By Joan Martinez-Alier. President Rafael Correa of Ecuador asks when and where Marx criticizes mega-mining. In various interviews, Correa, the mouthpiece of mega-mining and the expansion of oil exploitation, has asked, “Let’s see, señores marxistas, where was Marx opposed to the exploitation of non-renewable resources?” The response is easy. Marx and Engels criticized predatory capitalism, even if (in my opinion) their proto-ecologist critique was not a fundamental pillar of their work, which was more focused in an analysis of the exploitation of salaried workers and its consequences for the dynamics of capitalism.
But what would Marx have said of mega-mining and the ideas of President Correa? I don’t know enough German to guess, but I imagine it would be something like Pfui Teufel! In this respect, the pertinent concepts of Marxism that Correa doesn’t know or has forgotten are at least two: 1) Primitive or Original Accumulation of Capital (a concept revised by David Harvey in 2003 under the name Accumulation by Dispossession, very appropriate to the realities of President Correa’s oil and mineral extractive projects in Ecuador’s Amazon and other regions); 2) The interpretation of economics as Social Metabolism (for which Marx was inspired by Moleschott and Liebig).
Marx wrote to Engels in 1866 that the agricultural chemistry of Liebig was more important than all the writings of the economists together for understanding how agriculture functions. Predatory capitalism represents a “metabolic rift.” There is much information to this respect in John Bellamy Foster‘s book Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, published ten years ago.
Engels, in well-known letters to Marx in December 1882, in regard to the analysis of agricultural energetics published by Podolinsky, said: “You know better than I how we squander reserves of energy, coal, minerals, forests. etc.” In hindisght, we can criticize Marx and Engels, as I myself have in Ecological Economics” (1987), for their excessive enthusiasm for what they called the development of productive forces. They (economists, after all) failed to analyze in detail the metabolism of society in units of energy and materials. These accountings, made much later, reveal that Latin America has been converted as never before into a zone for export of materials and energy. The extractivist presidents of Latin America (both the neo-libs [neoliberals] and the nac-pops [nationalist-populists]) fall to the right of Raúl Prebisch and the ECLAC (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) over which he presided.
Some have said, with reason, that in the time of Marx there did not exist the brutal open-pit mining that there is today in Peru, in Colombia, Argentina or Chile, and that President Rafael Correa wants to intruduce in Ecuador. Nor was there the brutal extraction of petroleum in Amazonia that there is today. Ecuador did not export in the lifetime of Marx 15 million tons of oil each year as it does now (in what vessels could this have been exported?), nor could Colombia export, as it does now, 90 million tons of coal a year. Never has there been so much predation as now, never have the metropolis so depended on commerce in poorly-paid raw materials that come from the South.
But there are concepts in Marx that the arrogance mixed with ignorance of President Correa have caused him to forget. One is the Original or Primitive Accumulation of Capital, applied by Marx to the mega-mining that was then robbing Potosí and Zacatecas of their silver, with more than toxic amalgams of quicksilver (mercury). The concept can be applied as well to the slave plantations of sugar-cane or cotton, and was also applicable to the guano of Peru (from 1840 to 1880), no less than 11 million tons exported in these 40 years, extracted by indentured Chinese labor. So grows today capitalist profit through Accumulation by Dispossession, as David Harvey calls it. And there is also Accumulation of capitalist profit through Contamination, as nothing is typically paid for environmental damage.
In Argentina, with the (well deserved) expropriation of Repsol, there has been talk for months of the firm’s environmental liabilities, to see if the price will be lowered, while the Argentine government refuses to see the damages caused by Xstrata in the mega-mining of La Alumbrera, or so many other environmental liabilities throughout the country.
Marx and the Marxists can be criticized for failing to sufficiently emphasize that capitalism is a system for the transformation of energy and materials for endless growth, for failing to take into account the accounts in terms of energy. But the truth is that Marx (studying the ideas of Liebig concerning guano and the need to replenish nutrients in agriculture), introduced, even without greatly developing it, the concept of Social Metabolism. Capitalism leads to a “metabolic rift.” Capitalism is not capable of renewing its own conditions of production; it does not replace the nutrients, it erodes the soils, it exhausts or destroys renewable resources (such as fisheries and forests) and non-renewable ones (such as fossil fuels and minerals). That is what Marx thought and wrote. And it also destroys biodiversity, although Marx never mentioned it. So let’s see, señores marxistas… What did Marx say about climate change caused by excessive burning of coal, oil and gas? Well, he said nothing, because he died in 1883, and the first definitive scientific articles on this theme were those of Svante Arrhenius in 1896. But he would have protested it, he would have sided with Climate Justice.
Nor does Correa recognize the theory of the Second Contradiction of Capitalism, presented by the Marxist economist James O’Connor in 1988, in the first issue of the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism. Or the 1986 book of Enrique Leff, Ecología y Capital. Leff and O’Connor alike explain how the rising social and environmental costs caused by (badly counted) “economic growth,” are also the cause of the explosion of environmental protests. The resistance against the despoliation of nature is what causes the increased environmentalism of the poor and indigenous movements for environmental justice around the world, protests against climate injustice and water injustice, in defence of the commons.
These movements would have delighted Marx. The young Marx was angered because the new bourgeois owners of forests did not let the poor collect firewood. The Parliament in the Rhineland defended those private enclosures, the enclosures that Marx would analyze in Capital. Today there is a process in the world, as never before, of the dispossession of indigenous and peasant lands, land-grabbing for tree plantations or for agrofuels, mega-mining and dams, and extraction of oil and gas, under the auspices of private companies or the state. These are neocolonial processes of appropriation of natural resources and territories, where there are new actors such as Chinese companies.
This article first appeared in Spanish Feb. 24, 2013, on EcoPortal.net, Argentina. Translated by World Report 4.