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By Erik Swyngedouw and Giorgos Kallis *

Erik Swyngedouw and Giorgos Kallis discuss potentialities and limits of nature’s “free work” for Marx’s labour theory of value.

Giorgos Kallis: Erik, I remember you arguing that you cannot accept that bees do labour and contribute to value. What is the main Marxist argument against accepting the simple — in my view — fact that nature does work?

Erik Swyngedouw : Marx uses three forms of value: “Use-value,” the physical-organic-sensory that have a use to someone. Honey definitely has a use value. “Exchange-value” is what permits universal exchange. What permits the making of a universal market exchange of equivalents is “Value,” the “socially necessary labour time” (SNLT) (or the average time) to produce a commodity under given social and technical conditions. Of course, the latter change all of the time (influence of competition and class struggle), usually getting lower (as it takes less time to produce a commodity).

Honey, as the work of bees, has both use-value and exchange-value, but no Value. Capitalists are not interested in use-value per se; they are interested in surplus value. Labour power, also a commodity, produces more Value during a given period than the value of labour power itself. This difference is surplus value. This reasoning holds only for capitalism.

I do not produce Value when I work in my garden; a hunter-gatherer in Amazonia does not produce Value. Labour is the capacity to work and we all have that. But only labour power has Value, as the socially necessary labour time to reproduce labour, which is bought by the capitalists for a certain time. The capitalists’ trick is that labour power produces more value than the labour required to reproduce. No surplus value, no profit and no capitalism.

Bees, microbes, algae, rivers do all sorts of useful labour. For wild honey, the price that the one who takes it from the beehive gets is Rent (he gets a price for the honey because he owns it/appropriated it). The bees worked “for free.”


Source: Almanac.

The argument that we often have about non-human labour is inspired by a moral injunction to recognize the great contribution that bees etc. make to life. That is undisputed. But Marx was trying to explain exploitation, the production of surplus value, while maintaining the equivalence of exchange.

GK: Erik, my argument is not moral. It is analytical on the understanding that Marx’s theory of value is meant to explain capitalism and not pre-capitalist forms of economic organization. The question is whether it misses something by designating non-human labour as “rent” or an exogenous “productivity increase.”

Say that your “product,” or service, is moving a cart 10 km. You would move it with your own legs and it would take 5 hours of SNLT. Say now you harness the work of 10 horses and you move the cart in half an hour instead. SNLT declines to 0.5 hours. Aren’t 4.5 hours of SNLT equivalent to the work done by 10 horses?

Now, imagine you have oil, and you power with 1 gallon a 50 horsepower car engine. SNLT falls from 5 hours to 10 minutes — the difference is work done by oil. The car produced with oil has an equivalent value of 5 hrs SNLT, but the workers get back only the wage necessary to socially reproduce 10 minutes of work. So the capitalist appropriates surplus also from the free work of fossil fuels (or before, horses).

Capitalists are appropriating free work and free value from the commons that should not be theirs (gifts of nature should belong to everyone). If we accept that Value is not produced only by humans, but also by ecosystems, then the worker is robbed not only of her work, but also robbed of the work freely made available by the commons.

You classify this free work appropriated from nature as “rent.” But this rent does not accrue only to the property owners of oil (e.g. Saudi Arabia). It is distributed along the chain where car and transportation companies take a share of it. Capitalists would “invest” even when surplus value extracted directly from human labour is low (or even negative), insofar as they can get a big enough share of the “rent” from fossil fuels.

It is precisely because of the free work provided by fossil fuels that the living standards of workers have improved significantly in some parts of the world. I find it confusing to call this rent.

ES: I fully agree that bees, horses or oil — their use-value — have this wonderful capacity to increase “productivity” for labour power, in strict analogy to technology. What you forget, I think, is to consider what happened to our poor horses: they became basically worthless. Socially necessary labour time is revolutionary, i.e. geographically and historically extremely variable as a result of class struggle and inter-capitalist competition. The desperate search for new forces of production is one of the manifestations of this. So, what was worth something (has Value) today is worthless (is de-valorised) tomorrow. This is the only way capitalism can survive.

In your example, the Value of the commodities falls massively after the introduction of oil. SNLT for Marx is the average time it takes to produce a commodity under given technological and social conditions. Nonetheless, the latter change all the time. The overall outcome is the gradual lowering of the average and, hence, the lowering of Value. For example, if we magically find a new easy and productive source of energy (say fusion energy), oil will become worthless and will stay in the soil forever. Climate crisis over.

To paraphrase Marx, capital robs the fertility of the soil and the power of the worker. The possibility of doing so, I would argue, resides precisely in the exclusive ownership of nature under capitalism (private property). That is why capitalism systematically attempts to enclose the commons. In a common or communal regime of engaging with nature, capitalism would not be possible. The decision about what sorts of nature to use by whom and for what purpose would have to be a political process (and not an economic process rooted in private ownership).

Source: 123rf.

About rent, yes, rent depends on how and to whom rent is distributed. The point is to distinguish rent from value production. Rent does not produce new Value. Labour power does.

Marxists are acutely aware of the work done by nature — it is vital, a productive power offered “free.” The ownership of nature is both parasitic and vital for the reproduction of capitalism. This is also illustrated by the hopeless attempts to value nature in monetary terms, where impossible intellectual and institutional pirouettes (carbon off-sets, ecosystem services) have to be instituted. The law of Value cannot assign a value to “nature” without involving a truly Stalinist-bureaucratic institutional structure.

GK: First, if in the future there is less free work from fossil fuels, then SNLT will increase dramatically. You can’t see this if your theory takes such changes as given, or as some exogenous “productivity change.” Second, the concept of rent has a passive connotation — an indirect exploitation. It doesn’t capture the importance and energizing role this free work from nature has. I insist that the work done by nature should be integrated within the core of your theory of Value production under capitalism, not delegated to the margins, with concepts like productivity or rent.

ES: The word “given” should be understood as a historically produced condition at a specific moment in time and place — of course, in constant flux. I fully agree that rent is a purely distributional category. And that nature contributes massively to reducing SNLT. But nature is not valued at all. Capitalism cannot reproduce the natural conditions of its own production. That is why capitalism is by definition destructive of nature. Smart capitalists now desperately try to diminish their dependence on nature (solar energy, or wind do not require socio-physical reproduction). I doubt they will succeed — this search itself comes at an extraordinary social, economic and environmental cost.   

The extraordinary productive powers of, say, oil, disappears in the pockets of all sorts of people, including of course the expanding middle classes (if class struggle is successfully fought by the working class). Nothing of it returns to nature in any way.

GK: Could we say then that resources “produce” value? If not, why not? In a sense it is the equivalent of exploitation of labour but to the extreme, since oil is exploited beyond the limit and without any concern for its reproduction.

I remember you saying on a different occasion that oil increased “total value” (by which I guess you meant Gross Domestic Product [GDP]). In Marxist terms though, oil decreases Value because it reduces the SNLT, no? It is this type of counter-intuitive terminology that confuses me in Marxist theory. Would it be helpful at least to distinguish between “total value produced” from Value in the strict Marxian terms of SNLT? Then at least we would have a language to say that while total value increases as more and more work of value is done by fossil fuels, “Value” decreases.

ES: Resources may indeed change in value depending on SNLT to get them into useful products (i.e. from crude oil in the soil to the gasoline pump). But I would not use the word “exploitation” for oil; I would use “destruction.”

Concerning “total value”: it is important to put this in the context of capitalism’s dynamics of extended reproduction. Total value does make sense (and GDP is a good proxy for that). Accumulation of capital is nothing else than the self-expansion of Value (economic growth). The introduction of a new technology or new resources reduces the labour time of the products at the beginning only for the capitalist who introduces it. When the new resource becomes generalised, the SNLT (the average time to produce a commodity) begins to fall (falling prices) and surplus value begins to fall. The whole sequence will then have to start again with more productive technologies or resources. So, it is not the case that unproductive societies/capitalists produce more Value — that is Marx’s great insight compared with Ricardo. It is the average that counts and that changes all the time.

GK: Let me go back to the point of productivity. I think there is some fetishization going on. Who produces “productivity?” Productivity involves both the immense free work captured by nature and technological development. Technologies, though, can only be moved by human or non-human work.

I wonder what would a labour theory of value look like if one started from the premise that value is produced from whoever does work (human or non-human, paid or unpaid) and then draw the implications from there.

ES: There are indeed remaining problems with Marx’s Labour Theory of Value and its relation to nature. I fully agree that the picture would look completely different if nature would be “valued.” Indeed, we should keep on insisting that nature is “valued” in very specific ways under capitalism such that it becomes increasingly destroyed. It is not Marxist theory that has limits, it is the actual practice and workings of capitalism that have gigantic limits. And with respect to nature, it is precisely that it is not valued.

I doubt any valuation system can be implemented that would account for the real value of nature in a way that is compatible with the survival of capitalism except for limited experiments. In fact, a different valuation that would recognize and value nature as a “commons” would correspond to the end of capitalism, shifting the dominant organizing form from economic valuation to democratic political intermediation and collective decision. This is where the key battle resides.

Whether you or I are right or wrong about value under capitalism, it has limited effect on what needs to be done to change the system to a more humane and ecologically sane order. For me, the key ingredients to get there are:

  • Getting rid of the trans-generational hereditary transmission of wealth/assets
  • Getting rid of the separation between mental and manual labour
  • Getting rid of the liberal nation-state as we know it today
  • Organise the management of the commons in equal, democratic and self-governing manner
  • Getting rid of the private ownership of nature.

* Erik Swyngedouw is Professor of Geography at the University of Manchester. Giorgos Kallis is Professor of Ecological Economics at ICTA, Barcelona.

This exchange was originally published on the web version of Capitalism Nature Socialism – CNS Web.