The Marxian Theory of Value: A Response to David Pena (Part Three)

Pena’s questionable concept of “ecological socialism”

Read Part 1 here;  Part 2 here

Perhaps Pena does not see this because he does not appear to grasp the point that in the Marxian concept of socialism (aka communism – unlike Lenin, Marx never differentiated between these two terms), the question of “exchange value” becomes completely redundant (and, with that, the preoccupation with ensuring “equivalent exchange”).  This is because in socialism, as Marx saw it, commodity production would completely cease to exist.

The “actually existing socialisms” that Pena refers to have nothing in common with Marxian socialism.  In all of these, commodity production and wage labour prevails.  From a Marxian perspective what is called “actually existing socialism” is simply another name for state-administered capitalism and I would highly recommend Paresh Chattopadhyay’s book The Marxian Concept of Capital and the Soviet Experience (1994) which very persuasively argues this point. The Soviet Union was predicated upon fundamentally capitalist economic categories.  It was actually Lenin who was primarily responsible for the shift in the meaning of the term “socialism” away from how Marxists had originally defined it as an attempt to garner political support for the Bolsheviks’ state capitalist agenda.

Thus, in 1917 Lenin declared that “socialism is merely state-capitalist monopoly which is made to serve the interests of the whole” (The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It).  The enormous impact that the Bolshevik Revolution had on world affairs meant that this Leninist definition of “socialism” – identifying it with the activities of a state rather than the stateless society Marx envisaged it to be — came to prevail in popular discourse while the original Marxian definition faded from sight.   I suspect that it is through the prism of the former that Pena views the latter and that it is this that goes a long way towards explaining the many egregious errors he makes when analysing the latter.

Since Pena’s critique is supposed to be against Marx, he would be better advised to direct his comments to how Marx defined socialism, not Lenin.  In Marxian socialism, goods would be produced solely and directly for use, not for sale on a market, and would be made available to the population on the basis of free appropriation (“free access”).  Needless to say, this presupposes the technological potential to produce enough to meet the basic needs of the population and socialists assert that this potential has long been around (as I will later explain).  We no longer require the “productive forces” to be “increased” (as Marx thought) in order to establish the kind of society he called socialism-cum-communism. All that we need is a working class majority – not some Leninist vanguard acting in its behalf – to consciously and democratically bring this about.

As a logical corollary of “free access” in Marxian socialism, the cooperative labour required to produce the goods we need would take the form of “freely associated” (to use Marx’s expression), voluntaristic, unpaid work where the very notion of “compensation” for work done would completely fall away. Wage labour, or any other form of coerced labour, for that matter (and by “coerced” I mean economic coercion not just physical coercion) would no longer exist since it cannot logically be reconciled with a socialist mode of appropriation based on free access.  The Gordian knot between what one consumes and what one contributes would be severed and the antagonism of interests that this presupposes would cease to apply.

That antagonism is embedded in the very institution of market exchange itself and finds expression in the conflictual relationship between buyer and seller (including the buyers and sellers of labour power). The buyer seeks to secure the lowest possible price for the commodity in question; the seller, the opposite.  So they haggle.  Exchange value is the impersonal market-imposed outcome of this haggling, mediated through the interplay of supply and demand but ultimately responsive to the Marxian law of value.

Pena does not seem to have much of a clue about any of this and you have to seriously wonder how familiar he is with Marx about whom he professes to write so authoritatively.   He continues to dogmatically assert that “the labor theory of value promotes ecocide and is therefore fatal to ecological socialism”, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Marx did not intend that his theory would apply to socialism.  This is because it is inextricably bound up with, and only makes sense in the context of, a system of commodity production which would cease to exist in socialism.

Pena’s attempts to deny this point are risible. He comments:

He further argues that I “totally miss the point” that the labor theory of value is an explanation of how capitalism works, not socialism. This is related to an earlier insinuation that I do not understand that the law of value applies only to capitalism. Since capitalism is the only sphere in which the law operates, Cox reasons, it is impossible for Marx’s labor theory to have any ill effects on socialism. Therefore, in addition to my ridiculous physical reductionism, my claim that the labor theory is bad for ecological socialism is false and patently absurd.

Pena then proceeds in his attempt to refute my claim that “labor theory of value is an explanation of how capitalism works, not socialism” by means of a two-pronged attack.

The first prong involves an arcane discussion on Aristotle’s analysis of value in the Nicomachean Ethics.  The point of the exercise is presumably to demonstrate that commodities existed long before capitalism – as if I was not aware of this and needed to be condescendedly enlightened by Pena on the subject.  Of course, commodities predate capitalism and I have not denied this.  My argument was, rather, that the “law of value” is really only applicable to a society in which commodity production has become generalised and, above all, where labour power has itself been generally transformed into a commodity, not just the products of labour themselves.  In other words, where there is in place a system of generalised wage labour.  In fact, Marx himself treated the term, the “wages system” as a synonym for capitalism as in Capital where he spoke of “capitalistic production, or the wages system” (Vol 1, Ch.1.)

To ram home the point, I refer the reader to the opening sentence of that book with its ringing declaration that “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities, its unit being a single commodity.”  Thus, what distinguished capitalist from non-capitalist, or pre-capitalist, societies, in Marx’s view, is precisely the fact that most wealth did not take the form of commodities in the latter – that is, it was not produced for sale on the market.  This is why it is incorrect to say that production in these societies was “governed by the law of value” which has to be a society-wide phenomenon in order to function as such, in my view.

Pena avers that this was not the “settled view” of Marx and Engels and patronisingly commends me for “showing signs of intellectual independence” if I intend to take a contrary position – an odd comment from someone who earlier claimed I see Marx as some sort of “guru”.  The Engels quote that Pena provides certainly seems to suggest that he (Engels) thought the law of value had universal application, applying also to those pre-capitalist societies in which there was a limited degree of commodity production.  For the record, I don’t agree with Engels but endorse instead the position adopted by others such as the (recently deceased) Marxist economist, John Weeks, that the law of value is unique to capitalism.

Marx’s position is a little more complicated in that he thought that, though the law of value did indeed predate capitalism, it “develops fully only on the foundation of capitalist production”. (Capital Vol 1.)  Here Marx was alluding to the law of value governing “simple commodity exchange” and the transformation of this law under capitalist conditions where “more labour is exchanged for less labour (from the labourer’s standpoint), less labour is exchanged for more labour (from the capitalist’s standpoint)”. (1863, Theories of Surplus Value, Ch 3. Section 4.)

The second, and more significant, prong of Pena’s attack is to assert that “the law’s applicability to socialism also means that the anti-ecological effects of the law apply to that system” and that Marx’s labour theory of value promotes “anti-socialist hierarchies and an anti-ecological economy within socialist society”.  This further illustrates the point I made earlier – that Pena does not understand that, for Marx, socialism entails the complete abolition of commodity exchange.  If there is no commodity exchange then the question of exchange value cannot logically arise, in which case it is nonsensical to talk of the law of value applying in socialism (at least as Marx defined this term as a synonym for communism).

To say that Pena’s attempt to justify his assertion is feeble would be an understatement.  He asserts “I would argue there is nothing in Marx to prevent the law functioning under any conditions in which workers own the means of production, including socialism”. Really?  If he referring here to worker cooperatives, then he is quite mistaken in thinking this. Marx did not consider co-ops to be an instantiation of “socialism” but, along with the capitalist joint stock company, a transitional form from the “capitalist mode of production to the associated one”.  Though he had positive things to say about co-ops as pointing the way ahead, he saw them, nevertheless, as operating fundamentally within the constraints of capitalism:  “The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system”. (Capital, Vol 3, Ch 27.)

To justify his claim concerning the law of value being allegedly applicable to Marxian socialism, Pena refers us to Marx’s distinction between simple and complex labour under capitalism as an illustration of how the law of value differentially impacts on the remuneration of workers under capitalism.  Labour power is a commodity and, like any other commodity under capitalism, its value is determined by the amount of socially necessary labour time required to produce and reproduce it. Skilled workers, for example, require more training and this will be reflected in the price of their labour power – the relatively higher wage they command compared to unskilled workers.  At the same time, skilled workers tend to be more productive than unskilled workers – that is, they generate more value.

Pena contends:

Marx and Engels’ position on the applicability of the law of value to non-capitalist societies suggests the labor theory of value, with its distinction between simple and complex labor, applies to post-capitalist society as well, including what Marx called the “first phase” of communism.25  The distinction between simple and complex labor colors Marx’s vision of socialism.26  This is dangerous to socialism because it lays the foundation for a hierarchical post-capitalist society in which individual social position and access to goods and services is determined by one’s status as a simple or complex worker, which is in turn decided by the worker’s level of education and training. Marx’s labor theory of value is the basis of a social hierarchy in the Marxist conception of socialism that undermines both socialism and ecology.

Firstly, it does not follow at all that, even if the law of value was applicable to non-capitalist societies, it must also be applicable to post capitalist societies “including what Marx called the “first phase” of communism”

In his Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875), Marx wrote in highly speculative terms of this first phase of communism (socialism) thus:

Within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labor employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labor no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of total labor. The phrase “proceeds of labor”, objectionable also today on account of its ambiguity, thus loses all meaning.

What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society – after the deductions have been made – exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labor time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.”

This calls for one or two comments. To begin with, it should be mentioned at the outset that neither I, nor the SPGB, support Marx’s proposal to institute a scheme of labour certificates to compensate workers for their labour contribution.  Such a scheme is unnecessary and superfluous inasmuch as we have long moved away from the era of unavoidable material scarcities in which Marx lived and in which he penned this particular proposal as a way of coping with these scarcities in the early days of socialism.  Today such scarcities are no longer unavoidable but, on the contrary, have to be artificially imposed and rigorously reinforced for the sake of the system we all still live under – global capitalism.

Not only that, the labour certificate scheme proposed by Marx would be bureaucratically cumbersome and wasteful inasmuch as it would require a very substantial amount of administrative labour to operate it and to maintain an appropriate level of labour surveillance for the scheme to work on its own terms. Furthermore, there are intrinsic technical difficulties associated with the scheme such as how one might go about valuing different forms of labour which would make it very difficult to implement.  Also, it is not just people’s labour contributions that would need to be directly measured for the purpose of distributing these certificates; the goods produced by this labour would need to be measured too in terms of the amount of concrete labour time it took to produce them – a truly daunting task given the socially integrated nature of modern production and its incredibly complex division of labour.

I mention this only to once again illustrate just how wide of the mark is Pena’s silly jibe about Marx being my “guru”.   Marx was fallible like everyone else and I consider this to be one of the many errors he made. His proposal was informed, as I suggested, by the belief that a socialist society would initially be handicapped by the problem of material scarcities inherited from capitalism and so would have to institute some form of rationing which is precisely what his labour certificate scheme amounts to. But, even if this was the case, there are other far more effective, and better targeted, ways of rationing scarce goods than the hugely unwieldly approach he advocated.

Having said that, it is pretty clear from what Marx wrote about this first phase of socialism that he did not envisage the law of value operating within it and that Pena has completely misread what Marx was saying.  For a start, the producers, Marx said, “do not exchange their products” so consequently we cannot possibly be talking about a society in which exchange value exists (and therefore one in which the law of value would apply). There is “exchange” of course – notably the performance of a certain amount of labour in exchange for a certificate — but this is not what exchange value or the law of value is about.  These certificates do not in themselves constitute money since they do not circulate and cannot be used as a means of accumulating wealth.

Moreover – and crucially — it should be noted that what is measured here for the purposes of distributing labour certificates is concrete labour, not abstract labour which, as we saw earlier, is the fundamental metric of value in Marx’s theory.  This fact alone destroys Pena’s absurd claim that Marx envisaged the law of value continuing in socialism.  The worker in Marx’s first stage of socialism receives back in the form of a labour certificate exactly what she has contributed to society in terms of her own labour – not some hypothetical social average.

Marx goes on:

Here, obviously, the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is exchange of equal values. Content and form are changed, because under the altered circumstances no one can give anything except his labor, and because, on the other hand, nothing can pass to the ownership of individuals, except individual means of consumption.

So this resembles the exchange of equal values in commodity exchange inasmuch as it involves an equality of exchange — you get back exactly what you contribute to society (allowing for the various social deductions Marx refers to).   But there the resemblance ends since what is happening here is that “content and form are changed”.  This is because it is not abstract labour that constitutes the basic metric of this transaction but concrete labour.

Secondly, there is indeed more than a hint in Marx that workers would be differentially compensated in this first phase of socialism according to the duration and intensity of their contribution:

But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. (Ibid.)

Pena makes great play of this and contends that this is dangerous to socialism because it “lays the foundation for a hierarchical post-capitalist society in which individual social position and access to goods and services is determined by one’s status as a simple or complex worker, which is in turn decided by the worker’s level of education and training”.  I would accept that this does indeed entail a hierarchy of sorts but I think Pena grossly exaggerates its likely consequences.  After all, we are not talking about a class-based hierarchy but rather one based purely on one’s work contribution.  As Marx says “everyone is only a worker like everyone else”.  So the hierarchical aspect of this arrangement is likely to be far less pronounced than anything one is likely to encounter in a class-based society where sectional or class ownership of the means of production massively amplifies the asymmetrical distribution of power and status.

Moreover, there is nothing to suggest there might not be a significant degree of social mobility within this hypothetical first stage of socialism, as Marx conceived it.  What is to stop individuals moving up this hierarchy by, for instance, undertaking the requisite education and training, thereby boosting their status within the hierarchy?

We also need to take into consideration Marx’s views on the division of labour by which he meant the compulsory division of labour that compels a worker to do a particular kind of job but prevents her from simultaneously doing some other job.  Marx was very much opposed to this. He saw socialism as presupposing or being dependent on what might be called the polytechnic or multi-skilled worker and (rather over-optimistically) speculated that the trend in work patterns in late Victorian Britain was moving in that direction.   He could perhaps be forgiven for not “predicting” the rise of Fordist style assembly production in the early 20th century

Nevertheless, his views on the division of labour likewise help to undermine the claim that what Marx was advocating would result in some sort of rigidly oppressive social hierarchy.  Insofar as workers would be far more free to undertake a variety of jobs, rather than confine themselves to just one kind of job as is normally the case under capitalism, the effect of this would be to further flatten or soften the aforementioned hierarchy Pena refers to.

However, once again, let me reiterate that this should not in any way be construed as meaning that I somehow defend Marx’s labour certificate proposal (which I don’t). It is merely an attempt on my part to put criticism of the scheme in some sort of reasonable context.  Pena’s criticism, in my view, is unreasonable and way over the top.

Thirdly, and most importantly, I come back to the point that all Marx’s speculations concerning this lower or first of phase of socialism (communism) were predicated on the assumption that the productive forces were not yet fully developed to permit the introduction of full socialism – or more precisely, its higher phase.  Pena talks loosely about the “Marxist conception of socialism” in this connection but this is misleading because in this particular context Marx was only talking about its first or lower phase.  He was not talking about socialism or communism, per se, as Marx himself makes abundantly clear:

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

In this higher phase all of the objections Pena raises against Marx, needless to say, would – or, rather, should – perforce, fall away.  In this phase, as in the first phase, commodity production (and hence the law of value) would be done away with.  But also in this phase, concepts such as “compensation for work performed” that applied only to the first phase would likewise fall away.  Meaning the grounds on which Pena bases his spurious argument about the application of the labour theory of value in socialism laying the foundation for a hierarchical post-capitalist society, cannot possibly be true, even by the logic of his own argument, of the higher phase of socialism in which there is no “compensation for work performed”. Consequently, there is no reason for Pena to say the “Marxist conception of socialism” must necessarily be “hierarchical” since this conception also includes as well the idea of a higher phase of socialism.

Indeed, in this higher phase the very fact that goods and services would be universally available on the basis of free appropriation is what would deprive any individual or group of the social leverage by which they could exert power over others and coerce them to do their bidding.  Contrary to the claims of anarcho-capitalists and other exponents of the free market, the material basis of a truly free society would be precisely Marxian socialism.

Anarcho-capitalists may routinely claim they have no objection to others operating a socialist society, providing they themselves should be allowed to produce for the free market. Well, let us extend this hypothetical possibility to them and see how far they can run with it. How would they persuade others to relinquish the freedom of voluntary associated labour and submit to the economic coercion of wage labour instead? How would they entice them to buy what they had to sell – and with what? – in a society in which what individuals wanted would be available for them to freely take? Free access trumps free markets every time!

Returning to Pena’s argument it is ironic that it is Pena himself who wants to keep intact, and indefinitely perpetuate, the principle of compensation in the name of “fair distribution”.

He states:

Justification of differences in compensation among workers must cite measurable differences in energy expenditure during the labor process or in legitimate needs, such as medical condition, size of family, etc. This replaces Marx’s standard of labor time and the hierarchy of complex over simple labor. Compensation hierarchies based on differences in the quality or complexity of different forms of work are unjustified in these terms of energy expenditure or legitimate individual need. Societies might be tempted to use compensation differences to encourage quality improvements or the acquisition of complex skills, but the principle of socio-ecological worthiness must take precedence over perceived utility. In an ecological society, the priority of distribution is to return to individuals the amount of energy they have invested in society, minus unavoidable deductions for social purposes, and to meet legitimate, basic needs in a manner that is socio-ecologically sound.

So, apparently, it’s all right for Pena to accuse Marx of wanting to establish a social hierarchy resulting from the differential compensation of complex and simple labour in the first phase of socialism. But when Pena talks about the need to justify differences in compensation among workers in terms of his own preferred criterion of “measurable differences in energy expended by workers during the labor process” suddenly and rather mysteriously and conveniently, all talk of “social hierarchies” disappear from view.  Why, if Marx’s proposal for compensating labour lays the foundation for a hierarchical post-capitalist society, would that not equally be true of Pena’s?  On that score, Pena’s silence is deafening.

To reiterate — what is needed is to do away with the very principle of quid pro quo compensation itself with all the simmering tensions and seething antagonisms it embodies and entails.  It is this principle that separates the individual from her fellows and covertly or overtly places her in a conflictual relationship with them over the relative magnitude of the compensation she receives. It encourages comparison and the ensuing conflict to which that give rises.

Marxian socialism, by contrast, operates according to a completely contrary principle — generalised reciprocity.  Instead of separating out individuals who then confront each as buyers and sellers in the market place with opposed interests, generalised reciprocity brings them together.  It serves to cement the social relationships that bind us to each other.  It highlights our mutual inter-dependence and reinforces our sense of mutual obligation to one another.

Marxian socialism is what the anthropologists mean by a “moral economy” in the sense that the transactions between individuals would not simply be self-interested (as in Adam’s Smith mechanistic model of the market) but other-oriented as well – although one might quibble with notion that socialism might be called an “economy” at all.  In fact, the very idea of something called an economy arose out of the emergence of capitalism itself and the identification by Smith and others of a distinct economic realm within society which was subject to certain economic laws pertaining sui generis to this realm.  In traditional pre-capitalist societies, by contrast, the different facets of social life — morality, politics, religion and “economics” — were much more closely intermeshed and one suspects the same would be true of a future socialist society – further grounds, one might add, for rejecting the claim that the Marx’s law of value would operate in such a society.

The emergence of a distinct disembedded economic realm in capitalism was accompanied by, and mirrored in, emergence of distinct concept of the individual as sovereign and free floating – cut adrift from the ties that bound individuals to each other in earlier traditional societies.   It is this market economy of capitalism that atomises individuals and interposes between them the cold nexus of cash payment.  When money mediates everything, our essential human sociality is rendered opaque. We objectify and separate ourselves from our fellow human beings in much the same way as soldiers in a war seek to dehumanise the enemy in order to more effectively liquidate it.

It is this kind of thinking that underlies the idea that workers should be compensated for their work which is really another way of saying that they should be externally coerced and cajoled into working which tells us a lot about the nature of work and by extension the nature of the society we live in that requires its citizens to be thus coerced.  It is nor for no reason that Marx spoke of labour becoming “not only have a means of life but life’s prime want” in higher communism.  Human beings have a fundamental need to creatively express themselves in work.  Though we tend not to call it work under capitalism (where work tends to be equated with employment) it is highly significant that even under capitalism people work more hours without any kind of monetary “inducement” than they do with such an “inducement” and there is ample evidence that so called money incentives can negatively impact on what industrial psychologists call our intrinsic motivation to work.

In Marx’s first phase of socialism the need to compensate workers for their labour in the guise of labour certificates was rationalised on the grounds that in this phase society would still be subject to material scarcity which he envisaged would eventually give way of abundance. But on what grounds does Pena rationalise his system of compensation?

Pena maintains that in his ecological society the priority of distribution is to return to individuals the amount of energy they have invested in society”. What can this possibly mean?  If the more energy you “invest in society” means the greater your reward how would this apply in the case of , say, the operator of JCB digger who uses her machine to dig a hole, compared to a manual labourer who uses merely a pick and shovel?  On the face of it one might be inclined to say that the former invests more energy in accomplishing this task than the latter – particularly if you take into account the fuel costs of the machine and amount of energy required to manufacture it (as distributed over the life time of the machine itself).  But (as we have already seen) this is not at all what Pena has in mind:

That some forms of work involve manipulation of higher quantities of energy than others does not entail that workers in these fields expend more of their own metabolic energy during their work or as part of their labor in acquiring and maintaining their skills; nor does it entitle them to more abundant and higher quality material expectations. The view that they “create” or manipulate higher energy fields is not a badge of entitlement.

So it is the amount of metabolic energy expended by workers which we referred to earlier — how many calories you burn up — that is essentially Pena’s criterion for compensating workers.  Sweaty, back-breaking, manual toil associated with digging a hole with a pick and shovel is to receive preferential treatment over, and rewarded more highly than, operating a JCB digger in Pena’s world.   I don’t know if David Pena has ever done hard physical labour – as a landscape gardener I actually do it for a living – but I can’t help noticing that this romanticising of physical labour tends to be a trait of “middle class” intellectuals who seem to do precious little of it themselves. It kind of reminds me of Jerome K Jerome’s witticism: “I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours”.

Frankly, I see no problem with using machines providing one doesn’t go overboard with this.  For instance, there is a strong case for applying small scale “appropriate” technologies, like rotavators and strimmers, to relieve the burden of back breaking toil and at the same time increase productivity , for instance, in the case of millions of peasant producers in the Global South.

But all this is by the by. If Pena wants to use the expenditure of an individual’s own metabolic energy as the criterion of compensation — though how he proposes to apply this criterion in practice is anyone’s guess — then he needs to be aware of the likely consequences of what he is advocating.  Above all, he needs to understand that it will encourage the substitution of more productive forms of labour using machinery by less productive and more labour intensive forms of production not least because of the greater incentive the latter has to offer insofar as it commands a higher level of compensation.  If so, that will in all likelihood mean a quite a significant decline in output.

We can see how this links up with the argument about material abundance being a precondition of Marxian socialism.  Without the technological potential to produce enough to satisfy people’s basic needs, the establishment of a socialist society becomes problematic if not downright impossible. Marx’s labour certificate scheme was predicated on precisely this insight.  In the early days of socialist society he speculated there would be not quite enough to go around to adequately meet the needs of everyone.  It was only when “all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly” that society could abandon this scheme and move on to implement fully the socialist principle of “from each according to ability to each according to need” – the system of free access and voluntaristic labour we associate with the higher phase of communism.

These speculations on Marx’s part relate to a possible future post-capitalist socialist world.  But the world in which Marx made these speculations was one in which the socio-economic system we call capitalism was still developing and had not yet fully matured.   Indeed, in contrast to today’s global capitalism vast chunks of the world back then in the mid-19th century still remained relatively untouched by the spread of the capitalist market economy.

It was in this context that the 1848 Communist Manifesto’s talked in such glowing terms of the way in which capitalism was developing the productive potential of society. It spoke candidly of the need “to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible” precisely because Marx and Engels believed this would hasten the day that a communist society could be established.  That was not an unreasonable argument to make given the circumstances of the times in which Marx was writing.  If the productive forces were not sufficiently developed to allow society to meet the needs of the people the result would be scarcity.  This would unleash a competitive scramble for goods – and greed as the inevitable product of a scarcity mind-set – that would likely undermine the entire communist project even assuming it could even be realised under these circumstances in the first place.

As they put in The German Ideology“This development of the productive forces is an absolutely necessary practical premise [of communism], because without it want is generalised, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means that all the old crap must revive.” (1846, Vol 1.)

I, for one, would be interested to learn what, if anything, Pena has in mind to put in place that might avert a revival of all that “old crap” in his version of an “ecological socialism”. For material scarcity is bad news for socialism and bad news for the environment as well.  Yet one gets the distinct impression that Pena scorns the need for a developed infrastructure and the opportunity to take advantage of the best that modern technology has to offer in favour of us all wearing hair shirts.

For scarcity is what Pena is urging us to embrace with all the stoicism of a Tibetan monk.  At least Tibetan monks have the charity of others to fall back upon for their means of subsistence but a whole society cannot depend on this.

We have already seen how the logic of what he is arguing for would result in a profligate waste of resources through the application of his own version of the law of value which he recommends for an “ecological socialist” society. Now we see how a decline in output is likely to be assured through the preferential treatment or compensation he proposes to accord sweaty manual labourers like myself based on our comparatively greater “expenditure of metabolic energy”.

What better inducement can there be for us to abandon the machines that lighten our toil than the fact that we would get paid more? But in abandoning the machines we also diminish our productivity and what we are able to produce. He should not be surprised if his hair-shirted proletarians rise up in protest as times get progressively harder.  Come back Pol Pot, all is forgiven.   There will seemingly be little need, or call for, desk-bound scientists, doctors and engineers, and little attraction for such occupations anyway, in David Pena’s utopia.

However, paradoxical though it may seem, the one thing that can kill off greed and the competitive scramble for goods that drives it, is abundance – or, to be more precise, the possibility for individuals to freely appropriate what they need without the barrier of market exchange.  Let me illustrate this with a practical example.

Some years ago I lived in a small spa town in southern Spain.  The water that flows non-stop into the numerous fountains dotted around the town is to all intents and purpose the same water that is bottled by the bottling plant located just outside the town that is then sold on to various supermarket chains throughout the region and beyond. The former is freely available to take without limit but you, frankly, don’t find the good citizens of the town frenetically rushing to the nearest fountain to fill up every available container they can lay their hands on.  There is simply no need to.  They know the water is always going to be available for them to take whenever they need to.  Curiously (under the circumstances) the bottled version of the same water is stocked in the local supermarket and, needless to say, comes with a price tag.

The free access to potable spring water that the town’s residents and visitors alike enjoy might well be taken as an exemplar of the principle of distribution in Marx’s higher phase of communism.  The point is that it works.  And there are multiple other examples of the same principle that can be found to work even under capitalism today.  People do adjust their behaviour to fit the material circumstances they find themselves in.

However, when Marx talked about all the “springs of co-operative wealth” flowing more abundantly in his higher phase of communism this should not be taken to mean that he had in mind some unlimited cornucopia of absolute abundance.  That particular gloss on the term is an idealised abstraction or reflex that springs from the basic precept of bourgeois or mainstream economics – the dogma that human wants are insatiable.  Given the allegedly insatiable nature of such wants abundance is unobtainable – unless you mean this idealised version of “absolute abundance” of literally everything and we all know that that is unobtainable. Therefore, goes the argument, “socialism is impossible”.  Case closed.

But is it? “Scarcity” according to this argument is built into the very concept of opportunity costs – namely, to do or to have X we must necessarily forego Y.   But this particular construction of scarcity is a trite truism.  It is what you might call “psychologically empty”.  Nevertheless it allows our budding undergraduate economist in the rarefied world of bourgeois economics to smugly maintain that socialism is a pipe dream since it presupposes that we will be able to do or to have both X and Y in order for socialism to be possible. In short, the disappearance of opportunity costs altogether.   Since this is indeed impossible then so too must socialism be impossible.

But this is not what socialists mean by “scarcity” or “abundance” at all.  The fact that I choose to play tennis in the afternoon does indeed mean I have to forego the opportunity to take a walk in the park at the same time or any other of the countless activities I could be doing. But in what sense, pray, is this going to present a problem?  Am I going spoil my game of tennis by fretting over the opportunity I have thereby foregone to engage in some other activity? Any reasonable person would surely think not.

Returning to Pena, it strikes me that his interpretation of how Marx viewed things is based on a complete caricature. Implicitly he seems to go along with reasoning of our bourgeois economists. Thus, he seems to think that the passage from Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme describing the higher phase of communist society implies “the continuation of productionism and consumerism (and why suppose any limits on procreation?) under communism, while the environmental implications remain unacknowledged”.  Note well that this marks him off as a critic of both Marx’s higher and lower phase of communism.  In short, communism (or socialism) as such.

He contends that the “ecocidal development” of the so called “socialist countries” exposes “environmental practices under socialism as no better than under capitalism overall”.  How he imagines these state capitalist regimes in any way resemble Marx’s conception of socialism I cannot say but, in any case, if he believes that environmental practices “under socialism” are so environmentally destructive, why then advocate for “ecological socialism”? The “socialism” part of this construction will surely be at odds with the “ecological” part, according to Pena’s logic.  Why pretend, then, to be an ecological socialist? Why not drop all claim to be a socialist if that is what you truly think of socialism?

It is an all too wearily familiar refrain from (some) environmentalists unfamiliar with Marx’s writings that he was sceptical or disbelieving of the notion of ecological limits and was religiously devoted to some promethean goal of unlimited “production for the sake of production”. However, there has been a veritable spate of books and articles published in recent decades that have utterly debunked the idea that Marx was unaware or unconcerned about the destructive impact of capitalist economic activity on environment.  I refer the reader to books such as Howard Parson’s Marx and Engels on Ecology (1977), Paul Burkett’s Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective (2014) and more recently still Kohei Saito’s Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy (2017).

Engels, Marx’s collaborator, was no less passionately committed to the environmental cause. In his Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy (1843) he observed how the private ownership of the land, the drive for profit and the degradation of nature all hang together. “To make earth an object of huckstering — the earth which is our one and all, the first condition of our existence — was the last step towards making oneself an object of huckstering” 

Forty years later in his The Dialectics of Nature (1883) he penned what is arguably one of the most beautiful and compelling passages of environmental prose one is likely to encounter:

Let us not, however,  flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor, and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that they were laying the basis for the present devastated condition of these countries, by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture. When, on the southern slopes of the mountains, the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were … thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, with the effect that these would be able to pour still more furious flood torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that they were at the same time spreading the disease of scrofula. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature — but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other beings of being able to know and correctly apply its laws.

Yet, astonishingly, Pena uncharitably dismisses such talk as a set of “disconnected ad hoc comments” that “do not amount to a mature theoretical treatment of and comprehensive policy toward ecological issues

But did not the Communist Manifesto argue for the need “to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible” you might ask.

Certainly it did. But in no way can this be construed, as Pena attempts to construe it, as a rallying cry for unlimited production for the sake of production and consumption for the sake of consumption.  In fact, that claim makes no sense at all.  The whole point of the exercise was to raise the productive potential of society to the point at which the reasonable needs of the population can be adequately met, at which point the competitive pressure on our natural resource arising out of material scarcity can then begin to ease off. The notion of “limit” is implicit in the very logic of the argument itself. Arguing for the need to increase production up to a certain point cannot be squared with the idea of unlimited production or production for the sake of production.

Unless we can increase production up to that point where our basic needs can be adequately met it is inevitable that, in the words of The German Ideology, all “the old crap must revive” and Pena has singularly failed to demonstrate in any way whatsoever how the revival of the old crap can be averted in his scenario and thereby doom his own version of “ecological socialism” to failure.  A truly ecological socialist society has also to be a post scarcity society.

As stated, in Marx’s time the prospect of a post scarcity was not on the cards. This perhaps helps to account for some of the more questionable ideas he put forward – like his labour certificate scheme — which socialists today are under no obligation to go along with.  Nevertheless, he and Engels were sensitive to ongoing developments in their time and not dogmatically attached to what they had previously written. Thus, in the 1872 Preface to Communist Manifesto we find them saying:

The practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states, everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II. That passage would, in many respects, be very differently worded today. In view of the gigantic strides of Modern Industry since 1848, and of the accompanying improved and extended organization of the working class, in view of the practical experience gained, first in the February Revolution, and then, still more, in the Paris Commune, where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months, this programme has in some details been antiquated

The mention here of the “gigantic strides of Modern Industry since 1848” is a reference to the growing productive potential of modern industry to supply the population with their means of subsistence.  Socialists today would argue that this productive potential to create a post scarcity society has been around for at least a century.  Consequently, there is no need to defer socialism on the grounds that that productive forces need to be “further developed” as Marx and Engels had argued in their time.

Even in their time they were able to detect the growing contradiction between what society was able to produce and what it profitably allows to be produced.  Even as early as 1848 they noted in their Manifesto that in the guise of economic crises “there breaks out an epidemic that in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity – the epidemic of overproduction”. Increasingly, the problem that capitalism has to contend with is its ability to produce too much, not too little, by its own yardstick of what is “too much”.  An oversupply of commodities in relation to what the market demands causes prices to fall and along with that, profits.  Pena may dismiss the concept of a contradiction as metaphysical mumbo jumbo but for the workers laid off when it is no longer profitable to employ them in the face of glutted markets, that contradiction is all too tangible.

Since Marx the contradiction between what society actually produces and its potential to adequately meet human needs has, if anything grown exponentially.  In fact, the existence of such things as empty homes alongside homeless people or the destruction of food to boost prices in the face of starvation is only one small aspect of the sheer waste of capitalism.  More significant still is the fact that the bulk of economic activity carried on in capitalism today has nothing to do with meeting human need at all.  It has simply to do with meeting the systemic needs of capitalism itself and with enabling this system to tick over.

The entire financial sector is one among many examples of capitalism’s steadily growing, and already enormous, “structural waste” which diverts vast quantities of materials and labour into activities that are completely irrelevant and useless from the standpoint of meeting human needs.  Yet you will never grasp the full extent of this waste unless you view it through the prism of a perspective informed by Marx’s notion of full communism – a society in which individuals produce directly to satisfy their human needs rather than for sale on the market.

The ecological implications of this argument are absolutely huge yet Pena seems to have not the slightest inkling of any of this.  He does not understand that simply by virtue of fundamentally changing the mode of production to a fully socialist or communist one (in the Marxian sense) and thereby eliminating the enormous structural waste of capitalism we can, in one stroke, significantly increase the output of socially useful wealth and, at the same time, significantly reduce the pressure we currently exert on the environment.  We can produce more with much less by diverting all those massive quantities of material and human resources that we currently waste on socially useless production into socially useful production.

However, it is not just a question of supply.  Scarcity – or abundance – is a function of both supply and demand. I am reminded of Marshall Sahlin’s seminal work Stone Age Economics: the original Affluent Society (1972) in which he talked of there being two possible routes to affluence:

Wants may be “easily satisfied” either by producing much or desiring little. The familiar conception, the Galbraithean way, makes assumptions peculiarly appropriate to market economies: that man’s wants are great, not to say infinite, whereas his means are limited, although improvable: thus, the gap between means and ends can be narrowed by industrial productivity, at least to the point that “urgent goods” become plentiful. But there is also a Zen road to affluence, departing from premises somewhat different from our own: that human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate. Adopting the Zen strategy, a people can enjoy an unparalleled material plenty-with a low standard of living.

I would argue that Marxian socialism represents a kind of dialectical fusion or interplay of both these approaches to achieving affluence.  Marx’s humanism is predicated on the belief that we are fundamentally social animals at heart and that we are capable of recognising our basic interdependence as individuals and act upon this in ways that encourage responsibility to each other and towards our natural environment upon which we all depend. Our attitude towards nature is conditioned by our attitude towards each other.  As C S Lewis once said: “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument”.  The Abolition of Man, 1843.)

The kind of society we live in today, however, makes it difficult for such an outlook to take hold and gain a footing.  When a multi-billion dollar global advertising industry relentlessly eggs us on to buy yet more stuff and insidiously drip feeds into us a sense of personal inadequacy that can only be assuaged through that curious ritual that goes by the name of retail therapy, we know we are in the presence of powerful forces bent on shaping and moulding our view of the world to fit its own particular agenda — the maximisation of profit.

Such is the expansionist dynamic built into a system of market competition.   Capitalism is a zero sum game in which one business enterprise must seek to capture a larger slice of the market at the expense of another or go under. This is the material basis of Pena’s “productionism” — production for the sake of production — in a profit driven economy in which the overriding imperative is to accumulate more and more capital out of profit in order to stay ahead of the competition.  Its natural corollary is “consumption for the sake of consumption”.

Consumerism, as this is called, is inextricably intertwined with the very existence of capitalism, with the very existence of production for sale on the market.  Individual business desperately seek to increase what they can sell on the market even if the contradictory nature of capitalism is such that in their individual effort to produce and sell more they collectively bring about a state of affairs in which the markets for what they blindly produce become glutted.

Notwithstanding Pena’s claim that if we “cannot understand and measure value, then we cannot implement the principle, and if we cannot do that, then we cannot have socialism” it is only in the context of production for the market that the need to “understand and measure value” arises.  It arises because of the need to ensure that market exchanges are the exchanges of equivalents – to go right back to what was said at the outset of this article. Value in the specific economic sense of exchange value has no purpose in a society without market exchange. So what Pena is saying in effect is that we need a market economy.  He would do well to remember what that entails.

Production for the market, as we have seen, nurtures individualist values just as it undermines collectivist values.  But if we put ourselves at the centre of the universe and have little or no regard for the wellbeing of others what is there to restrain us from seeking to accumulate without limit and in the process inflict damage on the environment?

In the acquisitive society that is market capitalism the status of an individual, the esteem in which she is held, tends to boil to her wealth and her conspicuous consumption of such wealth.  No amount of moralising against the “consumerism” of the average citizen is going to prove effective when we live in a world in which a tiny handful of multi-billionaires — the very exemplars of “capitalist success” which we are urged to look up to and strive to become — own more wealth than half this world’s population combined, this grotesque inequality being the very product of market capitalism itself.

In stark contrast, Marx’s vision of a socialist society renders such a notion of “status” completely meaningless simply by virtue of the fact that each and every individual has free access to those goods and services she requires.  Actually, the only way in which you can earn the respect and esteem of your fellows in such a society would be through what you contribute to it, not what you take out of it.

This is yet another point that Pena has completely overlooked in his assault on Marxian socialism and I suspect that is because he has not really grasped what this entails. If he seriously wants to address the problem of consumerism he needs to get the root cause.  It is not by stridently lecturing the ordinary man or woman in the street struggling to make ends meet, on the moral virtues of abandoning consumerism that you will make progress,  Rather, it is by organising collectively in our own interests to create a different kind of society that we will achieve that.

Thus,  it is both from the standpoint of supply as well as from the standpoint of demand that Marxian socialism recommends itself as the most appropriate and most direct route to a truly ecological society that Pena doubtless desires but has no way of realising if his ill-informed critique of Marx is anything to go by.

Robin Cox is a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (Britain’s oldest socialist party, formed in 1904).  He lives in Southern Spain and does landscape gardening and ground maintenance for a living. Robin can be reached at Read other articles by Robin.