On Planned Economy and Ecosystem Disruption (Part Two)

On Planned Economy and Ecosystem Disruption (Part Two)

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“What defines a climate change as abrupt? Technically, an abrupt climate change occurs when the climate system is forced to cross some threshold, triggering a transition to a new state at a rate determined by the climate system itself and faster than the cause. Chaotic processes in the climate system may allow the cause of such an abrupt climate change to be undetectably small”


[National Research Council. Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2002.]

Changes in climate can be abrupt and leaps forward from one state to another qualitatively different one can take place relatively quickly, with catastrophic consequences for all life. It is not ‘man in the abstract’ which is the main source for generating these alterations in climate but rather man at a certain stage of historical development where capital is the dominant relationship of production. Unplanned production for profit based on this relation-in-crisis is the fundamental causality behind human-mediated climate changes. Not ‘man as a species’ per se, not ‘man in the ahistorical abstract’, which we often get with ‘green’ or ‘ecopolitics’.

A planned socialist system of production and distribution – worked and democratically controlled by a free association of producers with all the science and technology at its disposal – will be one which places humanity’s relationship with Nature at the forefront of all actions and considerations in the course of human activity and planning. In destroying Nature, humanity destroys itself.

Climate changes taking place which are mediated by human activity can only now be the result of the continual and ruthless drive of global capital-in-crisis to augment its value which is, at its very core, an unplanned and anarchic system as Marx noted many years ago. Professional climatologists will be aware of any climate changes taking place which are not now mediated by the crisis of this global capitalist system.

The rising levels of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and oceans is serving to alter climate. It is only since the Industrial Revolution commenced in England in the 1750s, that the concentration of carbon dioxide has been consistently rising as a trend. The melting of the Arctic and Antarctic ice shelves also raises the question of the salinity of the oceans which is a central consideration in the flow or the supension of the flow of the ocean currents, such as the Gulf Stream. The suspension of these currents (which are important in the regulation of the Earth’s climates, especially maritime climates) would undoubtedly have catastrophic implications, for some parts of the globe at least.

In truth, the whole question of climate change has everything to do with the question of planned or unplanned production in the broadest sense of the term and not simply in the narrow economic sense. Formally, the Soviet system was a “planned” economy but one which was a forcing house for the development of production after the Russian Revolution. In a certain sense, it was an “unplanned” form of planning which inevitably brought destruction and the thoughtless pillage of Nature in its wake. The term “planned” in this article does not, therefore, refer to the Stalinist system of “planning” in the now defunct Soviet system.

The conception that it would make no difference if production were planned or unplanned (with fossil fuels as the major energy source) and that both forms of production would equally damage the planet’s ecosystems is a false ahistorical identity. This conception contains the pessimistic implication that climate change and ecological destruction is simply a function of technological development and not of the prevailing character of the dominant social relations or of the mode in which this technology is actually socially utilised. The false implication is that changes and shifts in climate and ecological destruction is simply the consequence of “technology” and has nothing to do with the character of social relations, to do with planning or no planning, with the existence or non-existence of capital as a global social relation in crisis.

What are the fundamental determinants and causality underlying these changes? And where does the historical development of the capital relation stand in such a conception of these changes? A socialist sytem would not approach humanity’s relationship with Nature purely as a function of the stage at which scientific knowledge and technique had arrived. The nub of the question in regard to climate change and ecological destruction is the existence or non-existence of capital as a dominant relationship of production. And, accordingly, of the social mode within which “technology” is utilised to meet human needs. To assert that it does not really matter (for these questions of climate change, ecology, etc) whether global society is socialist or dominated by capital – because it all depends on knowledge, technology and scientific discovery – is a bogus conception which separates the historical conditions within which technology is used from their actual mode of utilisation.

This, of course, is not to dismiss the actual physical operation of technology itself. In a planned, socialist system of production – as knowledge and technology advances – we will be able to adjust and modulate (i.e. plan) our activities accordingly in order to minimise or eliminate any environmental damage to Nature’s creation and its ecosystems which stem directly from the actual physical-operative character of technology used. This, of course, is not the primary consideration for capital in its relationship of reproductive destructiveness with Nature’s creation.

The deleterious and destructive effects of capitalist production on Nature were well known at the time of Marx and Engels. But in a planned economy, even the controlled use of fossil fuels need not be polluting as we have (and have had) for many years the science and technology to prevent this and, indeed, to utilise the by-products of burning fossil fuels. The fact that the atmosphere and oceans are concentrating carbon dioxide is the result of the fact that, under capitalism, the implementation of technical processes to stop it are not profitable and would take a massive bite out of the produced surplus value and thus interfere with capitalist accumulation.

If we conceive that there is no difference between capitalism and socialism in terms of their destructive effects on Nature’s creation, then we do, indeed, replicate the ahistorical, destructive ‘man in the abstract’ notion of some forms of ‘green politics’ and ‘ecopolitics’.

The questions which we are raising here concern specific eco-historical problems which are now in development or are in the process of formation as mediated and deepened by capital’s crisis. We recognise them as the humanly-problematic product of the historical development of the capital relation which stands as the basis (cube root) of a whole bourgeois mode of life which is destructive of Nature’s creation. But these questions can only be fully and comprehensively addressed in practice in the course of the period of transition and cannot, therefore, be addressed simply within the realm of prescriptive thought or advocacy as we sometimes find with the ‘greens’ and the left sectarian groups. We must leave the recipes to the pre-occupied cooks in the kitchen of history. However, most importantly, they cannot be addressed within the framework of an order which is the historical source of the actual problems we seek to resolve.

We cannot truly approach these questions outside of practice, that is, in the actual living struggle to transform these conditions. Once again, how do we move forward to the formation of agencies of revolution which will form the basis for going beyond the capital relation itself and really tackling the problems which are raised here?

These enormous, historically-posited problems can only be progressively diminished, therefore, in the actual historical process of actively countering and resolving them. And this means the struggle to eradicate the capital relation from the global social metabolism. Prescriptions, previously made up by our busy Egon Ronays, will be of no use because we simply do not know what we are to inherit after the state power of capital has been irreversibly dismantled and we fully enter this period of revolutionary transition. We can, however, be certain that what we inherit from the capitalist epoch will be a whole mass and complexity of global problems and contradictions which identify the social and the ecological.

We will have no option but to address the living reality as we inherit it in the transition period and this means, of course, proceeding with the resolution in practice, over lengthy periods of time, of all these various contradictions and problems inherited from the epoch of capital. History does not present a smooth line of unproblematic, uncomplicated, unparadoxed development. The “point is not to interpret the world, but to change it”. This is the only way in which we can really proceed since only when the necessary “social conditions are actually in existence or are in the process of formation” can we truly address the specific questions raised here and not by means of a mere rationalistic or even prescriptive approach to their complexity.

The conception and associated perspectives of how to address these problems can only be developed in the course of the unfolding of actual historical practice mediated by the requisite conditions and possibilities. And not simply by seeking to convince others by conceptual means or otherwise.

Commonly, we find in ‘green’ and ‘ecopolitics’ a fetishistic approach to these questions of climate change and ecosystem destruction. Man’s relationship to Nature is socially mediated and the operation of technology is incorporated as an intrinsic moment of this social mediation. In this relation, taken as a historic totality, the mode of utilisation of technique is a function of social relation. Technique is only utilised in a historically specific mode according to the requirements of the character of the prevailing social relations. With the rule of capital, we have the drive for surplus value and all the ensuing destruction, etc.

In an age beyond capital, a totally different mode of utilisation is deployed in accord with human needs and not in consonance with the augmentation of the value of capital. And human needs, of course, implies a qualitatively different relationship with Nature’s creation. Hence the form of mediation between man and Nature is fundamentally altered because the social relations have been revolutionised. The fundamental question is how do we eradicate the capital relation from the social metabolism and, in so doing, alter the actual social mode of utilisation of technology. But to try to understand these developments merely in terms of technological evolution is bound to lead into a fetishistic conception. In the same way, we cannot understand capital simply in terms of its material manifestation but must grasp it as a social relationship of production which is also a “mode of control of the social metabolism”.

To propose that technologies developed by both global socialist and global capitalist society would have the same damaging effects on the world’s ecosystems and climate is a fetishistic and ahistorical conception. It abstracts technique from its real social conditions of utilisation and the intermediation of these social relations and the natural pre-conditions of human life. The degree of damage which human society does to Nature’s creation is a function of the character of its dominant social relations and the mode within which technology is actually operated and applied in order to wrest our needs from Nature. It is not simply and exclusively a function of “technology”, knowledge or discovery.

To point to the Soviet system as a model for “socialist development and planning” is clearly inadequate when capital was functioning in a mediating “mode of social metabolic control” in this system. And, moreover, the Soviet system was undergoing a historical “forced march” from a backward peasant-based economy to an urbanised industrial society. Before we start to comment on and understand the football match of history, we need to know precisely where the actual football is located. If we think it is in the field when it is actually in the spectator seats and vice versa then our commentary becomes dislocated and inconsonant with the football match itself. Most of us are aware of what happened in the SU ; the widespread ecological destruction and disruption of Nature’s ecosystems, the pollution, the murderous destruction of humanity in the Gulags and Stalin’s genocidal purges of whole peoples, etc. But to point the finger here at the Soviet system as an exemplification of “socialist economy” or “socialist centralised planning”, etc, is nothing short of a complete misconception of the nature of the Soviet system. We cannot take the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, etc, as models for “socialist planning”. The Soviet system was never a “socialist economy” and “central planning” was not and never can be socialist.

Marx had lots to say about the destructive capacity of industrial technique under the rule of capital, the disruption and damage of the planet’s ecosystems and climate change but without explicitly saying it. There is much in Marx which history has left behind but we have his approach, his method, his mode of working and grappling with problems and contradictions. In this sense – and with the unfolding of capital’s global structural crisis – Marx is more relevant today in regard to understanding the effects of this crisis of the planet’s ecosystems than he was in the nineteenth century. In this respect, there is plenty in both Marx and Engels which explicitly or implicitly warns against the deleterious effects on Nature’s creation of the development of the forces of production in the social form of capital. This has been well documented by various writers and essayists. Generally it is implied but is, nevertheless, still most definitely there in Marx and has to be developed out of the overall conception. Marx did not live at a time when the full destructive force of the development of the capital relation had started to exert its effects on Nature’s creation as we see today around the globe. If he had witnessed all this, what would have been his conception and perspectives? The question is hypothetical but perhaps worth posing.

It is the deepening and widening of capital’s global structural crisis which is profoundly affecting the planet’s ecosystems and climate. Not ‘man in abstracto’, not ‘homo sapiens’ per se, but rather man at this global capitalist stage which is the stage of its unfolding, enduring structural crisis.


Shaun May

June 2014



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