c) Commodification, the permanent war of capital against nature
The bourgeoisie, whose base depended more on trade than on manufactures, in the era of monarchical absolutism, had a seigneurial vision of the land: it was bought, carefully maintained, in the hope of obtaining a nobiliary plot of land. For Descartes, in his Discours de la méthode, it was a question of “making us as masters and possessors of Nature.” (1) The term possession had the old Roman meaning of using and thus abusing these goods (usare/abutere), with no other limit than its dilapidation, if it was not managed “as a good father of the family”. (2)
The bourgeoisie who conquered the world covered its greed, its unquenchable thirst for possession and domination with a religious veil, drawing from the Bible, its bedside book, where it was written: “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the Earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the sky and over every animal that creeps upon the earth.”
But the bourgeois class that subjected the world to its inflexible power interpreted this passage from Genesis in its own way: multiply to obtain cheap hands for industry and large estates, subject all living things to your omnipotence, and if it is necessary to “naturally” submit to the law of competition, destroy men and property by iron and fire to make way for those chosen by the divine Darwinian natural selection: the strongest, the most able, Western and Japanese capital.
The Marxists, when capitalism imposed itself everywhere in all its destructive inhumanity, were careful – like Engels (1882) – to point out that the conquests of class societies over nature were turning, always (and even more so under the reign of capital) against the whole of humanity:
“Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. (…) The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year (…) 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 creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly”. (3)
At the beginning of the industrial era, a classical economist, such as Jean-Baptiste Say, a cotton industrialist, could naively argue that the enterprise of abduction of wealth by capital was finally justified, because everything was free and inexhaustible like a horn of plenty: “Natural wealth is inexhaustible because without it we would not get it for free. Since they cannot be multiplied, they are not the object of economics.” (4)
Carried by the false intoxication of the “fall of communism” in 1989, by the parousia (5) of the “end of history”, Capital – through the pen of the mediocre ideologist Francis Fukuyama – believed it had finally reached the land of plenty, a new America where wealth would be as unlimited as the desires of consumers, drugged by an incessant technological revolution. This was to be the triumph of the “democracy” of the sacrosanct commodity: “Technology makes possible an unlimited accumulation of wealth and thus the satisfaction of human desires that know no bounds.” (6)
Drunkenness quickly fell back. Let us consider real Capital, and not the Idea of an imaginary capital, as hallucinated by Fukuyama and his incense carriers. During these thirty years of crazy accumulation of pseudo-wealth intended to feed the world’s immense toxic dumps, the system’s spokesmen have had to face the facts: natural wealth is not inexhaustible, it is not automatically and infinitely generated. So-called “human” desires seem limitless only for the richest 1% who own 45% of the world’s wealth, while they are infra-human for half of the world’s population who live on less than $5.5 a day.
Under “obese” and toxic capitalism, nothing is free, everything is counted and weighed. Everything has to be paid for to the nearest penny for the sole benefit of a capital, private and/or public, which owns almost everything. The collective possessions of the old agrarian communities (“the commons”) belong to the prehistory of the system. The commodification of the Earth has become generalized and globalized. This commodification follows the unbridled cycle of the transformation of money into merchandise, of the transformation of every human being (including the smallest part of his body), of every animal, of every plant into money. All human activities are commodities that must be paid for at the lowest price, all the more so since unemployment puts excessive pressure on wages. Globalization is the instrumentalization of all elements of life (animal and vegetable), of everything in the ecosystem that can be priced on the market [waters, soils, polluted air (reduced to CO2 equivalents)].
High-tech capitalism has reduced human action to mere merchandising. The world market for education, which was valued at $2 trillion fifteen years ago, would be around $4 trillion in 2013, and for medicines $1 trillion. Up until the market for pollinating insects (such as bees), which are dying under the effect of Bayer/Monsanto pesticides, everything is priced: it accounts for 30% of the world’s food base value. The “contribution” (sic) of these insects to agricultural production is estimated to be in the order of $200 billion each year. Scientists, dollarized to the marrow by a system that pays them fatly, have even given the Earth a price. For them, it is not as priceless as human life and life itself: it can be listed on the stock market for $5 trillion; each potential land shareholder would weigh at least $15 billion… (7)
All these delirious astronomical calculations, straight out of a lunatic asylum, cannot hide the unbearable reality: the accelerated destruction of life on earth. Biodiversity has been in free fall over the past 30 years or so: vertebrates’ ranges have shrunk (32%); the mass of insects has decreased (75% in Germany and elsewhere); populations of birds settling in agricultural areas have decreased by 30% in less than 20 years; decline of the populations and shared ranges by 42% of terrestrial animals and plants in Europe and Central Asia are declining in Europe and Central Asia. In spite of the big capital’s purchase of “scientific” complacency and virtuoso fake-news media, the reality is there, stubbornly: species extinctions have increased 100-fold since 1900, at a rate unmatched since the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Since its origin, the capitalist system has waged a sneaky war against nature, which became a permanent declaration of war in the atomic age and in the cursed times of the Bayer/Monsanto.
This war is, like any war, presented as an innocent enterprise for peace: “War is peace!” (Orwell, 1984). Ideologically, this war began with Eisenhower’s 1953 campaign “Atoms for Peace”. A secret program, grotesquely called Plowshare, launched in 1957 by the Atomic Energy Commission, proposed digging a second Panama Canal through Nicaragua (the “Pan-Atomic Canal”) using 300 nuclear bombs. A Plan B suggested burying 764 bombs on a line through Colombia and… to light the fuse. A year later, the Eisenhower administration studied the use of the H-bomb to build an artificial harbor at Cape Thompson in Alaska. Not lacking imagination to develop the public works market, the atomic authorities proposed to build an atomic highway through the Bristol Mountains (California desert). In Colorado, in September 1969, the Americans used the A-bomb to extract gas, a gas that turned out to be unmarketable. (8)
Soviet state capitalism – jokingly or complacently called “real socialism” – was not outdone. The criminal prosecutor of the Moscow Trials, Andrei Vychinsky, appointed ambassador to the United Nations, had made the same speech in November 1949 on “the Atom in the service of peace”, even of life:
“Although the Soviet Union has as many bombs as necessary in the unfortunate circumstances of war, it uses atomic energy to serve its internal economy, exploding mountains (sic), changing the course of rivers, irrigating deserts (sic), putting life (sic) in regions where man has never set foot.” (9)
The Soviet-Russian ‘Program 7’, carried out between 1965 and 1988 (169 nuclear tests) aimed at carrying out earthworks (canals, dams, mines) and of “stimulation” (sic) of oil and gas extraction. The repercussions were not economic, but of air and especially soil pollution (for hundreds of years).
The war against nature was waged at full speed with the massive military use of defoliants, which is the specialty of Monsanto (and of Bayer since 2018). (10) Monsanto, the creator of “Agent Orange”, was the agent of the American superpower’s criminal designs, as it deliberately violated the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning the use of chemical weapons. (11)
Who remembers – or dares to remember – that on November 30, 1961, President Kennedy gave the green light to air operations aimed at destroying the forests and then the rice paddies of Vietnam? Operation Ranch Hand (“Farm Boy”), which began on January 12, 1962, was the largest chemical warfare operation ever conducted in human history. For the first time, the destruction of the environment became a strategy of total warfare. For U.S. imperialism, it is a matter of killing and starving hostile peasants, worked by the Vietcong guerrillas, or moving them to cities under the former’s control. This crime against humanity lasted for 10 years, with impunity, turning vast areas into desert, killing, maiming and disabling generations of newborns for life, without US capital paying any reparations to the victims – which it did only for its boys.
Later, Monsanto’s exfoliating “orange agents” or herbicides were officially used for “peaceful” purposes. The forests in Brazil, Borneo and Sumatra paid the price for this devastating “pacifism”, as did the men and women who were victims of multiple cancers.
Fine spirits or crude ideologues, having bought a few indulgences from their masters, have sought to absolve capitalism. Capitalism repeats, as Valmont does in Liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos: “It’s not my fault!” All of them repeat over and over again: “It’s Prometheus’ fault”, “It’s Man’s fault”, it’s the result of a pandemic of death instinct.
Wretched Prometheus, Titan son of gods, who dared to betray his class of parasitic gods banqueting for eternity at the Olympus – like the capitalists do in their palace-fortresses. He dared to bring knowledge to men (by stealing the divine “fire”) to free them from their chains and was himself chained forever. Falsely labeled Promethean, Marx’s theory never sought to make men equal to gods, of which capitalists believe themselves to be the incarnation: Marx sought only to free humanity from its chains and all the idols that plunged it into blindness and ignorance.
The capitalist class can proclaim, in the face of the extent of the destruction it has caused: “It is human destiny”, it is the fault of disease, it is the consequence of the instinct (or impulse) of death. For Freud, who lived through the First World War, the horrors of war are not the product of confrontations between nations, capitalist classes, the vast majority of which, under the yoke of profit, must pay the price with “blood sweat and tears” (Churchill). It is the eternal struggle of two Hellenized biblical angels in Eros and Thanatos. And it is Thanatos, death that is promised to us by the system.
Freud, in his negation of the mortal reality of the system that caused more than 30 million deaths in 1914–1918, supports a biologist and therefore infra-human vision of existence. For him, it is a question of resigning oneself, and finally submitting to the eternal laws of biology:
“The goal of life is death, and, going back in time, the lifeless was there before the living.” (12)
“Let us remember the old adage: si vis pacem, para bellum. If you want to keep the peace, always be ready for war. It is time to change this adage and say: si vis vitam, para mortem. If you want to be able to endure life, be ready to accept death.” (13)
To this ideology of submission, in the brief dialogue he had with Freud, Einstein responded with more common sense:
“What can be done to divert men from the fatality of war?” (14)
Unfortunately, Einstein’s brilliant brain found the wrong answer: pacifism.
The problem posed now in the time of the pandemic is however simple: which class, which social strata have the strength and the will to put an end to a system that spreads, like a new social plague, mass death and destruction, by the war of all against all? What revolution can put an end to wars of all kinds – against men and against nature – which are not a fatality, but a necessity for the dominant classes living off the exploitation of man by man.
Translation: H.C., December 15, 2020
1 René Descartes, Œuvres, coll. «Pléiade», Gallimard, 1992, p. 168.
2 Possession : (1) “the fact or state of having (something) at one’s disposal”. (Merriam-Webster)
3 Friedrich Engels, The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (unfinished manuscript of June 1876). First published in Die Neue Zeit, 1896 (Year XIV, Volume 2).
4 Jean-Baptiste Say, Cours complet d’économie politique pratique, tome IV, J.-P. Meline, Bruxelles, 1832, p. 83.
5 In Christian theology: The time when Jesus Christ will return to judge humanity at the end of the world; the “second coming”.
6 Francis Fukuyama, La fin de l’histoire et le dernier homme (1992), Flammarion, 2009.
7 Jean-Marc Jancovici, « Combien vaut la planète ? », Les Échos, June 11, 2013.
8 Christophe Bonneuil & Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, L’Événement anthropocène, Seuil, October 2013, p. 151-152.
9 Ibid., p. 151.
10 Bayer, originating from the BASF, once made a major contribution to the “peace of the cemeteries” by producing Zyklon B for use in gas chambers.
12Sigmund Freud, Au-delà du principe de plaisir (1920), PUF, 1996, p. 308.
13 Sigmund Freud, “Considérations actuelles sur la guerre et sur la mort” (1915) (link opens a pdf).
Capitalism, Wars, Pandemics: The mortal crisis of 2020? A pamphlet that situates the corona-virus pandemic (Covid-19) in the destructive history of capitalism.
It has appeared in French with Éditions moto proprio, Paris, May 2020. ISBN: 9-791094-518151. Pdf-edition, 40 p. A4., 4 annotated chapters and a conclusion, with illustrations and supplementary texts.