This fascinating book builds on the work of Marxists such as John Bellamy Foster to argue that Karl Marx’s thought is central to understanding that humanity’s destruction of the planet is due to the capitalist mode of production. It is a further blow against the perception that Marx was a naive Promethean — someone who believed that simply increasing production will solve all humanity’s ills and that therefore Marxism has nothing to say about ecological crisis.
Saito, a Japanese Marxist scholar, bases his work on a detailed study of Marx’s writings, including notebooks on natural science that have only recently been published.
He argues that the concept of a metabolic rift between humanity and the natural world is not just an incidental part of Marx’s analysis but the central contradiction of capitalism.
He believes that if the environment is being destroyed by capitalism it can only be saved by replacing it with a higher mode of production, socialism.
Saito starts by looking at Marx’s 1844 Paris Manuscripts.
Marx explains that while serfs were tied to the land under feudalism, under capitalism workers are separated from the land. This split between town and country reduces the fertility of the soil as waste products are not recycled.
Marx first uses the term metabolism his London Notebooks of 1851 and later in the Grundrisse. For Marx, Saito argues, the labour process is a “metabolic interaction with nature” which changes through time according to the mode of production. Capitalism is qualitatively and quantitatively different from previous modes in its impact on the environment as breakneck accumulation comes up against the limits of the Earth’s resources.
According to Saito, Marx modified his early optimistic view of the progressive role of capitalism in developing the productive forces as expressed in the Communist Manifesto.
Marx was strongly influenced by the German agricultural chemist Justus von Leibig’s work and changed his position when writing Capital Volume One to understand that scientific developments under capitalism would not increase soil productivity in the long term.
Marx understood that there is a contradiction between sustainable agriculture and the capitalist mode of production. He was aware that once fertile regions as such Mesopotamia and Greece had become arid in antiquity due to the destruction of forests by humans and unsustainable agricultural techniques but that cultivation under capitalism is even more damaging.
Saito believes that, through his study of the work of the German agricultural physicist Carl Fraas, Marx was aware that deforestation led to climate change.
In Capital Marx describes how imports of food and raw materials to Britain from Ireland led to soil exhaustion. In India the East India Company replaced traditional sustainable agriculture and handicrafts with large scale commodity production of tea and opium. Ancient irrigation systems were neglected, leading to drought and famine.
My one concern about this book is that Saito sometimes appears to read too much into Marx’s notebooks, making claims about his explicit rather than implicit ideas about ecology without sufficient evidence from his writings.
Nonetheless this book is a powerful weapon for the argument that only a socialist society can deliver the development of the productive forces in harmony with the natural world to the benefit of all humanity and the planet that we share.