The Robbery of Nature: Capitalism and the Ecological Rift John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark Monthly Review Press £25

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The Robbery of Nature draws on and develops the theories of Marx and Engels to understand why capitalism has such a destructive influence on the natural world. Central to Fosters and Clark’s argument is that, under capitalism, human beings and the natural environment are the original sources of wealth, but it is only the labour of workers that generates value. Workers are exploited in that they sell their labour power to produce goods and services and receive wages that represent less than the value of what they produce. But non-human elements of the natural world, such as a horse pulling a cart or a lump of coal used as fuel, do not produce value in this way.
Although it might seem evident that a horse performs work in the same way that a human worker does, Foster and Clark point out that capitalism treats them as distinct. It is only by recognising this that we can understand what a contradictory and dangerous system it is. Capitalism treats nature as valueless or as a “free gift”, and is therefore incapable of managing natural resources in a sustainable way. As Foster and Clark further explain, the process of production cannot occur without expropriation from nature, a term that means appropriation without exchange or simply “robbery”. In Marx’s time this system of robbery was evident in agriculture.
Intensive food production exhausted the soil as nutrients used by plants were not returned in the same quantities as they were extracted. This was linked to the growth of Empire. The growing of cotton and tobacco in plantations in the Americas led to soil exhaustion as well as the brutal use of slave labour. Agriculturalists sought to overcome the resulting damage by using guano from islands off the coast of Peru as fertiliser. But this was also unsustainable and itself relied on expropriation of the work of indentured labourers, mostly from China.
Marx was aware of the problems of soil fertility through his engagement with the work of agricultural chemist Justus von Liebig, who used the term “Raubsystem” or robbery system. As well as discussing agriculture, Foster and Clark also apply their thinking to discussions of women and the family in the Industrial Revolution. Drawing on theories of social reproduction, they argue that the expropriation of women’s unpaid work in the home is analogous to the use of nature as a free gift. As with other forms of expropriation, this process cannot be understood without seeing how it is also intrinsically linked to exploitation in the workplace. Foster and Clark remind us, however, that nearly all working class women were also employed in paid work during the Industrial Revolution so when Marx writes about the workplace he is not only referring to male workers.
The authors see capitalism as having an “inner” dynamic based on the exploitation of labour power and a relationship with its “external” environment which is one of expropriation. This puts them at odds with other Marxist environmental thinkers and much of the book consists of debates with others on the left. Apart from the introduction and one piece on Ireland, the chapters of this book have all been published elsewhere. One of them, “Value isn’t everything”, by Foster and Paul Burkett, first appeared in International Socialism in 2018, and most of the others are from Monthly Review. However, they have been revised for inclusion here and the book reads like a coherent volume with a consistent argument throughout.
The Robbery of Nature also complements Foster’s other similarly titled book, The Return of Nature, where he discusses the ecological worldview of figures such as William Morris and Friedrich Engels, who also make an appearance here. The Robbery of Nature is mostly concerned with Foster and Clark’s theoretical outlook and its application. There is a useful discussion of climate change and a very interesting section on capitalism and waste. But the authors say relatively little about their opinions on recent environmental debates. This book is an important introduction to Foster’s and Clark’s thinking developed over a number of years. It makes a sophisticated argument as to why capitalism both exploits human beings and degrades the rest of nature. It should be read alongside the authors’ more recent contributions, including Foster’s articles on Covid-19.