did when they depended upon it so much more than we do now at least in terms of their immediate survival – with reverence not with disdain. This new-found humility ought to result in our “conscious submission to necessity” – of which human living labour is the preponderant part.

Acknowledging the necessity of human labour as “obedience to nature” rather than as “mastery and domination” over it is the fundamental distinguo that Weil introduces against Marx’s own historical materialism and more particularly his critique of capitalist society and theory of revolution.
It is in this specific context that Weil invites us to view some form of social oppression as being an ineluctable component of social life – just as the necessity of work is and forever will be an ineluctable condition of our existence:

Ces conditions d'existence sont déterminées tout d'abord, comme pour les êtres vivants, d'une part par le milieu naturel, d'autre part par l'existence, par l'activité et particulièrement par la concurrence des autres organismes de même espèce, c'est-à-dire en l'occurrence des autres groupements sociaux.
But beyond these two ineluctable – Darwinian – elements or components of the “conditions of existence” that pose an ineluctable measure of social oppression for human society – beyond this necessity – there lies a third factor that is eminently social and political, one over which human beings can and invariably do have a say, one that gives rise to avoidable social oppression.

Mais un troisième facteur entre encore en jeu, à savoir l'aménagement du milieu naturel, l'outillage, l'armement, les procédés de travail et de combat ; et ce facteur occupe une place à part du fait que, s'il agit sur la forme de l'organisation sociale, il en subit à son tour la réaction. Au reste ce facteur est le seul sur lequel les membres d'une société puissent peut-être avoir quelque prise. Cet aperçu est trop abstrait pour pouvoir guider ; mais si l'on pouvait à partir de cette vue sommaire arriver à des analyses concrètes, il deviendrait enfin possible de poser le problème social. (P.33)

It is to this avoidable social oppression, argues Weil, that we should turn our efforts to edify a society worthy of human beings. This time, of course, our efforts will not be distracted or even dissipated, as with Marxism, over the search for a “revolution” that will be the culmination of a presumed evolutionary development of “the forces of production”, expunging the decaying remains of bourgeois “social relations of production” that stymie the advent of socialism. (The evolutionary socialism of Eduard Bernstein was always complementary to the revolutionary communism of a Rosa Luxemburg and the Zusammenbruchstheorie in that both relied on a version of Christian eschatology first laid down by Saint Augustine whereby once “social conditions were ripe” then “the final crisis and overthrow” of capitalism would inevitably ensue. This linear progression to socialism dependent on the linear regression of capitalism mirrors Augustine’s account of how the corruption of the civitas terrena would precede the advent of the civitas Dei on the occurrence of the Apocalypse and the Second Coming [Parousia], by means of the “containment” [Greek, catechon] of Evil by Christendom, the civitas ecclesiae. [See M.Cacciari, Il Potere Che Frena.])

Now, it may certainly be valid, as we have acknowledged already, for Weil to indict the essential mechanicism of Marx’s historical materialism – and specifically its tendency (a) to present the evolution of human society to communism as an automatic outcome or result (Er-folg, suc-cess or succession) of the development of “the forces of production”; and (b) to present this evolution as the effect of humanity’s unilateral, univocal action on an inert and passive “nature”. Yet, it is equally undeniable that Marx’s critique of capitalism provides also the most powerful theoretical and practical framework of analysis of how and why capitalism has led us to our present catastrophic predicament – that is, the imminent destruction of human civilisation and of the ecosphere with it! Once we abandon the extremes of Marx’s eschatological Hegelian (as well as Victorian and Lamarckian!) Weltanschauung, then we find that Marx’s critique of the capitalist mode of production contains an enlightening analysis of the aetiology of capitalism as well as of its modus operandi and dynamic development. It provides also a most useful and penetrating guide to the possible supersession and overthrow of this mode of production. Above all, and crucially for Weil’s own environmentalist critique, Marx’s analysis of capitalism – namely, the enucleation of the double character of labor power as a commodity and the exegesis of the commodity as the estrangement of human activity from itself – offers the most valuable insight into why and how this mode of production does and indeed must lead to the systematic and catastrophic destruction of the ecosphere.

Let us proceed with order. Marx’s critique of capitalism and theory of its eventual supersession by communism is predicated entirely on the incongruity between the growing portion of the working day that goes to the creation of surplus value, from which the capitalist derives profits, and the diminishing portion of the day that goes to necessary labour, which serves to reproduce the proletariat. For Marx, this constitutes the ultimate barrier to capitalism itself – the fact that “at a certain level of development of the forces of production”, the capitalist “social relations of production” (the imposition of wage labor and the extraction of profits by capitalists) become “a miserable and untenable basis” upon which to organize human society. As Weil rightly objects, whilst this “incongruity” or discrepancy between necessary and surplus labour may prompt a rebellion or revolution against bourgeois society once “the theft of labor time” becomes utterly intolerable, nevertheless – as we saw earlier – it is an inconfutable fact that those “conditions of existence” that Weil specified will still obtain in any form of human society, past and future, because human needs and wants will always expand to absorb and consume all the available “surplus” no matter how fast and easily producible. Marx’s prediction of the advent of communism would then resemble a “bad infinite”, an ever-receding horizon. Besides, Weil justly objects (at pg.43) that the products of labor are not what capitalists seek, but rather the social power that their ownership yields – a point that is indeed central to Marx’s critique of capitalism. This is why Weil insists on the fact that some form of social oppression will always exist – and therefore our aim ought not to be to repose our hopes on a final act of revolution to overthrow bourgeois society but rather on preparing the conditions for a more humane distribution of the burden of oppression between members of society. More specifically, Weil lays emphasis on the nature and conditions of human labour given the vital importance that she attributes to human living labour and its “necessity” as the major component of human “conditions of existence”.

Peut-être cependant peut-on donner un sens à l'idéal révolutionnaire, sinon en tant que perspective possible, du moins en tant que limite théorique des transformations sociales réalisables. Ce que nous demanderions à la révolution, c'est l'abolition de l'oppression sociale ; mais pour que cette notion ait au moins des chances d'avoir une signification quelconque, il faut avoir soin de distinguer entre oppression et subordination des caprices individuels à un ordre social. Tant qu'il y aura une société, elle enfermera la vie des individus dans des limites fort étroites et leur imposera ses règles ; mais cette contrainte inévitable ne mérite d'être nommée oppression que dans la mesure où, du fait qu’elle provoque une séparation entre ceux qui l'exercent et ceux qui la subissent, elle met les seconds à la discrétion des premiers et fait ainsi peser jusqu’à l'écrasement physique et moral la pression de ceux qui commandent sur ceux qui exécutent. Même après cette distinction, rien ne permet au premier abord de supposer que la suppression de l'oppression soit ou possible ou même seulement concevable à titre de limite. Marx a fait voir avec force, dans des analyses dont lui-même a méconnu la portée, que le régime actuel de la production, à savoir la grande industrie, réduit l'ouvrier à n'être qu'un rouage de la fabrique et un simple instrument aux mains de ceux qui le dirigent ; et
Simone Weil,  Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934) 28
il est vain d'espérer que le progrès technique puisse, par une diminution progressive et continue de l'effort de la production, alléger, jusqu'à le faire presque disparaître, le double poids sur l'homme de la nature et de la société. Le problème est donc bien clair ; il s'agit de savoir si l'on peut concevoir une organisation de la production qui, bien qu'impuissante à éliminer les nécessités naturelles et la contrainte sociale qui en résulte, leur permettrait du moins de s'exercer sans écraser sous 1'oppression les esprits et les corps. À une époque comme la nôtre, avoir saisi clairement ce problème est peut-être une condition pour pouvoir vivre en paix avec soi. Si l'on arrive à concevoir concrètement les conditions de cette organisation libératrice, il ne reste qu'à exercer, pour se diriger vers elle, toute la puissance d'action, petite ou grande, dont on dispose ; et si l'on comprend clairement que la possibilité d'un tel mode de production n'est pas même concevable, on y gagne du moins de pouvoir légitimement se résigner à l'oppression, et cesser de s'en croire complice du fait qu'on ne fait rien d'efficace pour l'empêcher.

We may very well agree with Weil broadly in this regard. The conditions of work in a capitalist society are oppressive because of capitalist social relations of production and, indeed, they are embodied in the very “forces of production” that the capitalist utilizes to produce surplus value. Again, as a vehement and passionate critic of capitalism and revolutionary herself, Weil does not disagree with this conclusion (see Weil’s own great work, La Condition Ouvriere). But let us pause an instant on an important observation Weil makes with regard to the way in which capitalism has transformed our relationship with Nature at a broad socio-anthropological level. At first, it appears that the current abysmal level of human conduct toward the ecosphere is a constant in human “civilisation”. In this specific context, Weil gives a valiant and valid resume’ of how these relations have deteriorated over the course of human history – one that is perhaps worth quoting at length:
C'est donc qu'entre une économie tout à fait primitive et les formes économiques plus développées il n'y a pas seulement différence de degré, mais aussi de  nature. Et en effet, si, du point de vue de la consommation, il n'y a que passage à un peu plus de bien-être, la production, qui est le facteur décisif, se transforme, elle, dans son essence même. Cette trans
Simone Weil,  Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934) 35
formation consiste à première vue en un affranchissement progressif à l'égard de la nature. Dans les formes tout à fait primitives de la production, chasse, pêche, cueillette, l'effort humain apparaît comme une simple réaction à la pression inexorable continuellement exercée par la nature sur l'homme, et cela de deux manières ; tout d'abord il s'accomplit, ou peu s'en faut, sous la contrainte immédiate, sous l'aiguillon continuellement ressenti des besoins naturels ; et par une conséquence indirecte, l'action semble recevoir sa forme de la nature elle-même, à cause du rôle important qu'y jouent une intuition analogue à l'instinct animal et une patiente observation des phénomènes naturels les plus fréquents, à cause aussi de la répétition indéfinie des procédés qui ont souvent réussi sans qu'on sache pourquoi, et qui sont sans doute regardés comme étant accueillis par la nature avec une faveur particulière. À ce stade, chaque homme est nécessairement libre à l'égard des autres hommes, parce qu'il est en contact immédiat avec les conditions de sa propre existence, et que rien d'humain ne s'interpose entre elles et lui ; mais en revanche, et dans la même mesure, il est étroitement assujetti à la domination de la nature, et il le laisse bien voir en la divinisant. Aux étapes supérieures de la production, la contrainte de la nature continue certes à s'exercer, et toujours impitoyablement, mais d'une manière en apparence moins immédiate ; elle semble devenir de plus en plus large et laisser une marge croissante au libre choix de l’homme, à sa faculté d'initiative et de décision. L'action n'est plus collée d'instant en instant aux exigences de la nature ; on apprend à constituer des réserves, à longue échéance, pour des besoins non encore ressentis ; les efforts qui ne sont susceptibles que d'une utilité indirecte se font de plus en plus nombreux ; du même coup une coordination systématique dans le temps et dans l'espace devient possible et nécessaire, et l'importance s'en accroît continuellement. Bref l'homme semble passer par étapes, à l'égard de la nature, de l'esclavage à la domination. En même temps la nature perd graduellement son caractère divin, et la divinité revêt de plus en plus la forme humaine. Par malheur, cette émancipation n'est qu'une flatteuse apparence. En réalité, à ces étapes supérieures, l'action humaine continue, dans l'ensemble, à n'être que pure obéissance à l'aiguillon brutal d'une
Simone Weil,  Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934) 36
nécessité immédiate ; seulement, au lieu d'être harcelé par la nature, l'homme est désormais harcelé par l'homme. Au reste c'est bien toujours la pression de la nature qui continue à se faire sentir, quoique indirectement ; car l'oppression s'exerce par la force, et en fin de compte, toute force a sa source dans la nature.

The interesting point here is to see how Weil insightfully characterises human civilization as an almost linear – and thus perhaps historically inevitable – process of growing avulsion and indeed revulsion of humanity from Nature in the direction of ever-greater captivation with and by civilisation itself, that is to say, with other humans – to the point where human beings are so interdependent and “connected” that they become over-socialised, to the point that they feel stifled and smothered by the rest of humanity. As Weil puts it, “instead of being harassed by nature, humans are now harassed by other humans”. The defect in Weil’s analysis, however, is that she turns this into an ineluctable destiny, into a reification of human history – indeed, as she concedes, into a “mystery”:

Il faut poser encore une fois le problème fondamental, à savoir en quoi consiste le lien qui semble jusqu'ici unir l'oppression sociale et le progrès dans les rapports de l'homme avec la nature. Si l'on considère en gros l'ensemble du développement humain jusqu'à nos jours, si surtout l'on oppose les peuplades primitives, organisées presque sans inégalité, à notre civilisation actuelle, il semble que l'homme ne puisse parvenir à alléger le joug des nécessités naturelles sans alourdir d'autant celui de l'oppression sociale, comme par le jeu d'un mystérieux équilibre. Et même, chose plus singulière encore, on dirait que, si la collectivité humaine s'est dans une large mesure affranchie du poids dont les forces démesurées de la nature accablent la faible humanité, elle a en revanche pris en quelque sorte la succession de la nature au point d'écraser l'individu d'une manière analogue. (P.51)

Weil here succumbs to the same oversight for which she chastises Marx, namely, forgetting that perhaps the worst aspect of social oppression under the capitalist mode of production consists precisely in the neglect and abuse with which human beings are led thereby to treat Nature! In this context, we can turn now to analyze a crucial development in our discussion of the dialectics of Nature, one that is perhaps implicit in Weil’s exposition and yet is not – in our view – made sufficiently explicit. Our contention is that Marx’s critique of capitalism provides implicitly a coherent theory as to why and how capitalism – apart from perpetuating working conditions that are evidently oppressive – is a mode of production that fundamentally and catastrophically distorts the relation between human beings and the ecosphere. As Weil correctly argues, and as we saw earlier, in part because his Hegelianism led him to treat the environment as a “quarry” for humanity to exploit, and in part also because his Victorian belief in “scientific progress” led him to believe that human beings will overcome all “negative side effects” of technical development, Marx never quite looked into this question in any detail. There are nonetheless two aspects of his critique of capitalism (developed particularly in the Grundrisse) that are crucial to the explication of why and how capitalism does and must destroy the environment. These two aspects are overpopulation and consumerism, neither of which Weil considers in her otherwise valuable exposition.

It is essential to note that both these aspects of the capitalist destruction of Nature are intrinsically linked to the capitalist mode of production, that is, to the specific form of social oppression that the bourgeoisie imposes on workers so as to extract the surplus labor that is later realised in monetary form as profits: - the first, overpopulation, through the labor process, where capital is valorised; and the second, consumerism, through the market process, where surplus value is realised as profit. Weil neglects these two pernicious aspects of capitalism both in themselves and in their intrinsic connection to the capitalist mode of production.

Ainsi … apparaît déjà le mal essentiel de l'humanité, la substitution des moyens aux fins. Tantôt la guerre. apparaît au premier plan, tantôt la recherche de la richesse, tantôt la production ; mais le mal reste le même. Les moralistes vulgaires se plaignent que l'homme soit mené par son intérêt personnel ; plût au ciel qu'il en fût ainsi ! L'intérêt est un principe d'action égoïste, mais borné, raisonnable, qui ne peut engendrer des maux illimités. La loi de toutes, les activités qui dominent l'existence sociale, c'est au contraire, exception faite pour les sociétés primitives, que chacun y sacrifie la vie humaine, en soi et en autrui, à des choses qui ne constituent que des moyens de mieux vivre. Ce sacrifice revêt des formes diverses, mais tout se résume dans la question du pouvoir. Le pouvoir, par définition, ne constitue qu'un moyen ; ou pour mieux dire posséder un pouvoir, cela consiste simplement à posséder des moyens d'action qui dépassent la force si restreinte dont un individu dispose par luimême. Mais la recherche du pouvoir, du fait même qu'elle est essen
Simone Weil,  Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l’oppression sociale (1934) 42
tiellement impuissante à se saisir de son objet, exclut toute considération de fin, et en arrive, par un renversement inévitable, à tenir lieu de toutes les fins. C'est ce renversement du rapport entre le moyen et la fin, c'est cette folie fondamentale qui rend compte de tout ce qu'il y a d'insensé et de sanglant tout au long de l'histoire. L'histoire humaine n'est que l'histoire de l'asservissement qui fait des hommes, aussi bien oppresseurs qu'opprimés, le simple jouet des instruments de domination qu'ils ont fabriqués eux-mêmes, et ravale ainsi l'humanité vivante à être la chose de choses inertes.

It is true: the substitution of ends with the means – or more prosaically put, “the end justifying the means” whereby human goals are relegated to the remote future while brutal exploitative means are employed – is perhaps a chronic evil for humanity. Yet, Weil here curiously avoids, first, the obvious fact that it is only under capitalism (as Weber sharply observed, following Marx [see his lecture on Sozialismus]) that this substitution of ends with means comes finally to pervade the very mode of production and reproduction of human societies in the shape of the end-less accumulation of capital; and second, curiouser still in an essay largely dedicated to Marxism, the fact that this realization is perhaps Marx’s greatest discovery. Or rather, Marx’s greatest discovery is the enucleation of the process whereby the accumulation of capital becomes possible – and that is, the social creation under capitalism of the “double character” (Doppelcharakter) of the commodity labour-power. It is the political violence of the bourgeoisie whereby it turns human living activity (or living labour) into a homogeneous commodity that can be measured and be given a market price – as if it were a “quantifiable thing”, an inert object -; it is this bourgeois violence that transmutes like alchemy human living activity into a reified bazaar of dead products, of marketable commodities (or “goods” as bourgeois economists have re-baptized them) – an alchemy that has come to pervade all of our lives and that, as a result, “make humans become the simple toy of the instruments of domination that they themselves have built…and thus abases living humanity to be the ‘thing’ of inert things”.

Weil’s macroscopic failure to  remark on the essential difference between capitalism and prior modes of production in terms of its catastrophic impact on the ecosphere through the universal reification of human social life – from production to consumption – engendered by the commodification of human living labour: - it is this historically specific inversion of human living activity (the end) with the inert product of this activity (commodities or goods or dead labour – the means) that Weil ought to have placed front and centre of her analysis of social oppression – precisely the way Marx did.

In fairness to Weil, it is entirely plausible to construe her Reflections as an indictment of the apocalyptically perverse reification and commodification of human living labour – from an end in itself to a means for realizing profits in the irrationally end-less accumulation of money-capital that capitalism has unleashed on our sorry planet (endless because as a purely monetary cipher it has no limit and no rational substantive human goal). Her real shortcoming, however, is the failure to locate the modality of this apocalyptic perversion of human living activity and destruction of the ecosphere through the twin evils of overpopulation and consumerism. It is to this modality and twin evils that we shall turn presently.

Excursus on Overpopulation and Consumerism

We start from the universally accepted notion that the very essence of capitalism is to generate profits for capitalists. Profit is the monetary difference between total investment and total revenue. For a capitalist enterprise to be profitable, the products it sells must amount to more than the cost of producing them with the cost of capital added (interest at the prevailing rate over the period of production and sale). This means that in the process of production the inputs have been “valorised” - their value has grown - and this is then reflected in the “realisation” of the value through the sale process. But how can the components of production acquire value? After all, objects (means of production - raw materials and machinery) are only inert objects and they cannot possibly possess or acquire “value”. It is obvious that value, and the value added in the process of production, can only be derived from living labour.

We have therefore a “double character” (Doppelcharakter) of human living labour: - on one side, as living activity, it is the only possible source of value in the form of dead labour, as “produced goods”: in this consists the use value of living labour to the capitalist. Yet, on the other side, the living labour of workers can be “purchased” as labour-power through the violence of the wage relation “on the market” like any other commodity through its exchange with the commodities or “goods” produced earlier by the workers themselves, in other words, with “dead labour”! Thus, the capitalist “purchases” the living labour of workers as if it were a commodity that can be exchanged like and with any other commodity or exchange value. It follows that value-as-capital can never be a “fixed” quantity – a “thing” - but must be instead a social relation in constant circulation from production in the workplace to sale in the market!

Two things follow from this conclusion: the first is that the value of a particular commodity cannot be determined until after it is actually sold on the market - until its potential value is realised. And the second is that this value, once it is realized as money capital, is determined ultimately by the ability “to purchase” labour-power on the market as if it were a commodity or exchange value like any other. But this means that the supreme task of the capitalist, which is to maximize profit and therefore to optimize the accumulation of capital, must be, first, to reduce the labor time that workers need to reproduce themselves (necessary labour), and second, to expand thereby the labor time that workers take to produce the surplus value that will ultimately be realized in the market as profit by the capitalist. It follows that as the capitalist successfully reduces the necessary labour time for the workers to reproduce themselves, then, given that a worker can only work so many hours in a day, the capitalist must increase the number of workers employed in order to increase the amount of potential surplus value and profit realizable in the market. Marx himself reached this conclusion in the Grundrisse:

Capital tends both to render human labour (relatively) superfluous and also to push it beyond all boundaries. Value is nothing other than objectified labour, and surplus value (the valourisation of capital) is nothing other than the excess of objectified labour on the amount necessary for the reproduction of the labour force. But living labour is and remains the fundamental requisite of objectified labour and of surplus value, while surplus labour [disposable labour] exists only in relation to necessary labour, and therefore only to the extent that there still is necessary labour. Capital must therefore incessantly create more necessary labour [in absolute terms] to create surplus labour [and therefore surplus value]. It has to multiply surplus labour (by means of simultaneous working days [by means of more individual workers]) in order to multiply surplus value. At the same time, capital has to suppress necessary labour so as to turn it into surplus labour…It is for this reason that the capitalist seeks the increase of the working population. And it is the actual process of reduction of necessary labour that enables the capitalist to employ new living labour [new workers] (and therefore create surplus labour [that is, surplus value]). (In other words, the production of workers becomes “cheaper”; and therefore it is possible to produce more workers in the same measure as the time for necessary labour decreases or the time needed for the reproduction of the labour force decreases....) – K.Marx, Grundrisse, 3.2.25)

Profit in capitalist enterprise, and therefore surplus value, makes absolutely no sense at all unless it is seen as value that can be (a) increased through the process of production or “valorisation”, and (b) “realised” through the process of market sale. But once this profit or surplus value is “realised” through the sale of produced commodities, this profit realised by capitalists in its monetary form can have absolutely no meaning unless it can be expressed as purchasing power over fresh living labour! This means that the process of realisation of profit can have meaning only through the exertion of capitalist command over fresh living labour, over an ever-expanding population of workers.
Money, to the extent that it exists already as capital, is therefore simply a policy [a legal claim] on future (new) labour. Objectively it exists only as money. Surplus value, the added objectified labour, in itself is money; but money now exists as capital, and as such it is a policy on future labour. Here capital enters a relationship no longer with existing labour, but also with future labour. It also presents itself no longer as consisting merely of its simple elements in the process of production, but also as money; but no longer as money that is simply the abstract form of social wealth, but again as a policy [as a claim] on the real possibility of general wealth – on the labour-force, or better on the labour-force in actu. In this form as a policy or claim on potential labour-force, its material existence as money is irrelevant and may be substituted by any other claim on the labour-force. Just as with public credit, each capitalist possesses, in the value already appropriated [as product or objectified labour, or as money capital], a claim on the future labour-force; by appropriating living labour in its present form as objectified labour, the capitalist has already appropriated a claim on future labour-power…. Here is already revealed the ability of capital to exist as a social power separate from its objective material existence. Here is already implicit the existence of capital as credit. Its accumulation in the form of money therefore is not at all an accumulation of the material conditions of labour [of the means of production], but rather of the legal claim to living labour [on workers]. This means posing future labour as wage labour, as use value for capital. For the new [objectified] labour created [the product] there exists no equivalent [that is, no existing exchange value]; its possibility [to be valourised through new expanded production] exists only in a new labour force. (K. Marx, Grundrisse, 3.2.21)

This conclusion is certainly devastatingly simple – but its implications for our ecosphere are much more devastating, as we are about to see! What it entails is not only that to maximise profit and its accumulation capital must seek to exploit its existing workers to the very utmost, but also that it must increase the number of workers it can exploit to the limit of available social resources! And that is far from all. Capitalists also need the presence of a reserve army of unemployed workers that (a) provides competitive tension on employed workers to drive down wages, and (b) provides a repository of further investment for capitalists to expand their command over society so that there may be what is called “capitalist accumulation”. In other words, capitalist accumulation through surplus value and its monetary equivalent, profit, is nothing other than the expansion of political claims over excess labour-power through overpopulation. But overpopulation is only one pillar of capitalist accumulation and, therefore, of the systematic destruction of the ecosphere. As we indicated earlier, the other aspect is consumerism.

The reason why we use the term “overpopulation” to indicate the first of the “twin evils” of capitalism is that capitalism pushes population increase to the limit of sustainability so far as human and natural resources are concerned. As we have shown, it is impelled to do so by that end-less accumulation of capital that is its essential goal, it’s raison d’etre. The intrinsic and imprescindible goal of capitalism is not the achievement of a particular human level of well-being, but rather the never-ending numerical or accounting task of maximizing the return on investment – profit. Needless to say, overpopulation has an automatic reflex therefore in “overconsumption” because, if the working population and the reserve army of the unemployed exceed what is sustainable, it must follow that the level of consumption is also unsustainable. Just on its own, the overconsumption needed to satisfy the reproductive needs of overpopulation will push humanity toward ecological catastrophe.

But that is not enough. Overconsumption is only one intrinsic aspect of overpopulation which, in turn, is an intrinsic aspect of capitalism. There is a separate reason why capitalism pushes us toward the destruction of our ecosphere: this aspect we can call consumerism. Consumerism is distinct from overconsumption in that the latter is tied more strictly to the process of the extraction of surplus value from workers – hence of the accumulation of capital and finally of overpopulation. Consumerism is quite distinct from overpopulation and overconsumption because whereas these are merely factual aspects of the operation of capitalism, requisite operational aspects of capitalist industry and accumulation, consumerism is instead the very ideology of capitalism in that it serves not so much an organic purpose in capitalist production but much rather a propagandistic role in the subjugation and exploitation of workers. In many languages, the word propaganda was used earlier especially after World War Two until it was replaced with the far less pejorative word “advertising”.
Consumerism is, as it were, the sugar-coating that allows workers and the proletariat at large to swallow the bitter pill of capitalist exploitation and lack of real participatory democracy in liberal parliamentary bourgeois regimes. How so?

The wage relation is one of violence in that workers would never accept to sell their living activity in exchange for the product of their labour - that is surely an “exchange” that amounts to fraud (if unwitting) or violence (if workers are aware of it). But, second, it is also true that workers could not preserve their “formal freedom” under the law if they rebelled against this violent coercive transaction - one based on “the need to work”, “to put food on the table” - and the very fact that workers are willing to work for “a fair wage” means that the capitalist mode of production does have a minimum of legitimacy (Weber).

Nevertheless, legitimacy does not mean absence of conflict: capitalist society is founded on social antagonism between capitalists and workers - and specifically on the antagonism of the wage relation. The question then arises of why the antagonism of the wage relation has not exploded into open social conflict - into civil war in many advanced industrial capitalist societies. The answer has to do with capitalist growth and development. Let us see how this works.

The “specificity” of a capitalist society consists in the ability of capitalists to dominate living labour, workers, not just through explicit coercion but rather through a complex set of institutions that force workers to exchange their living labour for the objects that they themselves have produced, with “dead labour” - again, not through direct coercion from a particular capitalist toward particular workers because the capitalist does not “own” the workers as is the case with slavery or with feudal relations where the “serfs” are tied to the land, the feud or glebe. One of the fundamental institutional pillars of capitalism – as against feudalism and slavery, for instance – is that workers are “formally free” in the sense that their employer (the capitalist) does not “own” them the way feudal lords and ancient masters did. Because capitalists have no ownership of workers but simply purchase their labour-power on the “free market”, it follows that capitalists compete with one another for workers’ labour-power. Part of this competition consists of a simple paradox to which the bourgeoisie is exposed: although each individual capitalist wants to pay his workers as little as possible, the same capitalist wants other employers to pay their workers as much as possible so that they may spend their income on the goods he produces! This is a variant (the converse, if you like) of the “paradox of thrift” first illustrated by Marx in Capital and then adopted by Keynes.

The result is that workers’ consumption is distorted in two very nefarious ways, deleterious to society and to the environment. The first aspect is that capitalists cannot produce goods that emancipate workers from wage labor – this occurs indirectly through wage-push inflation and demand-pull as well. The second aspect is that capitalists must employ marketing to persuade workers to spend their wages on the repressive goods they force them to produce! This obviously results in the most horrendous irrational waste!

The third aspect is the ideological component of consumerism – “marketing” is a pervasive bombardment of workers through “consumer choice”!

Profit and Uneven Development

Thus, if we wish to understand why the global population keeps growing to the point where it is becoming unsustainable for the ecosphere - then we have only the capitalist mode of production to blame. But, the objection will be promptly moved, if that is so, why is it that the most advanced capitalist countries are beginning to experience stable or stagnant or even declining populations? The answer is relatively simple: as capitalist accumulation grows, the process runs against political and environmental limits as capitalist ruling classes attempt, first, to keep their own national populations pacified through rising living standards relative to other nations (!) - but then, second, this first condition requires the presence of other nations (especially if under the control of authoritarian dictatorships) where populations of potential workers can absorb the profits accumulated in the more advanced industrial capitalist countries. This model of international capitalist division of social labour is premised therefore on the “uneven development” of national economies -not just in terms of industrial development but also in terms of the adaptation of national institutions to the industrial requisites of the bourgeoisie. As nations become more advanced from an industrial viewpoint, they also are left with no choice but to emancipate their own working classes. Yet at the same time, these more advanced capitalist nations need to find less advanced nations whose working populations they can exploit and expand through higher rates of fertility! It goes without saying that this process of “uneven development” gives rise to tremendous conflicts between the more advanced and the less advanced capitalist countries - in all sorts of directions from migration pressures, to international tensions as each nation seeks to unload its domestic wage antagonism on other countries.

The Military Apocalypse

Perhaps the greatest immediate threat of this irrational process of capitalist accumulation is that capitalism needs the existence of national boundaries and of authoritarian and despotic nation-states to be able to ensure the constant process of overpopulation in the less developed despotic nation-states – “the periphery” -, and of consumerism in the parliamentary nation-states that capitalists use as a refuge in case of conflict with the exploited nations – we call these advanced capitalist nation-states “the metropole” as opposed to the newly-exploited states of “the periphery”.
Hence, we have a clear contradiction between the process of capitalist “globalization” and the simultaneous rise of international conflict that threatens to lead any moment now to a new world war!


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