[OPE-L:2276] Re: Re: nature, value and wealth

From: Jurriaan Bendien (djjb99@worldonline.nl)
Date: Sat Jan 22 2000 - 17:08:11 EST

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Jerry wrote:
Nonetheless, labor and means of
>production are required to transform this natural energy into energy that
>is socially appropriated.

I think this must be almost tautologically true, since no appropriation
from nature by human beings is possible without presupposing some sort of
labour activity, except breathing perhaps. No "means of production" are
necessarily required to transform natural energy into energy that is
socially appropriated, from an anthropological point of view.
>(Lenin once said, during the NEP if I remember correctly, that "communism
>is the power of electricity".

If my memory is correct, Lenin said "communism is soviet power +
electrification". The "soviets" were the workers' and peasants' councils,
which however lost a lot of their power to the Stalinist bureaucracy and
ceased to be genuine vehicles of proletarian democracy. This simple slogan
may have been attractive in its time, but must be regarded as a naive
technological determinism today, indeed as a kind of strange utopianism.
Lenin understood the need for an industrial base to build socialism, but he
did not really understand much about the social implications of introducing
capitalist technology in a non-capitalist environment. Much more was needed
than electrification - not just popular literacy but also a democratic
civil society.

>As for your question, I don't think this speaks to the debate that we had
>some months ago on the role of "climate" in regional economic development.

In the debate we had, at issue was whether variations in climate could have
influenced the origins and development of the capitalist mode of
production, and whether this has historically influenced the comparative
productivity of labour in different countries. I believe this was in fact
the case, although I would need to supply specific examples, which I have
not researched systematically because I took it as an obvious point. You
denied the economic significance of climate in political economy, which I
thought was too hasty.

>If one is, though, examining the creation of wealth from a
>trans-historical perspective, then clearly natural forces are part of the
>process of wealth-creation. This is true even in capitalism. What is at
>issue is whether under capitalism nature helps to create wealth and value
>or whether it is just part of the process of wealth creation. If we were to
>assert the former then would we have a N&LTV?

Marx is quite categorical about this. Both labour and land are sources of
(economic, material) wealth. However wealth is not identical to value, and
material wealth is distinguished from human wealth, which Marx defines as
wealth in human relations. In Capital, Marx notes only labour is the source
of (economic) value, because (economic) value is ultimately a category
which pertains to social relations among human beings, ultimately to their
collective valuations of their labour efforts. This analysis does not
exclude the existence of other types of value or valuations, such as
aesthetic value or ethical value. Nor does it exclude the possible
existence of priced objects which have no value. The main difficulty for
Marx's labour theory of value is that due to the rising organic composition
of capital (the more "roundabout" way of production as Bohm-Bawerk put it),
the growing complexity of the world division of labour, the growing
objective socialisation of labour, and the autonomisation of monetary and
credit relations, the link between labour expenditures and price movements
becomes more remote, more difficult to show and prove, except through
aggregate statistical correlations as Shaikh and Tonak have done.
Nevertheless that link becomes more visible again if workers stage a major

Unimproved land has no value according to Marx, it represents at most a
type of fictitious capital or fictitious commodity with an price which
varies according to supply and demand conditions, or state policy, but not
according to its "value". Improved land does however have a value. This is
indeed recognised in UNSNA social accounts, where the value of land
improvements is treated as part of gross fixed capital formation.

The "Green theory of value" seems to have two main features. On the one
hand, it is derived from the neo-classical problematic of how you impute
prices/costs to so-called "externalities" and natural resources ("strategic
stocks") which have not yet been exploited or which are irreplacable. On
the other hand, it is a critique of the labour theory of value inasmuch as
(1) the labour theory arguably does not include in its account of economic
value and social valuation precisely those externalities and natural
resources, which are nevertheless economically important, and (2) the
labour theory of value implicitly proposes an economic valuation of aspects
of the natural world, such as "natural beauty for its own sake", which,
radical Greens argue, should be valued non-economically and not priced (the
LTV thereby remains imprisoned in bourgeois prejudices according to the
more left-wing theorists). That is, the labour theory of value is
deficient, because it ignores the social or economic valuation of a range
of natural assets which are either not owned by anybody, owned by nation
states, or collectively owned in some sense.

In assessing these criticisms, several points are probably important.

(1) Marx's labour theory of value concerns economic value only, it makes no
special claims about how objects or processes might be valued from another
(non-economic) standpoint. It says only labour-time is generally
objectively decisive, other valuations are not, except in special cases
such as art objects and unimproved land. All economy reduces to the
economising of labour time, unless we change the meaning of the "economic".

(2) There is no way of valuing externalities and unexploited natural
resources, appropriately in a systematic way, outside of a socialist
planned economy which, precisely, can socially recognise their value by
abolishing "externalities".

(3) One can price these externalities and resources as it stands in an ad
hoc manner only, in relation to (potential) monetarily effective demand, or
in relation to the overall costs of exploitation (including the disposal of
pollutants). As regards these costs, they often cannot be priced
non-arbitrarily or objectively in any sense, because there are too many
unknowns, because irreplacable resources have no replacement costs, and
because moral-political considerations are involved. Certainly one can
price the cost of removing pollutants, but this does not present any
special problem for the LTV. But the statisticians do not get much further
than valuing "strategic stocks" of known natural resources according to
known exploitation costs and known market prices.

(4) The Green criticism of the LTV is in reality more a critique of the
capitalist treatment of nature (the spontaneous tendency of capitalism to
turn everything into a marketable commodity or treat it as such) and of the
Stalinist/Maoist treatment of nature (which was justified with
pseudo-Marxist ideology). Thus, the Greens typically see no necessary
connection between the allocation of resources via the capitalist market
and environmental despoilation. Since bureaucratic despotism can be equally
damaging to the environment, it seems that open markets as such are not the
problem, but rather that the way nature is subjectively viewed is the
problem. Consequently, the Greens argue we need to view nature differently
and subjectively value it differently. But this means (1) the Green
critique is ultimately an idealist moral theory; it does not ask seriously
why nature is in practice viewed in the way that it is. (2) Green ideology
is either re-absorbed into (petty-)bourgeois ideology, retreats to feudal
or earlier ideology or resorts to science fiction/mysticism. This suggests
its social basis lies in the professional classes and among marginalised
people. What this can lead to is shown by the German Green Party and the
Dutch Green Left Party, who endorsed the bombing of Serbia.



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