Monday, February 17, 2014

Humans, Animals, Nature, and Production

A  particularly striking moment for me in this batch of reading is the way in which Marx loops his outline of the labor process back into his discussion of what humans/humanity is, from Feuerbach. The definition of human beings “coincides with their production, both what they produce and with how they produce . . . what individuals are depends on the material condition of their production” (Feuerbach 37). In chapter seven of Capitol, the method of production is expanded but still completely contained in this earlier statement. Marx argues that labor is “a process between man and nature, a process by which man through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature” (234). While on one hand, it is clear that humans naturally need to produce things from nature to survive, in many ways Marx seems to allow man the power position of this “process.” Man “mediates, regulates and controls.” Yet, equally present is the fact that man’s process (in which he later described as the “sovereign power”) is still contained within a somewhat organic, or natural, system; man “controls the metabolism between himself and nature.” This metaphor of the human-to-nature production relationship is inherently contradictory. How can nature both be controlled by man yet man is controlled by nature? – In the same way that we feed our bodies, but our body must be alive in order for us to feed it.

            In this sense, the sovereignty of any particular subject in the metabolic process of labor is silent. Production is a force that simply occurs at a rapid and pressing rate. Man is subject to the need to produce to survive in the same way that all living beings produce or manage the earth to survive. This reminds me, of course, of the very basic ecological statement, “there is no such thing as a free lunch” or rather, the earth must always be used to produce any meal that anyone/thing consumes to live – it comes, in essence, at a cost for the planet. Even the production of homes and food for spiders and bees (the examples used here) must be produced using the natural materials.

            Yet, it seems that Marx sees a distinction between these living creatures manipulating the earth to live and human beings manipulating the earth – and that distinction is that “Man not only effects a change in form in the materials of nature; he also realizes his own purpose in those materials” (284). The premeditation of human beings in their production, it seems, separates them from the animals. This premeditation, too, becomes an essential part of the labor process. While this distinction of mediated use of nature and non-mediated/ automatic use of nature by creatures like bees or spiders or other relatively limited brain activity of whatever species is compelling, it does still somewhat contradict the fact that humans are equally subject to nature and driven by nature to produce a means of living. The metabolic relationship of nature and humans (and animals) is, I think, more convincing than Marx’s argument that humans can think through their production in a way that animals cannot. If this is true, it seems that Descartes was correct and it is “I think therefore I am” rather than Marx’s implied “I create therefore I am.

            While I find the setup of the labor process troubling, I must admit that while I want to argue that humans are subject to nature in their metabolic relationship  I do think that Marx was maybe on to something in terms of where we as humans stand in that relationship. He makes us controllers, mediators, regulars, and this is true in the fact that we can – and do – create harm to the earth in way in which no other invasive species does. While wolves may outgrow one territory, move into another, and alter its ecosystem, humans have moved to every continent on the planet, manipulated that ecosystem to produce in excess. It seems that we are not necessarily different from our animal counterparts, just perhaps more aggressive. Does this give us the right to call ourselves “controllers” of the planet? It is perhaps that very idea that lead the degradation of the earth in the first place.

1 comment:

  1. If Marx is correct, though, that humans can think about their production in a way that animals cannot, it also means that we can (in theory) alter our production to cause less harm to the Earth, and thereby to ourselves. So I think that Marx would say that the problem is not whether we think of ourselves as "controllers" of the planet or not, but the fact that capitalist production is necessarily concerned only with extracting as much value from both laborers and from the Earth as possible.


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