Sunday, April 26, 2009

Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Theoretical Introduction

O'Connor's central theme is to describe the traditional Marxist account of the contradiction between the forces of capitalist production and the relations of production, and then to describe his ecological Marxist account of the second contradiction of capital, between the forces/relations of production and the conditions of production, defined as the environmental factors, political, economic, ecological, social, and otherwise, that capital depends on to continue production of surplus value.


The first, traditional Marxist, contradiction of capital is defined by O'Connor as overproduction of capital, or a crisis in realization of profit. Now the question is: What does THAT mean? Essentially, what I thought O'Connor was talking about (having never read any Marxist documents outside of the Communist Manifesto in high school) was the difficulty in the constant drive for greater production to increase profit. Capital, in seeking to produce more and more in order to make more money, gluts the market, experiences massive drops in commodity prices, and is forced to restructure the forces and relations of production in order to cut costs. This means mergers of smaller companies into larger ones, capital flight in search of cheaper labor, more efficient production processes, development of cheaper materials, and other obvious reactions to the inability to realize surplus value. The capitalist system is dependent on this process, because it is only through this process that expenditures on the restructuring of relations in the systems of production are economically viable, since they are unavoidable if the system as a whole is to survive. O'Connor says that this restructuring necessarily leads to more social relations of production, i.e. labor unions and government regulation of industry, but is careful to state that these changes are not irreversible or even necessarily indicative of a larger societal shift, a step that Marx and his contemporaries missed when they predicted the inevitability of a proletariat revolution.

The second contradiction follows much the same logic as the first, but on the opposite end of the spectrum. Where the first focuses on the difficulties on the output side of capital production and the difficulties of overproduction, the second addresses the input side of things, what O'Connor calls the "conditions of production". This can be understood as all of the inputs required for commodities to be produced, i.e. the cotton, steel, dyes, the fields and mines that these things come from, and all the labor required to farm, mine, and process the raw materials and to assemble them all into a pair of jeans: the output. These inputs are, by the very nature of capitalism, exploited in the constant need to increase the flow of capital. thus, the feilds are degraded, the mines exhausted, new ones dug, the workers are exposed to the maximum legal amount of work hazards to enable cheaper production, and worked for maximum productivity at the cost of workplace safety. This process continues until the environment, both natural and social, that capital needs to produce commodities, and therefore profit, is degraded to the point that production in the current mode is impossible, and a crisis of underproduction through decrease in volume of input occurs. This results, again, in restructuring of the relationship between the forces/relations of production and the conditions of production, involving massive ecological movements, workplace safety movements, urban environment restructuring, and government regulation to prevent exploitation of the social and physical environment. These restructurings are more obviously social(ist) than those mentioned in relation to the first contradiction, in that they address more directly conditions that are shared by all, and the regulation of capital's relationship to those conditions. The air and water, the streets of the city, and the workplace itself come to be seen as communal resources, and the people come to hold a certain, very important right over capital: the right to a clean and safe world. Again, O'Connor is careful to say that these measures are continually reinterpreted and can be applied in accordance with the needs of capital, but that the potential for a new social vision of the world lies in these movements.

What I found to be most compelling in O'Connor's argument, however, was the idea, not so much explicitly stated as implied, especially in the theoretical notes at the end, of the concept of cost. O'Connor seems to me to be implying two senses of the word, "cost". One is the tradtional capitalist view of the value that is attributed to the inputs of production. The other, which comes through in his discussion of "social costs", refers to the costs that are externalized onto the environment, again, social as well as physical, including health costs from pollution, education, ecological destruction, increasing personal and commercial rents, debt crises, and the list goes on. The government, and thus all of us, have to pay for all of this damage when it begins to become a crisis. This passage gave me the sense of the capitalist economy as a kind of wayward child, who breaks his favorite toy and comes running to his mommy to fix it for him. What is missing from this analogy, of course, is the sense in which the breaking of the toy is inevitable. Capital must continually seek to expand if it is to remain profitable, and so they keep destroying the conditions necessary for their own sustenance. I can also see this leading to more social forms in the relationship between capital and the state; a most encouraging prospect indeed.


  1. O'Connor's modern take on the gaps in Marx's theories (brought about because today's realities simply didn't exist in the mid-19th century)again spells out the interwoven nature (pun!) of capitalism and the ecological issues facing the world today. He makes special effort to point out that the uniqueness of the post-WWII development period is something Marx could scarce have dreamed of, and changed capitalism from what O'Connor called "sporadic" to what he called "systematic" (p. 148).

    As Alex points out, capitalism as currently defined can only exist so long as it grows and the new sources of material, labor and markets are finite. The key concept here, to me, is the acceleratory nature of capitalism. I like to use the analogy of the toilet bowl (so far as I know, it's original, but I doubt it). Capitalism begins as the toilet is flushed. The surface area of the cyclone is quite large. However, as capitalism uncovers new sources of labor and material, as well as opens new markets, the surface are of the cyclone decreases while the speed of its revolutions increases. Eventually, capitalism has no more surface area from which to draw its necessary components and everything that used to exist in the toilet bowl is washed away.

    O'Connor, in keeping with the theme of this class, go to lengths to describe the social relationships that comprise our current state of affairs, namely, politics, ideology and bureacracy. If he credits an entity too much, it is the state, which he seems to feel acts more independently of capital than I believe it to. For all the state can do, however, O'Connor points out that cannot overcome the contradiction of assigning the term "commodity" to fictitious ideas that cannot be reproduced and, therefore, cannot properly be called commodities.

    We are certainly seeing the "costs" that Alex writes about manifesting themselves in various ways all around us. Indeed, the capitalists (at least, those in the US and UK) have "broken their toy" and are now calling on those they oppressed to provide the glue to fix it. They threaten the masses with an ambiguous "even worse" while that same "even worse" is happening to the masses regardless of their actions. I have tried to remain and optimistic as I was in, say, February. But as I mentioned in class last week, I have already noticed the discourse shifting from "we need to completely overhaul the way we do things" to "hurry up and return to normal, already". This impatience is obviously not surprising given our culture, but I had hoped some tangible results would have been seen first. I think it is obvious that we have seen the worst that capitalism is capable of for the time being, so I will cautiously remain hopeful. However, we must not forget that those who control the system that has done all of this social and ecological harm is still very much in control of the apparatus and will not lightly relinquish it.

  2. I must agree with the two prior follow-ups of O’Connor and found both analogies to be amusing and well connected, though with each toy the child broke and ran to mommy to fix, every toy was way cooler and had better gadgets than the previous toy. I am going to try to avoid re-iterating what has already been said, and I apologize if this sounds like regurgitation.

    Although I lack a full understanding of Marxist theory and think that there is a lot about O’Connor’s writing that I missed, I believe Marx to be somewhat out of date, but think that O’Connor does an excellent job re-iterating and applying contemporary Marxist ideals to tear at the threads of capitalism.

    Capitalisms surplus dependence at the expense of resources and labor seems inevitably destined for failure and possibly even “underproduction” as O’Connor hints at “once we add up the rising costs of reproducing the conditions of production.” Why have economists and early capitalists not seen these consequences? Why the stigma towards socialist ideals?

    Given the current political, social, and economic climate there seems to me right now to be great opportunity for social reconstruction. The respect and disregard for each other seems to have only gotten worse and as the economy appears to get even more volatile, people seems to be hitting each other for the last remaining scraps. I am not trying to leave this discussion on a pessimistic note, but after twenty-years, where does O’Connor go or have to say about this current state?