The Alienation and Commodification of Nature: Fighting the Fallacious Fetishism of Contemporary Frameworks through a Revolutionary Transition

Tanya Ahuja (tanyaahuja94@gmail.com) is pursuing M.A. (Hons.) Social Sciences from ISSER, Panjab University, Chandigarh.
4 May 2022

With the frantically incessant economic production activity that apparently projects no end, the human-nature relationship seems to have come full circle. As man agonises being manacled by natural constraints, in the form of planetary ecological crises, he stands to be the alleged culprit. For analytical coherence, this paper is divided into four sections. The first section elucidates, through a Marxist perspective of ecology, how the unheeded capitalistic socio-economic course of human action has engendered the alienation of nature itself, which in turn is posing fatal afflictions, conspicuous through compelling phenomena like climate change. Following it is a discussion on the repercussions of commodification of nature. The third section brings out the dichotomous reasoning evident in redundant environmental policy frameworks and paradigms in India. Accentuating the dialectical relationship between sociology and ecology, it explicates, in advocacy for the contemporary “have-nots,” the need to constantly heed the multidimensionality of sustainability, also discernible in the Sustainable Development Goals. On these lines, finally, the course of a “revolutionary transition,” to reinstate a progressive human-nature nexus, is expounded. As a way forward, the paper suggests eschewing the repudiation and outright denial of the prevailing ‘problem of production’ and the need for a sagacious dialogue, in order to mount radical action in response to the looming environmental threats. 

Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side. (Schumacher 2011: 10-11)

Introduction 

Today, the Marxian maxim “History repeats itself. The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce” (Marx and Paul 1978: 1) seems to have come true. In primitive communist societies, as Karl Marx called it, people were more strongly bound by natural constraints, rather than the social ones.  Compared to other animals, human beings are poorly adapted to the natural world, and the only way to adapt ourselves is by changing it and working cooperatively to survive. This is labour. As we labour, we change the world around us and gradually free ourselves from the natural restraints. Nevertheless, as we emancipate ourselves from natural limitations, we entangle ourselves in social reins. 

Schumacher (2011: 10), the proponent of Buddhist Economics, warned that the consensus among academics and professionals on the notion that “the problem of production” has been solved is a perilous one. The central question of freedom, in Marxism, is the question of labour: how it is organised, who benefits and what changes occur over time. Materialist conception of history by Marx is inevitably linked to the materialist conception of nature, comprising not only the critical appraisal of political economy, but also the critique of the natural-scientific revolutions of his times (Foster and Clark 2016: 1). The alienation of labour and of nature, and the obsession with commodity fetishism call for revamping policy frameworks, and also a collaboration towards a “Great Transition” (Foster 2015).

The Alienation of Nature: An “Impoverished” Thing?

The Marxian notions of alienation of labour and the alienation of nature, both, were grounded in the understanding of the politico-economic thrust in a capitalist society (Foster 2000: 73–74). In order to comprehend how alienation leaves nature impoverished, a concise explanation of the Marxian notion of alienation of labour is indispensable. 

The experience of alienation, central to Marxian theory of class conflict, is the experience of “loss of freedom” (Jha 2009: 218). The workers caught in the vicious cycle of exploitation, devoid of escape, lose contentment in work, and thereafter, work becomes an enforced task, rather than a creative and a satisfying activity (Rao 2012: 689).  The responsibility and interest of the worker get diminished because they own neither the tools with which they work, nor the final product. They area mere cog in a machine.  For Marx, alienated labour, deviated from the essence of “species-being” (Marx and Engels 2009), encompasses four aspects, namely the alienation from the product, the process, the self and others (Kain and Neas 1993: 135-36) in the community. Thus, alienation is “that condition when man does not experience himself as the active bearer of his own powers and richness, but as an impoverished ‘thing’ dependent on powers outside of himself” (Fromm 1955: 59).  This predicament of alienation intensifies the mood of the worker for a conflict. 

According to Marx, the labour and the production process were defined as the metabolism of nature and society. Hence, the rudimentary conceptual framework intrinsic in Marx’s thought was a “non-alienated triadic relation of humanity, social metabolism and universal metabolism of nature” (Foster and Clark 2016: 3). Today, it is evident through the alarming figures that are talked through in global conferences, that the earth’s capacity to soak the filthy by-products and negative externalities of “global capitalism’s voracious metabolism is maxing out” (Klein 2014: 177-186). Nature too, when alienated, from its own natural product, process, self and its web of species, owing to the ensuing entropy, prepares for conflict.              

Nature and society are irreducible. Foster (2016) explains that metabolic rift is based on a non-dualistic, materialist dialectic open system.  It refutes a widespread social monism in post-humanist political ecology (Napoletano et al 2018: 92). Many scholars have suggested refraining from sectarianism in metabolic-rift scholarship and engaging in the pursuit of hybridisation of their concepts with dominant post-humanist paradigms (Napoletano et al 2018: 92; White et al 2017).

Modifying and Commodifying Nature 

Commodity Fetishism, in Marxism implies that labour power itself becomes a commodity influenced by the evolution of the capitalist economy, which metamorphoses the personal, social and emotional nature of labour relations into an independent, external and objective thing (Martineau and Lafontaine 2019: 489).  They are endowed with a life of their own (Jha 2009: 222), and “this fetishism attaches itself to the products of labor as soon as they are produced as commodities” (Marx 1990: 165).

In a capitalist society, according to Marx, even if a thing has a use value, it will not be produced unless it has exchange value (Jha 2009: 221-22), which is determined by the amount of human labour embodied in it. But as the world of commodities becomes dominant, we begin to see the commodity as having value in itself, and we devalue the contribution of those who made the commodity (Marx 2009).

The fetishism of commodities and value that typifies capitalism, for Marx, is evident in “its abstraction from human needs” (Napoletano et al 2018: 94). David Harvey (2017) asserts that the potential of capital to adjust its accumulation strategies and profit from “sustainability fixes” often aggravates, rather than reconciling, the capital’s crises of human development, which are not reducible to “the madness of economic reason.”        

Fetishism of commodified nature not only demeans its essence but also makes it difficult for ethical consumers to be effective both in their evaluation of objects available and in influencing the world around them (Carrier 2010: 672). Nature is not presented as a concrete and constantly singular entity, but as a commodified good or merchandise, rendered the same everywhere (MacKenzie 2009: 440-55). Attributing such a form to nature tends to shape people's consciences. It is this aspect that is substantiated by the concept of reification (Martineau and Lafontaine 2019: 489–90).

Reification is a process in which certain entities or social relations take on the character of a thing by being illusorily considered and treated as mere quantifiable objects, concealing the human origin of these entities or human relations (Lukács 1971: 83).  The concept of reification can help elucidate how the process of commodifying nature and transforming it into a good, tradable or exchangeable, in the market, affects the inter-subjective meaning of it to individuals, who are ushered to construe nature from a solely utilitarian angle, thereby losing their affective and emotional relationship with nature (Martineau and Lafontaine 2019: 492).
 

Fetishism of Frameworks: Overcoming the Obsession with Obsoleteness in India

Napoletano et al (2018) identify the need for clarifying the “conceptual confusion” in the “theoretical antagonism” regarding the metabolic rift and its material-dialectical approach to human alienation, the socio-ecological contradictions, crises of capital accumulation and human development. More formidable is the divide between the theoretical and philosophical debates and environmental policy frameworks which reify nature and denaturalise culture. 

Albeit the political economy of the developing countries with welfare orientation does not permit the neglect of the needs of the poor, and notwithstanding that the developed countries are majorly the contributors for global environmental issues, the developing world cannot afford to remain oblivious of its own environmental degradation (Vyas and Reddy 1998: 48). Along with China and the United States (US), India is a major emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs). This makes India among the most important nations in shaping the course of global climate negotiations and in the exploration of sustainable practices (Saryal 2018: 2). Kumar and Naik (2019) allege India of a “Janus-like dualism” towards climate change, for the absence of comprehensive legislation, or an updated policy document that effectively guides the country’s commitments under the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. 

Numerous large-scale development projects, ranging from infrastructure, energy and mining projects (Das 2015) afflict livelihoods of the poorest, especially the women (Bisht 2009), and aggravate inequalities, by displacing a substantial number of inhabitants without sufficient compensation. Lower-caste tribal communities located on these lands and forests have suffered inordinately from “development-induced displacement and environmental destruction in India” (Amnesty International 2016). Marx placed great emphasis on the fact that natural resources are often treated as a “free gift of Nature to capital” (Marx and Engels 2009), and this leads to the fatal blunder of believing that the “problem of production” has been solved (Schumacher 2011: 10).

Mining projects and extractive industries aggravate inequalities in rural areas and have adverse impacts on the poor , namely no access to clean water, unemployment and alcoholism (Bhanumathi 2002).  Conflicts have become frequent between mining projects and lower castes living in forest areas, who demand land titles and rights over forest resources. According to Amnesty International, nearly 70% of coal is located in central and eastern India (Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha) where over 26 million people of lower-caste communities, accounting for nearly 25% of the Adivasi population in India, live. Greenpeace notes that the government has weakened environmental legislation, allowed mining in protected forests, land acquisition and approved mine extensions without adequate social or environmental impact assessment (Burton and Fernandes 2016).

There is also a gap between legislation and effective implementation. Consequently, the third sector, non-governmental organisations, have expanded their environmental awareness generating activities (Vyas and Reddy 1998: 48). Almost half-a-century-old legislations like Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981 and the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 implemented through several governmental departments and specialised regulatory institutions, require an integrative and coordinated policy framework. 

Nevertheless, India is taking steps to ensure that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are used as an opportunity to redefine the development paradigm for structuring an egalitarian and environmentally sustainable society. Climate justice is useful in overcoming the ambivalence in foundational values in policies. Primarily, climate justice views climate change as being something beyond merely a scientific phenomenon or concept. It accentuates the gaps in the equity dimensions of climate change (Adams and Luchsinger 2009) especially among communities of most susceptible castes and classes.  It recognises the socio-ecological inseparability and provides for a rights-based approach to development. 

Towards Sustainability: Radical Action for Revolutionary Transition 

John Bellamy Foster (2015:1) argues that for a socio-ecological “Great Transition,” we must organise struggles for “radical reforms” in the current times that question the devastation of capital. To implement the long “revolutionary transition,” a broad movement, essential for human existence and sustained development of humanity, is to be mounted. 

The concepts of universal metabolism of nature, the social metabolism, and the metabolic rift, contributing invaluably to systems ecology scholarship, proposed by Marx, have provided constructive arguments for modelling the interrelation of capitalism vis-à-vis its wider ecological system. Marx defined socialism in terms of a process of sustainable human development: an imperative of preserving the environment for future generations, with the greatest possible development of human freedom and potential. As a result, socialism demanded that the associated producers intelligently regulate the metabolism of nature and society. This perspective is inextricably entwined with the critique that Marx voiced against the capital class society (Foster 2015: 3).

Marx’s critique of capitalism was founded on contemporary ecological concerns (Napoletano et al 2018: 93). An evident instance of metabolic rift is provided through his examination of issues pertaining to soil fertility and urban contamination associated with capitalist agriculture and urbanisation (Marx 1990). Through his materialist-dialectical approach, Marx recognised these issues as being organically associated with the economic impoverishment and exploitation of the working class (Foster 2000).

Through an “ecodemocratic” course, and denunciation of the logic of capital accumulation, countries, especially the richer ones, need to shift to an economy persisting within solar budgets and without net capital formation.  Foster (2015: 9) suggests a carbon-fee-and-dividend system, a ban on coal-fired plants and unconventional fossil fuels, a vast shift to solar and wind power and other sustainable energy.

By definition, transformation entails reshaping development frameworks as a result of a shifting global political economy controlled by neo-liberal capitalism and increasingly authoritarian inclinations (Pelling 2011) including “radical shifts” and directional steps in technical as well as normative dimensions of culture, development and risk management (Pelling et al 2015). In this perspective, transformation delves into the deeper and veiled roots of unsustainability, brimming in social, cultural, economic and political spheres (Temper et al 2018).

Conclusions 

The multidimensional forward and backward linkages and the negative externalities of the problem of production and economic activity, in practicality, remain unheeded to a large extent, while impact assessments exhibit little efficacy in curtailing substantial environmental degradation. The Marxian canon of political ecology provides insights, through concepts like alienation and commodification, which not only help analyse the impact of capitalistic trends on nature but also nudge human beings to refine collective conscience and to unite for cooperative action. Transformation to sustainability entails a shift from scarcity discourses to a political discernment of resources and sustainability (Scoones 2016). Therefore, if reform is to be realised in an empowering and pro-poor manner, a truly political perspective that exposes, problematises, and combats the perpetuation of negative power relations is indispensable (Gillard et al 2016). Moreover, a call for a “red-green dialogue” is must for the development of a movement that seeks the end of the exploitation of both labour and the earth (Gimenez 2000).

 

Tanya Ahuja (tanyaahuja94@gmail.com) is pursuing M.A. (Hons.) Social Sciences from ISSER, Panjab University, Chandigarh.
4 May 2022